LABRATS SOLAR POWERED SOUND SYSTEM
Lab Rats Solar Power Sound System was a sound system collective which initially started with Monkey Marc and Izzy Brown (MC Izzy).
Interview with Monkey Marc on the history of the Labrats (from??)
"We met in 1998 at the Jabiluka protest. At the time, she had driven to Jabiluka on a four-wheel quad bike with a battery, a little sound system and a solar panel. The gist of it was to have a party at the blockade front. I’d flown up from Sydney with my whole record collection and my drum machines with the same idea. We didn’t know who each other was, but we were introduced and instantly we made a track, within the first five minutes of meeting each other, and then we decided to link together, put all our gear together and form a sound system. Our first gig was at the Jabiluka blockade, all powered by solar: one panel, two batteries, some record players. From there we didn’t stop, and it just evolved and got bigger and bigger, we ended up going from blockade to blockade. We basically amplified the system over time; these days it’s five solar panels and a massive battery bank in a van that runs off vegetable oil, and we’ve got a wind-powered cinema that follows it around. So the start of the Lab Rats was '98".
Initially Lab Rats was a free party sound system that was designed to be taken to the front line, to blockades, to give people a voice to protest what was happening. In Jabiluka we had microphones and DJs, and we could do our thing, it was a party/political sound system. Then it kind of evolved into a more educational thing when we started linking up the whole cinema aspect and we got the wind generator. We were living with a fella called Uncle Kevin Buzzacott at the Lake Eyre protest camp, which is a protest camp set up on the foreshores of Lake Eyre against Roxby Downs uranium mine, and we set up this cinema as an educational tool for the tourists coming through, to tell them what was happening in the area. These days, of course, it’s mutated into our desert workshops in which we do hip-hop, circus, video production and performance workshops all throughout the South Australian and Northern Territory desert.
Mostly with Aboriginal kids, yeah. Mostly working with disadvantaged kids such as petrol sniffers, substance abuse kids, homeless kids, kids with family problems. We’ve been to communities like Kintor, Harts Bluff, Papunya, Balgo, Alice Springs, Port Augusta, Moree – a whole range of different places are kind of renowned as ghetto-like Aboriginal communites – and we go in there and give them something that they wouldn’t normally get, with the hope that some sort of self-esteem boost follows.
Initially the concept was for me and Izzy to go out there and teach them most of those [hip-hop] skills, but the more and more we went out to the desert we discovered there was a whole band element. So recently, we’ve been encouraging them to make their own bands – even if it’s not hip-hop – and record their own bands, showing them how to record their own bands, how to make their own CDs. Also, getting them to host shows on all the local radio networks. Just creating some sort of direction and creating a bit of a community, giving these kids a voice, that’s the important thing. A lot of these communities do look at petrol sniffers as the outsiders, so it’s good to be able to make people realise that they do have something to say and it’s just a matter of getting lost along the way.
I guess it’s about them telling their own stories, but it’s also about understanding and appreciating their own culture. When we do a lot of music workshops in the desert we try as hard as we can to incorporate their language, and we try to get them to sing about their own personal experiences and communities or even sing about the stories that are important to those communities – whether they are Dreamtime stories or whatever. It’s a cultural preservation, cultural heritage sort of thing, as well as a self-preservation sort of thing. The loss of culture is quite frightening when you get out to these communities, and there is a huge gap with alcohol and petrol sniffing where people just aren’t interested any more. So, we are trying to re-inject their own culture through new music and video and through all those means.
Pitjantjatjara, Pintupi, Latjilatji, we’ve also worked with Kukatja, and also Kukatha, Arabana and Adnyamathanha.
It’s remarkable how different some of the languages are, even within 300 kilometres. I guess people forget that in Australia – I don’t know exactly how many – but there is so many different dialects and when you go through the desert you can be in another community and you can speak the language of the community before and no one will understand you. And even the concept of talking to some of the elders, you talk in an even more ancient language, even more ancient than the language that they are speaking now.
