By Isabelle Galet-Lalande
This article was first published in GAD Magazine Issue 01, 'Street Futures', Spring 2018, Tokyo.
To ask young Sydney creatives about the state of their city’s nightlife in 2018 is likely an invitation to apathy – less the type inspired by indifference than that which tends to settle in wake of inevitable loss. The Brooklynification of Sydney’s queer, artist and student neighborhoods in recent years has been particularly swift, and legislation passed in 2014 to prevent nightclubs and bars from accepting patrons after 1:30 am was seen by many as the death knell of the inner city DIY culture that once hosted the Severed Heads, Pel Mel, the Divinyls and much of what once made Sydney an impossible force to ignore on the global stage.
Sitting down with Dev from Australian grime sensation Slim Set on the banks of Parramatta River, forty minutes from city’s CBD, the excitement is palpable – here at least, there is no place for nostalgia. While one era of Sydney music may be over, another is popping up due West of the city in Parramatta: historically a hub for migrants and industrial workers, the city of 25,000 has seen a sharp rise in commercial activity since the turn of the century, the last decade experiencing something of a Renaissance in terms of cultural funding and attention from the state government.
Parramatta native Dev and his creative partner and high school buddy, DJ Atro, have spent the last few years crafting the soundtrack to a city in transition. The inspirations are eclectic and utterly Australian: second-generation Asian heritage, Soundcloud rap culture, urban alienation, and queer club ethos are all at play and are tackled with a balance of nervous punk energy and self-awareness bordering on academic. With support slots for AJ Tracey and Father, two EPs and a couple of electrifying singles under their belt, the duo’s dizzying array of sonic and cultural cues is paving the way for a new generation of Australian club kids too young to remember (nor care for) the glory days of Future Classic and Astral People – but for Dev, the experiment is only just beginning.
Isabelle Galet-Lalande: How did you and Atro start making music together?
Dev: We were friends from high school, but we didn’t start making music until after. Zach [Atro] had come back from a “discover yourself” South East Asia trip, you know the rite of passage kind - I shouldn’t say that, he gets cut when I remind him -
I.G.: Off the record.
D.: Off the record! But he just came back from traveling and was trying to find something to do. I was just rapping as a joke at that point, and he was like, “Hey, would you rap on tracks if I made beats?” He hadn’t made a single beat at that point, and we just started making stuff on Fruity Loops.
I.G.: What motivated you to start releasing more cohesively under Slim Set?
D.: I always really loved boom-bap and hip hop, I actually love Aussie hip hop as well, but from the get-go, we were trying to position ourselves in opposition to all of that. There’s a strong late 90s, early 2000s understanding of what hip hop is and I guess we’re trying to combat that.
I.G.: The Australian hip hop we grew up on is pretty old school like that.
D.: I mean it only speaks to a certain kind of identity, you know what I mean? I remember Horrorshow was a big one for Fort Street, and I loved them as well, but the market they appealed to was fourteen-year-old white lads from Balmain or Blue Mountains kids – nothing wrong with that, but I see where there was such a strong knee-jerk reaction to what it is, despite the fact it’s very similar to Sticky Fingers.
I.G.: It’s common for MCs to work with a bunch of producers, often just emailing tracks remotely and adapting to different workflows and sounds. You’ve had the total opposite experience working almost solely with DJ Atro the last few years, how do you think that’s shaped you as an MC?
D.: Definitely, just because I know him so well there’s a level of communication that wouldn’t occur physically. I’ll just look at him and he knows what I’m talking about. But also it just means that we can be honest with each other. For both of us, his producing and my rapping, it just means that we can be vulnerable. You can be like, “I don’t know how this sounds, can you help me?” He would help me write my bars, and I would sit there while he was mixing and be like, “Bro!”
I.G.: You can screw up in front of each other.
D.: Exactly. And you honestly know what’s good, what’s working.
I.G.: You’ve worked with a pretty tight network of collaborators – how did you go about connecting with them, was it more of an Internet or IRL route?
D.: It’s funny, they’re all IRL. I haven’t messaged any producers, I already have a producer, you know? That’s the difference between me and a lot of other people. Kimchi works with Zac but she works with a lot of different kinds of people and is always looking for beats. We were in the studio with Miss Blanks the other day and it was funny, her approach is so different to mine – she was literally going from producer to producer looking for a vibe or features. The ones that have come about for me were because we already knew each other in real life and there was already a relationship there. Kimchi and I met at a gig and we had a bunch of mutual friends, Triple One gave us our first paid gig after [Sydney musician and party organizer] Jeremy Elphick! Jeremy gave us our first paid gig back in 2014 at Test Pressing, it was one of his early nights with [Sydney rock band] the Southend Rainbows.
