In the last five years, Australian hip-hop has come alive. A seismic shift in the genre has brought Indigenous artists like Baker Boy, Briggs, and Kaylah Truth to the forefront, reinvigorating a genre that seemed all but lost to a series of bad jokes.
Australia’s relationship with hip-hop has always been complicated. From shock-jocks on commercial radio filling airtime by mimicking rappers to nefarious comedian Chris Lilley donning blackface for his 2011 character S.Mouse, in this country hip-hop has often been the butt of the joke. But if you dig a little deeper and go back 30 years or so, what you’ll uncover is a rich, almost unknown history that spans dancehall, glossy instrumentals, and contemplative rhymes.
While Australia’s earliest known hip-hop track is a novelty song, at the time of its release a bubbling undercurrent of Indigenous rappers began to emerge. In the early ’90s acts like South West Syndicate, Local Knowledge, and Native Ryme Syndicate adopted the rebellion du jour of hip-hop to talk directly to white Australia. Slick bars carried messages of hope while expressing frustrations with politics, race, genocide, and sovereignty.
Pop-tinged dancehall hits in the ’90s sparked interest from mainstream music fans, propelling the genre into charting success in the early aughts. And what followed in the early aughts was an evolution of this. Larrikin rappers like Bliss ‘N’ Eso, The Hilltop Hoods, and 360 employed their melodic Aussie lilts to songs about music festivals and drinking in the sun, charming their way into the cultural consciousness.
But on a global scale, Australian hip-hop has done little to break through to the rest of the world — until now. A new generation of rappers emboldened by the digital age have helped transform the face of rap into something distinctly fresh and decidedly different to the shallow musings of the early 2000s.
So settle into the nosebleed section, and get stuck in.
Average Aussie Band – ‘Aussie Rap’ (1983)
While this is technically the first Australian hip-hop release, it’s a novelty track that interpolates ockerisms and slang that is designed to coax a laugh more than anything else.
Layering the low rumble of the didgeridoo with burping sound effects is likely some of the worst creative decisions ever made, but that seemed like Sydney entertainer Dave Mason-Cox and Don Bruner’s intentions when making this. Talking rather than rapping, this style consumed the next decade of mainstream Australian hip-hop, including artists like Mighty Big Crime, Thong de Plume and a song called ‘Itchin’ In The Kitchen’ which sold 20 copies worldwide.
Just Us — ‘Combined Talent’ (1988)
In an excerpt from Gerry Bloustein’s book Musical Visions, he writes that veteran and founder of hip-hop magazine Vaporz, DJ Blaze, noted “that the first ‘true hip hop’ release in Australia was ‘Combined Talent’ by Just Us.
Record scratches are aplenty on ‘Combined Talent’, which combines acid bass lines, 808 beats, and some of the first sincere bars the country had heard.
Skippy the Butcher — Conviction (1988)
The Australian Hip Hop Directory honours Skippy The Butcher as Australia’s first touring hip-hop groups. The former alternative funk band turned hip-hop group released their 5-track EP Full Blown Rap in October, supported progenitors Run DMC on their tour in November, and disbanded in December that very same year.
Their sing-song flow barely resembled the passionate, staccato rap born in New York’s Bronx but signalled a departure from novelty hip-hop.
Munkimuk — Dreamtime (1988)
Known as the Grandfather of Indigenous Hip Hop, Munkimuk is a stalwart from the early ’80s, who began his career by breakdancing and eventually transitioning to emceeing in 1988.
“Breakdancing was a big thing [in the 80s], so I started getting into it,” he told The Age in 2006. “And then it went on to graffiti. We had a bit of a crew in Redfern called Black Connection. Then we moved on into a music sort of thing, and we started doing rhyming.”
He became the founding member of South West Syndicate in the ’90s; in 2014, he was inducted into the National Indigenous Music Awards Hall of Fame.