At the start we were working with Uncle Kevin Buzzacott and he was really into what we are doing because we were obviously helping him with a blockade at Roxby Downs and we gained his trust through that. Then lots of other elders in the area knew about us because of that and knew that we were there for the right reasons, and from that there is a lot of trust between the kids and us now. Even recently some of the elders have been coming up to us and asking us to record their songs and their ancient stories and their proper Dreamtime stories, because they are worried about the loss of culture and that the kids don’t want to learn the songlines which are integral to the whole area. There’s been a real breakthrough in communication and trust between us and them, but it takes years. It’s been six years now of us going in and out of the desert and now finally these things are starting to kind of gel.
Initially we got no funding and we just went out there because we wanted to do it. About three years ago was the first funding we started to get. We get funding sometimes from the community itself; we have had two grants in the last three years, but the grants pretty much cover travel and that’s it. So we don’t we make any money, it’s a not-for-profit organisation at the moment. We go out there, we get our travel expenses paid and we get fed and do the work for free.
That was a real worry for us because in individual communities the main problem is that you get people coming out once and then they never come back. With our Labs Rats/Sonic Boom package we make an effort to revisit ones that we go to, so some of the communities we’ve been to three or four times now, building relationships of skills. This year we managed to work hand in hand with some of the teachers of the area and they got interested in helping the kids form bands, and also interested in what computer programs we are using to record the bands. They started to think about putting the right software on their computers and so they got us back out there for the next time to train the kids up so that they can start recording their own bands. It’s a very important aspect, because once you leave these kids…
You notice after you’ve been there for a week or two that there is a real decrease in the petrol sniffing because the kids will just come the workshop instead. As you soon as you leave it’s back to square one again.
Maybe the kids do realise what’s going on in a way, but I guess sometimes when you go out doing these hip-hop or community workshops you don’t get looked at like teachers or adults, so there isn’t that barrier. You’ve got this amazing connection with the kids where you are a really just a big kid and they are another kid expressing things to you. So you get more of a concept as to where they are coming from, and on an individual basis you can see what the different problems with different kids are, and so over the years you can form different relationships and really start giving some sort of direction to the kids and help them make some sort of pathway for themselves. By revisiting these communities we can keep it going.
The first CD I released was called Western Desert Mob and it was 11 tracks, mainly from Papunya and Kinto. An interesting story with the first track on that release is that it was recorded by me and a guy called Gavin B.B. Bush who is a chronic petrol sniffer from Papunya – Papunya has got a huge petrol sniffing problem, it’s like 60-80 percent of the kids sniff petrol, it’s huge, everyone sniffs petrol. And this kid Gavin, everyone said ‘This kid is mad, he’s the maddest kid in the community’, and he used to come and visit us and just sing. He never used to talk – he was really off his head – but he’d just sing, and so I was like ‘I’m gonna get this guy in the studio, this guy is amazing, he’s a natural’. So I wrote a song for him and then told him to come in a sing something in his language and he came in and freestyled this song all about the Dreamtime story about this hill, Urunburu hill, which overlooks Papunya. It was just the most amazing experience of this guy singing this ancient song over this new beat, but it was all made up by him. After that, some of the elders were like ‘Oh, I never realised he had that in him, we just thought he was mad’. Since then he’s formed a band and he runs the local youth disco centre and he has stopped sniffing petrol. You know, that’s one of the good stories. But that particular CD we recorded in conjunction with The Warumpi Studio with a guy called Sammy Butcher, who is from the Warumpi Band. We worked hand in hand with him and his concept was to get kids off the petrol, and all the profits from that went into funding the studio. We don’t make a lot of profits but anything we do make we put straight back in.
