New South Wales, Australia
New South Wales, Australia
Tell us about your childhood, where you grew up, who your parents were and what they did.
My name is Mark Andrew Munk Ross, actually. I was born in Sydney, in Marrickville. My grandmother’s side, on my mother’s side, was Aboriginal.
So you were raised from early on knowing about your Indigenous heritage then?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was more when we got to like teenage years, more to the point. We were always told to be proud of our Aboriginal heritage. I suppose as kids younger than that, you don’t really understand much, do ya? In the way of anything, you’re just cruising around and doing what you want – and trying to learn how the world works. I’ve got a couple of brothers, I’m the eldest. One of them’s a schoolteacher, works out at East Hills Girls High, he’s involved in all the Aboriginal programs that go on out there. My other brother, he doesn’t do that much at all, he’s a bit of a Shaolin, a martial arts expert. But he’s been sick over the past however many years, so he’s probably not that out there, out and about. He went to China and did some stuff over there, all that martial arts kinda stuff. My mum, originally, was like a hurdler. I’m told she was really good, until she had me. She was apparently a very, very good hurdler, running and athletics and that sort of thing. My uncle was a really good runner as well. I think he used to train a lot of the elite athletes as well. So I’ve got that athletic side – and then on my dad’s side – he played a bit of footy and did a bit of wrestling and was also a speedway rider who nearly won an Australian championship! I think he retired the year before the guy he used to ride with won the championship. I used to go out there when I was a kid. I’d just basically go there and run around the Sydney Showground for hours at a time and not really pay attention to much of what was going on! Just run around and cause havoc and be out in the night! He was also into a bit of scrap metal stuff as well, a bit of a scrap metal dealer, a few odd jobs here and there. I think that’s pretty up my alley in the way of ingenuity of getting by, to get some money into the house.
So your grandmother was Jardwadjali?
Yeah, yeah, she was brought up in Junee [in southern New South Wales]. And Jardwadjali is from down in western Victoria. Her father worked on the trains. You’ve gotta remember back then, with the trains, they’d had that gold rush and cherry picking and all that sort of stuff, it was around the Great Depression type time. All those cherry pickers and that used to go out and jump on the trains, so there were no fares or anything like that, no one would pay. And the famous story is that they used to get the Aboriginal guys to go around and be the ticket guys, because they knew that they’d be getting into punch-ups all the time. Once again, it was a job that whitefellas didn’t want to do. Get them on the railways and give them a job – which is pretty good, back in the time when blackfellas aren’t even citizens in this country. So he was part of the railway, so that’s how I think he ended up from down in western Victoria up into Junee. There’s a million and one of these stories out there in the world, people passing on stories like that. Like the history of Aboriginal music is amazing, and when I do tell people, they usually just freak out and go, ‘Wow!’ So in my teenage years I was throwing myself into two cultures, which would be the hip-hop culture as well. That started probably about ’81 I reckon. I was like 12 or so. So I was throwing myself into being proud to be an Aboriginal person and that did come with a bit of stigma back then of thinking, ‘Aren’t Aboriginal people dark-skinned? We’re fair, so what’s up with that?’ So as a young kid, there’s that in your head as well, thinking, ‘What’s happening with that thing?’ But obviously I immersed myself in hip-hop culture as well. Back in ’81 I’d seen Blondie doing her thing. That’s the thing that people don’t understand about hip-hop stuff, is that the first fans of hip-hop – this is always glossed over and I’d be the first to tell anyone – the first fans of hip-hop were the punks. Because the punks had the CBGBs thing going on, the same time that Kool-Herc had the hip-hop thing going. They were obviously in the same city, crossed paths and they were both fans of what each other were doing.
And the punks were big Jamaican reggae fans, before hip-hop.