NWA — Fuck Tha Police (1989)
After expanding nationwide in 1989, triple j was the only station in the world playing NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Crumbling under political and police pressure, ABC management subsequently banned the song from airplay.
But in 1990, the staff went on strike and played NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’ on loop for 24-hours in protest.
Sound Unlimited — Kickin To The Undersound (1992)
The late ’80s saw Sound Unlimited become Australia’s first hip-hop group to sign to a major label. Their subsequent album, A Postcard From The Edge of The Under-Side dropped in 1992, making them the most prominent hip-hop outfits at the time.
Formerly known as Westside Posse, Sound’s first release in 1988, ‘Pull The Trigger’, garnered some attention but it was ‘Kickin’ To The Undersound’ that launched the crew into national success. Made up of brother and sister Rosano (El Assassin) and Tina Martinez as well as MC Kode Blue and Vlad DJ BTL, Sound Unlimited mixed New York-inspired hip-hop with a sample of Men At Work’s ‘Down Under.’
KIC — ‘Bring Me On’ (1992)
At just 15-years-old, KIC was already creating a buzz with his new jack swing beats, scoring him the support slot for MC Hammer’s Australian tour. The following year, he signed to Columbia Records, and his debut single, ‘Bring Me On’ became an instant hit.
The hip-house track gained international renown, charting in both Singapore and Hong Kong making him the first Australian hip-hop artist to do so. The track sees the then 16-year-old emulate The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ flow, propped up by a smooth female chorus, and a frenzied music video to match.
Paul Kelly and Christine Anu — ‘Last Train’ (feat. MC Opi) (1993)
UK-born West African MC Opi blazed a trail in the early ’90s with her guest spot on Christine Anu’s debut single ‘Last Train’.
Alongside Paul Kelly and Anu, Opi takes hold of the backend of the reggaeton-cum-dancehall track with a punchy verse. Already a well known spoken word artist in Sydney before the collaboration, Opi would go on to write and perform on Anu’s ARIA award-winning record, Stylin Up.
South West Syndicate — ‘Are You With Me Out There’ (1996)
Cofounded by Indigenous rappers Munkimuk and Brothablack, this collective were instrumental in Sydney hip-hop’s first watershed moment. In Musical Visions, Bloustein explains how SWS attempted to combine high culture and rap with ‘Hip-hopera.’ The Australia Council funded local project uncovered a number of teenage rap crews, subsequently bringing hip-hop to the streets of Sydney.
‘Are You With Me Out There’ is a call to arms, with a chorus that booms with the hope of the young. Rapping in language and featuring the didgeridoo, SWS’ politically charged music was tempered by their goal to allow hip-hop to be “an important identity marker for Indigenous Australians and youth of non-Anglo ethnic backgrounds.“
1200 Techniques — ‘Hard As Hell’ (2001)
While Australia’s underground hip-hop scene grew through the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t until 2001 that it was launched into the mainstream in a big way.
1200 Techniques were everywhere with charting singles and appearances on television with their eclectic mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Founded by DJ Peril, alongside Nfamas and Kemstar, the trio made waves with their debut single, ‘Hard As Hell.’ Mirroring the stylings of The Prodigy with their rock-heavy beat, ‘Hard As Hell’ pioneered a new side of Australian rap.
Koolism — ‘Adrenalin’ (2004)
This Australian hip-hop duo by way of New Zealand arrived in 1992, but it was the release of their first CD Part One that brought Koolism from underground notoriety to national prominence.
Their family-friendly summertime track, ‘The Season’ featured mellow-bars over a sun-kissed beat. Yet it was their following album Part Three that saw the rappers win their first ARIA for Best Urban Release. ‘Adrenalin’ took the Canberra duo to the streets, flexing their lyricism on a funk-inflected bass line with b-boy style breaks.
