OneFour: “We’re evolving. We’ve gone through things that have changed our music”

Police might not let them perform and most of their number are behind bars, but OneFour continue to blaze a trail as Australia’s most exciting rap group today – and the world is taking notice

Rappers aren’t famous for their modesty. Swagger, exaggerated boasts and bluster have been synonymous with hip-hop for decades. OneFour are different, but not because they don’t brag in their music. They absolutely do. It’s more the fact that, if anything, their lyrics actually understate how enormously successful and influential they’ve become in a relatively short time frame.

Introduced this country to drillin’, all of a sudden they all wanna bang,” is how OneFour’s 2019 track ‘In The Beginning’ opens. It’s not an exaggeration. OneFour have gone from pioneering Australian drill rap, to having some of the most-watched YouTube videos in the country, influencing a new generation of artists and scoring massive international collaborations. And now they’re about to drop their first EP, ‘Against All Odds’, and cement their status as one of the biggest local acts around.

NME spoke to OneFour just as they were on the cusp of releasing two huge collaborations: They’d scored a remix of Headie One’s heater ‘Ain’t It Different’ featuring Stormzy and AJ Tracey, and had a feature spot on A$AP Ferg’s new album ‘Floor Seats II’ alongside Lil Wayne, Puff Daddy and Tyga.

“It’s been a few good weeks,” says one of the group’s rappers, J Emz, downplaying how significant these creative partnerships are. “But we’re staying calm and focused.”

“We’ve been working and planning these [new releases] for months now,” fellow OneFour rapper Spenny adds. “I’ve been working so much that I actually forgot they were coming out this week!”

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
L-R: J Emz and Spenny of OneFour. Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

The A$AP Ferg feature is a milestone for the group who’ve gone from strength to strength despite facing enormous challenges like a sustained campaign from police preventing them from performing and the imprisonment of their members.

Australian hip-hop artists have had features from big international stars before: Bliss N Eso and Nas, the Hilltop Hoods and Black Thought, Kerser and Future – and recently, The Kid LAROI and Juice WRLD.

But an Australian act featuring on a major release from a huge US rapper? It hardly happens.

Ferg and OneFour first hooked up in Sydney earlier in the year and collaborated on the latter’s track ‘Say It Again’. The experience of working with Ferg was a massive opportunity for OneFour, and one they jumped at.

“Being able to chop up a song with him, and getting to know him properly, that was a crazy experience,” recalls J Emz. “We were able to be in the studio with him and vibe off him.”

“He showed me how to be a humble artist,” Spenny says. “I didn’t want to fanboy him, but I was starstruck… I did keep my marbles though.”

“OneFour are challenging the perceptions of what Australian artists look and sound like” – Hau Latukefu

When J Emz and Spenny – both 22 – spoke to NME about their upcoming projects, including their new EP, they are calm, measured and considered – a far cry from the barbed rhymes and sharp storytelling of their music.

In real life, they offer less braggadocio and more contemplation. You can even sense some nervousness in their manner and tone. Their answers are honest but carefully calibrated, and it takes a bit of back and forth before J Emz and Spenny loosen up.

OneFour have good reason to be cautious when doing interviews. The group have been the target of a sustained campaign by police, unlike anything ever before seen in the Australian music industry.

NSW Police have admitted on the record that they tried, successfully, to shut down OneFour’s Australian tour last year. They’ve even threatened to use powers designed to target outlaw motorcycle gangs and terrorists, a move lambasted by human rights experts at the time. It’s not every day that a rap group becomes involved in a debate about civil liberties, but that’s the context OneFour have been operating in since they were formed.

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
OneFour on the cover of NME Australia #10

In addition to J Emz and Spenny, the group’s rotating roster of members has included YP, Lekks, Celly and Caesar. They started their music careers at the Mount Druitt Street University in western Sydney, a youth centre complete with a recording studio. Most of the members knew each other from the local church, but it was at the Street University where they first honed their craft.

Mount Druitt is one of the most disadvantaged suburbs in the country. Its unemployment rate is 11 per cent, nearly twice the state average. It’s also one of the most culturally diverse parts of the country. About 90 per cent of residents identify as having a non-Australian ancestry, and more than 60 per cent speak a language other than English.

Winnie Dunn, a Tongan-Australian writer who grew up in Mount Druitt, tells NME that OneFour’s pride in their hometown has helped put the suburb on the map.

“When I was growing up in Mount Druitt we used to wear shirts that said ‘Straight Outta Mounty’,” she says. “We always knew our community was special and had a story to tell, and now OneFour are telling it.

