The Great Hip Hopes

Channel V, Fox Studios
Figgkidd’s album, What is Figgkidd, is out now through Sony BMG
Will the real Aussie Slim Shady please stand up? Tim Colman looks at the players behind the making of a hip-hop megastar.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore Australian hip-hop. Once an underground scene, hip-hop music and culture are seeping into the mainstream consciousness.

Adelaide’s Hilltop Hoods received massive national radio airplay with The Nosebleed Section; the political views of the Herd from Sydney raised the ire of shock jock Stan Zemanek; and last year hip-hop was given its own category at the ARIAs, Best Urban Release.

Despite this, Australian hip-hop has yet to produce an international star, a megabucks marketing machine such as Eminem.

But there are big players sinking serious money into finding one. Sony BMG is pushing its Aussie Eminem clone, Figgkidd. Mark Holden is behind the beatboxing Australian Idol contestant Joel Turner, who had a No. 1 hit before tag-teaming with boxer Anthony Mundine. Both rappers have been backed by major marketing campaigns, including television advertisements.

Even the TV stations are joining the rush. Channel V is nearing the end of a national competition to find “Australia’s best MC”.

Not that there haven’t been attempts to produce an Aussie hip-hop star. In the early ’90s, Sony got behind Sound Unlimited Posse with limited success.

But it’s a different market now. Thanks to Turner, Idol turned a new audience on to one of the genre’s facets – beatboxing – while crossover acts such as 1200 Techniques appeal to rock and hip-hop kids alike.

Techniques MC Nfamas is probably the closest thing hip-hop has to a national star, but that may have more to do with his role as the genie in the Tim Tam commercials.

Sony BMG’s latest attempt to cash in on the local hip-hop market is Figgkidd. Originally from Bankstown, the MC has just released his debut album, What is Figgkidd. Already the music media and, to an extent, Figgkidd’s own label have tagged him the Australian Eminem.

“In the States, where the genre is more established, it’s a lot easier, especially in a commercial market, to establish yourself and your identity,” Figgkidd says.

“In Australia, though, it’s not established at all. In Australia the commercial aspect of hip-hop isn’t really respected and isn’t accepted by the underground. It’s understandable; they’re being protective. It’s made the path of a commercial artist difficult. When coming up, major labels have to pin you as something.”

Figgkidd, who cut his teeth with underground hip-hop crew the Outfit, is attempting to push a new name. “I prefer to be referred to as the Aussie Mozzie, the reason being I’m the Australian dude who irritates the shit out of everyone, more so in the underground hip-hop scene,” he says.

The Eminem comparison isn’t going to endear Figgkidd to the staunchly independent hip-hop crowd and is pretty unimaginative in terms of marketing. One could ask the question – does a major label such as Sony BMG know how to push Australian hip-hop?

“When we got the deal they openly admitted they didn’t know how to market us,” Figgkidd says. “They came in with their suggestions and we really did have to meet them halfway with some things.

“I remember before the comparison even came out there were comments about Sony having the Australian Eminem on hip-hop forums. I’m white, I rap, I have tattoos, I don’t rap about the stereotypical shit. To the people who buy records, the pop market, how do we sell this? What can we link it to? Eminem.”

Australian hip-hop is bound by a do-it-yourself ethos. Canberra duo Koolism have been plugging away independently in the nation’s capital for more than a decade. They won the inaugural hip-hop ARIA award last year, beating major-label acts such as 1200 Techniques and J Wess.

The group’s producer and DJ, Danielsan, believes majors are too concerned with a quick financial turnover to be able to effectively nurture a local hip-hop scene.

“Major labels have no real foresight,” Danielsan says. “It seems to be they’re only ever interested in following a trend. I don’t want to sound like I’m saying what seems to be the popular notion amongst people, especially in hip-hop, but it really is from my experience they’re only interested in following what’s the biggest bucks at the time.

“They have a really simplistic idea of what that is, too. They’ll see Eminem and that’s the only thing that will take their interest. They won’t see Eminem as someone who built up a reputation, came from a certain background and was unique. They’ll see Eminem as a white kid with a kooky attitude who can rhyme and curse a lot. They’ll try to replicate that rather than invest in something new and cutting edge where all these trends they’re copying come from.”

