How Chopper Tried and Failed to Become a Rapper
He was too "real" for hip-hop.
Image via Chopper's MySpace
After spending decades in Australia’s worst prisons, Mark “Chopper” Read decided to write about his life, and it became a bestseller. Apparently he liked the attention, and we liked his style. Upon release he started performing stand-up comedy, learned to paint, and most importantly, embarked on a rap career in 2006. These days Chopper is most famous for cutting off his own ears and confessing to a string of murders, tortures, and kidnappings. But strangely we have forgotten his short tenure as a rapper.
Eenie meenie miney mo
Grab the drug-dealer
By his big toe
If he gets the cash
Then I’ll let him go
You’ll never wear thongs again bro
The first time I saw Chopper was in 2009. He was standing outside the Leicester Arms in Collingwood, whispering to an old goon like he was disclosing a secret, while simultaneously waving his arms around to ensure everyone knew who he was. Everyone knew; sadly nobody gave a shit. This was long after he'd made headlines, and several years since the release of his easily forgotten rap album: Interview with a Madman.
First things first, Chopper wasn't a world class technical rapper. Just because he put some words over a beat, obviously doesn't warrant him a place beside De La and Andre3000. I wouldn’t even pair him with other hip-hop tragics like Shaq and Mark Wahlberg. According to the book, Rap Music and Street Consciousness, the fundamental principles of rapping are, “rhyme, rhythmic speech, and delivery.” And at his best, Chopper hit two out of the three. Maybe.
But, I still think this album is a significant artistic contribution to his maniacal oeuvre, functioning as an intimate reflection on celebrity, narcissism and Australian crime.
The central motif in Chopper’s repertoire is himself—challenging his fans to consider and question who the real Chopper is. And while I don't really know, we might be able to derive some clues from his bio.
By the age of 14, Chopper was declared a ward of the state and spent the majority of his teenage years bouncing around psychiatric units and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. Between the ages of 20 and 38, Chopper only spent 13 months outside of the prison system. While incarcerated, he developed his persona of psychopathic chivalry and wrote his best-selling autobiography, From the Inside, which was adapted into the cult-classic film Chopper starring Eric Bana. And in many ways it's Bana's version of an exaggerated larrikin that most of us identify with the name Chopper.
I’ve watched skulls shatter
This ain’t a movie
It’s the real Chopper
Not Eric Bana
The album, Interview With A Madman, is an attempt by Mark "Chopper" Read to confront the authenticity of Eric Bana’s character in the film, where he is portrayed as a drug-addled wife-beater who works for the police. The complex question of who Chopper is, drifts further out of focus when we consider the 2005 TV show the Ronnie Johns Half Hour, which featured a comedic version of Eric Bana's version of Chopper, in which he plays out a series of skits such as Chopper hosting the nightly weather.
This muddled trinity highlights our absurd fascination with the jovial personality of the happy-go-lucky crook, whether he ever really existed or not.
In a desperate attempt to deconstruct the humour, Chopper turned to rap because the style was rooted in street culture. Chopper chose a platform that rewards artists based on their street credibility—basically, those who “keep it real.” Although, he was misinformed about the state of hip-hop, with a rap sheet as long as your favourite trapper's best verse, nobody told the career criminal that "gangster" rappers are first and foremost evocative lyricists. Very few have actually been to prison or committed the crimes they claim to be capable of.
The majority of Chopper's verses sound like prison yard nursery rhymes, scissored over a snare-heavy beat by a bedroom-producer. Then there are some professional hip-hop artists on the record, who treat their guest appearances either like 15 minutes of fame or a chance to stroke Chopper’s ego. I think the album would actually have more merit with more bars from Chopper and less guest features—features that only distract from the point of the album, which is to hear a rambling interview with a madman.
Most “real” street criminals-turned-artists have a hard time juggling art and crime, with rare examples like Big L often lead to a really tragic final act. The fact is, you don’t become a rapper because you were or are a criminal. You become a rapper to talk about why your community is polluted with criminality.
Chopper subverts this by illustrating his criminal escapades in his trademark lyrical humour. He wants to be revered as a rebel in the criminal world, confronting the stereotypes of “fairy godfathers” in Melbourne’s underworld war. But, the paradox is that anyone who has to constantly tell you how much of a thug they are, over a multitude of artistic platforms, is often hard to believe.
Wanna be famous mate
You think you’re tops?
I’ll put you all over the news
With just a single shot
Have you whinging to the cops
Claiming lots of compensation
Then knock on your door
For my portion of the payment
Chopper has been chasing infamy ever since he wrote his first novel. He revelled in the image of the convict underdog who practiced the outlaw philosophy of Ned Kelly. He repeatedly claims to exclusively stand-over drug dealers, criminals, and paedophiles. But the truth to these claims is hazy and often corrupted by the Chinese whispers of the underworld, which rely heavily on rumour and undisclosed sources.
In prison, your social standing is characterised by the judge's sentence. Who you are, is often defined by the type of crime, and your place in the prison hierarchy often correlates to the severity of your punishment. It probably felt natural for Chopper to embrace or exaggerate his persona when he was released, as most prisoners do when they boast of their crimes through their cell vents to other inmates—which is something he admits in his book; “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.”
The problem could be the paradox of the new-age criminal trope, which simultaneously hustles in the shadows while wanting everyone to know what they do. We tend to fetishise criminals with our curiosity, for having the gall to disrupt society and for leading lavish lifestyles against all odds. Chopper couldn’t help but start imitating the portrayal of his on-screen character because that was the persona Australia had made famous. He even directly quoted the most memorable scenes from the film in his lyrics:
Whether you want to give it to me
I’m getting paid
Because I reckon I could shoot you
From where you’re sitting
To the doorway
Everyone loves Chopper because of his colloquial humour and fearless larrikin attitude. He was a polite psychopath with a sense of humour and I for one, enjoyed his bare-knuckle vernacular. His ability as a rapper might have been ill-advised, but even beyond the grave on a skit, he's got a chip to get off his shoulder:
This is Mark Brandon Chopper Read. This is a message for all those journalists and music experts that are going to review this album and they’re gonna put shit on my musical ability and my rhyming and my singing ability and my being involved in this particular genre of music. Well, fuck youse all and that’s all I can say, fuck youse all. Go and get a dog up the whole lotta ya.
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