Hip-Hop Down Under

By Staff
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by Brendan Mackie

The Australian accent seems fit to drawl Throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate, but not to spit sharp rhymes over fat hip-hop beats. The iconic image of an Australian bushman braving dank swamps and the desolate outback just doesn’t jibe with our pop-culture vision of gold-chained rappers flanked by buxom babes. Australia is the other side of the world, as far as rap goes. And what would an Australian rap about anyway? Wrestling crocodiles? Boomerangs? Kangaroos?

“Yeah, we rap about kangaroos,” jokes Australian rapper Pegz.

Pegz’s easy manner belies his position as one of the most influential hip-hop artists in Australia. As CEO of Obese Records, a pioneering independent Aussie hip-hop label, Pegz has nurtured the genre from fringe curiosity to local chart-topping success. As a recording artist, Pegz consistently pushes the boundaries of insightful, lyrical hip-hop.

Australian rap is more than American rap with an Australian accent. While 50 Cent might wax glamorous about the hustler life, Australian rappers like Pegz are more likely to drop rhymes about quotidian matters like paying the rent or cooking pasta. “In general, Aussie rap is just an honest perspective on life,” Pegz explains. Sure, there are plenty of verses and rhymes pumped full of the standard rap tropes of bombastic self-promotion. But Pegz spends a lot more time crafting lines like “Gotta work hard and not break the hearts that love you/The rest is all show like the Ali Shuffle” than he does bragging that he’s the greatest rapper alive.

Australian rap can trace its distinctive character to its long period of domestic unpopularity. Before Pegz released his first album in 2003 (Capricorn Cat) and Obese Records began pushing its homebred hip-hop onto the center stage of Aussie culture, Australian rappers languished in obscurity. Nobody outside of a cadre of devoted fans cared about any of the native acts. For a time, Australian rappers were so uncomfortable with their legitimacy that they rapped with American accents.

This long incubation period didn’t morph Aussie hip-hop into a bitter lament on unappreciated talent. Instead, it gave the artists room to craft a unique voice, one that is at once humble and proud. Australian rappers could never imagine jetting off to New York, making a million dollars, or relishing the debauchery of gangsta life, so they wrote rhymes about dealing with the minutiae of daily activity.

“I’d say if major labels had nurtured the artists, right now we’d be rapping about V-8 cars and how many girls you get on the weekend. But that’s not acceptable for us as artists,” Pegz says. There are the usual rhymes about rap skill (a hip-hop staple), but the braggadocio has more to do with the ne’er-do-well tradition of Australian larrikinism than any sort of intimidating posturing.

Pegz’s finely honed lines are a great introduction to the genre. In Axis (2005) and Pegz’s latest release, Burn City (2007), he reveals an almost philosophic sensibility. He’ll often dream up idealistic visions of a world in which we all have easy jobs, great friends, and fat beats. But Pegz tempers these fantasies with an appreciation of the hard work that’s necessary to make the world closer to what we hope it could be.

That Pegz can rap so eloquently about subjects that often baffle, and can do so in the tightest of prose, is one of his greatest achievements. On some tracks he indulges in rhyming about hot women and getting high, but that seems like a conscious holiday from the real work at hand. After countless listens, I am still surprised to hear Pegz grumble in his deep Melbourne accent about interracial understanding, labor rights, and disadvantaged youth. “I don’t know why I come up with these things,” Pegz explains. “Sometimes I think to myself: Why can’t I write some songs where there’s no content, where it’s not topical, that’s not talking about something serious or introspective?”

Australian rap remains very Australian, and that local flavor might make it an acquired taste to American ears. Filled with strange accents, odd slang, and a pop culture and politics cryptic to many outsiders, the music can seem downright impenetrable. But for the same reason, Aussie rap can be like a mini-vacation from the monotony of America’s cookie-cutter hip-hop and self-consciously avant-garde indie croons. Take a listen for yourself by checking out the tracks below.

 Pegz: I Don’t Need Your Judgments from Burn CityPlay in Popup

 Pegz: The Fight from Burn CityPlay in Popup

 Pegz: Last Bushman from AxisPlay in Popup

 Pegz: Cro Magnon from AxisPlay in Popup

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