Interview with Nathan Talakai, By Kian West / by Kian West

Interview with Nathan Talakai
By Kian

MC Nathan Talakai

STRAIGHT UP, I HAVE NO IDEA ABOUT HIP-HOP. I LOVE HEAPS OF HIP-HOP ACTS AND ARTISTS IN THE RAP CATEGORY LIKE JAY-Z AND KANYE ARE CERTAINLY ON MY RADAR. BUT I AM NOT HIP TO THE LINGO AND THIS CHAT WITH THE LOCAL RAPPER KNOWN AS TALAKAI WAS A LITTLE BIT CONFRONTING IN TERMS OF NOT FEELING PREPARED. LUCKILY FOR ME, NATHAN WAS A REALLY DOWN-TO-EARTH GUY WHO WAS HAPPY TO EXPLAIN THE SCENE.

We sat down one afternoon in The Kent (of all places) to chat about his name, the local Newcastle hip-hop scene, and what an MC really is, anyways.

Nathan, otherwise known as – do you say MC?
No, no. Some people just label themselves as MC, but mine's just Talakai, which is my last name. It doesn't have any cool meaning or anything.

It's pretty cool. It's easy.
It sounds cool, which is a plus. It's got a Tongan heritage, even though I don't look Tongan in the slightest bit. Yeah, so I kind of just went with my last name because it sounded cool and it represents my whole family, if I do end up doing anything cool like that.

That's pretty rad. What does it mean to be an MC? I guess I'm not really in with hip-hop.
Newcastle hip-hop… I came into the scene when I just turned 18, and I didn't really know there was a scene until – these dudes I grew up listening to, I saw them playing gigs. I went to one on my own. I just drove down there and I found this scene. I found they were just running a Thursday night hip-hop night and I just went and sat at the back and watched these DJs scratch and stuff, and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’

And I was just sitting at the back, drawing graffiti on these little coasters and stuff like that. Then I just eventually approached one of the guys saying, ‘Can I do a set?’ He's like, ‘Do you have a DJ or anything?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I don't have a DJ.’ Then he gave me a shot. I think it was called Soul Station at the Hamilton Station Hotel and did relatively OK.

The second show was at a place in Sydney then. Mixed King – he runs the hip-hop night that gave me the shot in the first place – he ended up starting a night called Madhouse, and now Madhouse has just taken off in Newcastle. It's pretty much the only hip-hop night and I think it's kind of cool to be part of the original Madhouse artists. I'm actually going to do a verse for him tomorrow for the new Madhouse mixtape.

It's tough being an MC, though. It's a very, very, very, very hard market to break into because everyone's just like, ‘Oh, rap. Cool.’
 

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Is that hard because there's only certain rappers that most people know and then there's assumptions around those sorts of things? Or is it just because music in general is a tough thing to break into?
Well, Aussie hip-hop has a stigma because of 360 or Kerser, more or less. No shade to them. But it's true: you're either a 360 rapper or you're a Kerser rapper, which is pretty much like, you're a new-wave mainstream rapper or you're a gutter rapper from Sydney or whatever.

I grew up doing the gutter stuff, but I just kind of like making more or less – not the new age stuff, though I like the new age stuff as well – but more or less just the music I want to hear. I guess if someone goes, ‘I don't like it,’ I go, ‘Cool, it wasn't for you then.’

It's just oversaturated because everyone can upload a song to SoundCloud and be like, ‘Yeah, I'm a rapper now’ or, ‘I'm a DJ now.’ It just kind of makes people think, ‘Oh, it doesn't take people any actual skill to do it.’
 

In your style, what are the reference points, stylistically? Are there other scenes globally or people that you generally think you've pulled apart what they do?
Sort of. Funnily enough, as a rapper, I don't listen to heaps of rap music. I listen to Nick Jenkins and Logic and Joey Badass because they're, like, [all about] wordplay and flow. I just like flow patterns. I don't think too many rappers understand the concept that a rap flows literally just to a drum pattern, but words, because you get, like, the four-four, the half-time, the triplets, the quads, and no one really understands that.

