Adam Briggs is accustomed to making a stir. The rapper – just Briggs to those in the know – has a history of rhymes that rub some people up the wrong way. Take single January 26, taken from the cheekily-titled Reclaim Australia, the debut album by his new duo A.B. Original. An aggressive takedown of our choice of date for Australia Day (featuring a killer chorus from Dan Sultan), it annoyed all the right (and all the right-wing) people while still crashing in towards the top of Triple J’s Hottest 100.
But the latest upset is one he never saw coming. A.B. Original have scored an impressive six nominations in this year’s ARIA Awards, a remarkable thumbs-up from an industry not known for celebrating Indigenous artists.
Briggs says the scale of this achievement is still sinking in. “It only really makes sense when I go home and my family are tripping about it. When you’re in the moment, it’s hard to see what it means. It’s not the reason I do what I do. I feel like if you set out to make a piece of art and the goal was to reap awards, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
If there’s one reason he is delighted, it’s because this newfound attention means more people will be listening to the social issues the album pulls apart. “That’s the best part, for me,” he says. “A.B. Original was never going to be measured against awards and units sold. Where we moved things was socially. Other people moved more records, but nobody moved more people.”
Moving the needle on Indigenous issues has always been a key concern for Briggs. Growing up in Shepparton in the 1980s and ’90s, he found himself confronted by a thoroughly white media landscape that seemed have no place for young Indigenous kids like him. The American hip hop explosion changed all that.
“Watching young black guys from the States make this music that was so dope and so cool was a real thing for me. White people were scared of it, they were scared of us, so there was this instant attraction. But I was just a baby when I got into rap. I had Snoop Dogg tapes when I shouldn’t have had Snoop Dogg tapes. I was way too young.”
He says now he’s not sure if that early exposure did him any lasting damage. “That’s a question for my therapist,” he laughs. “I think there were variables and filters that kept me on a good path.”
All the same, it was a path that hadn’t yet been trodden in Australia. The Aussie hip-hop scene didn’t take off until the early 2000s, at which point – somewhat predictably – it was white artists dominating a genre that, in the US, had always been defiantly multicultural. At the forefront were Adelaide outfit Hilltop Hoods, whose 2006 album Hard Road went straight to number one.
“The Hoods drove home the idea that it could be done here, and at an international standard,” Briggs says. “That’s what you needed, someone to crack the code. Someone to move it past being a hobby, to make it a legit thing. Before that, it was like acting. You had to go to the States to make it big.” He laughs. “Or you could be Gary Sweet.”
Aiming low was a mindset he saw a lot of, growing up in Shepparton. Although he maintains an affection for the place (his second album was called Sheplife), he’s never been blind to its faults. If he was going to make it big, he was going to have to leave town. These days he calls Coburg home.
“If I stayed there, who knows what would have happened. I don’t want to think about it. It’s all about the small town mindset. It’s about changing what you think is acceptable, shaking that ‘I’m not meant to be doing this’ mentality. My whole thing was ‘maybe if I just try this for a little bit longer it might pay off’. It was okay to want more for myself.”
At 19, he fled to Melbourne, where he elbowed his way into the developing hip-hop scene. It was there he met his A.B. Original co-pilot, Trials. Seeing Trials (a Ngarrindjeri man from Coorong in South Australia) rap onstage was something of a lightbulb moment; Briggs was struck by how unusual it was to see a performer who looked more than a little like himself.
The two quickly bonded (Trials has said he first realised they were close when he learnt Briggs was using his address for Centrelink correspondence). Encouraged by his new comrades, Briggs self-released his first EP Homemade Bombs in 2009.
“I put it out myself because who else was going to do it? I never had set goals, like I’m going to be on David Letterman or anything like that. I always kept my goals realistic. And I feel like that’s how I fed my ambition.”
That EP and a strong reputation for powerful live gigs led to him being signed by the Hilltop Hoods’ Golden Era Records. After two successful albums there, he started his own label, Bad Apples, which has become a home for A.B. Original.
As a rapper, he has built a reputation as being forthright, even aggressive, and has been labelled by some as an activist. (“As soon as you talk about black issues, you’re an activist,” he says.) Earlier this year, he became the target of internet trolls after he singled out a footy club for donning blackface.
He describes Reclaim Australia as his “f*** you, pay me” record – an antidote to the polite, mournful tone that has defined much Indigenous art.
I will admit here to being somewhat nervous about meeting Briggs. Even among his mates, he’s known for being intimidating. But what strikes me as we chat is how funny he is.
This will be no surprise to anyone who has seen his TV appearances on Black Comedy, The Weekly or Get Krack!n’. What is a surprise is news that he’s joining the writing team for Disenchanted, the new project from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. As a lifelong Simpsons fan, Briggs says nobody was more gobsmacked by this news than him.
While he appreciates that comedy can make harsh truths into easier pills, he has no plans to leave hip hop behind any time soon. Much of his focus now is on enabling the next generation of rappers through his Bad Apples label. He’s happy to be the sort of industry role model that wasn’t available to him growing up.
Although he has, in the past, described himself as being forever angry, these days he prefers “aware”. But he can’t help feeling that all his anger is starting to pay off. The needle is moving. “I’ve worked too hard for it to not. You wouldn’t work the way we work if you weren’t optimistic.”
A.B. ORIGINAL \ will perform at the 2017 ARIA Awards on November 28. Live on Channel Nine.