Class A Records
April 19, 2013
Kings Konekted have just released some of the choicest cuts in Australian hip-hop - and they were inspired by some of the whackest cuts in Australian politics.
The Brisbane b-boys' new EP The Campaign paints a pretty gritty picture of life under cost-cutting Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.
"I'm an Indigenous Program Development Officer, so I see a lot of his effects in terms of the funding cuts to non-government organisations," says Aboriginal rapper Dontez, who fronts the group with emcee Culprit. "Since he has come in, those services have disappeared."
On gaining office last year, the Liberal Premier cut to the quick, scything through services within hours. Newman wasted no time in laying waste to the arts - on his first day, he scrapped the Premier's Literary Awards, which included the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous writers. He has since taken the scalpel to hospitals, axed 14,000 public sector jobs, evicted the Tenant Advocacy Service for 80,000 families and even hit the brakes on a taxi subsidy for wheelchair users. Last week, economic forecaster Deloitte Access Economics - not exactly a socialist outfit - said Newman had overdone cuts to the state budget.
"I work in a youth justice centre," says Dontez. "So I work with young Indigenous kids who are coming in and out of prison, basically. I see a lot of his effects in terms of organisations that depend on government funding. I've been working in Woodridge for the last eight years and I've watched services rise up and then come down within six months. So they're there and they're helping community and then as soon as funding gets cut they're out of there.
"It's those small services that cater to little things, so it might be women's sexual health and domestic violence, those little shelters, they're gone, especially for youth services, they're basically non-existent. You've just got your basic core, but they only cater to a certain dynamic and if they don't reach a certain criteria then they're overlooked.
"Those non-government organisations can pick up all that slack and while they're not there, that's when it's gone downhill. People are missing out that need that stuff, and that's important, especially in the low socio-economic areas. Once those services are cut and young people can't access those, then obviously that tips over into crime."
LOGAN HITS A LOW
It tipped over spectacularly early this year, when conflict broke out between Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders in Dontez's work district of Woodridge, which is part of Logan City. Headlines about "race riots" between "Logan bogans" ensued.
"A lot of that stuff is because communities' hubs are gone and there's nothing there to support them," says Dontez. "It's a melting pot of cultures and they're not being educated about other cultures and therefore they're putting walls up and this racial stuff comes out. And when that racial stuff comes out the media jumps on it and makes it worse."
The media and politicians feed off each other. Their "tough on crime" approach - jailing more and more people - simply creates more crime, yet governments keep doing it. It is one of those political paradoxes - like promises to tax less and spend more - that make little sense, but get wheeled out at every election. British journalist Nick Davies says such commonly-held misconceptions are the modern-day equivalent of believing the earth is flat - what he terms a "Flat Earth story".
"A Flat Earth story can end up being passed backwards and forwards between government and media, like a mud pie in some children's game," says Davies. "Until between them they create something which delights their imagination but which, in reality, is just a mess. And this falsehood and distortion passes into government policy."
In the US, crime rates have dropped in line with abortion being legalised, so the statistics suggest some "tough on crime" politicians actually increase crime by being anti-abortion. Their supposedly pro-family approach ends up producing unwanted children who are more likely to be abused, neglected and commit crime. If they then go to prison, they learn how to commit more crime.
"Oh definitely, definitely," says Dontez. "Because prison is where it starts, that's where it spawns from. It's a cesspool of other crims, so you're actually going there and learning stuff. It becomes a school, really, so you learn how to do crime better. Of course, that's not every case. Some kids want to change their life and it does happen, but rarely, from what I've seen.
"A lot of the time, for these kids, crime becomes a hobby. So it almost becomes fashionable to be a part of that, and some guys are actually training to be career criminals, not trying something different with their lives."
That can be good news only for profit-making, private prisons - and Campbell Newman is said to be planning to privatise all state prisons. Out in Brisbane's western suburbs, Kings Konekted are at the sharp end of such policies. On "Repertoire Strong", Dontez raps:
Face lifted like a melanoma
Break in my house, I'll blow a bubble in ya motherfuckin' haemoglobin
Dontez tries to turn young convicts' lives around by giving them some self-respect.
"Anything that comes from the magistrate goes to youth justice if they're under 18, and if they're Murri kids, usually I have a lot to do with them," he says. "So a lot of my job is linking those young fellas back to their community and obviously helping them out with their general identity, like searching through archives to find their families and who they are now, you know, a lot of identity stuff. Of course a lot of cultural aspects come into it as well. I try to get them something recreational in their life."
Dontez is more qualified than most to do that, having learnt his people's culture and taken it worldwide.
"I've travelled with dance troupes all around the world, with dance and culture," he says. "When I was 17 until maybe 25 I was almost full-time dancing, in Australia, Greece, France and all over the world. My grandmother is a full-blooded lady from North Stradbroke Island."
The island in Brisbane's Moreton Bay is the world’s second largest sand island. It hit the headlines in 2010 when mining company Unimin Australia was accused of unlawfully taking and selling sand from it for more than a decade. Unimin faced an $800,000 fine - about 1% of the value of the stolen sand.
