MC Optamus of the Australian group talks with Marcia Czerniak about performing live, success, the Aussie scene, and future projects.
If you look into Australia's music history, there has never been widespread participation in hip hop culture. But all this is changing and one of the bands responsible for this change is Downsyde. The band started to take form when MC's Optamus and Shahbaz (Dyna-mikes) were in Year 11 at Craigie High School. They took part in a school talent quest and then went on to play 400 shows before realising they should make an album. Now, ten years later, Downsyde are revolutionising the world of Australian hip hop and there's no telling what's going to happen next. MC Optamus spoke to Marcia Czerniak recently to discuss music, life and fame.
How did Downsyde evolve into the six piece band we see now?
Basically it started out as a two piece with me and Shahbaz and we recorded our first demo. Then we met Dazastah at Leederville Tafe and got together because we all wanted to do similar things with Australian hip hop. It was initially a four-piece along with Armee, and us three MC's and we were just playing off a mini-disc and that was our live show. It just got to the point where we were feeling restricted by it. We couldn't take the music any further than the backing tracks. I know a lot of hip hop acts do play like that, whether it is off hard disc or a laptop, but we wanted a bit more freedom. We pretty much met everyone else along the way. I met Salvatore at Hyde Park, he was Beaverloop's drummer. Cheeky, our keyboardist used to play with a band called Circus Murders, and we met him through Sal and other mutual friends. So we just opened it out a bit and brought in the live percussion and it's worked out really well.
For all those people who have been living under a shell the past year, how would you describe Downsyde?
If I was to describe Downsyde I'd say we're primarily an Australian hip hop outfit but there's a lot more to us than just that. I think it's a mish-mash of jazz and soul and funk, along with moodier elements and orchestral sounds going into the mould of fat beats with three MC's.
Land of the Giants has received a great response. Did you expect such accolades?
I think we jut recorded an album that we just wanted to get into a national forum. I mean, primarily with Epinonimous our first EP, it sold over east and a little bit overseas, but we did it all independently off our own back. And most of our listening audiences were in Perth, so I think when we were writing the album, we wanted to write something that we hoped people would be able to get into. But at the same time we didn't have any idea that it would go where it has. Or that we would be playing the shows that we have been doing this year, or the class of magazines that would be reviewing it. We had no idea we would get to this level, on this album. We thought we would have to do a few more before people would receive it warmly. Especially with hip hop being such a young genre of music in Australia. It's taken a while for people to warm to the Australian accent and the fact that there is an Australian hip hop genre. But we're stoked with everything that has been happening.
You recently returned from touring over east. How was it?
It was really good. We played Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay, which was just an awesome experience. It's a huge festival. We played the Blues and Roots festival there earlier in the year, and we just feel really privileged to play all these festivals where you can play to nearly 20, 000 people – which is a bit different to playing a pub show. I also got to see snow for the first time. We went up to Thredbo and Jindabyne, for a Red Bull snowboard comp. Basically there was heaps of people there aged between maybe 18 and 35. When we went to do our performance at the local club it was just absolutely packed out with all these people. That was awesome. We played in Sydney and around the place too. That was our third national tour this year, how can you not enjoy it?
So you're enjoying your time away?
Yeah! I'm from a really big family and we didn't have a lot when I was growing up. I have never been able to travel out of WA or have the opportunity to just zip over to Sydney. So this year I've been able to see Australia, play music and get paid for it. It's awesome.
Australian Hip Hop hasn't had the warmest of receptions in the past. Do you think this is changing?
Yeah, I think in terms of genres of music in Australia, most other genres have got their grass roots and I think hip hop has only just begun to. It's in its infancy of developing that kind of cultural identity rather than a cultural cringe. Stuff like punk and rockabilly are similar but they were able to get their roots earlier on. I think hip hop is one of the last genres to develop its way into the identity of Australia. And it's hard because it's stereotyped with gangsters and being an American thing, but lets face it, a lot of genres come from America, it's just that people typically think of hip hop. More and more people are coming to our shows and walking away as converts and that's awesome. For us to be able see someone in a matter of an hour go from being – ugh Australian hip hop – to walking away and buying an album, that's a big thing for us. That's what it's all about. We never set about to be this little group who played to 15 Australian hip hop patrons at Hyde Park. We were always about exposing our music to a larger audience. It's not about playing to your comfort zone. Anyone can do that. It's when you go out there and put your ass on the line and walk out onto the stage in front of heaps of people and do your thing. That's what separates a man from a mouse.
