Pocket Full Of Diversity

2 October 2012 | 6:15 am | Cyclone Wehner

"I’m really digging Kendrick Lamar... He’s an amazing writer. Listening to his music it sounds like, Yo, this dude has got no rules – he’s not conforming to anything whatsoever."

Melbourne's Diafrix have quietly changed Australian urban music, universalising the old skip hop. Along the way, they've had a crossover hit in Simple Man with Daniel Merriweather. Then the Aussie festival regulars performed at Glastonbury. Diafrix even charmed popsmith Bruno Mars. Now the duo are back with an aptly titled second album, Pocket Full Of Dreams, and they can only get bigger.

It's been three years since Diafrix debuted with the intriguingly eclectic Concrete Jungle. Momo (AKA Mohamed Komba) and Azmarino (Khalid Abdulwahab) have matured – and progressed. “I think you can hear that in the new record itself,” the communal Komba reflects, hanging out in bayside St Kilda. “It's just taken another step from Concrete Jungle sonically and even lyrically. It was good to write a new chapter.” Concrete Jungle saw Diafrix work closely with Blue Mountains beatmaker Ptero Stylus, a member of their band. This time their chief collaborator is Styalz Fuego, who masterminded much of 360's Falling & Flying. The three were involved at every stage of the album, including the mastering. Diafrix might have handled it all themselves, being capable producers, but they chose not to, Komba says. “This time around I just wanted to be an MC and focus on lyrics – and throw in my parts on the music side as well.”

Pocket... hatched its first hit last year in the engaging Simple Man, playlisted on commercial radio. “I definitely was surprised,” Komba says of the response. “I wasn't expecting it to do as well as it did.” He adds, “I guess I'm my harshest critic.” Komba had known the now New York-based Merriweather for years and seized the chance to finally record with him when he returned home.

There are more surprise guests on Pocket... – 360, N'fa and Stan Walker. Detroit neo-soulster Dwele elevates the poignant Better With You. Alas, Komba, a longtime fan, missed the Slum Village (and Kanye West) affiliate's Australian dates. “We just linked up through the 'www dot',” he says. “We shot him the track and told him what it was about and what we're vibing in and everything. His manager got back to us and said, 'Yo, he's totally digging this track' – and he jumped on it. And not only did he sing the hook that we wrote, but he went further and wrote a verse as well... I was lost for words.” As it happens, Better..., and not any of the singles – Simple Man, Running It, Helicopter or the current Easy Come, Easy Go – is Komba's favourite song on Pocket... “It's about me losing my cousin and just how tight that we were – we were like brothers.”

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Both of the Diafrix MCs are refugees. Komba, from the Comoros Islands (formerly part of the French colony off the African coast), settled in Australia at three. Abdulwahab, fleeing warn-torn Eritrea, lived in Jordan and continental Europe before arriving here. The two connected in the early 2000s at the Footscray Arts Centre during a hip hop workshop conducted by TZU's Joelistics, their mentor. “He's like a bigger brother to us,” Komba says warmly. Ironically, TZU are mounting a comeback as Diafrix issue Pocket... From early on, Diafrix preferred live instrumentation in their hip hop. The outfit developed their show at The Evelyn Hotel. In 2006 Diafrix, having bulked up to a five-piece, released an EP, In Tha Place – a mix of hip hop, funk, soul, reggae and worldbeat compared to the Fugees. They were championed by triple j. They later presented Concrete Jungle, with a sprinkling of electro.

Initially, the Illusive signings were outsiders in the Australian hip hop landscape, their music about struggle – and diaspora. “In the beginning it was difficult feeling like the only ones of our kind trying to fit into this already established hip hop scene,” Komba explains. “People weren't sure how to perceive it.” Yet Diafrix have had a huge impact, challenging the hegemony of what Komba once called “barbecue hip hop” – Anglo-Celtic suburban rap – with their conscious lyrics, expansive musicality, and feel-good (humanistic) vibes. “It's broadened a lot more now. We've got so many different artists, and diverse artists, who are breaking through culturally and sonically. They're pushing the boundaries of hip hop – fusing different music into hip hop – which is a great thing, because it means that hip hop in Australia is just gonna travel further out there in the world. We'll start to get more and more listeners as a whole.” Diafrix are recognised as role models to young Africans negotiating an Australian cultural identity – and other marginalised groups, such as Indigenous Australians, have embraced them. Their music is empowering. “I think the coolest thing – and it really motivates me to keep doing what I do – is somebody saying, 'I relate, I totally understand what you're talking about, I've lived that experience',” says Komba, himself a sometime social worker. “I don't know how to describe that. It's amazing. It just really motivates me to keep doing what I do and share my experience and share my perspective and my culture, my everything; who I am as a person, because there's a lotta people out there who feel like they can't even relate to some Australian culture. And just to be myself, and have somebody else feel that and feel like they're a part of something, is amazing.”

Diafrix have become the hot support for an array of international urban acts, from George Clinton to BoB to Tinie Tempah. Komba especially enjoyed opening for Lupe Fiasco, who watched their set together with his band. “It was like, 'Wow, this is awesome' – 'cause usually they kick back upstairs in their band room doing what it is that they do,” Komba says. Diafrix were welcomed, too, by Bruno Mars. “Bruno Mars is actually a really, really down-to-earth, cool dude. I didn't expect it.” Diafrix hung out with the Just The Way You Are singer between gigs. They went clubbing. “At the end of the tour, he and his touring party bought us a nice bottle of champagne to say 'thank you'! You never experience that.” Mars, then, was no pop star? “No, he's pretty... ghetto!,” Komba laughs. “He's cool – he's just like another one of the boys, kinda thing.”

Diafrix are making waves overseas. They appeared at 2011's Glastonbury, which Komba recalls as “mind-blowing”. “Glastonbury was like the pinnacle gig for me to play in my life.” Still, it was “daunting”. The Wow! stage had emptied due to sound dramas. That was soon fixed and, by Diafrix's fourth song, says Komba, “it was jam-packed.” The MC jokes that his next goal is to headline Glastonbury's main stage – and join the Coachella bill. In fact, Diafrix are yet to reach the States, their focus so far Europe, which they first toured in 2009. “We've had really good experiences in Europe,” Komba suggests. Diafrix considered going to SXSW this year but completing Pocket... took priority. Regardless, if Diafrix do head Stateside, perhaps Komba will bump into his own MC hero – an unpredictable choice from Compton, Los Angeles. “I'm really digging Kendrick Lamar,” he enthuses. “He's an amazing writer. Listening to his music it sounds like, Yo, this dude has got no rules – he's not conforming to anything whatsoever. I love that because it means he's just 100 percent being who he is and saying what it is that he wants to say... It's great. It's raw. I love it.”

Diafrix will be playing the following shows:

Friday 19 October - Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC
Friday 23 to Sunday 25 November - Queenscliff Music Festival, Queenscliff VIC
Friday 26 October - Great Northern Hotel, Newcastle NSW
Saturday 27 - GoodGod Small Club, Sydney NSW
Saturday 8 December - Homebake, The Domain NSW