Yeah, you know what I mean. Punks were always looking for something new. So that’s where you got Blondie doing “Rapture”, which is really a hip-hop song, she’s rapping, she’s like taking – as a punk, being a fan of hip-hop culture, Deborah Harry’s gone, ‘I’m gonna rap, let’s jump on this.’ And that was the first thing that got me excited, because I’d seen the graff, the colourful painting and all that sort of stuff and I’d just gone, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ Just on TV, on Countdown I would have seen it back then. From then, the next thing was a couple of years later – it would have been ’82 or so – that’s when they had more dedicated music shows, I think there was Sounds or something like that with Donnie Sutherland on Saturday mornings, you had a few different music shows then. I was always into watching it, music used to excite me when I was a kid. And seeing Malcolm McLaren do ‘Buffalo Girls’ – and of course that had all elements of hip-hop involved – it had the graff, the breakdancing, it had the rapping, it had the beats, it had the deejaying, it had the whole [thing]. And once again, people that don’t know Malcolm McLaren, he was the manager of the Sex Pistols. So that was people that were taking hip-hop to the outside world, of course, as with racism and all that sort of thing, hip-hop probably was not really pushed outside of what was going on in America and because punks were onto it and the English scene is so close to New York – you know, it’s basically just a trip across the ocean there – so the UK and that New York scene had it going on a long time before anyone else was onto it. So for us, being so far away from that whole demographic, in a world where there’s no internet or anything like that, obviously stuff slowly filtered down into this country. So that was probably our first glimpse of what was going on in that whole thing- and of course you had Adam Ant doing a rap as well, he had a couple of rap songs on his first album. So the UK were onto that whole hip-hop culture before the whole rest of the world were. And at that time, the hip-hoppers’ outfits, they’d just come out of the P-Funk era, where George Clinton and all these guys are wearing these crazy space outfits and Earth Wind ; Fire and people like this are copying their thing and have got space suits on as well, because they’re all in that funk genre. Hip-hop came out of that so if you go and watch the early Grandmaster Flash clips and things like that – look at the clothes that they’re wearing – they’re wearing space suits and crazy outfits – they’re not wearing tracksuits and stuff like that. Then a lot of the people that were into the breaking – the stars of the popping and locking and all that sort of stuff, not floor moves, but…
It sounds like it appealed to you because it didn’t recognise skin colour.
No, no it didn’t, it was just like this whole new thing. I got into the breaking, first. When I was 13 or so I moved from Marrickville to Punchbowl, in the south-west of Sydney. There was another little young fella that used to hang out with us, we used to look after him and he used to always bug us to get him involved – and his name is Shannon Williams, otherwise known as Brothablack, he’s like probably 10 years younger than us, so he was like a young kid that we used to look after. So me and Dax [of Black Connection] would have our thing going on because he was such a good breakdancer and we were both into the breaking and the graff side of stuff as well, which got that whole Punchbowl-Redfern thing going on. Then me and Dax started doing the rapping, I reckon that would be about ’85. On a side note, I’m still friends with one of the guys from the Breakin’ movie, Michael Boogaloo Shrimp, and he’s very interested in how that breakdance movie influenced people in other countries. We were onto the music before the music blew up as well, which was when Run DMC did their ‘Walk This Way’ track with Aerosmith – all of a sudden rap music became accepted more in the mainstream here and everyone was into that because it had that metal thing going on as well as the rap. Me and Dax were already mimicking Run DMC songs before that. And also at that time as well, a very, very important thing is that there was other people around the city doing this stuff. When we were doing the breaking stuff back in ’83, ’84, you’d rock up to Circular Quay and there’d be a whole bunch of different breaking crews, who wouldn’t go to school and would just go and busk down in Circular Quay. You’d take your lino, put it on your shoulder and jump on the train, cruise to Circular Quay, throw your lino down and battle or busk, and that brought with it meeting crews from out west such as West Side Posse. RUS, who’s a very good friend of mine, he found a power point down at Circular Quay, ‘Now we’re cooking!’ At first we’d plug the ghetto blasters in, but then as some of these events got bigger and bigger and more people would come down – about ’83 ’84 – RUS would bring a PA and decks and an amp and plug it in and the whole place would be just like, ‘Mate, forget about the ghetto blaster, that’s like a little transistor compared with a PA that’s plugged in.’ And then what happened then was it got so big that the cops would come around and shut it down. Next thing was that from there that whole Def Jam moved to Martin Place, we found a power point in Martin Place ad then it got bigger, it ended up being thousands of people turning up on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday, until one day a couple of crews had a big blue then the cops shut the whole thing and it turned into a riot because, you know, coppers turning up, all guns blazing. The next day in the newspaper they called it ‘ethnic riots in Sydney CBD’ with no explanation of what was going on or whether it had anything to do with anything. Because local ethnic people were the ones that were into the hip-hop and were the majority of the crowd that were there for the jam, so that was the thing ‘ethnic riots in the city – don’t go into the city on the weekend’. You know how the media put their spin on a thing. So that kind of shut that down. But RUS has started that up again and that’s been going again for the past year, under the same name, the Sydney Def Jam. We do it every two or three months down at Sydney Park in St Peters. It’s also a really, really good thing for the old school guys to feel relevant as well in this climate of hip-hop, because most kids think that hip-hop in this country started in 2000 or something like that and there’s no history before that.