I.G.: Do you feel like there’s a common thread in this very niche Sydney hip hop community?
D.: I think the common thread between the three of us, despite the fact we don’t really hang out together and talk about it, is the fact that we’re all trying something a little bit different. Not to shade anyone who’s coming up or doing well now, but Aussie hip hop is so solidified as what it is, then there’s also that new wave of trap with Minor Crooks and all that. They’re ‘doing’ trap and it’s sick, but they sound like ‘that.’ What the three of us are doing is trying to blend and cook up something new.
I.G.: One of the things I found really different when hearing you rap for the first time was that you don’t adopt US or UK persona despite working in that trap and grime space. You seem to really be avoiding any of those go-to ad-libs and inflections that a lot of international rappers tend to use as a way of identifying and fitting in within that wider culture. How did you go about developing a flow and persona that felt more local to you?
D.: It was kind of hard. I definitely sounded more American when I started out. I think the rise of grime was such a good thing for us - we’d always known about grime, but then when it started to blow up and with the similarity to the Australian accent, it gave us a place to go accent-wise. It took me a long time. In the first year we definitely sounded more American: beat-wise, structure-wise, accent-wise… I think, one, it’s just becoming more comfortable and not being so disgusted by your own accent, but two, it’s also just blending it, I mean it wasn’t straight up like “Crikey!” It’s about being proud of your accent without being nationalistic or over-the-top.
I’ve heard rappers out here describe it as a global culture, I mean we were in high school when A$AP Rocky got big. We grew watching those people - my entire university life was soundtracked by Young Thug and Future. I get that argument, but it seems weird to go, “Now I’m going to rap in an American accent because I’ve watched it,” you know? I mean, I get it though…it’s easy to resonate more with that culture than what you see on the TV here.
I.G.: How did you go about workshopping your lyrics?
D.: I want to say ‘scientifically’… I actually broke down the phonetics of each word that sounds really Australian, for example with O’s, we have that diphthong so there are actually two tones in our vowels. When you say “crikey” it’s actually more of an “O” and an “I”, like “croikey” - that’s the Australian slang, and it can be quite jarring for people who aren’t Australian or to listen back recorded. I think some Australian phonetics sound really nice and others are just completely disgusting, for example, “smoke” - the way Australians say “smoke” is really gross, so I avoid that word and “O” rhymes in general. If an American or British person says “smoke” it’s got that nice rounded sound to it, it’s a lot nicer. Another thing is the double “O” - our accent is really nasal, so words like “goon” sound really awful, but if an American says “goon” or “moon” it’s much more rounded. So that was basically the process, picking out which Australian sounds I don’t immediately cringe from! I think the “A” sound - “A” in cat - stirs something in you, like “It’s so Australian!” but it’s not cringey. When you say “yakka”, there’s just a lot of affection with that kind of phonetic, as opposed to if you say “I want a smoko,” that’s almost too Australian. I fully wrote down all the phonetics and picked which ones I liked, it was great realizing that there were a lot of really nice and attractive sounds.
I.G.: I love that ‘Fix It’ is built around this “handyman from out West” character. It’s almost like a shout-out to this familiar Aussie battler, pub rock figure, but you’ve thrown that whole archetype into this ultra-futuristic grime track. It’s very Australian and yet not at all.
D.: That was kind of similar to the accent - I was picking bits of Australiana that I really liked and also that I’ve seen different communities adopt while they’re trying to assimilate. I see my dad do lots of DIY things when other Indians wouldn’t, like going to [the home warehouse store] Bunnings and making a slab of concrete in the backyard. I love that Australian attitude of, “Eh, I’ll just go to Bunnings and fix it,” especially in art school and being in that kind of setting where you mention something and someone will go, “I’ll make one, why would you buy one?” Zach would always tease me because I’d say that. I’d refuse to let him get new things. He had these really expensive headphones that broke and I was like, “Nah bro I’ll fix them,” and I made them even worse. They worked for a bit!
