'Urthboy interview' – Everguide

For Tim Levinson, a nomination for the 8th Australian Music Prize (AMP) is all in a day’s work. The head of Sydney’s Elefant Traks label – one of the most prolific in the country’s booming hip-hop scene – is more commonly referred to as Urthboy, the moniker under which he recently released his fourth solo album in under a decade. Smokey’s Haunt features collaborations with fellow Elefant Traks artists Solo (of Sydney-based duo Horrorshow) and Jimblah, as well as legendary R&B singer Daniel Merriweather and Levinson’s soul sister, frequent collaborator and fellow member of The Herd, Jane Tyrrell.

Urthboy will be out to win votes at the AMP Alive show this Friday night alongside the competition-shortlisted AMP nominees Hermitude and Jess Ribeiro & the Bone Collectors. We sat down to chat about the pressure to produce the same-sounding records year after year, the beef (or lack thereof) amongst artists in the seemingly tight-knit Australian hip-hop community and what the unapologetically political and divisive Levinson thinks the scene needs most.

Brodie Lancaster: Hi Tim, how are you going?
Tim Levinson (Urthboy): I’m good thanks Brodie, how are you?

BL: Great, thank you. Congratulations on the AMP nomination! Do you ever take it for granted that it’s pretty common now for hip-hop records to be nominated for prizes like that?
TL: Well, it’s hard to say that I take it for granted, cos it’s hard to separate myself from it. If I’m just being objective and looking at other artists I can go, ‘Yeah, there’s a development of an artform here’. [The hip hop genre] is comparable to other genres of music so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s talked about in the same way. But I’m just too biased, because when it comes to my record I definitely don’t take that for granted.

BL: It’s nice to see more and more recognition for the hip-hop community over the years, especially since a big theme in the lyrics in a lot of Aussie hip-hop tracks is a disbelief that things are going so well. Does it always feel like things are going great?
TL: It can go either way. The fact that the audience has continued to grow is a great thing. Although I guess the culture has diversified, which means that not everything that comes out of it is worth championing. It becomes a little bit more anonymous, and it becomes a bit harder to distinguish between us because there’s so many more of us. The fact that there’s a great audience means you can open up little nooks where voices that we haven’t heard before are able to be amplified. And that means artists from Indigenous backgrounds, through to African backgrounds - people from different cultures who may not be heard through different genres. That’s one of the great positives.

BL: I remember reading you talking specifically about Indigenous artists in the Vine’s recent piece on racism in Aussie hip-hop, and how important it is for them to be involved in the scene, sharing their stories. Do you have some artists in mind who are doing a good job of that right now?
TL: Yeah, for sure! We’ve got two artists on our roster - and I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound like I’m just big upping [Elefant Traks’] own roster, because the issue’s much bigger than that, but we also put our money where our mouth is as far as that issue’s concerned.

The Last Kinection and Jimblah are two artists that are very vocal and have a great sense of pride in their heritage and they want to share those stories. There’s a fairly conciliatory tone in what they do, but there’s also a great frustration in the issues that they face.

Those are the voices that I think that the great majority of audiences in Australia need to hear. And I’m referring there to middle-class, white people - and I’m one of those people now. The tendency is for the same sort of stories to creep through; we like to be reminded of things that appeal to us. So I suppose that to me explains the great popularity of hip-hop here - most of the artists have been white artists, because they’re telling stories that these kids all identify with.

But really, I think artists would be very enthusiastic about some of these other voices coming through and inspiring these kids. Because most of us grew up on a type of hip-hop that forced us to really challenge our own views. Artists from when the likes of Hilltop Hoods and Drapht and Bliss n Eso were growing up were, you know, Public Enemy and Geto Boys and Ice-T, and these different artists that made you uncomfortable. They didn’t try and cater to appeasing you. They talked about issues that felt like an attack, but at the same time, they really challenged your way of thinking. And I dare say there are a lot of kids growing up now that don’t have that.

You know, in America the vast majority of hip hop is about pop culture, so you’ve got a very smoothed out scene where it becomes so much about vapid things like money and relationships and whatnot. Things that are important on some level, but you really hope they’re only going to form part of the picture, not the whole thing. [For] kids growing up nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if their cultural intake from music amounted to not much more than their own little insular world. I always found the exposure to the radical ideas in hip-hop taught me more of a deeper world view.

BL: Yeah, it’s almost like kids listening to hip-hop artists now who come from a similar background to them aren’t learning as much, or being as challenged as if they had an equivalent of a Public Enemy.
TL: Yeah, for sure! And that’s not to take away from any of the artists now, cos they’re just doing what is true to them. You can’t fault the likes of the Hilltop Hoods for being very true to where they come from, or 360 for doing what he feels is his true art.

But at the same time, kids don’t even think about this issue! That’s why you have so many of these…patriotic, young, white fans having these racist tendencies. All you have to do is look at some of the responses to video clips on YouTube, or people’s Facebook pages, to see that there’s this sinister undercurrent of racism in the hip-hop scene and any hip-hop artist that says that they’ve never been exposed to it is probably white!

