The Quick Rise And Curious End Of Macromantics
15 years ago, Aussie hip-hop act Macromantics released her acclaimed debut album - and then vanished. So what happened?
Back when Tkay Maidza and Sampa the Great were still in school, one of Australian hip-hop’s few notable female figures was establishing a voice in the still-burgeoning scene. With her first and only studio album Moments in Movement, the artist known as Macromantics was blurring genres to create intricate, intelligent and thoroughly-eccentric music.
The album earned Macromantics a J Award nomination, making her the first-ever female rapper shortlisted in the award’s history. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a giddy assault that delights in being streetsmart.” Her Like A Version followed, memorably covering Kriss Kross’ ’90s jam ‘Jump’ acoustically. National tours ensued, while in America she was inked to cult indie label Kill Rock Stars alongside alum like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill.
Within 18 months of Moments’ release, however, Macromantics was gone. A woman who should have been regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of contemporary Australian hip-hop — paving the way for contemporary genre-defiant outsiders like Zheani and Genesis Owusu — is now merely a footnote.
On the eve of Moments in Movement’s 15-year anniversary, it felt like a pertinent time to get some answers on whatever happened to Macromantics. There was really only one way to do that properly: Getting in touch with Romy Hoffman, the former Miss Macro herself.
Make Some Noise
Hoffman had a brief fling with music prior to Macromantics — in the mid-90s, she became lead guitarist in fledgling Sydney indie-rock band Noise Addict at the age of 15. If that name sounds familiar, it may have something to do with precocious lead vocalist Ben Lee, who would go on to do reasonably well for himself.
“I was still in high school,” says Hoffman, Zooming in to speak with Music Junkee from her L.A. home. “I was brought in to do a tour of the US and Japan, then we recorded a B-side for one of the singles on the record. Before I knew it, it was over. I came back home and finished school, but I was always doing one thing or another with music. Punk rock has always been something that’s been a constant in my life — I had a four-track, and I’d spend days doing all these recordings in my bedroom.”
It was touring with Noise Addict between 1995 and 1996 that Hoffman discovered hip-hop. Being part of the cultural zeitgeist in America at the time, Hoffman found herself mesmerised — and although her love of punk continued, it was quickly equalled by her love of rapping. “From about year 10 onward, I’d be collaborating with guys at my school who made beats,” Hoffman recalls.
“I remember starting to write rhymes, mucking around and getting a feel for it. It came very naturally to me. The people I was surrounded by were all really into hip-hop. It was always parallel with my social circles. Even when I finished school, I was still writing rhymes and making stuff on my four-track.”
By the early 2000s, Hoffman had graduated university and relocated Stateside, where she began building up more and more songs of her own. “At the time, I was really inspired by the beat poets,” she says. “Writing was all I did for awhile. Through a friend of mine, I met a few different rap crews in Kansas City — I’d say that’s where Macromantics really started.”
“I’d rapped a lot, but never live. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to be.”
The first Macromantics mixtape, Heart Over Mind Over Matter, followed in 2002 — a CDr(!) release now so obscure, not even Hoffman herself has a copy. “I don’t even know where you’d look for that now,” she laughs.
A self-titled mixtape followed the next year — which begs the question as to how Macromantics came to be Macromantics in the first place. “It literally came into my head out of nowhere,” she says of her moniker. “Macro means the bigger picture — all-encompassing, symbiotic – and mantic means “relating to divination or prophecy,” so the name is a fusion of those two words. It’s a wink to semantics, obviously; as in, linguistics and meaning. I was also very into macrobiotic philosophy — and still am — so the name is a nod to that, too.”
A review on UndergroundHipHop.com scored some early buzz, and she finally performed these songs live for the first time when she returned to Australia circa 2003. “It was part of an all-female hip-hop showcase — Maya Jupiter, MC Trey and me,” Hoffman recalls.
“The main thing I remember from that show was having absolutely no sense of breath control — like, I was dying in-between songs. I’d rapped a lot, but never live. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to be, I don’t think. I kept at it, and met people like Elf Tranzporter and Morganics along the way — people that were starting to form a nucleus of a scene in Sydney.” Her debut EP, Hyperbolic Logic, followed in 2004. “That’s when things really took off,” Hoffman affirms.
Following its emergence from ’90s fringe subculture to viable commercial music market — thanks in no small part to the success of 1200 Techniques’ ‘Karma’ – 2006 has all eyes on Australian hip-hop. This year, it receives its first-ever number-one: Hilltop Hoods’ The Hard Road. This is the first of six number-ones they will go on to have, opening the floodgates for Bliss N Eso and Illy to later achieve the same. “It helped to have the Hilltop Hoods around,” says Hoffman. “Obviously, I wasn’t making the same kind of thing that they were, but they definitely expanded people’s minds and ears — getting people to get in a position to even listen to local hip-hop.”
