In November 2015 ‘your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper’, Mantra, released an EP entitled Scenefour to tide fans over until his next LP drops. In Mantra’s words, ‘this record is pretty different to the last couple. While they were quite personal and introspective, this one doesn’t take itself quite so seriously’. As a result, Scenefour is five tracks of skill-flexing, heat-spitting, and concept-dabbling, as Mantra experiments and has fun with the creative process. Ben Iota sat down with Mantra to find out what inspired the record, what makes Mantra tick, and where he looks to go next.
This release is a bit more carefree than previous releases, how did this come about and what was the decision process behind crafting this EP?
I never really set out to write an EP, these songs sort of came about while I was working on a bunch of other projects. Some of those projects will be released at some point but in the meantime I had these tracks I was really feelin’ and nowhere to put them. So I put my favourites together and that’s how Scenefour took shape.
What were you inspired by whilst making this EP and how did it influence the songs?
Because these songs weren’t written with a specific theme or project in mind, they were influenced by a wide range of things, people and places. But that’s how it always is for me. I’m inspired by all sorts of different stuff. Some of these tracks were written in the studio, on tour, on holiday, you name it. So there probably a few mindsets that contributed to this EP.
Can you explain how you feel/think when writing these songs, as opposed to when you are ‘speaking volumes’? In other words, how does the creative flow/process/dynamic differ?
When I’m writing a full-length album I’m far more conscious of telling a story and investigating much richer themes and concepts. I like my records to be about something and have a bit of an arc to them. Whereas on this one, I just wanted it to be banging. Something hype for the fans to listen to while I work on more ambitious, long-term projects. It was dope to just have some fun with it and put down songs that didn’t take themselves too seriously. I love doing the deep, thoughtful, commentative stuff but sometimes you just wanna spit some heat!
In your previous releases you’ve had producers such as M-Phazes, One Above, Count Bounce, Ptero Stylus, and Cam Bluff, amongst others. The production details are a little evasive on this EP, who did you work with and was the process different from your other releases?
I had a dream team of producers on this one. Each track is produced by someone different. We got Aaron Choulai, a Papuan-born, Melbourne-raised, Tokyo-based musical genius who I’ve been lucky enough to work extensively with over the last couple of years. There’s also Mista Savona, Must Volkoff, One Above and Cam Bluff. All killer no filler yo.
On ‘Nowhere to Go’, which has also been released on 7” vinyl, J-Ro and E-Swift of the legendary Alkaholiks feature. This collaboration seems like an odd coupling, given that the Alkaholiks are known for debaucherous content, and Mantra for being a socially conscious individual. How did this collaboration come about and did you find it difficult to find a middle ground when it came to the content of the song?
It was definitely unexpected. I’ve been a fan of Tha Liks for as long as I can remember but I never pictured myself working with them. They were in town playing a few shows and said they were looking for local artists to collab with. A friend of mine put me forward and E-Swift got in touch the next day! It was pretty surreal. They were cool as shit too. They came through and wrote and recorded their verses in the studio. They were super humble, always cool to hear ideas and make it a song as opposed to just 3 verses on a track. Which was great because as you say, the styles are very different so it wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
My favourite song on Scenefour is ‘Blink of an Eye’- a nihilistic tale about individual insignificance. Many would find this sort of this view of the world depressing, yet it appears on the ‘not so serious’ record. How do you feel about this song and the views you express on it?
For me this isn’t a really serious track. I mean, it’s about a serious thing; the fragility of life, our temporary existence, how easily it can all end. But I didn’t wanna approach it in a real doom and gloom kinda way. I was reading this scientific study on what would actually happen if a comet hit the earth. I was fascinated by the numbers and statistics and how experts thought it would pan out, should it ever happen. So I knew I had to use that idea as the basis of a track.
On ‘Rapper’s Duality’ you regard yourself as a ‘modern artist who was played by being born in the wrong era’. What era was the right era for you/what era should you have been born in?
Definitely the 1960’s. It was the golden age of all the types of art and music that inspire me the most apart from Hip-Hop.
Many consider Mantra to have one of the sharpest flows and wordplays around. Can you describe, technically, how you have developed and honed your craft over the years? How have you trained yourself along the way to become the emcee you are? Also, how does someone like yourself aim to keep improving from this point (if at all)?
I guess I just try to think about what inspires me. If I’m excited by something, that’s all that matters. I’ve always strived to be the best artist I can be, no matter what I’m working on, so apart from that all I wanna do is keep it fresh and interesting for myself. If other people feel it too, then that’s a bonus.
Mantra releases up until this point have been characterised by social commentary (alongside straight up skill-flexing). What are your thoughts on the power of music, particularly Hip Hop music, as a tool for change?
Any type of art can be a powerful force for change, whether it be music, film, visual art, literature, stand-up comedy, whatever! What I love about art is it doesn’t exist within the same parameters as everything else, it’s like an alternate reality, so it can say whatever it wants without strict rules and that can inspire some amazing things.
If money, time and resources were no issue, what would the ultimate Mantra musical project entail?
Probably some kind of gospel, soul collaboration with Otis Redding, the Motown band and the Berlin Philharmonic. I have no idea what I would do on it though. Probably just press record.
Something that has been occupying my mind of late is the question: what will the Hip Hop landscape in Australia look like in ten or twenty years, when (what Urthboy terms) the ‘second wave’ of Australian Hip Hop are in their middle ages? Now this may be an unusual question, but do you ever wonder if you will be still doing music when you are middle-aged? What would a middle-aged Mantra record sound and look like?
Hahahaha. That’s a good question. The music landscape is changing so quickly these days, particularly within the Hip-Hop world, it’s hard to know what things are gonna look like even in the near future. I don’t think I’ll ever stop making music. I write a lot of music that I don’t release, some of it I don’t even show to anybody. But I have no idea what my middle-aged record would sound like. We’ll have to wait and see.
Whats next for Mantra? Can you tell us about any other projects (musical or other) in the pipeline or is there anything else that you want to mention?
I have a bunch of shows coming up, other than that it’s back to work. This year I’m sinking my teeth into my next full-length record as well as some non-Hip-Hop and non-music projects. It’s gonna be a busy year.
Scene Four is out now on Ten to Two Records, available via iTunes. Nowhere To Go / Rapper’s Duality limited edition 7” vinyl available via Ten to Two Records.
Words by Ben Iota