Rapper goes from petty crime to stealing the show

November 13, 2012
Emcee Sneake1
Emcee Sneake1 is touring the United States next year.

Verbal Diary

When George Sambo was about seven years old, he used a wad of crooked cash to shout all his mates sausage rolls. The Queensland schoolboy couldn't have known then that those fatty rolls would set him rolling on a path to making phat rolling beats. But that's what happened.

"The first time I stole was when I was, like, Grade Four, Five, jumping in someone's window," he tells Green Left, fresh from stepping off stage at the Oxford Arts Factory in Sydney.

"It was a car, the car was open. Then I got busted because I shouted everybody sausage rolls at the tuck shop. See, I went over and handed $100 at the tuck shop, so I got busted big-time. I got the cane."

He smiles.

"Back then you had to have the cane."

It was the early 1980s, and Sambo had taken a decisive step on a journey of petty crime. It would eventually get him locked up for a long stretch with little more than a cassette recorder and his irrepressible creativity to keep himself amused.

"When I was convicted for six years in jail, I started writing rhymes in jail and started getting tapes together," he says. "You know the old tape decks that used to record? I said, 'Oh, if you tape that tape to this side and I just start rapping over it...' So I just started that and made my own demos."

By the time Sambo emerged, he'd reinvented himself as a rapper with the fitting handle of "Sneake1".

"I came out with a product. As soon as I got out, I handed it out to people and stuff like that. Then my mate introduced me to another dude who said, 'Yeah, he's got a studio, man. You can go rap in his studio.' So that's when I started making songs. My first song was probably called 'Fuck The Cops' you know what I mean?"

He laughs.

"I just started going from there, so now I've got over... ah... nearly 2000 songs."

The number may seem incredible - a rapper would need a lot of writing material to be as prolific as that - but Sneake1 has it in spades.

"I was born in Townsville, in north Queensland in the Top End of Australia," he says. "My parents are the Sambos. They're what you call Meriam people down in Torres Strait. They're descendents of the Sambos from Murray Island, they're descendents of Eddie Mabo."

Indigenous land rights campaigner Eddie Kolki Mabo is best known for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia that overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius - "land belonging to no one" - that characterised Australian law on land and title until 1992. Mabo's explanation of the land inheritance system on Murray Island led to the change to the law known as the "Mabo" decision.

Mabo was born Eddie Kolki Sambo. He changed his surname when he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo, after being born on Mer Island, also known as Murray Island, in 1936.

"Yeah, that's where I originate from," says Sneake1. He grounds himself firmly in his ancestors' land with the song "Turn it up (Torres Strait version)", in which he raps in Meriam Mìr, the language of the eastern Torres Strait islands.

Aboriginal activist and academic Gary Foley has likened the Mabo decision to "stealing your car and then handing you only the wheels back". Ironically, following Mabo's partial win against Grand Theft Australia, Sneake1 was jailed for stealing cars.

Sitting on the steps of a side street after being turfed out of the venue he has just played, the rapper yanks his Yankees cap down unusually low - over his brow, where it usually sits - and explains his past.

"I don't really know my father, he went in for - in prison - for, like, murder and stuff like that. I was like, five years old or something like that - Grade One, you know. I got foster raised up with a single parent, then I got raised up by a widowed grandmother because my mum needed time, to take time with me and my little brother. Life was survival, I guess, from right there and then.

"Before school, I thought the only way to see my dad was to commit crime so I could see him in prison, to get to know my father. So I tried to burn down my grandmother's house, and that was bad. I was, like, seven years old, six years old. The police and fire engine people they came and talked to me about it and stuff like that, so then I got moved away for a while until my mother came back with three brothers and sisters. That's when I was the man of the house, because they needed a father figure, so that's when I started trying to do survival tactics.

"We moved into a new neighbourhood, and back to my mother's. At my mum's place the next-door neighbour got broken into while I was at the fence and I was intrigued what he was doing, so I climbed over the fence and watched him go inside the house, how he broke in, then the thief inside freaked out that I was following him inside and started making a few fires. That's when it started to get hectic, stealing at school and stuff like that."

It's a life story that plays out in widescreen on his epic, Stereophonics-sampling track, "Till A Label Finds Me".

