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From Community Leader To Intricate Lyricist: Matthew Craig Reflects on 'Pass The Lighter Vol.1'

6 December 2022 | 3:49 pm | Staff Writer

To deeply understand the creative mind of Matthew Craig and his latest project, 'Pass The Lighter Vol. 1', we chat to him about the importance of community ethos, balancing work and art and the power of education and passion when pursuing a career as an artist.

Matthew Craig sits on both sides of the fence.

For one, he is a host and director of one of Australia’s leading hip hop blogs, AUD$. The platform acted as one of the first and only homes for Australian rap music, emerging onto the scene with the clear intention of platforming the new and emerging voices in our local music scene. As the genre in Australia grew, so did their platform, now amassing a cult audience while remaining true to their roots of platforming amazing hip hop music from right across the country. 

On the other side, Matthew Craig is one of Australia’s strongest lyricists in the country. Making a name for himself in Melbourne/Naarm’s underground battle rap scene, Craig has worked his craft of meticulously moulded rhymes for a near decade. Following years of sonic exploration, education and experience he has now released his new project, Pass The Lighter, Vol.1. 

The project reflects his community ethos throughout every single one of his creative outlets. By Nature, Passing The Lighter is a communal activity, one driven by a small group of people who have voluntarily walked away from a party or social gathering to get some not so fresh air. It’s in those moments in smoking areas or outside of the hustle and bustle of a social gathering that real conversations happen. Whether they’re intimate chats, ridiculous small talk or deep life changing conversations, so often the personal connections made in a smoking area are some of the most otherworldly and meaningful. 

Pass The Lighter Vol. 1 reflects this sentiment sonically. It reflects a range of personal vignettes into the mind of Craig and the internal conversations he has with himself about a range of issues. Whether unadulterated confidence or introspective love laden bars, Craig reflects the quickly moving and deeply inspiring conversations that are had over the passing of a lighter.

To get to know the project and the creative mind of Matthew Craig better, we chat to him about the importance of community ethos, balancing work and art and the power of education and passion when pursuing a career as an artist. 

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How much does being an artist help with your role as an editor/curator/interviewer? How important is it for you to be on both sides of the fence at all times?

I can’t speak on everyone’s experience, because I don’t want to put down other journalists who aren’t artists because I respect the craft of journalism so much but for me it is so helpful. There’s a level of commonality, empathy and understanding. Especially when working with the grassroots artists and helping put them on. The whole reason AUD$ was born was because of that gap in the market because we didn’t see anyone doing it how we wanted to do it and represent artists who weren’t represented 6 or 7 years ago. That’s what helped AUD$ get a foothold early on was getting respect from artists who knew me and Juñor early on as artists. 

Now doing interviews helps with rapport even with the big artists. I know what it's like to sit on both sides of the fence, it helps me with my lines of questioning. I try and be super respectful and ask artists what they want to talk about. I stay away from the click bait beef or whatever. An artist doesn’t get out of bed wanting to talk about that, they want to talk about their art, creative process, legacy and why they do what they do. That’s what drives me, purpose whether as an artist or curator, interviewer whatever you want to call it. 

How do you make sure that your work at AUD$ doesn’t flood into your own as a rapper? How do you not put too much pressure on yourself to deliver at the highest level while listening to elite music and talking to elite artists constantly?

It’s funny because I don’t keep them separate. I treat the art of rap like sport. I work at this craft and study this craft. I feel like it's an advantage to my artistry the amount of music I’m listening to and keeping up with everyone's movements. It pushes me to want to be better at my craft. I separate the two in terms of branding, AUD$ is my commercial element, whereas my artistry is my passion and my craft. I don’t really care about numbers or views on my art but I care about the craft and I care about getting it to as high a level as possible. The measures of success are completely different. For my art when other rappers recognise my work that’s the biggest reward. 

It definitely infiltrates the way I rap as well. The greatest rapper of all time for me is Jay-Z without question. His technical ability, commercial results and the way he tells his story. Hip-hop is part about craft and part about story for me, so I feel like I'm living the story in a really unique perspective that I can share into my art.  

That’s a special mindset to have. As someone who DJs, when I’m constantly reviewing, watching or chatting to DJs that I think are incredible, it’s so easy to make the comparisons even though they’re unreasonable.

It’s definitely easy to have that mindset and become competitive about it. I always just try and come back to purpose and the reason I got into this is because I love and am addicted to the craft. I love it, I’ve given my whole life to it, given up other careers just to do this because I love it. So when I’m writing I try be present in the moment and forget about everything else. 

You’re pushing really hard the idea of creating a community around this project. By nature Passing The Lighter is a communal activity. Where do you think that ethos comes from within you? 

