On a crisp Thursday afternoon in early August, Remi Kolawole is sitting in a Greek takeaway in suburban Melbourne, wrestling with an $8 pork souvlaki. He used to come here once a week, but has recently "chilled out" on the diced pork and chips combo. At this precise moment, the 25-year-old is leaning forward, laughing, re-enacting a scene from his childhood in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Moorabin. A self-confessed "little shit" as a kid, he and his neighbourhood friends would routinely spend their time "taking shit that wasn't ours". One day, as he and his buddies perused the pages of the local Neighbourhood Watch paper, they were struck by one startling report. "All you could see was the shit we had done, but there was one thing we hadn't and we were like [incredulously], 'Who else is out here? [Laughs] Someone else is out here!'"
On the stool next to him, Justin "Sensible J" Smith picks at his meal, chuckling away. While his friend of five years – a pal so tight Smith refers to him as his "li'l bro" – ran in questionable circles as a youngster, Smith offers an anecdote that may go some way to explaining his nickname. "The main story for me growing up, which shows exactly what I'm like, is that when three of my best friends were drinking on a Saturday night and took one of their parents' cars, I was sitting on the toilet studying for a science exam. I would," he adds, "have been beaten up if I didn't play sport, or instruments."
If Kolawole and Smith are the very definition of the odd couple – the young extrovert MC who's only been in the game for five years versus the older, quieter drummer and producer who, at 37, is 12 years' Kolawole's senior, and has been chipping away at his craft over the past two decades – their African heritage was perhaps the first bond they shared, followed by a mutual love of hip-hop. Kolawole was born in Canberra to a satellite engineer father, Michael, and anesthetist mother, Helen. The two met when Michael left his home country of Nigeria for Tasmania, opting to study at the university there because he figured Tasmania was an island, and would therefore be warm. When Michael lost his job at the Department of Defence they moved from Canberra to Moorabin, before shifting temporarily to the Mornington Peninsula for Helen's work. ("My mum was basically the breadwinner for us growing up, which was a good thing for me to see.") Upon returning to Moorabin, Kolawole continued to go to school in the significantly wealthier Mornington Peninsula, where he'd marvel at his peers' mansions by day and return to a suburb at night where "we had crackheads down the street".
"The whole time 'J' had been lovely," Kolawole laughs of their first jam, "playing me all this stuff. And then when I leave he's like, 'Don't ever come around here fucked up again.'"
Smith's parents moved to Australia from South Africa in 1975 because they didn't want to raise their children in Apartheid. Settling in Scoresby in south-east Melbourne, his dad, Peter, was a mechanic, and when Smith was seven his mother took a job in the Dandenong hospital in which he was born (and in which, until last year, Smith had spent the past 16 years working in medical records). Growing up his house was filled with music: his mother was a back-up singer who met her husband while playing in a band (remarkably, Smith met his partner, Jelena, the same way), and their home was packed with instruments. His father even installed speakers in his son's bed and, to wake him up, would play albums by the likes of George Benson at an ever increasing volume.
Smith was four when he got his first toy drum kit, but he didn't start lessons until 13. Each day after school he'd come home and build his chops playing along to Deftones, Soundgarden, Helmet, Public Enemy and N.W.A records. Starved of friends who liked hip-hop he found himself playing in rock bands for more than a decade, the last of which, the Beings, was "very similar to Placebo and Muse". In 2007, frustrated that he couldn't make his drums sound like the ones on hip-hop albums, he bought his first sampler and started making beats, such as those that would end up on Black + White Noise, the 2014 LP by former 1200 Techniques MC N'fa, which he co-produced with longtime friend Daniel "Dutch" Siwes (who, until 2014, was a touring member of REMI; he still mixes their recordings). One day Jelena played the demos for the album in the General Pants store in which she worked, pricking the ears of one of her staff members, Kolawole. He'd recently started writing raps while studying nursing at university, and, after expressing interest in hearing more of her boyfriend's work, a date was set for them to properly meet. At two o'clock one afternoon Kolawole knocked on Smith's front door. Things quickly went downhill.
"I didn't know shit about hip-hop, so I rolled around there with beers thinking it was how you got down, and I got way too messy," cackles the MC. "It was Budweiser. I don't even drink Budweiser! I hate beer!"
"He didn't know I only have, like, two drinks maybe every two months, I'm not a drinker at all," smirks Smith, who has a rule about no drinking before recording sessions. He spent the afternoon playing Kolawole beats, before putting them on a USB and sending his visitor on his way with instructions to write some lyrics.
"The whole time 'J' had been super lovely," Kolawole laughs, "playing me all this stuff, and then when I leave he's like, 'Hey, bro, don't ever come around here fucked up again.'"