Aboriginal community leader Dale Ruska told a group of protesters outside Brisbane Magistrates Court that September: “This issue is deeper than sand-mining on Stradbroke Island. It's also about justice for Aboriginal people. This mining company has stolen more than $80 million in illegal sand, and will probably be given a modest fine. Meanwhile, Aboriginal people are being jailed for minor offences. We need justice for Indigenous people now.”
Dontez raps about resource theft in the song "The Round Table":
Get stripped of commodities like Captain Cook's in the Bay
I murder rooks with a vicious arrangement
Dirty looks check the crooks with the crooked displacement
"I was talking about colonisation there," he says. "Once colonised, we were stripped of commodities, the man was taken out of the picture and the family unit was breaking down. I guess I tried to say that in a different way. I've been down to La Perouse, where Captain Cook landed, and I jotted that down when I was down there."
But it is from his homeland that Dontez gets his strongest inspiration, rapping on "Secular Security" about his "bloodline direct to the land".
"That's my roots there," he says. "North Stradbroke Island, from the Noonuccal tribe. I'm a Salt Water Murri, through and through. So I know all my dances and the stories that go with that and my dreaming where I'm from. I'm still connected to that place, so I'm lucky enough to have my roots just across the way, really. I catch the ferry over and I'm on Stradbroke Island and that's my history right there. It goes back around five generations, back to my great granny Dungoo and the Dungoo clan. She was a very respected full-blooded lady on the mission at that time, that was very early times.
"My great, great, great-grandfather, John Lifu, had come from New Caledonia, and he was one of the 'first' men on Stradbroke Island. The beach is named after him, it's called Fisherman's Island and the beach is named after him. They grew up in the mission days and I guess I learnt a lot about that through my family. So I always had those cultural roots there and it wasn't until I was a little bit older that I learnt my dances and I got to meet my pure elders and who I was, I guess. So I was teaching what I had learnt - and that's North Stradbroke Island traditional cultural dance.
"I don't dance any more. Dancing's something you have to be very 'pure' to do. For me, with dancing there was no drinking, there was no nothing, you know. It was pure and it was feeling it through your history. You make sure when you dance, it comes through your soul."
Dontez grew up in Inala, the western Brisbane suburb immortalised in the rap song "Inala Still The Same" by Indigenous Intrudaz, who also helped create Inala's annual Aboriginal hip-hop festival, Stylin' Up. It is now in its second decade, but Kings Konekted have never played it.
"No I've never inquired or haven't been approached," says Dontez, who suspects that may be due to his part-Italian roots. "I never knew until I was a teenager that I was part Italian. It explained a lot of my European looks, so to speak. The big eyebrows, they come from the Italian side.
"I'm also aware that a lot of people probably don't know that I'm actually Murri or Indigenous, so they might not even know I'm attached to that mob, that that's my history. I guess I don't ride on the back of being Aboriginal, so not everyone will know. They're probably unsure of who Kings Konekted are in terms of nationality."
He laughs. Dontez's rap partner, Culprit, has Serbian roots.
"My parents were born and raised in Australia, as was I," says Culprit. "Both grandfathers were the people who escaped Serbia. One in particular, on my father's side, he was a Chetnik during World War II. There's different thoughts on what Chetniks were or weren't, but they were a guerrilla army for the people."
The Chetniks have a complex history, but simpler matters can cause confusion in the age of Twitter. We are talking just days after the culprits in the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon were revealed to be Chechen, causing death threats to be tweeted against people from Czechoslovakia.
"I'm always disappointed with the fact that when something bad like that happens, the media goes, 'What is the background of these people?'," says Culprit. "'Their cultural background?' Even if it has nothing to do with it."
When such attackers are Muslim, they are depicted as representing their religion. When they are Christian, as with Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma or Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo, they are depicted as lone wolves.
"Yeah, exactly," laughs Culprit. "Exactly. This old blood carries on all the time, doesn't it? Bad blood? It continues through life. One thing we've experienced here, growing up in Brisbane, my brother and myself personally, is that second generation other races have a go at us over some bad blood, which I personally believe is from two generations prior on some other territory. Everybody has their own perspective on it, but that card has been pulled on me many a time, living here in Brisbane."
That bad blood is boiled up and cooled down on The Campaign's opener, "Good Blood and Handshakes":
We're acting like a pack of jackals when this shit lingers
And I don't even throw punches, I click fingers
The multicultural kid don't play discrimination
I suffocate your thoughts, train your inspirations
"For me, traditionally, we did a lot of Serbian traditional things up to about the age of 10 or 12 and then it faded out after my grandfather passed away," says Culprit. "Things like church, we went there and did traditional things up till about 8, 9, 10 years of age. I guess, too, because my parents were born and raised in Australia, they knew that things like sport and whatnot didn't fit with church, so we had to make some decisions."
Culprit ended up playing soccer in Brazil, whose flag sports the emblem "Ordem e Progresso" - order and progression. Dontez says it's a phrase he and Culprit took as the inspiration for their album Corrupted Citizens, due out in November.
"For me and him, when we were writing an album that was what we wanted to do," says Dontez. "We wanted order and progression. We could have split it to two albums, but we're picking the best and making sure it's quality."
