By: Matt Innes
For years, John TeOp Riley struggled to reconcile his creative passion for hip hop with his deep, yet often-conflicting, Christian beliefs.
As lyricist and MC for Fonke Knomaads, Riley, along with John ‘DJ Soup’ Blake, blazed a pioneering trail for Aussie hip hop in the early 90s. Combining Soup’s skilfully crafted loops with Riley’s homespun street poetry, the duo helped birth the new sound of hip hop with a distinctly Australian flavour.
Yet despite their chemistry and long-time friendship, Riley soon left the group before they could record a full-length album. As a devout Christian, Riley at the time felt hip hop culture was incongruous with his faith, leading to a long hiatus from music and the industry as a whole.
“That was really the cause of me jumping out of the industry in the beginning,” Riley explains, “and I had a little bit of a moment where both of those thing were very full-on in my life.
“At the time, and from a very practical sense, there was only room for one of those things. It was a tough call to make back then; I look back and think I could have done things better in lots of ways.”
As Riley pursued equilibrium between faith and music, DJ Soup continued to forge the uniquely Australian sound of hip hop, releasing his debut album ‘Souperloops’ in 1997. That same year he produced Sleek The Elite’s debut album ‘Sleekism’ and in 2000, Soup released his sophomore record ‘From Anuva Planet’.
For Riley, with the passing of the years came wisdom, understanding and a realisation that his love for hip hop and his faith need not be mutually exclusive, and that for whatever differences they may have, he and Soup had a lot more in common.
“To coin a phrase, thank God Soup is a top bloke and we’ve been able to maintain our friendship. Although we’re very different in certain philosophical ways or actual beliefs, we’ve come to realise we’ve got a lot more in common than we have in difference.”
Their renewed working relationship reignited the creative chemistry both Riley and Soup feared they had lost, culminating in the release of Fonke Knomaads’ long-awaited full-length debut record, ‘Cleopatra’s Bath Milk’ in 2008, well over a decade after they started making music together.
“It was our first full-length album together, so we’d released music before that with a lot of space in between,” Riley says. “Soup had been making music solo all the way, from way back then to now, and it was me that had stepped out of making music and the music industry for a long while. I just felt it was time to make music again; I had a lot of other things in my life sorted out family-wise, work- and business-wise, and I felt it was time for me to jump back in.”
Having reached a place where he can balance hip hop with Christianity without sounding like a salesman for God, John says ‘Cleopatra’s Bath Milk’ encapsulates the definitive sample-based sound of the early 90s, considered by many to be golden era hip hop.
“I reckon there are a lot of guys out there who were either there at the time and it’s their heritage … or that style of music just clicks,” he says. “It’s got a long lifespan. Some music is a bit flash-in-the-pan, the styles come and go but at the end of the day it’s a golden era style of hip hop. We lived through the era and made music back then and it’s stuck, just as some styles of rock and punk have stuck.”
Today, Riley is a man unburdened by the struggle to decide between hip hop and Christianity, forsaking one for the other. Instead, he has combined the two, actively working to promote Christianity through hip hop culture in his community.
He is also again working with DJ Soup as the Fonke Knomaads, this time joining forces with fellow hip hop legends, Resin Dogs and returning bad boy Sleek The Elite for a one-of a kind collaboration.
While cautious not to give too much away at this stage, Riley says he is especially excited to work with Sleek, who he champions as a pivotal influence on the in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it attitude for which Aussie hip hop is known.
“Sleek is that guy: ‘this is me warts and all’ and it’s in your face bro, and it’s things like that that have shaped Aussie hip hop for today,” he says. “Sleek’s very much in-your-face, bam, take this, and there’s a lot of different paths Aussie hip hop has taken, but at the end of the day we’ve got some big name artists who have: a) credibility; b) the ability to say pretty much whatever they want; and c) make great music in the process.
“You’ve gotta look back to where the foundations were laid and Sleek was one of those guys. You can take the dude out of hip hop but you can’t take the hip hop out of the dude; he’s writing, putting stuff together and it’s time for Sleek to make a comeback.”
Riley says he’s also looking forward to collaborating with Resin Dogs as part of the project, placing them in the high echelons of Australian producers and DJs working not just in hip hop but the music industry at large.
“As far as the Resin Dogs, these guys have done very well. They’re musos, they’re beyond your average hack MC-DJ-whatever; these guys are very strong in the music industry and there’s an opportunity through MADCAP Records for us to come together. There are discussions at this point of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Stay tuned to MADCAP Records for album release details.