The one, the only: Briggs

Since the release of his debut record 10 years ago, and with a host of exciting new projects up his sleeve, Briggs has stayed true to his MO – to make space for the next wave of First Nations artists behind him.

“I’ve done so much cool stuff and they all hit different notes for me personally,” says Adam Briggs over the phone from Sydney as he takes his new puppy, Carmela, for a walk. (“She’s a half‑Lagotto and she’s blonde, so I was like, ‘Oh, you’re like Carmela from The Sopranos,’” he laughs.)

When Briggs says he’s done cool stuff, he really means it.

As well as his groundbreaking career in music, rapper Briggs is the label boss of Bad Apples, has written for TV’s Black Comedy and Get Krack!n, is a regular on ABC’s The Weekly With Charlie Pickering, acted in Cleverman and has written for Netflix series Disenchantment.

But among that sea of very M-rated dream jobs, his new children’s book, he says, “might be the one”.

Taking its lead from his track ‘The Children Came Back’, first performed alongside Dr G Yunupingu on Triple J’s Like a Version in 2014, the book Our Home, Our Heartbeat highlights the achievements of Indigenous Australians.

It assumes the cadence of a gentle rap verse as it name-checks reconciliation campaigner (and footballer) Doug Nicholls; political activist William Cooper; musicians Dan Sultan, Jess Mauboy, Thelma Plum and Archie Roach; and sportspeople Adam Goodes, Lionel Rose and Cathy Freeman. Of all the figures Briggs offers up as heroes, there’s one that he says, without hesitation, provided inspiration for him as a kid.

“Gavin Wanganeen,” the Yorta Yorta rapper says immediately. “That’s it, straight up.”

As a seven-year-old, little Adam Briggs watched from the AFL-mad town of Shepparton in northern Victoria, as his favourite player – a Kokatha and Nurrunga man, who’d go on to work as a visual artist, painting stories of his Aboriginal lineage – won the Brownlow medal in 1993, the same year his Essendon Bombers took home the flag. “When I was a kid, there wasn’t anything beyond the superficial, ‘He’s the best. He’s my favourite,’” Briggs recalls.

When he began carving out a career in music later on, those same Black role models proved harder to find.

Briggs found himself part of the scene led by the Hilltop Hoods, the artists who arguably put Australian hip-hop on the map and signed him to their Golden Era label. But despite the genre’s roots in Black culture, oppression and liberation, the Australian offshoot was largely blindingly white.

“Hip-hop in Australia has kind of missed a few pivotal marks,” Briggs explains. “It didn’t have its Public Enemy moment and didn’t have its NWA moment. It kind of missed a few culture milestones.”

The genre was political at points, but largely sounded like commentary, criticisms of politicians and policy, generally devoid of the personal experience that comes from living as an oppressed minority and creating art from what you know, rather than just what you observe.

“That’s not to say there weren’t great artists and fantastic people doing stuff,” Briggs offers as a disclaimer, “but I didn’t see a place particularly carved out for me.” He paints an analogy of looking for a job and there being an opening at “the only factory in town… So if you wanted to make hip-hop music, this was the factory that you had to work at.”

While never self-censoring his rhymes, Briggs spent those early years stepping a little carefully, not wanting to be the upstart or the troublemaker.

“It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t being honest,” he remembers. “It was like…you have to play by a certain set of rules and sounds. And you read the room, you see what’s getting played and you see there aren’t X amount of Black voices. So you figure out how to work it.”

His debut record The Blacklist introduced Briggs as a new voice in Australian hip-hop, one that was only amplified by the success, in 2014, of his breakout album Sheplife. After that, Briggs could feel the ground shifting. The growth felt exponential and the potential was obvious: he had, in making his own work, crafted a kind of template that could benefit others. With a new weight behind his profile, he saw an opportunity to change the rules of the game he’d been playing.

“I got in and I worked it out. And when I got to the place where I needed to be, I changed it,” says the self-anointed Senator Briggs.

As he told American talk-show host Conan O’Brien last year: “There’s no point in me winning…if my success doesn’t reflect home.”

Briggs got to work. As he describes on new single ‘Extra Extra’: “The mob need a leader…threw my hat in the arena.” Bad Apples, the record label he began plotting soon after releasing Sheplife, grew organically out of a desire to not just release the music of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, but also to nurture those artists’ careers as they navigate the choppy waters of the music industry.