According to Danielsan, major labels just lack experience in what is essentially a scene in its infancy. Even with experience, gauging an audience’s reaction is still difficult.

“I don’t think anyone has a real grasp on the potential audience out there,” he says. “Major labels really want to understand their demographic, do the maths, but I don’t think you can. I think you need to grow a scene and a fan base and gain an understanding from your experience. It’s something they have to do from the ground up, like they did with rock’n’roll 30 years ago. They just have to do it to gain experience.

“They won’t, though, and personally I don’t blame them. To be honest, they have their own game sewn up with the commercial music.

“Everyone in hip-hop used to bag them out and there was a whole lot of resentment geared at the commercially successful scene when you’re a struggling artist. It’s their thing and I’m over fighting it, caring or even wanting to be a part of it. The hip-hop scene has done great things for itself and is doing well independently.”

Channel V’s attempt to find an Australian hip-hop star winds up on April 18. The next day the Aussie Friggin Hip Hop winner will be flown to Los Angeles to record a track with American producer KutMasta Kurt and Channel V will produce a video for it.

The hype will be hard to miss.

A major television appearance can do a lot for a career. Following an Australian Idol audition and with the support of judge Mark Holden, Brisbane’s Turner scored a No. 1 single on debut with These Kids. Not bad, considering the audition was an attempt to wag school.

“We just went along to the audition for fun; we had nothing else to do,” Turner says. “It was either that or school. We rocked up and said, ‘Here’s the plan, I’ll beatbox and you and you rap.’ We didn’t really know what it was, the only advertising was one line saying, ‘People wanted for Australian Idol.’ We did our thing and this all came out of it.”

Joel Turner and the Modern Day Poets signed to Holden’s label, Dream Dealers. Holden’s use of hip-hop vernacular probably makes even the casual hip-hop listener cringe. Turner isn’t entirely comfortable with the Idol connection.

“I did get discovered on that show, but I never made it on the show,” he says. “I feel weird when I get associated with the show because I was never really part of it. All I did was beatbox at the grand final.”

When it came to recording, Turner didn’t have it all his own way. Savvy to the commercial realities of the music industry, Holden and co made sure their musical suggestions made it to the final mix on Turner’s self-titled debut.

“Our first album is more commercial compared to underground Aussie hip-hop, but the second album is going to be more our flavour,” Turner says.

“We’re going to put more into it. I produced the tracks, but the people who mixed it put a bit of their flavour into it, as well, so it was wasn’t how we’d originally wanted it to sound.

“Overall I’m happy with the sound quality and the mix, but some of the arrangements aren’t what I wanted. When I get in the studio I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”

In the independent scene, changing your style to suit a commercial purpose isn’t tolerated. It’s all about “keeping it real”. Danielsan caused a stir at the ARIAs when he took a swipe in his acceptance speech at local hip-hop artists aping American trends.

“In America, this culture was people doing something original and being themselves,” Danielsan says.

“There were no artists coming to New York wearing Akubra hats, talking about kangaroos and barbecues, putting on an Australian accent. If they were, everyone would have laughed at them. People don’t realise here it’s the same thing reversed.

“The culture we’re tied up in, we have a different grasp on it than people who see it in a shallow way – like what people are wearing and the way they talk. They think that’s the culture, but it’s not.

“When my friends and I listened to rap albums coming out of the States we weren’t trying to copy the way they talked; we just saw people talking about their area – the Bronx or Compton. We were making tapes talking about Chifley and Woden. Then you had others who didn’t quite get it, talking about South Central when they live in Parramatta.”

Figgkidd has copped his fair share of criticism when it comes to American accents. It’s the result of an early experimentation with R&B. Accents aside, he guides his career with an independent mindset, even with Sony BMG peering over his shoulder.

“At the end of the day, I want to establish and concrete myself as an artist. What more can you want? You’re always going to have haters. Eminem has haters, 50 Cent has people who f—ing hate his guts. It’s not the point. I make my music for the majority of people.”