By Bec Foley:
Autumn in the blue mountains is nature’s mardi gras. The stoic Japanese maple trees of summer become camp, attention-seeking centre-pieces clad outrageously in electric red. The trees look as if they’re on fire. Little wonder this environmental flamboyance has a profound effect on people. There’s a nudist bushwalking group. The council is outspokenly anti-coal seam gas. The Winter solstice festival in Katoomba, Winter Magic, brings the mountain’s eclectic mix of hippies, “ferals”, poets, writers and actors together. Meditation retreats snuggle on breath taking valleys, bringing students closer to Buddha, Brahma Baba, or whoever the chosen spiritual leader may be.
There’s a lot of hippies and people who aren’t satisfied with the way the rest of the world is running. The mountains is a sanctuary from that.
It’s an alternative, liberal culture, privileging tranquility to the cut-throat economic and material accumulation of the city. And whilst Leura is home to those who can afford a weekender cottage, Katoomba heaves with its avant-garde working class. A small, but noticeable, smattering of junkies walk the streets. And there’s unmistakable absence of multiculturalism – the mountains is very white.
It’s in this mix that a strange phenomenon has occurred: the mountains is Australia’s capital of hip hop music.
The Bronx of the Mountains
Some of the country’s biggest names in rap hale from this sleepy hollow: Thundamentals, Urthboy, Hermitude. And there’s plenty more on the wait list. Fresh out of high school, amateur groups descend on the towns various hip hop nights. Themes of boredom, drug use, rage at the government and cultural hegemony, and Holden Caulfield-esque awareness of phoniness are eloquently delivered with skilled onomatopoeia.
The mountains is a mecca for hip hop culture. It’s quite a close knit community. When you go to a party you see other people who also rap
Julz is 18. He performs solo and with his hip top trio A Blank Canvas. His musical roots started early, schooled in classical piano, guitar and saxophone. He was awarded a musical scholarship to Korowal, a Bohemian high school in Wentworth Falls. The scholarship provided much needed financial assistance for his mother, who raised Julz and his brother as a single parent.
By 15, Julz was writing lyrics, MCing and creating beats on his mac. Music became creating something volatile, a voice of the underdog. Julz considers himself a poet more than anything. He says hip hop “allows for quite a lot of expression, angst and anxiety and the struggle for a better lifestyle. And the Blue Mountains is a centre for alternative views”.
Julz and his friends hang out every night after work. Every one of them is employed as an apprentice chef or “dishy” (a dish washer in a restaurant). They joke that in the mountains you either work for a restaurant or work for the council. Restaurants keep the local economy thriving.
Of Julz’s close knit friends, two are in his band, one performs solo, and one is given the title of Band Manager. He does nothing to actually manage the affairs of the band, but they don’t want him to feel out of place. Their camaraderie is infectious. Though money is scarce, music takes priority. “If I went to a gig in the city, say Hilltop Hoods, a lot of Blue Mountains folk would be there. The first hip hop gig I went to, it was all Blue Mountains folk in the front row” says Julz.
Listen to Brokn here: http://www.triplejunearthed.com.au/Artists/View.aspx?artistid=23684
Brokn, another rising hip hop artist from the mountains, is part of Triple J’s unearthed initiative. He says “In the upper mountains it is cold, misty and wet for about 5 to 6 months of the year so I think that helps foster introspective, darker sounding hip hop. Walking around the mountains themselves can be inspiring too. Also because it is cheaper to live up here there are a lot of artists and creative people in the area. I guess most bands / artists would know each other because it’s a small place. I’ve played in bands/ jammed/ gone to school with acts around my age (Urthboy, Hermitude, DUB crew) so there is definitely a mountains connection”
White boys and hip hop got a bad wrap in the 90’s. Having developed as the African-American voice of political and social unrest in the 80’s, spearheaded by groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A, it was appropriated by artists like Vanilla Ice who lacked ‘street cred’. Australian hip hop is respected because it’s the expression of the living-it-tough working class. “Hip hop’s transformed from when it was first conceived. And it’s become a lot more globalized, a lot more accessible, a lot more acceptable to take part in” says Julz. Australian hip hop in the global market, has been legitimized.
Recent triumphs for the Aussie scene include rapper Seth Sentry chosen to support American hip hop legend LL Cool J on his upcoming US tour, and political and social commentator Urthboy being asked to contribute to the Sydney Writers Festival as a guest speaker.
Katoomba is littered with old-man pubs, stinking of carpet that’s befallen too many spilt beers, by too many wobbling hands, over too many decades. Sitting, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, is Gearins Hotel, or “the Gearins”, as locals call it. Once owned by Australian acting legend Jack Thompson, it’s since changed hands. It’s here that the big players play. Like the quaint hessian tote bags sold in retail shops in Leura that say “London, Paris, New York, Leura”, the tour bills for the big names in hip hop look almost comical – Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Katoomba.
The heavyweights of hip hop play here, not for the money, but to pay tribute to their roots, to the phenomenally huge fan base, and to the up-and-coming performers of tomorrow. The Gearins hosts amateur hip hop nights regularly too, putting a Facebook call-out on May 23 asking for “4 or 5 local HIP HOP acts”.
But it’s a reciprocal relationship. Julz says “The local support for hip hop, local promoters, are going to the Gearins and saying look, there’s a hip hop scene up here and it’s quite large so we’d like to hold a monthly hip hop night”. If hip hop’s post-code is 2780, it’s drive-way is the Gearins.
Public Enemy decreed that 911 was a joke. For post code 2780, hip hop is smiling down on it’s devotees, even through those flaming red Japanese Maples.
The biggest hip hop groups in Australia make a special effort to play Katoomba, because of the huge fan base there. Though used to playing sell out gigs in major cities, they play at the small local pub – Gearins Hotel – formerly owned by Australian acting Jack Thompson