Syd­ney duo Her­mi­tude tells Stephen Fitz­patrick how it got its groove on

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

AUS­TRALIAN hip-hop duo An­gus Stu­art and Luke Dub­ber can each re­mem­ber vividly the song they were lis­ten­ing to when, as chil­dren, they re­alised mu­sic would be their mis­sion in life. And given the kind of hard-edged beats the two have been ex­plor­ing for a decade as the barn­storm­ing live act Her­mi­tude, it may be slightly sur­pris­ing what those tunes were. Or not, since a di­rect mu­si­cal link can be traced to hip-hop straight from the oth­er­world of jazz.

In Stu­art’s case, it was Her­bie Han­cock’s funk epic Chameleon, from the post-bop king’s 1973 al­bum Head Hunters. Stu­art’s fa­ther had called him into the house to lis­ten to the track, pre­sum­ably hop­ing to demon­strate some­thing in­spir­ing to the boy. ‘‘ That was the be­gin­ning for me; I just re­mem­ber think­ing that’s awe­some, it makes me feel so good; I want to do some­thing like this — how do they do that?’’ he re­calls now, grin­ning.

He was 11, and swing was about to be­come his thing, when he joined his lo­cal high school big band as drum­mer. For Dub­ber, the equiv­a­lent mo­ment is as clearly etched on the mem­ory, though his epiphany came at an even ear­lier age than Stu­art’s, and the song that did it reached much fur­ther back into the jazz song­book: it was a school friend play­ing Scott Jo­plin’s 1902 stan­dard The En­ter­tainer on an old pi­ano.

‘‘ I was like, man, that song is awe­some,’’ he says. ‘‘ I want to learn to do that. That was the be­gin­ning of the pi­ano for me.’’ An early pe­riod of clas­si­cal tuition — ‘‘there was a lot of tech­nique in­volved’’ — later gave way to a fo­cus on con­tem­po­rary and jazz pi­ano per­for­mance; the pair even­tu­ally met in the afore­men­tioned big band, which hap­pened to be con­ducted by Stu­art’s fa­ther.

Dub­ber was play­ing pi­ano the day Stu­art first showed up for re­hearsals. Nei­ther of them knew it, but the fu­ture was put in place right there. And so those early jazz en­coun­ters led each of the two, grow­ing up in the Blue Moun­tains west of Syd­ney, in a cir­cuitous way to the hip-hop groove that now has them at the van­guard of a scene pro­duc­ing some of the fresh­est, most orig­i­nal pop­u­lar mu­sic be­ing played any­where.

Be­ing the chil­dren of work­ing mu­si­cians no doubt helped: Stu­art’s fa­ther, John, is a com­poser and per­former who owns the Went­worth Falls stu­dio where Her­mi­tude has recorded all its al­bums; his un­cle, Hamish, is one of the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent jazz drum­mers. Dub­ber’s fa­ther was a pro­fes­sional trum­pet player in jazz and show bands across Syd­ney ‘‘ back when it was still pos­si­ble to make a liv­ing do­ing that’’. Dub­ber re­mem­bers as a small kid danc­ing with his mum to his old man’s per­for­mances at var­i­ous sub­ur­ban clubs.

For each of them there was a tem­po­rary teenage ex­cur­sion into heavy me­tal — the rite of pas­sage of so many pubescent boys, look­ing for out­lets for anger and angst — but the jazz un­der­pin­ning al­ways re­mained and, as Stu­art and Dub­ber tell it now, be­came an ob­vi­ous en­try point into hip-hop’s ad­dic­tive strength.

‘‘ I re­ally started get­ting into hip-hop when I was about 15,’’ says Stu­art, ‘‘ and I think what made it so easy for me was the use of sam­ples: they would sam­ple a jazz riff or a drum break from a funk record, so it didn’t sound to me like it was too elec­tronic. It didn’t sound like dance mu­sic; it still had this or­ganic feel and groove to it. I mean, my first two records were MC Ham­mer and a blues record, I think. It was two worlds.’’

