Big Kitty Life
Released December 2013
Impossible Odds Records
MC Dukebox says he named his debut album "Big Kitty Life" because he was sick of seeing government funds misspent.
"It's referring to a big kitty of funding that everyone's lining up for with a different excuse for why they deserve the money and how they're going to benefit their surrounding communities," says the Indigenous rapper, who hails from Inverell in north-west NSW.
"I just see so much of it going on and money being thrown into people's pockets that are just completely doing the wrong thing with it. In my home town for example - we put on a youth festival a couple of years back called the Summer Sun Youth Festival. We're from a small country town, so it's like 12,000 people, and we got 3500 people through the gates on that day. It was a dollar coin donation and the whole idea was it was a drug and alcohol free event to just really give something back to the youth.
"The next year we went to run the event again. The council refused to give us funding. Yet they gave $10,000 to someone to put on a B&S [bachelor and spinster ball] at our showground - it was pretty much a ute show, like cars and alcohol and derogatory bullshit. It was absolutely crazy, like wet T-shirt contests. It's like, OK, so you've really got your priorities right as a town. We want to do something for the community, for the youth, and you won't fund it - and they didn't really fund it the first time either. They just didn't see profit in it - and that was the sad reality of it - there was no profit to be made.
"And you know what happened? The B&S, the ute muster, went ahead and flopped BAD! Really bad! But that's just one example. It's just, like, come on, there's so much money being allocated and it's Third World conditions that we're seeing in central Australia."
In person, the rapper also known as Duke Bailey is far more politically intense than he is on record. His cast-iron personal opinions are cloaked in velvet lyrics, like the innocuous, purring "big kitty life". Yet when I last met him, just before he performed at Sydney's Indigenous music festival Yabun on Invasion Day last year, he was frothing about the dying Occupy movement and keen to find out any way he could help. I introduced him to Lance Priestley, one of the few constants in Occupy Sydney who had held out when all the crowds had left. The pair spent half an hour locked in a conversation that couldn't even be broken by the onstage acrobatics and chest-thumping sub-bass of Dubmarine happening only metres away. It ended only when Dukebox was beckoned to the stage himself to put on a typically polished performance.
Dukebox is speaking now after another assured performance in Sydney's inner-west. It's 1am and the gripping midwinter cold is creeping up into our bones from the stone steps of Erskineville Town Hall, across the street from The Roller Den where he has just played. With his voice trembling as he shivers, the rapper references the likes of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and journalist John Pilger, whose Aboriginal injustice documentary Utopia was screened on national television just days earlier.
"I don't know if you watched Utopia the other night," says Dukebox. "I was so inspired by that - and that's another example right there, we're just being raped. It's crazy, man. I'd like to see change and I'd like to be part of the change."
The first thing that needs to change is the national conversation. Instead of asking what non-Aboriginal people can do to help Aboriginal people, or even what Aboriginal people can do to help themselves, it should be asking what non-Aboriginal people can learn from Aboriginal people. Because until Aboriginal people are seen as teachers, not as people to be taught, nothing will change.
"That's exactly right," says Dukebox. "It's the completely wrong mindset, man. And this is the oldest living culture on earth. 'I'm sure we've got a lot to learn' - that's the mentality they should have. Expecting people just to give up the way of life they've known for thousands of years, saying 'this is how you should live' - that's rubbish, absolute rubbish."
On his track "Let It All Go", he raps:
I'm about to get loose, let it all go
I'ma shout it from the roof till they all know
When the storm blows over
Who's gonna save us?
Who's gonna question the truth that they gave us?
You stole our freedom
You stole our rights
You told us what to believe in
You taught us wrong from right
Sometimes I dare to wonder, just what goes on inside
Asked about the lyric, he says: "It's about the invasion. We were just told how to live told what to believe in, told what was wrong and right. Our people lived for thousands of years as what we believed was wrong and right and we've just been invaded and told, 'OK, this is how you live now, this is your new set of rights, this is your new rights and wrongs, and you have to live with it.'"
