Interview – Urthboy
September 7, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, September 7, 2009.
In a career that has spanned the rise of Australian hip-hop, Tim Levinson (aka Urthboy) has staked a claim as the one of movement’s ambassadors. Both in a solo context and with sprawling collective The Herd, the Sydney rapper, unofficial cultural commentator and label head has been behind some of the domestic scene’s most pivotal and politically astute moments.
Third solo album Spitshine follows the success of 2007’s brilliant The Signal and breakthrough 2004 debut Distant Sense of Random Menace, and proves one of Australian rap’s most aesthetically and lyrically realised statements to date. Drawing on the liquid, bass-heavy future hip-hop beats of producers Pip Norman (aka Count Bounce of TZU) and Elgusto (of Hermitude), the record sees Urthboy’s tackle some of his most sophisticated themes yet.
We caught up with a typically articulate Levinson in the Melbourne Writers Festival green room to chat about the new album, fusing politics with the personal and negotiating the middle class.
Your working relationship with Pip and Gusto has always interested me, especially in the context of this record, because the beats have a real kind of continuity. Where does the communication lie? Do Pip and Gusto talk with each other about where they’re going with the beats, or are you the only conduit?
They didn’t really have anything to do with each other at all. Hermitude was really random – by random, I mean the music they were working on just came when it came. Actually, the track with Lior was a remake of a track I was doing with M-Phazes, which for whatever reason didn’t work out for his project, so we still had vocal ideas sitting there and Hermitude came to the table after the vocal ideas had already been demo’d up and wrote a track around them. So it was a very different way for them to work.
So there was no really careful and calculated plan with the way they would work together, but saying that, the tunes I did with Gusto were done later in the piece and just sort of seemed to coincide quite nicely with some of the things that Pip was doing. We were really considered in the way we put the record together and the way it flowed. We almost worked that out before mixing, which is the first time I’ve ever done that.
Lyrically, Spitshine seems to have a real sense of hope to it, perhaps more so than the previous work. Amongst this discourse of doom that’s around at the moment, you seem to be suggesting that things can be fixed with a bit of work. Is that how you think of the record?
Yeah, I always think that whenever we’ve covered dark topics, I never think of that as a depressed mentality. I think of it as an optimistic mentality that wants to bring those issues out into the open and just have them there and shine some light on them, and that also goes over to my stuff with The Herd. But I’m also a really optimistic person and I think that I sometimes have to pull my head in a little bit and not get too carried away with that sense of optimism, because sometimes it’s totally inappropriate. It may suit me but it doesn’t necessarily suit someone else. Sometimes when you’re just feeling really down or bummed out or whatever, the last thing you want to hear is someone sort of just give you some shallow cheer-up. It feels like it’s not genuine, even if that person is coming at it with good intentions. But regardless, this is my music and this is my time to put my attitude into the various things I want to rap about.
To me, this record seems to really be about recontexualising large-scale, universal themes into more personal contexts, which to an extent you’ve always done. I think it has just become more apparent on this release.
‘Ready to Go’, for example, is just a fun kind of track that sounds like a guy and his mates having a conversation, but is really about a much wider notion of generational shift.
Yeah, yeah, I think it’s one of the ways I write songs. I feel that I can add a layer of authenticity to things if I can really incorporate things that I personally have experienced. I don’t know how often I actually make that connection and make it a vivid thing, because when you do, you feel it, like, ‘I think I kind of made that link and it works well’. But for me, if you do make that link, then it makes the message powerful, even if it’s not a really strong, strident message. It makes the things that you talk about powerful because it’s almost like there’s more conviction there or something.
I don’t know how often I’m able to pull that off, but it’s sort of what goes on in my head.
I guess I’ve always been interested as to whether these songs have a conscious socio-political bent from their conception, or whether that’s something you realise in retrospect?
I definitely try and be quite considered from word go, but by the same token, there are times when I go back over what I have written and for the life of me can’t work out what I was talking about (laughs). I’ve also had those moments where for a brief second it’s as if you can see through somebody else’s eyes and imagine it’s someone else’s writing and question the meaning.
But I think that only really comes up with other people. Every now and again someone will misinterpret a lyric and think its coming from another place. I’ve really gotten over that idea of being in charge of my own music.
It’s kind of like that idea of post-structuralism – the author is merely a link in a long chain of what makes meaning.
There’s something great and something really annoying about that (laughs). It’s like anything that people feel they have ownership over; it gives people the right to be perhaps more demanding of you than the man in the street really has any right to. Like, you don’t go up to anyone in the street and go ‘What are you doing with those shoes with the laces not tied up’ or whatever. But with your music people will be very demanding of you and expect that you will not only take all of their views into account but change what you’re doing and appreciate what they’re saying.
It’s fair enough on some levels. If people are going to take the time to really absorb what you’re doing, then I guess that’s one of the little trade offs. The worst thing would be if they didn’t take that time.
I guess the cultural function of music is so different to other art forms like, say, visual art. People’s engagement with music is so invested in the personal and invested in other parts of their lives. One of your songs might have inadvertently been the soundtrack to however many memorable or pivotal moments in people’s lives and that’s where the meaning lies for them.
Yeah, it becomes this thing that is much greater than the sonic value it has.
Music is sort of this malleable thing that accompanies people’s lives and follows them around, whereas a painting hanging on your wall has a much more ephemeral effect.
It’s very difficult to convey how important something was to you be simply showing it to someone. I few years ago we were on Triple J on the hip-hop show and we had a few choices of songs that we could play and I chose Geto Boys ‘Gangster of Love’ because I remember as a kid playing it endlessly and sitting there, counting the swear words because it was so full of them. And I knew it was a totally inappropriate song to play on radio, not least because we were there as The Herd and we’re supposed to be upstanding citizens (laughs), really conscious, really thoughtful, political and here we were playing this Geto Boys song talking about all their outrageous sexual exploits. I could never hope to have people listen to that and attribute it to my upbringing and a context and a history.”
