Triple J Debate Night

The other day, as part of Triple J’s live comedy debate show Debate Night, comedians Nazeem Hussain and Rose Callaghan came against each other to argue whether Australian hip-hop is better than US hip-hop. The recording is below, skip to 50:30.

There’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said by the greater hip-hop community. Plus it’s pretty self-explanatory if you listen. I’m not going to point fingers at Hussain, Callaghan, Ballard or Triple J. The only comment I’ll make is: it’s no wonder ignorance like this surrounds our culture.

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Surface Level or Level Surface

Urthboy’s debut WordPress piece is an excellent one, discussing the oft-misunderstood phrase ‘white privilege’ in the context of Australian hip-hop.

Hip-hop as a genre has it’s own issues and stereotypes, in the same way pop is “too mainstream” or indie rock is “too hipster” etc. The number of times I’ve seen someone visibly cringe when hearing the phrase ‘Aussie hip-hop’ is saddening, especially given the hard yards I know so many artists have put in. Not everyone enjoys rap music, but there seems to be a special hatred reserved just for the Australian variant. This is something all rappers in this country know and deal with.

Urthboy has dedicated much of his life to hip-hop; growing up studying the founders and forefathers of the movement, making music that discusses real issues like racism and politics, running an inclusive record label and generally giving back to the culture. I can’t imagine how difficult it is, being so passionate about hip-hop, yet knowing a large portion of people believe all white rappers are appropriating black culture for their own personal gain in yet another subtle form of oppression.

Reading Surface Level or Level Surface sent me down a rabbit hole of personal enlightenment that took me to numerous essays, videos, interviews, websites and blogs, including Aamer Rahman’s which I found particularly eye-opening and confronting. Urthboy’s description of Fear of a Brown Planet’s comedy as “genius” is accurate; how Rahman and Nazeem Hussain are able to combine humour with sickening racism facts is beyond me. Reading Rahman’s blog helped me begin to understand how white privilege has been helping me get ahead my entire life without me even realising. And, although I don’t consider myself a racist, I did get through all three seasons of Game of Thrones without picking up the racist subtext, highlighted by this particular post. There’s obviously much I have to learn.

Smokey's Blog

I read Aamer Rahman’s great White Rapper FAQ and Part 2 and felt compelled to add to it. I’m a big fan of Fear of a Brown Planet and I reckon their humour is genius – but the piece got me thinking.

As a white rapper and label manager it’s been easy to fool myself into thinking that white privilege doesn’t exist.

I’ve always felt that as long as my music and deeds represent in a genuine way, I’m doing my bit. It’s much more humbling getting my head around acknowledging that privilege and how it trumps my perception of what ‘doing my bit’ means. For example, I consider myself uncompromisingly anti-racist but as a white male, I benefit from racism. Like some fucked up Steven Bradbury scenario where I stand to gain if sections of our society have their opportunities obstructed. Stop. Think about that.

Having it pointed…

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Old White Man Talks About Something He Doesn’t Understand

Recently an opinion pieced popped up on The Examiner’s (a Tasmanian web and print newspaper I’d never heard of, but more on that later…) website written by Barry Prismall entitled “Rap the biggest con in history of music”. That’s a big call Baz, but I’m curious to hear how you back this up. Plus the full-screen photo of your face makes me want to scroll down immediately.

Barry Prismall

The article itself can be found here, for those who want to play along at home. Let me analyse a few choice quotes.

Prismall kicks off the piece by letting the reader know he’s uninformed and not qualified to talk about music. “Canned crap from rap flunkies who can’t sing as they mutter away to a thumping beat – chattering a useless, deviant monologue of prose…” Rap rhymes and has structure, therefore it is not prose.

“Rap chatter-boxes managed to side-step contests like The Voice and American/Australian Idol, to gatecrash the charts with the phenomenon of some fast talking.” Riding a fast-tracked, multi-million dollar cash cow straight to the top of the charts is the legitimate route while spending years perfecting your craft as an independent artist and attracting the attention of record labels without a text vote hotline is the easy option? Did I misinterpret that Barry? I think you’ll find the Beach Boys predate American Idol.

