It’s a classic rock ’n’ roll tale. Some arty kids launch a band that accidentally becomes successful. This is exactly how the buzzy Western Australian alt-hip-hop crew SUPEREGO – who count Sampa The Great as a fan – originated in 2015. But their story has several twists.
The exuberant Rhys Hussey – a New Zealand-Australian musical polymath who primarily serves as SUPEREGO’s drummer – marvels at the grassroots outfit’s endurance. “It’s literally ridiculous to think about this happening in 2015,” he marvels. “All of us were just in our rooms, making music and would never share it with anybody. I don’t even know what ended up provoking me to tell everyone to get together and make a band.”
Fronted by the expressive Nelson Mondlane (aka MC POW! Negro), SUPEREGO is a post-genre collective of vocalists, multi-instrumentalists, songwriters and producers. They deliver trippy, abstract and reverb-heavy hip-hop with The Roots’ avant-jazz sensibilities and nuanced social messaging, plus Run The Jewels’ metallic combustibility. Then again, SUPEREGO might be a cerebral Avalanches. And it’s only now with their second EP, ‘Nautilus’ – which arrived in March – that they feel they’ve crystallised as a group.
Mondlane, Hussey and guitarist/MC Lachlan Dymond met as drama students at the John Curtin College of the Arts (AC/DC’s Bon Scott is an alumnus) in their Fremantle hometown. Lowkey in person, Mondlane – whom the others call ‘Nelly’ – subsequently studied theatre at uni. “I was always going to be an actor, but I’d also kind of started rapping in the two years since we’d finished high school,” he details. “I’d also started painting a lot and doing a lot of drawing stuff. But I’d always wanted to be creative, in some way.”
Mondlane had been gigging with members of Koi Child – the local hip-hop posse once produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker – when he was offered a solo slot at the legendary Mojos Bar. An eager Hussey recognised an opportunity to assemble a band, rallying Dymond. They recruited Toby Batchelor, a mate-of-a-mate, to be their bassist, not realising that he played guitar (Batchelor furtively purchased a bass and quickly adapted). Being Mondlane’s vehicle, the act assumed the name POW! Negro. They next added saxophonist Kaprou Lea. (Another buddy, Chris Young, briefly a secondary guitarist, today performs with Psychedelic Porn Crumpets.)
Though the ensemble had divergent references, they discovered unique commonalities. The African-Australian Mondlane bonded with Batchelor, from country Katanning, over a love of Paul Simon. They all dug hip-hop – which, with its sampling tradition, allowed them to synthesise their stylistic influences.
Still, POW! Negro struggled to find their sonic dynamic. In 2017, they dropped a debut EP, ‘Jasmine & Licorice’, but felt dissatisfied – Dymond bluntly brands it “the failed project”. The bandmates were cutting beats independently, but couldn’t recreate the electronics in the studio. They were novices, but relying on budget gear likewise constrained them. “If we were jamming, we’re at the whim of the instruments that we’re using – which was a lot of guitars. So our first project was very rock-influenced, which wasn’t something we intended to happen.” Ironically, POW! Negro received encouragement. Hussey says, “People were telling us, ‘Oh, but that vibe sounded the best!’”
After two sold-out Freo dates in mid-2018, POW! Negro dramatically announced their dissolution, before resurfacing as SUPEREGO. Mondlane’s subversive reclaiming of that n-word had been about self-empowerment. Yet it didn’t represent the fold’s multiculturalism or evolution, particularly as Dymond was now rapping, too. They worried it was problematic. “When we first started, I was the only voice in the group and rapping,” Mondlane explains. “So a lot of the focus was on my journey and my experience. But it was a group, so it wasn’t just about me.”
The band simultaneously reformulated their musical hybrid, ushering in phase II with the trap-rave single ‘I Am The Judge’, which Pond’s James Ireland co-produced. “It was a lot less jazzy, a lot less psych-rock or heavier rock; it got a lot more electronic,” Mondlane states.
‘Nautilus’ is the crest of SUPEREGO’s reinvention, Dymond says. “It’s weird because we’ve been around for nearly five years now but, in a way, it feels like we’ve only just started – ’cause we’ve only reached a point where we’ve made something that we’re really happy with and haven’t felt like we’ve had to compromise in any way to make it.” The EP has a contemplative tone, notes Mondlane, himself grappling with “self-doubt”. “I think it was just a crisis of identity and understanding who we all were as young men and where we were.” Batchelor channels Thom Yorke on ‘Caller ID’. Then there are star collabs with former Koi Child MC Cruz Patterson (‘Last Tango’) and Sampa The Great (‘O.B.S (Outer Body Stranger)’).
SUPEREGO befriended Sampa back in 2016 when they opened for her in Perth. A year later, she memorably joined them on stage at Queensland’s Woodford Folk Festival. Sampa urged SUPEREGO to send her a track. Mondlane deliberated. “I didn’t just wanna have her on a song for the sake of it. I actually wanted her to have something to play with and some real role to bring.” Eventually, he conceived ‘O.B.S (Outer Body Stranger)’, ‘Nautilus’’ current single.
Mondlane considers his fractured existence as a young biracial man in Australia, while both seeking a deeper connection with his father’s Mozambican ancestry and self-acceptance. The symbolic exchange was affirming, Sampa giving him “direction”. “There isn’t necessarily an answer in that song, but reflecting on it was the answer. To me, the answer is just like, ‘It’s all in you.’”
Contemporary Australian hip-hop is cross-generational, fluid and individualistic. But SUPEREGO don’t relate to any subculture – not even that of the artistically communal Fremantle, a Perth satellite.
“For a long time, I always really wanted to be a part of the hip-hop scene,” Mondlane admits. “It’s really amazing, the scene here; there are so many different styles and approaches. It’s thriving at the moment. We do fit, but we also don’t – like we’re pretty off-the-edge with it all… I don’t really know what kind of genre [SUPEREGO] is. Years ago, if you asked me, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re psychedelic rap!’ Someone said ‘art rap’ the other day, I thought that was cool… It’s good that it’s different. I don’t wanna be just the same as everything else. I don’t think it’d be really honest.”
Alas, SUPEREGO have been unable to tour behind ‘Nautilus’ due to the COVID-19 shutdown – although they have participated in ISOL-AID, a homegrown live music festival series streamed via Instagram, to welcome feedback. They’re holding off on album plans. But, Hussey reveals, SUPEREGO will air fresh tunes. “We had so many other songs that didn’t make it to the EP, so we’ll be releasing a B-sides [set] in the next coming months.”
Meanwhile, the newly confident quintet are progressing on personal side-projects. “Everyone’s getting super-excited; we have a lot of little show-and-tell nights,” Dymond says. “So that’s been real fun.” Mondlane has the live combo Myriad Sun. (“It’s more electronic than SUPEREGO,” he says. “It’s a fusion of footwork and house and ambient electronic stuff.”) Regardless, Hussey, who’s thrown himself into gardening, is sanguine about SUPEREGO’s enforced hiatus. “I wanna see at the end of this six months, or however long the isolation goes on, five new EPs from SUPEREGO – just like all different!” SUPEREGO, super-unpredictable.
SUPEREGO’s latest EP ‘Nautilus’ is out now.