It’s an odd thing, sitting down in your office, late at night, in rainy December Manchester, clasping a cup of tea, preparing to interview a rapper in Sydney. Tuka, fresh off the back of a solo tour of his second album, Feedback Loop, tells me it’s a beautiful hot summer morning in Australia. How I came across Tuka’s work was completely by chance. During my travels down under in 2010, I saw DJ Krush play live in Sydney with Xpress photgrapher Danny Allison. Supporting was Tuka, a young hip-hop artist. His stage presence was energetic and seamless and we were straight on his debut album, Will Rap For Tuka in the studio. Tuka is also a part of Aussie hip-hop stars, Thundamentals who have also remained regulars on my I-pod ever since my trip. I wanted to talk to Tuka about his art and find out what makes him tick.
He says, “I’ve been making music for almost ten years. I’m just about on my tenth anniversary. This is my sixth year of releasing records. It’s going all right – Australia can be a fickle market, the population that follows music isn’t huge. We’re a sporting nation, but all things considered, it’s awesome.”
How did Tuka find his own road into music?
“To tell you the truth, I started skateboarding when I was about thirteen,” he says. “I’d leave my tag anywhere I went. A lot of skaters at that point were listening to hip-hop and it was the soundtrack to all the movies. One thing led to another after the initial interest. I dropped the graffiti thing because it gets pretty illegal to steal paint after eighteen. I started a band called Rum-Punch, which was much more ska/reggae influenced before I gave hip-hop a real crack. I was in that for about six years. I grew up in a place called Blue Mountains, about two hours outside Sydney. When I was in my early twenties, there was a really thriving hip-hop community. I couldn’t tell you why, but it was really organic and natural and the community backed it. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it was working. The whole scene nurtured a lot of stage time, so by the time I moved to Sydney, I had a lot of stage time under my belt. I’d already supported international musicians who had made their way up in a serendipitous time to be there.”
I’ve been quite intrigued by the origins of hip-hop and its journey to where it is today. Expression within the genre is varied and often from the heart.
Tuka says, “The difference between hip-hop and other songwriting is, we use a lot more words so we can get a little more in depth. We’re sampling a lot of other music much of the time, given the format of rap. So there are always references to the music we’re sampling. If it’s a well-known song, people often have the meaning of the song in their head, so we’re just building on that or making it more contemporary. I think hip-hop is one of the better art forms for communicating something effectively and in-depth with a solid argument. Each hip-hop artist uses the formula differently. With some of the hip-hop in the past, much was born of oppression. It was a way of spreading the message that crazy shit was going on, and we want to tell the world about it. But before it got angry, it was always about love – one love and unity. I think the main thing that hip-hop is trying to do is mend bridges, not burn them down. Money can get in the way in some cases, but when it’s written from love, it’s always about unity.”
Lyrically, Tuka’s solo work and his band, Thundamentals address a vast range of subjects, but musically, there is little in the way of aggression.
He says, “With the Thundamentals stuff, I’m a bit more broad with my opinions. I don’t get as in depth with my emotional standpoint of things. With the Tuka music, I definitely use it as a vehicle to get shit off my chest. By nature of being with another songwriter in Thundamentals, you can’t share all your song ideas that are personal, so I collect all the personal songs and try put out an album. Imagination is what fuels the creativity and the creativity manifests itself in things that we surround ourselves by. A good scientist has to have a good imagination if they’re going to implement something that we can use. I find it funny that George Lucas took a lot of his inspiration from other movies and he put it into one movie. Now a whole society is trying to replicate a lot of Star Wars references. Look at the recent use of holograms – reality definitely takes a leaf out of the arts’ book, all the time, and doesn’t always pay it any respect in return. We often take the arts for granted.”
Given the cuts in the arts in the UK since the start of the current recession, I mention the fact that the Conservatives often neglect the importance and power of the arts in the digital age.
Tuka says, “I’ve been a CASE (The Council for Advancement and Support of Education) teacher for four years. It’s tertiary, public-funded university education in Australia. I go out to rural communities and basically teach them what they need to know. With economic trouble affecting the arts and the programs we are talking about, it effects the youth. In arts, it’s all about empowerment. If kids don’t feel empowered when they’re young, they’re not going to have the confidence to explore who they really are, artistically, later. It’s a crying shame that we take it for granted, like it’s always going to be there. You can’t manufacture creativity like big companies try to do. There is always going to be a backlash if you try to force something so natural. You have to explore it in different ways. That’s how graffiti came about, that’s how hip-hop came about – from a backlash. Unless you nurture it, creativity will find another way to develop and respond.”
