HIPHOP AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Sydney duo Hermitude tells Stephen Fitzpatrick how it got its groove on
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