15 MOMENTS IN SYDNEY HIP HOP
by Mark Pollard
1. Vaporz Magazine
Vaporz was the first hip hop magazine in the world. Much as Hype was one of the first full colour graf mags in the world, Australia (despite what some may think) has been documenting, innovating and cultivating the culture as long as most. Vaporz was established by Blaze with the first issue being printed in 1988. Initially boasting a cut and paste format, the magazine predates the empire-like The Source and HHC. It was strong with opinion and, despite coming out infrequently, had a grassroots following around the world.
2. Just Us
Case and Scandal’s Just Us formation released the first ever piece of Australian hip hop vinyl in 1988 – “Combined Talent” b/w “My Destiny”. It was pressed independently. Based in Sydney’s outer western suburbs, Just Us and their affiliates were rough, rugged and raw, and pushed an individual Australian identity through their music. Central Station Records then released the group’s “Voice of the Hunted” (with Mentor added to the group) vinyl in the early 90s. Case moved to Malta for a few years, returned and re-formed Just Us with Roamz, and performed at the mighty Contents Under Pressure gig with FWP. Since then Case has been working with Terminal Illness and has produced a track for the upcoming Def Wish Cast album. Roamz is working with the Ascendescents and Mentor moved into metal.
3. Down Under by Law
“Down Under by Law” was a compilation pieced together by Virgin and released in 1988 on vinyl. It was the first Australian hip hop compilation ever released but it seems tainted by the fact that it appeared that Virgin were trying to capitalise on the late-80s boom in hip hop around the world. Spice, West Side Posse and several other artists made appearances.
4. DJ KC and ASK
DJ KC and ASK were two of the most influential and innovative Sydney turntablists/DJs through the late ’80s and into the ’90s. KC was the Australian DMC Champion three times and is renowned for his three turntables showcase. DJ ASK took out the National DMC twice, and was known for brewing up a storm everywhere he went – in many different ways. In 1994 he teamed up with the then-teen-aged DJ Bonez and formed the Cross Fader Raiders. Aside from cassette releases, they put out “Casting Spells on 12s” with Swamp and the battle record “Raiders of the Lost Crate” through DMC in Melbourne. ASK moved to the UK with Renegade Funktrain while KC now runs the United DJ School in Surry Hills.
5. Def Wish Cast
Def Wish Cast are the quintessential Sydney hip hop crew. A lot of groups have made very valuable contributions to the culture but few crews have been as well-rounded and have made such a large impact as Die-C, Sereck and Def Wish. They released the “Mad As a Hatter” vinyl EP in 1992. Subsequently, they were the first group to tour nationally. They then released their album “Knights of the Underground Table” (CD and cassette), which became a manual for Australian hip hop. It was released through Western Sydney-based Random records, who, despite selling in the vicinity of six to eight thousand units, never paid the group. The clip for “A.U.S.T.” gave a face to Australian hip hop and was pivotal in shaping generations to come. Many can still remember seeing it for the first time on Video Hits or Rage.
6. Sound Unlimited Posse
Formerly known as the Westside Posse, Sound Unlimited emerged as the first Australian group to be signed to a major label. They released “A Postcard from the Edge of the Under-Side” through Sony/Columbia in 1992. The release and label backing got them into the charts, played on 2DayFM and spots on all sorts of TV shows such as Vidiot (yeah, you remember that one ú Edan Gaha was the man). They even graced the cover of 3d World, something that few other local acts have achieved mainly because they don’t have Roger Sanchez as their DJ. They were mocked to some degree by the more underground crews, especially with samples such as from Men at Work and a lot of Americanisms. Their success was talked up by labels and media alike, but it is said that it took them almost ten years to pay back their advance to the record label. In this time, they made a name and lineup change (Renegade Funktrain), and seemed to be trying to do an acid-jazz-hip-hop thing five years too late.
7. The Lounge Room and Next Level Records
The Lounge Room was established by Blaze and JU in the early ’90s on the second floor of a Pitt St building (near Liverpool St). It was the first specialist hip hop store in Sydney and provided a daily meeting spot for people to network and satisfy vinyl appetites. The shop later moved to Crown St where it shared premises with X Large and, having been robbed twice and having most of their stock cleaned out, Blaze moved the shop into some spare space in a printer’s workshop just off William St. Next Level Records emerged out of the Lounge Room with Blaze having enough of it all. Dr Phibes set up his shop on Liverpool St where it has been for the past five years. He opened it with a box of records left over from the Lounge Room and a turntable.