BL: It’s almost as if the concept of having Australian hip-hop as a genre is as far as they’re willing to go to learn something new.
TL: Yeah, and I don’t want to cast aspersions or generalise about people, because the reality is that a lot of people who listen to hip-hop are complex people – we’re all complex people! But hip-hop is such a young genre that we know where it comes from. It comes from black struggle. It feels like an outrageous predicament that you would encounter a prevalence of racism. It just feels like fucking bizarre world.

BL: We’re getting into something that I would really love to keep discussing, but I have to move on for the sake of time.
TL: That’s cool.

BL: You mentioned that you came up around the same time as Bliss n Eso and Hilltop Hoods. You guys were all kind of clearing the path for the new artists that are coming up now and we got to see all of you forming this united front in the video for ‘Rattling the Keys to the Kingdom’ recently. Would you say there’s a significant lack of competition or rivalry between everyone in the scene at the moment, despite being on different labels and everyone trying to have the same success?
TL: I think everybody’s working very hard in their own careers, and once you peel back one of those layers of the perceptions of the relationships between artists you will find that there’s a lot of competition there. Make no mistake about it. But at the same time, a lot of those artists - the Hoods and Drapht and these characters - we value our lifestyles in such a way that that sense of competition doesn’t overwhelm your own sense of being… ah, how do I say it… being reasonable.

You know when you can be competitive to the point where it starts to influence your decisions and you stop seeing clearly? You let it cloud your judgment. I don’t think that there are too many artists in Australia that let it cloud their judgment to such an extent that relationships are callously destroyed. Of course it happens! But when people get along on social media, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re best friends but there’s a certain level of respect there. And there’s a collective sense that that respect is a really important thing to maintain and with that comes not being a complete arsehole to another artist. I think that most of us hang out at some point or we have friendships that we’ve worked on over the years. A lot of the time it’s quite genuine. Other times it’s like, choose your battles. Live and let live.

I think that sometimes the beef that occurs in hip-hop in the States… we inherit a sense that that’s going to happen here. And it’s forgetting that culturally we’re really different, that’s why we don’t have a similar style of hip-hop over here. We don’t automatically absorb the mentality that they have over there. Put it as simple as: quite often it’s frowned upon to not talk about money over there, to not talk about being big and ambitious. It’s part of the American psyche that Tall Poppy Syndrome is not an issue over there. In fact, you’re celebrated for those approaches to life. Over here: no way! The Australian psyche is much more about downplaying those things, not being in your face about your ambitions and not celebrating your ego. So I think we struggle with that and our hip-hop reflects that.

BL: So on your most recent album you collaborated again with Jane Tyrrell and Solo, but you also had Daniel Merriweather working with you. I think that was a surprise for a lot of people – mostly because you’re from really different backgrounds in the music scene. How did you guys hook up?
TL: That was just a really great coincidence. We always wanted Daniel Merriweather on that song as soon as we’d written it. He did make some changes to it and brought a whole individuality to it, and he added some of the writing. But we wrote that song and said, “If we could get one voice, it’d be Daniel Merriweather.”

I didn’t know him at that point, but a lot of my friends are great mates with him from Melbourne. Through a series of events – all of them pretty coincidental – he ended up in the studio with us. It was one of those things where every single part of the process of this song seemed to just fall into place.

The only thing that didn’t fall into place with this song, was with the public and the audience. It’s a different sound for me, but fuck! Who cares!? What do people want - the same songs regurgitated? It’s a sad day for any artist to feel like there are rules imposed on them and they can’t step over the lines. As if this is a colouring in contest and we don’t want to cross the line. It’s not something that I’ve ever felt obliged to comply with. While I say that, a lot of the audience loved it, but the perception for some people is that you fit into this like spot here and if you veer off, then that’s not true to what we thought you were. Unfortunately, what you thought that artist was, was a little construct that you’d made up in your own mind. I mean, that’s cool; each to their own, you’re not supposed to like every new phase that an artist goes through - you don’t have to follow. That’s the beauty of it. You get on the train and you get back off. It’s a lovely thing!

BL: I’ve got to wrap up in a second, but I wanted to ask what you’ve got in store for the AMP Alive event at Fed Square this weekend?
TL: We’ve got a shorter set than normal, but this is literally the last time, the last show, that we’ll be doing as DJ, myself and Jane. So we’re gonna be partying! It’s the only all ages show we’ve got in Melbourne so we’re hoping that the people who can’t come to the corner in March can come to Federation Square and share what is actually a really momentous occasion for us. I’ve been playing with Gusto in our live shows for 10 years and this will be the last time we play in this format.

BL: Wow, it’s really gonna be a special one!
TL: Yeah I can’t wait! Hermitude are playing a sold out show at the corner that night and it’s literally gonna be…it’s gonna be
great! I’m not even gonna put any tags on it, it’s just gonna be great!

Posted on Everguide, January 31, 2013.