As soon as you learn that and then you listen to people's flow patterns... I spent a year or so listening to music just to listen to flow patterns, just so I could hear how people broke down words and stuff like that. Now that's kind of like my key thing. People are just like, ‘Oh, Talakai has heaps of flow,’ or, ‘Talakai has the ability to switch flow patterns effortlessly,’ and stuff like that. But it just all comes with practice and how much time you're willing to give to it.

I went to TAFE and did the Music Business Diploma, because I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the industry. I got no benefit from it, I just wanted to learn it. Then I tried to do the Certificate III in Sound Engineering as well, but I needed to cull that halfway and just go back to work because I still needed money.

But more or less, there's not really many things [that I reference directly]. I like UK hip-hop; that's probably a big influence for me. And Mick Jenkins, just because we do different things.

So, if you don't listen to a lot of hip-hop, are there different genres or artists you do listen to a lot?
I kind of listen to instrumental hip-hop, like Mr Carmack or J Dilla and stuff like that. Almost every rapper in Australia and probably America and stuff as well – you go onto YouTube and type ‘Blah-blah-blah-type beat’, a type of beat and a style of one of your favourite rappers – and then you just find that beat and you listen to it and you write music that way.

So, is that what you're doing all the time – being on the hunt for that next beat?
Yeah, yeah. I just released [my mixtape] Fire is Free on Friday, on my birthday, and I'm already planning to go to Melbourne next week and work with Heffner for my debut EP. It's just a matter of saving and getting down to Melbourne to go work with him.

Who makes you better?
If I hear someone doing something good, then I'm just like, ‘I can do that and I can do it better.’ Then I'll just sit in my room for hours and hours and hours, not talking to anyone –  my dog just looks at me – playing beats really loud. My neighbours probably hate me. I just sit there, finding beats, finding beats, finding beats, and then, once I feel like something's good enough to release, I'll be like, ‘Yep, I did better.’

I try to stay as humble as possible but people tell me I do good stuff and I'm like, ‘Thanks, but it's still baby steps.’ I'm only just getting recognised. In the future, hopefully I’ll work with some pretty cool producers and then get the right equipment and the right studio time and stuff like that to make something really, really, really outstanding. Because at the moment I'm just recording in my mate's bedroom. He's an incredible engineer – he's done his Bachelor’s at uni or something like that. You wouldn't tell that it's recorded in the bedroom because people are just like, ‘Oh, what studio did you record at?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, just in a bedroom in Hamilton.’ They say, ‘You're kidding, it sounds real crisp.’

With Fire is Free, I just tried to tap into every – not every, but almost every style of hip-hop. There's something for everyone: there's 90s hip-hop, there's grind, there's new-wave trappy stuff, there's kind of like a floaty boom-bap song where I sing on the hook and stuff like that. There’s a mental health awareness rap which is ‘Feel Better’, and ‘Unison’, which is a really earthy kind of track, which talks about everything in the world being connected – that's why it's in unison. Yeah, I don't know, I just try to do better with everything.

So, it's pretty interesting to hear that Newcastle has this brilliant scene. Do you see that constantly evolving locally?
Yeah. I think it was Madhouse’s fourth birthday this year. So four years ago, when I was twenty-ish and there weren’t that many people coming… You had a DJ, maybe one act, and now it's just a bill full of acts.

Even before that, Soul Station was alright, but it was kind of at the back end of the old era. And then once us new dudes started being able to come to gigs and stuff, they stopped making music. Life gets in the way – pretty standard.

I notice most big acts skip Newcastle, just in case it flops. The live music scene here is good but it's not as good as it used to be. It's pretty much died in the arse. Sometimes the big acts come here and they don't put the local acts on the support, they bring in someone from Sydney because heaps of people think that Newcastle is part of Sydney.

It's kind of a kick in the face to the local scene. Putting in work, making noise online, forcing people to hear us. But when people do come to Madhouse and stuff and play there, everyone turns up in force and gets absolutely crazy, because at Madhouse there's pretty much no rules. You can start a mosh pit if you want.

Anyone who’s going to read this through November who maybe hasn't experienced hip-hop in Newcastle and has a perception. What would you tell them?
Come to Madhouse. Yeah. I mean, sometimes there will be a bad act there, but you've got to take the good with the bad. You can go to a rock concert and sometimes there will be bad bands there. You just kind of have to brave it through and then you'll see the good acts. And then once you see the good acts, there's usually good numbers.