“Mount Druitt is going to be recognised at the same kind of level as Compton, where artists survived tough environments and a system stacked against them. Growing up I thought Mount Druitt was a place where art went to die, but OneFour has shown my community that we can make our own art and tell our own stories. It’s only a matter of time before it gets recognised as a place where really unique music is coming from.”

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
Spenny of OneFour. Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

OneFour have inspired an entire generation of new artists, which is remarkable given how they are still really at the start of their careers, Hau Latukefu – ARIA-award winning artist and host of triple J’s Hip Hop Show – pointed out to NME.

“They’ve empowered young Pacific Islanders to make music, and have demonstrated that by showing resilience and working hard you are able to go places,” Hau said.

“It still trips me to see all this. OneFour are challenging the perceptions of what Australian artists look and sound like.”

“At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you make good music” – J Emz

Mount Druitt is one of the most heavily policed suburbs in the city, and has a high proportion of residents from Pacific Islander backgrounds, including the members of OneFour. Pacific Islanders are the most over-represented racial group in Australia’s prison system after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and all the members of OneFour aside from Spenny have served time in prison.

It’s their personal history and allegations that the group are affiliated to criminal “gangs” – claims that OneFour have strenuously denied – that have made them the focus of police attention. NSW Police have pored over the stories in OneFour’s lyrics, citing violent references as a reason why the group shouldn’t be allowed to perform. As J Emz raps on their Headie One remix: “The gang still can’t do no live shows until the law uplifts it.”

The same pattern has played out in cities like London, New York and Chicago, with police using the lyrical content of drill tracks or purported gang connections as an excuse to stop artists from performing, or punish them after the fact.

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
J Emz of OneFour. Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic itself is now an additional barrier to musicians performing live, but OneFour have been operating in this space since well before the virus struck. “With coronavirus, everyone is starting to feel what we went through last year,” J Emz laughs.

“Being unable to perform meant we couldn’t make money, so we had to rely more on streaming platforms,” he adds. “And at the end of the day, it comes down to whether you make good music.”

OneFour haven’t escaped the notice of major labels – they’ve been made offers, and while they wouldn’t rule out signing a deal in the future, the group remain unsigned for now. While that might mean less cash in the short term, the independence it affords is important to them.

“I’ve been loving being independent for our career,” says J Emz. “I can see the benefits from being on a label, but being independent has brought our whole team closer and it shows we should trust and who we shouldn’t.”

“It’s helped us realise that this shit can’t be done on our own. There’s a lot of people around us we’ve had to learn from to get to this stage.”

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

One of those people is OneFour’s manager, Ricky Simandjuntak. The values that drive OneFour, he says, are “loyalty and love for their brothers.” That’s what helps their music resonate: “It actually means something for people. It has an actual emotional attachment.”

Like J Emz, Simandjuntak points to OneFour’s tight-knit team operating behind the scenes as a key factor of their success. Most of them have been with the group since day one, and hail from western Sydney as well.

But it’s not just the relationships behind the scenes that make OneFour’s art resonate. Most of OneFour’s biggest hits have featured verses from YP, J Emz’s younger brother. Last year, YP, Lekks and Celly were sentenced to prison for their roles in an assault at a Sydney pub. Just after YP was sentenced, he said: “I’ll continue to write music, even behind those walls.”

The next track the group released was ‘Welcome To Prison’, a dialogue between the two brothers about incarceration, loyalty and the need to stay strong.

Train hard, my brother, and stay staunch, listen, don’t be another victim lost to the system,” they rap. It’s a powerful track and the video, filmed at the old Parramatta prison, packs an emotional gut punch with a new intro from YP and Lekks recorded in prison.

OneFour don’t hide their experiences of the justice system. In a country where marginalised and oppressed racial minorities are prosecuted at disproportionate rates, their music is a contrast to most of what’s in the Australian landscape, and it’s resonated.

Prison was again a key theme on the first single from the upcoming EP ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Home and Away’.

The track, and accompanying video, demonstrate the contrast between the lived experience of the members of OneFour and the cleanskin image Australia likes to project of itself. Gritty, black-and-white footage of Mount Druitt plays out alongside a shot of YP in prison while J Emz spits:

Yeah I come from Mounty / That’s home of the Brave / Out here we at war with the cops like Brax / But this ain’t Home and Away.”

The sunkissed soap opera name-dropped in the song is filmed in the same city OneFour are from – but the idyllic, albeit whitewashed, version of Sydney is as far from Mount Druitt as you can get. When J Emz raps, “I didn’t grow up round all those beaches, but I still got bros at the bay,” he’s referencing Long Bay Correctional Complex in Malabar.

