This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Growing up in suburban Melbourne, I would spend my after-school hours among a culturally diverse community of Islanders, Middle-Easterners, and Eastern Europeans. In the early 2000s, we would hear 2Pac, DMX, and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony blaring out the windows of hotted-up cars burning rubber.
All the boys listened to rap music because the lyrics offered an unfiltered commentary of our social situation, in a language we understood. But our relationship to the music was separated by our dissimilar cultures. The baggy clothes, blunts, and gun violence that the American rappers were detailing were far removed from our environment in suburban Australia. The reason we kept listening was the underlying message of otherness that connected displaced people in downtrodden neighbourhoods around the world.
This year, that has changed. Since the arrival of raconteur drillers OneFour, and their official blessing from UK drill artist Burner, Australia has become a fertile place for hungry young rappers desperate to represent their neighbourhoods and culture. For the first time, diverse communities are making music for their areas and having their voices heard around the world.
Hau Latukefu has been involved in the Australian Hip-Hop scene for 25 years, and thinks we are witnessing an important historical moment for the genre. “The hip-hop scene here has exploded. I’ve never seen anything quite like what’s happening and the amount of attention we’re getting from overseas. Largely thanks to OneFour who opened the gates. It’s raw. It has the energy, the production, the look. I do believe guys like Kerser and Nter paved the way—but OneFour has taken over.”
Since the rise of Grime and Drill music in the UK, young people in Australia have discovered a cultural proximity that they can finally relate to. The accents feel closer; there is some shared slang, a Nike Tuned aesthetic, and an understanding of knife crime. It was only a matter of time before the UK style became a vehicle for an underrepresented Australian story; a universal account of displacement and marginalised culture.
“And they’re brown boys,” asserts Hau. “I feel that’s why people overseas are connecting to it: it’s not just white rappers anymore. Western Sydney has always had the authentic street sound. When OneFour broke out, they put the battery in the back of a lot of artists that were out there, in particular artists of Pacific Island heritage.”
“The only thing we’re still waiting for is a new wave of female artists,” he adds. “I think traditionally we’ve had female artists in soul and RnB, people like Rebecca Hatch, Spvrrow and A.Girl. But it’s a little hard because the Drill scene and the Grime scene has always been traditionally male, so it may take some time.”
The domino effect from Western Sydney has launched a wave of male artists across Australia, from Goodna to Hobart, who have been telling their stories, in their own languages, while illustrating a mosaic of Australian street culture that we have otherwise ignored.
This geographic flaunting of area codes has been misconstrued by critics as gang signs. Some of the rappers may not get along, but the majority of these artists are more concerned with journaling their lifestyle than throwing cryptic shots at one another. The reality is that the area codes being represented suffer from a range of social issues that breed insecurity and misguided violence.
Rooc was recently released from a seven year prison stretch, and is using music to represent another world entirely. His debut track “who's real” is a vivid insight into life in prison. Rooc explains: “When I was inside, in the yard at Goulburn, we all used to rap to each other and shit.”
“When I came out of prison, the area thing had gone to a whole new level. For me, it’s like fucking oath represent where you’re from, all day! Put it on the map,” says Masi Rooc. “But for me, my people come first. I get upset when I see people put their areas before their people.”
Rooc represents OC (Outcast), a group established in Goulburn prison in 2015. “For OC, prison is our story. We are not area-based; prison is our origins. We aren’t established on the outside; we started there. We have more boys in there than out here. When you’ve done time, you know who’s who in the zoo.”
“OC was about bringing our people together," he adds. "There was a lot of issues between Samoans, Tongans, Maoris, and Fijians. We were never united. There was a lot of politics, a lot of underlying issues with the older generation,” explains Rooc. “The younger boys were the ball runners because it was our duty. But we were men, we didn’t want to be subject to that old way of thinking. Respect is always to the older boys but you have to come up with something new, that’s why we don’t have no leader. We’re all equal brothers.”
Rap music has always been synonymous with life on the street, and for many life in prison certifies that authenticity. Although the majority of new rappers are illustrating the reality of “moving packs” and “drillings,” Rooc’s debut offers a counter to that narrative. His lyrics are a bare knuckle depiction of the costs associated with running amok: hard time.