They think it started with white hip-hop?
Yeah, they think that it pretty much started there.
You rap about being a disappointment to your family on your Slim Dusty cover, ‘Biggest Disappointment’ – tell us about that. I would have thought your family are proud of you.
Yeah, I think my family are proud of me, it’s just like, see my dad was always a bit of a joker. Put it this way – my name at home would be ‘Dickhead’. [Laughs.] Because of our socio-economic background as well, probably we weren’t expected to make anything of ourselves. It’s not like we were expected to become lawyers and things like that, it was just get by and do what you can do. I did that song really because it was one of my favourite Slim Dusty tracks – it is my favourite Slim Dusty track. Slim Dusty has always had an affiliation with blackfellas. He was the only guy back in the ’40s that was going to Aboriginal communities and playing, he had a whole circuit – he’d do all the different outback towns – he’d make sure that the Aboriginal communities got some entertainment. We’re talking once again about a time when Aboriginal people weren’t even citizens in this country. So there’s more than one reason why there’s a Slim Dusty song on the album. Also Uncle Charley Boyter, who was his lead guitar player, is a blackfella as well. There’s a whole heap of things that intertwine and go into that whole thing. Get this – you want to know how I got into making music? I reckon I spent a good two, three years from probably about ’88 until ’90 working it out. I got myself a guitar – this is a story that Rob Hirst from Midnight Oil loves – I went to my mate, he taught me how to play guitar and his name is Bassam Hassam – a Lebanese fella – he used to live down the road from me at Punchbowl. That whole Bankstown area has a very big Lebanese community. Bassam could play all the Midnight Oil songs and he showed me a few easy little licks on there, and I was like, ‘Man, that starts me off then, let’s get this guitar thing happening.’ I was pretty good at it. So he was like, ‘Man, you pick it up so quick, man.’ But the thing is, then he went and got the master, his cousin, Fouhad! [Laughs.] His cousins Fouhad and Zihad used to play [Jimi] Hendrix and [Frank] Zappa and stuff like that, so they were like the next level of guitar and they gave me a few lessons as well. And then there was this other fella, Safwan Barbour, who knew every Metallica riff back to front and he’d know all that speed metal stuff and he’d be teaching me their stuff as well. So I was playing all that sort of stuff and then my other mate who was Safwan’s mate Phil [Pelia], a Croatian fella, used to live in the flats underneath Ray from the Hard-Ons, who are quoted as being one of Nirvana’s big influences. Of course, they were doing Nirvana-style music way before Nirvana were. Ray sold a bass to Phil, who then sold it to me – and that’s how I got my first bass! [Laughs.] So I had a guitar, I had a bass and then I bought a little Casio keyboard, then after that I got a drum machine. I learnt how to get by on all these instruments, then it was like, what happens now? Because at school I’d never studied music or anything like that.
And you still can’t read music?
