In Australia, the city of Melbourne is known affectionately by some as ‘Burn City. The nickname is not just a means of shortening a word and being lazy on the vernacular. On the contrary, its meaning is deeply rooted in a strong and passionate form of story telling.
The craft of story telling comes in many forms. Books, film, theatre, music, even fairy tales. For many cultures, story telling is how lessons are taught and children learn, with stories passed on from one generation of elders to the younger folk. For writers of crime fiction, especially in the noir category, there aren’t always happy endings. We base our stories on real life and in real life things don’t always pan out the way they should. But every now and then, a sliver of light shines through and there is an exception.
This week saw a young artist named Illy take out the Best Urban Award as part of the Australian Record Industry Awards, known as the ARIA’s. They are for us what the Grammy’s are for the USA.
Represented by an independent record label known as Obese Records, which began in 1995 and has ever since promoted a unique, underground style of story telling through hip hop, I first discovered the label owners altar ego “Pegz” several years back when introduced to his music.
The story telling within it gripped me. This was real life drama played out in metaphors and similes, gritty, intelligent stories about crime in Australia delivered rapid fire with machine gun attitude. So I sent Pegz a signed copy of my book Blood Sunset, and he sent me a signed copy of his album, ‘Burn City’.
We have since become mates, supporting each other both in a practical and professional capacity. While on tour in 2011 I captured on film the true fan base that his work has spread across the country. Click the below image if you wish to watch the on-stage action.
Obese Records signed Illy some years back when he was just a young up-and-comer. I first watched him perform to a live show at the Melbourne Moomba Festival in early 2011 with only 50 or so people. A year later the number grew to 2000, and now he has an ARIA.
It is the fifth ARIA for the Obese Records label, which has ironically for all intents and purposes over the years deliberately avoided the mainstream. As Pegz says so adamantly “if you want an American accent, that’s not who we are. We hold it down for Australian artists, coz it’s the voice of our own that we’ve grown to avoid…”
Yet when asked what “Australian” means he’s quick to point out that we’re all from somewhere else (he himself is part Tongan), and that being Australian is about more than sport and BBQ’s.
While Pegz represents the old school, guys who came up hard in a generation where graffiti was illegal and artists seen as ‘vandals’, when the ‘gumbies’ (train security patrol officers) would chase you down the track and beat the life out of you, Illy represents the Y-Generation… and he does it well.
A lot of commentators take pride in picking on the Y-Gens, but those who do might want to steer clear of Illy, because he is no typical layabout. Like Pegz, whose stories are hardcore, political and reminiscent, for many (myself included) Illy is an inspiration. And here’s why…
Imagine breaking your back in an accident, ending up in hospital and being told you’ll never walk again. Now imagine standing on stage in front of the country taking out the highest musical accolade in the land.
More than a few steps in between, wouldn’t you think?
Illy’s music not only represents the reality of the Y-gen larrikinism, but more importantly he wears his lyrical heart on his sleeve and tells of his struggles to learn to walk again, never giving up and pursuing a career as an artist despite the odds.
From stories of back-packing around the world, leaving footprints in the sand at the full moon parties in Thailand, then trekking off to the Greek Islands, he also pays respect to his parents for supporting his dreams, raising him right and in one of his more powerful tracks, pays homage to ANZAC veterans who died on the shores of Gallipoli and the Prisoners of War who fought back on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.
The track, ‘Our Country’ is also dedicated to the fire-fighters who batted the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, a day in which more than 200 people died less than 30 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne. But like Pegz, Illy is no ‘white power’ bigot. The last lines in Our Country sign off with a conflicted commentary about being ashamed of the race riots in Sydney but at the same time being proud to live in a land where we can all look to the Southern Cross and pray to whatever God we believe in.
“…Because we’re all from Bagdad to Britain….”
But without a doubt his finest moment is found in the accapella introduction to a relentless story of self pursuit to make the most out of life even when the chances of success are limited, especially in the music industry, which in many ways is not dissimilar to the book industry for emerging writers. Cigarettes (which is not about smoking, by the way) is instead a powerful metaphor about his wish to be remembered for leaving his mark on the world, like a cigarette that burns down to the butt, leaving ash in its path so when he is gone we’ll know he was here.
I’m sure most writers understand this driving ethos.
This week Australian hip-hop, and Obese Records in particular, stood tall and proud to show the nation that the craft of story telling comes in many forms and that for some cultures, including the youth urban music scene, story telling is how lessons are taught, with stories passed on from one generation to another.
Like a house of cards that can’t stand in a storm, for writers of crime noir, there aren’t always happy endings. We base our stories on real life and in real life things get tough. But every now and then, a sliver of light shines through and there is an exception.
If this week’s success for both Illy and the team at Obese Records is anything to go by, that sliver of light shining in Burn City might just get a little bit brighter each year.
For more information on Illy, Pegz or the many other talented artists represented by Obese Records, visit their website here