How Western Sydney Became The Most Important Music Scene In Australia

There's not something new in Western Sydney's water, it's just that the rest of us are finally ready to lap it up.

Western Sydney artists

There’s not something new in Western Sydney’s water: it’s just that the rest of us are finally ready to lap it up. In the past few years, some of Australia’s most exciting hip-hop acts have come from across the Red Rooster line that unofficially divides the west from the rest — think Kwame, Manu Crooks, Triple One, B Wise and OneFour, for starters.

But it’s naive to think the new vanguard have arrived from thin air: where high-rotation on triple j might be relatively new, Western Sydney’s music scene has been building since the early ’90s, when Burwood’s Sound Unlimited Posse became Australia’s first rap collective signed to a major label. Still, it’s ballooned in the past decade, as Australian hip-hop was finally taken seriously.

Liverpool’s L-FRESH The Lion has felt the shift first-hand. Back in the mid ’00s, when he started, he would burn his own mixtapes and sell them hand-to-hand across the South West — but in terms of getting heard beyond, he says there was “no choice” but to travel into the city centre to make those connections essential to getting your music out there.

“It felt so much more exclusive because you really had to find out who was who,” he tells Music Junkee. “You had to really dig for that and make a big effort to go out and, and, and be present in certain spaces where you may not have traditionally have ever gone.”

The internet and rise of DIY-electronic music is key, of course, as it’s much easier to gain the knowledge and tech to make a track than it was a decade ago. Lil Nas X bought the beat for ‘Old Town Road’ online for $30; not a bad investment for 2019’s biggest song. The way music is made and found online has (slightly) levelled an industry where money or clout opens doors.

“It’s great, people are able to express themselves and tell their stories and be able to connect straight to people and to the industry in ways that previously weren’t possible,” L-FRESH says. “It’s exciting for a lot of people who previously, you know, were on the margins and were left out of, you know, hip-hop from an industry perspective.”

“We clung to these forms of art because that’s how we make sense of the world. That’s how we understand ourselves. And that’s how we get by.” — L-FRESH The Lion

Of course, it’s often about who you know as much as it is how you are. Still, those gate-keepers are much more likely to listen to Western Sydney artists now than they were 10 or even five years ago, with L-FRESH pointing towards a handful of breakthrough moments.

“There were a lot of different contributing moments and then like really big moments. [For] really big moments, examples of those are obviously OneFour and Kerser and how they bypassed the traditional industry and spoke to audiences directly that weren’t being catered for.”

“We’re able to really blow up off the back of that, and I know for them, none of that came overnight. From the outside looking in, it might seem like that, but both of those examples of…they were putting years of work in before those moments happened, you know?”

“But I think there are a lot of contributing moments. Like, I think back to groups like Southwest Syndicate and Sound Unlimited Posse… or [early 2000s] group K-1 who, you know, birthed B Wise…They were starting a momentum.”

While momentum might be led by hip-hop, but it isn’t exclusive to it. L-FRESH points towards the dance communities that ‘get ignored’ in these conversations, but also a sense of hustle: when interviewed for Red Bull Australia‘s history of Western Sydney hip-hop, L-FRESH said it was a mentality that drove music, rather than a genre.

“And you know,” he adds, “when I reflect on my own story, both my parents never had the opportunity in migrating here [in the ’80s from Punjab, India], the opportunity to express their culture publicly [or] tell their stories publicly. They were so focused on what I mentioned in that other interview, that survival-grind-hustle stuff. As the generations who saw that — as young people — we are collectively products of that mentality.”

L-FRESH, as a project, is a way to express his Sikh religion and Punjabi culture. Sukhdeep Singh Bhogal’s stage name centres his identity, a reference to his middle name, the Sihk term for Lion, centring his identity — and making music that directly confronts racism, to the point of mass trolling online.

“We clung to these forms of art because that’s how we make sense of the world,” he says. “That’s how we understand ourselves. And that’s how we get by. Without that expression, without that connection, we wouldn’t be who we are. [And] you’re living in a place that has countless stories, countless cultures, including First Nation — [Western Sydney] has so many different languages, and we exist in this melting pot. The one thing that unifies us is that spirit, that energy and grind.”

But Does The West Want The Rest?

As attention draws upon Western Sydney, the scene is avoiding the trappings of trendiness. With more people listening than ever before, the question of instilling community without diluting it is front-and-centre of many minds.

It’s something Krishtie Mofazzal, who DJs as Index, has thought about a lot. Last year, she was brought on to programme an all-Western Sydney acts stage at Soft Centre, an experimental sound festival at Casula Arts Powerhouse Centre. The festival, which has run since 2017, is most easily described as Sydney’s answer to Berlin Atonal, and has involved many Western Sydney musicians, producers and artists across the years.

Mofazzal programmed the Georges River stage to showcase Western Sydney artists and DJs, such as Kilimi, Atro (of Slim Set), Giulia and Wytchings, alongside internationally renowned acts like GOOOOOSE, Nkisi and 33EMYBW. When asked about the festival’s role in Western Sydney — whether part of its ‘edge’ was its geographic location — Mofazzal admitted she felt it was a complicated discussion.

“I’ve felt weird about this as well, but then also, I think a lot of the attention that Western Sydney music is getting is coming from a good place,” she says. “I do enjoy the fact that Western Sydney artist are getting attention, and are being called Western Sydney artists, like Slim Set. It’s such a huge part of city — it’s gigantic. The GWS area is huge and it’s like most of Sydney. Putting a spotlight on it makes complete logistical sense… but also, I get the issues of romanticising of ‘working class’, quote unquote ‘gritty’.”

