Jimmy Nice’s opening line from “Love Me Less”, the first single from Mainline by One Day (Elefant Traks/Sony Music), tells us that we will not be in easy-listening territory. In One Day’s war against complacency, truth will not be the first casualty. Truth is, in fact, the number one priority. Painfully honest, disarmingly frank, Mainline is an enjoyable, sometimes startling, insight into the world of a hip-hop crew.
Sunset like a propane sky, over Mainline / No matter where I roam ain’t nowhere like Mainline (“Mainline”)
Mainline is the train line running between Central Station and Strathfield on Sydney’s Inner West Line, the term coined by the graffiti crews who called it home. Westline was another track, running further west from Strathfield. These names also became signifiers for the crews themselves, with the Mainline and Westline crews each working their respective turf, dodging trains and transport police in their hunt for walls to use as their canvas. Dating from the late ’80s-early ’90s, Mainline and Westline became part of the lexicon later adopted by seven local teenagers just beginning to immerse themselves in hip-hop culture. Four of the seven attended Fort Street High School in Petersham, but all of them bonded over music and spray cans, dubbing themselves the One Day Crew as they worked the Mainline.
See it snaking on by through the rooftops / Past the kids in the park with the boom box / Out the tunnel, feel the rush of daylight / Been this way since we was yay high / Repping Mainline (“Mainline”)
The One Day Crew eventually splintered into four different musical entities – Horrorshow, Spit Syndicate, Jackie Onassis and Joyride – with each of them finding success in Aussie hip-hop, though none more so than Horrorshow, whose 2013 album King Amongst Many is a classic of the genre and one of the best albums to come out of Australia in recent years. Spit Syndicate’s Sunday Gentlemen album, also released last year, was not far behind in quality though it failed to receive anywhere near the attention it deserved.
Best laid plans, I’ma be the man some day, one day (“History”)
Sharing stages, collaborating on each other’s albums, the One Day Crew remained a solid group of friends but late last year they made a concerted effort to align their schedules and rented a house in Byron Bay, upending the beds to turn it into a makeshift studio. With the three producers (Adit, Raph and Joyride) at one end of the house making beats, the four MCs (Solo, Jimmy Nice, Nick Lupi and Kai) were holed up at the other end trying to write verses. One of the first songs they came up with was the album opener, “Many Hands”. It establishes the album’s MO of seven individuals sharing a vision but each one bringing their own perspective. Nick Lupi, in particular, contributes some of the hardest-hitting lyrics on the album, expanding on the theme of boat people he had previously visited on “Lost in Translation”, from Spit Syndicate’s last album. This time he completely skewers the hard-hearted homilies being handed out by shameless politicians and pundits:
I’m a proud Australian / somehow I’m alienated from / maybe the place that we’re becoming / Vanity of a birthright / Towing back boats with searchlights / The lurch to the right is confronting … And all I can do is make sure that the quill is sharpened / Let the ink spill ’til I fill the margins … With many hands you can shield the darkness / Regardless, steel sharpens steel, you bastards (“Many Hands”)
A blast of defiance, “Many Hands” also establishes the ground rules for how this all-star collaboration will work: one in, all in. Each member of the crew gets to put his own stamp on the track and as a result the song mutates both lyrically and musically, multifaceted like a cut gem.
“To The Beat” quickly follows and continues the theme of “steady rock”. But this is a classic “battle rap”, a song where the crew declares itself ready to test its mettle against all competition. Featuring dazzling wordplay over a loping groove, Kai from Jackie Onassis takes the points here with his smartarse, Spanglish verse, although Joyride, the self-described “King Kong of sing-song”, is no slouch either.
