Sydney rapper Phil Fresh is a musical chameleon—he switches styles with enviable ease. He released his debut album Excursions Of Love in 2017, a smooth, R&B-infused concept album. It was a tale of romance and vulnerability, and it demonstrated Phil’s aptitude for songwriting and production. He contrasted this in 2018 with his bass-heavy banger ‘Jonah’, a song about pent-up aggression. It’s a style he’s since explored in a feature on Kwame’s ‘WHO DAT’. But in his new single ‘I’m The Man’, he brings both worlds together for a song that’s elegant, and energy-filled, and a commentary on the state of hip-hop today.
I hit Phil Fresh via email in anticipation of the new single to talk about Sydney’s rap scene, wrestling, and his love for Scott Steiner.
When did you first start making music? How did you know it was the right path for you?
I started making music when I was like 15/16. I’d take my mum’s laptop when she wasn’t using it and make beats on GarageBand. I really enjoyed the process of starting with nothing, finding different sounds, and putting them all together to make something bigger. I think I was more eager to learn a new technique from a YouTube tutorial than I was learning something at school. So I was making beats kind of as a hobby but I didn’t think it would really get me anywhere. Until I found out about Tyler, The Creator. It was around the time of the ‘Yonkers’ video and I remember seeing it being like “this guy is scary and we need to do something about him.” Fast forward a few months and he’s on my TV accepting a VMA and I’m like “oh man it’s that weirdo again, what is his deal.” but the part that stuck with me was when he said: “for all the kids that are watching at home, you can do this shit yourself, be yourself, fuck the system, Golf Wang.” That moment flicked a switch in my head like “oh shit this guy is really passionate about his craft and it’s not that he’s weird he’s just really just being himself out here.” That to me was infectious.
Who were some of the artists that made you want to make music?
Well, I guess it started with these videos of Ryan Leslie jumping in the studio and making a track. Looking back at it now those videos are so funny, but at the time of viewing them 15 year old me was in awe. So I think Ryan Leslie was who got me into music production and then it was Tyler who really introduced me to a whole array of musicians and producers. Like it started with The Neptunes and led me to A Tribe Called Quest and then from Tribe I learnt about sampling, and then I started to sample and then I’d get into Jay Z’s earlier work. And from there I’d be listening to Lonnie Liston Smith. It was pretty much a slippery slope of finding new producers and learning their techniques, but the main artists I think that has shaped my sound are Tyler, The Neptunes and Kanye West.
Do you remember the first beat you made? Describe it to us.
Yeah, it was so fucking whack, it was called ‘TTC’ (for Tyler, The Creator lol) and it was on GarageBand. Everything had like heaps of distortion and overdrive on it, the shit was clipping so much, the chords I used were like in different keys and shit, it was honestly horrifying. I remember sending it to my guy Greg and he played it at Schoolies and gassed me up about it [laughs]. REAL FRIENDS MAN!
Can you tell us about your 2017 album Excursions Of Love and how it came together?
So that was my first release ever and it was a conceptual album. It followed a story I made up. It stemmed from actual stuff that I had experienced with my girlfriend at the time or stuff that my friends experienced through their relationships. I’d had some of these beats on my laptop and these lyrics I’d written on my iPod Touch that had been sitting there for collecting virtual dust, because I was too lazy to push myself to do something with it. It wasn’t until I met my guy Matt ‘Xiro’ Fioravanti that it actually started coming together. He forced my ass out to the studio out in the hills every week and recorded, mixed and mastered everything. He still does it to this day, it wouldn’t have been possible without him.
I love how it’s a concept album. Did it make the creation process easier or harder?
It made it easier. I obviously grew up listening to a lot of hip hop and although I do gravitate towards the feelings and attitudes that it creates, I can’t really relate to the reality of what some rappers talk about. Like I’m not in a gang, I don’t really own any weapons, I don’t have a million dollars, let alone a hundred. But I’m in a really nice relationship right now so I could talk about that. One of my best mates just got cheated on so I could write about that. And also I watch WWE every week so I could just exaggerate the shit out of this. And bam, there’s Excursions Of Love. It just kind of happened like that.
Your 2018 single ‘Jonah’ feels a lot more aggressive than the material on your album. Do you remember your mindset around the release of that song?
