One of my favourite features for triple j magazine was built around the two weekends I spent with Melbourne artist 360 in March 2012. I say artist, rather than terms like ‘rapper’ or ‘hip-hop act’ that others might be quick to use when referring to him… but as I discovered, there’s more to him than that. I found a man not concerned with what hip-hop fans might think of his excursions into pop and dubstep, and being in the middle of platinum-selling for two weekends was a great, eye-opening experience. The resulting cover feature is below.
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As his second album, Falling & Flying, goes completely and utterly mental, we spend two weeks in the hectic world of Australia’s newest platinum-selling hip-hop artist, 360
BEING in the eye of a storm is apparently an exceptionally eerie experience: a bastion of stillness, all clear skies and calm winds, while you’re surrounded by a ring of murderous thunderstorms. As we belt down the highway to the far reaches of Melbourne suburbia in a van with 360, his girlfriend Crystal, his hype man (and support act) Bam Bam and tour manager Tim, it certainly feels like this is it.
Around 360 — Matt Colwell to his mum — swirls the miasma of a double-platinum single in ‘Boys Like You’, its freshly platinum parent album, Falling & Flying, and a sold-out tour. They’ve combined to elicit a level of hype and fame not often seen in this country for an MC. In Melbourne’s CBD that morning, Matt and Crystal came to the realisation that they might not be able to simply wander around Matt’s hometown anymore. He was constantly stopped for photos and quick chats and was even followed around by a couple of fans. Matt’s quick to point out that he’s not complaining, though, just that it’s weird.
“I’ll never be rude to fans or anything like that,” he says,“because you’ve got to appreciate every one; it’s just that now we can’t really go anywhere without people recognising us and asking for photos and stuff. But it’s all good.”
We’re sitting backstage at the Chelsea Heights Hotel, a sprawling nightclub venue 30km south-east of the city. Spending a couple of weekends as part of the 360 circus, triple j mag gets a feel for just how far-reaching the MC’s appeal is, and suburban shows like this are an often-overlooked piece of the Australian music puzzle.The show is indeed sold out as fans from the outskirts of Melbourne clamour to witness Australian music’s newest sensation.The hotel is massive — even if it’s a bit odd to see 360 billed on the venue’s exterior with other coming attractions like ’80s pop star Belinda Carlisle.
But from the moment we pull up, it’s clear that 360 fans are a passionate bunch.The line to get into the venue is snaking into the carpark well before doors open at 8pm, while a steady stream of curious onlookers and photo-wanters pass by the backstage door. (The best is a kid who couldn’t be older than eight — he shows no shame in asking Matt for a photo. Matt happily obliges. “Shit, I never would’ve had the balls to do that when I was a kid,” he laughs.) Matt’s still not sure how to deal with it, beyond being super excited by everything that’s going on.
“Everything’s going really crazy. The album going platinum, I did not expect that. I had on my goal list to go gold, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. I hoped it’d happen, but thought it’d take aaaaages. But once we got Rae [manager Rae Harvey, who also represents acts including Children Collide and the Living End] on board and the right people behind it, it just seemed to take it where it needed to go.”
Matt’s first album, 2008’s What You See Is What You Get, didn’t exactly cause shockwaves around the country, but it did, however, raise his profile in hip-hop circles. But even with that and his MC battling reputation, Matt never expected this level of scrutiny and appreciation for his second record. In fact, it wasn’t going great at all until he shook up his approach.
Matt basically took a two-year break, spending his time touring with Pez (after the pair’s ‘The Festival Song’ went gangbusters) before he decided to write another album that would be a detour from his debut.
“I started writing new shit which was going in a different direction to my first album,” Matt recalls.“People started really loving it, and it helped build up a fanbase on Facebook and shit like that. Once we did this album, it was a gradual build-up, and then when ‘Boys Like You’ came out [in October 2011] it exploded. So it’s been crazy.”
A lot of it has to do with the fact that Falling & Flying, released September 30 last year, is definitely not a hip-hop record. There’s the dubstep rave-up of ‘Killer’, the electro-bounce of ‘I’m OK’ and ‘Run Alone’, the soaring pop of ‘Hope You Don’t Mind’,‘Child’ and ‘Just Got Started’, the ironic gangsta rap of ‘Hammer Head’ and the ska/reggae tinge of ‘Boys Like You’ (featuring the vocal talents of Helen Croome, aka Gossling, who’s here with us tonight).
