To say the birth was complicated is an understatement. Tim Levinson, the man behind the hip-hop moniker Urthboy, looks into his drink at a café near his home in Sydney's inner west and tries to figure out where to start the story of his fifth album, The Past Beats Inside Me Like a Second Heartbeat. ¶ "Well, the initial plan was that it was going to be spontaneous and not overthought," he says. "Then I decided to record five EPs covering five decades of Australian history from the 1950s to the 1990s, using music synonymous with each of those decades on each EP."
Um, aren't those two ideas pretty much in direct opposition to each other?
"Exactly," he says, laughing. "There's nothing spontaneous about a concept record. About nine months into it, my ship ran aground."
So serious was he about the original idea that he and musical collaborator Pip Norman (who has also worked with Troye Sivan and Jarryd James) were given a one-week residency at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra to do research. "We were given the property next door, which was the original administrator's residency and one of the most haunted houses in Australia. There are stories of cleaners coming in late at night and seeing figures moving archives around."
Levinson saw no ghosts, but he did uncover other things. He discovered the history of the Heide arts community of the 1930s and 1940s, which would end up being used on the song "Rushing Through Me", featuring vocals from Bertie Blackman, whose father Charles was part of that group.
It's also where he read up on the green bans of the 1970s, when union leader Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation fought to save the destruction of many of Sydney's heritage buildings. He incorporated that story into the song "Wolves At Bay". Along with "Hey Juanita", about the Kings Cross journalist and activist Juanita Nielsen, who disappeared in 1975, presumed murdered, they ended up on the album. But something wasn't quite right with his concept.
"I was on this collision course with an academic outcome. Things came sharply into focus when I realised I had to let the songs be free and I had to relax all this supplementary stuff I was building around them. I still had this line I was going towards with the historical context, but I had to free things up."
He did it by also writing about his own family, both past and present. Levinson's background is a testament to who he is today. He grew up in the Blue Mountains in a Christian family, a boy obsessed with sport and skateboarding. The bomb that exploded his childhood was his parents' separation when he was about 10.
"There was violence in our household," he says. "My mother and my older brother bore the brunt of it. My mum stepped in before things got really bad for us. I don't have any tolerance whatsoever for domestic violence now. It makes me remember feeling terrified at home. When your mum and dad are fighting and you know who has the power and you're powerless to do anything, it's a terrible thing."
"There was violence in our household. My mother and old brother bore the brunt of it."
Levinson went through his own troubled teenage years, putting himself in danger when doing illegal graffiti or trashing houses when he and his friends would crash parties. He was saved by hip-hop, becoming obsessed with the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest as a teenager.
As a member of the politically charged collective the Herd and solo as Urthboy, he has become one of Australia's most literate MCs and a passionate spokesman on social and political issues. He's also the managing director of Elefant Traks, the thriving hip-hop label that is home to Hermitude, the Herd and Horrorshow.
He met his wife, a doctor, 16 years ago, "when she was a cool tomboy skateboarder". "Little Girl's Dad" is a song on the new LP for their two-and-a-half year old daughter Jetta, telling her that her father made mistakes and she will too, but he'll do his best to make sure she grows up a strong woman in a society dominated by men. What kind of world does he think Jetta will inherit?
"A world where Barack Obama can be leader of the free world one minute and Donald Trump can be the next. Look, I'm a really optimistic, positive person, but there are moments like that where you just think, 'OK, we're unforgivably fucked.' All you can do is do your bit, be a good person and try to make things a little bit better."
From issue #774, available now