Since starting to keep an eye on Tuka’s online activity, I notice an almost daily feed of art, design, craft, music posted by him on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, all gathering feedback and positive comments from his fans.
“I’ve been making hip-hop or so long, I just kind of woke up one day and felt so sick of explaining myself only as a rapper,” he says.
“I felt like that was just one part of my personality. Rap is part of a genre called music and music is a part of a genre called art. So I cut all the fat and tried to be an artist. I dropped a lot of my hang-ups about art. I found myself promoting just graffiti and hip-hop and I thought, ‘Fuck that!’ I started promoting anything that was interesting and innovative. If you keep looking hip-hop in the face, you’re only going to regurgitate the same hip-hop. If you look around at all the other disciplines within the arts and what they’re doing and you start to funnel that into your music, you’re going to get something different. You can only be a purist to one genre of art before you start to repeat the behaviour again. You have to look at all aspects of your life if you’re going to push forward. They might not be as cool or trendy, but you have to shed light on those things and work with them too. Some artists get stuck in a loop because they don’t want to acknowledge other areas and start looking at the world. You draw a lot of your identity from associating yourself so strongly to a subculture and you do have to question aspects of your identity and your personality when you leave that behind. The world can seem a bit more confusing because there’s a lot of information out there and you have to be thinking critically about which parts of it you’re going to absorb and digest. With a subculture, you usually have an echelon telling you what’s the best. If you look at everything as a whole, you have to activate and empower yourself, you’re not sheep anymore.”
I try in my usual convoluted manner, to explain why I chose to run this project, Xpress. I try to tell Tuka the importance of showing guys that the arts are accessible to anyone, partaking or just taking an interest in film, art, music, comedy and more. He sums it up in an instant,
“Just activating people to be empowered and passionate. You don’t have to be an artist to be involved, it’s about activations and empowerment – wanting to engage with and learn something. My mum puts it in a really beautiful way. She says, ‘Usually people have a talent. It comes so naturally to them that they don’t want to do it. First of all, it’s recognising what that is. Half the time, when you are truly good at something, it comes so natural that you take it for granted. The biggest battle is spending the time to figure yourself out. You have the internet now to facilitate that knowledge, to look through and scrape away the stuff you don’t want. When I first got into hip-hop, I was listening to a lot of gangster rap, the classics like Dr.Dre. Don’t get me wrong, I love that music but for me it was merely a gateway to the kind of hip-hop that I really wanted to find like Atmosphere and Pharcyde. I had to dig through all the popular mainstream stuff, to find the music I was looking for, the music I really wanted out of the genre. So I guess my advice to someone who does not know their talents or what they want is to activate your self. Go out and find out what it is that you want. Think about what comes naturally to you. What is the energy that is already within you and what does it want to say. How does it want to express itself? If you want to do it, it’s already there, you just have to find it. I suppose that is a little vague, but I think people take for granted their inner-dialogue and what they really think about things. They become too influenced by trends. It’s nurturing what’s already there. There’s this quote that I use in my teaching and it’s from Dangerous Minds. In the film, the teacher says to the class, ‘Look, you’ve already got an A. You just have to go out and earn it.’ It’s about nurturing.”
Tuka’s, You And I (ft.Maples) will be a part of our forthcoming Xpress album.
About the track he says, “I couldn’t really tell you exactly what I mean by that track. It’s about the stream of consciousness. It’s just letting the story come out on the page. The main part of the chorus, this Obi Wan Kenobi lyric is just this really funny thought I had once. I was thinking about a girlfriend and wishing I could read her mind. Then I had this epiphany and realised that even if I could do that, I would still not know what her motives or intentions are and nor would she know mine, could she be able to read my mind! She’d just think I was confused too. Everything is changing so fast at the moment in this transit climate, that you really just have to live in the now. You can’t live in the past or the future too much. The verses go into all the ironies I see in society”
Feedback Loop is Tuka’s second solo album and is out now and Thundamentals will be back in the studio this year.