I.G.: How do you feel about involving your heritage in your music? It’s funny, I’ve talked about this a lot with friends who are also second-generation Australians, but it’s like wherever you’re from you’re often towing this tricky line between wanting to play it up and using it to your advantage, then totally erasing it in the right situations.
D.: I don’t know, on one hand, I kind of feel like I shouldn’t because Indians benefit from a lot of things that other people don’t. Like why should I be taking the place of people who could be saying different things? Then again there’s literally no Indian representation in anything… creative. It’s so funny, I was at Parramatta Art Studios and I don’t think there’s been one Indian to have gone through it, and I’m literally in a suburb that has one of the largest Indian populations in Australia. That’s the reason why I do it as well, and why I got so excited when Das Racist were a thing. Sure, they’re liberal arts hipsters, but it was actually so exciting to see a Punjabi doing normal things like me.
I.G.: You’ve been active in the Sydney arts community since before the 2014 Lockout Laws kicked in. Do you feel like the laws had an impact on your own experience with the city?
D.: It’s funny, I’ve had to talk about this a fair bit but I actually didn’t experience it that much. I turned 18 the year before lockouts were introduced, so I was 19. I had gone out a bit, but my experience of clubbing was going to World Bar [ed. a busy, populist club frequented by under-20s] on a Wednesday and drinking out of teapots. I understand why people complain and the fact that business is down. I think it has affected things: there are fewer venues, but from my perspective it isn’t really my key issue. I’m from the West, so I’m more concerned as to why there’s no nightlife out here and why everyone goes to the East.
I.G.: What kind of nightlife options are available in Western Sydney?
D.: There’s the Albion hotel, which actually goes off, and another club called One World which tends to be more of an islander crowd. There are some opportunities for live music but they’re forced, they feel very structured. Parramatta Council does a live music week and people play in cafes, it’s cool but… the problem with Australia is that because our music industry has been built off bands, everything is structured like that. Playing in a pub, the set-up caters to bands, not to decks and a mic. It’s changing, but that’s how it is right now.
I.G.: Despite your music being really grounded in the Western suburbs (it’s even set as your SoundCloud location), your audience seems geographically pretty rooted in the inner west/inner-city warehouse scene. Is that disjoint strange for you?
D.: It’s funny, how music is created, who it’s received by. Even [Atro and I] appreciating hip hop is not really a part of its intended audience, we’re not ‘urban American’. It’s a bit of that thing where because my circle is in the inner city because I went to art school, it became more about reminding people of where I came from. Growing up, you’re always shat on for being from Western Sydney, whether it’s on the news or friends smirking about it.
If there’s a been a time for those perceptions to change, it’s been the last two years, especially with Parramatta becoming a city. There’s a lot of running perceptions between the West and East. The West is where you get a lot of immigration, more culturally and linguistically diverse communities, lower-socio-economic groups. And then the way we look at it is if my mum ever saw a rich person she would say, “Hey, he’s from Mosman.” It’s very separate. I mean, you feel it when you’re with someone from the city and you say, “I’m from Parramatta,” and they’re like, “Aww, I’ve never been there!” But the divide is pretty one-sided. Everyone from the West or South West will have been to the city or the eastern suburbs, but none of them will have come out here.
I.G.: Do you feel you’ve been able to use that your advantage?
D.: Definitely, especially in the art I do. A lot of arts funding has been going to the West recently - but that being said, it’s only because decades of arts funding went to the inner city. Only now are people realizing that Western Sydney has such an objectively larger population. In music, yes and no - I think it’s a talking point for most people and a way of placing myself. I’m still into that idea of repping your area. Listening to hip hop from overseas like grime, nineties hip hop, it’s always, “I’m from South London,” it’s such a big thing! You hear their city names over and over again. I mean, that’s the way I speak: “I’m from Parra, I’m from Parra,” I’m just the boy from Parra so it feels so natural.
I.G.: On ‘Lazy’ you rap, “What’s a big fish in a small pond,” which definitely reflects big anxiety for Sydney creatives. How do you keep up the momentum and set benchmarks for yourselves given you don’t have to deal with rival crews and the sort of competition you might face in London or a big American city?
