Elefant Traks Founder Kenny Sabir On The Label’s 18 Years, Expanding Roster & When We’ll See A New A
Written by Cyclone Wehner on 8th December, 2016
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Today, most recognise MC Urthboy, aka Tim Levinson, as the ‘face’ of Elefant Traks. But the “hip-hop and beats” indie was actually launched in 1998 by Kenny ‘Traksewt’ Sabir, producer and instrumentalist. Initially working out of a bedroom in Redfern, DIY-style, he solicited allies to help – one being Levinson.
In 2001 Sabir and Levinson co-founded The Herd, a live hip-hop collective with a progressive socio-political platform. They’ve issued five albums – the last 2011’s Future Shade. The Herd’s various members, among them singer Jane Tyrrell, would follow the Wu-Tang Clan model of releasing solo projects. However, in 2004, Sabir, who’d studied to be a computer programmer, decided to hand over the reins of Elefant Traks to Levinson. He remains a director.
Over time, Elefant Traks’ roster has become increasingly eclectic. Currently, its biggest crossover act is Hermitude. Though premiering on Elefant Traks back in 2002 (!) as an experimental beats combo, they’re now making waves globally in the EDM scene. And Elefant Traks has emerged as a counter-cultural brand, complete with covetable (and ethical) merch. The savvy Sabir ensured that Elefant Traks had an early online presence.
Elefant Traks has enjoyed a bumper 2016, with buzz albums from Urthboy (The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat) and L-FRESH The LION (Become) both nominated for ARIAs. The label signed the avant-soul singer/songwriter OKENYO and wryly cerebral rapper B Wise. Sadly, 2016 also saw Elefant Traks part ways with The Tongue – the Sydney MC, concluding October’s shock Facebook announcement with the assurance that, “It’s all love, just a new direction.”
The bill for Elefant Traks’ 18th Birthday Party, hosted by Urthboy, includes The Herd, Horrorshow, L-FRESH The LION, B Wise and The Last Kinection. Jimblah is DJing. Adding to the festive spirit, Elefant Traks has teamed with Marrickville’s Batch Brewing Company to curate a beer, The Sun Never Sets Red Ale, named after The Herd’s 2005 album.
Coming out of hiatus, The Herd have been rehearsing solidly for weeks – “kind of”. “All the musicians have – we’re still waiting for the MCs to turn up,” Sabir quips.
A lot of people tend to associate Urthboy with Elefant Traks and even describe him as ‘the founder’. You’re often written out of the narrative. What exactly is your role in the label these days – and why are you so mysterious?
Kenny Sabir: These days I’m still what they call a ‘director’, but there’s a few of us. But we just meet up every quarter and we talk about the business direction. I see Tim every week, anyway, but, for the official business chat, it’s once a quarter we talk about the financials and the direction and new artists we’re signing and so on. But, even in between that, we still talk about business all the time, anyway – [I’m] just asking how things are going and so on.
I started [Elefant Traks] up in ’98 and was running it ’til about mid-2004. I had a year overseas during that time. Then, after that, I passed it on to Tim, ’cause I started doing full-time work in other things. Back then, when I was running it, I was maybe [spending] about three or four days a week on it, and I was doing one or two days, sometimes three days, of other work – I was paid [for that]. The Elefant Traks wasn’t paid back then, ’cause we were getting it up and running. I had various friends helping out on different jobs here and there – people were fitting in stuff when they could.
So it turned into a collective kinda style. Then, after a couple of years, I was ready to move on and Tim was keen [to take over]. He was doing a good job during the year that I was overseas and so I passed it on. I went and followed some other paths.
Did you ever regret that – did you ever want to come back and take more of a hands-on role, day-to-day?
KS: No, I think I was happy for it… I guess there’s all these different personalities – and different personalities are more useful at different times. Tim’s got a great dedication to just go the long yards. I just keep on making new stuff. So it’s hard for me to keep focused for such a long time. I was getting a bit bored on the label-running side – you know, just getting to the post office and doing all the invoices… A lot of it was by myself at that time. Yeah, so I was ready to move on.
Elefant Traks has evolved over time. Today it’s musically as well as culturally diverse. It seems incredible that a label associated with hip-hop has an EDM act in Hermitude. Did you envisage it transcending hip-hop?
KS: That’s actually the roots of it. We were a diverse bunch and we were all lovers of music and of all different styles. A lot of us had different foundations in different genres. The very first compilation, Cursive Writing, in ’98 – there’s a few hip-hop tracks on there, but there was drum ‘n’ bass, there was an ambient track, there was an acoustic track with guitar. It’s very hard to get a hold of, that album, but it was quite diverse – and then the next compilation [Food To Eat Music By] likewise. In the early 2000s, we were solidifying on hip-hop for a while – and that’s what the acts that we had at the time [were making] and that was going well for us. But, really, we wanna release the kind of music that we’re enjoying and what we think is exciting for us.
I wondered if there’s a release, or an act, that you think should have got more attention – or that you’re particularly attached to?
KS: Whoa! That’s a good question. There’s such a big catalogue of different artists. Let me just go through some of the artists in my head… Just as a quick side of it – a very small artist, no, he’s not a small one, he was big in TZU – but [DJ/producer] Paso Bionic. He was doing some great stuff. We had a CD of his [2005’s Empty Beats For Lonely Rappers]. It was early days for him as just solo, one of ours – I would have loved to see more there. That’s from quite a while back now.
You’re playing as part of The Herd for this special birthday show. Are there any plans for a follow-up to Future Shade?
KS: We have been talking about it. We’ve got a percentage of the band that’s keen – a large percentage. There’s a few different projects going on still, and it’s hard getting everyone in the same place – we’ve got Jane down in Melbourne, Byron [Williams, aka guitarist Toe-Fu] up in Newcastle. Throughout the late 2000s, I was the only one with kids. So we were touring and the kids would come along with that leg of the tour. But nowadays there’s a lot more of the band that has children as well. So maybe that’s a dampener. I think they should…
Have a hip-hop creche?
KS: Yeah (laughs). They should handle it, right? They should do the hard yards – bring the kids on tour, come on!
What is coming up in the New Year? I imagine a few of the artists have something planned.
KS: Yeah, there’s some big acts in the studio at the moment working on stuff. We should be seeing some big releases from Elefant Traks next year. The Herd’s got two more gigs in January – you know, we haven’t gigged for two years and then all of a sudden we’ve got three in a few weeks. Hopefully, we can get into the studio ourselves and get something new out. There’s a few of us keen to start writing again. So we gotta get energised from these shows and get back into the studio.
What’s the story with The Tongue? He made an announcement that he was leaving the label. Normally people don’t announce that – they just quietly leave. He said there was no bad blood. But why?
KS: Yeah, I think he had his reasons. It was a long time with Elefant Traks. I won’t speak for him, but he was with us for a long time and he just felt that it was time to move on – free himself up for other opportunities, I guess. One of our longest acts is Hermitude, so it is possible to stay around for a long time with us (laughs).
What else would you like to see Elefant Traks achieve, now the label has reached its 18th anniversary?
KS: All we could hope for is [that] it’s pushing boundaries and staying relevant – that’s the most that we could ask for. Music’s a living thing – you don’t wanna just keep doing the same thing over and over again. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the world. So that’s the puzzle on staying relevant, saying what’s needed at the time, and providing the music that’s needed at the time.