“That’s how it started: it was like, ‘Okay, I can help get this music out there.’ It wasn’t so much about, ‘I can get you a billion dollars’; it was like, ‘Let me share the platform that I have.’ I saw that it was needed, and I had the space and room to do it.”

With a roster that features the likes of Birdz and Alice Skye, Bad Apples is also home to A.B. Original, a collaborative project Briggs created with Funkoars producer Trials.

Their thundering 2016 record Reclaim Australia took aim at present-day apathy and the effects of white Australia’s continued racial violence against Indigenous Australians. It was pointed, with brilliant, often laugh-out-loud funny wordplay – beginning with the album’s title, its own reclaiming of the name of the far‑right nationalist group.

Reclaim Australia was, as Bernard Zuel wrote in his review in The Sydney Morning Herald, “The kind of album so rarely done in Australia that it comes as a shock to the system. A necessary one.” It went on to be named Triple J’s Australian Album of the Year in 2017 and had an undeniable influence on the station’s belated move to change the date of its annual Hottest 100 countdown the following year. Among other awards, Reclaim Australia took out the prestigious Australian Music Prize.

Knowing this now, it’s hard to imagine Briggs ever described the initial decision to make the record as “career suicide”.

“Me and Trials legit thought we were done. We thought, No-one wants to hear this record – but this is the one we want to make,” he says.

He’s quick to clarify, too, that it wasn’t what he and Trials were singing that might’ve brought his work in music and TV – which by that point had seen Briggs export his talents to Hollywood as a writer for animated sitcom Disenchantment, created by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening – to an abrupt halt. It was that they had the nerve to write these ideas down in the first place.

“It was the idea that these two Aboriginal guys would get so out of pocket – because they hate us when we do that. You look at Goodesy, you look at Anthony Mundine; anytime an Indigenous dude has a little bit more to say than, ‘Good game’… It wasn’t so much the songs, it was just everything we represented.”

Instead, Reclaim Australia cemented Briggs as a contemporary voice in a long line of Indigenous musicians, a lineage acknowledged in the record’s ‘Foreword’. It features Briggs talking with Archie Roach – whose landmark 1990 track ‘Took the Children Away’ served as a spiritual predecessor to ‘The Children Came Back’ and, in turn, Briggs’ new kids’ book – who offers a kind of permission for A.B. Original to pick up and carry the torch that Roach and his peers first lit. “Listening to your album, it just reminds me so much of those old days, when we did pump our fists in the air,” Roach says of the land rights marches of the 1970s and 80s. “You had to be in their face.”

The same spirit is alive on Briggs’ new EP Always Was. The latest single, ‘Go to War’, speaks to the exhaustion that comes with fighting white Australia’s pressure to be what he describes in the press kit as “the palatable Black” – “‘Go to War’ is about having it up to here and asking yourself, Is this where you want to be?

Produced by Jayteehazard and featuring vocals by Thelma Plum, the single reflects the contradiction that still persists, where non‑Indigenous Australians hang dot paintings on their walls but bristle when confronted by the humanity, anger or reality of First Nations people. In a remix he did for rising artist Miiesha, Briggs sings, “They like us on the building and not in the building.”

“They pay artists money to paint massive portraits of us. They like our artwork, they collect our art, but when it comes to employment and what’s outside of what pertains to their gain, what are we worth?” he says.

As if to further drive the point home, he brought in his friend Reko Rennie to design the EP artwork. A Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi artist whose work often features vibrant, repeating geometric patterns, Rennie has been met with the same pressures Briggs has experienced in music: “We spoke not long ago about someone hiring Reko to do some work. And they said, ‘Where’s the dots?’ We’re still there.”

In getting in the building and propping the door open, Briggs is forging a way forward – and he’s bringing the next generation of artists along with him.

“We made it okay to be extreme, I think,” he says of A.B. Original. “But, by doing that, we also made it okay to not be. We opened up the spectrum of what Indigenous artists can be; it doesn’t always have to be one-note, solemn and remorseful, mourning and we will overcome and the struggle – it doesn’t have to be that. After Sheplife and A.B. Original, we opened up that lane, which in turn opens up other lanes. It gave licence to a lot of people to breathe.”

By Brodie Lancaster, a Melbourne-based writer and critic, and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.

This article appeared in edition #618.

Photo by Tristan Edouard.