Shannon Kennedy, aka Ozi Batla, is a formative member of Australian hip-hop collective The Herd, as well as one third of fellow Elefant Traks signees Astronomy Class.
An influential MC in domestic hip-hop for most of the past decade, his rhymes manage to transcend many of local hip-hop’ most common conceits, while maintaining his signatory brand of humour and eclecticism. To celebrate the release of his eagerly anticipated debut album Wild Colonial, which is out now on Elefant Traks, Cyclic Defrost demanded of Batla that he list and discuss some of his favourite records. The results are surprising.
I’m not sure why the kids are so keen to do the 80s again. My overwhelming memories of the early 1980s were of Ronald Raygun, WWIII, Chernobyl and the Rainbow Warrior. Perhaps I was a morbid kid. But I did have an obsession with nuclear war. I can’t remember when I first heard “O Superman (For Massenet)’. I know my dad played it a lot after he bought Big Science. I was lucky, there’s heaps of records I think of fondly from my dad’s collection. I do remember being struck by the naÃ¯ve yet disturbing imagery in that song, the vocoder and the ambient sounds. I found the rest of the album a complete trip. “Jump out of the plane. There is no pilot.” The exhilarating and sickening inertia of the modern world. Big Science still sounds really organic, almost folksy at times, despite the fact that Anderson was using some cutting edge drum machines, samplers and effects. Mixed with the glorious weirdness of her prose, it was the tale of a cold, Reaganist future, Bladerunner meets American Psycho.
Anderson’s vocal is the human warmth you cling to throughout the story, but she begins to seem so normal, so cheerily immune to it all. I began to question how human she actually was. She’s like a clone of something real, but missing a key component. There’s no warmth, just platitudes, polite conversation and etiquette. As the civility is slowly stripped away, the sinister architecture is revealed. “You were born, and so you’re free. So happy birthday.”
These days I’m not sure it would rate as my favourite Oils album – that’s a toss-up between 10…1 and Red Sails in The Sunset, but I was a bit too young to get into those when they came out. Diesel and Dust was a huge record at the time. It’s hard to imagine these days how big the Oils were at the peak of their fame. It’s also hard to imagine a band as political as the Oils being that big now. I think it’s reflective of the environmental and social conscience of the 80s. It doesn’t really feel like people give a shit as much now. Think of the Exxon Valdez, the Oils out the front of the New York HQ. Is there a globally famous band outside of the BP headquarters right now? This album has some classic Oils stompers: “The Dead Heart’s is one of my favourite songs from any album. In the same way that Chuck D opened doors to US history, the Oils led me to question Australian history. “We don’t serve your country, don’t serve your king.” I didn’t get out to the desert until much later, but the influence of it’s people and music is obvious on this album – the uniquely driving rhythm of desert rock/reggae is the spinal column of this political animal. “Dreamworld’ is a perfect dismissal of the Aussie Sprawl, kit-home paradise, while “Sometimes’ riffs on the Oil’s central theme: “I know that the sunset empire shudders and shakes.” I’d say it’s still kicking – ask the people of the Western Desert or Louisiana.
Far out, writing this is making me feel old! I was thinking the other day that we used to pass around tapes in class the way kids exchange obscene photos or fight videos via Bluetooth now. Cranky old bastard I am turn down your phone on the bus no one wants to listen to a shitty Rihanna MP3 through a tiny mono speaker. In high school, the most perverse, illicit thing we could pass around the classroom without fear of detention was a cassette of rap music. I can still remember the look on the face of the mate who hooked me up with Ice T when I played him The Geto Boy’s Gangsta of Love. I’ve been listening back to some of the early gangsta shit, and although yes, I’m desensitised from years of rap, computer games and American TV, I still think it’s more raw than the modern equivalent. To be fair, when I got the tape of Straight Outta Compton I scoured the liner notes and photos on the sleeve, because that was probably all the information I would be able to glean. These days, someone like Ice Cube has his life all over TV and the Internet. We all know he didn’t really run up in the party and take ’em out with the furious buckshot.
This album flipped my wig as I’m sure it did many a wig. Other notables are Ice T’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech and OG, The Geto Boys, Eazy Duz It, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Life is…Too Short. For some reason West Coast shit was always way more popular where I grew up – maybe it’s because I was always hanging out with Steve B from Brisbane and Brisbane is built on West Coast hip hop.
I was one of those kids that got knocked for being a “try-hard” American. I don’t know why I was obsessed with American culture. I would prefer to watch the Oakland Raiders over the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, Michael Jordan over Allan Border, Fresh Prince of Bell-Air over Hey, Dad! It was the same with music. I think because of my parent’s influence, I’ve always had a sense of social justice (a careers councillor told me so). When this blended with my growing interest in Afro-American culture it lead me inevitably to Public Enemy.
