Illustration by Sarah Layton
At the Bliss n Eso concert last month, there were more oversized basketball singlets and awkwardly positioned snapbacks than a ‘90s themed party. An underager swigging vodka from a water bottle tried to get lippy with me for edging in next to him. He proceeded to wrestle another innocent bystander until a few ‘oi oi ois’ broke them up. From the stage, Bliss and/or Eso repeatedly called us all ‘motherfuckers’.
For all the ugly incidences that unfolded that evening, one moment stuck with me. Thousands and thousands of hands, stretched toward the star-studded sky, creating Bliss n Eso’s trademark ‘island’ formation. And that is the image that best describes Aussie hip hop today.
Firstly, hip-hop audiences are still only in the thousands; Bliss n Eso won’t be playing Rod Laver anytime soon. Secondly, there is a hefty proportion of Aussie rap artists involved in political activism, working for a better future, and ‘reaching towards the stars’. Then there is the ‘island’ formation. It’s reflective of the cult-like vibe inherent in Australian hip hop, due to its isolation from the mainstream and its inability to break free from its middle-class-white-males-drinkin’-beer-and-smokin’-weed roots.
Let me take you back to the ancient origins of Australian hip hop. It was the late ‘80s when a miniscule amount of buzz began to generate in Australia regarding the genre. Inspired originally by the African American rap of the ‘70s, Australian hip hop was quick to develop a unique voice characterised by Aussie colloquialisms, local references, and a distinctive rounded accent. Trailblazers include Just Us and Sound Unlimited Posse, the crew responsible for Australia’s very first hip-hop record company. Sound Unlimited Posse’s line-up included Tina Martinez, Australia’s first female rapper of Asian descent, and were famous for their single “Unity”, the very first example of activism in Aussie rap.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Hilltop Hoods released their album The Calling, which contained the single “The Nosebleed Section”. This song has become the undisputed anthem of Aussie rap. It brought hip hop into the realms of the popular music world, and became the highest ranking Australian song of any genre in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time in 2013. Finally, Australian rap artists had an opportunity to reach prominence, riding on the coattails of Hilltop Hood’s mainstream success.
2004 saw “Best Urban Release” added to the ARIA awards, a huge step for the industry in regards to exposure and recognition. It was also around this time that Australia began to see the rise of Indigenous hip hop artists in the country. Musicians such as Last Kinection and Yung Warriors began to preach the need for equality and representation for Australia’s Aboriginal population. However, the exposure given to Aboriginal rappers is still minimal with little mainstream holding. It is uncomfortably symptomatic of Australia’s often dismissive treatment of this population.
In 2014, it appears society is polarised by the Australian hip hop industry. Popular rap artists such as 360, Seth Sentry, Bliss N Eso, Horrorshow are attracting larger crowds than ever before and using their voice to offer astute social criticism. But a large portion of Aussies remain ever disdainful toward the industry.
Is this because the genres’ sound jars the ears of the majority? Or is it because artists like Bliss N Eso contrast their poignant lyrics of “The Sea is Rising” with sexist, ‘boiz club’ numbers such as “Party at My Place”? Certainly, I feel slightly embarrassed when admitting my love for the Aussie rap world, as I cannot ignore the entrenched discrimination in the industry. Iggy Azalea is the only Australian female rap artist to have any sort of success, and it could be argued that her popularity is not founded entirely on her talent. It isn’t very often that you see a male rapper’s naked bottom wiggling around the screen for a large portion of their music videos. It appears that to be popular as a female in the industry, being a professional model may be a prerequisite. As Eso eloquently remarked on stage, “yo, this audience isn’t a sausage fest no more, you motherfuckers”. There are still less than ten female rap artists signed to any record company in the country. This is an aspect of the industry that surely needs to grow up.
Until Australian rap becomes more diverse, it is difficult to see the genre evolving with any significance. If Australian hip hop wants to be taken seriously and acknowledged by the majority, it needs to become more representative of modern Australia. There are some amazing artists involved in the Aussie hip hop genre, but a cultural shift is needed if the industry wishes to gain respect.