Dub­ber, too, made the as­so­ci­a­tion through his child­hood steeped in the vo­cab­u­lary of jazz. ‘‘ I even­tu­ally started lis­ten­ing to more un­der­ground hip-hop and that was largely be­cause of the use of sam­ples and, in par­tic­u­lar, jazz sam­ples, like horns. All this stuff that I’d grown up with as a kid, I was hear­ing again with beats and it was such a good mix of sounds,’’ he says.

Com­ing up against the po­lit­i­cally driven and self-ag­gran­dis­ing hip-hop of the US at the time was an emerg­ing Bri­tish trip-hop sound — think Por­tishead, Mas­sive At­tack, the Prodigy — and the com­bi­na­tion of these ap­proaches helped mould how two boys in the bush in the mid-1990s were able to think about the mu­sic they wanted to make. They al­ready had a reg­u­larly gig­ging in­stru­men­talonly out­fit, the quaintly named Funk In­jec­tion — which later evolved, with the ad­di­tion of some lo­cal rap­pers, into a hip-hop group with the sharper moniker of Ex­plan­e­tary — so there was a well-es­tab­lished strong mu­si­cal ba­sis to what they might pull off.

But de­spite their ideas be­ing firmly within both the jazz and hip-hop worlds, ul­ti­mately it was a decision to not rely on rap­pers that

en­abled them to have feet in more than one camp by the time Her­mi­tude came into be­ing. That was with a vinyl-only re­lease, en­ti­tled Imag­i­nary Friends, in 2002.

‘‘ The hip-hop scene had been around for a long time by then, with rap­pers, and we got a taste of that with Ex­plan­e­tary; as for the Her­mi­tude thing, there were [other] guys mak­ing beats or play­ing techno stuff but it was all pretty hard­core,’’ Dub­ber says. ‘‘ There wasn’t any­one re­ally do­ing in­stru­men­tal hip-hop stuff. That was where we stood out a bit.’’

All that was needed was to work out how to put on a live show. ‘‘ We had no idea what to do about that,’’ says Stu­art, laugh­ing. ‘‘ We thought at the time, you just put out a record and peo­ple will buy it. The whole thing was made in the stu­dio. We had to in­vent a show.’’

Luck­ily for ev­ery­one in­volved, the show worked, and Her­mi­tude hasn’t looked back.

IT’S been a long and ex­cit­ing jour­ney for Aus­tralian hip-hop, and even the de­niers are fi­nally hav­ing to ac­cept it’s de­vel­oped a rich life of its own. Her­mi­tude, whose lat­est al­bum Hyper­Par­adise made a top 40 de­but in the na­tional charts last month, is un­de­ni­ably part of that ad­ven­ture. And with a Bri­tish re­lease of the al­bum’s in­fec­tious dance-floor hit Speak of the Devil loom­ing, the band’s place in it is about to get vastly stronger.

There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion, how­ever, that doesn’t al­ways have an easy or sim­ple an­swer, and it’s this: What could pos­si­bly sus­tain an Aus­tralian ver­sion of a mu­si­cal form that be­gan in the black ghet­tos of New York, took its mu­si­cal cues from the then dom­i­nant (yet widely de­spised) disco, as well as from funk, and from there traces its lin­eage di­rectly back to the call-and-re­sponse idea at jazz’s heart, as well as that form’s habit of ap­pro­pri­at­ing and quot­ing other peo­ple’s mu­si­cal ideas?

Lyri­cally, it’s a form that takes as its in­spi­ra­tion poverty and in­jus­tice, specif­i­cally, race-based in­jus­tice — stand­out per­for­mance pieces in­clude the Last Po­ets’ Nig­gers are Scared of Rev­o­lu­tion and Gil Scott-heron’s The Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tele­vised, both from 1970 and re­garded as found­ing mo­ments in hip-hop.