You can get that from me or from Friends of the Earth down in Melbourne. I’ve recorded, probably, another 40 tracks and the only reason I haven’t released it yet is because we haven’t had the funding to do it. Eventually that will come out, there’s some great tracks to, from all over the place. Different style from Morganics in a way, some of it’s in the hip-hop vein, but some of it’s hip-hop influenced but more like singing in traditional language. It’s a really interesting crossover. I guess it’s that I don’t want the kids in the desert taking hip-hop to be just this American thing, I’ve got a real worry about them saying ‘Well, I’ll just grab onto that identity’, and then start rapping in American accents and rap about what they rap about. Our concept is to get them to rap about what matters to them and what is real to them and their situation, and to rap in their own language about their own culture.
I’m always trying to steer things in that direction and in the long run it’s good for Australian culture and Aboriginal culture also, because they are not losing their culture, they are gaining.
I’ve been out there with Elf Tranzporter and Wire MC and I’ve been with Ozi Batla and Matt Nos from the Nos Foundation and we’ve all got that sort of similar concept. It’s all about advancing culture and self-pride in who you are. If you’re an Australian or an Aboriginal kid, doesn’t matter; be proud of your culture and where you come from.
Yeah, some do, some don’t. Some are just convinced that it is all Eminem and 2pac and whatever. After a while they are just doing it without you even suggesting it. Initially they come in with attitude and these ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ raps, and after a while all you get them to sit down and write some raps and all these things start coming out. This kid we just worked with in Moree wrote a rap that had lines like ‘growing up in Moree is like being nailed to the cross’. It was really full-on, and he’s like a 13-year-old kid talking about the family violence he’d been through, talking about how he roams the street and pickpockets and then also talking about how his grandfather is a really important man in the area. And all of this came in one rap, but initially the kid came to us with this full on ‘Yo yo, fuck this, fuck that’, and after three hours he was coming up with the reality of his situation. And in three hours that’s a good thing. There’s some amazing things out there.
There is sort of two of them on there, part 1 and part 2 [tracks ‘Radio Woomera Pt. 1’ and ‘Radio Woomera Pt. 2’], and then there is the little ‘Redneck Shock Jock’ part. Essentially I’m always on the lookout for political samples. But I’ve got a friend in Adelaide, called Technique, and he’s a magnificent fella. He’s an autistic guy and he’s obsessed with recording every media and news program and he’s done it since the Gulf War, 1989. To cut a long story short, he’s got a 300 TVs, he’s got video recorders everywhere and he’s got CDs and tapes stacked to the ceiling like huge Eiffel Towers all over the place. All his floor is sunken in, just from the weight of it. He has the set-up where everyday the news – Channel 7, 10, 9, SBS and ABC – gets recorded on the TV, and he’s got these two computer which record every single talkback show for Bob Francis and Jeremy Cordeaux and this other guy. And then, he records all the news from the radio stations and it all goes into mp3 and then he puts it on this big catalogue. But it’s just total chaos, everything is there, but you can’t find it. So I go and see him every now and again. He always used to complain to me at protests that ‘No one ever does anything with my stuff, what am I doing? I’ve got all this stuff, I’m the media monitor’ – that’s what he calls himself – ‘Technique the media monitor’. So for a couple of years I’ve just been going over to his place and going through it all, kind of crate digging like a vinyl digger would do. Going through all this stuff and pulling out all these samples, and the particular one on the album is Bob Francis, one of Adelaide biggest shock jocks. That’s just showing him for what he is, that’s like the best of maybe a year from what he’s done, but it’s all the stuff that just instantly jumped out at me, and it’s not even edited in a way to change his words, it’s just phrases that he has said. I guess we wanted to put it on there for freedom of speech, let him say what he is saying and people can work it out for themselves.
The story behind that is that Izzy was at the Woomera protests, I guess, two years ago this April. She’d been arrested for the refugee break out and she arrived back in Adelaide at about five in the morning with Nick [Technique the Media Monitor]. She couldn’t get to sleep in amongst the 300 TVs in the house, which are all usually on – it’s like ‘Oh my god’, sonic nightmare, radiation, buzzing, ‘I don’t know what’s going on?’.