“Once they signed a recording contract they produced at will a deafening, staccato speech about vomit, violence, blood, sex and dark depression.” What music are you even listening to? Nothing in my music library contains any combination of those things. Are you making this up?

“Generations of cashed-up, lost teens are using their iPods to block out the truth while they throw away good money after bad.” Hip-hop originated from poor black neighborhoods and gave strength to an oppressed generation by spreading truth contrary to the mass media. Since then it has grown and spread to all nationalities and skin colours. I’m not sure what “truth” hip-hop is blocking. It has stayed relevant over almost half a century. “Rap started in the US in the 1970s as a type of street art (sic), according to apologists.” You’ve obviously done a bit of research, did you miss this bit of history?

“Thank God for the last vestige of Pink.” Yes, he means Pink as in P!nk, not the colour. Apparently she is “one of the few contemporary artists worth listening to”. I have nothing to add here.

Clearly Prismall’s musical opinions have been formed in the downtime between Alan Jones Breakfast Shows when he channel surfs between Fox FM and Nova 100. If the only “rap” you expose yourself to is Pitbull and Nicki Minaj, I can understand your animosity towards the genre. You’re absolutely allowed to have an opinion, but if yours gets published in a state-wide newspaper, I would expect you to either have some knowledge of the subject or at least have done some research. To vilify an entire genre, culture and community on the basis of a brief exposure is just shallow and should not be allowed to seep into print media.

Prismall does not name one hip-hop artist he dislikes, nor does he quote any lyrics to support his argument. It’s almost laziness; googling “offensive rap lyrics” would give him plenty of ammunition, though this is hardly a leg to stand on, as a similar search for rock ‘n’ roll quotes would reveal flaws in his sand castle argument. He happily name-drops a vanilla list of glory days musicians such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and The Beatles, but not one rapper.

Perhaps if Prismall had done a bit of reading, he would have discovered the likes of Mos Def, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique and a stack of other artists with intelligent, conscious lyrics. I could name hundreds of songs by Australian rappers with lyrical depth. In my opinion, hip-hop is the best vessel for meaningful messages. It’s difficult to fit much in a three minute pop song with a fairy floss chorus aimed at commercial radio.  Saying “rap is an asylum for slightly agitated nobodies, getting restless with their limbs and getting intense and rich on a one-sided, egotistical conversation” is just ignorant.

Thanks for your insight Barry.

As a postscript, I decided to browse The Examiner to examine the integrity of it’s articles. The next piece I came across was this one, written by another similarly aged, similarly mustached white man with glasses, called “Advocates of gay marriage hit a hitch”. The premise of this opinion piece is that gay marriage will inevitably be legalised, and when that happens, pro-equality activists won’t be able to stop protesting and will steamroller straight into pro-polygamous marriage rallies (and presumably bestiality, that’s the way the slippery slope works right?) to quench their thirst for activism. He backs this up with a comparison to Greens protesters in Tasmania who, not content with saving 500,000 hectares of significant old growth forest, then carried on to protest logging and mining in Tarkine. Apparently those “greensters” should just be happy with their patch of trees and “peacefully consume tubs of tofu and drink litres of dandelion wine” while Tarkine is flattened to satisfy the country’s insatiable appetite for non-renewables. Thanks for that, fuckwit.

Endless Perspectives

Architecture and graffiti are intrinsically linked. Buildings, like a train in a siding, are a blank canvas for writers to create art. Yet this relationship remains relatively unexplored. Far from working with writers, architects design against them; anti-graffiti glazing, cladding and all sorts of materials are available to deter ‘vandals’ from adding colour to a building. Occasionally, firms will include a permanent mural as part of their design, but these 2D facades fail to push the boundaries of either architecture or graffiti. The potential for cooperative design is (largely) yet to be realised.

