Life, Death, Time For Tuka
How the Sydney MC found his songwriting solace away from the Thunder.
“I was goofing off in drama class with a friend who could play drums, he started playing this beat, I was feeling slightly confident so I started rapping, then my teacher asked me to perform what I did in class in front of the whole school at assembly. At this stage, Hilltop Hoods had even dropped The Calling, I didn’t even know what Australian rap was, let alone how to rap properly… Everyone teased me about that performance so much. But I think my ego fed off it or something… because it instilled some kind of confidence in me.”
The above was how the first-ever public performance of one of Australia’s most-watched MCs right now - Sydney’s MC Tuka - played out. He’s racked up a fair few years of performances since then, impressing Australian audiences as a member of the ARIA Award-nominated hip hop group Thundamentals - although more recently, he’s distinguished himself as one of the country’s most exciting solo artists, with much of that excitement centring upon the release this week of his third and most consummate solo album - Life Death Time Eternal (hear the full album HERE). Here at Pilerats we were immediately drawn to the catchy, attitude-laden single Yeah Right, then equally as impressed by the diversity of the next offering - the downbeat, emotional Tattoo (read about the video HERE) - and we jumped at the chance to have a conversation with Tuka at what we reckon is a pretty dynamic point in his career. Shout outs to Tuka’s high school Drama Teacher for making it all happen!
Life Death Time Eternal is a bold and highly imaginative offering. Tuka’s clearly paid attention to balance the album, between rapping and singing, between sounds that feel like pop, and those that feel underground. There’s also a heightened sense of emotion to the album; with topics approached from different emotional perspectives. We quizzed Tuka as to what’s behind the album’s confidence and maturity as an artistic statement, and he explained that it’s underpinned by the positive response he got to “taking the biggest creative gamble of his life” on 2012 LP Feedback Loop: “Around the time of Feedback Loop I decided not to change what I actually think, and just do me as much as I possibly can - prior to that I was mostly emulating other sounds. Feedback Loop was the first time in my life I felt like there was buzz, and people actually listened. I found that really re-confirming.”
The album’s creative boldness may also be due to the manner in which it came together: written mostly at home and partly on the road, Life Death Time Eternal was created with more of a songwriting approach, says Tuka, rather than a traditional hip hop approach: "Usually I produce my own music for my solo stuff - for the first two albums I wrote the beats myself and took them to instrumentalists, and they would flesh them out. However with Life Death Time Eternal I thought of all the melodies and toplines for songs in my head, and took those ideas and recorded them into my phone. And then I’d team up with a post-producer and himself and I would head into the studio for a few days and work on the song from there."
The breadth of stylistic, lyrical and production techniques Tuka’s displayed on Life Death Time Eternal marks a clear departure from Tuka’s work with Thunders. For the music-writing-obsessed Tuka, having his own solo career as well as pursuing his Thundamentals work has been essential these past few years, due to the sheer amount of music he makes, as he shares: “I don’t really do much in my downtime apart from write music – I’m not into watching TV or reading books (unless it’s research for a song) – my hobby is music, it gives me energy, so whenever I have a spare second, I’m writing. Which means I end up with all this material, and a lot of it is too introspective to be a Thundamentals thing – for instance, the track State of Mind on Life Death Time Eternal – I couldn’t ever imagine that being something Thunders would release.” Tuka says what he’s learnt going solo, and the responsibility of having a solo project (“it’s harder when I’m doing my solo stuff because I can’t hide behind a band like I can when I’m with the Thunders, it’s really like this is who I am, this is my honest thoughts on this subject”) means he comes back to his Thunders work with new and improved approaches: “Us all doing our own thing [Thundamentals DJ Morgs also has a side project, Jones Jr] helps Thundamentals as a whole anyway, it keeps us creatively inspired, as we can all bring something new every time we sit down to write a tune.”
Above: Tuka in Thundamentals
Tuka’s obsessive love of making music was something that availed itself to him at an early age, as we discover when Tuka begins reminiscing on the first moment he fell in love with hip hop: “When I was a kid, my step-dad used to obsessively compulsively tape all of the ABC TV music video show Rage – like he has so many episodes documented on VHS. He was really Nazi about me never touching those videos. Then one night, in Year 10, I was up way past my bed-time watching Rage and they played that Run DMC cover of Aerosmith’s Walk this Way - and something clicked in me, it resonated with me. I didn’t know what it was called, and this was pre-Internet, so I had no way of finding out… no way, that is, except for my step dad’s Rage archives! So when he was out I went through his archives trying to find this song – literally went through hundreds of videos – and it was that obsessive search for that song that made me realise I was in love with hip hop.”
From there, Tuka’s family (who were clearly in cahoots with his high school drama teacher) encouraged him not to hold back “My mum has always been interesting, in that she never really disciplined me, so whenever I did something wrong, she would just kind of be of the attitude ‘that’s what you get!’-type thing. So me having my own moral, and imagination, compass has been nurtured - nothing was quelled. It’s only artists that aren’t afraid to colour outside the lines that make good art – people who aren’t afraid to do some crazy things. I think people underestimate how beautiful and talented they are individually, and lose confidence in themselves, and hide behind others. What’s the point of saying something that’s already been said? It’s hard to be original… but the most original thing you’ve got is you. You have to use yourself as a tool.”
You can buy Tuka’s album Life Death Time Eternal in vinyl, and in two different album versions, including a (recommended!) deluxe edition, with a fold-out poster and booklet of the album’s artwork (a photograph taken by Cole Bennetts and illustrated by Ben Funnell at April77). Take a look below, and purchase via Tuka's site. Tuka plays at Splendour In The Grass 2015 this Sunday, and is currently touring the country, in his first ever solo headline tour. Dates below, tickets available via www.tuka.net.au/shows.