May 8, 2010

I still remember the exact moment when I started thinking that there was something to Australian hip hop. It was at Splendour in the Grass in 2004, when I first saw the Hilltop Hoods live (and later in the day, The Herd). Relatively late to the proverbial game, I know, but for me that was the moment when I realised that Australian hip hop wasn’t, as I’d previously assumed, just a pale bogan-ised xerox of its American counterpart.

Like them or not, you’ve got to admit that Hilltop have done more to popularise hip hop in this country than almost any other artists. ‘Nosebleed Section’ was a breakthrough hit, generating instant fans, raising the status of the genre and inspiring countless young MCs to follow in their footsteps.

Chance Waters aka. Phatchance is one of these contemporaries, as impressive for his lyrical skill as he is for his determination to promote himself and his music while staying an independent artist. Whether this is born of a conscious choice or simply circumstance, his debut full length album Insktains is a solid first release for an artist that shows significant long-term potential. Supported by his compatriots in the I Forget, Sorry! Collective, the twelve tracks on Insktains showcase his considerable skills with a mic.

The production is slick, benefiting from the diversity of styles the seven (!) different beat makers bring. It’s not overtly showy or particularly revolutionary stuff, but does enough in layering live bass lines, subtle keys and sometimes playful synth lines with tight drum loops to allow the imagery and story telling of Chance’s lyrics to take centre stage. This is where this record truly shines; the deep production provides the backdrop, the canvas if you like, that allows Chance to paint his stories, accompanying the music without ever sounding cliched or unnecessarily embellishing the tracks.

Tracks like ‘Mountain of Glass’, an impassioned plea to a close relative obviously dealing with alcoholism, and ‘Battlescars’, a breakup song that succeeds in being simultaneously biting and acerbic yet conciliatory and reflexive, demonstrate a maturity and depth of lyrical content that belies his relatively tender age. The album has it’s lighter moments too, like the tongue-in-cheek all in ‘The Catchy Song’ and the optimistic tale of new love that is ‘Invisible Queen’.

‘Leaving The Nest’ presents Chance as an individual still coming to terms with the world around him, and might well be an apt summary of the entire record, with the MC as much learning about himself and his place in the world as the listener does.*

When he says “I’ve got an artist’s soul but a child’s fears” in the track ‘Angels In My Ears’, it really brings home the message that he’s taken this, his debut release as a chance to introduce himself to the world, in a brutally honest and unassuming way, dealing with the everyday trials and tribulations we all face upon entering adulthood; the tug-of-war sacrifices that come when trading off idealism for the reality of the ‘grown-up’ world, the dawning realisation that responsibility is actually considered an important personality trait, and of course the usual relationship woes.

Rhymes like “all these films ’bout aliens and spaceships, might amaze kids who forget that their future’s bleak” from the title track might seem trite and misinformed were it not for the tangible honesty and modest way Chance delivers them.

The album comes accompanied by an I Forget, Sorry! seven track sampler which has both good and rather mediocre moments. ‘My Weekend’ is pretty catchy, and the dub remix of ‘Inkstains’ takes the track in a new, and wholly interesting new direction. It’s not a bad little addition to the album, and gives Chance an opportunity to showcase the other acts in his outfit.

It could be said that Inkstains is an ‘easy’ hip hop album, with straightforward enough production that it doesn’t really stand out from a lot of other releases, but what makes it so compelling is Phatchance’s intelligent and inciteful lyrics. If he’d been less careful and considered in the creation of his rhymes, Inkstains might well have drifted into ‘yet another local MC’ territory, but this is good stuff. Just like Hilltop before him, Phatchance has carefully crafted a debut record that’s as accessible to non-hip hop fans as it is to the diehards.

* The last track on the album is a ‘band version’ of this song. It’s a great reinterpretation of the song, and demonstrates the shift in aesthetic that a more prominent instrumental would have on his work as a whole; not necessarily better than the original, which really benefits from a darker, brooding instrumental backing, but still a worthy footnote.