7 Questions with Dawn Laird
Dawn Laird is a triple threat- a beatmaker, producer, and emcee who’s been kicking it around the Hip Hop community in Newcastle for years. Her two singles ‘Eva’ and ‘Mel Blanc (I’m Fucked)’ both received high praise as well as some Triple J airplay. Dawn has graced the stage with some of Australia’s best- Dialectrix, Ciecmate, and Last Kinection just to name a few. She’s been steadily grinding away in the studio in the lead up to her first release. I recently sat down with Dawn to discuss the tone of her upcoming EP, women beatmakers, and the moment that she fell in love with Hip Hop.
I’m pretty sure you’ve got an EP coming out very soon - when can we expect that to drop? And do you already have plans to release a full length album or will you wait to gauge how the EP is received?
"Yes, the EP is nigh! I’ve been saying that since forever and I really should shut up about an exact release date at this point ‘cos there’s still a little bit to do, but it actually is damn close now. It’s called ‘Third Circle Raps’ and it’ll drop later this year.
The EP actually started off as some random tracks I was working on for a mixtape but I decided what I’d written deserved more and I set out to make beats for them and turn them into originals. So these songs have followed me through some massive learning curves and life changes and have evolved to become something I never thought they could be alongside me becoming someone I never thought I could be.
I think I’ve developed a lot as an MC and a producer over these past couple of years and using this body of work as an experiment in learning about my own creative process and what it means to be an artist has been invaluable. So while the EP has been on its way for a really long time I know now why the long road was essential. My skill is where it needs to be to do this and my network is where it needs to be to do this.
As for an album, for sure! I’ve started writing and producing for a second EP which will just be short and sweet, and when that’s all said and done I look forward to tackling something more substantial."
You’re a very outspoken person on political and social issues on social media. Would you say that the tracks you’ve got coming out are more personal reflection/emotional songs or more about political and social issues?
"The tracks on this EP are more personal and introspective. But my world view informs a lot of my internal experience anyway so I tend to go in and out of addressing the issues on these tracks. One track addresses the current state of things heavily. Not head on, more in a ‘I’m-ninety-nine-percent-sure-we’re-utterly-fucked-and-I’m-really-not-handling-it-very-well kinda way’ haha. But from where I sit, Hip Hop is inherently political and it’s inherently progressive. But that’s another conversation for another time."
What inspired you to take up rapping and also producing your own music and who have been some of your biggest influences and mentors in your journey so far?
"The very first moment I realised an Australian had a chance of making something of this rap thing was seeing the video for MC Trey’s ‘Reality Tales’ on Channel V when I was maybe about 14. I already loved rap but that was not only the first female Australian accent I’d heard over a beat, it was the first Australian accent I’d heard over a beat, period. So that was really poignant. Not long after I met my best friend, Jo (now one of the most talented female aerosol artists in the country), in Textiles & Design class at school. We realised we had a mutual love for the rap and she lent me Fugees ‘The Score’ on tape. Pretty sure I still have it haha. Jo used to rhyme and I’d taken up piano by then ‘cos I was already convinced I wanted to be a producer and I used to make really terrible beats for her. So she’s been my main ally and mentor from day dot. Trey’s album ‘Daily Affirmations’ and Creative Vibes’ Mother Tongues compilation of Australian female Hip Hop were both huge for me in those really early years, along with that Fugees album.
So yeah, the beatmaking came first. I’d buy an album and go straight to the liner notes to find out who the producers were. That started way back at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But as I got older I got really into Prince Paul, Timbaland, Dre, Just Blaze, Alchemist and El-P.
In terms of MCing, I’d secretly been writing rhymes for years but it wasn’t until I was about 21 that I first got up on the mic. Heavy influences were Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, Wu Tang Clan, ATCQ, KRS-One, Mos Def, Outkast, Roots Manuva, Def Wish Cast, Hilltop Hoods, The Roots, Koolism, Celcius and a whole heap of other amazing artists I know I’m forgetting."