D.: It’s so funny… I think I do it a lot because I literally listen to so much grime every morning. I’m always finding new people and they’re all so young - like my favorite grime MCs are my age, but then you find these kids who are so good and it’s like, “they have so many more bars than me!” They’re just all so talented - they live and breathe it, and have been writing bars since they were eight years old. I guess in one sense that’s my competition, trying to put myself on this measuring scale, but it’s different because we’re just not on the same level - what they do is actual grime! I’m either a poor copy or trying to do something different to those guys, and I think that’s what’s motivating: trying to get to a point with Zac where we’ve made a sound that will appeal to such a different, wide range of people.
I.G.: How will you know when you’ve achieved what you set out to do as Slim Set? Is there a plan?
D.: I always have a subconscious thought that if I was still doing this in my mid-twenties and there was a younger person who came along and said we had been formative, then they went out and started a new genre, that would be amazing. That would be my aim. If something else had come from us, through us.
I.G.: You were recently featured in an iD VICE x Adidas campaign that explored new faces in the Sydney underground. The role of streetwear brands in sustaining the underground has become pretty integral for artists over the years, but how do you feel yourself negotiating that more corporate space? That’s assuming it’s going to be a trend for you guys, given you pulled that one off pretty nicely?
D.: [Laughs] Thank you! I don’t know, I think the thing I feel weirdest about is the fact I don’t care about Adidas, you know. Like I’m keen to get the money and buy some Nike Air Max’s! It’s so weird to think about this stuff in the grand scheme of things. I mean part of being offered that was an ambiguous offer that, “someone after this shoot could be offered a brand ambassador position,” which was a weird, secondary motivator, especially looking at Stormzy and what Adidas did for him. Adidas owns him! It’s funny, I’m so torn by it but also the money’s hectic. Especially seeing myself in that really magazine-edited way and hearing my words edited like that, it was actually quite weird. The way they cut my words made it sound like I was talking about something else altogether - like it didn’t even sound like me. You hear stories about that everywhere with reality TV, but it’s really interesting to hear yourself edited that way.
If we were already making money through streams, that would be ideal, but until then, these things are important. Something as disgusting as VICE is also so important as a documenter, facilitator, mediator of everything we’re doing. Just the other day I went to a gig by Red Bull - Red Bull, they own so much - at the Albion, and it was honestly such a well-put-together gig. It was so good for the people in the area, it was so good for Parra, and I was just like, “Wait, this is run by Red Bull?” I was like, “Why can they do this??”
I.G.: When they have the means to do subculture better than the subculture itself.
I.G.: For a country that really prides itself on diversity, Australia does not talk enough about race. That’s partly why I loved ‘Imports’ so much, it’s such a simple metaphor but still manages to rip into all these everyday ‘multiculturalism’ stereotypes. Do you feel like that conversation is happening actively enough within the underground, and are there things we’re not talking about?
D.: It’s interesting… talking about race, I feel like I can joke about it on ‘Imports’ because I’m from the West. I feel like I talk about race in two completely different ways. There’s the Inner City way, which is very educated and has that full vocabulary - it’s been really important for me in terms of working through things I grew up with, any monkey can tell you. But then out West, it’s the complete opposite, and I kind of really love it. I worked in a fruit shop for three years, it was racist, but it was also really beautiful. You completely define people by their race. I was working with a Philo, an Afghan refugee, two Afghan boys, a Lebanese guy, an Italian, several Black and Asian guys. You would openly talk about it and joke about it and openly be kind of horrific to each other. It was that very Australian thing of “taking the piss”, but it was also very comfortable because everyone was so different that it was kind of easy to do it. People would crack jokes at me saying that classic Indian or Indonesian things, then other people would refer to the Chinese guy as Chinaman James. It’s funny, in the context of the city that’s such a no-no, you can’t do that! But growing up, that’s what we do and it’s really bizarre. When I’m talking with friends out here, there are many different races that it’s actually really freeing, even if there are wrong things that are said. I think that’s why I can talk about race and it seems so apparent to Inner City listeners, because out there it’s just very open.
I.G.: It’s almost like clearing the air.
D.: Exactly, and I’m just so used to it. Like I’ll go to a pub and bump into an old friend and they’ll be like, “Oh damn, you’re dating a white girl.” Like it’s fine and I’m used to it, but it doesn’t translate in the city. I crack a lot of jokes. My girlfriend came over one time and my mum put her in some Indian clothes, so I put it on Instagram and called her out for cultural appropriation. What gives her the right! I think one day I’ll probably say something stupid by accident, I probably wouldn’t take it to heart though. I know people out here would never bother with that.
Photography: Isabelle Galet-Lalande