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A.B. Original Take the Power Back

Hip-hop duo on how a lifetime of personal experience fuelled one of the year’s most furious LPs.

The floor of the Eastern Bloc cafe in Coburg, Melbourne, is littered with plastic toys and children’s books. A family of four are guided to a table next to where Rolling Stone is seated and handed brunch menus. Adam Briggs – the imposingly large, 30-year old Yorta Yorta man, and one half of hip-hop duo A.B. Original – is finishing his train of thought. “You just can’t punch everyone in their fuckin’ face,” he bellows, mock-incredulously. “That’s the reality. It’s frowned upon.”

Briggs is one of the most exciting voices in Australian hip-hop. Related: he’s also one of the most blunt and profane. In a black cap and over-size black T-shirt, he’s riffing about growing up having to watch out for the “funny cunt” at the party; the drunk who, after exhausting all his gags, inevitably turns to racist jokes. “He’s the one you look out for,” says Briggs. “He’s the one where I’d be like, ‘Oh here we go.’ I bet you in a couple of hours I’ll be punching this dude in his face.”

The family next to us fall quiet.

Next to Briggs is Trials – aka Daniel Rankine – co-founding MC and producer of long-running Adelaide hip-hop act Funkoars, ARIA-winning producer to the likes of Drapht, Illy and Hilltop Hoods, and A.B. Original’s other half. Dressed in a black parka top, his black dreads tied behind him in a bun, he runs with Briggs’ baton.

“It’s like, if I’m going to deal with this right now, I’m going to ruin everyone’s fuckin’ day,” says Trials. “Mine included. It’s a trip that we have to take on the racist’s behaviour and not make them feel uncomfortable.” Briggs follows-up. “That’s the worst part. You get frowned upon if you don’t make the racist comfortable.”

The pair are here to discuss their debut album, the not-coincidentally-titled Reclaim Australia – a record designed to not make the racist comfortable. Sonically it’s a loving homage to the old school hip-hop the pair grew up on, a slamming, brass and Moog-heavy collection that references G-Funk, gangster rap, the Bomb Squad, and the best of Nineties West Coast hip-hop. But the subject matter is much closer to home.

“We always talked about a record like this existing when we were kids,” says Trials. “And it didn’t. There were artists we clung on to and liked, but there was no one doing what we wanted to talk about. There were things we wanted to bring to the table.”

The album’s opening salvo frames it. Over a loping guitar line, Briggs is heard asking indigenous musician Archie Roach what he thinks of the pair’s record. “It gives me goosebumps,” Roach says. “It gets your blood up. We marched for land rights, we walked down the street and brought the city to a standstill. Listening to your album… it brings back that time when we did pump our fists in the air. Because you had to be in their face.” What follows is 40 minutes of furious, world class hip-hop that directly addresses black deaths in custody; the low life expectancy of Aboriginal Australians; “Invasion Day”; the scourge of meth in communities; racial profiling; and a life spent weathering systemic racism. But also this: it’s heaps of fun.

“The closest thing we had to a rock star growing up was Archie Roach,” says Briggs, lifting his cap to scratch his clean- shaven head. “But when you’re 12 it’s hard to identify being a rock star with Archie Roach. He’s not standing on the mountaintop doing solos like Slash. Why can’t we have that? Why didn’t we have a 2Pac orIceCube? If I had that when I was a kid, I would have replaced all my posters. It’s about identifying. And that’s a cornerstone of this record. This is for the community. The one rule we adhered to was, can our cousins and nephews bang this at their parties and in the car. Wholeheartedly. This is for those kids we were.”

It’s no understatement to say the kids Briggs and Trials were – and were repeatedly told they were – had a profound impact on the men they are today. Briggs grew up the son of Paul Briggs, a decorated and highly respected Victorian Yorta Yorta man, whose work in the local community around northern Victoria included founding indigenous sports clubs, employment agencies, and the nation’s first indigenous credit union. “I remember I was a kid and playing at this other kid’s house,” says the rapper. “His dad comes home from work and to the backyard where we’re playing. He’s like, ‘What’s your name?’ I go, ‘Adam Briggs’. He goes, ‘Briggs?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘You can leave.’ I was in primary school.”

Trials was born in Murray Bridge, South Australia, to a Welsh mother and Ngarrindjeri man, who split when Trials was three. Now 33, Trials recalls how, between the ages of two and 12, he would bounce back and forth between Wales and South Australia.

