According to Melbourne emcee Dragonfly aka Gary Newton, freestyle rapping is a lot like freestyle jazz – the key is to think on the spot, but not really think at all. For a songwriter of high calibre, letting go of control may sound like a nightmare, but Newton claims trusting yourself goes a long way, as does a little bit of meditation.
“Freestyle jazz musicians have some things in common with freestyle rappers,” he states. “The hardest thing is the fear that you might make no sense if you just let yourself go. I don’t think before I talk anyway, so it comes very naturally to me! I’ve got to just let it go and be present in the moment, you’ve got come from a place where there is no right or wrong, because that way you can always take what you’ve said and turn it around.” I was freestyling at parties around Brisbane from mid- to late ‘90s and at first I was pretty amazed at how people were doing it. To an outsider, it looked like they must have rehearsed it first, surely, but then I realised it really was all on the spot. Again, I try not to think of anything too much beforehand, but if there are things in the room that I notice, I’ll earmark them before I jump up, or if someone was rapping before me, I’ll catch some of their word patterns or sounds.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about freestyle rap is the fact that the more you let go, the more profound statements or funny jokes you actually come up with. The key word is ‘zen’, just as much as ‘fun’, something that Newton’s new partner in crime and second half of new project Cloak & Dagger, DJ/producer Treats, can definitely relate to.
“Cloak & Dagger is me freestyling over wonky bass stuff which I’d probably call glitch/dubstep,” Newton explains. “It’s only a baby still, a few months old, it’s also got a friend of mine called Treats, who is a British Ableton producer. I’ve always been following British music and I’ve always been into grime and dubstep since it first stated, I just kept wishing it would break out in Australia! Treats has been very in tune with it and every now and then I’d be interested in what he’s playing, so I’d freestyle over it and we both noticed a thread of stuff that we both liked. He’s very eclectic so it was a big happy coincidence; it’s the wonky end of bass music. We also both have similar spiritual interests because we both have a background in meditation. I’ve been doing martial arts for years too and we both have an interest in mysticism. The whole project started because we both like the weird, dark bass-y tunes with weird little riffs going through them. Treats does a lot of warehouse parties, so I just jumped on board and freestyled over some of his sets, but we’ve refined a few new tunes and I’ve written a few songs as well, we’re mashing really well.”
Newton’s other passion is mentoring troubled youths, according to the rapper. Working with kids coming off drugs in detox, being a life-coach has allowed Newton to provide the kind of advice and care to teenagers that he wishes he had received when he was a troubled teen himself.
“I started doing hip hop workshops for the kids who are going through a hard time,” he says. “I was a juvenile delinquent myself and I was in trouble from when I was a teenager to my mid-‘20s. I started working with at-risk youths and refugees and kids in juvenile justice projects, and that just spiralled because I started my own business as a life-coach in 2005. It’s a package because it’s mentoring but it also involves rapping. But it doesn’t all have to be serious because I also made a project called Shane Skillz a while back which was a rap parody, so pretty much a take-off of what I do! That went even bigger than Dragonfly, it spread and went viral and I even had Cannibal Corpse contact me and want to hang out with me because they thought it was hilarious, this Aussie bogan character I’d made up.”
Newton is deadly serious, however, about his new upcoming projects with DJ/producer Treats – with plans already being made to tour the US and Europe in the near future once Cloak & Dagger release their self-titled EP.
“Ideally, it will be finished by Halloween, it’s only a little three-tracker,” Newton reveals. “Dubstep and post-dubstep is just massive, even Britney [Spears] is rockin’ it now! We are trying to add different flavours to it though. There’s this crazy shit called Moombatron which is like ragga but produced by more electronic producers. The cool thing is learning to rap at double time and different time signatures. The glitch scene is really big in San Francisco and there’s a bit of a tiny scene in New York as well, then Europe is just mental with dubstep, so hopefully we’ll be able to take it to a few places.”
For now, Newton is looking forward to taking part in the local Our Backyard showcase this month once again, claiming that he’s keen to catch up with good friend and fellow meditation-enthusiast, Mantra.
“I’ve been friends with him for a few years, he’s just awesome at what he does,” says Newton. “But I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the up-and-comers, I think something like Our Backyard is extremely vital for them! Things are very different now than when I was 19 and coming out of Brisbane and this kind of music was still developing. I have a very big fondness for the whole operation run by The Push.”
Dragonfly performs as part of a massive bill at Our Backyard, a free all-ages hip hop event at The Arts Centre Playhouse from 1pm until 4pm on Sunday September 25. Head to thepush.com.au for more information.