The Beauty in the Diaspora: An Interview with Australia's N'fa Jones
From murky '70s soul and Afro-Brazilian jazz to the rhythms of Africa, Australian rapper N'fa Jones explores all reaches of sound to expand his eclectic hip-hop.
A notable name amongst Australia's hip-hop scene, N'fa Jones boosted his profile considerably when he hooked-up with long-time friend, the late Heath Ledger, to direct the promotional video for his single "Cause an Effect" from his 2006 debut. Ledger's striking imagery of a war-painted Jones, coupled by the single thrumming, heavy-strutting groove, directed the world's attention toward Australia as a hotbed for sample-based music, a feat that was first achieved by the much lauded Avalanches back in 2000.
What Jones offers as an artist is a clear figurehead for hip-hop, an Aussie making definitive moves in the community who predates a number of the country's African-Australian rappers in terms of widespread exposure and success. His ability to strike a balance between aggressive swagger and tuneful malleability means that Jones understands clearly the wide spectrum of texture in music that only the more practiced artists are familiar with.
His debut, Cause An Effect (Inertia, 2006), features hefty grooves, packed with murky '70s soul. It spawned a hit with its title-track in Australia and offered more off-the-wall hip-hop with numbers like "Two Writtens and a Freestyle" and "Dirty Dub Up". Jones continued recording, mostly a series of EPs and one-offs, which saw his profile build up over the years. His second full-length effort, 2014's Black + White Noise (The Ayems) broadens the palette of sound and mood. Dipping a little more freely into the waters of pop, Jones sweetens the darkness of his raps with his singing, and this is most evident on the sun-dipped single "Money Better Come". The moody hip-hop of his debut would still make its presence on other numbers like the baleful single "Monster's Ballad", a tale of jealousy and murder.
Despite an ever-expanding profile in Australia's developing hip-hop community and a healthy fanbase that keeps him touring around the country and other parts of the world, Jones has curiously expressed dissatisfaction with much of his work. Frustrated with the overplayed tropes of hip-hop and the somewhat disingenuous platform it has been afforded as of late with social media, the rapper turned his attention to Latin America for inspiration. His latest EP, one in which he is most proud of, is Cool Out Sun presents Os Afro Sambas. An Afro- Brazilian-soaked affair that seamlessly bridges the culture of Latin America with the rudiments of hip-hop, Jones' project with producer Billy Hoyle revisits the grounds first treaded on by such luminaries like Jorge Ben and Edu Lobo. Filled with wire-brushed drums, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and Jones' purposeful lyricism, Os Afro Sambas offers yet another angle in his homeland's flourishing hip-hop scene. The rapper has continued recording with the outfit, having just released Cool Out Sun's latest single, "Fire For (Fire Four)", this time mining the rhythms of Africa.
Jones speaks with PopMatters about his career in music and why his latest EP is the best thing he has done so far.
Please discuss how you first got into music and your introduction to hip-hop. Also, tell us a bit about your experiences growing up in Australia as a child.
From my memory, I'd be about three years old when it started. I got into music at the African restaurant my parents owned in London. We lived above it on Old Brompton Road. We used to have cool Afro Jazz bands come and play. I thought they were the best thing ever. It made me feel like it was possible to make music.
We moved to Australia and still had some classic Afro-soul, jazz, and reggae albums that I listened to all the time. These records became my friends, and solitude when growing up in Oz, knowing I was different to most of my neighbours. Luckily through the discovery of hip-hop, sports, and history, all my heroes looked like me. This gave me strength.
My older brother, Kabba, loved music also, and he really led me down the path of making music. We used to write hip-hop mixed with world music influences. We were actually dope, but we lived so far away from where hip-hop happened that we kind of thought it was an impossible dream and ended up teaming up with other people to make music. I went on to form the band 1200 Techniques with Peril and Kem, but all my style was my brother's influence. I owe all of it to him.
You formed 1200 Techniques earlier in your career -- how would you describe the nature and style of this group? As well, what impact do you think 1200 Techniques had in developing Australia's hip-hop scene at the time?
1200 Techniques was all about combining styles and influences in music, hence the name, which was also an ode to the Technics 1200 turntable where hip-hop began. Our live shows were better than our recordings. Our live shows were very powerful and, in hindsight, we had a huge influence on hip-hop in Australia with how to rock a live show, using live instrumentation onstage and in the studio. Writing songs with structure and melody rather than the straight 8-bar hook, 16-bar rap styles, which we also loved.
We won music awards when there was still no "Urban" category, which then created the need for "Urban". We always gave props to other crews and did all we could to help everyone get heard about. We looked and sounded like we had money behind us. We just had a lot of talented friends who loved us and helped us on our journey.
Your first solo album was Cause An Effect. It features guest performances from artists like Roots Manuva and Terence Yoshiaki (an original member of the Black Eyed Peas). As a solo artist it was your introductory statement. It also initiated a working relationship with the late actor Heath Ledger, who was a friend of yours since your grammar school days. He directed your music video for the album's title-track. What styles, influences and themes were you trying to explore with your solo debut?
I was a young man journeying and discovering all I could. I was exploring whatever I came across. I wasn't seeking to make an album at all. I was just meeting guys who made dope beats. Guys I had met playing Australian festivals, and had formed friendships with. Exploring corridors of my mind, my weaknesses and strengths, and sonics: from a UK dub hip-hop vibe, to a dark laneway of South Auckland, to a sunny California vibe.