I saw a photo of my teenage bedroom recently: there’s a massive PE logo up on the wall, next to a Magic Johnson poster. I photocopied it from the record and then enlarged it a dozen times until it was big and very blurry. For sure, I was into movies like Colors and Boyz in the Hood, but it was Do The Right Thing that really captured my imagination. Between them, Spike Lee and Chuck D led me to a greater interest in the American civil rights movement and American history in general. I constantly get into arguments about Takes a Nation of Millions… I appreciate that it was groundbreaking and seminal and raw as hell. But Fear of a Black Planet has it all. It is littered with samples and cultural references. It casts a critical eye over the whole landscape, black and white America alike. Mixed race relationships, Hollywood bullshit, musical politics, some crazy conspiracy theories, life in the hood, a civil rights anthem. The Bomb Squad brought beats as diverse as the subject matter. Plus it’s got Kane and Cube on the same track. Leave this off your fuckin’ charts.
The year after high school, I did an exchange program for a year in Argentina. One of the cool aspects of this was the lead-up. There were camps and get togethers for months beforehand, and there were obviously quite a few girls at these events. One of these girls was the coolest chick I had ever met – not that I had met many. She was from Balmain and used to drink at the Cricketer’s with other cool Sydney High kids. Like most of my Inner West friends growing up, she knew a lot more about good indie and punk music than I did. I think most people at my school were still stuck on Use Your Illusion. I greedily sought out her recommendations. Massappeal, Tumbleweed, Spy vs Spy, The Hard Ons. In ’93 while I was in Argentina, she posted me a tape with Siamese Dream on one side and Gish on the other. I listened to it to death, chopped and sticky-taped it a dozen times. The hazy intensity of this album really spoke to me at the time – off on adventures and full of bravado and teen angst. That, and the fact that it was a gift from a girl I had a crush on, I suppose, means that this album sparks a lot of exciting memories. Before they disappeared up Billy Corgan’s arse I think they were one of the best bands of the Seattle era – their Selina’s gig in ’94 was sick. Siamese Dream is densely layered, trickily arranged and beautifully played. I listened to this, Superunknown, Alice in Chain’s Jar of Flies and the Rollins Band End of Silence so much while I was over there. For the record, I’m not very familiar with much after “Spaceboy’, because it was only a 90 minute tape.
When I got back from a year away it felt like I’d missed a whole lot of big things. I’d drifted away from hip hop – I was in Ramones-ville for the duration of 1993, which I also regard as the best year of rap records ever. I was still craving breaks and rhymes but wasn’t relating so much to the stuff I used to like. In fact, I wasn’t relating to much at the all. I spent a lot of ’94 smoking weed and making beats in my bedroom. On the weekends I was going to raves and nightclubs, getting mashed and dancing to hardcore/breakbeat and jungle. Every Monday night I was tuning into a Jungle Massive Australia show on Bondi FM. If anyone remembers who was hosting it, let me know! When the programming finished each night, they played either Portishead’s Dummy, Neneh Cherry’s Homebrews or Blue Lines on a loop. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, blunted and in a solitary place. Coming from a background of listening to rap at high school, and looking for something more relevant, this era of UK music showed me a way I could absorb hip hop into my life. There’s an assumed knowledge of hip hop and reggae on Blue Lines, and they are incorporated it in a really natural way. Hearing raps in English accents was a big deal for me as well. This album led me towards UK music over the next few years: Tricky, Mo Wax, Tru Playaz, Rodney P, Task Force, Blak Twang, Roots Manuva and anything with an Amen or Apache break. I made an odd detour though UK beats and jungle back to hip hop. I guess that’s where my love for melodic vocals and breaks comes from.
I remember seeing BjÃ¶rk at the Big Day Out in 1994. It was just after “Human Behaviour’ had come out, and she was billed between Soundgarden and the Smashing Pumpkins, which might have been why I saw her. The crowd was vaguely hostile, she was skittish and reluctant, but somehow managed to channel that into her performance. It was electrifying. I don’t think anyone guessed at the transformation she would make on the next album. The whole thing is so poised, despite the highwire act it performs to traverse styles. It was the moment that I realised all sorts of people worldwide were being influenced by the same varieties of music. I guess I was trying to figure out what to do with the MC inside me, with such a strange journey through electronica, rock, rap and jungle. It was refreshing to hear it didn’t have to be one way or the other – not even for the duration of a single record. Post is ostensibly a pop record, but it definitely had enough to keep my underground-attuned ears listening. I’ve always been a fan of BjÃ¶rk’s writing. She has an economy of words that contrasts so well with her daring vocal swoops. The lyrics to “Hyperballad’ are so shockingly visual and visceral it’s hard to believe it was a big single. “I imagine what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks / And when I land, will my eyes be closed or open?” Gosh. The Dobie remix of “I Miss You’ (with a verse from Rodney P) is one of my favourite hip-hop tracks of the time.