“I remember being six or seven years old at a mate’s house in Wales,” he says. “We all had a glass of water, but they always used a separate cup for me. I thought maybe it was just because I was Australian and maybe when I come home it’ll be sweet. But when I did [come home], I found I had the worst of both worlds.”

Those unspoken lessons stuck. “To be 100 per cent real, to this day it makes me apprehensive of meeting new white people,” says Briggs, shaking his head. “‘Cause I’m just waiting for them to say something racist.”

“When you’re that young,” says Trials, “you can’t rationalise the putrid thoughts that go through someone’s head to separate you from them, based purely on skin colour. It was a very strange experience growing up like that. ‘Oh, I am different?’ Until I realised, it’s not me that makes me different, it’s how someone perceives me.”

That “difference” was also what brought them together. Having moved to Melbourne at 19, Briggs caught Trials and Funkoars playing a show at the Corner Hotel. “It was such a trip to see a black dude in the Australian rap scene,” says Briggs. “Back then you could count us on one hand.”

Briggs introduced himself and a friendship was forged, to the point where Briggs eventually moved himself into Trials’ house. “There was a lot of kicking in the doors trying to give me Kit Kats I didn’t want,” recalls Trials. “‘You want this Kit Kat?’ Nah man, I’m chilling. Leave me alone.”

“That’s just how we act,” laughs Briggs. “That’s how I act with my cousins. We family. And I’m a real shit-stirrer.”

With both men established in their own right – Trials has released four albums with Funkoars; Briggs two solo albums and an EP – it wasn’t until they were asked to play triple j’s Beat the Drum festival in early 2015 that the duo’s shit-stirring tendencies coalesced into A.B. Original.

“You just can’t punch everyone in their fuckin’ face,” says Briggs. “That’s the reality. It’s frowned upon.”

The pair toyed with making an EP. But thumping initial cuts, “2 Black 2 Strong” and “Report to the Mist”, about deaths in custody (“If you’re Aboriginal, in the divisional odds are that they plan on killin’ you – Coon”), suggested the pair had album material. The blunt subject matter wasn’t a stretch. “If we’re in the room together, we’re talking about this stuff,” says Trials. “How we can improve community, how we can uplift community. We’ve been afforded this big platform built from our own rights and our own music. So we decided we’re going to use this platform.”

“We were egging each other on,” says Briggs. “No net. Let’s jump. Let’s do this like it’s our last one. It wasn’t a comfortable record to make. We could just go and do party tracks and dumb shit but that serves nobody. If we did that record and died tomorrow and all we have is 12 tracks about longnecks, who do we help?”

“There’s a bunch of racial slurs on there,” says Trials. “All the ones we got called as kids, but we were like, let’s use them. But it’s gotta be a mad song, too. You can talk shit all day but…” Briggs finishes his sentence. “The song ain’t shit if it’s not hot.”

To test it, the pair travelled to the source of their childhood inspiration, L.A., where they hooked up with DJ Pooh (Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Ice Cube) at Snoop’s in-house studio (“He was in the room next to us,” says Briggs. “But we didn’t go in.”); DJ Mustard (Big Sean, Rihanna, Wiz Khalifa); Aussie buddies Sietta; and a stint at Encore Studios, where Dr. Dre made 2001. Chief among their proudest gets was original Eighties Compton rapper King T, who appears on G-Funk heavy party starter, “The Feast”.

“King T is one of the dudes who instilled a love of rap music in us,” says Briggs. “Everyone who’s on the record is on there because they’re a part of our life.” That includes Gurrumul, who appears on up-lifting closing track “Take Me Home”. “He’s my mate,” says Briggs. “He’s a musical motherfucker. His favourite band is Dire Straits though.”

In August this year the pair released second single, “January 26th”. Featuring a chorus-hook from Dan Sultan, the track addresses the blind patriotism that emerges on Australia Day, over an addictive, rubbery beat.

“Fuck celebrating days made on misery/ White Aus still got the black history,” raps Trials. “And that shirt’ll get you banned from the parliament/If you ain’t having the conversation well then we starting it.”

It did. Predictably, online trolls followed, spewing everything from, “This isn’t racist but…” to “what we did in the past is bad, yes, but my god it was like 100 years ago” to… more.

