While two years and as many producers have passed between albums for Xannon Shirley aka The Tongue, it doesn’t feel that long to the rapper, who tells Rip Nicholson new producers can be a lot like new girlfriends.
THE TONGUE interviewed January 22, 2016
For Street Press Australia [VIEW HERE]
The success of Shirley’s 2013 LP Surrender To Victory, produced by Cam Bluff, took no mercy on the Australian music bean-counter. But for his fourth album Hard Feelings, released late last year, the Elefant Traks MC was found in the company of new beatsmith Papertoy (aka Bevis Masson-Leach). Shirley admits it doesn’t worry him to change things up, especially when it comes to producers.
“It’s like a new girlfriend, she’s pretty,” laughs Shirley. “You go through the hoops and the honeymoon period and just as the honeymoon period is wearing off is when you’re finishing the album. So it’s the perfect relationship.”
Shirley also prefers to give a helping hand to those on their come-up, hinting at perhaps lending Bluff a lift into higher reaches of acclaim — through Illy’s Coming Down (ft Hilltop Hood) and the Hoods’ Won’t Let You Down ft Maverick Sabre — now offering the same launch to relative newcomer Masson-Leach, whose previous work with Thundamentals placed him in the path of Shirley’s Hard Feelings LP.
“You go through the hoops and the honeymoon period and just as the honeymoon period is wearing off is when you’re finishing the album.”
“It’s funny you mention both those guys because what I like doing is — when I’m making a new album — is finding that new Australian producer who has the skills and an exciting new sound and has the hunger but hasn’t quite made it,” says Shirley. “I don’t know how much my album had to do with that but I’m sure it couldn’t have hurt. I like the process of giving those guys a platform and they bloody deserved it. Cam is amazing and Papertoy on doing Hard Feelings is a whole new feeling — a whole unique sound for Australia. He doesn’t produce for anyone else I’ve heard in Australia.”
Where Cam’s production on Surrender captured a more boom-bap drill, Papertoy invited a club-friendly, more electronica-based backdrop for Shirley’s verbal dexterity this time ’round. “Surrender To Victory is still pretty boom-bap and I feel like I’ve done that now, so I needed something that was really going to inspire me and that’s what he gave me. That’s what Papertoy brought to the table. And it made the writing more interesting, I think,” admits Shirley, citing You Got Me as the best example of the pair’s musical chemistry.
“I think [it] nails it. I wanted something that people could move to, but I still wanted it to be lyrically interesting. Because that can happen, it can be both. And I feel like You Got Me is probably the one that nails the sound and the mix that we were going for.” Masson-Leach’s style was exactly what Shirley had envisaged for the album.
“That’s always what I’m looking for; something that is inspiring to me and what we really wanted to do is make Australian hip hop that can be played in a nightclub. That was part of my aim.”
With his Hard Feelings tour making tracks this February, Shirley insists on an old school hip hop program. “[I’ll do] the best rap show I can do,” he says. “I am a bit of a purist and I think it’s about the rapper and the DJ and how creative you can be with that.”
Q&A with THE TONGUE
Been a few minutes between albums. Did you take a decisive break to gather your inspiration? How does it work for you staying active between albums?
2013 I finished the album the end of that year then toured the most of 2014 then I really started Hard Feelings at the end of 2014 so it doesn’t feel that long.
To you it wouldn’t.
Yeah, cuz I’ve gotta work on it for a year, right?
Yes. To us we just see two years between albums.
Also I started teaching, I’m a highschool teacher. So that’s taken up a bit of my time and I wanted to focus on that and giving it the proper time it deserves. Even finishing this album I was finishing it while teaching full time so I’ve really spent a lot of time balancing it out and making sure I show the proper respect to the music and show respect to the art of teaching which is probably the thing I’m trying to master.
Surrender To Victory you aligned with Cam Bluff, someone you had long wanted to work with and it turned out to be a huge success for you. For Hard Feelings you went to Papertoy, a relatively new force in producers. How did you both hook up?
Well I lived with Morgan from Thundamentals and Papertoy did a beat on the Thundamentals’ last album so he put me in touch with Papertoy and at the time he only lived up the road. He’s now living in London so I got to see him when I was over there, but he was actually living just five minutes up the road from me. It’s funny you mention both those guys because what I like doing is when I’m making a new album is finding that new Australian producer who has the skills and an exciting new sound and has the hunger but hasn’t quite made it. You may have noticed that since doing the album Cam is now doing massive certified singles for Illy and Hilltop Hoods and gone on to really big stuff. I mean I don’t know how much my album had to do with that but I’m sure it couldn’t have hurt. I know Illy and I’m good mates with Hoods as well. Maybe they heard the album and thought, ‘wow, this guy’s good we should get with him.’ So, I like the process of giving those guys a platform and they bloody deserved it.