The diversity of Falling & Flying is a reflection of Matt’s own emerging musical tastes, assisted by producer Styalz Fuego. Matt says the pair spent about a year and a half in the studio, working on the record.“I’d get there about midday, then we’d work on the music for three or four hours, and if I was writing there as well, then I’d just write as he worked on shit with the music and [we’d] hopefully record it on the same day. We’d have long days in there, but it was good. Always fun.”
That change in Matt’s musical direction, though, was the crucial aspect.“Those two years off, I was barely listening to hip-hop at all. My first album was very hip-hop oriented, like straight-up hip-hop.
“Then I was trying to school myself on all kinds of music, not just rap. Listening to Miike Snow and the Presets and dudes like that, I was like,‘Fuck, I wanna make music like this… but rap over it.’”
The noise of Bam Bam’s show blasts in through the door as guest vocalist Jerome (Kid Zilla from Daktal) comes offstage.
“When I started the album,” Matt continues,“I was like,‘I don’t wanna make a hip-hop album, I don’t want to make a pop album.’ I just wanted to go in there with no rules. We’d start on a song and wherever that song took us, wherever we felt like it needed to go, that’s where we’d go: no rules. Not trying to make a specific sound, or anything like that, and we ended up with that. So there’s a lot of different shit on there, but it all kind of fits, weirdly.”
A WEEK later, we head back down the same highway to Southland Shopping Centre for a signing session.The reception there is insane. Surrounded by a phalanx of security guards, Matt is escorted to the open area where the signing is to take place.
As he gets closer to the Panopticon-like space filled with three levels of fans, the place erupts in a cacophony of squeals, whistling and cheers.
It’s the sort of shit that’s usually reserved for the Biebers of the world.
Matt is mobbed as he approaches the dais to say a few words of greeting and thanks to the huge crowd, and the PR manager for the shopping centre can barely believe it — 360 is getting a response on a level that, in her experience, is Black Eyed Peas territory.
It’s clear that 360 has crossed boundaries like few ever have in Australia. A lot of it is to do with the way Falling & Flying defies genres and strikes out on its own musically, but even more of it has to do with the emotional connection 360 makes with his fans.
As we chat to the crowd about 360’s appeal, their responses are usually some variation on ‘he’s honest and speaks about stuff I can relate to’. It’s his openness that inspires fans to make posters of Matt and Crystal, it’s why at least three girls come offstage crying because they’ve met him, and it’s why almost everyone who’s lined up to have their copy of Falling & Flying signed feels like they ‘know’ 360 intimately.
It’s all due to Matt’s honesty. On the album he voices tales from his past about his grandpa, his family generally, trust issues after a girlfriend cheated on him with a mate, his problems with being skinny, his worries about being a “fuck up”, having a near-death experience (a go-kart crash that left him in intensive care and then recovering in hospital for weeks — and toting that scar on his stomach), depression. This soul-baring endears him to a host of similarly afflicted fans, and he’s unrepentant for putting so much of himself out there.
“There’s maybe some songs where I think I’ve given a bit too much away, but I look up to artists who just put their soul on the line. So I really like that.”
“I reckon people really dig that when it’s something like that — especially when you’re talking about your insecurities and problems and shit like that. People relate to it and know that they’re not the only one going through that same shit. So it feels good to get it out there.”
Why he means so much to these fans is pretty clear.There’s nothing Matt won’t talk about, and that clearly inspires empathy. “Yeah, that’s it,” he agrees.“I reckon it’s always important to be honest with your music and that’s it: let it all be out there on the line.
“I’ve always been a really open and honest kind of person, and insecure at the same time. I’ve always got insecurities and shit like that, and I’m really open about that. Sometimes I might wish I wasn’t so open (laughs) but that’s my favourite shit to write: about that kind of stuff.”
It would, presumably, help an artist work through those problems.
“Definitely. Definitely,” Matt says.“It’s like therapy, you know what I mean? When I write songs like ‘Hope You Don’t Mind’ and shit like that, when I’m in a real, real dark place, when I write songs like that it makes me feel 10 times better. It’s like therapy, like speaking to a counsellor.
“Especially ’cause I’ve just got a girlfriend now that I just got with five months ago, it’s only taken until now to be able to trust someone. It’s taken ages for me to get over that — even still I have moments where… like, I get insecure and shit. But I’m getting better.”