8. Easy Bass
Easy Bass boasted their roots in Urban Poets and grew to some degree around the Lounge Room with various members meeting there. Why do people talk about Easy Bass so much? Well, they were known for being devastating freestylers. They offered a different style in sound and content to a lot of what was happening, being a bit more mellow and pensive. They released a handful of tracks on tapes such as “Space Program” (1995). It was just fun hip hop.
9. Tape Culture
It seems amazing to think by today’s standards that Easy Bass sold several hundred cassettes through a handful of outlets in the mid-90s. They have been dubbed and sent to friends the nation over, much in the same way that Koolism’s first few cassettes – “Juss a Brown Fella” and “Bedroom Shit” – were. Everybody dubbed tapes for each other because more often than not the tapes would sell out due both to demand and small print runs. Groups like Fathom, Trey with DJ Bonez, Def Wish Cast and 046 released cassettes that were snapped up. Almost everybody owned a dual-tape stereo instead of today’s CD burners, computers and MP3 players. Bring back tape culture.
10. Basic Equipment
Basic Equipment was a documentary hosted by Sereck and produced by Paul Fenech. It focussed on a handful of groups mainly from Sydney (Trey, Sleek the Elite, FWP, Cross Fader Radiers and so on). It aired at 8.30pm on ABC during the Loud Festival in 1998 which was a government programme aimed at supporting cultural pursuits. It featured various interviews and footage from the Contents Under Pressure gig. Paul Fenech, of course, stars in and produces SBS’s hit series Pizza now which also stars Sleek, while Basic Equipment is the label/crew name under which Sereck does most of his work.
11. Miguel D’Souza
Various media types preceeded Miguel D’Souza (Tim Ritchie on Double J in the late 80s for instance – now the head of Radio National) but few were as vitriolic as the Barry White of Bhangarra Rap. In October 1990, he was involved with getting Sydney’s first hip hop show on air. It was called The Mothership Connection and aired on 2SER every Tuesday afternoon. Within the next year he had started his weekly hip hop column in 3d World called Funky Wisdom. It was from here that he berated, challenged and provoked. Whether you were the government, an academic or an artist, chances are you got a serving, but you would also get your support as, for many years, this was one of the few media outlets that local hip hop had. He followed this route until March 1998 during which time he had penned the odd interview, review and article for mainstream media such as Juice and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Metro section – incursions into the mainstream’s mindset which only came after much persistence. He was known for using big words and was a valuable commentator whose voice really deserves to still be heard.
Through XXL/MDS came two local compilations in the mid-90s. “Homebrews” came at a time when larger independent events had started to happen and there was a real sense of momentum building, something that has really only kicked into tangible effect since 2000. Volume 1 of “Homebrews” came out in 1995 with 11 tracks from the likes of Koolism, Groove Terminator, Raph and Ransom while the second installation came out in 1998. Womb-Mind-Speak (several of whom are now working with the Mother Tongues label), Sereck, Brethren, Fathom and DJ Ask made appearances. The majority of tracks were still fairly low-fi compared to what our producers are doing now.
13. Lost Venues
With more events coming through in the mid- to late-90s, sadly some great venues were lost. Kinselas (Taylors Square) which hosted many a show by Meta Bass’n’Breath, Sleek and the massive Contents Under Pressure gig has been converted into a pub. The Globe in Newtown and the Palladium in Kings Cross (an ex-strip club) hosted many a local and international act. Venues of this calibre that allow hip hop events are few and far between in Sydney right now.
14. Urban Xpressions
In a way, the Urban Xpressions hip hop festival gave the community a sense of pride and, importantly, a way to bring together the vastly diverse threads of Sydney hip hop. The first one ran in March of 1998 under the Slingshot banner, with Baba from Meta Bass’n’Breath playing a prominent role. Panel discussions, graf exhibitions, breaking in Hyde Park and the first independent American tour (Mystik Journeymen) featured during the ten days of the inaugural festival. 1999 saw Blackalicious come out for the festival while Jzone and Air Force One came out in April 2000.
15. Community Centres and Workshops
Especially in the past decade, the number of community centres and workshops with some sort of hip hop orientation has become quite high. It can’t be emphasised enough that the work that goes on in these workshops is amazing, and the number of kids who have come through them, picked up hip hop and life skills on their way and have moved on to better things is overwhelming. This is the sometimes-hidden piece of the Sydney hip hop culture puzzle but it does not go unappreciated.
Copyright STEALTH 2003.