Australian hip-hop artist, influencer and former criminal Spanian is utterly clear on his mission right now: He wants to be rich and famous.
“I’m not going to pretend it’s any more or any less,” he told VICE as we sat on high-backed gamer chairs in his podcasting and streaming studio in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe. He’s just being realistic. Anyone in media who says differently has “had too much time to think with managers” and has “lost the truth”.
He might have a decent crack at it, too.
Having made a name for himself as a rapper, underworld figure, jailbird and keeper of esoteric Sydney lore, Spanian is attempting to convert his substantial social media following into an alternative media juggernaut. He has hundreds of thousands of followers across Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and TikTok, who regularly tune in for his eclectic mix of music, storytelling, fitness instruction and sermons on street philosophy and “hood logic”.
In one recent video (liked 18,000 times) Spanian stands, heavily tattooed and undeniably vascular, on a nondescript Sydney street at night, holding a pair of dumbbells. He tells his viewers that he’s going to instruct them how to find the motivation to push through a difficult set: They just have to act like they’re in a punch-on, or about to be.
“It sounds funny, but it works,” he says, before lifting the weights. “Listen here you dumb motherfucker,” he growls out to the deserted street. “Let’s go cunt — who are ya?”
Spanian seems pleasantly surprised by the scale of his social media success. “I’m going into my message requests and it's just full of blue ticks,” he said. “Nearly all the Australian rugby league players, the commentators, half the AFL players… I'm talking people from the West Coast Eagles and stuff like that.”
“Half of them I follow back. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a famous footballer.’ I don’t like football, but I’ll follow ‘em.” He specifically calls out former Wallaby Wendell Sailor as someone who “loves” Spanian. Prominent figures in media and TV news follow him too. “It trickles down to all their supporters.”
The details of Spanian’s life are a matter of public record, in every possible sense of the phrase.
The 35-year-old grew up between Woolloomooloo and Redfern, amid what he describes as “a complete culture of heroin and crime”. Those two things were the only constants, he says, and he struggles to remember the parts of his community upbringing that weren’t adjacent to heroin addiction and the crimes that supported it. “That's all it was.”
He spent much of his teenage years in boys homes, and his young adult life was defined by stints in prison for drug-related offences. All told, he spent twelve years in jail. Beginning his hip hop career as a Tupac-loving teenager while locked up, he achieved fame in Australia’s tight-knit local scene for lyrics in keeping with its grittier fixations: dealing drugs, breaking and entering, smashing cunts.
A few months ago, Spanian had a revelation. Clean for several years and with prison in the rearview mirror, he no longer wanted to make music about that kind of stuff any more. He believes in God, and thinks that by glorifying crime he would tip the scales of justice when judgement inevitably arrived. “Even though, as a Christian, I'm not supposed to believe in a scale as Muslims do, I still do,” he said. “I always have that scale in the back of my head.”
He explains his newfound moral universe earnestly: If he breaks into your house and steals your laptop, that’s one thing. It’s a crime he could pay for — and has, with much of his life. But if he makes it cool to break into someone’s house and steal laptops, he could be on the hook for thousands of moral violations. “How can I commit the actual crime and go to jail for four years, but be a large cause of two and a half thousand of the same crime and get paid for it?” he wonders aloud.
It’s no coincidence this hard pivot from “gronk shit”, as he describes it, comes as he attempts to transmute the Spanian brand into a more professional alt-media enterprise. He just published a book — titled Spanian: The Unfiltered Hood Life — and recently launched a popular interview podcast series named The Search, which regularly pulls more than 100,000 views per episode on YouTube alone.
On the podcast, the guests run the gamut from fellow travellers in the Australian hip hop scene, to those Spanian simply finds “interesting”. (In one Instagram post soliciting requests for guests, he implores his fans to broaden their horizons beyond just spamming the name of lad rapper Kerser.) The influence of Joe Rogan’s freewheeling discussions is obvious, and he’s happy to wear it — even if he’s far less inclined to get political. It’s a successful format, so he’ll gladly strip it for parts.
In one episode, he interviews Aboriginal justice advocate Keenan Mundine, who he knew as a teenager. Both men share their experiences with prison and the Australian justice system, and Mundine’s journey to addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Switzerland. “How’d that come about?” Spanian asks, clearly delighted. In YouTube comments and podcast reviews, Spanian’s fans are virtually unanimous in their praise. They see him as a guy who dragged himself up from the mud and made something of himself, inspiring others from similar backgrounds to do the same.
He’s working on other projects, too, and is searching for sponsors for planned YouTube shows about cars and food. Spanian isn’t picky about what kind of content he makes. If he thinks it hasn’t been done well in Australia, he’ll do it.
One subject area he thinks is wide open for disruption by someone like himself is the paranormal. “Who better to go around ghost hunting in Australia’s most haunted spots than me?” he said. “You get what I’m saying?” he adds, as if it were insane to think he wouldn’t be the best ghost hunter in Australia if he put his mind to it.