And where should people find you?
Pretty much everywhere: Spotify, SoundCloud, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I think we'll save iTunes for the actual EP, save that avenue for something special. Either that or you can find me hanging around Cardiff getting pork rolls.
 

Seriously, even if you don’t normally listen to rap music, look up some of Nathan’s stuff online and take a moment to appreciate what he is putting out. Lyrics from the heart that many people can relate to. He has some shows coming up through the rest of 2017, so keep a lookout for the name.

 

Nathan Talakai Newcastle

Nathan, otherwise known as – do you say MC?
No, no. Some people just label themselves as MC, but mine's just Talakai, which is my last name. It doesn't have any cool meaning or anything.

It's pretty cool. It's easy.
It sounds cool, which is a plus. It's got a Tongan heritage, even though I don't look Tongan in the slightest bit. Yeah, so I kind of just went with my last name because it sounded cool and it represents my whole family, if I do end up doing anything cool like that.

That's pretty rad. What does it mean to be an MC? I guess I'm not really in with hip-hop.
Newcastle hip-hop… I came into the scene when I just turned 18, and I didn't really know there was a scene until – these dudes I grew up listening to, I saw them playing gigs. I went to one on my own. I just drove down there and I found this scene. I found they were just running a Thursday night hip-hop night and I just went and sat at the back and watched these DJs scratch and stuff, and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’

And I was just sitting at the back, drawing graffiti on these little coasters and stuff like that. Then I just eventually approached one of the guys saying, ‘Can I do a set?’ He's like, ‘Do you have a DJ or anything?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I don't have a DJ.’ Then he gave me a shot. I think it was called Soul Station at the Hamilton Station Hotel and did relatively OK.

The second show was at a place in Sydney then. Mixed King – he runs the hip-hop night that gave me the shot in the first place – he ended up starting a night called Madhouse, and now Madhouse has just taken off in Newcastle. It's pretty much the only hip-hop night and I think it's kind of cool to be part of the original Madhouse artists. I'm actually going to do a verse for him tomorrow for the new Madhouse mixtape.

It's tough being an MC, though. It's a very, very, very, very hard market to break into because everyone's just like, ‘Oh, rap. Cool.’

Is that hard because there's only certain rappers that most people know and then there's assumptions around those sorts of things? Or is it just because music in general is a tough thing to break into?
Well, Aussie hip-hop has a stigma because of 360 or Kerser, more or less. No shade to them. But it's true: you're either a 360 rapper or you're a Kerser rapper, which is pretty much like, you're a new-wave mainstream rapper or you're a gutter rapper from Sydney or whatever.

I grew up doing the gutter stuff, but I just kind of like making more or less – not the new age stuff, though I like the new age stuff as well – but more or less just the music I want to hear. I guess if someone goes, ‘I don't like it,’ I go, ‘Cool, it wasn't for you then.’

It's just oversaturated because everyone can upload a song to SoundCloud and be like, ‘Yeah, I'm a rapper now’ or, ‘I'm a DJ now.’ It just kind of makes people think, ‘Oh, it doesn't take people any actual skill to do it.’
 

In your style, what are the reference points, stylistically? Are there other scenes globally or people that you generally think you've pulled apart what they do?
Sort of. Funnily enough, as a rapper, I don't listen to heaps of rap music. I listen to Nick Jenkins and Logic and Joey Badass because they're, like, [all about] wordplay and flow. I just like flow patterns. I don't think too many rappers understand the concept that a rap flows literally just to a drum pattern, but words, because you get, like, the four-four, the half-time, the triplets, the quads, and no one really understands that.

As soon as you learn that and then you listen to people's flow patterns... I spent a year or so listening to music just to listen to flow patterns, just so I could hear how people broke down words and stuff like that. Now that's kind of like my key thing. People are just like, ‘Oh, Talakai has heaps of flow,’ or, ‘Talakai has the ability to switch flow patterns effortlessly,’ and stuff like that. But it just all comes with practice and how much time you're willing to give to it.

I went to TAFE and did the Music Business Diploma, because I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the industry. I got no benefit from it, I just wanted to learn it. Then I tried to do the Certificate III in Sound Engineering as well, but I needed to cull that halfway and just go back to work because I still needed money.

