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Reclaim Australia by A. B. Original is the most exciting record released by an Australian artist this year. An incendiary album of agit-prop hip-hop, the beats slam hard and the raps slam even harder. This aggressive, uncompromising and brutally honest album may be too bitter a pill for many people to swallow but our body politic is ailing and this is just what the doctor ordered. Come and take your medicine, Australia.
A. B. Original is a collaboration between two Aboriginal hip-hop artists, solo rapper Briggs and rapper/producer Trials, the latter being one-third of Adelaide’s Funkoars. The two men have worked together on and off for 10 years but this is their first project as equal partners. They wanted to make the kind of record they wished they’d had when they were kids, back when they fell in love with hip-hop and with West Coast gangsta rap in particular. As Briggs told me last week, “There was always a piece missing for kids like us in the ’90s, when rap music was at such a peak, with the Snoop Doggs and Ice Cubes and Tupacs, you know? We really wanted to make an album that we could have played alongside those.”
A. B. Original jams have been trickling out to the public since May this year but it wasn’t until August that they attracted any major attention. That came when they released the anthemic “January 26” as a single. It’s a bouncy, catchy song that presents a potent argument for moving Australia Day to another date on the calendar, so that Aboriginal Australians can join in celebrating our shared nationhood wholeheartedly.
I said celebrate the heritage, anytime outside Jan 26
That’s the date for them suckers doing that sucker shit
That’s that land-taking, flag-waving attitude
Got this new Captain Cook dance to show you how to move
How you wanna raise a flag with a rifle
Then make us wanna celebrate anything but survival?
Their words are forthright and strident but there’s humour, too, such as Briggs’s interjections of “Fuck that, homie” between the lines of Dan Sultan’s guest vocals in the chorus. There’s an undeniable cheekiness to that refrain, just as there’s a hint of buffoonery when they chant at the end, “Wave it, wave it, Mama; wave that flaggy”. After all, humour can be a weapon, too.
The people who find the sentiments expressed in “January 26” unpalatable will be simply aghast at the rest of Reclaim Australia. The opening track is a spoken word introduction titled “Foreword”, as you would find in a book. A few guitar chords gently strum while Archie Roach describes how this album forms part of a continuum in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. It’s a quiet, reflective moment, like the calm before the storm, but this “Foreword” points the way.
“2 Black 2 Strong” takes a militant tone immediately. It’s built around a lumbering groove with a malevolent baritone sax providing the bass riff. A Fender Telecaster guitar insistently chops in half-time, like a reverse ska feel, and a soulful organ giggles crazily alongside. Superficially this is a battle song, where MCs one-up each other as they boast about their rapping skills, but Briggs and Trials have a larger battle in mind and they don’t waste any time in scoring some hits:
It’s the black out, yeah, brothers in the area
Smart black man with a plan, nothing scarier now,
Yeah, they still wanna kick the blacks out, yeah
The beat they are rapping over was fashioned by Perth-based producer Dazastah, who has produced half the tracks on the album. The others were created by a who’s who of Australasian production talent: Jayteehazard from Newcastle, James Mangohig from Darwin, SmokeyGotBeatz from Auckland, and Rob Conley, an American writer/producer who is now based in Sydney. Trials and Dazastah got to know each other as teenagers when they were both part of an online hip-hop community and the two dreamed about making rap music with a peculiarly Australian identity, with MCs using their normal speaking voices and addressing real issues rather than ghetto life fantasies. After the global success of crews such as The Hilltop Hoods it’s hard to believe this was ever a controversial idea, but 15 years ago there was considerable resistance to that concept. Now A. B. Original pushes those boundaries even further. This is the Aboriginal Australian experience set to a heavy hip-hop groove, undiluted and unapologetic.
“Call ’Em Out”, track three on the album, contains snippets of outrageous dialogue taken from Dennis O’Rourke’s searing 1984 documentary, Couldn’t Be Fairer. One of the samples is of Lang Hancock describing in a TV interview his genocidal plan to wipe out “half-caste” Aborigines by herding them into camps and poisoning them with chemicals to cause infertility and thus bring about their extinction. “Call ’Em Out” includes other equally horrific soundbites from O’Rourke’s documentary. In between, Briggs and Trials rap about routine harassment by the police. Even the simple act of driving an expensive car is seen as suspicious behaviour and can lead to a traffic stop with potentially fatal consequences:
Coz what you drive may be where you die
If you pull over you mightn’t pull out alive
I’m raisin’ my hands, drawin’ a line in the sand
There’s no excuse for a gun and a badge
To let anything fly, if anyone dies
Make sure every cop shop in the city fries
I asked Briggs and Trials about some of the violent imagery in the lyrics, something that was also a notable feature of the gangsta rap that inspired them. Were they worried their songs might lead to actual violence? Briggs’s reply was simple: “Nah, I grew up listening to rap music and I haven’t killed no one. I don’t relate the two.” We talked about it further. “It’s entertainment, do you know what I mean? It’s a point of view,” he explained, then added, “There’s parts of the album that are rap and us creating an environment, an image in your head, for this song, for this little journey, and other songs that are a bigger picture … a hard lesson.”