The beatmaker is often the one who gets the least shine, and yet it’s really them who shapes the whole track. When I think of women beatmakers not a lot come to mind, I think that’s one of the things that makes you really stand out. Who are some of your favourite female beatmakers and what are the biggest advantages of rapping over your own beats?
"Oh man... I love K.Flay, Georgie Anne Muldrow, Missy Elliot, WondaGurl, Lauryn Hill, Tokimonsta and FKA Twigs. I know there's heaps I'm forgetting. I feel like not enough people know Jean Grae gets mad busy as a beatmaker and producer too, and has done since forever. What I'm most excited about though are the women in Hip Hop in Australia making beats right now! There's Nastaij in Melbourne (also an MC), Sally from Coda Conduct has produced heaps of their stuff, Crooked Rookie in Sydney (also an MC), NYNE in Melbourne (also a vocalist) and SistaGirl Beats from Brisbane who I stumbled across recently. Again, I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. It's just so crazy awesome though. The biggest advantage to rhyming over and writing to my own beats is the freedom and creative control I have. I can take a track wherever I want and don't have to answer to anyone. I'm not a prisoner to structure or arrangement in any way, only my own vision and skill. That freedom has allowed me to further explore song writing and musicianship. On the flipside, it can be exhausting if you're a perfectionist and can't leave an otherwise perfectly good beat well enough alone haha."
What was the first moment you realised that you were in love with Hip Hop?
"I’ll try and keep this brief haha. When I was little I used to dance. My Mum was a Latin-American ballroom dancing teacher so she had me in dance classes from early on. Everywhere, everything was dance. I was so passionate! Like most dance obsessed people in the 90s, I idolised Janet Jackson. Idolised probably isn’t the word actually, I was utterly obsessed. Anyway, on her album ‘Janet’ there is a track called ‘New Agenda’ which features Chuck D. The first rap I ever learned was his feature on that track when I was about 9 I think. So in terms of the music itself, it’s safe to say the first moment I heard that song did it for me. I remember getting an inkling with LL Cool J’s ‘Around The Way Girl’ a couple of years earlier but that 16 bar Chuck D verse had me hook, line and sinker. As far as the wider culture of Hip Hop goes, there was probably about a year long period there when I was 14 or so of discovering it was so much more than music. Newcastle’s Godfather of Hip Hop aka Tuns actually had a lot to do with that. He introduced Jo and I to Style Wars and Beat Street and imparted a lot of foundational knowledge. Shout outs to Tuns!"
You’re a true OG of Newcastle Hip Hop now, having been in the scene since you were 15. What have been some of your most memorable performances?
"As a punter I couldn’t actually start going to proper shows in Newcastle until 2002 when I was 18 of course, but the best Newcastle shows I’ve been to were (years may be off)…
Sista Cypher all ages @ Cultural Stomp in Civic Park in 2000
Def Wish Cast @ The Lucky in 2004 before it closed
Blades original line up @ The Cambridge in 2007
M-Phazes ‘Good Gracious’ Newcastle launch @ The Cambridge in 2010
Koolism @ Newcastle Leagues Club in 2006 (I think)
The best shows I’ve played have been all the ones I’ve done with Coda Conduct. Their crowds are always so hype and packed. It’s the best energy. Their EP launch in Canberra at Transit Bar earlier on in the year was insane and the show I played with them last night at Brighton Up Bar in Sydney was equally amazing!"
Who are your top 5 Hip Hop artists?
"Haha this old chestnut. Well the answer changes daily. Today my top 5 would be Rakim, El-P, J Cole, Big L and Lauryn Hill. Yesterday KRS-One, RZA and Aesop Rock would probably have been taking the place of three artists in that list though. But Kanye is definitely in amongst that too, as is Tupac. But I tend toward the MC/Producers when it comes to this question."