Ben Iota: Keeping it 'Real', presenting the authentic self, and growing up a little differently
Ben Iota is an emcee, producer, and vocalist from Adelaide, SA. He was a founding member of the 2000s Adelaide Hip Hop groups Common Cause and Adroit Effusive, releasing three vinyl EPs, two CD LPs, and a well-circulated demo. He has since gone solo, dropping two LPs on CD and one digital EP. He has shared stages with numerous local and international acts, and performed around the globe, from New York to Sydney, and from Berlin to Kendari. Fresh off dropping his solo EP in collaboration with frequent collaborator Dan the Underdog, Ben is keeping it moving along. So what inspires Ben's inquisitive brand of Hip Hop, and how has he kept the passion for Hip Hop music over two decades? BEAT CONTEXT talks to Ben Iota.
Keeping it 'real'
'...living within this framework was restrictive, but I liked it. It provided me with structure for my life and a lens to look at the world through...'
Hip Hop was an intrinsic part of my identity since my teens growing up in the western suburbs of Adelaide. Graffiti was a passion and obsession first, which then spilled into Hip Hop music. At the end of the 1990s I left graffiti behind and went hard with the Hip Hop music into the 2000s. I bought in to the 'I am Hip Hop' philosophy of KRS-1 that was popular, and all very serious, with underground heads of that time and place. This often went along with the 'keep it real' ethos that stressed not selling out, representing and contributing to your community, and being your authentic self, among other things. These were great values, but unfortunately the ethos crept beyond where it should have. There was a real musical conservatism in the air when it came to sticking to a certain sound and certain song themes, and restricting what it was socially acceptable to talk about. There was a pressure on how emotionally or artistically open before the haters would start trying to circumvent you. Innovation and experimentation were usually frowned upon, and this came at a cost. People outside of the Hip Hop community, such as those in different music scenes, were often diagnosed as being 'fake', while we were 'real'. There were also some times of great connection with peers and a feeling of being a part of something unified that goes against the grain. It was insular, it was tribal, it was ideological, and it was conceited. Living within this framework was restrictive, but I liked it. It provided me with structure for my life and a lens to look at the world through, but with time it made me miserable.
'...I made a hard break from narrow-minded people...'
Into my mid 20s I started feeling that I had missed out on a lot of experiences while I was trying to 'keep it real' and make 'real Hip Hop'. I would severely limit the types of people I would interact with, and became judgmental of others who didn't fit into a narrow idea of 'realness'. It was a conceited and under stimulating way to approach life. My world was small and I was unsatisfied. After a few years of contemplation I realised that this was not the way to live, so I made a hard break from narrow-minded people. I saved up, went travelling with my girlfriend, and entered further education as a 26 year-old. I went to a lot less Hip Hop gigs, distanced myself from 'the scene', and stopped working on projects. I became consumed by big picture world issues, which provided a nice counterpoint to the petty scene squabbles I had walked away from. I also made myself available to a wider range of experiences, other genres of music, different people, and ways of thinking. I didn't even think about writing music for a few years.
'...with knowledge and experience
I have the tools to make my own judgments on what 'real Hip Hop' is...'
Slowly, over the course of 5 years the urge to create Hip Hop music came back to me. I was missing the creative process and social connections that you can make through it. I got busy with the members of the Butterthief collective and returned to the public music sphere by changing my stage name to 'Ben Iota' and releasing a solo project in 2013, followed by another in 2017 with members of Darwin's Northern Versifiers Firm, and then another in 2019. Coming back to Hip Hop after a spell was refreshing. I was able to shake narrow-minded influences and look at Hip Hop through a new, more 'worldly' lens. With knowledge and experience I have the tools to make my own judgments on what 'real Hip Hop' is, while living a fulfilling life and not getting bogged down by the politicking.
Take a break
'...I'm in my mid 30s now and I am more appreciative than ever of the opportunities I have had to contribute to Hip Hop...'
A hard break from the hive mind of the scene was the best thing I could have done for enjoying Hip Hop again, and being better at making tunes. There is so much good music out there right now to become inspired by. I'm in my mid 30s and I am more appreciative than ever of the opportunities I have had to contribute to Hip Hop, and the opportunity Hip Hop has provided me to find myself. The friends I have made, the creative outlet I have had, the stages that I have been able to rock, and listeners I have had the opportunity to connect with through music are all incredible. It's been small-time, but it's been rewarding.
'...I feel fortunate to have had this,
and in a way the 'I am Hip Hop' thing still applies to me,
although not in the conservative way that requires strict conformity.
I abide by the nourishing parts of this belief system...'