It’s a family thing, I come from a mixed multi-cultural background. My dad is Sri Lankan and my mum is Italian, so both very family, community focussed. My parents were both heavily involved in the local community when I was growing up, whether it was Church groups, community groups or cultural groups. I was exposed to that and having a big diverse family meant that community meant everything to me.

As I got older I watched my parents do that, I decided I wanted to be a community person too, it’s in my blood now. The element of Passing The Lighter also taps into that. I’ve had some of the most significant moments of my life in the smokers room, just chilling, connecting with people, building relationships that I never planned, it just happened. This might sound corny but there’s something sacred about it, it’s a bit primitive. It’s a gathering space for humans, especially with those who are in the smoking area, there’s a certain type of human that goes there. Everything I do is about connection and community. 

Also on Passing The Lighter, the project reflects the sort of conversations that you’d have while passing a lighter around. There’s confidence, vulnerability, and in those moments conversations get deep quickly but also can be quite playful.

Sequencing is really important to me. This will sound funny, but obviously I curate things so I have to make playlists. I don’t listen to music like that, I only listen to projects and albums. I grew up with a CD walkman so I could only listen to an album. I still only listen to music like that, I don't like songs on shuffle. There’s a beauty in listening to the narratives and stories when they’re sequences. It’s absolutely intentional and really important to me when I create a body of work. It’s about the continuing story. Singles are cool but I don’t make music like that. The project is only 21 minutes long, so it's designed for a smoke sesh. 

The storytelling thing is a reflection of that. I wrote this music in 2020, so it was about where my life was at at the time. I wrote it sitting outside during lockdown and rapping in circles and ciphers with my homies showing them my verses. My art is very much about my life and what I’m living and I want it to feel like a conversation, like when you’re Passing The Lighter. 

I watched all these old battle raps you were in earlier on in your career. Was that your first introduction time rapping bars, and what qualities of your battle rapping self still linger in your bars today? What did having that as a foundation teach you?

Battle rap is everything. Rap for me starts at the foundation of lyricism. Before I ever started rapping I wrote poetry, so it comes from that, from the art of expression and writing. I fell in love with rhyme from Dr Seuss. The way he does what he does and portray meaning and its cool and its fun made me fall in love with it. I discovered Lauryn Hill and Biggie in 90s and fell love with it even more. Battle rap was a natural progression from that. Watching 8 Mile as a kid had a big impact on that. I linked in with the local street battles and did that for a few years and I’m still tight with that community, but its really cool to see the people who have transitioned from the battle rap community to making music and moving in that space.

As a foundation it’s everything, I critique everything based on its lyrical value. That is the crux of the art form and that’s what I’m always pushing my pen to do. I really do treat it like a sport. I write every single night, regardless of if it's a song because I treat it like a gym. I still watch battle rap, I could probably get back into it at some stage. The art of entertainment and punchlines that I love was definitely inspired by battle rap. I like listening to lyrics that I don’t understand until the third listen. I hope that’s how I create my art. 

On Play For Keeps you say something like, “I haven’t heard nothing that impressed me, so I had to go and write.” I feel like Australia is lacking in the competitive nature of hip hop culture, for some reason. People overseas are really keen to flex their ability but it's not really happening here in a playful and clever way. 

Rapping about rapping how good you are at rapping is the coolest shit in the world. My friends in the studio will always ask me to rap about something other than rapping about how good I am at rapping. 

As an observer and also as an artist, where do you think Australia is at with that and what is holding it back?

First and foremost the context of Australian rap needs to be understood. Australia as a hip hop community is still very young a dn juvenile. Not only has the craft not developed to the point of the US purely due to time in the game. I feel like the 2020s in Australian rap are like the 90s of US rap, I think we are at that level. The mainstream is only just discovering local hip hop and having an ear for it. Our palette isn’t developed enough yet to be at a really critically acclaimed level. That’s not to say there aren’t people here that are doing world class stuff, but the generic mainstream stuff that is going to access wider audiences that aren’t hip hop listeners is to an extent watered down, it’s accessible. 

Hip Hop is pop now, so that’s what is breaching into the mainstream. So do I think the penmanship and the intricate art form is at the level it needs to be to be premiere overall? Not quite yet. The top tier is very good though. Let’s talk about Sampa The Great, Huskii and people doing it on a global level. The next few tiers down though, because of the accessibility and the way people are trying to hear it for the first time, it’s not at that critical level.

I feel like visibility is such an important thing as well, so having these incredible artists be so visible means that more and more talented people will enter the “Australian music world” when they may have felt left out a few years ago. The generations below us are going to be making even better music.

The generations below us are going to be crazy. 8-12 year olds now are going to be the biggest stars Australia’s seen in this world. I say this all the time, The Kid LAROI is an OG. It is what comes after him that is going to break the flood gates open.