Nah. Gimme a song and I’ll listen to it and I’ll learn it and I’ll play it and show you how to play it, but ask me to transcribe it to music or read it off music and I’m like, ‘Nah, you’ve got no chance.’ But then I got a four-track cassette machine, but by mixing it down you could get seven tracks. It was like, fuck going to a recording studio – I’m not spending thousands and thousands of dollars when they’ve only got eight tracks anyway. It was all just self-taught, trial and error. From there I bought a sampler, that was my huge step – that would have been 1991, I think. I got it imported from Italy – it was a [Roland] DJ-70. But the DJ-70 also has a little scratch pad on it, like a little turntable. So I was like, ‘Now we’re fucking cooking!’ I was also getting a reputation as a freestyle rapper while I was doing all this music stuff. And then I got a few shows, by myself. I ended up just doing spoken word, like rapping. Then I worked out that I’d have my drum machine with me and have the presets that I programmed and just let the beat play. So I did that and it was pretty bodgie! [Laughs.] Most of the places that I’d do these gigs were all African American guys at these gigs, rapping. I was completely different because I was rapping in my own accent. They were like, ‘Woah man, what’s this? Hillbilly rap?!’ [Laughs.] So I thought, I’m gonna bring all my mates with me, which is how the whole South-West Syndicate thing came about. I thought I’m not gonna go out there by myself and be the laughing stock, that whole being laughed off stage, man – been there and done it. I thought, next time I’m gonna go and I’m gonna go with 30 of my mates and we’re all gonna for it – and see who laughs then! I had all my mates, including Big Naz, who’s like 6ft 10 – and all of a sudden no one’s complaining! And then young Shannon Williams was asking if he could join in and we were like, ‘the more the merrier!’
You ended up touring Australia for 11 years though with South-West Syndicate, right? From 1992 to 2003?
That was the thing. There was still the whole army of us around ’95 I reckon, but after a while it probably wore a bit thin with a whole heap of the guys. Some people went off the rails and off to jail and others were like, ‘I’ve gotta make a living, I’m gonna go and be a panel beater bro.’ So it ended up with just a smaller core of us then. Another guy Mohammed, he got shot in the head and he’d rock up in his wheelchair and he was in the crew as well. So we did this big Hip-Hopera show. This other guy I know from the boys in Auburn, Khaled Subsahbi – otherwise known as Peach, a rapper in a crew called COD – he said, ‘I’ve been looking all over for ya, searching the streets for ya, I’ve got this thing on over at Casula Powerhouse.’ He said, ‘There’s a catch, man – you’ve gotta do these workshop things.’ So we rocked up to the youth centre in Bankstown and that’s when I met this other guy who was running the youth service there. His name’s Tim Carroll – he’s still there today, out there at Bankstown – and he said, ‘How would you like to do what you’re doing, but bring it to the youth centre and do it here? And we’ll pay you for it.’ I’m like, ‘What? Pay us for it? Mate, you’re on! So we started recording other artists. That Hip-Hopera gig – we rocked up and we just drank, when others were rehearsing. We ended up going to the gig at Casula and going, ‘We’re going to drive our car into the venue and we’re all going to get out and then we’re going to go onstage and we’re going to do our song.’ Big Naz got his big XD Falcon rolling in and we all rocked up and half of us came from the side of the stage and we just annihilated this gig. People were just raving, like, ‘Mate, what is this?’ From there that’s where we met Ebony [Williams] and Danielle [Tuwai], who then joined our group. So it took off from there. But from there, people dropped off and filtered out and it ended up just being the blackfellas left! Me, Dax, Brothablack – and Nadeena Dixon was with us then as well. Her partner at the time, Les, was playing didge with us. By about ’97 it just became like an Aboriginal band. From there we were throwing traditional stuff into our shows, a lot of didge playing, a lot of traditional dancing and people were really interested in that, like ‘Wow, this is something that we haven’t seen before!’ We’d incorporate traditional dancing, didge playing, clapsticks and we’d be doing our hip-hop songs, the singing and the breakdancing – it was like a complete experience. So that was that whole South-West Syndicate thing!
You rap about your skin colour: “Here comes the brother that’s looking like a gubbar / I’m like Michael Jackson looking quite white / Well I don’t look black, fat or look back / blood the colour of Pepsi.” Want to talk about that?
