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Have You Heard: Syllabolix

16 September 2015 | 6:33 pm | Jai Chouhan

Like any genre of music, hip-hop has seen some major transformations over the years. 

Originating as somewhat of an industry joke in this country, it has now grown into a trendsetting juggernaut thanks to its identifiability with all walks of life. As an active participant in its evolution, Optamus has become one of the country’s more qualified MCs, even using his skill as an educational tool in remote communities.

Although it was the ‘golden era’ in America, the mid-’90s was a tumultuous time for rappers in Australia, receiving hostile receptions from the bogan, pub-rock culture that pervaded live music. Seeking a form of self-expression, Optamus and his Downsyde crew would often travel to Fremantle when the ships came in to wax lyrical with the sailors in a judgement-free zone. 

“They were the only dudes who had really good skills because they were all from New York and Oakland and the Deep South,” he recalls. “We just didn’t know where to find hip-hop culture in Perth.”

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Now one of the biggest genres of music worldwide, hip hop evolved in this country through collaboration and a desire to make it more than another American fad that managed to make its way across the Pacific. Even seminal West Australian artists such as Drapht took some convincing before taking to the mic. 

“A lot of other artists like Drapht were just friends that hung around with us and didn’t actually rap at all,” Optamus says. “Downsyde’s first underground single was Battle Me and Drapht’s dad produced that before he even picked up a mic. I think he was still roof tiling at the time. We’ve always tried to promote a positive culture with what we do.”

Thanks to guys like Drapht and Hilltop Hoods, hip hop was able to break into the mainstream in Australia, giving it credibility and a platform to reach the masses. But heavyweights like these didn’t piggyback rap music alone. Optamus believes that there are innumerate artists that were paramount in the genre’s rise. But at the end of the day, it’s all relative. 

“Looking at artists that have made a difference, it’s hard to see it in the moment. Looking back I could give you a lift of 15 acts that I’d put up there. But my viewpoint is probably different to one of my other band members.”

Now heavily invested in educating Indigenous and African youth, the Perth MC still finds time to take to the stage and perform around the state and country. Bringing the Syllabolix collective back to one of their favorite stomping grounds in the Rosemount Hotel, Optamus and his fellow MCs - Dazastah, Bitter Belief, Mortar, Emjay and Rob Shaker - will be putting on a conceptual live show as part of The Crowd Pleasers Tour. Drawing on hip-hop’s freestyle culture, the performance will be unlike any other date on the tour, playing homage to some classics with a few surprises up their sleeve. 

“Rather than play individual songs - although we do a little bit of that - we get a lot of popular old school classics like Pink Floyd and chop them up live with two samplers and decks and all of us throwing down verses between breaks. 

“It’s got a bit of an improv-jam ethos, but knitted with guys dropping 16s and verses to fill in the gap.”

Originally published in X-Press Magazine.