Rosano Martinez On The Impact Of Sound Unlimited: 'We Were Probably The First Multicultural Act Out There'

15 November 2023 | 11:22 am | Cyclone Wehner

Sound Unlimited will lead the celebration of 50 years of hip-hop in Australia at the ARIA Awards tonight alongside 1200 Techniques, Bliss n Eso, Barkaa and DJ Krissy.

Sound Unlimited

Sound Unlimited (Source: Supplied)

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The Australian hip-hop pioneer Rosano Martinez has generated his own mythos with Sound Unlimited. They were the country's first major label hip-hop act and put the melting pot of Western Sydney on the global hip-hop map. But, these days, the MC often finds himself myth-busting. 

"It's funny – although we regard Sydney's hip-hop scene as having come from the West, it's a little bit of a fallacy because I was actually a Kings Cross boy," Rosano says, Zooming from a porch in the Eastern suburbs.

Tonight Sound Unlimited – whose cruisy One More From The City received an ARIA nod for 'Best Pop Release' back in 1994 – will perform a snatch of the song at the 2023 ARIA Awards to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop in Australia alongside 1200 Techniques, Bliss n Eso, Barkaa and DJ Krissy

However, it will be a new incarnation of Sound Unlimited, taking to the Hordern Pavilion stage. Indeed, Rosano's sister Tina, the group's R&B singer, now lives in Texas with her husband and Sound Unlimited drummer Derek Antunes. Instead, Rosano will be joined by Melbourne neo-soul star KYE in keeping with the spirit of hip-hop's inter-generationalism. The MC will even be using "a sequel" he penned with Tina. "I don't have any instrumentals of the original One More From The City."

Today Sound Unlimited – the other members, second rapper Kode Blue (aka Alan Blue) and Vlad DJ BTL (Vladimir Cherepanoff) – are discussed in scholarly texts, among them Ian Maxwell's 2003 ethnographic study Phat Beats, Dope Rhymes: Hip-Hop Down Under Comin' Upper about the nascent subculture in Western Sydney. 

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Rosano remembers when, in the early '80s, he caught Rock Steady Crew breakdancing in Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals video. As a youth with Filipino and Spanish heritage, Rosano had a cognitive moment. "It was the first time that I saw people that looked like myself on TV in a prominent way," he reveals. "So, for me, it was exciting just to see faces that looked like mine on screen." 

Hip-hop, which marked its 50th anniversary in August, originated as a Black movement in The Bronx with four elements: MCing, DJing (or turntablism), breakdancing and graffiti. Yet, as a textbook example of glocalisation, it germinated in Sydney – locals striving to advance an authentic homegrown offshoot. Rosano became a B-boy himself. "It was the first youth movement [here] that wasn't Anglo-centric," he states, contrasting it to punk and Sharpies. 

Breakers congregated in Burwood Park in Sydney's Inner-West, but they didn't necessarily hail from the region – Rosano commuting with his crew from Bondi. "We'd all come from there on the train to go and battle out of Burwood – where crews from all over Sydney would go." 

As a stalwart of the multicultural United Break Team, Rosano flourished. "I was the first non-sports person to be sponsored by Puma in this country as a breakdancer and toured with the Rock Steady Crew when they came out here back in 1984," he recalls. "I also was quite heavily involved in the graffiti scene in Sydney as one of the first artists out there. So this is all part of the culture that I embraced."

Eventually, Rosano formed a hip-hop group, Westside Posse – but, again, its members weren't all from the Westside either. "The reality is that it was generally 'city' music." They contributed the track Pull The Trigger to Down Under By Law, a historic Australian hip-hop compilation marketed by Virgin Records in 1988. Rosano, ever DIY, created the graffiti cover art. "I've sort of always been a bit multimedia – I'm into directing videos and used to art-direct and direct and help edit our videos." 

Nevertheless, Westside Posse "imploded". "Everyone was just pulling cones the whole time and never getting any work done," Rosano laughs, "and I was quite a motivated person." 

Next, Rosano, aka El Assassin, launched Sound Unlimited Posse – later abridged to Sound Unlimited. The group, closer to a sound system, centred on Tina, who'd gigged in bands, with the addition of Rosano's old breaking partner Kode Blue and Vlad, a Chinese-Russian-Australian DJ. "We were probably the first multicultural act that was out there," he says proudly.

Public Enemy's Chuck D championed Sound Unlimited early – and the American is frequently credited with facilitating their record deal, yet Rosano debunks that. "We were actually already signed previous to that." Mind, Public Enemy did invite Sound Unlimited to open for them on their 1992 Australian tour, Rosano meeting Chuck serendipitously in New York. 

"I happened to be in NY, and I was down in Broadway, looking for some headphones. I walked into this shop, and Chuck D is in there, and I'm like, 'Of all the places in NY…' and he's in there looking at stuff as well. We were chatting, and he wanted us to be part of their next tour, which is what we ended up doing with them."

Two years after airing their debut single, Peace By Piece, in 1990, Sound Unlimited released an album, A Postcard From The Edge Of The Underside, via Sony Music. The project still sounds crisply innovative with hip-hop, New Jack Swing, R&B and soul "flavours" – Sound Unlimited a proto-Fugees. "I'm quite disattached from it in that it was a project that we did," Rosano downplays. But, the eclecticism was a manifestation of the group's individualism. "We all had so many varying tastes." 

