Interview by Dan Rule
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his sun-drenched Yarraville lounge room, Borce Markovski – of renegade Melbourne hiphop crew Curse Ov Dialect – can’ help but laugh as he relates some of his more expressive live outings with the group. â€œI used to mainly wear dresses and wigs onstage,â€ he says, flashing a wide, almost mischievous smile.
But for the 28-year-old rapper more commonly known by his stage name, Vulk Makedonski (meaning Macedonian Wolf) – there has always been a sense of gravity behind his apparently frivolous antics. â€œIt was about just going onstage in a dress and completely rebelling against all the judgements I see in society and hiphop, the homophobia and prejudice, and just getting up there and saying “Ha, I’m wearing a dress! Say something now!’â€
This kind of sensibility is indicative of the Curse Ov Dialect experience. The group, who recently released their third album Wooden Tongues, have never fit any preconceived, machismo-laden notions of hiphop, and after more than a decade of infamously colourful underground shows – which mix both theatre and politics in a wild miscellany of costumes, dance, ethnic folk music and multi-lingual rapping – they have remained the genre’ odd cousins.
But spending any time with the group, it’s soon apparent that their outsider status is no fluke. In fact, it wouldn’ be unreasonable to contend that the five figures perched around the lounge room – who represent a medley of contradictions themselves, sharing Pakistani, Maltese, Maori, Anglo-Indian and Macedonian descents – came together as a result of their own personal experiences of exclusion.
Indeed, the group originally met as late teenagers after hearing each other’ eccentric freestyle raps on late night community radio, and soon realised they shared common experiences other than just the music. â€œAs kids we were all sort of outcasts from our own areas already,â€ offers a polite, quietly spoken Shehab Tariq (aka Paso Bionic), the group’ 30-year-old DJ and producer. â€œAnd in a way you can’ help but think that that was something that brought us together.â€
â€œInstead of being the cool boys into hiphop, we were the nerd, weirdo guys into hiphop,â€ interrupts a rambling Adam Gauci (aka Raceless), the group’ scruff-haired founding member. â€œIt was just that feeling that we were a bit different to others. I think that’s why we’ve sort of developed into what we are now. If we’d been the guys who picked up all the girls and were really happy in a normal teenage way, our music wouldn’ have developed such a rebellious element. You know, we were listening to Public Enemy and that interesting stuff instead of gangsta rap.â€
Growing up in the outer western suburbs of St Albans and Deer Park, Gauci says he felt rejected by both his European and Anglo classmates. â€œGrowing up in a pretty ethnic area and being half-Anglo and half-Maltese, I was always being told I either wasn’ an Aussie or I was too much of an Aussie,â€ reflects the 30-year-old. â€œBeing a bit loud and different didn’ help either, and I ended up one of the ones the bullies would pick on. So, I had a bit of an identity crisis from the beginning, hence the name Raceless.â€
Earle Stuart (aka Atarungi), who sits statue-like in the corner of the room, and a suave Daryl Rabel (aka August 2, in honour of the day in 1935 that Anglo-Indians were formerly recognised as an ethnic group), also had to deal with issues of identity at a young age.