I remember I was just frustrated at the time. I was frustrated artistically and frustrated personally. I felt like I was getting overlooked. I felt like I kind of rushed Excursions of Love and I felt like I hit a bit of a wall creatively. I think I had more sounds I wanted to share and wanted to show that I was versatile with my work. I remember one day I was talking to this guy from South America who had been travelling through Australia and he had asked me what nationality I was and I said I was born here but my parents are from Tonga. And he was like “oh like Jonah from Summer Heights High? You don’t really look like him.” It irked me for a bit and I was like I’m not trying to have this white dude with brown paint as the first thing people think of when they hear about Tonga. I start the track by saying “I just gotta’ let it go, I just gotta’ let em know” and that whole track is about getting shit off my chest and letting people know who I am and what I can do.
Do you think creating music helps you deal with the trials and tribulations of life?
Absolutely! I don’t think I’m very good at articulating in person what I’m trying to say sometimes. But with writing a song I have time to construct a really concise message. I can’t remember who said it but there was a quote that says “rockstars say what people don’t have the balls to” or something like that. I don’t see myself as a rockstar but the message just stuck with me. I sometimes can be hesitant to say what I want, but as soon as there’s music behind it there are no issues at all. I guess music just gives you a different type of confidence to clear your mind. Whether it’s playing a particular chord or the way you layer the drums, creating music makes you feel a certain way to get through it all.
Now that it’s 2019, how do you feel when you look back on your older material? What’s different about you today?
I think there’s definitely some growth and progression which is great. I kind of touched on it before but although I am proud of Excursions Of Love, I felt like it was a bit of a rushed project and I don’t want people to get used to that as ‘my sound’. I think the way I work now is a lot more organised and thorough now than it was then. I also think I’m just more aware of what I can do with my music and what it could mean to others. I’ve had some people say nice things about it which makes realise like “oh shit I guess this is kind of working.”
Can you tell us about your new single ‘I’m The Man’?
‘I’m The Man’ is basically a social commentary on clout. It questions what some people do just to get a buzz, keyword being ‘buzz’. I see too much stuff on social media of dudes being dickheads just to go viral. The money and the girls don’t last forever, but you being known as the weirdo who kissed his sister just for likes will stay with you till the end. It also touches on people who say or does one thing to appeal to a certain demographic only for it to come back around and bite them. I.E “Tell me how to respect my chick, and then sing a song about your ex bitch.” The end of the chorus, sung by the amazing Sela Moon, says “If you fly too close to the sun, you can’t know where you land, so watch out boy if you move too fast, it won’t last.” I feel like all those things are quite temporary and only get you so far before you realise it wasn’t worth it.
Sydney seems to be a hotspot for hip-hop talent right now. What is it in the water that makes the city such a unique place for music?
I feel like Sydney’s reputation for being a nanny state might have something to do with it. Lockout laws, music bars shutting down, cuts to funding just adds more fuel to the fire out here. That disconnect between the creative youth and the ones in charge create a certain hunger for us to get it done and put on for all of us. There’s a whole lot of artists out here with different backgrounds which means that there is a lot of stories to share, and I think that diversity creates authenticity with Sydney hip hop.
Who are some Sydney artists we should check out?
Ah man, there’s a lot I’m just going to go off who I’ve just been listening to. ONEFOUR have the track of the year right now so if you haven’t heard of them, you need to keep up. Zion Garcia is a dude who’s future I’m very excited about, so check him out before it’s too late (shoutout to Solly too). Milan Ring is craaaaaaazy! She’s so talented, I love her music. I’ve just heard some of Bread Club’s new stuff and mark my words, they are going to blow up. But the list for talent out here is so deep you’d have to write a separate article all about it.
Australian hip-hop is the best it has ever been right now. Where do you see it going next?
I hope it all leads us to happiness, nice houses and lots of money.
Lastly, I know you’re a fan of wrestling. If you had to describe your music using a wrestler, who would it be and why?
Damn, it could really be any of them. Like I feel like each song could be about a different wrestler. I’m gonna use ‘I’m The Man’ for this question. If ‘I’m The Man’ was a wrestler, it would definitely be Scott Steiner. You see the chainmail headdress, the chat chest tattoo, bleach blonde goatee and the speed dealers and it just makes you question everything you thought you knew. If you haven’t heard of him, all you need to do is go to YouTube and search ‘Steiner Math’ and watch the whole video. You look at this dude and hear him talk and you’re like “Who are you and why are you the way that you are?” ‘I’m The Man’ is pretty much me saying “Who are you and why are you the way that you are?” I really wish I could change the artwork to his face now.