I grew up with a single parent mother
Because daddy was a murderer
Until she left me and my brother at our widowed grandmother's
All I remember as a little boy
Watching my daddy covered in blood
While the next door neighbour got him at gunpoint
I can see my daddy was guiltier
While the man with the gun
Was terrified and paranoid
Amongst all the noise
I can hear the sirens in the background
While my daddy was fired up
And ready to put the smackdown
Coppers hit the brakes like there was a crash now
But then my grandmother covered me and my brother
I can hear the yelling out the gutter
With the mix of the smell of the burning rubber
I couldn't help but to cry
With my brother on the side
While my grandmother was angry and wild
Suddenly the yelling ceased
Not long after my grandmother was questioned by police
Now my whole life spun
The man with the gun
My grandmother adopted him as a son
Now I learnt, now holding a grudge, burnt down
My grandmother's house
But all these types of questions got me alert now
To do what? I grew up as a screw-up
The liquor represent my mum
And tinny my father figure
I walked the streets in the city

My struggles predicted it
To put me in this predicament
Living on the bitumen
I'm sick of it
When will they understand the black sheep
Running these back streets
Until a label finds me

Now my mumma came and got me and my brother
Now I'm thinking life is good
We've got new brothers and sisters
And we're living in new neighbourhoods
I couldn't understand
Why my other two sisters would live in foster homes
I didn't really understood
And if I could
Turn back time
I wish I would
So we could live together
I wish we could
As we grew
I'm thinking life is screwed
I'm having fights at school
I'm breaking in offices
Stealing wallets or two
So I can prove to mama
I'm a get the money too
I'm facing the wall
With my hands up to the sky
For 10 and 20 minutes
Discipline was a fact
I was locked up in my room
And forever getting smacked
When will I learn
I turned into a tribal child
I got kicked out to the street life
Continuously getting high
Drinking, doing crime
The only way I know how to survive
Robberies, breaking, entering, stealing cars
I end up doing time
My grandmother passed
On when I was inside
My sister from the foster home died
From the suicide
At the same time
I'm sorry I wasn't there
To lay you down to rest
I must confess
My life is stressed, yes
And now all I've got is rapping
That's my only interest...

"Stress" is referenced again and again in Sneake1's songs. When asked what it's like for a young Aboriginal man growing up in Townsville - a town made infamous by the trial of police sergeant Chris Hurley after the death in custody of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee in 2004 - Sneake1 replies: "I feel a lot of stress between a lot of young black males. I've seen a lot of stress, lost most of my friends, you know, from suicide and stuff like that. I feel they're stressed and they think there's no way out."

It's a concept that's probably alien to much of non-Indigenous Australia, as Sneake1 points out in his song "MVP".

They can't see the stress
They can't see the struggles
All they see
Is the money and hustles

But Sneake1 places a stress on the fact that the stress caused by police is not unique to Townsville and his fellow "Townsvillainz", as he calls his crew.

"The attitude of the police is like anywhere where you get a lot of oppressed people, you know, where they push us to one side. You can see where we come from, and compare it to the other side that they come from. Ours is surrounded by pubs and Bottle-O's, right, and the other side that we see, like, I'm saying that we're sitting in the dark side looking on the bright side of things. When I see the other side with the good kids and stuff, they're surrounded by schools and libraries and stuff like that."

His stress-referencing song "We Are" delves into that dark side.

There's a shadow in every life
Every life, every night
There is sirens
All in the hood
All in the hood
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey

Kicked out prematurely
You feel my pain
It's time to ride the crimewave again
Drugs, sex, alcohol
Practised at an early age
I can't believe they threw away
The good die in an early grave
Living in this world of pain
That's how villains are made in this state
Now I wanna dig you out of the earth
And move the dirt
And put you back into the hearse
Then reverse that hearse
Back into the church
Take you back where the problem occurred
Intact your nerve
And make you breathe again

There's a shadow in every life
Every life, every night
There is sirens
All in the hood
All in the hood
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey
We are the villainz, hey

"We've always been oppressed that way," he says. "The cops is like anywhere that's oppressed. They all leave us in the public housing and stuff like that - that's the mentality, conquer to divide.

"Some people get stressed over women, some people are getting stressed over situations as well. I can't tell you whether it's stress from, I dunno, from the streets or the cops. It's a lot of things, a lot of issues that have to be resolved."

Such issues are rarely resolved. A recent study found the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders in jail suffer from mental illness.

"Yeah," says Sneake1. "You're a product of your own environment." And in Australia's increasingly privatised prison system, prisoners are treated as products that produce products.

"If you don't work you just get only $9 a week, see," says Sneake1. "That's the normal, average pay in jail if you don't work. You can choose to work, you get paid and you get better 'buy-up', you can buy things every week, you know.

"I was washing dishes, then became second cook, then I became a head cook and started getting paid well, then I went out to the farms, prison farms. I was labouring out in the cane fields, doing stick-picking and stuff like that, so just following a truck all day.

"The day starts like this, you go in the morning off the bus, then you jump off, all the prisoners, we all line up and get on this cane paddock and then there's a truck you've got to follow and pick up all the sticks. By the time you get to the other end, that's lunch time, and when you come back, that's the day over."

So that's a commercial farm?