The album remains topical, too, with socially conscious lyrics about racism, Indigenous rights and cultural pluralism. "My biggest influence, I'd say, is Marvin Gaye's What's Going On – that album, when I was a kid, really blew my mind," Rosano says. Sound Unlimited subverted their Antipodean profile on Kickin' To The Undersound, flipping Men At Work's iconic '80s smash Down Under.

Alas, the hip-hoppers encountered some "resistance" in Australia's rock-dominated scene. "The music industry didn't really take us seriously at the time," Rosano recollects. "There was a little bit of like, 'This'll come and go' type thing from the music industry as such. But we got a Top 20 hit [with Kickin' To The Undersound], even though we weren't in the country at the time." 

At any rate, Sound Unlimited had a secret weapon: their live band. The crew performed with American transplant Antunes, "a hell drummer" who previously worked for the mega boy band New Kids On The Block and served as musical director.

"I think, as far as I know, we were probably the first live hip-hop outfit on the planet," Rosano asserts. "In fact, when Public Enemy toured over here, the reviews [said] that we blew them off the stage – not because of our songs, but because we had a live band. Obviously, it's just a different dynamic, having that live band and the sound and everything else you can pull out of it. And, from that point onwards, Public Enemy's never toured here without a live band… But we also got a lot of mockery at the time from the local hip-hop scene having a live band – and now you see there's no act that doesn't tour with a live band."

Sound Unlimited appeared at the inaugural Big Day Out in Sydney in 1992 – the bill predominantly rock with Violent Femmes headlining over the emerging Nirvana. "The festivals then were exciting because no one was doing them."

No purist, Rosano collaborated with another act on the BDO bill in Ratcat, rapping on The World (In A Rapper). (Astonishingly, he co-wrote the Magnificent VII's This World with Sydney ska band the Allniters for 1991's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze OST, likewise home to Vanilla Ice's hit Ninja Rap.)

When Sound Unlimited's final single, One More From The City, was nominated for an ARIA, they felt validated – even if Peter Andre won. "It meant a lot because it's a form of recognition," Rosano says, stressing that winning "wasn't that important."

Despite, or maybe because of, their crossover success, Sound Unlimited broke up. "It kind of imploded, to a degree, because everybody had different directions they wanted to pursue musically – which I think is good," Rosano explains. "We've all retained our friendships." 

The Martinez siblings subsequently conceived Renegade Funktrain. Their eponymous album, on Warner's UK imprint Eastwest, further explored the jazzy downtempo ethos of One More From The City – Rosano describing it as more "homogenous" (sadly, Renegade Funktrain isn't on Spotify). Curiously, Public Enemy's Flavor Flav co-wrote the single Testify. Renegade Funktrain had two ARIA nominations, albeit in dance music categories.

In 2023, Rosano is preoccupied. "To be honest with you, I'm not really attached to my past – I'm very much about the present." Committed to community outreach, he presides over the charity Youth And Family Connect, dedicated to residents in harbourside Woolloomooloo – the suburb known for disparate household incomes and social housing co-existing with gentrification and affluence. YFC runs the annual hip-hop festival Woolloomoolivin', even encompassing art galleries. Remarkably, Russell Crowe has volunteered. "He comes down and supports me down here with the stuff that we do with our charity." Both locals are fans of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby team.

Other Sound Unlimited alumni have ventured out – Vlad working as an art director. "I do keep in touch with him," Rosano shares. "He's very busy. He's an amazing multimedia designer. He's currently working on a fashion label." Because of that, the DJ was unable to participate in the ARIAs tribute. "He's just flat chat."

Rosano continues to dabble in music – latterly scoring a documentary he directed about Woolloomoolivin'. But, rather than returning to the studio, the rapper plans to raid his vaults. "I'm not gonna make any big hoo-ha of it – it'll just be something that'll go out on a Spotify channel," he hints. "It'll include unreleased stuff that we've done in the past – 'cause we had a bunch of unreleased demos with Renegade [Funktrain]. I'll probably put them up just as demos as they were, with all the bad bits and everything. I'm not that precious about the work as such." 

And Rosano is still invested in Sydney hip-hop. (Notably, he has two rapper sons.) While acknowledging the Western Sydney phenom ONEFOUR, Rosano holds that the Inner-East is the new locus. "Right now, the hottest things coming out of Sydney are from this area, Woolloomooloo, and from Kings Cross," he enthuses, citing The Cross' mysterious driller KAHUKX ("I used to train him in boxing") plus Woolloomooloo's SheWantSev, "who's just been bubbling up and getting a lot of action."

But the Gen Xer hopes to hear more rappers tackling critical issues – and challenging listeners. "The one thing that I think is slightly missing today is a little bit more of a social message within hip-hop, but not like an overbearing preachy one – just something that speaks more than about 'Myself and me wanting to get some girl…' Maybe stories about people in communities or people going through things or whatever – which I've always had a passion for."

Ultimately, the mentor encourages contemporary hip-hop acts to claim artistic autonomy. "They've got amazing opportunities now because they can monetise [their music] without having to depend on record companies – or the ARIAs," he says. "So keep doing what you're doing and find those avenues to make sure you stay true to yourself."

The 2023 ARIA Awards will be live-streamed on Stan from 5 pm AEDT and airing on free-to-air from 7:30 pm on Channel Nine.