The whole city charges down. So Nick is like, ‘Quick quick quick, Jeremy Cordeaux [from 5DN radio station in Adelaide] is on the radio, it’s his morning show, you’ve got to ring him up’. So she rings him up and starts talking about Woomera, and it’s all live, the original is about twice as long as that, but it’s exactly how it was and it’s insane, word for word. The guy just exposes himself for what he is…
Yeah, ‘This is not Aboriginal land. Do you know what happened? Three ships didn’t seem to be too important…’ And every time I hear it – you know I’ve heard it so many times with recording and mixing and all that – it just amazes me every single time. But I guess that’s what we are about, exposing things that people wouldn’t normally hear. That was just a breakfast show that happened one morning at seven am in Adelaide, probably there’s not many people listening then, so we are like a little media news service ourselves, putting things out there so we can broaden people’s scopes as to the reality of redneck Australia.
It’s done really well. It’s been out for five months now; we only expected to sell a thousand copies for the entire sales run. To know my knowledge we’re now around the 2000 mark and it’s most likely going to go for another pressing. So it’s going amazingly well, and it’s just interesting watching it, because I guess there is a little bit of a division in Australian hip-hop sometimes between what scene is political and what scene is not. We did get a little backlash from that at the start, but now I think that has gone away as people have realised that we are what we talk about. We are real people talking about real issues and there is a place for us. Whether or not people agree with it, well OK, but we’re out there having a go and I think people are picking up on it.
There does seem to be a move away from politically conscious hip-hop in a lot of Australian hip-hop, more towards the party rap stuff which is quite noticeable. Do you see yourself as being a sort of underground of the underground because you are totally committed to political hip-hop?
Well almost, yeah, I suppose we are, because the Australian hip-hop scene is underground in a sense. I guess it’s like a subculture within a culture, and evolving from Lab Rats and having this urgency to get the message out there, going to blockades and experiencing all the things we experience, like police brutality, native title corruption, blah, blah, blah, and everything we have witnessed first hand – we just have to say our thing and that’s what Combat Wombat is about. It’s just a shame in a way that maybe people in hip-hop aren’t being as honest as they should be, they are just succumbing to the pressure of becoming a commercial success or whatever they are trying to be, I don’t know. I mean, people are being honest within themselves…
A guy that I know called Graham St John has written a lot about you, and he’s put you more in the context of rave and bush doofs and all that kind of thing, which is kind of strange for me because I’m really looking at hip-hop. But it seems that you do crossover into that sort of area.
The essence of the Lab Rats and some of the people that were around us at the same time were sound system collectives like the Vibe Tribe and Oms Not Bombs and it was all about the free party culture, creating alternative zones, reclaiming public space, reclaiming the streets, all these community-minded events that were about reclaiming everything back for the people. So we’ve come from that angle and that’s why we sometimes get locked into that area, sometimes people think we are a trance band because we are seen as the bush party people, but really we’re people with similar ethics to the free party system but with different musical tastes. I’ve never written psychedelic trance and I don’t think I could! I think I’d shock a few hip-hop people if I started doing that.
It’s the politics and the community attitude.
I think the political aspect of trance and rave is really important and often gets overlooked and people see it solely as a hedonistic, drug-taking thing, where as actually there is a strong political dimension to it.
That’s why I think with Lab Rats and now evolving into Combat Wombat people don’t see the message, like you say, in those sort of parties and realise that’s what going on. I guess it’s because it’s vibe music, it’s just happening and there are no words. It was only when I started hearing bands and started linking up with people like John Jacobs and Fluffy Pete, Non-Bossy Posse and Organiky and all these kinds of people who were really the only ones who were putting a message in the music back then – with their political samples. Then everyone sort of broke away and started making experimental music, which was good, but we felt we needed to put the message back in and hence that’s why we thought hip-hop was the perfect medium, and also because we had such a love for it.