The exception is ITN Architects. This Melbourne based firm are doing things never seen in Australia and possibly the world, combining street culture and architectural design to create unique and eye-catching buildings. Their first project was The Hive apartments in Carlton (pictured below), a collaboration between ITN and renowned graffiti artist Prowla. Prowla designed the letters and they were incorporated into the facade as structural panels of precast concrete, creating a beautiful amalgamation of the two artforms. The interior is also quite unique, like something out of a sci-fi flick.

Hive Banner

ITN’s second project in their series of three street culture themed buildings is an ambitious design in Collingwood. Dubbed the End-to-End Offices, it is an ode to the glory days of Melbourne graffiti, when whole-cars rattled along the rails bringing colour to the masses, from the city loop to the suburbs. Perched atop the six offices are three decommissioned Hitachi carriages that house boardrooms for their owners. When completed, the design will certainly turn heads.

End-to-End Banner

And here, in ITN’s half-finished construction site, among the piles of reo bars and timber frameworks, DOES set up his Endless Perspectives exhibition. The spot was perfect. And popular; the queue for entry on opening night was an hour long. As it was a building site, visitors had to be shown through in groups of no more than 10, which explained the wait. Once we arrived at the front of the queue we were issued with hard hats and briefed. Then we were in.

The exhibition itself was a curious one, based around five pieces and five cities. Amsterdam, Basel, London, Paris and Melbourne. DOES visited all of these cities and painted a mural in each, based on the colours he experienced while there. Once each piece was finished and filmed DOES buffed his own work, leaving not a trace of the original, taking only a canvas of each letter. Given the quality of his work, it seemed a shame that these incredible murals are no longer available for the public in each of these cities to see. But herein lies the point of DOES’ exhibition; to highlight the transient nature of the artform. Graffiti doesn’t last forever. If it isn’t buffed or painted over with grey, it will eventually be capped or have a new piece painted over it. The death of a piece is inevitable, DOES takes his work into his own hands.

Endless Perspectives showcases all five works; the thirty-two canvases from Amsterdam, Basel, London and Paris, plus the full original painted on a precast concrete panel of End-to-End. Each piece is mounted alongside the original sketches and a projected video of the city they came from. The designs blend an impressive palette of colours. DOES’ attention to detail is obvious, each letter is well considered and executed. The full-colour letter canvases sit on black and white prints of the whole; memories of what used to be, but is now gone. The contrast is visually stunning, and leaves the viewer thoughtful. Four are gone already, and once the viewer leaves, the Melbourne mural will also be taken down. Ironically, this fact makes DOES’ paintings more memorable than the ones we see daily on our train lines.

I wonder what the old heads and ‘graffiti doesn’t belong in an art show’ purists thought of the exhibition, since the pieces were definitely painted on walls originally. One thing is certain though, it was popular. The exhibition tour spilled out into the alleyway behind the building where a DJ and bar with free Jägermeister and Red Bull had been set up, and it was packed. DOES himself floated around the crowds, as did architect Zvi Belling of ITN. It was an impressive evening. Endless Perspectives ran all this weekend but unfortunately is now over. The canvases were for sale, so will be dispersed and probably never come together again once the exhibition has been toured, but such is the nature of the art.

Below is a handful of photos from opening night. Visit DOES’  website here, and his Vimeo channel here to see videos of the stories behind each piece.

Hip-Hop and the Hottest 100

Well, today is the last day to vote in the Hottest 100, the annual music countdown run by Triplej. If you’re not too busy adorning your car mirrors with Australian flag covers or walking the streets shirtless with a VB stubbie and flag cape like some sort of drunken, racist superhero, perhaps you’ll be spending your Invasion Day like me; in a mate’s backyard pool with the radio locked on Triplej.