Just how long people can live with it is questionable. As the "world's most important living intellectual", Noam Chomsky, puts it: "A very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world - in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies - what we call tribal or Aboriginal or whatever name we use - they're the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they're the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they've passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival."
Dukebox's mother is a descendant of the Birri-Gubba people - from what is now known as northern Queensland - and the Tanna Islanders, from the south Pacific island chain now known as Vanuatu. "That came about back in the 1880s, when a heap of the Europeans kidnapped a lot of the islanders to work as slaves in the cane fields up north," says the rapper.
The practice, commonly known as "blackbirding", began to wind down in the late 1890s. Nic Maclellan, a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands, says: "Thousands of indentured labourers who hadn’t returned home at the end of their contract were deported between 1904 and 1914. But more than 2000 people remained in Australia – mainly around Mackay and other towns in north Queensland – hiding from the authorities and often marrying into Aboriginal communities."
Dukebox's father is of Irish and German descent and a huge fan of country music and Western movie stars, naming several of his children after them.
"I've got a brother named Waylon who was named after Waylon Jennings," says the rapper. "My sister Manika, her nickname is Dolly after Dolly Parton, so the list goes on."
Duke was named after John Wayne, the Hollywood star also known as "The Duke", who shot to fame as a gunslinging cowboy slaughtering First Nations people. The irony is not lost on the rapper.
"John Wayne, from what I later discovered, was one of the most racist men in American history," he says, cracking up laughing. "I've had a couple of African-American guys spin out, going, 'What? You're named after John Wayne? You know he was racist? He was so racist!'"
One of John Wayne's more notorious utterings came In a 1971 Playboy interview, in which he said: "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility."
Duke's own education was not easy - he was an angry adolescent. One of 10 children, he was raised by his father's parents from three months old.
"I loved to fight and that was one thing I spent my teenage years doing," he says. "I guess I had so much anger built up inside of me and it was just like any excuse to let it out. I don't know what I was angry about, I couldn't figure it out. I think drug addiction probably contributed to it. It was just this whole confusion and my teenage years were just a daze. I don't remember a lot of it because I was stoned every day, pretty much, or on pills or something. It was a big blur.
"This was before I'd found music and I just used to look for an excuse to fight and I got myself on the brink of going to jail when I turned 18 and that pulled me up a lot. I was already doing music at that stage so I started taking it a lot more seriously after that. It gave me the wake-up call I needed - music was a much better way to vent rather than risking going to jail."
Dukebox went from beatboxing with an intrepid Inverell crew called N-Sayne Entertainment, to writing his own rhymes and recording with his own group, Vital Heights. From there, he worked on his live performance skills and went solo, winning funding to record his first EP.
"I was very fortunate," he says. "I was one of three Indigenous artists picked from around the country to record an EP at Gadigal Studios in Redfern."
On the What's In The Box EP, Dukebox raps about Redfern's famed Aboriginal Housing Company project, The Block:
When they pass and they ask me
What I see in The Block
Well I stop and tell the tales of the peeps I've met
And the streets that I watch
So let me ask you a question
Can you answer this:
If life is a beach and it's hard to swim
Then how do we pass the rips?
"I had the verses penned out before we made that track, but I wrote the hook while I was in Sydney," he says. "That was my first time in Redfern and that definitely influenced it. There was so much stigma attached to Redfern that I was actually fearful of going there, believe it or not. I'd watched docos and stuff that just portrayed it as this really horrible place - and, you know, I'm walking back from the studio at two in the morning by myself and I never had a drama, eight days straight. It just blew me away."
A few months later, Dukebox finally met the Indigenous side of his extended family in the place he had so feared.
"I had no exposure to culture being raised in Inverell," he says. "I only discovered my cultural heritage - I knew about it, but I didn't have any connection to it - for the majority of my life. It's only in the last say five or six years that I've really traced it all back and started meeting a lot of my family, in Redfern of all places. I bumped into a lot of my family the year before last, in Redfern. I met a group of about 20 of my uncles and cousins and aunties and stuff, which was bizarre."