The Hilltop Hoods — ‘Nosebleed Section’ (2004)
It’s difficult to imagine the landscape of Australian music without The Hilltop Hoods. Their overarching influence came to a head in 2007, when they placed five songs in triple j’s Hot 100. But it was their 2004 hit ‘Nosebleed Section’ that became part of the zeitgeist.
“For my people in the front/In the nosebleed section,” Suffa shouts. It was a stark contrast to the US-inspired hip-hop that began to flood the industry, and instead, the larrikin-like prose about parties and good times struck a chord with Australians — despite a clear misunderstanding of where the Nosebleed Section is.
Pez — ‘Festival Song’ (feat. 360 and Hailey Cramer) (2004)
As The Hilltop Hoods dominated the charts, this larrikin style of rap grew in prominence. Pez’s ‘Festival Song’ was an amalgam of this trend, layered with satire (or complete earnestness depending on who’s listening), and the kind of relatable content Australians flock to.
“Getting wasted while you bake in the sun/What can I say, yo, it’s a fucking good way to get drunk,” is an unequivocal catch-all to anyone who has spent a single moment in this country. Whether it was a case of pandering to the masses or a true heartfelt ode to music festivals, Pez achieved what he set out to — and a little more.
Kaylah Truth — ‘Oh Diva Me’ (2012)
Meerooni rapper Kaylah Truth is the self-proclaimed ‘First Lady of BNE’ and her boisterous hit ‘Oh Diva Me’ was indicative of the rising force of women rappers — including but not limited to TKay Maidza, Okenyo, Miss Blanks and Sampa The Great. The song’s a braggadocious, feel-good hit that celebrates friendship and the freedom just to have fun.
Indigenous Intrudaz — ‘Inala Still The Same’ (2015)
Carefree rap went into steady decline as the world around us did the same. Hip-hop has always existed as a form of protest, healing, and a reflection of the times, this decade perhaps more than any other.
Hailing from the Brisbane suburb of Inala, Indigenous Intrudaz opted to spread the message of empowerment to their community. ‘Inala Still The Same’ is a quirky and playful ode to their hometown, interpolating slick bars and nods to their heritage throughout.
A.B. Original — ‘January 26’ (2016)
Taken from the album, Reclaim Australia, A.B. Original went straight for white Australia’s throat with their stunning track, ‘January 26.’
An amalgam of generations-worth of frustration and anger with the celebration of Australia Day as well as institutionalised racism against Indigenous people in Australia, ‘January 26’ is cutting, political poetry that isn’t just powerful, but vulnerable too.
Baker Boy — ‘Cloud 9’ (2017)
Baker Boy creates waves with his debut single ‘Cloud 9’, where he performed in both English and his native, Yolŋu Matha. The success of ‘Cloud 9’ made Danzal Baker the first Aboriginal hip-hop artists to rap in language and achieve mainstream success.
“No one was rapping in language so I thought I’d try [to] make history to be the first,” he told SBS. “And it happened, which is crazy.”
Manu Crooks — ‘Fuego’ (2018)
With the spotlight on potential breakout stars, trap artists like Manu Crooks have begun to translate to US markets making Australian rap an export-worthy product. His richly produced hit ‘Fuego’ trills with booming 808s, lush visuals, and a sense of the world the industry has been waiting for.
But he does all this without cosplaying as a US-native and relies on his charming lilt to transform his Atlanta-inspired music.
Sampa The Great — ‘OMG’ (2019)
Sampa The Great’s arrival to Australian hip-hop has been a gift to music fans. With a slew of accolades, the Zambian-born multidisciplinary artist has changed the face of what it means to be a rapper in this country, and she continues her upward momentum with sophisticated flair.
Her latest single ‘OMG’ isn’t just accompanied by the announcement of her first debut album but also a colourful music video, filmed between South Africa and Botswana, where Sampa was raised. Her irreverent flow booms over steady pulses that toe the line between modern and traditional, classic and new with invigorating finesse.
Kish Lal is an Australian writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.