What's it like to support high-profile bands such as Public Enemy, Resin Dogs and Michael Franti?
You look forward to it. I've played with Michael Franti twice and the first time I spent quite a while hanging out with him and his daughter. He basically takes his family on the road and they're really down to earth people, which is like us. We're not trying to be rock stars, we're just trying to make music and have fun. At the end of the day everyone is just a person and they write music and they just get to a certain point in their life where people know who they are and you can take that either way. We met Public Enemy and I spent time with Chuck D, and I mean that's a definitive moment in my career as a musician. If I hadn't have met these people I might not be here today. They are absolutely awe-inspiring, and just the fact they could sit down with me and talk to me as a person and not treat me like I'm just some dumb tack from WA. I hope that I can give that inspiration to bands that open for us, and that we can sit down and have a beer after a show and they feel we're on the same level and we can all achieve these goals eventually. It's all about talent and perseverance and people like Michael Franti and Public Enemy do those things and hopefully Australian bands can do those things – some of them even have.
What was it like when you first heard one of your songs on the radio?
Off the first album, once or twice Reap What We Sow was on Richard Kingsmill's show really late at night, but it's a different experience when it's middle of the day, prime time on Triple J. The funniest experience I had was when I first heard Gifted Life and I was driving along in my car and I was like yeah cool. I had put my windows down, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself and I looked across to my right and there was someone with Triple J on, with obviously my song on in their car too and it was just really funny experience and kinda weird too. It's the only national forum that we have to get our music out there, there's no other forum in Australia and we're stoked to get the support we do.
Of all the shows you have ever played, which one has been the best?
I would say we have played over a 1000 shows at the moment. I think things like CD launches are like your birthdays and they're always awesome experiences. Our first CD launch at the Leederville was awesome and same with this year's one at the Globe, we had a really good time. But things like playing with Public Enemy and festivals like the BDO, they are all unique experiences. One of the things about our situation is that we play a Triple J rock festival and then we'll play a rave and then we'll play a nightclub and then a bar. Being that we're electronic and a live act, we play the whole gamut of things. I wouldn't be able to tell which has been the best, they're all good.
What are some of Downsyde's musical influences?
It's hard speaking for all the band members. My personal influences range from all sorts of music. When I was younger one of the groups that really got me into wanting to rap were Skunkhour, who had a rapper in their group and other Australian bands like Def Wish Cast. On more of an international level, I suppose hip-hop-wise Gangstar, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, De La Soul. And then I like a lot of older jazz, like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday. Even stuff like Gladys Knight and the Pips and Louis Armstrong. I don't know, I've got a very broad range of influence. Even AC/DC are an inspiration to me because they came from WA and they're absolutely huge everywhere.
What advice would you give to up and coming bands?
Stick to your guns and the worst thing you could do is listen to other what people have to say. Don't let people advise you on how your music should be made or how you should go about it. The best thing you can do is stay focused and just write the music you want to write and not give a shit about anything else. The music industry is a really hard industry. On the business side there are a lot of people that want to fuck you over and there are people that genuinely don't want to see you succeed, and the worst thing you can do is listen to other people. The best thing you can do is write your music and enjoy what you do and love it for what it is. Enjoy it for as long as it lasts because it doesn't last forever and on top of everything else just be yourself.
What's in the road ahead for Downsyde?
We're writing the new album and hoping to have it completed by late November – early December, and release it around March-ish. That's a tentative date though!
What can we expect from the album?
It's going to be a really big album. It's going to have a lot of international guests. We're going to have production not only from us, but from UK and US producers. And we're going to have a lot of interesting MC's jumping on tracks too. Hopefully everyone will enjoy it. Crank it.
Interview taken from: http://wam.asn.au/interviews.htm