Ultimately, his goal is to be That Guy. It’s a nebulous figure he referred to several times as I spoke to him. Every country has That Guy, he argues, and he should be the Australian one. “There's always that Pommy bad guy. That Pommy street guy. That South African voice.” He stresses that he doesn’t want to sound like he’s up his own arse, but he should be That Guy for Australia. Acting, presenting, hosting, making music — the method is immaterial, as long as he is That Guy. He wants to be the first person you think of.
Despite these bold ambitions for where his brand could (and should) go, Spanian knows that his criminal past will always, to some extent, define him – even as he explores new frontiers.
It’s just good business, firstly.
Australia has a rich legacy of “crimfluencers” stretching back almost as far as colonisation, trafficking lurid tales of the underworld and underclass for eager audiences. On that point, Spanian is philosophical. “Everyone is naturally attracted to what's opposite,” he said. “A small percentage of Australia is criminal. People are attracted to people telling stories that they know nothing about.”
But it’s also just an unavoidable part of the Spanian mythology, and one that will inevitably follow him. “My life has been crime and jail,” he said. “I can't fake someone else's life.”
What he hopes to do is transcend it and become more than just another criminal influencer who gets shuffled offstage when a new one arrives. He raises the depressing spectre of Instagram-famous bikies who eventually fade into irrelevance because all they do is talk about their criminal escapades in the good old days.
That said, he will still talk about crime. And he does, as naturally as any topic. While we chat, he slips into a role as a kind of elder statesman of inner-city Sydney youth criminals, taking seriously his position among the final generation of a golden age of criminality.
Two things have radically changed the city’s crime culture, according to Spanian. The first is that cops are “just too good” at their jobs nowadays.
“Like, it's not realistic to be a criminal any more,” he says. Twenty years ago it would have been feasible to make robbing pubs a regular professional undertaking and expect to get away with it, as many of his friends did. He recalls associates who used to pull up out the front of a pub, chemist or post office once every four days or so in a stolen WRX and rob the joint before torching the vehicle. He asks if I remember when there were burnt out cars on “every third street”.
Now, the humble pub robber is a less stable career path.
“I would expect that if I was, tomorrow, to steal a car and rob a pub, get away clean, and burn the car, it’s like a 50-50 chance that I would get done,” he said.
“There'd be some CCTV down ten streets away that caught a glimpse of me that had biometrics that full knew that it was me — that zoomed in 4K on some slight tattoo on my finger — which is not enough evidence in itself, but would lead them to figure it out.”
The second change is one felt globally. Petty larceny just doesn’t pay like it used to.
“Back then you could steal laptops and phones. Now they just lock up. They’re unusable.” He remembers jacking cutting-edge “Pentium 4s and Centrinos” from the back seats of unattended cars in the early 2000s and flipping them for twelve hundred bucks apiece. A laptop or phone is virtually worthless now thanks to modern security. They’re paperweights. “What crime is there left to do?” he asks.
Perhaps as a result, Spanian observes the changes in the new generation of kids growing up in the same areas he did. He came up among the embers of the 90s, in pre-gentrified neighbourhoods, and learned from the successful criminals of that era.
“In Sydney, there is no more crime in any period than the late 90s,” he said. “That is the time of crime. When you think of ram raids and armed robberies and stuff like that, you think of the late 90s. Heroin down on The Block, then Cabramatta.”
That’s mostly gone, he says. Generation by generation, crime has dropped off. He sees young people who dress and speak the same way as he did back then, but they aren’t criminals. Certainly not in the same way he was.
“They're just not criminal kids no more,” he said. “They’re all, like, succeeding in boxing and basketball and footy. They're all sports players. They're healthy and in school. It’s good, they have all the right role models, and they're doing proper things.”
There’s a touch of mournfulness to the way he talks about that, even as he agrees it’s a positive development. These kids are “well detached” from Spanian’s generation. “We were completely gone. In jail. They don’t even know us.”
For his generation, the picture is less rosy. I ask whether he stays in touch with the crew he ran with before and between his stints inside. He does, he says, on his private Facebook account. The people he grew up with are still drug addicts, and still in and out of prison.
“It’s the same routine — they’ll get out for a month or two or three, and then they’ll go back to jail for two or three or four years.” He pauses. “They’re all doing the same life.”
Spanian doesn’t want to go back to that way of living. But, by the same token, he considers himself thoroughly institutionalised. People have a misconception about what that means, he says, which he thinks they got from watching The Shawshank Redemption. It’s not about being unable to live on the outside. To him, being institutionalised means that everything about you — the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you carry yourself, your daily routine — is completely defined by prison. “I don't want to ever go back to jail,” he said. “But everything about me is jail.”
“I still look at people in the streets like they're different to me,” he adds. “They're like civilians.” When he walks past a fellow former inmate, he knows. He can sense that they, like him, “have different realities” to everyone else.
This is the baggage Spanian is bringing into his new media enterprise. This is what he was born to do, he says. He will never hold a nine-to-five job, if he can help it.
“I cringe and almost cry at the idea of having to show up to a workplace,” he said. “I can't have this task at hand where I work for some man for a fixed price.”
So this is what he does. This is where Spanian is at. He has a huge new audience, and a willingness to be whatever it is they want to see. Most of all, he thinks he’s earned it.
“What can I say? I want to be a superstar. I feel like I deserve to be a superstar.”
“And that’s what I’m pursuing.”
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