But how does that mu­sic ac­quire an indige­nous foothold some­where like Australia; how does it avoid quickly be­com­ing a mod­ern-day ver­sion of the ir­rel­e­vant Dix­ieland jazz played by old folk in boater hats, far re­moved from its source, bleached of all mean­ing? It’s an im­por­tant ques­tion be­cause there are huge num­bers of young Aus­tralians who have grown up only ever be­ing fans of hip-hop — and, in many cases, only Aus­tralian hip-hop. For them, rock re­ally is dead, or at best it’s a mu­sic now made by and for an in­creas­ingly el­derly co­hort.

The most com­mon telling of the story of Aus­tralian hip-hop lo­cates two key de­vel­op­ments: the 1991 re­lease of the an­gry and en­er­gised Mad as a Hat­ter by Def Wish Cast, from Syd­ney’s western sub­urbs, and the ex­plo­sion into main­stream con­scious­ness — and on to com­mer­cial ra­dio — a decade later of what was to be­come a sub­ur­ban an­them: The Nose­bleed Sec­tion, by Ade­laide’s Hill­top Hoods. Both groups are still in­flu­en­tial — you can read the re­view of the Hill­top Hoods’ sixth al­bum, Drink­ing from the Sun, on page 10 to­day, and Def Wish Cast, af­ter years out of the scene, re­leased a sin­gle late last year and has an al­bum in the works. Just as im­por­tant, how­ever, is the fact that around their suc­cess has grown an en­tire in­dus­try and a mu­si­cal form that now sweeps much else be­fore it.

Nor is it any longer an ex­clu­sively ur­ban phe­nom­e­non; hip-hop is the sound of re­mote Australia too, with Top End acts draw­ing thou­sands-strong au­di­ences from vast dis­tances, which tra­di­tional rock shows — even big-name na­tional per­form­ers — can strug­gle to match.

Aus­tralian hip-hop’s most ob­vi­ous point of dif­fer­ence from the US ver­sion is the ex­clu­sive use of Aus­tralian ac­cents — some­thing Tim Levin­son, who raps and writes songs as Urth­boy, in his own right and with Syd­ney act the Herd, says ‘‘ was al­ways non-ne­go­tiable, even though it was never some­thing de­cided by com­mit­tee’’.

Levin­son, who man­ages Her­mi­tude as well as the la­bel the duo are signed to, Ele­fant Traks, says this is partly be­cause of the ba­sic fea­ture in all hip-hop that ‘‘ it’s com­pletely about the au­then­tic­ity of the back­ground of the MCS and the peo­ple in­volved in it. That’s in­te­gral.’’ It’s a point agreed by Stu­art — whose mu­sic, co­in­ci­den­tally, rarely these days uses rap­pers at all; in fact, while Levin­son and fel­low Herd vo­cal­ist Ozi Batla have ap­peared on pre­vi­ous Her­mi­tude re­leases, on Hyper­par­adise the lyrics, when they ex­ist at all, act more like a tex­tu­ral fea­ture, in­ter­act­ing with the other sounds and el­e­ments in a song.

‘‘ There’s the ac­cent, and the fact that peo­ple tell sto­ries about Australia: liv­ing in Australia, grow­ing up, their sur­round­ings,’’ Stu­art says. ‘‘ When the first [Aus­tralian hiphop] tunes started get­ting a bit of love on Triple J, it caused a stir, be­cause a lot of peo­ple said ‘ why are they rap­ping in an Aus­tralian ac­cent? It’s twangy and I don’t like it.’ But a lot of other peo­ple thought it was good, be­cause it was about us cre­at­ing our own sound. We’re Aus­tralian; why rap in Amer­i­can ac­cents? And then, of course, the Hill­top Hoods broke it with The Nose­bleed Sec­tion.’’

That one song, with its melodic, catchy sam­pled voice in the cho­rus and solid groove through­out, helped the genre set a new course. ‘‘ The Hill­top Hoods cracked it in part be­cause they just con­nected with the ev­ery­day per­son; peo­ple heard that song and they liked it,’’ Stu­art says. ‘‘ It just caught peo­ple’s ears, and af­ter that they got used to the ac­cent, and then the next level was they were get­ting played on com­mer­cial ra­dio.’’

