The long way home

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Simon in the studio
Simon in the studio. Photo by Simon Hattaway.

Contributor: Joseph Johnson

Through crime, addiction and loss, SubConscious Records trace their fraught journey from crew to family.

“I’ve seen a lot of crews come and go, and crews that say they’re brothers have turned on each other,” says Jack ‘Dseeva’ Tibben. “We had a saying back in the day: ‘The family, the crew, the label’. It was always family first.”

Jack stands out from the tradies pouring into Parramatta’s Albion Hotel. His crisp Nautica tee and Nike Air Max 90s pop in a sea of high visibility vests, and he is head and shoulders above the slight female bartender who pulls him a beer. Pale skin is stretched tight over a battered cheekbone, fractured in an early brawl. Black ink peeps from under taut sleeves to spell out ‘Doose’ and ‘Banish’ on his bicep – label-mates who passed away long ago.

Alongside his best friend Jett ‘Scepaz’ McKee, Jack started SubConscious Records (SubC) in 2007. The label’s first home was in a backyard den in Epping that his mates nicknamed ‘the Grandiose Void – a tiny room with a microphone, a computer, and a shabby Hammerhead drum machine that only had enough memory for an eight-bar loop. The duo painstakingly taught themselves to produce music, eventually recording enough material to release an EP. Jack and Jett became the nucleus of one of Sydney’s oldest active hip-hop crews, but in their eleven-year journey from the Void they never lost sight of the family they set out to create.

For many in the crew, SubC was more important than their own flesh and blood. Brad Whelan’s journey into street culture started as he sprayed graffiti onto train carriages aged only 11. “I grew up in some hard times in a hard hood in South West Sydney. My mother was hardly ever there, my dad was abusive,” he says. “All I ever knew was the boys. That’s why they’ve always been family to me.” Brad remembers walking into Campbelltown East Public School as a seven-year-old and seeing a police car tipped onto its roof in the school oval, torched. “From day dot it’s always been me against government and law figures. You should at least respect people when you’re talking to them. I never got that when I was younger, so I always rebelled.”

Brad’s exploits eventually landed him in prison, and his co-offender Doose introduced him to the SubC crew. Well before they started making music, the crew had a common love of painting. “The graffiti brought the crew element into it,” says Jack. “Before we were serious about rapping, we were all writers.” (“I did it in the 90s like it was heroin,” says DJ Skae, a long-time SubC associate. He has fond memories of waking up early to find a spot to paint, stealing spray-cans, and then sneaking back at night. Skae still keeps an eye on the railways: “Graffiti’s pumpin’, man. You go out there and the trains are colourful.”)

If SubC used graffiti as a way to rebel against a society that had abandoned it, rap was a natural next step. For most of the 2000s, Australian hip-hop reflected a laid-back summer lifestyle. But while Bliss-n-Eso rapped about summertime love, Kerser stared down the camera in a Lacoste polo shirt with a popped collar and introduced Australia to gutter rap, spoken from the streets. Shakily recorded in a poorly lit car park, Kerser Is The Sickest.mp4 going viral on YouTube was a watershed moment for Australia’s hip-hop scene. For those who felt left behind by Triple J’s sing-song hip-hop, gutter rap painted a picture of Australia that many could see themselves in. Like American gangsta rap, its lyrics focused on drug dealing, hard partying, gangs, and violence – showing an Australia that a lot of people would rather not see.

From this emerging scene, Simon Hattaway – who raps as Nihilist – gained a way to express emotions he once tried to ignore. “It was my only outlet,” he rumbles, bass voice battling through a cold and a hangover. “My first tracks are all about how depressed I am – getting bullied at school.” This isn’t what you would expect to hear from Simon: At six foot four, his massive frame fills the cramped studio where he is recording his debut LP. The SubC logo is stamped into his right shoulder, the word ‘Strut’ is picked out in intricate cursive on his neck, and his feet are clad in sleek new Adidas sneakers. Simon’s portrait could’ve been pulled straight from an Atlanta trap house, but instead of promethazine cough syrup and blunts, the studio console is strewn with bottles of kombucha and a McDonald’s breakfast meal. The title of his upcoming project, Scars, hints at his troubles. In spite of the stigma the subject carries, Simon is candid in revealing his struggle with mental health. In a scene renowned for toughness, emotion-laden rap has been emerging from the SubC stable for over a decade. “My music’s always been therapy,” he says. “That’s the thing I love about our little scene. The music’s not necessarily talking about the best stuff, but it’s talking about real shit that’s going on.”

As in America, these stories have their detractors. It is true that some lyrics are rampantly misogynistic, and there are those who claim that the music glorifies drugs and violence. However, for a majority of rappers, their music simply reflects a harsh reality – a reality nobody knows better than Jack. His parents first found a bong in his bedroom at age 12, and by 16 he was involved with drugs. For him, drugs, violence, and mental health went hand-in-hand.

