Riding into Figgland
Figgkidd is a cartoon. Not only is the young Sydney-based MC animated, he’s a caricature. Far from airbrushed, he’s been graffiti-sprayed onto the Australian music scene with his mongrel tufts of spiky hair and dozen or so piercings for highlights.
“I feel real fresh, just relaxed,” he says somewhat edgily at Sony’s offices in South Melbourne. Maybe he knows Sony’s other big domestic hip-hop act, 1200 Techniques, are about to part ways with the label. Maybe it’s because he’s just finished what seems like his ninth can of Coke for the day.
The beige-carpeted surrounds of a corporate office hardly seem like they should be home for Figgkidd, aka Lee Monro. Most Australian MCs maintain a strict street attitude, walking with an ockerised pimp-roll through the suburbs. Monro is different. The underground Australian hip-hop scene is low-key; Monro is making as much noise as he can. It’s a scene that shuns the media spotlight; Monro has his eyes focused firmly on it. The corporate music world is to be avoided; Monro has latched on to it. But as he’ll eagerly point out, he’s not Australian hip-hop.
“I don’t want people to think that I’m coming in and saying, ‘I’m Australian hip-hop,’ ” he says. “I’m not. I’m a commercial artist.”
It’s true. Listen to Monro’s album, What Is Figgkidd, and his first single, I Gotta Know, and you can hear the target: chart success. Monro has launched out of nowhere, complete with dirty-minded rhymes, American accents, guest appearances from US rap stars such as Tech Nine and DJ Babu, a big-budget music video and immediate comparisons to Eminem.
“You know that I’m not Eminem,” he says, “but for people not knowing me or my music yet, I’m a white rapper who has an edge – and bang, you’re Eminem. It’s a positive thing and it’s great that I’m compared to Eminem, and I take that as a really big compliment.”
Despite Monro’s protestations, there are marketing forces at work here – and he’s aware of them. “Record companies are going to be throwing the Eminem thing out there,” he says.
Forget the initial reaction – a stupid 21-year-old rapper from Bankstown sees 8 Mile, wants to be a pop star and sells his soul to the devil. Monro, like the machine that is corporate music, understands how the wheels turn. For the past three years, he and his producer, Lui Spedaliere, have been putting together his debut. It hasn’t been a gold-paved road to big business. Spedaliere’s studio and label, Unda K-9, are independently owned. Monro worked full-time to cover his living costs while recording the album, hardly going out, never performing live, rarely seeing a hip-hop gig or staying in touch with the local scene.
“I had no time to do anything else except make this music,” he says. “Record labels got wind of it; there ended up being about five labels interested. Then they all wanted to see me perform. Sony ended up with it.”
The album was supposed to be released as long ago as last year. “Everything just takes time and patience,” Monro says. “It’s all figures and timing, markets and Christmas. But I’m cool with that. Stuff just gets pushed back. Sometimes it gets a bit frustrating. You’ve just got to be patient and just know the business.
“For three years you’re working on an album and taking a bit of a risk – you don’t know if it’s even going to come out. Then all of a sudden it goes to the next level and just starts happening just like that. It is a bit daunting.”
It’s a straight-up attitude that belies his studio persona, but Monro has enough intuition to know that pretending to be something he’s not won’t make him friends in the music industry. Yet when it comes to rapping with an American accent, Monro happily admits it’s part of a pop product.
“I’m not ashamed of it, and it is what it is,” he responds. “If anyone wants to offer some constructive criticism – stuff about accents or whatever – I’m cool to hear it and I’m up for taking it all in. I think that was a big mistake that J-Wess made by trying to say, ‘I’m doing hip-hop.’ Dude, you do pop music. Don’t be ashamed of it, you just do it. And you do decent stuff.”
Indeed, there’s no doubting that the character of Figgkidd is Sony’s white urban hope, cashing in on a bastardised version of the Australian hip-hop scene and an acceptance of local urban acts by Australian listeners.
But who is Lee Monro? Get past the tattoos that cover his skin and Monro is a guy from Bankstown with a background in illustration, a penchant for comic books and a passion for music. Ask him about his favourite rappers and you’ll get a vague answer about the Soundbombing 2 compilation on James Murdoch’s Rawkus Records label. You won’t find a mention of old-school hip-hoppers on the album, nor will you hear anything about the suburb where he lives and the occasional violence in his neighbourhood – something Sony has subtly pushed him to include.
“The reason I don’t bring it up is because there’s a lot of negative stuff there,” he says. “There’s dudes getting stabbed and dudes getting shot, but I was never in there with the dudes doing it. I just grew up there. That stuff was around me, but I never grabbed that as an influence. I always had fun in Bankstown. I hung out with my friends there, went to the movies there. I just happened to be there. It’s not me. I could be anywhere and it’s always going to be ‘Figgland’.”
And, as Monro prepares for another interview and another day of promotion, it’s obvious his drive to sell records isn’t motivated by dollars; it’s so he can disappear into the surreal character he’s created, a two-dimensional, multi-coloured rap dynamo whose only worry is whether people will take him seriously.
“If I could live in my own little world of cartoons,” he whispers, “I would – it’d be so much more fun.”
What is Figgkidd is out this week on Unda K9/Sony.
Figgkidd supports Cypress Hill at Festival Hall, West Melbourne, on December 10.