Levin­son is more di­rect on the Hoods’ suc­cess: ‘‘ Suffa [group mem­ber Matt Lam­bert] par­tic­u­larly has a great pop sen­si­bil­ity,’’ he says.

The link to pop mu­sic can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated: Stu­art and Dub­ber point out that Aus­tralian hip-hop’s in­creas­ing con­nec­tion with more tra­di­tional song­writ­ing prac­tice has been a di­rect re­sult of the form’s com­mer­cial suc­cess in the past decade. Levin­son’s band the Herd is squarely in this camp too: hip-hop to its core, with sam­ples, rap­pers and iden­ti­fi­able rhyth­mic forms from the genre, it’s nonethe­less also a group of im­pres­sive live artists, all of them with phe­nom­e­nal mu­si­cal chops per­form­ing finely crafted songs. These are tunes you can whis­tle on the way home from the show, as the adage goes.

‘‘ That’s an as­pect of it now, where the Hoods broke down those doors and ra­dio got in­ter­ested, and there’s a lit­tle bit of a for­mula that’s gone on in cre­at­ing an Oz hip-hop sound,’’ Stu­art says. ‘‘ But I mean, it’s pretty much ba­sic song­writ­ing. You’ve got to have the catchy cho­rus, you’ve got to have a verse, big cho­rus, verse, maybe a bridge, a verse again. You’ve got to have hooks. Whereas ear­lier it could be just long raps, scratch­ing, no cho­rus at all.’’

Adds Dub­ber: ‘‘ It’s be­come more mu­si­cal, maybe; giv­ing it struc­ture that it didn’t have be­fore. Which is not to say that there weren’t cho­ruses around; it’s just that it’s about struc­ture.’’

The clas­si­cal com­poser Matthew Hind­son — him­self a huge hip-hop fan — says the fact that Aus­tralian hip-hop ap­pears on the sur­face to have lit­tle to do with the mu­sic’s African-amer­i­can ori­gins is prob­a­bly not even im­por­tant any more.

‘‘ You’ve got these amaz­ingly suc­cess­ful artists in Australia, peo­ple like the Hill­top Hoods or Bliss n Eso, for in­stance, and I think that’s be­cause hip-hop seems to be speak­ing to a lot of very di­verse com­mu­ni­ties,’’ Hind­son says. ‘‘ I’ve seen a lot of Pa­cific Is­lander com­mu­ni­ties adopt­ing it, for in­stance, and I sup­pose that’s be­cause it’s a form suited to them telling their sto­ries.’’

Hind­son, who is the head of com­po­si­tion at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s mu­sic school and chair of the mu­sic board on the Australia Coun­cil, says the jazz and hip-hop con­nec­tion ‘‘ makes sense on the ba­sis of the im­pro­vi­sa­tional an­gle of the two forms — it’s some­thing they’ve got in com­mon, es­pe­cially with the lyri­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion of rap­ping.’’

He also an­tic­i­pates a grow­ing cross­over be­tween clas­si­cal mu­sic and hip-hop, say­ing that on his own ‘‘ dream list’’ of pieces to write is a con­certo for beat­box and or­ches­tra — some­thing not dis­sim­i­lar to his Kalkadungu, a piece for voice, elec­tric gui­tar, didgeri­doo and or­ches­tra.

‘‘ The ma­jor­ity of the busi­ness of be­ing a clas­si­cal mu­sic com­poser is be­ing a con­trol freak, so it would be a pos­i­tive chal­lenge to work with hip-hop artists, whose ideas are more about free­dom,’’ Hind­son says, adding that the mu­si­cal­ity of much hip-hop per­for­mance is ‘‘ off the charts . . . I’ve seen hip-hop per­form­ers who dis­play the most as­ton­ish­ingly vir­tu­osic use of rhythms.’’

That mu­si­cal­ity and in­ven­tive­ness resur­faced as a ma­jor topic with the re­lease last year of Chicago artist Kanye West’s dis­turb­ing mas­ter­piece My Beau­ti­ful Dark Twisted


An­gus Stu­art, left, and Luke Dub­ber of Her­mi­tude play hip-hop with an Aus­tralian feel

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