Australian music. Its unique sound, the choice of instruments, the popular local venues where it’s played. Hip hop is not the first genre that comes to mind. Believe it or not, you’re missing out.
Sure, Aussies love a good pub-rock tune, but local talents are popping up in other genres too, and it just so happens Perth has quite the underground rap scene.
Perth rapper Matthew Cambell, better known by his stage name OptiMystic, is one of several local artists who has been making waves recently.
“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “I’ve been doing venues everywhere, Mojos Bar, the Swan Hotel, booked parties, all the underground battle. It’s insane.
“It wasn’t like that when I was first starting out. It used to be backyard battles and bogans and heavy metal fans.
“They would get into it which is good, but that was it. Aussie Hip hop has broken into it’s own thing. It’s got its own fan base now and it’s evolved into its own wave.”
It seems the ‘bogan connection’ is familiar to everyone with an ear in the industry.
Kieron Byatt is the hip hop and electronic coordinator at Push, a non-profit music organisation in Victoria that trains aspiring young artists in their craft and networking skills. Byatt remembers his first encounter with Australian hip hop.
“I was a kid, I was like ‘I love hip hop, but not Aussie hip hop, no way, I don’t like that bogan stuff’,” he says. “It didn’t help that the first track I heard was about a fish and chip shop or something.
“As I got older I was like ‘I should support Aussie music’… and now people don’t notice any differences between it. That bogan-esque barbeque-rap stigma hasn’t really been relevant for some time.”
So, what’s causing the change and what is Aussie hip hop if it’s not rhyming about goon bags?
Galactix Studios is a Perth-based hip hop recording studio run by senior producer Asom Stordimento.
When describing the genre, Stordimento breaks it down like this: “Aussie hip hop differs in content, lyrics and sound. Largely because we use our slang, have our own stories and places, and the accent. That’s a big one because the artists sound and rap differently to what you might hear on [commercial] radio with US hip hop.
“Hip hop was originally 90 beats per minute, but I’d say that’s more the 90s style…now the artist can change it to their style, some speed it up and others slow it down, even to 75 beats. Genre is definitely getting more flexible and that’s all a part of hip hop’s evolution universally.”
The fluidity of genre has been recognised as creating a new generation of music listeners, largely due to today’s online culture.
Byatt, who also MC’s under the name Defron, says he has noticed a “real changing of the guard” in how people listen to hip hop.
“Kids are listening to so many genres now, their music tastes aren’t as compartmentalised, and artists are embracing different sounds. There used to be this big thing where most Aussie artists would rap in fake American accents, but now it’s more neutral,” he says.
Canberra community radio station Woroni Radio hosts an ‘All Aussie Hip Hop Hour’ every Friday night.
The show’s presenter Joey Salmona says he thinks the rise in the genre’s popularity is partially due to the music being relatable.
“It has an open-minded listener base…the familiar accent talking about familiar places and issues helps me get into it. I think the recent rise in politicised lyrics or indigenous themes has recharged Aussie hip hop,” he says.
“It moves faster, evolves faster as artists are more self-aware of what’s happening locally, they are not just making it to make money.”
Byatt has also noticed a change in lyric content.
“A couple of years ago, it used to just be people rapping about suburban Aussie things, tongue in cheek,” he says. “Now there are universal topics being discussed… and because we’re so young and multicultural as a nation, artists are taking influences from their backgrounds all around the world.
“We’ve got African, Indian and UK influences showing up everywhere which evolves the dynamic.”
Stordimento says people’s acceptance of this difference could be the reason behind the recent popularity of the genre.
“People are realising that it doesn’t really matter if you have an Aussie accent or your content or background is different to US hip hop. If people support that artist, they will support them all the way,” he says.
“The difficulty is getting known because Perth is not as strong in hip hop as other places, but it’s getting there. I would say that hip hop is becoming the new rock for this generation.”
There was a long-standing assumption that to make it as a serious artist, Perth musicians had to leave Australian shores, or at the very least, head over east.
This was partially due to the lack of support and studio availability in WA. However, in the past few years things have taken a turn, with local studios opening up across the state and radio stations dedicated to promoting the genre.
Galactix is starting up an urban radio station to talk to both local and foreign artists.
“It is important for Perth to stay connected because it is the world’s most isolated city, but we must build the local scene as well,” Stordimento says.
“That’s most important. The ultimate goal is for Perth [hip hop] to grow.”
This year, Galactix released a simple-beat 12 minute song entitled “We are WA,” which showcased artist contributions from around the state and invited varying levels of experience and diverse styles.
The video received an overwhelming positive response, gaining 50,000 views in 10 months – more than most underground Australian hip hop videos.
Byatt credits technology for closing the gap which had distanced Perth from the rest of the music scene.
“There are so many new resources available now and new platforms found online, such as music blogs. Artists can collaborate and promote at a whole other level,” he says.
That’s exactly what Cambell has done. Rather than migrating overseas to kickstart his career, the rapper grew in Perth and reached out from the city. Networking with local studios like Galactix and collaborating with established American artists such as Onyx, Killah Priest and Heltah Skeltah, Cambell has spent the past two years creating his first double disc album.
“I did fly to New York for four days. We cranked out three videos and collaborated with six artists in that time. It was crazy to hear my stuff on the radio in the Bronx,” he says.
“I reached out via the internet to my idols to get advice from them, and they replied! Then they heard my stuff and liked it and ended up keen to do this collaboration!
“You think it’s this unachievable thing, because it can get hard. I kind of contradicted myself I guess, cause then it happened and I went there.”
Cambell is a FIFO worker to pay the bills but uses his time on site to write lyrics, a craft he started at the age of nine. A typical day back is spent in the studio, recording and collaborating, and then performing (or as he puts it, “spitting fire”) in the evenings.
“I get a lot of local singers to do choruses, I like that dynamic,” he says. “So I’ll either be writing with them or just by myself in the studio to the beats. I’ll just keep them looping and shut myself in with them.
“A day? I’ll either start fresh in the morning with a strong cup of coffee, or some time at night with a scotch whiskey… the day starts anytime really, 2pm or 2am.
“It’s kind of round the clock. I always lose track of time in the studio. Just trying to make the dream work.”
So what’s next in the evolution? Well, it seems nobody is wasting time.
Cambell’s double album “Day of the Guiding Light…Followed by Shadow” drops next month. A New York collaboration ‘Fearless’ (shown below) references some of the struggles of his journey in the industry so far.
“It’ll be crazy to see the album come out, this thing I’ve been working on for two years now,” he says. “I’ll keep [performing] as much as possible around everywhere to try and stay relevant.”
To ensure local artists keep being heard, Salmona would like to see them get more airtime on commercial radio.
“They tend to drop off the map between albums. I think because record labels don’t have the resources to promote tours and so many have to work part-time. Hopefully that will change.”
Stordimento is busy pushing that change from a grassroots level, with a round-the-clock producing schedule and progress already underway on Galactix’s 2017 project “We are WA: Part 2.”
Byatt believes the future of Aussie hip hop will continue to diversify and will work with the country’s new young talent to come through PUSH next year.
“I think [Aussie hip hop] is still seen through an outsider prism as something adopted,” he says. “It hasn’t kicked down the door of mainstream [music] yet…but we are in the middle of that progression and the evolution of hip hop as definitely far less pigeonholed.”
Before adding the one statement it seems everyone agrees upon… “It’s an exciting time.”