"Yeah, yeah," says Sneake1, "and they employ prisoners."

Slave labour in Queensland's cane fields is a subject well researched by Sneake1's back-up vocalist, or "hype man", Earleeo, who sugar-coats Sneake1's stage show with his soulful, molasses-like vocals.

"I'm one of the last of the cane cutters in my family," says Earleeo. "The last of the slaves."

The vocalist, also known as Russell Cole, smiles softly and speaks in smooth, easy tones as he crouches on the steps next to us. "My grandfather was a cane cutter," he says. "I'm actually three cultures: Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South Sea. I've got the best of all worlds."

He smiles a bittersweet smile.

In Queensland, it might be argued that the cane farmers got the best of all worlds, by employing people and not having to pay them. In a practice known as "blackbirding", the Indigenous populations of nearby Pacific islands or northern Queensland were recruited through trickery and kidnappings to work as labourers in the sugar cane plantations.

As for Earleeo's own family, he says they were victims of "slavery from New Caledonia, and Vanuatu - Tanna Island".

"Also, I'm Aboriginal so I'm Nywaigi and Mumburra," he says. "My last name is Cole, I take my grandfather's name, but my grandmother was a Cassady. We had a guy [James Cassady] that came from Ireland, the station master, that's where we get the last name Cassady. He came from the potato famine in the 1800s. He came from Sydney. He was the 'first man to cross the Burdekin River'. The first white pastoralist to 'protect' Indigenous people in the 1800s.

"We wrote a tourism booklet on Mungalla Station in Ingham and we won four national awards for what we did, so I'm basically a part of writing our history. It's a unique history."

Mungalla Aboriginal Tours invites visitors to "learn of the often brutal conflict between Nywaigi Aboriginal people and European settlers that shaped the destiny of North Queensland. Be amazed by the story of the Aboriginal people from Mungalla Station and surrounding areas that were exhibited as cannibals and savages in the nineteenth century circuses and sideshows of Europe and America."

Given such a painful past, it's little wonder that Sneake1 is always looking forward, as expressed in one of his catchiest hooks, - the wonky, offbeat "Looking For A Change".

I'm forever looking for a change
But the people who I hang with
Is acting kinda strange
So let me paint a picture for your brains
I'm forever looking for a change
Looking for a change

Picture five people
Sleeping one single mattress
Three kids and two adults
We struggle but we survive
And through this battle
Sometimes it was hard to handle
My life is hard
Cos my heart is scarred
Cos the strife's got me off guard
How can I discard
These memories and rip them apart
Cos it's caused by the people
I knew from the start
So tell me where do I begin
Cos the people only listen
When you start to sing
Well I guess the only person to trust
Is yourself

I'm forever looking for a change
But the people who I trust
Is acting kinda strange
So let me paint a picture for your brains
I'm forever looking for a change
I'm forever looking for a change

I'm forever looking for a change
But the pain remains
They're either drunk, high, speeding
Or they're locked in chains
I can't talk
I drink like a tank
Got jack in the bank
And my balance receipt is blank
My boat's up shit creek
And that already sank
Wouldn't you be looking for a change?
Well I am
And I really need to rearrange
I need to use my brain
For something other than just running game
See a brother off the chain
And he untamed
No time to explain
I'm on the right track
On the wrong train
Everybody complained
I didn't listen again
I'm still trapped
In the street fame
I'm facing a sentence
With nobody to blame
But myself
I feel the thunder and rain
Plus there's stress on my brain
Is there STRESS on your brain?
I think it's time to change

But Earleeo and Sneake1 are both doing pretty well at finding change by putting their dark histories behind them. Sneake1 has a tour of the US planned for next year and the pair have already collaborated on the enigmatic, infectious "Phobia".

I can see your phobia
You're cautious when I approach
I'm just trying to get to know ya
So let me clear it up
It's the phobia
The phobia
The phobia

Yet it seems Sneake1 has little trouble attracting the opposite sex, if his videos featuring cars full of girls of all races are anything to go by. "He's always driving," says C-Roc from Indigenous hip hop pioneers Native Ryme. "He's always doing stuff, you know, he's always hyping things up about what he does and everything. I love the guy, I think he's got a great heart and he does things for the right reasons - he does it because he loves music."

And that love of music is taking him places. At this year's gongs for Indigenous excellence, the Deadly Awards, Sneake1 was broadcast into homes right across the nation, performing live on stage with the Deadlys' Band Of The Year, Yung Warriors.

He's come a long way from dodgy sausage rolls.

Read next: Native Ryme bring heritage to hip-hop.

Video: Standing Strong Performed LIVE @ The Deadly Awards. DdubalU.

Video: SNEAKEONE THE EFFECTS. Sneakeone Townzvillanz.

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