That’s exactly why starting the conversation is loaded, says Trials. “It’s easy for us to be painted as the angry black man. A lot of these people don’t realise why they’re blindly patriotic about it. When we check them on it, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that is kind of fucked up. But that’s my day, let me have it.’ And it’s like, well… you can’t.”

“As soon as you challenge the perceived Australian way,” says Briggs, his third double espresso of the morning arriving at the table, “that’s when they all come out of the woodwork. They say, ‘Well, we’re not changing for you. You change for us.'”

“If you want to be let in the house,” says Trials, wearily, “you lower your voice and you speak softly. You have the different cup.”

“And we say, ‘Fuck your house and fuck your cup’,” continues Briggs. “We’re gonna build our own house on our own street and allow other fellas to have dreams as well. And they’ll understand their worth is as good as anyone’s.”

Briggs bristles at the idea of their music educating the haters. “It’s like, why’s the onus on us to educate them? That’s white privilege to the max. So often the onus is put on the oppressed to accommodate the oppressor. Their ‘education’ always comes from a place of patronisation. It’s not like, ‘Oh fuck, what have I done? I’ve got to learn from this.'”

“And they’re usually airing their grievances in a web browser,” says Trials. “Which is a platform for research.”

“You can find out how to make French toast on there,” says Briggs. “How to make waffles. And you can also go and learn about colonisation.”

AB 2 opt
A.B. Original performing at the Workers Club in Melbourne in late September.

Both men have long talked about the black experience in their own work before, but never has it been so sustained and explicit as what A.B. Original affords. They may not say it, but they educate by existing.

At the end of a show at the Workers Club in Melbourne this September, A.B. Original returned to the stage while Rolf Harris’ 1960 hit, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, played. It was the original version of the track, where Harris sings:

Let me Abos go loose, Lou
Let me Abos go loose
They’re of no further use, Lou
So let me Abos go loose.

“We stood on stage looking at everyone,” says Trials. “Like, ‘You see what the song you learnt in primary school was actually about?’ But it was great. At the end people were coming up saying, ‘We have a lot to discuss on the drive home.'”

The power in those moments, say the pair, comes from creating the environment to share them. “Being proud of where we’re from is not to take away from where you’re from,” says Trials. “Sometimes people take that as us being racist, which is fucking insane. We want to be like, ‘This is why we’re proud.’ That our culture has survived this. We should all be proud, it’s something we should all be getting behind and championing.”

“And for that moment,” says Briggs, “what they felt in that room, that anxiety and stress, that’s how we feel being in the room when the funny guy starts being funny. That’s my idea of art. Bringing an experience to somebody and letting them feel different. It was so confronting and uncomfortable for a lot of people.” He beams. “And I loved every fuckin’ moment of it.”

Briggs and Trials are both parents. Briggs’ daughter is four, Trials has an eight-month old boy. They know what happens now can affect the shape of their future. “My dad did some other-side-of-the-tracks shit,” says Trials. “He grew up to teach me to not do that. So if I can do that for my son, and then his son and his son, great. Any time we can share a win with our community, we do that. We can influence and change their environment. So we’re going ultra hard to make sure those changes happen.”

Initially Briggs felt guilty about creating opportunities some of his cousins never could. But he’s learnt to see his success as a reflection of his community, as long as he is a reflection of his community.

“I always feel responsible to my family because that’s why I can do all the things I can do,” says Briggs. “I can be fearless. I can tell everyone to go fuck themselves, because I can always just go home. If this all goes to shit and nothing works and my next jokes aren’t funny and the music doesn’t fly, I can go home. Because my family’s always there for me. So it’s my responsibility to be there for them. That’s how community works.”

Recent history suggests A.B. Original’s community is expanding. In April the duo did a stadium tour with friends Hilltop Hoods. “It’s my job to be like, ‘Put your fuckin’ fists in the air!'” says Briggs. “‘It’s OK – if anyone nearby says anything, tell ’em I said it’s OK.’ It’s breaking down the walls with humour.”

“And it’s also like, if you’re not too black too strong, you’re going to know someone who is,” says Trials. “That’s us. What’s up? You wanna be too black too strong tonight?’ And then everyone goes, BOOM – 15,000 fists in the air. That’s beautiful. Imagine if that’s what we came up on.”

“Also,” grins Briggs, “it’s funny.”

From issue #782 (January 2017), available now.