Five Things I Know: Christopher Kevin Au, Warner Music Australasia

Christopher Kevin Au has his finger firmly on the pulse of Australia’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Manager of Brisbane rapper Nerve, a host of Spotify Original podcast A1: The Show, and a recent addition to Warner’s A&R team, Au spoke with NME about how Australian hip-hop acts have carved out their own space, misconceptions of “independent” artists, and working in an ever-changing industry

1. There’s still an industry-scene disconnect

Throughout the 2010s, the problem was that you had this buzzing underground hip-hop scene, with artists getting more organic YouTube numbers than ones on a major label – but for the most part, nobody in the industry was willing to give them a shot. Back then, people used to laugh and say things like, “all these fucking junkies and drug addicts, they can’t rap for shit.”

There’s still a bit of a disconnect between who’s really making noise at a grassroots level and who the industry chooses to support. I’d really like to change that and pass it on to the next generation. This whole underground hip-hop movement blew up around 2018. Now, those artists are reaping the rewards of their hard work. This is probably the most profitable that Australian hip-hop has ever been. For artists, that’s in terms of the fees they’re getting from festivals and from every brand now wanting to be aligned with a rapper.

It’s time to look at the next generation of artists and make sure their stories are getting told and their music is having maximum impact. In an A&R capacity, you can do that: signing artists, overseeing that creative process, putting in the little things that a lot of artists don’t think about because they shouldn’t have to.

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Christopher Kevin Au Warner Music A&R Nerve manager Spotify A1 hip hop podcast
Christopher Kevin Au. Credit: @itsgrechie

2. Indie success stories don’t actually go it alone

Where the underground or the independent scene holds itself back a little bit is subscribing to this particular idea of “independence”. They don’t realise that some of the biggest independent artists, like Kerser, have a team. A manager, a distributor, a booking agent, a touring manager – they have all these other people around them who help build their career to what it needs to become.

A lot of artists get so stuck on “independent means I have to do it myself,” but that’s not the case at all. The biggest independent artists have one – maybe two – managers looking after their day-to-day, searching for opportunities for them, building those relationships with press, radio or brands. You can still be independent and have a team that supports you. The team element is the difference between someone who makes a living off music and someone who makes a big buzz online, but struggles to develop that into a full-blown career.

This is the most diverse that the hip-hop scene here has ever been

3. There’s no limit to hip-hop’s growth

Hip-hop in Australia is diversifying at such a speed that there’s enough for everyone to love. If you love drill music, we have a whole drill scene. You love the more pop-leaning melodic stuff? We have a whole scene of that. You love the more street rap-driven stuff? We have that too.

Is hip-hop in Australia having a moment right now? Yes, but I feel like the moment is big enough for us to sustain a thriving community well into the future and beyond the hype. If anyone says it’s all just hype right now, they haven’t looked properly into it. Even on an industry side, every major label has a hip-hop A&R there now. That wasn’t always the case.

It seems like every festival now has one Australian hip-hop talent playing at a 4pm to 5pm slot, and sometimes the headline last slot. With the exception of a few acts, it just seemed like that could never happen for a long time. A couple of years ago, I never thought that would’ve happened for many years – but it did, so I was happy to be proved wrong.

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Kobie Dee Gratitude Over Pity EP Bad Apples Music
Kobie Dee. Credit: Vienna Marie

4. Australian hip-hop is changing misconceptions

Australia’s very different in terms of the way we dress, speak, the slang that we use, even our humour. People have said that we lean too heavily on the UK or the US for influence, but I feel like this is the perfect time for Australia to come out with its own voices. This is the most diverse that the hip-hop scene here has ever been.

In previous generations, there was very much a perception of Australian hip-hop as ‘backyard barbecue rap’. Now, people are OK to say that they’re from Australia, we are not that and this is our story. Artists like OneFour and Kobie Dee aren’t afraid to say that they come from here.

What I loved about the OneFour explosion in particular was that when people from the UK started listening to their music, they were like, “we didn’t know that people in Australia could look like this.” They were just completely unaware that there were Polynesian people in Australia. A lot of people overseas, their perception of Australia is Home and Away, Neighbours or that one episode of The Simpsons where Homer comes here.

5. Establishing trust in the scene is crucial

As big as hip-hop is right now globally, in Australia the scene is still quite small. Once you prove yourself to real fans of the genre and in the community, it’s very easy for someone working in the industry to transition between roles.

For example, I started off in journalism and then became a manager. From there, I started consulting for brands. After that, I started throwing parties and gigs. Finally, the A&R job came along.

It’s an easy scene to pivot in once you earn the trust of people and they realise that you’re not here for a quick cash-out or a couple of views. You have to be passionate about the artists and care about them as people, and the community at large. I know everyone says that and it sounds corny because we’re all trying to live off music at the end of the day, but you really have to be genuine about your intentions.

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