I mean, even Ozi Batla, at the time, was like ‘What did you do that for? That’s just wrong’ you know. And sure, it was pretty wrong and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone if they got up in arms about it, but what are you going to do? That song is a really important song for me, even if you wouldn’t catch me playing it too much these days.
You really seem to have been working on your song writing outside of a strictly hip-hop format. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Hellsong’ and ‘Shruggin’. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that development. Has it been a conscious thing?
I’ve got a lot of time for hip-hop that rejects melody, but most of the people who reject melody embrace it in the same turn. Like Jay-Z will talk about not having melody in his music, but all his music has mad melody. It’s just that his raps maybe don’t have that kind of singsong type delivery. But a big influence in my musical upbringing has been my brother, and my brother has always been a big Brit-pop, indie guy in years past. He’s still a big appreciator of that stuff, but he’s also really wide; he loves electronic music and country and everything. So whether I liked it or not, I think that was always sort of ingrained in me, that sort of love of groups like Elastica and Blur and the Manic Street Preachers, and then Leonard Cohen and stuff, at the same time as Public Enemy and Run DMC and Beastie Boys (laughs). Now that I’m starting to feel a little bit more confident in writing songs, I’m finding that the intrigue of that perfect melody is becoming all the more enticing.
Even the staunchest hip-hopper is still about connecting and still about communicating. You can sit there and pretend that you’re different and whatever, but you’re still making music and you’re still doing something that has been done throughout the ages. I tend to look for the similarities rather than the difference a lot. And it’s not just a hip-hop thing. The more traditional side of the music industry is so caught up in the past and so stuck in the mud; they don’t sort of see that they’re just as guilty as closing off to hip-hop as hip-hop is to closing off to singing and that form of musicality.
So I just love tackling them both, you know. I still have such a big love of hip-hop – it’s my medium, my form, my genre – but just as a songwriter I want to write more stuff for singers and for people who deliver music outside of hip-hop, just because it’s a natural challenge. I haven’t mastered hip-hop or whatever, but I’ve just done a heap of it and now I want another challenge. I still want to keep writing heaps of hip-hop, but I just want to keep expanding out.
It’s interesting, what you said about looking for the similarities in things rather than the differences. One of the most shocking things you can do is have a look at the Triple J forums and here these Aussie hip-hop kids talking about how they hate all American rap.
It’s just hilarious to me. I thought that line in ‘Fight Fire’ – “My job, my roles, my love is a black art form / I’m a teacup to carry the storm” – was really great.
Ah, thanks. I think a lot of hip-hop people from around the world would be so spun out by hip-hop in Australia (laughs). Just that last five years of growth, or 10 years, it’s given me the ability to do it and keep doing it and I love that, but man, it’s skewed off in some weird directions. That whole patriotic angle is bizarre. That whole anti-American hip-hop thing (laughs), I just find it hilarious because these people are serious! They’re really against hip-hop from America.
In many ways it’s completely fucked-up, but in some ways, you sort of go, well, it’s kind of nice because when I first started getting serious no one would take people like me seriously because it was all about American hip-hop. They’d bring out an American hip-hop act that nobody knew and it would still fill a venue, because hardly any hip-hop acts came out and people were so hungry for it. So it’s gone 180 degrees. But it’s just one of those idiosyncratic developments that you just could never expect. I can sort of predict where certain things are going within hip-hop in some respects, but I never would have picked some of these manifestations (laughs).
I thought ‘Impossible Story’ was a really interesting song in the way that it kind of dealt with the acknowledgement of your own privilege as musicians and songwriters.
That’s a song that kind of explains a lot about The Herd and me, really. It’s being honest about our ability to make a difference. You can only do what’s honest, right? And that’s what we’ve always done for better or for worse. It’s gotten us fans; sometimes it’s alienated people; it’s certainly never got us any commercial love. Don’t make political music in this country and try and go down a commercial route – it doesn’t work – but that’s cool. But you also have to have a little earnestness and a little naivety in order to convey those messages. Because even if you consider yourself educated and try and express things articulately, you’re still coming from a more privileged background than a lot of the people you’re talking about, like, talking about Indigenous issues, where you might have an Aboriginal rapper who has experienced some of the worst conditions – or maybe not – but just experienced life as an Aboriginal Australian.
In that sense, we talk about war and we talk about all this stuff that we think is really important and we just don’t think they should be brushed over. But at the same time, they’re not our stories to tell and we can never tell them properly because until you have that authenticity, it’s always going to be a bunch of dudes talking about shit that the don’t truly understand.
It’s kind of that constant middleclass tension, for the lack of a better term.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve had a real difficulty coming to terms with being middle class. I had never been middle class when I was growing up and I’ve always been very hostile towards the notion of it, because I hang out with a bunch of educated people and most of the time these educated people come from nice backgrounds and we live in a white, privileged society and so on. But I’ve always hung onto my background because I feel like it’s really important to me and I always hate when people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re middle class’ because that’s not me at all. But then again, I’ve worked my way through and while I’ve got many question marks, I’m kind of getting towards that middle class point. Albeit I don’t have kids and a mortgage and all that kind of stuff. But I live a pretty privileged life and I’ve had to just sort of take that on and except it.
It’s kind of like Common rapping about a lot of the same things he rapped about in the early 90s. He’s such a great lyricist and whatever, but you sort of feel like someone’s not being genuine after 15 years of success, where they’re obviously multi-millionaires and still trying to trade on how they came up. I don’t want to be that kind of person.
Spitshine is out through Elefant Traks/Inertia