“I’m more sensitive than the average person. I didn’t like that and I didn’t want to be seen as weak. I took drugs to avoid how I felt. I made myself hard.” Jack’s sensitivity was rooted in loss and pain, as was the need to bury it. He went to his first funeral at age seven – a classmate. Then his uncle. His best mate. Another uncle. Two grandfathers. Another mate. “I lost someone every year from Year 4 to Year 10. And then I broke my legs.”

At 17, Jack was running from the police. His backpack was filled with drugs, and loot stolen from a nearby service station. Buzzing from weed and alcohol, he didn’t even look as he vaulted over a wall and plummeted far too far to the ground. His legs shattered. Five months later he could walk, but it was a long road to recovery: 32 screws and three plates are buried in Jack’s legs. Part of his left hip was removed to fashion him a new ankle. His hips and legs are criss-crossed with pale white scars. But the worst part was three months in a wheelchair, unable to leave the house. Jack spent his days drinking with Banish, a rapper and graffiti artist, whose presence was a constant source of companionship as he sat confined in his own home. Banish also died, drowning in a stormwater drain he was painting.

Jack’s music shows how much he has grown up since those days, and as Dseeva he has the opportunity to stop people from repeating his mistakes. “I do feel some sort of responsibility to this next generation to encourage them not to do the same shit that I did. Thinking that to be cool you gotta fuck your whole life up. That going to gaol is cool and shit? It’s not cool, man.”

Despite his progress, Jack’s everyday life is still haunted by the lingering spectres of drug addiction, his broken legs, and a criminal record. His last offence was almost seven years ago, but many times he makes it through the final rounds of job interviews only to be rejected because of it.

Jack’s reward for enduring this trauma is seeing crowds electrified by his music. For him, writing and performing is the best way to wash away the pain. “It’s 100 per cent my therapy,” he says. “It’s acceptable to write a song about some hard shit that you’ve gone through, but no one’s gonna sit down with you and talk about it.”

These issues are close to the hearts of many in the scene, and loom heavy over the hundreds crowding into Marrickville’s Factory Theatre on a windswept Friday night. Central Coast rapper T-Wreckz has put an R U OK event together, following the loss of his mother to suicide. Local mainstays like Huskii, Cee, and Nter work the crowd, signing posters and shirts to raise money for the charity. Security has a heavy presence, silently surveying the coterie of face tattoos, Nautica and Lacoste polo shirts, windbreakers, and Nike TNs. The show goes off without any real trouble. Afterwards, a host of fans walk out into the night, still illuminated by the scarlet ‘R U OK’ tee shirts autographed by the stars for $50 a pop. With the proceeds from the concert helping to address mental health issues, all signs point towards a scene on the brink of maturation.

Sydney’s hip-hop scene may have found a welcoming home at the Factory Theatre, but it was born decades ago on the stages of The Loft and the Lansdowne Hotel. Well before the rise of Facebook and Instagram, shows spread through word-of-mouth and advertisements in the coffee-shop magazine 3D World. Devotees of the scene would roll 20 deep in crews, back when you’d be shocked to see a woman at a gig – let alone one performing. In those days, shows were the only opportunities to network with other producers, rappers, and graffiti artists in the scene.

None of these opportunities would last long.

“At the shows, it used to be like gladiator camp,” says Simon. He doesn’t remember a show that made it even halfway through its scheduled performance. Violence hamstrung Sydney’s early hip-hop scene. Beyond the inevitable legal responses, attendance at concerts dwindled: Venues and events were either shut down, or refused to book future hip-hop shows after brawls and fights broke out over the slightest offence. These shows were where SubC earned its reputation. “People would try and test us, not being from the West,” says Simon. “They found out pretty quick.”

For Dseeva, it was only after organising his own shows that he realised the effort that went into them behind the scenes. “Back then I thought fighting was cool,” he says. “Fuck that, now I’m glad it doesn’t happen anymore.” The scene became isolated and stigmatised: Apart from Hau Latukefu on Triple J and K-Sera on The Edge 96.1, radio and music media still provide only minimal support for Australian hip-hop. “Triple J will play death metal in the middle of the day,” says Simon, “but they won’t play underground Aussie hip-hop.”

But for all the detriment of the violence, to early supporters of the scene it was a way of keeping people honest and respectful. “If you said something about another rapper, you were gonna see ‘em at a show on the weekend,” says Jack. “You’d better be ready to fight about it.” Simon agrees: “There were certain rules and certain codes you had to go by. People had a lot more respect. Stuff just got sorted, you know, and people got made into men.”

This code was simple: Don’t talk shit, don’t drop names, hold your head up high, and don’t let anybody put one over you. Its adherents called themselves ‘searchers’, and you could spot them by the uniform they wore: striped polo shirts and Nike Air Max shoes. Society was quick to brand them as ‘lads’.

“It’s about dressing fresh, being fresh,” laughs Simon. “Holding your shoulders high. It’s the way you carry yourself, it’s the way you talk.” His smile fades. “That was back when you did have to earn your stripes. Now no-one’s teaching the younger generations, so that’s kind of gone.” However, for all this talk of honour and respect, the scene’s hard partying and brawls led it down a dark path.