“I get both sides, but I’m also really happy that people like coming out and saying — well, not coming out — but they’re saying like in their bios that they’re from Western Sydney. If I saw that, I would instantly think I could relate to that person — I want to listen to that standpoint.”

“People here are making music for the people from here. And everyone else is just embracing it.” — MC Kal, Slim Set

MC Kal, aka one half of Slim Set, agrees. “People here are making music for the people from here,” he tells me. “And everyone else is just embracing it.”

Slim Set’s songs — a project between Kal and DJ Atro, who produces Slim Set’s grime-indebted songs — are filled with love for Western Sydney, packed with references to locales, fibro homes and famous chicken shops that won’t necessarily connect for outsiders. But in 2018, they had Sydney community station FBi Radio’s first and second-most played songs of the year, suggesting those references — once a barrier — are now, if anything, an invite in. It’s a far cry from how Kal felt as a kid.

“Growing up, you aren’t always proud of [where you came from] or thought it was looked down upon,” he says. For him, that internal shift — from “not necessarily shame, but you know” to what he calls ‘aggressive’ references — came in high school, catching the train back West from his city school, making connections in their shared experiences. “But in terms of the art,” he says, “it’s always been there in my head, you know. I really do love the area, I get excited about it.”

During our phone chat, Kal references dozens of events and acts this Inner West-liver has never heard of — in-between the numerous hellos he doles out while walking through Parramatta. The pride shines through on the playlist of ‘Sunsets’, Slim Set’s own weekly show on FBi. Mofazzal, too, has an FBi show, and credits the station with helping her get involved in music in the first place, as a teen.

FBi have run initiatives like Tracks, there hip-hop panels, talks and shows in Campbelltown, but it was a music open day near her high school that let her know she could be part of a scene beyond hip-hop. “They’re doing good work and are having conversations about what we’ve been talking about — how to approach it the right way,” she says.

Forty-five percent of the station’s 2019 artists hail from Sydney — as Mofazzal puts it, it just makes “logistical sense” that a good chunk of their favourites (OneFour, Milan Ring, Yibby, B Wise, Slim Set) are from the West, where more than 40 percent of Sydney’s population live. It wasn’t necessarily always like that, though.

Growing up in Campbeltown in the mid ’00s, Johann Ponniah — co-founder of I Oh You, the independent label home to DZ Deathrays, DMA’s, Jack River, and Violent Soho — didn’t feel particularly invited in by radio stations. Instead, he found pop-punk bands through MySpace, and caught gigs at local youth centres and PCYCs, which made him realise he wasn’t the only one who loved the likes of I Killed The Prom Queen and The Getaway Plan.

“What  I realised growing up there was that I was not alone in that,” he told Music Junkee. “There were actually a lot of kids out there that were into very similar things and similar genres of music that I was.”

Ponniah really wanted to work in music. He helped put on those counsel-supported punk shows as a teen, and then moved to Melbourne for an internship at 18, where I Oh You eventually took shape through DIY events and parties. Staying wasn’t really an option.

“A lot of the people that I’ve met in the music industry, they’re all fantastic people, but a lot of them come from those inner city suburbs and have been brought up in that sort of culture,” he says. “That’s how all of this sort of stuff works — being part of a team, bumping into people, getting to know each other that way. When you’re living on the outskirts, it’s just obviously a lot rarer that you’re going to make those connections.”

“It’s about digging deeper into the community year round…that’s how we make it more about something that people can feel true ownership of.” — Johann Ponniah

With that in mind, Ponniah had Campbeltown’s Out Of Bounds, self-professed “fest for the South West” — as a goal for a long time. This January, it happened, headlined by local heroes The Rubens and Illy. “What we tried to do,” he says, “is to create bridges and networks for young people growing up in that area, to the music industry or to be shown the music industry.”

That looks like more than a one-day music festival. Ponniah offered a paid internship at I Oh You in the lead-up to the festival, and worked with the local council on events and programs with local high schools, as well as held panels on how to get involved in the industry.

“If all goes to plan, Out Of Bounds will be a regular festival that happens once a year in Campbelltown,” he says. “But it’s about digging deeper into the community year round. Through our panels, through the internship, [but mainly] through continually having a presence out there — that’s how we make it more about something that people can feel true ownership of. And that is something that’s really important to me.”

“I would be stoked for other people to come into Campbelltown and, you know, be able to experience the festival; that would be great. But, we do want to try and create something that people out there can really have a bit of an ownership about.”

More anthems help, too: Kwame’s debut album is coming, and OneFour no doubt have big things planned. Elsewhere, keep an ear out for new tracks from Slim Set, Triple One and L-FRESH The Lion. Mofazzal is back for Soft Centre again this year, and just this weekend, Out Of Bounds was a smash success and rapper Jamaica of the House of Slé and performance artist Xander Khoury from the House of Silky co-threw the first West Ball.

Regardless of whether it gets outsider attention, some of Australia’s most interesting music and events are happening in Western Sydney — though the way Kal sees it, the support from the triple j’s of the world only further legitimises them against the very real threats against their music, as we’ve seen with OneFour effectively being banned from playing live. At time same time, the success of OneFour on YouTube, let alone many acts before them, show they’ll find an audience off the airwaves, if they have to.

“I just remember when Kerser was blowing up, or even Gravy Baby, like they were doing numbers out West — oh, and also Hustle Hard [TV]. And I remember people in the East would say they didn’t have a shred of talent, ‘who the fuck even listens to that?’. [And looking at Kerser], he’s actually one of the biggest voices in Australia, and completely DIY – he wasn’t played on triple j at all, like ever.”

“It’s going to be a tricky math of how people kind of romanticise the West, but also, I don’t know — it’s just going to keep doing its own thing.”

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. He’s on Twitter.