I’ve had dudes saying that they want to take a fuckin’ box cutter to my face and leave a permanent scar because I’m selling out hip-hop…
THE drive to that signing, though, is where we glimpse the more tumultuous and emotional aspects that have become a part of Matt’s life. In the week since we were last hanging out, he and Crystal have gotten engaged. But Crystal isn’t with us on this sojourn. After moving to Melbourne earlier in the week, she’s had to fly back to her hometown of Brisbane because one of her close friends has attempted suicide. Sadly, this is the third friend of hers who has tried to take their own life, and Matt’s distress at the situation and what it has done to Crystal is palpable. His hat is pulled down low over his sunglasses, and his voice cracks as he talks about how Crystal couldn’t sleep and had been completely “fucked up” by it.
He decides that the signing will be good for him, and leaves his sunglasses on all through the session.
Later that night, he posts a passionate video on YouTube, imploring anybody with problems and thoughts of suicide to talk to somebody, anybody. It’s clearly from the heart (he’s on the verge of choking up a couple of times) and it gets a huge response.
It’s another layer in the 360 story that makes it so compelling. The Chelsea Heights show has made clear the pair are besotted with each other; they barely leave each other’s side. With their relationship so transparent (their Twitter feeds are a constant fascination for fans), Matt’s also had to deal with the level of attention heaped on Crystal. It’s not just all about him now.
“It’s probably extra hard on her, ’cause I’ve sort of gotten used to the people, the being in the spotlight and shit like that, so I guess it’s really hard on her… but she’s handling it really well. I mean, at times it gets to her and shit like that, which it’s going to… At times it can still get to me as well, but it’s all good. Like, people talk shit, but she knows that when they say something negative to her, they’re just trying to fuckin’ piss us off. She just ignores it. So she’s really good at it.”
It’s still bizarre that people are asking for photos with the girlfriend of a musician, though.“Yeah! Matt laughs.“She feels a bit weird when people ask her for photos and shit; she doesn’t understand. She’ll just be like,‘Er, okay.’ It’s strange. It’s really weird.”
The discussion moves on to the volatile world of haters and hip-hop. Matt knew going into this that the more hardcore among the pockets of internet citizens who squeal ridiculously about ‘selling out’ might have some thoughts on his new record.
“Yeah, when I started making this album I was fighting a lot of demons in my head, ’cause I was making dance songs and shit, and I’m thinking,‘Fuuuuck, hip-hop heads are gonna hate this,’” he laughs.“But at the end of the day I’ve just got to do what I wanna do and listen to myself, make the music I love doing.”
But that doesn’t stop it from happening.
“Yeah, [it’s there] for any successful artist. I’ve had dudes saying that they want to take a fuckin’ box cutter to my face and leave a permanent scar because I’m selling out hip-hop… and I ‘don’t know what real hip-hop is’ and that shit. If you don’t like what I’m doing, don’t fuckin’ listen. When you mature, you realise: who cares? If people want to make music, let ’em make that music.”
Matt has made a habit of retweeting the more vicious vitriol sent his way. It gives it a new context and demonstrates just how messed up it is.
“Exactly. I mean, anyone that’s content with their own life and happy with what they’re doing doesn’t go out of their way to try to bring someone down like that. So you’ve got to try and feel for them… There must be something wrong in his life to make him go out of his way to want to stab me and shit. Like, he must have some serious problems, so I wish him all the best.”
THE Chelsea Heights show is going off.There are crowd surfers galore, and seemingly every member of the crowd knows every word to every song. As is the case at the shopping centre signing the week after, the impact he’s having is eye-opening.
360’s success is an indication that hip-hop in Australia is evolving, something that was inevitable as audiences expected more from artists.
“Yeah, I guess I think that’s what I’m trying to do, trying to branch out and do different shit, rather than stick to the same hip-hop formula,” Matt says.“Trying to bring in other elements of music. Up-and-comers are doing that, and I think that the people making hip-hop nowadays are a lot better songwriters than back in the day, and I think that’s why it’s starting to get a lot more popular. The next five years, there’s gonna be some dudes doing some totally different shit and, yeah, it’s gonna be pretty big.”
For a former apprentice carpenter who jacked that in to try his hand at hip-hop full time, 360’s not doing too badly.
“There was a time when it was a bit scary ’cause I didn’t have a career to fall back on, shit like that,” Matt smiles.“But it’s all worked out for the best now.”