But more or less, there's not really many things [that I reference directly]. I like UK hip-hop; that's probably a big influence for me. And Mick Jenkins, just because we do different things.

So, if you don't listen to a lot of hip-hop, are there different genres or artists you do listen to a lot?
I kind of listen to instrumental hip-hop, like Mr Carmack or J Dilla and stuff like that. Almost every rapper in Australia and probably America and stuff as well – you go onto YouTube and type ‘Blah-blah-blah-type beat’, a type of beat and a style of one of your favourite rappers – and then you just find that beat and you listen to it and you write music that way.

So, is that what you're doing all the time – being on the hunt for that next beat?
Yeah, yeah. I just released [my mixtape] Fire is Free on Friday, on my birthday, and I'm already planning to go to Melbourne next week and work with Heffner for my debut EP. It's just a matter of saving and getting down to Melbourne to go work with him.

Who makes you better?
If I hear someone doing something good, then I'm just like, ‘I can do that and I can do it better.’ Then I'll just sit in my room for hours and hours and hours, not talking to anyone –  my dog just looks at me – playing beats really loud. My neighbours probably hate me. I just sit there, finding beats, finding beats, finding beats, and then, once I feel like something's good enough to release, I'll be like, ‘Yep, I did better.’

I try to stay as humble as possible but people tell me I do good stuff and I'm like, ‘Thanks, but it's still baby steps.’ I'm only just getting recognised. In the future, hopefully I’ll work with some pretty cool producers and then get the right equipment and the right studio time and stuff like that to make something really, really, really outstanding. Because at the moment I'm just recording in my mate's bedroom. He's an incredible engineer – he's done his Bachelor’s at uni or something like that. You wouldn't tell that it's recorded in the bedroom because people are just like, ‘Oh, what studio did you record at?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, just in a bedroom in Hamilton.’ They say, ‘You're kidding, it sounds real crisp.’

With Fire is Free, I just tried to tap into every – not every, but almost every style of hip-hop. There's something for everyone: there's 90s hip-hop, there's grind, there's new-wave trappy stuff, there's kind of like a floaty boom-bap song where I sing on the hook and stuff like that. There’s a mental health awareness rap which is ‘Feel Better’, and ‘Unison’, which is a really earthy kind of track, which talks about everything in the world being connected – that's why it's in unison. Yeah, I don't know, I just try to do better with everything.

So, it's pretty interesting to hear that Newcastle has this brilliant scene. Do you see that constantly evolving locally?
Yeah. I think it was Madhouse’s fourth birthday this year. So four years ago, when I was twenty-ish and there weren’t that many people coming… You had a DJ, maybe one act, and now it's just a bill full of acts.

Even before that, Soul Station was alright, but it was kind of at the back end of the old era. And then once us new dudes started being able to come to gigs and stuff, they stopped making music. Life gets in the way – pretty standard.

I notice most big acts skip Newcastle, just in case it flops. The live music scene here is good but it's not as good as it used to be. It's pretty much died in the arse. Sometimes the big acts come here and they don't put the local acts on the support, they bring in someone from Sydney because heaps of people think that Newcastle is part of Sydney.

It's kind of a kick in the face to the local scene. Putting in work, making noise online, forcing people to hear us. But when people do come to Madhouse and stuff and play there, everyone turns up in force and gets absolutely crazy, because at Madhouse there's pretty much no rules. You can start a mosh pit if you want.

Anyone who’s going to read this through November who maybe hasn't experienced hip-hop in Newcastle and has a perception. What would you tell them?
Come to Madhouse. Yeah. I mean, sometimes there will be a bad act there, but you've got to take the good with the bad. You can go to a rock concert and sometimes there will be bad bands there. You just kind of have to brave it through and then you'll see the good acts. And then once you see the good acts, there's usually good numbers.

And where should people find you?
Pretty much everywhere: Spotify, SoundCloud, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I think we'll save iTunes for the actual EP, save that avenue for something special. Either that or you can find me hanging around Cardiff getting pork rolls.
 

Seriously, even if you don’t normally listen to rap music, look up some of Nathan’s stuff online and take a moment to appreciate what he is putting out. Lyrics from the heart that many people can relate to. He has some shows coming up through the rest of 2017, so keep a lookout for the name.