It’s easy to feel like the only way of making hip hop is to either create ironic, self-reflexive pastiche or to pretend it’s 1994. It’s easy to feel like the only subject to rap about is rap. I mean, if Jay Z can flip everyone out with Death of Autotune, imagine if he did a song about the death of a phenomenon that meant something. So, if no one can do anything relevant, what is there for it but for today’ mic-wielders to either hide behind video game nostalgia and pop culture references, faux-gangsta posturing, or under-conceived political nonsense?
Somehow this madness has passed Mata and Must by. A shining beacon – like an inner city pub that’s yet to be renovated, or a chef prepared to cook with water and not stock to keep it white – Mata and Must have managed to hang onto relevance, despite not giving a shit about it. They’ve managed it by simply immersing themselves in their own music, being earnest about it, and making sure it’s good. It’s a fairly simple formula, I guess, it’s just surprising that something so simple (and, occasionally, simplistic) has managed to get a foothold. In a genre where “believing in things’ has become such a convoluted, clumsy, hulking palimpsest Mata and Must’s earnestness is refreshing.
So how do you bring a genre back to life, then? Time to phone Melbourne to find out.
Ring ring Ring ring
“Yeah, hi. My name’ James, I’m from Cyclic Defrost. I was calling for Mata and Must.”
“Yeah, I’ll just get them.”
A minute passes and then two bright, keen, friendly, young voices materialise.
“Sorry, that was my dad”, says Must, and an interview begins.
It turns out that both Mata and Must live at home with their respective parents. It doesn’t bother either of them. It’s a pretty accurate microcosm of the life they lead: unconcerned by much of the world outside the studio – living in a cool suburb, getting away from Mum and Dad, partying – their life besides music isn’ worth fretting about.
Mata and Must work at the same place, share a car trip there and back, listen to community station RRR or PBS, and talk music. Music, music, music.
This lifestyle makes the first question obvious. A close friendship, a common workplace, and an obsession with the music they make; how many hours a day are the boys in the lab?
Raucous laughter, then Mata explains, “It depends, you know when you’re your own boss it could be anything from sixteen to one. We’ll go in five days a week and then sometimes on the weekend.”
So they’re living the dream? “It’s the reality! We are doing it all the time. We might not see each other on Sunday but chances are we both made a beat or were involved in music – playing a gig or going to a gig – so we’re so immersed in thinking music that it that it’s hard to remove ourselves anyway.”
To business, then. The boys have completed their new album Paradox of Minds, six years after their first, and it’s stunning. I can’ help thinking it’s a metaphor for something, though. So much of the lyrical content is straightforward – about The Industry and about Making Music – but I feel like there’ something else going on.
â€œThat title track and the album…writing that we wanted to write an album and we wanted to make it about opposites,” Mata says. “It kind of reflects me and Musty’ relationship. This inverted sort of reflection of each other. We’re pretty different, but we’re real close. We’ve known each other since about “96. And have spent a hell of a lot of time together and we’re similar in the things that we like to write about as well.”
“There’ a lot of paradoxes. We’re not doing this for money, but on the other hand, we want to do it to the point where we can make money for it. We run a label and we’re artists on that label, you know?”
The cover art for Paradox of Minds is striking. Black and white photographs of a studio filled with recording stuff and two men in their twenties managing it all. Inside the cover: a list of the equipment and computer programs that the boys used in putting Paradox of Minds together.
“I guess that’s about how we like to do everything ourselves from start to finish. We save up for the new equipment and then end up writing about that. We make music for, you know, really enthusiastic hip hop heads. This is sort of an emcee’ album or producer’ album. All the people we hang out with that make music or run labels; they’re the ones we think will get the most out of it”, says Must.
“That list is just the sort of we would appreciate in an album,” Mata says. “I find it interesting to learn how something was made.”
Much of Paradox of Minds is spent reflecting on the state of The Industry, and manufacturing a way forward in a market struggling to deal with the New Media. Mata and Must are also label heads of Pang Productions. Surely, as both artists and label runners, they’d have a fair bit to say about the commercial realities of music making. They’ve reflected on it at length.
For Must, “the way we consume music is very much changing. At the end of the day those ten people who’ve downloaded might spread it to another ten who might purchase. Are we making music to make money or to influence people’ lives?” A paradox (of minds), apparently.
Mata adds, “when you had the CD sales fall, you had the prices of tickets and the actual sales of tickets go up so there was this parallel between them. If you have more people downloading your music, that’s just more exposure so other income avenues should go up.”
“But the main reason I make music is the need to create something. At the end of the day – and this is also through running the label – I feel like we’re making a good contribution by putting music out there.”
But (and these paradoxes keep piling up) if Mata and Must were all about getting their music to the greatest number as easily as possible, why charge for the album? Why feed the beast?
Mata and Must considered putting the album up for free download. Must says, “we weighed up the advantages. If we did it as a free thing, maybe we could get it to a lot more people and maybe sell out larger shows.”
“But I have a thing about value and how you value your product. Some people will have a product that they sell on the street for five dollars when it’s really worth twenty. The value you put on your product transcends to the listener. If I’ve worked one hour for twenty bucks and I can go out and buy four albums in comparison to one, I will value each of those four albums less that the more expensive one.”
So a free album is only worth as much as it costs?
“We’re selling this as a product, and that’s why we spent so much time on mixing and mastering…Churning it out is just not our style. We’re always trying to make the highest quality we can possible; you’ve got to make the best track.”
They’re making art. They’re selling it as a product. They’re label bosses. They’re artists. They object to The Industry. They’re a part of The Industry. They want their music to be heard by as many people as possible. They won’t give it away free.