Apart from the whip-smart lyrics, the opening two tracks showcase the album’s sophisticated production. Elsewhere there are Pharcyde-flavoured psychedelic mood-pieces (“Better”, “Spin the Bottle”), Public Enemy-like full-frontal assaults (“Milka”), and even shades of the Wu-Tang Clan (“History”). Wu-Tang Clan are felt by many to be the greatest hip-hop crew ever, and they were a specific reference point for this project, mainly in the way the Clan made divergent rapping styles flow harmoniously. That same principle of unity-through-diversity has also worked for the three producers creating the music beds. They seamlessly combine a variety of musical styles without missing a beat (pun intended). There’s even a comical reggae tribute to the loathed State Debt Recovery Office (“S.D.R.O.”), whose relentless pursuit of fine defaulters is the bane of miscreants everywhere. Though most of the beats were created together by Adit, Raph and Joyride, each of them took away several tracks to individually refine and develop further, constantly uploading files to Dropbox and other file-sharing sites to keep each other in the loop (also intended). However the strength of what was created in Byron Bay provided the inspiration that kept the entire album musically cohesive.
There is such an exhilarating rush and directness to most of the lyrics on the album that at times you can almost imagine you are running with the crew yourself, so candid is the conversation. “Cloud Street” is an unapologetic paean to getting high at after-gig gatherings, passing joints as big as a “blunderbuss” while extolling the supposed therapeutic effects of marijuana. “In the Bottle” takes on the legal high of alcohol, ruthlessly examining each member of the crew’s admitted excesses and questioning the moral panic underpinning the current public debate.
As forthright as those songs may be, there are two others that stand out above the rest as being so brutally honest that I found myself questioning the wisdom of the writers in making such public confessions. On “Cab Ride”, one of the highlights of the album, Rowan (aka Joyride) gives a blow-by-blow account of a messy night on drugs while attempting to hook-up with a one-night stand (that’s my reading of it, anyway), and on the album’s closing song, “History”, Kai goes even further, admitting to some fairly poor behaviour:
Tryna make some history / But I got my father’s sins in me / Forgive me though, it all happened so quickly / Looking in my mirror and I’m tipsy / and suddenly it’s all clear to me / as a mixed-race kid, mixed-up kid / My face looking more like yours than it ever did / I catch myself doing things I swore I never would / Like, I never treat my girl too good, well, there it is (“History”)
I asked Nick Lupi about this and he explained: “[It’s] a classic example of [a rapper] writing [about something] he would never say to us, like, ‘Me and my girlfriend are going through some stuff.’ But he will still put it on a song. I’ve always enjoyed that about the way we make music. Sometimes you’ll be the most honest with yourself and with your friends in a song, rather than actually talking about it.”
Despite its undeniable influence on music for decades there are still many people who will not accept that hip-hop has validity as a musical artform. However, tastes and demographics shift inexorably and those entrenched opinions become less credible with every passing day.
Hip-hop has also cross-pollinated with the local music scenes of innumerable countries, from Mali to Bulgaria, Brazil to Vietnam. Disaffected teens in Australia were among the first to embrace the genre outside of the US, with graffiti crews sprouting like so many wild mushrooms, leaving their bold-faced messages for the world and each other to see across the suburban cityscape. To hear One Day tell it, graffiti culture is intrinsic to their identity and is part of what they wanted to celebrate on Mainline.
Nick Bryant-Smith (aka Solo, from Horrorshow) says: “It’s been a long time since we were out there on the train line. It’s still very central to the idea and the feeling behind what we do. There are a lot of parallels between what we used to do in ‘repping’ a crew ... This is [just] a different medium, a different way to ‘get up’, as they call it. The canvas has changed from the area around here to the sonic canvas, and it can travel and be heard by anyone.”
Mainline can at times be an unflinching look at life through a multiplicity of viewpoints. Mostly, though, it’s a celebration of the joy that the One Day Crew has found growing up together with a mutual bond in hip-hop, being truthful to themselves, each other and the world. In other words, representing. Ten years ago, seven teenagers shared a dream on Mainline, one they have finally fulfilled on this landmark album. These lyrics, referencing the famous spray paint brand, make a perfect mission statement:
Kids from that Krylon era getting our rhyme on /
Dedicated to those dedicated to getting their vibe on, gone (“Cloud Street”)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Track record".
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