Although Australian hip-hop has existed since the 1980s (see Combined Talent by Just Us), historically there’s always been a disproportionate amount of local rock and pop on mainstream radio. But that’s changing, with acts like A.B. Original, Baker Boy and Sampa The Great creating fresh and culturally relevant hip-hop that’s pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible in the local industry.
From March 23, hip-hop will take its rightful place at the Australian Music Vault – a free, permanent exhibition of iconic objects from Arts Centre Melbourne's Australian Performing Arts Collection. Designed to tell the story of how Australian hip-hop emerged from the shadow of its American counterpart to find its own voice and identity, the display will include costumes, microphones, samplers, posters, awards, magazines, and rare records and CDs from some of Australia’s favourite acts, including Tkay Maidza, 360, Styalz Fuego, Layla, Bliss n Eso and 1200 Techniques.
“We don’t currently have a lot of hip-hop material in the collection so this project has inspired us to work with the hip-hop community to build up representation alongside our rock and pop holdings,” says Carolyn Laffan, senior curator of the Australian Music Vault. “We wanted to wait until after we were open and had a bit more time to speak to people about their experiences and their history in this area.”
Laffan is thrilled that Australian hip-hop will now be represented in the exhibition, with the team working hard to do the genre justice (the initial exhibition was put together in just nine months). Since December 2017, the Australian Music Vault at Arts Centre Melbourne has attracted almost one million visitors with its revolving collection of memorabilia, costumes and miscellany that tells the story of modern music in Australia.
One person Laffan spent a lot of time talking with was Jason Foretti (AKA DJ Peril), one of Australian hip-hop’s founding fathers. He found his way to hip-hop through Melbourne’s B-boy and graffiti scene, which he joined at the age of 12. “Most of us started as breakdancers and graffiti artists, the music came after,” he says. “We were playing in clubs with no one there, we were all young and eager.”
When the local hip-hop scene began to emerge in the early ’80s, artists would take their cues from American hip hop heavyweights. “Everyone was in their bedrooms doing Sugarhill Gang-style party rhymes in American accents,” Foretti explains. “It wasn’t until the late ’80s that we started to get into our own style of Australian hip-hop. You try to tell a story about where you came from, because that’s what people want to hear.”
In 2002, Foretti, as part of hip- hop outfit 1200 Techniques, would be responsible for one of the genre’s first local crossover hits, Karma. That same year, 1200 Techniques received two ARIA awards before there was even an Urban category, winning best independent act and best video.
It was around this time that major record labels in Australia started coming around to the idea that Australian hip-hop might be a genre worth investing in. “We did it because we loved it,” says Foretti. “Who knew it was going to grow into a total industry?”
Painted denim jackets worn by 1200 Techniques will be shown in the exhibition, alongside a basketball uniform worn by rapper and former Triple J broadcaster Maya Jupiter and a jumpsuit worn by Tkay Maidza at Splendour in the Grass in 2015. Double deck boomboxes, drum machines, samplers and microphones used by various performers will create a colourful snapshot of the genre as it evolved in Australia.
Foretti was delighted to hear that the Australian Music Vault would be making room to showcase hip-hop alongside more established local genres such as rock and pop. “It’s unreal,” he says. “I’m chuffed to be part of the whole history of Australian urban hip-hop, it’s finally been accepted and getting its props.”
Broadsheet is a proud partner of Arts Centre Melbourne.