From both a lyrical and production standpoint, ‘Home and Away’ is the closest track on the upcoming EP to OneFour’s earlier work. But the rest of ‘Against All Odds’ marks an evolution of the group’s sound, their selection suggesting the group’s desire to demonstrate their range. They’ve conquered the world of hard, gritty drill. Now they want to prove they can do more.

‘Against All Odds’ is more melodic and soulful, with a lot more singing than any of OneFour’s earlier work. Both Spenny and J Emz say that while drill is what they listened to the most during the EP’s creation, they regularly listen to other genres to get inspiration, including R&B. “I’ll listen to anything,” Spenny says. “If I can find motivation from music, I’ll listen to it.”

The R&B influence on the release is clear from the second track, ‘Let’s Ride’, which uses the same sample as British boyband Blue’s 2001 hit single ‘All Rise’ – a musical choice inspired by J Emz’s older brother.

“I don’t think I’d even heard the song until my brother showed me,” J Emz said. “But after I heard, I loved it. It bangs.”

“The EP goes into relationships, because it’s us. It’s about our lives and us telling our stories” – Spenny

‘Let’s Ride’ cleverly borrows the courtroom metaphor from the original Blue track to tell a story more relevant to OneFour. Blue’s “One for the money and the free rides, it’s two for the lies that you denied” becomes “One for the money in this life we choose to live, one time for the bail they refuse to give”. A song about heartbreak transforms into one about incarceration.

Love also emerges as an unexpected theme on ‘Against All Odds’. Tracks like ‘Heartless’ and ‘Leaving’ cover relationships, loss and regret.

“The EP goes into relationships, because it’s us. It’s about our lives and us telling our stories,” Spenny explains. “We’re not just dropping these as singles. It’s one whole story and you’re going to have to listen to it front to back to understand how it all fits together.”

“Everything on the EP was done with purpose,” he adds. “We’re evolving. We’ve gone through things that have changed our music and so we’re not just rapping about the same things as before.”

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

Most of the tracks on the EP were produced by longtime collaborators Willstah and i.amsolo. Also a good friend of OneFour’s, and a guest on the EP, is fellow Sydney rapper and ascendant star The Kid LAROI. The 17-year-old Kamilaroi artist’s debut album ‘F*CK LOVE’ peaked at number eight on the US Billboard album charts earlier this year.

“We came up through the scene together,” Spenny says of LAROI. “He’s our brother, we’ve known him since he was a kid.” OneFour made an electrifying unannounced appearance during LAROI’s opening slot at the late Juice WRLD’s gig at the Hordern Pavilion last year, and now they’ve recorded a song together: ‘My City’.

‘My City’, which closes out ‘Against All Odds’, is a perfect distillation of what the current wave of Australian hip-hop can offer: Though in dialogue with the best rap around the world, OneFour and LAROI remain unashamedly proud of the city that forged them.

“We always knew Mount Druitt was special and had a story to tell, and now OneFour are telling it” – Winnie Dunn

Shout out my boys from the 70 / Shout out my boys from the 60, they know what’s in me / Shout out my boys from the 17, they really know how I was livin’,” LAROI raps in the chorus, cementing the links between the Greater West of Sydney and Waterloo – and the bonds between the Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities.

The track also claps back at OneFour’s critics, especially the police and media, who continue to push the narrative that the group advocate criminality and violence.

J Emz spits with steely aggression: “Now they’re blaming OneFour for all of the drillings. They’re blaming us for what happens in Sydney / They’re blaming us for what happens in Melbourne / They’re blaming us for what happened in Brizzy… Get the fuck out my face, I ain’t leading these young ’uns astray / Stay in your place.”

OneFour NME Australia cover interview 2020 EP Against All Odds
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

OneFour’s first breakthrough hit, ‘The Message’, dropped in March 2019. Eighteen months later, they’ve become one of the most popular new acts in the country, released hit after hit, collaborated with international stars, inspired a raft of new artists and defined a new Australian genre – all before their first studio album.

And OneFour have done it while battling perceptions, prejudice and the police. It’s an extraordinary achievement in Australian music history.

OneFour’s impact, Hau thinks, is akin to one of the biggest acts in Australian history: the Hilltop Hoods.

“We will never see another Hilltop Hoods, and we will never see another OneFour. These things don’t happen twice.”

OneFour’s new EP ‘Against All Odds’ is out November. Order your copy of NME Australia’s September issue here.