Yeah, I always like to play on it, like in this day and age I’m comfortable with who I am. There’s always going to be people that will question who you are and all that sort of stuff, or just antagonise for the fun of it. You’re always going to get these people in your life. At first it bothered me, for the first… month! [Laughs.] But then I got over it because I’ve always been the type of person that doesn’t really care about much, anyway – in the way of, like, anything. I’ve seen plenty of things in my life – my life’s been an action adventure movie at times, so there’s not much that can rattle me. That rattled me for a little while until just after talking to some other people that were like, ‘Nah man, don’t worry about what anyone else is saying, you just do what you do, you’re representing our mob and you just do that. Do that!’ So now, I’m at the point where I can make light of it in songs and enjoy it. It’s enjoyable and something I can play on and I’m into it! I’m totally into playing on that! [Laughs.] That’s the other thing, is people like [musician] Roger Knox, he sat me down one day – back in the South-West Syndicate days – and was like, ‘Mate, if you’ve got an ancestor that’s Aboriginal, you’re Aboriginal.’ And a lot of Aboriginal people will tell you exactly that same thing. ‘You’re either Aboriginal or you’re not.’ There’s no, ‘I’m one-sixteenth Aboriginal.’ And there can be people that have Aboriginal blood that don’t identify as Aboriginal. They can be from the same family – and in Tasmania, that’s rampant. There’s families that are Aboriginal and they’ve got brothers and sisters that will say, ‘Nah, nah, nah I’m only one-thirty-second Aboriginal, so nah, I’m white.’ So you can have people that are brother and sister that will argue.
It will have changed over the years as well, in terms of how acceptable it’s become to identify.
Yeah, of course. Whereas people will identify now, 60 years ago – when Aboriginal people weren’t citizens, they were flora and fauna in this country – to get ahead and actually make some money, if they were fair-skinned they didn’t say anything, they didn’t walk around saying, ‘I’m Aboriginal.’ Then again, there were people that were fair-skinned that were on the missions that were identifying as well, so it’s not – pardon the pun – a black-and-white thing. It’s not like you can generalise on anything. You’ve gotta remember also that even way, way back in the mid-1800s – half-castes, and they’d call it ‘the quadroon problem’. In some areas of this country there were more half-castes and quadroons than there were white people – and that was a problem to the government at the time.
When were you born, ’68?
So, two years after Aboriginal people were granted citizenship.
So think of that – if that was a problem back in the 1850s, think of how that goes down the track, another 150 years later, nearly 200 years later. Just in the way of people, if there was like, in certain areas, if half-castes and quarter-castes are a problem, and they’re outnumbering white people in many, many places, think of where all the descendants of those people are now – assimilated into white society, most of them. Because it’s only been the last 50 years that people…
So there could be a lot of people out there that don’t know they’re blackfellas because their forebears didn’t identify.
Yeah, of course. Once again it’s not a general thing, it’s like a whole up-in-the-air thing. It’s an interesting topic, it’s not like it’s not interesting at all! It’s very interesting and I’ve copped things from both sides of the fence. On the positive side there is blackfellas saying, ‘Yeah man, you’re like a role model for our community’, and whitefellas saying, ‘We’re comfortable to learn off this guy about issues.’ On the negative side, for whitefellas you’re too black because of your thinking and for blackfellas you’re too white because you don’t look black. And if you’re not comfortable being in that middle, you can take one side or the other. But man, I’m comfortable to roll in both directions. I’m into educating whitefellas about our culture. I’m into being a positive role model for our people. I’ve also copped it on the chin for being too… each to their own you know what I mean? If I’m too fair for blackfellas to identify with, I’m down with that. And if my politics is too black for whitefellas to deal with, I’m down with that as well. So I’m down with all of that!
Down like a road spike. [One of Munk’s lyrics.]
I’m down like a road spike! [Laughs.] So I’m down with all of that, so that whole issue, I think, that covers that whole topic.
That explains the hater references on your album!
The other side of it as well is the whole hip-hop thing. One thing that is lacking these days is what [comedian] Sean Choolburra would call – we had a yarn the other day about ‘pure hip-hoppers’. These days, someone’s either an emcee or a graff artist, or they’re a breaker, or they’re a deejay. But back in the ’80s you did it all. If you were into hip-hop, you did all that. But these days, people try to perfect one and only stick to one element… Look at West Side Posse – Rosano and Kode Blue, they made Sound Unlimited Posse, who were the first Australian Hip-Hop act to be signed to a major label, signed to Sony in 1989. For all you people that think Australian Hip-Hop started in 2000, there was actually a band that were on your Video Hits, they were signed to Sony, they put albums out and they came from that whole thing where those guys that were in that group were actually breakers, they were part of that whole hip-hop culture. They were signed to Sony before half these kids were born.
Going back to the skin colour thing, your eyes also change colour, as [your sometime radio co-host] Odessa noted.