Souvlakis finished, we hop into Smith's car – an immaculate (and supremely sensible) 2006 Nissan Maxima – and drive five minutes to the two-bedroom red-brick unit he shares with Jelena. If there is a Control Central for REMI (which, when stylised in capital letters, signifies the duo, as opposed to the rapper), it is here. Smith motions to the backyard, explaining it's where he and Kolawole will spend hours talking about life, conversations which often inform Kolawole's lyrics. The first room on the right as you enter the unit contains Smith's studio, dubbed the 'House of Beige', which is also the name of the label on which REMI release their music. Decked out with Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley flags and a J Dilla poster, it is so tightly packed with keyboards, samplers, speakers and synths that you couldn't swing a cat's tail, let alone an entire cat. In one corner of the room, Smith's drum kit butts up against his open wardrobe, in which his shirts hang mere centimetres from his cymbals. In another corner is a makeshift vocal booth. It is here that REMI have made every piece of music to bear their name, from Triple J favourite "Sangria" to their soon-to-be-released second official full-length, Divas & Demons. "Rock bands have 50 to 100,000 dollar budgets to record an album," smiles Smith. "Our budget is five souvlakis."
Ask the drummer/producer what it was that led him to persevere with Kolawole after that first session and he says, "He had ridiculous rhythm, and his voice." Smith encouraged the young rapper to write every day to get better, and to his surprise, he followed his advice. He also convinced Kolawole to drop the faux-American accent with which he performed. "One of my first impressions was, this kid doesn't give a fuck," says Smith. "He has no fear."
"Up until that point I'd only been doing it for about six months," says Kolawole, "and I was super intrigued and keen to learn off 'J'. It was like a sensei kind of vibe; it was like a school I actually wanted to go to."
Each night Kolawole worked on his lyrics in his car, for fear of disturbing his younger brother who was inside their house studying for his VCE. When, in 2011, they uploaded the song "Apollo 13" to the Triple J Unearthed site, the station soon put it on air. That year's Childish and Five Beats I Love EPs upped their profile, as did 2012's Regular People Shit collection. Still, when REMI released their official full-length debut, Raw X Infinity, in 2014, their ambitions stretched no further than "hopefully getting a tour here or there". By the end of its cycle, they'd performed more than 100 shows, toured Europe four times and Australia six, and won the AMP Award for Album of the Year.
"It one hundred per cent changed my life," says Smith. "If we didn't put it out I'd still be working at the hospital. I was 36 [when I quit], and you don't think you're going to become a full time muso. The dream's done by 30. But that's when I met Remi."
If the expectation is that the success and critical acclaim afforded Raw X Infinity would amount to Divas & Demons being an upbeat, happy-go-lucky affair, it's smashed within the first few seconds of opening track "D.A.D", which serves as something of a summary of the record's themes. "This is likely to be taken out of context by press, just so they knock my confidence and make a brother depressed," Kolawole raps, before delivering the knockout blow: "But I'm already there."
He thinks he'd been depressed once before in his life, around the time he quit uni, but says that last year was "probably the most severe case" he can remember, a funk from which he didn't really emerge until this March. "You know how 'J' said I'm fearless? Well, I wasn't that anymore. I was super self conscious, super insecure."
Sparked by a cocktail of ingredients including a break-up, a touring regimen that matched alcohol with poor diet and cold European weather, and what he dubs "a lot of pressure to find my own identity in music", Kolawole retreated into his head, on occasion relying on "club drugs and alcohol" to escape. His mental state is reflected on the album in songs such as "Substance Therapy", "Hate You" and "Laaa La La Lost", a song so close to the bone that Smith told Kolawole "we don't have to play this live if you don't want".
Indeed, such was the MC's headstate that he didn't actually write a lot from scratch while making the new album, instead relying on old snippets of material on which he could build, and from which he would take confidence in his abilities. Gnawing away at him was a desire "not to misrepresent" the fans who, in songs such as Raw X Infinity's "Ode To Ignorance", saw in him someone giving voice to their own experiences with racism. "That thought, mixed with the depression, it definitely gets you and makes you freeze up."
As with its predecessor, race is a recurring theme on Divas & Demons but, says Smith, "it's not as obvious". It is, however, informed from a very real place of experience: of Kolawole watching his father get fired from jobs because "he just wouldn't shut up if they were oppressing him"; of being the only coloured kid in school, until his younger brother arrived; of being subjected to what he calls "vilification" in the schoolyard and beyond. And yet, being recognised as someone giving voice to these issues – or, rather, the hyperbole his actions attract – is something Kolawole is still coming to terms with.
"As soon as the press starts coming on board and saying, 'This is the new voice of Australian hip-hop', you're like, what are you talking about? There's nothing groundbreaking about it." He looks out at Smith's backyard, where so many of his lyrical ideas are formulated.
"It's our reality."
From issue #779, available now. Top photo: Michelle Grace Hunder.
REMI play Live Lodge 2016 on Saturday, September 24th.