Cam is amazing and Papertoy on doing Hard Feelings is a whole new feeling a whole unique sound for Australia he doesn’t produce for anyone else I’ve heard in Australia. So that’s always what I’m looking for something that is making something inspiring to me and what we really wanted to do, me and Papertoy is make Australian hip hop that can be played in a nightclub. That was part of my aim. So something like You Got Me I think could be played between a Lil Wayne song and a Tupac song. You know what I mean? You can move to it because with lot of Australian hip hop, while it’s good music, you can’t necessarily dance to it, you can’t really play in a dancefloor-DJ sort of environment.
Well you’re giving out less boom-bap, more electronic and synthy beat type music with Papertoy.
Yeah, basically. Because I’ve done boom-bap and Surrender to Victory is still pretty boom-bap and I feel like I’ve done some albums with that now so I needed something that was really going to inspire me and that’s what he gave me. That’s what Papertoy brought to the table. And it made the writing more interesting, I think.
So yes, do you it more cathartic, that process of switching production styles to someone who is going to deliver something more unexpected to you?
It’s like a new girlfriend, you know. She’s pretty. You go through the hoops and the honeymoon period and just as the honeymoon period is wearing off is when you’re finishing the album. So it’s the perfect relationship.
Was there a track where you thought the chemistry met perfectly?
You Got Me I think nails it. Like I said I wanted something that people could move to, but I still wanted it to be lyrically interesting. Because that can happen, it can be both. And I feel like You Got Me is probably the one that nails the sound and the mix that we were going for.
Tell me about Never Going Down video – that 360 view is some unreal shit. First, how long did that take to record and where do you go from here after doing a 360 videoclip?
The director who made that (Shaun Dougherty from Cinemersive with Josef Heks) hit me up and said I have this friend who has this 360 technology and sent me samples. I came up with the concept, but did it a bit differently using one single-lens camera with a wide-angled lense and a tripod which clipped into separate degrees around the room. It’s like six film clips into one, with six versions of me in the room. And the genius of the technology was the way it spliced the shots together to look seamless from six different films put together to make one. And it’s exciting and I think it’s where the future of filming is going. Because it’s truly interactive and I haven’t seen any other rappers using it, and I’ve researched it, definitely no other Australian rappers doing it so it was exciting to use.
Where we went to shoot the video, a place called The Workshop in Sydney, they do classes there and they told us they finish at 8 and we could get in there then but they didn’t really finish until about 10 or 11pm and then setting up took four hours so we didn’t even start filming until about 2am and I had to go teach the next day in 40-degree heat. So this is what I’m talking about the juggling two different lives. The intersection is pretty exciting.
On tour again in Feb. Who are you bringing with you, given that you’ve got some heavy guests on the album?
Well to be honest it’s mostly local supports in every different city we go to which is something else I like to do because the local acts need a chance to be seen
And what can we expect from your shows?
The best rap show I can do. I am a bit of a purist and I think it’s about the rapper and the DJ and how creative you can be with that. You’re going to hear most of the new album and the new album has a different vibe so I’m going to expect some dancing from my fans off this album which is something I don’t always require of my fans.
You’re teaching English and Geography at the moment?
That’s what I’m trained in. When you do a masters you have to specialise it two subjects. But, this week I am starting as a drama teacher because when you do a masters they expect you to be able to teach any subject and the current drama teacher got a role in a Broadway play so she is off to New York.
How much of The Tongue incorporates into that field?
Well I made the mistake of… We had this life skills class and we spoke about goal-setting so I went into this story about how I also do music and when I do it’s always important for me to plan it. I have a calendar on my wall and I always write down dates where I wanna have recording done by and I am quite sort of disciplined in trying to get the album done. You need to be organised, you need to plan and set goals for yourself. And as soon as I mentioned that the next question is ‘what kind of music do you do?’ So I said, hip-hop. ‘Oh, do you rap?’ I said, yes. So they’ve all got on their laptops and phones and they’re looking me up. So, within two days every kid knew that I rapped, they’re looking up the film clips. It pretty much all works to my advantage because anything that makes a teacher slightly more interesting, colourful, creative, whatever, helps to get their attention then they trust you and you’re not some dusty, old bearded dude who looks like they’ve walked straight out of a library you’re actually somebody who makes things that they find impressive. So, it’s pretty much all worked to my advantage so far. Only concern is will i one day come across some person who has strict parents who doesn’t like swearing or doesn’t like hip-hop. That’s the only speed bump i envision with the whole crossover thing. But so far it’s working to my advantage. It’s pretty cool.