That same year, Macromantics released her debut album Moments in Movement. Though it wasn’t the runaway commercial success The Hard Road was, it’s clear the album was never trying to be a bastion of a community at large. Besides everything else, this was an album far too quintessential for that. “We were all very supportive of each other,” says Hoffman, reflecting on the scene into which Moments was released.
“It was kind of beautiful — it was all still pretty underground. It was very different to how it is today. The internet wasn’t like it is now. It was much easier to manoeuvre through everything. Don’t get me wrong — I had haters, for sure. There were definitely purists that were opposed to the more abstract things that were happening in rap at the time — Aesop Rock, El-P, [indie hip-hop labels] Anticon, Def Jux. I felt like I had a real understanding of the history of hip-hop, and where I fit in at the time.”
As it turned out, Macromantics fit in considerably well wherever she went — as reflected in the album’s collaborators. Cult hip-hop figure Sage Francis lent a verse on ‘Locksmith’, while garage-rockers Ground Components (another massive “whatever-happened-to”) collaborated on ‘Dark Side of Dallas’, returning the favour after Hoffman appeared on their ‘Coming In from All Angles’. Throw in veteran producer Tony Buchen overseeing the majority of tracks, and the album’s creation truly feels serendipitous. “Things just really fell into place,” she reasons.
“The people who came into my orbit approached me — Tony got in touch to make the record, and Sage was just someone I knew from my time in America that always wanted to collaborate. It was just a beautiful moment. Everything you hear is a pastiche of everything in my life at the time. I had my punk background, I had my literary background, I did some philosophical studies at uni so existentialism was there too.”
“Both Romy and I came at hip-hop as outsiders,” says Buchen via email on creating the album. “Neither of us considered ourselves part of an Australian hip-hop scene exactly, but both of us had a deep love for hip-hop, poetry and literature. Romy’s wordplay was so deep — I don’t think many MCs in Australia have touched her in that respect. She danced around metaphor, made obscure punk and literature references and spat lines about veganism (“I don’t shoot bullets/I shoot sunflower seeds”) and queer lust (“Squeak squeak, I was up/Melanie Griffith”).”
Listening back to Moments in Movement in 2021, one can see Hoffman’s vision reflected in the current generation of Australian hip-hop. The off-kilter, Talking Heads-esque arrangement of “Apple Crumble” could be an instrumental from Smiling with No Teeth, while the genre-blurring crossover of ‘Dark Side of Dallas’ could be tied to today’s climate via recent collaborations between Illy and WAAX.
That’s not even touching ‘Scorch’, which deserves recognition as one of the most underrated Australian singles of the decade. Despite dominating triple j with its booming “la-la-las” and boisterous energy, even Shazam might struggle to recognise it these days. “I remember coming back from LA on a visit a few years ago, and I heard ‘Scorch’ on the triple j hip-hop show late one night,” says Buchen. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy shit, this was so out of time.’ Dare I say it was ahead of its time?”
A headlining album tour with post-punk trio My Disco was followed by playing an upcoming boutique festival called St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival in early 2007. Moments’ US release saw her tour with experimental rockers Deerhoof, while at home Macromantics toured nationally with Lily Allen and saw out the year on-stage at Falls Festival. For someone whose debut hip-hop performance left her literally breathless, it’s safe to say Hoffman was far more confident on-stage by the time Moments in Movement dropped.
“Performance, for me, transcended the music,” says Hoffman. “My Venus is in Leo, so being on-stage and being noticed just comes naturally. I also thought the format of just me and a DJ worked really well — I had DJ Amy, and it always felt very comfortable working together. It was fun to juxtapose those smaller shows with the big festivals, but the approach was always the same. Getting on-stage and rapping meant putting my head down and getting in the zone. It was about entering another world.” By 2008, however, that world was no more.
Hoffman released the final Macromantics single, ‘Physical’, in July 2007. Reuniting with Buchan, the song’s grimy synth offset the irony-laden Olivia Newton John-referencing bravado in its hook. More Js play followed, but a second Macromantics LP never did. Relocating to the US, Hoffman ultimately retired Macromantics and would later release solo material under the mononym Romy. This new project focused on production, leaning further into her new infatuation of dance music.
“These things honestly just happen,” says Hoffman on the end of Macromantics. “I don’t think I’m ever making conscious decisions about anything like that — I never even really saw it as an end. The music was just about what came naturally — it was like, ‘Okay, what do I feel like making?’ I actually was working on another rap record, but I was also doing production work on the side. I was working with a couple of producers in Melbourne on more house-y stuff. I just thought it would continue on the side, and I’d be zig-zagging between, but the electronic stuff ultimately took over.”