“Just be yourself," he insists. I rate the local barber down the road doing his thing. You should want to be a soldier, not a gangster. A soldier works nine to five. Soldiers try to start a business and take a risk like that too.” Rooc offers advice with honest sincerity. “A gangster? There’s only a few paths; jail, dead, or becoming a junky. There’s not much to it. It’s a self-centred image; it’s not about putting others ahead of you. Soldiers work together to defend what they have.”
Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt who, in an opinion piece about OneFour, writes: “Put simply, young men from minorities perform the ‘gangsta’ because it is empowering to scare racist white people. Performative masculinity comes from the wound of racism and marginalisation.”
The lines of this performance are often blurred through cryptic lyrics that get politicised in the comments section of YouTube videos. Although the vast majority of social media users are gossiping and pouring fuel on drama they know nothing about, the pressure is on the artists to maintain focus and not slip into the traps of the area they have worked so hard to escape. The hip-hop scene in Australia is rooted in criticism, envy, and competition. Overcoming that hurdle with confidence and creativity is going to be the biggest challenge for these artists, some of whom need to recognise that resolving drama on the street might cost them their careers.
Earlier this year, Drill rappers were thrust into the spotlight when New South Wales Police announced Strike Force Imbala: a specialised task force of 20 detectives and analysis experts who told reporters they were looking into “gangs such as OneFour.” Venues were repeatedly pressured by NSW authorities to cancel live shows for security reasons, which has forced acts to perform interstate or overseas. The only trouble is that some of these rappers are currently placed on police orders that restrict them from travelling outside NSW.
Hau helped OneFour write a public statement protesting the pressure the group had been allegedly receiving from NSW Police. “The police censorship is bullshit. They want these guys to get off the street but won’t give them the opportunity,” says Hau. “They should see the bigger picture: these boys are not on the street, they’re in the studio and they’re filming videos. These boys really do want to get out of their current situation.”
“I had to clear it up, I’m not a drill rapper,” explains Hooks, a rising star in the Australian rap scene. “I want to make more Afroswing, like Gunfire, I feel like that’s my genre. I was the first to come out with that style in Australia—that flow. It wasn’t even supposed to be me on the chorus of Gunfire, it was supposed to be my African friend, but he got locked up.”
“I was always doing what I was doing. Not taking rap serious, just doing it for fun.”
After continuously rapping for friends at parties, Hooks was told to take his creativity seriously and went to the Street University in Liverpool: a youth development project created by the Ted Noffs foundation. “A month after releasing my first track, I was in Bankstown and there were these jacked up Lebo blokes out the front of Crunch Fitness. And they were like ‘are you hooks? My habibs crazy!’ I was like what the fuck? They got in their cars and played Plug. That’s when I thought I really have to take this seriously.”
Western Sydney is finally having its moment, diversifying the hip-hop scene with a sound that reflects the mosaic culture it represents. “Every second suburbs is like going to a different country,” says Hooks with unequivocal pride. “You go to Mt Druitt where there’s Islanders and it’s nothing like Bankstown and Punchbowl with the Habibs. Cabramatta has the Asian culture. There’s Blacktown with the heavy African influences. And in Brighton, you have the Greeks, Macedonians, and Italians.”
Hooks’ style branches away from the gang-riddled drill scene with a summery wave that feels like a Western Sydney house party. “I was raised in the housos in Toony during the week and I’d spend the weekends at my dad’s with my habib mates in Bankstown,” he explains. “Western Sydney, It’s gritty and grimy. Nothing’s for free in the West. It’s how it is. You gotta work for everything you’ve got. Now, people from Cronulla or the beaches can see and live our experiences from a safe distance.”
Hooks is right: it’s about time people from the beaches can experience the other Australia from the safety of their laptops. But more importantly, we can celebrate the forgotten story of growing up in suburbia. When I was sent the Blueprint by the HP Boyz, there was an overwhelming pride in hearing Mwayz yell “this is HP culture, you’re not even close brah!” alongside a montage that includes the local Hampton Park shopping centre, a gang of Islanders toasting Coronas, Gucci caps with long mullets, and a Ford XR6 going sideways in the carpark.
Whether it’s the wavy soul of YoungLipz, Wombat’s lyrical onslaught, or the somber melancholy of Huskii’s past—the sonic fireworks from Western Sydney has shed light on artists across the country. For some, it’s a violent insight in to a socially abrasive system that many young people struggle to make sense of. For others, it’s an artful space that offers the displaced a voice in popular culture.
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