For Tas Thomas-Pead, this path is etched in ink and scars from neck to ankle. The words ‘HOLD FAST’ are embossed across his knuckles. His son’s name, ‘Koda’, traces its way up his neckline in elaborate script. Koda was named for the Kokoda Track, where Tas’s father led mosquito bombers in WW2. At 72, he was already an old man when Tas was born.

“Instead of having that father role model, I had friends that weren’t so good,” he says. “I came from a good home, but grew up with tough kids in the neighbourhood and had to become tough real quick.”

His daughter was born when he was 20, and he spent the next few years in and out of prison. For three years Tas found stability with Koda’s mother, but as that relationship soured he was faced with the looming prospect of failing as a father for the second time. On a rampage, Tas turned to ice, thinking it was the only way he could cope. Hiding his addiction from his friends and the crew, Tas tried to kick his habit. “I remember smashing my mate’s pipe, saying, ‘This shit’s destroying us’. I was either going to be back in gaol, or dead.” Eventually, spiralling out of control, the crew found out about Tas’s addiction and struggles to clean himself up. In the end, it wasn’t rehab or prison that helped Tas get sober. It was SubC’s founder, Jett ‘Scepaz’ McKee.

“When hibernating and trying to deal with shit alone, Jetty made me realise I didn’t have to. He let me know I had the love and support from SubC that I needed.” Tas would get messages every day from worried friends, but when he saw them he’d only stare vacantly. “Fuck ‘em. Whatever.” He’d hear from Jett, though, every day without fail: “What’s doin? What’s the strut?” Jett kept up a constant stream of support that let Tas feel normal, like he had someone who believed in him. “‘You’re a soldier,’ he’d tell me. He made all the shit, all the drama, the stress, the pain, the agony, he made it feel at peace.”

Jett died on August 11, 2018, murdered by samurai sword in the inner-city suburb of Forest Lodge. The circumstances of his murder captivated Australian media, much to the dismay of SubC: The Sydney Morning Herald misspelt Jett’s name as the unfolding story of his death shifted across the front pages.

For all of this, Jett’s brothers remember him as the rock of SubC. In 2011, Jack went off the rails, struggling to extricate himself from a life of addiction and crime. Throughout this period Jett kept the crew together, running the label’s social media, releasing Nihilist’s debut mixtape, and promoting shows. He set a deadline for HokTwo, telling him to come around every Tuesday to work on their music. “Most of the time we got too drunk to actually record,” he laughs, “but we’d still have that thing every single Tuesday.”

In the wake of Jett’s passing, the SubC crew organised a celebration of his memory: 60 of Sydney’s finest graffiti artists and rappers congregated in Blacktown. Together they ‘bombed’ a wall, with artists throwing up 34 pieces with their fallen brother’s tags and likeness on full display. Lavender and violet lettering spelling out ‘Scepaz’, ‘Strut’, and ‘Jetty’ snaked its way down over a hundred metres of once-blank space. A larger than life portrait of Jett loomed over the wall, lips pursed, smiling at some unknown joke. “Dry your eyes, Don’t cry” read the epitaph.

Jett’s death represents perhaps the biggest challenge SubC has faced over the past 11 years. All of his label-mates remember him as their best friend, their bond with him forged in shared trauma. “I’ll never have a friend of that calibre again in my life,” says Tas, gazing up at the sky with his eyes open. “When I think about him, I laugh and then I cry. I laugh in the air like an idiot, and then tears start streaming down my face.”

Through violence, addiction, depression, anxiety, and even death, the crew has formed a bond that runs deeper than blood. As Dseeva and Nihilist closed out their set at the R U OK benefit, Brad leapt onto the stage between the duo, his hands curled into two Cs that he held aloft like a trophy. He held his shoulders back and his head high as the crowd roared the family name. This brotherhood is what Jett and Jack set out to create, 11 years ago: Not a label or a crew, but a family. “We sought out people we connected with, it was always family first,” Jack says proudly. “A lot of people spend their whole lives trying to find that loyalty and never do.”

In Warpath, Simon raps,

In this life you’re either left behind or get it right;

If you immortalise your memory then you’ll never die.

For him, the label gives him not just a name to carry, but a way to represent all those people left behind and show how far they’ve come. Having something to prove didn’t always lead him in the right direction. “Wanting to make something of myself is probably a reason for a lot of the criminal shit I’ve been involved in, along with the greed and drug addiction. Just wanting to be someone, thinking that being remembered for anything is better than being forgotten. I don’t think that way anymore,” he says.

Instead, he has something to show for his work: A burgeoning scene with one eye on the past and another looking towards a brighter future.

“I left home at a pretty young age. I didn’t do well in school or anything. I might’ve been a fuck-up, but I’ve got my music. It’s definitely borrowed from other cultures, but it’s a brand new thing, something that no one’s seen before. And it’s our thing.”

Contributor bio

Joseph Johnson is a media and communications graduate, and is currently studying to be a lawyer.

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