That quality has whipped hardcore hip-hop fans into a windmill-like frenzy. They have greeted The Campaign EP - a collection of six songs that won't even be on the album - with the kind of enthusiasm that suggests they've been waiting with bated breath ever since Kings Konekted's debut release, Trails To The Underlair - The Prequel dropped in 2009. They have even been drooling all over the album's artwork, a pair of chess pieces - kings handcuffed together in check mate - etched by Brisbane tattooist Sam Hill.
When the band are asked if they have any of Hill's tattoos, Dontez says: "I've got the Kings Konekted one, right here." He rolls up his sweatshirt to reveal the chess pieces inked large into his torso. "Yeah, Sam Hill, we actually spelt his name wrong in the EP's book. I don't know if he knows yet, but I don't think he'll be too happy about that."
"He's an original graf writer, so his graffiti background helped his tattooing. I just always loved his style with his real sharp, sort of, edgy lines. We had a few ideas and we gave him the ideas of the chess pieces and the handcuffs and I wanted his style of writing in there. Within a week, he had a few sketches and every sketch was just better and he just put it together like it was a breeze. Whatever ideas we gave to him, they came out just pristine."
The group's other member, DJ and producer StrickNine, says: "We were looking for a new Kings Konekted logo and when it came out as good as it did, we were just, like, 'fuck it, that's the cover, that's dope'. Yeah, and obviously everyone's talking about it, everyone's just flipping on the cover."
But they are also flipping out on the production. StrickNine normally works with big American names - he produced the majority of MF Grimm's album The Hunt for the Gingerbread Man, which was hailed an instant classic by hip-hop bibles The Source and XXL. He has created beats for Blaq Poet, Celph Titled, Kool Keith and Thirstin Howl III. His work with rap legend KRS One was put out on StrickNine's own label, Class A records, whose name reflects its super-strength.
"The name really goes back to the roots of hip-hop," says StrickNine. "The original slang was 'you make mad records, it's fresh, it's dope, it's a dope lyric, it's a dope verse, he's a dope MC'. So a Class A record is like a dope record, it's like StrickNine, you know, it's used in some of the heaviest drugs. When I'm making beats, they're dope beats. As a DJ, as a producer, what am I trying to do? I'm trying to make the dopest shit, the dopest cuts as a DJ, so it's like StrickNine, when you hear it, it's hardcore, like a metaphoric drug in your vein, like bam! Damn! What was that?!"
The name is particularly potent in Queensland, where settlers put strychnine in flour and handed it out to the local Aboriginal people to kill them. "Yeah," says Dontez. "It was even in tobacco as well."
The strength and potency of King Konekted's image, their music, their artwork, their label and their lines find a rhyme in the devotion of their fans. But what is more striking, in a genre that has more than its fair share of egos, is how humble they are about their popularity.
"I appreciate you saying that," says Dontez, humbly. "We try to do that at the end of the day. I think if you put yourself up on a pedestal, you start to lose your fire and drive. We think there's constant room for improvement, so you're never as good as you think you are. I feel that even though we've got this music out I still feel like we're the same, we're like those fans in the community listening. We still are those same people listening to other people."
We are talking just days before they headline a festival, but the band can't help but stay grounded when they are so immersed in street life. On "The Standard", Dontez raps:
Black kids sniffing paint with their parents around
Dystopian times, fallopian tied
Frictions spark quicker than a lit wick in a Libyan riot
"Even at work that has happened," says Dontez. "I've gone to maybe pick up a young fella and sign him in for his probation or bail and he's sniffing, and mum and dad are still in the house, with nine other kids sniffing paint. Obviously that's not a part of our culture. You might see the odd European young fella hanging with the Murris but it seems to be the Indigenous young people, basically, because they're all linked together.
"I've said it a few times in the lyrics, not to repeat myself, but it's become an epidemic again. It sort of died out and now it's just crazy, the amount of kids who can't get weed, so they go straight to the paint. And the glue is such easy access for the kids who can't afford it that they're quick to sniff. Sometimes, if it becomes fashionable and kids jump on the bandwagon, it starts from there."
Most Australians are aware of petrol sniffing in remote communities. But research commissioned by the federal health department suggests paint sniffing is more common in urban and regional areas.
"I think it's just hidden," says Dontez. "They're doing it under bridges and it's behind closed doors, so not everyone thinks it's happening. But really, there's an epidemic of paint sniffing. It might not be so different in other states, but in south-east Queensland - especially Logan - it's pretty hectic. And that's from an everyday perspective that I see that. It's just crazy the amount of kids who I see who have that zombie look and people who don't even have paint are doing this..."
The rapper mimes pulling his coat up over his nose as if hiding a paint can.
"Because they're so used to sniffing paint, every time they talk, they cover their nose. They're brain-dead, zombie-fied, you know. It's to forget about those problems and that's where they go, that little happy place."
Among the health department's recommended ways to tackle sniffing are "alternate or diversionary activities for young people" and "activities to strengthen and support communities". If Campbell Newman is to make any worthwhile cut, it should be to the incidence of paint-sniffing - and cutting community services is not the sharpest way to do it.