Brisbane’s hip hop scene has changed immensely over the past one and a half decades, and watching over it all have been DJ Katch and Dave Atkins.
Katch and Atkins are the men behind both the Resin Dogs and Hydrofunk Records. The Dogs, as a loose collective, have been carving up the national hip hop scene since 1996. But it’s arguably under the banner of Hydrofunk Records that these local godfathers have had a greater influence on Australian rap music.
Before the internet, before Elefant Traks and long before Obese, Hydrofunk were picking up the sounds of the artists they loved and offering to release them on record. The way Katch tells it, this was never anything to do with money or a business plan, but about getting involved and giving a leg up to those they perceived as having the talent to take on Australia.
“We just like putting out music that we like,” he explains. “Because there’s no artist development anymore, and that’s something we really like doing, and helping people out – our record deals are almost like mentor programs!
“We were never expecting [the label] to go like it did. We were just wanting to play a few shows and press some vinyl … We didn’t focus on three-year contracts or budgets or anything like that – we just let the artist do what they felt.”
But Hydrofunk grew, ending up under the distribution wing of Virgin/ EMI. No small feat in the late ‘90s, when operating out of Brisbane often meant operating out of the industry loop. “There are a lot of meetings that go on down south that you miss out on,” Katch says. “If you’re not in that circle of people, it’s harder – unless you’ve already cracked it. There are so many more avenues down there, because you’ve gotta be in their face or they forget about you. It’s like putting out Resin Dogs music these days: we do an album every five to seven years, so [every time] there’s a whole new generation of people to say, ‘Who are you cats?’”
The Brisbane disconnect flowed in the other direction as well, with both international and up-and-coming artists from the south often choosing to ignore Queensland altogether.
“When it came to tours and things like that, they used to go Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide. This little triangular thing. Which was fine; that’s all good. But I remember going to a Run-D.M.C. concert down in New South Wales and there was a massive breaking circle. Four of us from Brisbane took on pretty much the whole Sydney collective, and we beat them. They didn’t know who the hell we were.”
With the isolation came a relaxed innovation, the Brisbane hip hop crews growing independently of the southern states and developing their own way of doing things. “From breaking, we always had a different style to everybody else,” Katch says. “A lot of moves got invented in Brisbane. A lot of the headspins you see these days worldwide are what we designed and came up with out of Brisbane, and just doing it in our backyards. It’s the same with MCing – we’ve always had a different style. You have a look at a lot of dudes around the country: many are trying to rap like Lazy Grey. He’s been there since dot. We definitely have a different style.”
Not that Hydrofunk’s influence didn’t reach young rappers in other cities. Melbourne MC Mantra remembers catching the Resin Dogs on a tour of his home town and being blown away by the power of their live shows. “It wasn't until I had already started making hip hop music that I really investigated the Australian scene. Their passion for the music is obvious,” Mantra says. “I met Dave and Katch a few years later and it was evident that this passion was always there, it wasn't just something they enacted on the stage. That's what I love most about the Hydrofunk crew.”
Hydrofunk’s output would wax and wane over the years, partly in reflection of the ebb and flow of talent coming out of Queensland, but also because of the heads’ other projects. Atkins would do a stint behind the kit for Wolfmother, while Katch rediscovered his gleefully right-angled DJ sets, performing in and around Brisbane on a regular basis. Now, with Hydrofunk’s 15-year anniversary upon them the duo are looking to rebuild some lost momentum, although Katch admits it’s a very different environment from that of the late ‘90s, when electronic distribution barely existed at all.
“We don’t have the big team like we used to,” he says. “It’s just been about setting that up again, and a lot more learning. We’re working out the lay of the land of the industry, because CD sales are down, digital sales are slowly picking up, and just finding that common ground – especially with not having a massive team, where we actually do it ourselves and don’t have anyone in the office doing it for us. It’s a bit of a shock going on tour and then coming home and saying, ‘That’s right, we don’t have a team’.”
Still, Hydrofunk started out as a series of hip hop parties in the early to mid ‘90s, and that’s how Katch, Atkins, and the rest of the Resin Dogs plan to celebrate a decade and a half in the industry this coming weekend. Joining them will be an eclectic mix of established names as well as impressive up-and-comers, including Mantra, Bankrupt Billionaires, Tigermoth and Fort Kilsby.
“We’ll start off slow, take it easy,” Katch says, laughing. “There are a few acts on there that we haven’t signed. It’s just about artists that we like: Bankrupt Billionaires, Tigermoth and Thavy – she’s a young singer that we just came across. We’re going to do a Two Dogs DJ set, Resin Dogs live, and I think I’m gonna spin. We’ve got a VJ putting together some visuals and all that stuff. It’s just going to be a big party: come and have a dance, come and have a boogie. And we’ll act as the in-house band for everyone, like we often have. We’ve created a little mix EP of some of the artists performing on the night, which will be available via digital download. It’s free with entry. We’re bringing in some old vinyl stock to have a little store there: what we’ve done, where we’ve been, where we’re going.”
Katch talks about the year ahead as being one of online consolidation, before ramping up the Hydrofunk presence in earnest. When asked the secret to his label’s longevity, Katch, as always, takes the humble route, talking about “timing” and the periods he and Atkins have taken away from the coalface. Mantra, though, is in no doubt about what keeps Hydrofunk alive and kicking.
“They've worked with amazing artists from all over the world and had great success, but for them it's still just about the music,” he says. “They live for making music, which is how they've managed to have such longevity and credibility as artists, and as a label.”
THE HYDROFUNK RECORDS 15 YEAR BIRTHDAY BASH TAKES OVER CONISTON LANE SATURDAY MAY 12.