Hoffman reveals that she ended up completing two further Macromantics records — which are, by her own account, “fucking great.” They remain shelved, however, along with a myriad of other albums on her hard-drive. Despite encouragement from friends, the idea of rebooting Macromantics has ultimately been met with apprehension from Hoffman. Although she’s largely proud of what she accomplished at the time, it’s not reflective of who she is now.
“I believe in the universe,” she says. “Things happen in the time and the place when they’re meant to. For some reason I don’t know — for some spiritual reason — that project didn’t continue. I do often wonder why, and I just don’t know. I think it’s reasons beyond my comprehension – I think it’s a spiritual thing with that project, where it reached its spiritual bandwidth.”
Another key aspect as to why Macromantics never re-emerged, as Hoffman reveals, was her ongoing struggle with drugs and alcohol. Now sober, Hoffman sees the time that Macromantics was active as synonymous with the development of her substance issues.
“I always thought I needed drugs and alcohol to be creative, which is such a myth,” says Hoffman. “It’s all part of the illusion of drugs and alcohol making you think that. I think, in a beautiful way, being sober you’re able to actually really tap into your artistic side and be more in touch with your darkness. I was scared I was gonna lose that darkness when I got sober, but in a way it’s a more pure darkness that I can access now. It isn’t just the aura of darkness that drugs and alcohol create because you’re fucking up your life and ruining everything. We think that that’s the real darkness. When that’s gone, you realise the real healing can happen through music.”
A New Agender
These days, aspirations of project zig-zagging have finally come true for Hoffman. She continues to make driven, intense house music — her debut as Romy, Celluloid Self, was released in 2019. Simultaneously, she has returned to her punk roots with her Agender — once a solo effort, now a four-piece, self-described as “schizo synthy paranoid post-punk.” Following their 2014 debut Fixations, the band released comeback single ‘Preach’ in 2020 and its follow-up ‘Astro Tarot’ in May. A second Agender album is set for release in October, and Hoffman is ecstatic to have both projects ongoing.
“Agender started as a form of self-therapy — it still is,” Hoffman explains. “I was in my home studio and was feeling very unhinged, so it became about channelling my energy — whatever I was feeling.”
Years away from guitar music hasn’t dimmed Hoffman’s fire, either: “Punk rock is still so fun,” she says. “It comes so naturally. I know don’t have a great voice, but I really like the monotone of the delivery. I love playing in a band — we have such a great relationship. It’s nice not doing everything myself, and having people to sound off with and make decisions.”
“Looking back, I trust the world needed that record at the time..I trust that it helped people, or that it gave people joy.”
As for her work as Romy, the titular project figurehead sees it as equivalent to what Agender achieves — just scratching different itches. “The solo record was definitely another result of getting sober,” she says. “Seeing the world through a certain lightness was reflected entirely in house music to me. When I got sober, that music just really touched my soul and my heart — I really connected with that. I’ve definitely found my comfort zone — music’s helped my recovery, and recoveries help music. It’s conjoined.”
With so much music occupying her life in a contemporary sense, Hoffman has precious little time for nostalgia. To conclude our conversation, however, she’s asked to reflect on Moments in Movement — the little alternative hip-hop that could, which went off The Hard Road and down its own path less travelled. “I’m proud of it,” she affirms after taking a moment to think.
“It’s definitely indicative of the time — musically, it definitely fits right in with the sounds of 2006. I remember that blogs were really starting to take off at the time, and genre politics largely felt like they were subsiding. Everything was melding more, you didn’t feel like you had to choose a genre. I’m really drawn to the darker stuff I was doing — songs like ‘Eerily Spookily’ and ‘Vaudeville.’ The lighter stuff… I’m not so sure. I haven’t listened to that whole record in awhile, to be honest with you. I think I might, now that it’s been 15 years — thank you for reminding me!”
“Looking back, I trust the world needed that record at the time,” she concludes. “I trust that it helped people, or that it gave people joy. It definitely helped me work through some stuff, and helped me to figure out my thoughts to be present with where I was at mentally at the time.”
When Hoffman is told that the album isn’t available on any Australian streaming service, she’s taken aback. “I should chase that up and find out how to get it on Spotify there — it’s definitely up in America, I can see it on my phone,” she says. She pulls out a pen — “I’m gonna put that in my diary right now,” she says. Even half a lifetime removed from it, Hoffman still finds Moments in Movement as part of her world.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster who paid $29.95 to buy Moments in Movement on CD at age 15. He loved it then and loves it now.