I made the second big trip of my life in 1999. I went to visit an old mate in Los Angeles and spent a while in Cali. It was an eye-opening experience. The US is such an incredibly diverse place, and California was a real buzz. On that trip I managed to see KRS-ONE giving a lecture on “Knowledge of Self” at an Oakland high school – no joke. I remember getting blunted at Hermosa Beach Backpacker’s and listening to Moment of Truth the whole way through for the first time. “You Know My Steez’ was already an Ozi Batla & DJ ALF favourite, but I hadn’t heard the rest. I was struggling to deal with the contrast in Los Angeles. Just across the road from the holiday-vibed Hermosa Beach was Crenshaw. We were driving with a friend on the freeway one day and I asked him the name of the suburb – he had no idea. For me, Moment of Truth is the album on which Guru best expresses his thoughts on this social divide. Plus Premier always saved his best shit for Gangstarr, and the beats on this album are sublime. Tracks like “Robbin Hood Theory’ and “JFK to LAX’ felt like the perfect soundtrack as I got around LA. I was talking to a good mate the other day about how deeply I was affected by Guru’s passing. I hadn’t been sleeping on his legacy – Gangstarr are, in my mind, one of the most important rap groups of all time. It’s just that I didn’t realise how much I cherished these songs and the man who voiced them. I really hope that in the future, all the lies and negativity that clouded his death clear away, and we’re left with a view of his influence and talent. “Next Time’ is one of the best Primo beats ever and Guru was on point as always.
From LA, a few of my best mates from home joined me as we drove a 1984 Volkswagen van south to Costa Rica. We spent 6 months on the road through Mexico and Central America. It was one of the dopest things I’ve ever done and probably always will be. About two months in, we were in a cassette market in Mexico City, and picked up bootlegs of Control Machete’s ArtillerÃa Pesada and Clandestino. I knew Manu Chao already from Mano Negra, who I got into when I was in Argentina, but this album was different. Recurring musical themes, toy dub sirens and heaps of samples, mixed with mariachi, cumbia and french pop. It was really a soundtrack to what we were seeing every day.
The title track always reminds of a border between El Salvador and Honduras. The border itself is a river in a deep valley; the border crossing is a bridge high above it. We were without the ownership papers for our van, and as such accustomed to the intricate dance of bribery that occurred every time we crossed a border. The place was full of spaced-out kids hoping to act as “guides” through this bureaucratic minefield. Our van hidden behind a wall of semi-trailers, Toe-Fu pulled out the guitar and we played the Clandestino for a group of guides and truckies. They had never heard it, but the lyrics told the story of their lives. It was fucking surreal. In Guatemala, we formed a “band” – us and some local friends – to play for beer or pizza. We would play a few tunes from this album. This trip was the first time I really jammed with Toe-Fu, who would become an integral part of The Herd. Clandestino is the album that brought us together. “Mentira’ is one of my favourite tunes para siempre.
I was definitely right into the Stone’s Throw label for a good portion of the 2000s. For me, post Rawkus, they were the best and most consistent hip-hop label. I spent a long time when I got back from overseas rolling with my man DJ ALF and the flurpers. We were doing a residency with the Sonic Fiction d’n’b crew in the Cross every Saturday night. We’d go until about six in the morning and then move on for a hazy day at someone’s pad. This usually involved the most tweaked and blunted breaks the fellas could get their hands on. Stone’s Throw was always in the mix. Soundpieces: Da Antidote and Declaime (later Dudley Perkins) were the start of it, Lord Quas – in fact any record that Madlib had anything to do with. He was really breaking down hip-hop into tiny pieces and then fucking with those pieces in dope ways. He kept it out of the lush studios that polish the soul out of it, and, of course, the grit and the crackle were exactly what our fried ears needed. Doom would get flipped a lot, too. The way he messes with the vernacular and his cartoon imagery worked wonders. It was almost inevitable that Madvillainy would be ill. It caught Madlib at his peak – I don’t really think he has produced another full album of the same quality since. And Doom was on fire. “Shadows of Tomorrow’ is one of the tunes of the decade. “Doom nominated for the best rolled L’s / And they wondered how he dealt with stress so well”. Pass to left.
Ozi Batla’ Wild Colonial is out now on Elefant Traks.