If you’re at all interested in Australian hip hop, there’s little doubt you’ve heard of Ozi Batla aka. Shannon Kennedy before. Originally an MC with the pioneering outfit The Herd, he’s since branched out, with the help of Sir Robbo and Chasm, to form the more reggae influenced Astronomy Class, a trio that also draws strongly on a shared love of science fiction (as the name suggests).
As an MC in his own right, Kennedy has worked with a veritable who’s who of the Australian hip hop scene over the years, making him the perfect poster child for a community that embraces mate-ship and collaboration much more openly than its American counterpart, with all of its regional rivalry and hyped up label wars.
Since the early days of The Herd, Kennedy has never been one to shy away from tackling real issues in his lyrics, garnering a reputation for his outspoken political views (see ‘77%’ and ‘Burn Down the Parliament’, for example).
This year he’ll release his debut solo album, Wild Colonial. We’re told it’s a much more personal record than his earlier work, “revealing the passions of love, life and hip hop culture; as well as loneliness, contradictions and a sense of purpose”. Jason Strange caught up with Ozi Batla in the lead up to the album’s release.
Music Feeds: So can you give us a run down on the new album?
Ozi Batla: Wild Colonial is an album I’ve wanted to make for years. Meeting Sandro was the catalyst for making it happen – we are on the same wavelength when it comes to hip hop. The album is pretty diverse in terms of moods and themes – from colonialism to heartbreak, romance and hip hop, work and life choices. It’s an homage to Australian film as well, we wanted to put together a real hip hop album – lots of samples – but give it a local flavour as well without being jingoistic. Apart from DJ Bonez on the cut and SistaNative on some backing vocals, there’s no guests – it’s all me and Sandro – even the singing. I’m really proud of it – it feels like the music I’ve been working towards for the past fifteen years.
MF: How have you found the experience of doing your own record without The Herd or Astronomy Class there?
OB: It’s been refreshing but challenging also. Thankfully, Sandro is not one of those producers that doesn’t care or understand lyrics, and I have a background in production so we were comfortable bouncing ideas off each other. Thematically I’ve been able to explore some stuff that didn’t really fit with The Herd or Astronomy Class, be a bit more personal, and put my flavour on all aspects of the record a bit more. The idea of a solo record is a bit misleading a lot of the time – there’s always other people involved along the way. I would say Mike Burnham who mixed it, Blondie who took the photos, Dale who designed the sleeve, Prad who did the clip, everyone at the Elefant Traks office – a lot of people are involved in making an album.
MF: The album is coming out through Elefant Traks, who you’ve been with since day one. What is it about Elefant Traks that has kept you with them?
OB: Elefant Traks is like family to me. From all the Herd and Astronomers who are really close friends to the other groups coming through – we’re all pretty tight. I think the label goes about choosing artists to add to the roster in a pretty different way. Sure, the music has to be really good but there needs to be some mutual respect there as well – we’re kind of like the Sydney Swans with their “no dickheads” policy. So that works to keep everyone really tight. Plus, there’s no other label in the country that could provide the balance of artistic control and exposure.
MF: Having been in the scene for fifteen years now, what are some of your favourite memories of those MC battles back in ’02?
OB: Yeah those were fun times, mostly. The scene was really developing fast and I felt like I needed to get out there and prove myself – not just to the heads but to me as well. Battling is really a challenge, especially when you had the likes of Hyjak and Delta going around. I felt like I achieved what I set out to do – to show the crowd I was more than just some tourist hippy rapper with no respect for the culture, to show them that I understood where hip hop came from and that I respected it.
MF: You’ve never been afraid to be politically outspoken in the past, what is really getting under your skin at the moment?
OB: The practicalities of living in a two party state are pretty depressing right now. That Labor don’t have the guts to stand up to the rednecks and do the right thing on immigration – that they keep pandering to the borderline racist majority when in their heart of hearts they know it is wrong. That they had to put the environment on the back burner until after the election despite saying it was the gravest issue facing the world. The fact that the majority of the media in this country are so lazy that they automatically peg people like Rudd as boring and bureaucratic when they attempt to explain complex issues. That blind nationalism has become the norm. That we have stopped allowing refugees from a country we invaded apply for asylum. The fact that we have legislated discrimination against indigenous people in the form of the NT intervention and everyone thinks it’s great.
MF: You and the guys in the Herd hit some controversy last September when booked for ‘Coal For Coast’. How did that whole situation go down?
OB: It was a stuff up on our part, we never fully looked into who was behind the festival. There’s a big difference between suspect companies providing some support for an event and an event being an out-and-out propaganda exercise for said companies. When it was drawn to our attention, we did not feel we could honestly stand up on stage and do songs like “2020” without being complete hypocrites. It was an eye-opener for us, and yes, a stuff up because we had left too much up to our booking agents without informing ourselves about who was writing the cheque.
MF: Last thing, what would be first track you’d put on to a mixtape?
OB: ‘Mentira’ by Manu Chao.
Ozi Batla’s debut album Wild Colonial drops May 14th through Elefant Traks. Head over to their website next Monday 10th May to listen to an exclusive free stream.