Remi Kolawole might just be the artist to prove Australia is more than a one hip-hop wonder. The charismatic 23-year-old MC (he performs as Remi) is one of Australia’s hottest properties right now, and that’s no hype.
The Melbourne artist earned the “next big thing” tag through an 18 month run when pretty-well all his steps turned out right. Things heated up in 2013 when he dropped his mixtape F.Y.G Act: 1 and later that year took out the Triple J Unearthed artist of the year J Award. There’s been multiple high-rotation radio singles (including the summer anthem “Sangria”, and the muscular tracks “Livin'” and “Tyson”), a string of national runs, tour supports with Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, De La Soul and Grammy-nominated homegrown act Hiatus Kaiyote, and a 2014 European trek — the first of, perhaps, many. He performed “Clint Eastwood” with Damon Albarn on each of the British artist’s shows Down Under last December.
“It’s funny when people call us the new voice of Aussie hip-hop, that’s not what we grew up on,” Remi tells Billboard. “We grew up on everything from Slum Village to Common and Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest. That’s the stuff we listened to. That’s what I went to school with.”
Right now, he’s plugged into Jay Electronica, a “perfect example of someone who brings politics to life,” Remi explains. “That’s the artist I want to be. He pushes an agenda, no doubt, but he doesn’t force feed. He’s just reminding you of things going on this world. It’s up to you and your moral conscience to decide whether that’s good. I didn’t want to become political, but there’s a lot of injustice in the world which is unfortunately created by politics.”
Accolades have flowed for Remi’s second album Raw X Infinity, recorded with his musical collaborators Sensible J and Dutch and released through his own record label House Of Beige (he says he’s “allergic to major labels”).
Raw X Infinity led the recent Rolling Stone Australia Awards with four nominations (winning for best independent release), he collected an Australian Independent Record Association Award and took out the trade body’s Aus$50,000 “Global Music Grant,” a prize designed to help musicians boost their profile overseas. He’s shortlisted for the 10th Australian Music Prize (the winner is revealed March 4). Remi is taking all the early goodwill in his stride. “I never went into this thinking about awards. J never sits down and says, ‘this is an award-winning snare.’ It’s strange that people would chose to give us an award, but we’re super thankful for it.”
Australia’s hip-hop scene has many of its own voices, though none have enjoyed the international success of the polarising Iggy Azalea. The likes of Hilltop Hoods, Bliss N Eso and Drapht have tasted life at the chart summit. Countless new artists are finding their way. “I feel like it’s started to open up for everybody. For a very long time our scene was young and it was always a few steps in a different direction from an American hip-hop audience. It was very ‘local’ as well,” he explains. “I’m one of many coming out, finding my own voice and really representing for a bunch of different kinds of people. That’s what hip-hop is about. It’s about representing the people, the culture, you’ve got to do that at all levels. Because we’re so young we haven’t had that, but it’s starting to come to fruition.”
Remi marries his “education” in old school hip-hop with his witty lyrics and casual flow. And like many Aussies, he’s tuned into the NBA (he has a soft spot for the Denver Nuggets). He was such a fan of heyday Mike Tyson, he immortalized the ex-boxer in song. “When I was writing that song, I was watching YouTube video clips and for fun we’d play the track and sync it up with some of his highlights and watch him go nuts to our song.” He admits, “I’d love to play him the song and see what went down.”
The rapper will need to tap into all his youthful energy to fulfil his ambitions for the year ahead. He’s poised for a U.S. live debut at SXSW this March, ahead of the April 14 release there of Raw X Infinity. He has at his side the team from UNIFIED, which has guided the careers of Vance Joy, Parkway Drive, Violent Soho and The Amity Affliction. “The most important thing this year,” explains Remi, “is to try get as much music done as possible. Last year we didn’t really get much of a chance. We did six national tours and one European tour. This year we’re hoping to get out two projects — a concept mixtape, and hopefully we’ll have an album out in September.”