Stuart, the son of a Maori father and white mother, was rejected by his paternal relatives because of his colour. â€œIt was a fairly major reason why we chose to leave New Zealand and give Australia a go,â€ he says. â€œI was quite young, but I still remember vividly how a lot of my father’ relatives wouldn’ let my mother or any of us kids into their house on the basis of our colour. You know, these racist perspectives of those who consider themselves so honourable from a traditional point of view – this Maori man can’ marry this Caucasian woman.â€
On the other hand, Rabel, who grew up in Mt Waverly in Melbourne’ outer east, had his ethnic heritage shielded from him until he was 14. â€œI would come home from school saying “Mum, they’re making fun of me’,â€ he recalls. â€œMy mum would say “Tell them you’re Australian’ and I would do that, and all the kids would be like “You can’ be, you’re black’ sort of thing. I could never understand it because I never actually knew I was Anglo-Indian; that my ancestors weren’ derived from Captain Cook, you know, and nor were they German settlers in the Barossa Valley or something.â€
â€œIt was for that reason that I ended up probably more patriotic than anyone from my background, because I kind of had that chance denied for me to understand my history or culture. And with that timed with the whole hiphop thing, they kind of joined forces.â€
While each of the group’ members interest in hip-hop had a different source, for Markovski – brought up as a proud Macedonian in Altona – it was his own ethnic folk music that sparked his affinity with rap. â€œMy parents used to play it a lot when I was a kid,â€ he says. â€œThere were a lot of sad stories in those old Macedonian songs; stories, I guess, of hard times and oppression and stuff. And I think I’ve always connected that with understanding hiphop, because they were talking about hard times and oppression as well. Even as a young kid I understood that.â€
Even on their earliest recordings, Curse Ov Dialect always possessed such strong ethnic and multicultural sensibilities. Whether it was sampling music from other cultures or taking in Markovski’ bi-lingual Macedonian and English raps, the group’ music echoed with a cultural diversity never before tackled by Australian rappers. While many of their Australian contemporaries lamented in suburban tales of riding trains writing graffiti, Curse Ov Dialect – first with 1998′ Hex Ov Intellect and then with 2003′ Lost in the Real Sky – wove a rich tapestry of samples and sounds from obscure ethnic folk and tribal gatherings, through to the percussive clinking of office equipment such as staplers and scissors, all the while spouting lyrics that delved into cultural politics and identity as much as they did surrealism and clamorous humour. And then, of course, there’ the wild, costume-clad live show.
But while acknowledging that their approach is different to the norm, Gauci understands their music as a realistic depiction of wider Melbourne culture. â€œIf you’re looking at representing where you’re from, why not make an Indian-themed track and throw in some Amazonian flutes,â€ he spills, waving an arm in the air as if to illustrate the point. â€œThat’s more Melbourne than just having straight-up hiphop beats and raps about graffiti. We’ve always had very strong anti-racist fundamentals and Melbourne’ so culturally diverse, so that’s all we’re trying to represent,â€ he urges. â€œWhy not take a bagpipe sound and mix it with a bassoon; maybe sample something from a Gnawa musician from Morocco, then add a Chinese flute.â€
As Markovski adds, â€œWe genuinely come from a street-level, a street politic level. It’s not like we’ve come out of university with a sudden, new awareness of all these issues and cultures and gone like “Oh, let’s make hiphop records about it’â€¦ We’re talking about our own experiences on our own streets.â€
New record Wooden Tongues continues this theme, exploring music terrains as distinct as Turkish psychedelic rock, Mandarin opera, Eastern European folk and guitar-heavy British rock, while lyrically, it touches on anything from the Cronulla race riots (in “Take Me to the Arab World’), missed loved ones (in “Broken Feathers’) to Macedonia’ turbulent political history (in Markovski’ impassioned “Letter to Athens’).
â€œI think it’s a much more mature album,â€ says Rabel. â€œWe’re all very much our own people and that’s the secret, really. Everybody goes off and does their own thing and then comes together and expresses all their new ideas and all the rest of it. If we were just hanging out together the whole time, doing the same stuff, then we wouldn’ grow as people or as a band.â€
But this doesn’ mean that Curse Ov Dialect are about to pack away their costumes. Says Tariq, â€œThere are plenty of emotional states besides sadness and love and anger, and a lot of music is based on those three states, but there’ so many others. Silliness is one of them, you know; it’s one of the best.â€
But unfortunately, neither does it mean that they’ll be converting any gangsta rappers any time soon. â€œMe and Adam are doing this program at the moment where we’re mentoring young rappers and helping them make tracks,â€ explains Markovski enthusiastically, before breaking into a sheepish smile.
â€œMy kid’ a gangsta rapper called M.O.B. It stands for Money Over Bitches,â€ he pauses, as Adam cracks into a giggle. â€œSo I’m pretty sure he doesn’ think I’m very cool.â€