The Tongue: “I don’t have to like every Australian hip-hop artist, do I?”

Sydney rapper The Tongue’s latest album Surrender to Victory was released two weeks ago. His rapping style is squarer than it used to be, framing its own vocal hooks. His verses flow with an amplified, accent-less aggression, and his thoughtful curation of guests adds to the album’s tone, rather than muddying it. It purrs with a muscular acuity. Behind it all is Cam Bluff’s production, a sound that’s as cutting edge as Australian rap music gets.

It’s an electrifying, modern listen. But his lyrics tend to give the game away. Pay attention and you’ll find the concerns are communal, not commercial. Spiritual rather than corporeal.

Tongue—born Xannon Shirley—talks to TheVine on a Friday afternoon from the Randwick school where he’s currently completing his practical experience, one of the final touches to five years studying education. Not once does he mention ‘rap music’. Instead he talks — often in long, loving tones — about the culture of ‘hip-hop’.

“With a few exceptions, hip-hop has taken a very dark turn,” says Tongue. “At the moment it feels very much like, ‘I’m doing drugs. I’m popping Molly. I’ve got more money than you. I’m better than you.’ There’s not much uplifting stuff. There are no Tribe Called Quests or Public Enemys on the radio at the moment. I just felt like hip-hop needed to turn back to what I think it can be, which is an agent for social change and inspiration rather than just bragging or being a centre of attention.”

It’s not an uncommon concern, but worth noting when coming from Tongue. The 28-year-old made his name in the battle arena, where an elegantly exaggerated piece of braggadocio could spell the end of an opponent. Heading down the Hume in 2005 for Melbourne’s infamous Revolver MC Battle may have been a ploy to impress a girl – “It worked!” he laughs – but Tongue returned to Sydney with first prize: a pressing of 150 records.

From there he reached out to ex-schoolmates Bag Raiders’ Jack Glass and Chris Stacey for help with production, before presenting the finished EP to Sydney label Elefant Traks. The Marrickville indie agreed to release it, but on the proviso he also deliver an album. In a matter of weeks Tongue had gone from trying to impress his girlfriend to landing a record deal.

“It was like the best thing I could’ve heard,” he says. “I was stoked.”

Get Tongue talking about Elefant Traks and it can be hard to shut him up. You might think him custom cut for the Marrickville outfit – like many of its stars, he’s not afraid to speak his opinions on social media and fill some pop quotes – but he regards his early years on the label with reverence.

“Man, it’s always felt special to me,” he recalls. “Elefant Traks started when The Herd were the biggest act. So what that meant in the early days, was that people in The Herd were investing money that they could have put in their pocket, into me. And these are not wealthy people – nobody from The Herd lives on a yacht or in a big house. So that says to me that they really believe in what I’m doing, and that’s really special in the music industry.

“Urthboy is the driving force behind Elefant Traks and his vision and gift is being able to spot the potential in others. He just believes in people. When he signed Horrorshow, I wasn’t that convinced. I had my doubts, but I was wrong. Urthy saw that, and it’s been the same with Hermitude.”

All else being equal it should be Tongue’s turn. Elefant Traks are coming off the biggest year in the label’s history, with Hermitude’s HyperParadise taking out both the Australian Music Prize and an AIR award. Urthboy’s own Smokey’s Haunt was also shortlisted for the AMP, while Elefant Traks took out the AIR prize for Best Indie. The label’s everywhere, so the stage is seemingly set for Surrender to Victory.

“That’s the great thing about being on an independent label,” he explains. “They’re all focusing on me at the moment. There’s not another release scheduled until the second half of the year, but when the next release comes out they all have to get behind that. So the longer you have for the label to focus on you, the better.”

It probably doesn’t hurt that Tongue has recently landed himself headlines in the music press. When chose to tweet comments he made during an interview about both 360 and Sydney up-and-comer Chance Waters without linking to the actual story, the local blogosphere shouted ‘beef’ and proceeded to lose its collective shit.

“It was a storm in a teacup, really,” he explains. “It was my opinion. I’m frank with my opinions, and I don’t apologise for having an opinion. And it wasn’t ‘beef’. It was just me saying, ‘Sorry, I don’t like your music.’ I don’t have to like every Australian hip-hop artist, do I? I didn’t sign a contract that said I did.”

Tongue and Waters went at each other briefly over Twitter before coming to an uneasy truce. But the break in tension seemed to distract from an underlying issue: for so long —the little genre that could—rap music in Australia has grown to become a dominant force in the local music industry, and Tongue no longer understands the requirement for everyone to be pulling in the same direction.

“That ‘Support Aussie Hip-hop’ sticker that you see around,” he says. “That really gets my goat. Because you should not support Aussie hip-hop – you should support good hip-hop. You should not support something because it’s Australian. That’s saying, ‘Even though this is crap, it’s Australian so I’m going to buy it.’ No: buy something if it’s good.

“People seem to be attracted to the Australian part of hip-hop rather than the hip-hop part of hip-hop. You have people coming up to you after shows saying, ‘Yeah, love you, Tongue. Love Australian hip-hop and stuff American rappers. They’re rubbish.’ That’s ludicrous. It’s like saying, ‘Stuff American jazz. Louis Armstrong’s no good.’ What are you talking about?!”

But while Tongue says he doesn’t have a problem with 360, more than once during our conversation he says the Melbourne superstar’s approach to hip-hop provides a contrast to his own – particularly when it comes to treating rap music as a tool for social change.

“My main argument is that [360] has to be aware of his power and his influence,” Tongue explains. “The same way all of us do. Kids look up to rappers because they’re the last uncensored heroes, in a sense. There are very few artists left that can speak their minds uncensored, but I can do that, 360 can do that, and the [Hilltop] Hoods can do that. So we have to be aware of the power of what we say, because we’re talking to the youth. We’re talking to people who are turning into adults and starting their lives. Each artist has to make up their own mind about what they stand for. But they’ve got to stand for something.”

If Tongue is keen to spread a message, he’s built a significant weapon with Surrender to Victory. After 2010’s Alternative Energy failed to garner much radio play he turned away from applying a formula to his music, instead swotting up on songwriting and simply making the LP he wanted to make. In the process, Tongue formed a valuable partnership with one of the most promising producers in the country and has quite possibly just delivered the record of his career.

Now it’s about capitalising on the support he has from Elefant Traks and presenting Surrender to Victory in a live arena, with tour dates set to be announced within the week. Then it’s more music, more clips, more remixes.

“And more beefs,” he laughs.

Matt Shea (@mrmatches)
profile of MattShea