I see a lot of people who have gone straight from high school, and into a career, sometimes via university or TAFE, who haven't been involved in a creative pursuit. I am sometimes on the receiving end of their intrigue when they find out I have had this other life of creative involvement and low-key notoriety. I feel fortunate to have had this, and in a way the 'I am Hip Hop' thing still applies to me, although not in the conservative way that requires strict conformity. I abide by the nourishing parts of this belief system- being a member of a community, the ethos of being authentic and showing integrity, valuing knowledge, life-long learning and creativity, exercising integrity over short term material ends, and being a part of social movements. These are all things I absorbed through underground Hip Hop and still use as an ethical compass as I go forward. They are even more a part of me now as I get further away from my youth and further into the career/family/marriage stage of life.
Presenting the authentic self
'...there is vulnerability to these songs, and a side of me that I have always wanted to put on record...'
My interests have evolved since my fist solo release. 2013's 'Born "Free"' was largely political. At the time I was keeping a watchful eye on world events while being embedded in politics, activism, and volunteering. I was obsessed with absorbing media coverage. I was just out of uni, at the beginning of my career, and felt like I could change the world . I was idealistic. 2017's 'Jazz' was a good mix of both political and personal songs. This was me becoming a father but also working in a socially-concerned job where I got to apply my social values. 2019's 'Letting Go' was all personal, and based around relationships and provision for family. There is vulnerability to these songs, and a side of me that I have always wanted to put on record. I'm getting closer to presenting my authentic self through song.
'...making music for me at the moment is about exploration and growth...'
I still have a social ethos and am still engaged with political matters, but my views are in process so I don't spruiking them like I once did. When I have something succinct to say I will make more political music again. There is still so much injustice going, and the world is becoming increasingly interesting at this stage of the information age, so it is only a matter of time before I get on the soapbox again. Overall the background chatter in my head about 'what will the real heads think' has died right down. I don't value the cynical opinions of stunted people any more. Making music for me at the moment is about exploration and growth. It's a big privilege.
Growing up a little differently
'...a person's environment plays a massive role in how people turn out, and perhaps more so than individual choice...'
I like to make both personal and socially-conscious songs. My personal experiences have undoubtedly informed my social and political views. My parents grew me up a bit differently to most of the people I grew up around. They are altruistic people and always taught me to put myself in the shoes of others; to consider the point of view of the person who is disadvantaged. I still take this on board. How did that disadvantaged or down-and-out person come to be there? What was it about their life experience that contributed to their position in society? A person's environment plays a massive role in how people turn out, and perhaps more so than individual choice. What is it about our society that needs to change so that decent people aren't kept down while the pricks succeed? There is a system at play that overarches us all, and stacks the odds unevenly. Its undeniable. Let's change that.
'...I felt alienated from the mainstream 'Aussies'...'
My parents taught me not to go along with the pack, to question the norm and to question what powerful people and institutions are saying. It makes sense to question what power dynamic the powerful are looking to conserve or extend. Funnily enough, Hip Hop music sent me the same messages. That may be why it appealed to me so much from the get-go. Having had experience with being bullied in late primary school had a big impact on how I perceived my position in society too. I felt alienated from stereotypical 'Aussies', who the bullies happened to be, from that point forward. Hip Hop music, coming from marginalised communities, resonated with me. It was edgy, it was staunch, it was dangerous, it was powerful, and it was an alternative. It has taught me so much and is more than just the music that resonates with me. To me it is inextricably linked to the plight of the marginalised and to the underdog, which is something that still stirs in my bones.
'...over the last few years I have become interested in singing as another way to express...'
I can't see myself stopping making music any time soon. I will just keep looking for ways to explore new sounds, song and rhyme structures, and song concepts. With an open mind you can never get bored. Over the last few years I have become interested in singing as another way to express. Its a beautiful thing, which I really gravitated towards while living in Indonesia in 2011/12/13. Karaoke is a common way to socialise there if you can afford it. During one particularly enthusiastic episode of carpool karaoke with friends that I'd met along the way I decided to commit to singing on track when I returned to Australia. The next two releases that I did - 2017's 'Jazz' and 2019's 'Letting Go' - featured a number of songs with me singing. They happen to be my favourite tracks on those releases, and in hindsight are also the most satisfying. Songs like 'Sun Shine', 'It Feels Like I'm on Top of the World', 'Beautiful Thing' and 'By the Fear' were cathartic for me. In future I will keep going in this direction- keep working on the singing, keep playing with sounds that resonate with me, keep making songs that mean something, keep working on the craft of rhyming, and every now and then coming back to the raw boom bap that I still love. I may even get a bit of new kit to work with on the production side, if I'm lucky.
Stay in touch with all things Ben Iota HERE.