Australia Day may (does) have morally questionable foundations and the combination of alcohol and patriotism may (does) bring out the worst in parts of our society, but the day itself also highlights one of this country’s great strengths: unity. And the millions of people, nationally and internationally, that tune into the Hottest 100 is a beautiful example of this. Music is relatively unbiased and pushes no agenda. Music is something everyone can enjoy.

Triplej describes the countdown as “the world’s largest musical democracy.” Of course a democracy, as with any political system, has its faults. Songs receiving frequent airplay are likely to place higher. Some artists, as determined by the gods at Triplej, receive no airplay at all. Artists themselves must decide if they’ll shamelessly spam their fans with self-promotion. Songs released at the beginning of the year are disadvantaged. Some artists receive airplay on commercial radio. Et cetera, et cetera. Such flaws are unavoidable. Still, for the most part, it is good.

My favorite thing about the Hottest 100 is how it makes you think about music. Even if you don’t vote, the simple act of considering the options sparks those brain cells. And for those who do vote, the task of condensing an entire year of music down to 10 songs, while difficult, really helps you better understand what you appreciate in music, why you listen and what defines your taste.

Even for someone like me, with such a tight range of music I would define as “good”, it was still a struggle to decide who to vote for. I probably put more thought into my votes than I did last federal election.

• Do I vote for the big international acts or support the home grown Australian stuff?

• Do I prioritise smaller acts that would benefit from the exposure more, over well-established ones?

• What do I value more; lyrics, delivery, production, cuts, originality, depth?

• Do I vote for popular songs that are guaranteed to make the 100 to help them get as high as possible, or do I vote for lesser known songs/artists in the hope that they may scrape in?

• Do I vote for artists that make top 100 music but didn’t even get on the list (Maundz) or is that throwing away votes?

• If I do decide to vote international, do I choose the catchy single that everyone will vote for (Thrift Shop), the thoughtful critique of hip-hop/basketball/consumerist culture (Wings) or the long overdue and beautiful discussion of hip-hop and sexuality (Same Love)?

• Do I vote for my favorite song of the album (The Underground) or the track with the incredible video clip (Rattling The Keys To The Kingdom)?

• The cheerful tune (Young And Dumb) or the deeper one (Maybe Tomorrow)?

• The most banging beat (Naive Bravado), the best feature (Clean Slate) or the summer anthem of 2012 (Knee Length Socks)?

• The funny song (Dear Science) or the serious song (Campfire)?

• What about the bizarre yet catchy South African rave-rappers (Die Antwoord)?

• Or the amazing cover song that’s possibly better than the original (Brother)?

Decisions, decisions…

The great thing is you can’t really go wrong. But definitely think before you hit Submit, partly for the thought process itself, but also because votes are powerful, and the artists you choose appreciate your support more than you may realise.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

It’s good being a rap fan in Australia. This country produces enough rap to keep even the most musically-reliant lads and ladies busy, and I’m talking the ones with hair like Wolverine from wearing their headphones too long. New albums appear on shelves almost every Friday. Not to mention tours. On this very night Melbourne heads have had to decide between TZU at the Hi-Fi and Briggs/Vents at the Laundry (while I’m stuck at home with a neck injury). Spoilt for choice.

So with all this good stuff coming from my homeland, I’ve been known to miss new international music releases. And one such act I’ve heavily slept on is Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I heard my first Macklemore song on Triplej recently and I scrambled for my phone so I could Shazam it. That song was ‘Thrift Shop’.

The beat, the lyrics, the chorus, the video, everything was dope. Summer jam material for sure. And bonus points for including a kneeboard. After a bit of research I discovered Macklemore and his collaborative partner (producer/photographer/videographer) Ryan Lewis have been around for a solid decade, dropping independent EP’s, a mixtape and an album out of Seattle. But their first major success was their second album ‘The Heist’  from which ‘Thrift Shop’ was the fifth single.

So I really liked that one song. But you can’t judge an artist on a single song. The real test comes from listening more. So I clicked a related video at random and ended up with this:

Well that sold me.