The album was a window into the places I traveled and people who took me in and treated me like family. As an outcome, I wrote a decent record with some of my heroes and got to make videos with my oldest friend.
Your second proper full-length album Black + White Noise came eight years after your debut. In between you released a number of EPs. How had your sound developed by then on Black + White Noise? What kinds of changes as an artist had you undergone by this point?
The EPs were kind of random collections of songs I had written with awesome cats. I had written the majority of Black + White Noise with Sensible J and Dutch by the 2008/2009 Australian summers. But it didn't get released for a few more years due to my own personal issues that I won't go into. At this point I had been though a lot of change. Especially personal.
I had met producer Sensible J, who at the time was considering selling his MPC and other equipment due to frustration of people not feeling his sound. After we had met a couple of times at live shows, J gave me his beats. I fell in love with his sound, and him as a person. We've been friends since, and still work together. Thankfully J kept making beats and now he has his own label, House of Beige, and is also a member of my new project Cool Out Sun. Without J, I might not have made it through my darkness. His energy and music was like a beacon of light in the dark fog.
You've mentioned that you've never been entirely happy with your previous solo albums. Why is that? What about your previous albums, Cause An Effect and Black + White Noise, do you feel you did not accomplish fully as an artist? What are the elements on these albums that you do like best?
Well, I didn't take myself seriously enough. So, I was a bit on that "it'll do, I guess" vibe. I'd release the record and then be like "hmmm, I should have rewritten that verse, and maybe left that song off the record". I felt like five-star records became four-star.
What I like best is when I write songs that really matter to me. Songs about strength and courage, not songs about weakness and fear. Songs that question and give solutions, and songs that aren't aimed at getting radio play. I always was disappointed when a song I "wrote for radio" failed because I probably didn't really wanna release that song anyway. I'd rather believe in a song 100 percent, whether it work at radio or not, because I gotta live with it, perform it, and give myself to it. Songs like "Cause An Effect" and "Confidence" are what I'm about.
Your latest project with Billy Hoyle, Cool Out Sun, has just produced an EP, Os Afro Sambas. The spine of this music is built from the traditions of Brazilian music. You also mentioned that this is the work that you are most proud of. First, tell me how you met Billy. Also, where did the Brazilian influences come from? What about Os Afro Sambas do you think has brought out the best in you as an artist in a way that you don't feel your other works have?
The Os Afro Sambas EP was something I wrote in secret. I didn't play it to Billy Hoyle 'till it was done. Billy loves Brazilian music, had traveled to Brazil, speaks Portuguese, and is a dope beat maker and great guy. He has made such a beautiful instrumental record that it inspired me to write again, as I had been in a lull. 1200 Techniques had reformed, and it just wasn't clicking like it once did, so we had let it go for good.
Os Afro Sambas reinvigorated me. Upon finishing it, I knew I wanted to make a band/creative group called Cool Out Sun, and so named the EP Cool Out Sun presents Os Afro Sambas, N'fa Jones x Billy Hoyle to get people talking about Cool Out Sun. From this point on, I've focused on the more world music style of hip-hop I had first made with my brother and got together with the legendary Sensible J, Nui Moon and Lamine Sonko, all African Australians, to write a record combining culture, language, spirituality, rhythm and knowledge.
This process of Os Afro Sambas by Cool Out Sun is personally my best work. I've had spot songs and moments I've been happy with in the past, but the EP is, for me, an untainted, solid body of work I'm really proud of.
You've toured many places in the world and worked with many artists in hip-hop from around the globe. Can you describe what you feel the Australian hip-hop scene is like compared to other scenes around the world? In what ways is Australian hip-hop unlike any other hip-hop in other parts of the world?
Well, every country has its own unique style. I guess in Oz, it's our accents, and local flavour, a no B.S. approach and a love for boom-bap. I always liked to push the envelope a little and recently the more popular local music is sounding pretty cheesy, soft. I like edge in music, but that's just my personal opinion.
There are negative factors here, of course, to do with race and cultural identity, but for the most part, the guys who break through and do well are pretty decent guys. What I've loved seeing recently is the rise of First Nation (Indigenous) Australians, and African-Australians (though I guess I was here at the start and helped build the first brush strokes of the picture), and a sense of pride and purpose – a push for political, cultural change and growth via music. My boys A.B. Original are the real ground breakers in this movement.
Following Os Afro Sambas, how do you see your work as an artist developing? What creative areas are you currently sourcing from for your next works?
Yeah, I'm all about the Afro-percussive vibe of Cool Out Sun now. That's all I wanna do. I'm open to vocal features here and there because I love spitting straight bars with the best of them, but I'm back to my roots, and nurturing this garden. Hopefully it will be the same team behind every Cool Out Sun record, but the guys in the band are all so successful by themselves.
I understand things might need to bend, to keep this river flowing. I hope I can continue to inspire movements, youth, elders, my children and myself to develop and grow though music. I feel like Cool Out Sun has the goods to take our sound and our live show to the world -- not on some Drake level but on a gentle left-field conscious level representing the beauty in the diaspora.
I believe now. I'm allowed to dream aren't I?