Ciecmate and Newsense, two MC/producers from Melbourne and Canberra respectively, put together a collaboration that may just prove a watershed moment in the history of Australian hardcore hip hop. Working together on an full-length of 1990’s New York beats, reminiscent of Wu Tang’s early work, and with lyrics that, to an extent, elevate the complexity of Aussie wordplay, “A Tale of Two Cities” proves to be brutal, effective and a statement of intent. It won’t be the biggest-selling album, but it could prove influential in helping to shape areas of the underground scene.
Chuck in another seven MC’s and you would, in fact, have a group similar in tone and content to the mighty Wu. The difference is, of course, that Wu Tang are deserved legends thanks to a few MC’s like ODB, Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon and co. Ciecmate and Newsense are clearly not quite in the league – but that is more due to environment than their innate talents (more of that later). So what of the album? It is extremely consistent from start to finish, and mixes a variety of topics typical to underground hip hop in general, yet with the occasional subtle twist. We have a couple of drug-related tales in the form of “Club Meds” and “Spliff Politicians” which look at both sides of the narcotic-laced coin. We have tracks concerning the ladies (errr… not really FOR them, though) in “Codename Cougar” – a strange song that Ol’ Dirty himself would be proud of – and the clever-but-perhaps-misogynous “Then She Won’t.”
They get political on “They’re Watching” (which has a solid video), social on the strong “Boiling Point.” They cover a very wide range of topics, but always with a HARD inflection. This is what these guys do: go hard on whatever the fuck they want. It is refreshing to hear artists not cow-tow to political correctness. As for the rhymes, they may well have surpassed most of the Aussie MC’s alive. Some of the flows they kick are good, not great – but with one of the MC’s being obviously more talented than the other, most of them are stunning in execution. Perhaps the end result of “A Tale of Two Cities” is of a superbly-executed album that just misses the mark conceptually. However, the beats are banging (the background vocal layering, combined with the instrumental, on “Bent Road” is incredible and “I Can Hear the Train Calling” is plain awesome) and the lyrics are, on the underground scale, DOPE.
There is a final element that I deliberately didn’t mention until now – vocals. This has been a somewhat controversial topic in Australian hip hop. MC’s there have been written off, to a large extent, by the international market – this is a shame. The vocals from Ciecmate and Newsense have everything – timing, breath control, pacing – except TONE and CHARACTER. This isn’t so much a failing of the rappers themselves, but of the environment around them. Australia is a hard place for MC’s to sprout up, and North America has a natural advantage as the birthplace of the genre. What’s the difference? Immigration. Many of the premier hip hop spots around the globe either have a massive influx of black immigrants – an exception would be Japan which, if you’ve ever been there, is a world of its own, with a generation crisis combining nicely with an obsession of American culture that is creating a cultural crossroads. But look at the UK, with the black and Asian community driving hip hop, R&B, garage and grime forwards. Then hop over to France, with an all-conquering scene. Take a trip to Holland – another country with massive immigration – and, ignoring the weed, see how huge hip hop is. Then go to Spain or Italy, with a much lesser rate of immigration, and try to find THREE hip hop/R&B clubs on a Friday night. It is hard, trust me. Hip hop in Argentina, a predominantly white country? Not so much. Go to Brazil, it is EVERYWHERE. And donâ€™t misunderstand â€“ what I am saying here is that the white MCâ€™s in these countries are amazing too.
What is my point here? That Australia has stringent immigration laws, sure. But there has been a huge incoming of immigrants – just the wrong kind for hip hop. Does this mean that Australians don’t love hip hop? No. They rock the shit like few countries in the world. Have they got a rich tapestry of CREATING hip hop? No. That is the difference. They haven’t DIRECTLY absorbed the subtleties and intricacies of the myriad of different accents and slang, thus creating their own. I learnt this a while ago – that in practically every instance in the music industry, you are only as good as your influences. Therefore, whilst Ciecmate and Newsense have influences from listening to the best hip hop, sure. But they don’t necessarily have the benefit of interacting with millions of immigrants on the daily; of absorbing their influences by a hip hop osmosis, if you will. That results in having character and depth, not to mention confidence, in your voice. Australian hip hop is slowly gaining traction, and that is, in part, down to artists such as the excellent Ciecmate and Newsense. But in the end, “A Tale of Two Cities” isn’t a watershed moment after all. You see, it is all about the voice, and it will take time for Australian MC’s to develop “naturally” gifted vocals. Even if “naturally” is a falsity.