Yeah, when people ask for my eye colour or to write it down, I don’t say anything. People say, ‘Oh, you forgot this question.’ I say, ‘Nah, I didn’t forget that question. I have hazel eyes, grey, blue and green and on a daily basis, it could be a different colour.’
My son is the same [I’m white eastern European/Anglo Saxon, his mum is Tamil]. It seems to change with the clothes that my son wears.
Yeah, people have said that – and sometimes, people have said it’s mood. So apparently there’s a whole heap of different things, but yes, there are people that have no eye colour! [Laughs.] Like myself! I don’t think there’s even such a study or anything like that on it. Yeah, people that look in my eyes go, ‘I’m sure you had green eyes the other day! Now they’re like brown-grey, man. What’s going on?’ [Laughs.] So many times I get asked, ‘Oh, do you wear contacts?’ I’m thinking, ‘Mate, I wear glasses. No, I don’t wear contacts at all, or I’d be wearing contacts and glasses at the same time!’
You rap: “The first to ever rap a verse in lingo, impressed Ernie Dingo, dragged through the window.” Tell us about learning your language – you also created language books and CDs for kids with the publisher Indij Readers – and you speak four or five languages, right?
Yeah, but once you stop speaking some you start to lose them, which is really hard. Another thing that I was instrumental in doing was the Vibe 3 on 3 basketball and hip-hop stuff. We used to travel round to heaps of different communities. Actually, at that same time I was also travelling with Triple J, back when they were very community friendly and they had money. That was back in the [former Prime Minister Paul] Keating era. I got to travel around a lot of desert communities and that helped me out as a producer as well. So I got access to recording Nabarlek Band and all these other desert bands that I would never have had a chance to. I got to hang out with people that were like idols. You know what I mean, ‘I’ve seen you guys on TV and stuff!’ [Laughs.] One day when we were in Alice Springs with the Triple J workshops that we were doing, Vibe 3 on 3 had just started – they were doing their first event, which was in Alice Springs. There wasn’t that many kids turning up, so I had a meeting with the guy that put it all together. I said, ‘I’ll bring you some kids here tomorrow, man. We’ve gotta add some hip-hop element in there and they’ll all turn up.’ Obviously, that evolved into what it became for all those many years – hundreds of events all over the country – a basketball and hip-hop thing. So with Vibe 3 on 3 and Triple J we’d be travelling to all these different communities where people weren’t speaking English – and English wasn’t their first language and it wasn’t their second or third language. It was like, ‘Oh, wow. Man, this is kinda cool. I’m gonna learn some of this lingo and try to throw it into raps.’ And then just hanging out, like, in Alice Springs for a month and just getting enough words in the vocab to be able to, like, kick some verses and even do them in full language was like, ‘All right, man.’ So I started doing that just to show the kids in these communities that, ‘English isn’t your first language, so guess what? You don’t even have to rap in it! If you wanna rap in your language, just do it. Look, watch!’ And then I started going round the different communities and everywhere I’d go, they’d go, ‘Hey, lingo rap! Do the lingo rap!’ [Laughs.] All of a sudden I was known as ‘the lingo rapper’. I was kind of uncomfortable with that as well. I was like, ‘Ah man, I’m a bit more than a lingo rapper, man!’ Once again I copped that on the chin and it was just like, ‘No worries.’ Because it’s good to be able to show people that you don’t have to rap in English. So that kinda got me into that, and then getting more into my own language as well. I thought, ‘Man, I’m rapping in all these other languages, I need to learn more of my own language.’ So I got onto that side of it and started writing proper songs.
Were you taught Jardwadjali by elders?
A lot of the western Victorian languages are very, very similar, with Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung and there’s Wemba-Wemba – all these languages are pretty much the same language. So there is resources and it’s very easy to find people that know this language. So yeah, I was lucky enough to sit down and also get myself my own personal little dictionary-type thing as well that was given to me. So I started writing stuff in my own language which was much more satisfying than just doing a couple of verses in other people’s languages.
I’ll have to track down the couple of books that you did with Indij Readers [Raps 4 Big Fullas and Raps 4 Little Fullas] and stick some of that in the interview.
All right! [Laughs.] On that one, I don’t know how accurate that one is! [Laughs.]
You must have a natural ability for languages – I learnt French at school, which was easy, as English is 70% French because England w