Sydney emcee Urthboy has been crafting a reputation over almost two decades as one of the pre-eminent songwriters in this country.
As both a member of The Herd and as a solo artist, he’s continually set the bar higher with each new record he’s released, being able to simultaneously slice up a hell of a pop song (the pureed, concentrated ear worm ‘We Get Around’), as well as fire political flames (‘Don’t Let It Go’), while his flow and his approach has always resonated as naturally unique and local.
After a three year break, Urthboy returned last week with his latest single ‘Long Loud Hours’ – the first taste off a new record scheduled for 2016 and having been sitting with it for that entire time and listening to it on repeat, I’ve slowly come to the realisation that it might just be one of the greatest Australian love songs ever written.
Firstly, it’s a brilliant piece of musical storytelling – a re-imagining of the famous 1999 prison escape executed by career criminal John Killick and his girlfriend Lucy Dudko, who managed to hijack a helicopter, land it in Silverwater prison and help her lover escape before the duo were eventually apprehended (Killick incidentally was finally released from prison earlier this year). It’s the kind of legendary / forgotten story you’d expect to hear celebrated by Don Walker or Gareth Liddiard, both known for finding inspiration in the oddly shaped corners of our national story. But Urthboy tackles the subject matter with a deft touch that is economical in its wordsmithery yet devastating in its finesse, and brings with it the kind of focus and scope you wouldn’t necessarily expect from Australian hip-hop.
The song’s lyrics recreate the incredible passion that must have existed between Killick and Dudko – love that leads you to do insane, bat shit things like steal a helicopter and fly it into a high security gaol. The verses are rapped by Urthboy in the guise of Dudko (a really interesting maneuver), while the choruses find Urthboy and feature artist / impressive name in her own right Bertie Blackman harmonising together to interpret the sweet nothings being whispered by Killick into his lover’s ear. The transition from verse into the first chorus, in particular, is the kind of elevated passion and build up that is shiver-inducing and totally stop-you-in-your-tracks mesmerising:
…and although he’s a career crim, I wanna be near him, I don’t fear a thing when he calls and he sings and he says / I’ve got no-one else to turn to, and I really don’t want to burn you, but you’re all I have, will you set me free? / I’ve got no-one else to turn to, and this old fool don’t deserve you, but you’re all I have, you can set me free, baby rescue me.” [starts at 0:55]
The genius of the song, however, lies in the subject matter – such a dazzlingly Australian story to re-imagine. Celebration of the outlaw is something that reaches deep into the Australian psyche – that Ned Kelly, Wild Colonial Boy, under dog, rebellious side of our national identity we all cherish and hold dear to our hearts. It’s what gives us that ideal of the larrikin spirit and in ‘Long Loud Hours’ that bravado that I remember so many people acknowledging at the time in 1999, when Killick and Dudko attempted their daring yet ultimately futile plan, is romanticised succinctly and gorgeously by Urthboy’s words, his and Blackman’s vocals, and the pulsating production from Hermitude and Pip Norman, who give the track a luscious bed for it all to float upon.
When the great Australian songwriters of contemporary music are being listed off – Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, Tim Rogers, Chrissy Amphlett, Missy Higgins, etc – it’s unlikely many critics would place a hip-hop artist near the top of the pile. Although the record sales and accolades continue to be shuttled towards Australian hip-hop’s corner at an ever-increasing rate, it’s still hard to imagine an emcee winning a Best Male or Female Artist ARIA – if that is what we judge to be the highest songwriting accolade in this country (that’s easily debatable).
But I think it’s time we made amends to that and I think that in a song like ‘Long Loud Hours’ Urthboy has carved something truly remarkable and worthy of celebration. Its 3:34 mins aren’t a breathe too long, but what he and his companions manage to do in that finite time is make you listen and resonate with the love of two lost and longing souls.
It makes you think, it makes you feel, it makes you proud.
‘Long Loud Hours’ is available now on iTunes and Spotify via www.urthboy.com