Reclaim Australia is extremely political, and that’s right down in its marrow, but it’s equally important to point out that, first and foremost, it is a great hip-hop album. With rappers, flow is everything and both Briggs and Trials have brought their A-game to the studio. The musical arrangements are restrained and powerful, sounding organic rather than programmed. When I interviewed Darren Reutens, aka Dazastah, he described how he constructed the beats for his five songs on the album. “I use a thing called an MPC, it’s basically a sequencer-sampler,” he said. “Instead of using the quantise function I’ll just play in the stuff live.” This is a technique made famous by J Dilla and it adds a human feel to the music instead of a flawless, metronomic computer rhythm. Reutens records all of the instruments the same way. Like Briggs and Trials, he is a fan of old-school hip-hop, and his “dark” production style is naturally suited to A. B. Original. “I kinda make stuff like that anyway, like, really slow, big, slangin’, heavy stuff,” Reutens said, with a laugh. “[Briggs] said, ‘Send me a bunch of things’. And I had a really good hit rate – he didn’t really knock any of ’em back.”
Another distinctive element in Reclaim Australia was the participation of two iconic American rappers: Detroit’s Guilty Simpson on “Call ’Em Out”, and LA’s King T on “The Feast”. Guilty Simpson worked closely with the late J Dilla while King T was heavily involved in the golden era of West Coast gangsta rap, working with Dr. Dre and being influential to 50 Cent. “The Feast” is a lighthearted tall story about an adventurous night on the town with King T, Trials and Briggs. It’s a much-needed bit of levity sandwiched between the two harshest songs on the album: “Firing Squad”, a horror story about the evils of meth, and “Report to the Mist”, a scathing attack on police brutality and an unfair criminal justice system. “Report to the Mist” was the first song written for this project and is easily the album’s angriest.
If you’re Aboriginal, in the divisional odds are that they plan on killin’ you – Coon
You’re just paperwork, you’ll be in the dirt – Soon
And they’ll get sent away on a paid holiday, funded leave
Brother please, fuck the police is the least I’m gonna say
I could quote many more lyrics, in fact I could print the lyric sheet for the whole album, and it would still only go part of the way to conveying the explosive impact of this record. Whether you find what they are saying confronting, there’s no denying it’s a bold work, designed to arouse passionate debate and to tackle implacable hate head on. A. B. Original paints a grim picture of life in Australia for Aboriginal people but, despite the lyrics I’ve pulled out here, it also does it with a lot of humour. As Trials told me, humour “is how we deal with everything, man, from sad times to good times… You find that’s a big thing with Aboriginal communities – that’s how we deal with everyday situations, you know?
“They’re some of the funniest dudes you’ll ever meet. If you can go to funerals and leave cracking up laughing with each other…” – Trials is laughing himself now – “…in a respectful way, it’s a beautiful part of our culture.”
Briggs and Trials say they made this album to fulfil a wish they had growing up, but there is an even greater need for an album like this right now. Far-right white supremacist politicians are on the rise globally, and it seems like every week we hear about a new scandal in the treatment of Aboriginal Australians, such as the recent revelations on Four Corners about the abuse of young inmates at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre – now known worldwide as Australia’s Abu Ghraib – or Paul Toohey’s investigation into the murderous attacks on Aboriginal kids in Kalgoorlie inspired by lynch-mob vigilantism. A. B. Original had none of these incidents in mind when they recorded Reclaim Australia, but they had many other similar outrages to draw on for inspiration. As Briggs told me: “You’re right, it is fucked up that you can write a song about police brutality or injustices happening to young black people and it is as poignant as any other week when you drop it. That is fucked up. We could have dropped [the album] last week and it would have felt like a crystal ball. That’s the thing…”
This is a powerful album. An important album. A great album.
CULTURE Mapping Melbourne: Independent Contemporary Asian Arts
Various venues throughout Melbourne, until December 17
VISUAL ART Mandy Martin: Homeground
Penrith Regional Gallery, Emu Plains, until February 26
VISUAL ART Versailles: Treasures from the Palace
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, December 9-April 17
THEATRE Girl Asleep
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until December 24
CABARET The Road to Stockholm
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, December 7-11
CINEMA Made in Melbourne Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, December 6-11
VISUAL ART Terri Brookes: Principia
Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne, until December 17
CHORAL Handel Messiah
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, December 3
VISUAL ART Primavera 2016
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until December 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 3, 2016 as "Original gangstas".
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