How Mista Monk - a long-time, underground hip-hop favourite - finds a new peak
On his new record, the Melbourne-via-Katherine musician brings together a wealth of friends for a record that showcases the strength of his craft.
A picture paints a thousand words, and when it comes to music, a picture is often the first thing you see – it’s staring up at you from the crates, or beaming out as you scroll through Spotify or Bandcamp. It’s important, then, to make that first impression count.
That’s a lesson the team at Inner Tribe records have clearly taken to heart, with label head and producer Inkswel pulling out all stops for his new record with long-lived emcee Mista Monk. A centred threshold seems to invite us into a cosmic white-knuckle ride, the names of emcee and beatsmith lining the stairs that lead us there. Colourful shapes and delicate shades hem the gateway, as bold and textured as the music within. There, on the lowest step, sits the title – Muti, a Southern African word for medicine.
It’s been a while since either side of the duo stepped on the scene, but Muti marks the solo debut of Katherine’s prolific Mista Monk. Monk – derived from his name, Liam Monkhouse – was one of four emcees in the 7-piece hip-hop band Culture Connect, and he’s spent ten years at the forefront of acclaimed Ethio-jazz-rap outfit, Black Jesus Experience. Monk is as comfortable at small jazz festivals as he is Glastonbury – where he’s performed twice – and as dependable beside live arrangements as he is along with underground staples such as Illa J and Frank Nitti.
Inskwel hails from Adelaide, the spiritual home of Australian hip hop, but the last decade has seen him find his feet in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Melbourne. That whirlwind career has seen him bring forth all manner of releases, experimenting with broken beat, house, electronica, hip-hop and neo-soul across labels as legendary as BBE and Sonar Kollektiv. His newest venture, Inner Tribe Records, shines a spotlight on his dual loves of hip hop and neo-soul, and Muti is a record brimming with both.
It’s taken almost twenty years for Mista Monk to burst forth on his own, but it’s been a worthy wait: Muti is a record that sounds as good as it looks. In fact, it even opens with an old radio story – “she is Black,” says an astronaut on meeting God herself – before a crisp electric guitar takes us to another divine revelation: “if you are intelligent and reasonable, you cannot be the product of a mechanical and meaningless universe.”
Mista Monk’s oft-dizzying pockets weave throughout both the heaving beat of Crossroads and the peppy rhythms of Drop, lacing Inkswel’s loops with boastful bars and conscious lyrics. Mind Zone, a trans-Pacific posse cut, explores malleable mentalities and the emcees that shape them, adorned with an aspirational bent; while Here Now finds clarity in the apocalypse, burnished by an eccentric funk vocal and some bonafide boom-bap bars.
Inkswel and Monk make for a compelling duo, with Ink’s striking instrumentals steeped in the many scenes, sounds and movements he’s immersed himself in. The synth-laden Electrolytes finds both sides at their best, intriguing cuts punctuating Monk’s close encounter of the third kind. Beamed aboard Sun Ra’s “funk mothership” on an unsuspecting evening, he’s whisked away on an interstellar journey alongside legends such as Marley, Hendrix and Davis, only to return reinvigorated and ready to rock the show.
Get Better brings the theme of environmentalism to the fore, with Monk decrying a “future created by madman capers” with a commanding assist by Elf Tranzporter. Title track Muti invokes the words of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, whose proclamation on the expulsion of Italian occupiers in 1941 – “with faith, courage and a just cause, David will still beat Goliath” – kickstarts a brisk verse on colonialism that bridges both Monk’s Zimbabwean heritage and his Katherine upbringing. The vamping keys of Rains juxtapose those ideas with ever-timely images of prejudice, discrimination and police brutality
One of the most personal tracks on the record, the unassisted This is for… plays as a tender dedication to those who’ve since passed – “a psalm” Monk entrusts to his friends, leaders, and mentors. The back-end of the record finds levity in shoutouts, particularly on Fire in the Belly, and closure in the mighty No Regrets, as soulful a curtain call as Muti deserves.
It might mark Monk’s arrival, but Muti comes together with a colourful cast of collaborators. A procession of guests both local and international lend a hand, from Inner Tribe labelmate Charli Umami of Planetself, Australian artists Lord Lobe, Laneous and OneSixth, and foreign names such as London’s Spikey Tee, Philadelphia's Pugs Atomz, Kansas’ Reggie B and Detroit’s Illa J. If that far-reaching roster is testament to Inkswel’s global musicianship, then Monk’s competitive presence is testament to his own honed skills. The tracks on which he goes it alone fall as standouts – no mean feat, given the depth of talent with which he shares the stage.
Monk’s schemes are oft-dense and ever-heady, hitting underground strides without commercial concession, but at its best, Muti is compulsively listenable. His enlightened edge pairs well with Inkswel’s inspired arrangements, folding soul and psychedelia into synths, horns, hi-hats and international rhythms. They’re platforms as much as they are playgrounds, the pockets both an opportunity for truth and a chance to have some fun.
If Monk’s mission is the same from Electrolytes – “threw up a peace sign, proceeded to rock it like we do, got ‘em all bump ‘n grinding to some music with a groove” – then consider Muti a mission well accomplished.
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