Such emotional upheaval made for a heartfelt record. "That EP was so personal, I named it What's In The Box for that reason," he says. "What I'm made up of, the stories that got me to where I am today. I ventured down the instrumentation side of things and just went for a more instrumental approach."
The EP, which featured cameos from blistering blues guitarist Buddy Knox and folk-pop duo The Stiff Gins, was produced by multi-instrumentalist and Indigenous hip-hop pioneer Munkimuk, whose band Renegades Of Munk headlined the gig Dukebox has just played.
"He's just a machine, Munkimuk," says Dukebox. "He just never stops working that dude. We're on tour at the moment. We finish tomorrow night's gig, he flies overseas for like five weeks, working on music over there. He's back for, like, I don't know how long, but we're straight into more shows. He's one of the most talented producers I've ever worked with and one of the most talented rappers I've ever rapped with. Just a veteran as well, man - he's just been doing wonders for the Indigenous scene for a long time."
He has also been doing wonders in the south-east Asian scene, producing punks in Thailand and chart-topping pop in the Philippines. Yet Munkimuk has also raved about Dukebox's musical progression - in particular his singing skills on the new album.
"I did a bit of vocal training," says Dukebox. "A lot of it involved downloading the Erol Singer app and going through the warm-ups and the step-by-step. It actually graphs your progression, which is really cool. It gives you tips."
The emcee is also constantly passing on his own tips, in his day job as a youth worker. Just as hip-hop changed his life, he is hoping he can help it change theirs.
"For me it's all about empowering the youth and giving them a voice when no one wants to listen to them," he says. "I did some training for my job a couple of years back and one of the presenters said, 'Ask 10 kids to finish the statement: "The problem with adults is..." Nine times out of 10, they'll finish with, "They never listen."' So there's a track on my new album called 'Listen' and it was inspired by that statement. Doing the youth work that I do, I wanted to write from the kids' perspective."
I keep screaming you don't wanna hear me
All your talking you don't ever listen
I keep trying to make the connection
You turn away, you just wanna shoot me down
"It's just about young people not being heard and pretty much screaming out for help in different ways, maybe in the form of what society would call troublemaking, but we're so quick to judge," says Dukebox. "My analogy is instead of focusing on the rotten apple on the tree, how about we study back to the roots and see what's causing it to go rotten. There's so much deeper stuff that goes on with our youth."
The rapper also gets to the rotten roots of the predatory lending that sparked the great financial crisis, in his track "Mayday":
Corporate ghostwriters, yep, your policy is see-through
Here have some cash, just be sure to pay the fees too
"That's pretty much about the Wall Street crash," he says. "It's about being broke and about being sick of the system that's just the bankers taking advantage of us. It ties in with a lot of the Occupy movement. All these hidden policies and the ghostwriter stuff - read the fine print. It's like, 'OK, here's some cash, but - er - now you've got to pay all these fees as well. We didn't mention that.'"
But the corporate corruption is not confined to the private sector, as he reminds people on "Let it all go":
Here's a news flash, polly wanna pay rise
White collar crime committed in broad daylight
"There's so many aspects of life that we're sort of being bluffed about - and no one has a clue," says the rapper. "The stuff that most people wouldn't even realise is criminal - like the way our government is run."
During Julia Gillard's final months in power, the prime minister increased her pay to $507,338 a year - the first time an Australian PM's annual salary had topped half a million dollars. One actuary calculated her retirement package at $7.2 million. Such is Dukebox's disgust at public funds being misspent, he is looking at how he can cut ties with the government.
"I'm actually looking at becoming sovereign," he says. "Well, we're born sovereign, but declaring sovereignty officially. I want to detach myself from government control as much as I can."
Lawyer and sovereignty campaigner Michael Mansell has made the case for an Aboriginal seventh state of Australia, rather than a treaty, as a step towards full self-determination. "The seventh state model is probably a couple of steps advanced past the idea of a treaty," says Mansell.
For Dukebox, any ideas on how to escape the constant stalking of the "big kitty" are welcome - and his claws are sharpened for a fight.
"I haven't put much cultural, political content in my music for the simple fact that I haven't been raised with culture," he says. "You'll see a lot more of that coming into my music now."