Raj Mahal is an artist that’s hard to categorise, and that’s what makes him one of our favourites from the Sydney scene right now. Originally from Boston, Raj moved over to form a working relationship with producer Domba, and ever since touching down he’s kept ball has been rolling. On his 2017 project Neva Safe, Raj explored electronic sounds—kinda like a grey area between DMX and Death Grips—and this year he’s been rolling out single after single, including the metal-inspired ‘Jitter’ with Triple One, trap hitter ‘What Da Deal’, and his latest anthem ‘All Aboard.’ No matter what mood you’re in, Raj will find a way to scream, spit, or sing you right into the middle of the mosh pit.
We caught up to talk to Raj about his move to Australia, the similarities between Sydney and Boston’s hip-hop scenes, and his love for electronic and trap music.
When did you move to Australia?
The first time I came here was around December 2016. At that time, I was still flying back and forth between Boston and Sydney. But in 2017, I decided to make the official move and stay here permanently.
What’s that transition been like?
I mean, it was a pretty smooth transition outside of dealing with visas and things like that, as well as the whole financial part of moving countries. But I’m just here for the music, and that’s been easy to focus on.
What made Australia the place you wanted to be in order to pursue music?
One of my friends from high school went to Uni with a kid from Sydney, and he got me to meet him. And when I met him, he was telling me about a guy who makes beats and who I should work with—that guy was Domba, the producer who makes almost all my beats now. I was 19 at the time, and wasn’t really trying to fly across the world to make music—I was still playing American Football in college at the time. But when 2016 hit, I just decided to make that transition, and it turned out for the best.
You mentioned Domba produces most of your music. What is it about collaborating with him that works so well? We’re really on the same wavelength, and have a lot of the same interests. But really, it’s because I really fuck with him outside of the music. He’s a down to earth guy, and I care more about the intellect than the business side of things. If I can get along with you, everything else will fall into place when it comes to music. When we’re together in the studio, we’re a cohesive unit and nothing can get in our way. Our drive is unstoppable when we’re together.
Is the music scene in Sydney comparable to that of Boston?
To be honest, there wasn’t much of a prominent hip-hop scene in Boston. You could say it was a budding scene. But there were a few artists at the time I was there that were popping— Michael Christmas, Cousin Stizz etc. But I feel like people in Sydney are more focused on becoming something, instead of being something. I feel like so many people are just focused on the image and what comes with being a rapper. But Sydney is definitely on the come up, and I respect everybody that’s doing their thing because they’re making it easier for the next generation. And I’m just happy to be a part of it. Because I’m not from here, I give them all the respect and feel like they should get everything before I do.
Your sound is one that really can’t be pigeonholed to a specific area of the world. I loved how your project Neva Safe combined elements of hip-hop and electronic music. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind that?
I just like how raw those sounds are. As a kid, I was always fascinated by weird, electronic sounds. I feel like there’s a correlation between that and my music taste because I listen to groups like Death Grips and Ho99o9. Just crazy experimental shit. I like how liberating that type of music is. Instead of talking about how much money and cars I’ve got, those type of tracks brings out certain emotions that others can’t. It made me feel like I should focus on that type of music, and so far, it’s been working.
I went to a Death Grips show in 2017. I had heart palpitations in the mosh-pit. Do you feel like the energy you get from those electronic sounds has been transitioning into your live show well?
100 percent. I love seeing people lose themselves at shows. Like, at this moment, I’m not very known. But after the set, people always tell me that my music is the craziest thing they’ve ever heard in their life. That reaction makes me feel really good because it feels like I’m bringing something new to the scene.
You released your single ‘What Da Deal’ a while back, and I read it was heavily inspired by early trap artists like Gucci Mane. What is it about trap that draws you in?
Well, I look up to my uncles a lot. And growing up they played a lot of Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, Three 6 Mafia, all those dudes from the south. It was the music I was listening to in my teens and even my childhood, and it only felt right to pay homage to the artists who got me into rap in the first place.
What’s your favourite Gucci Mane song and why?
It’s a song he’s featured on called ‘Smoke’ with DJ Drama, Willie Da Kid, and Lonnie Mac. I always used to listen to it before football games—it would get me so pumped. It gave me that violent rage to kill it on the field. It feels like the soundtrack of my life. I feel the pain, the anger, and struggle in it. It just does something to me.
Trap is the sound that’s essentially driving hip-hop right now. What is it about trap that you think connects with so many people?
Just look at the effect it has on pop culture in general. Without artists like Juicy J and Three 6 Mafia in the early 90s, there wouldn’t be any triplet flows. Without Gucci Mane, Jeezy, and T.I, people wouldn’t be rapping about the shit they’re rapping about today. Trap music will never die. It’ll always evolve and change in terms of sound, but the foundations will always live on. It’s beautiful.
Electronic music and trap are not genres that are generally associated with high-level songwriting, but your music is enhanced by your ability to write killer bars. Do you think lyricism is important today?
I’m a writer. In college, I majored in Journalism and English. I’ve always been fascinated with words. The intellectual side of music is important because I need to feel what you’re saying. If what you’re saying doesn’t have substance, it’s not going to resonate. There are people out there who are actually listening to what you’re saying, and you have no idea how much you can affect [their] life positively by saying something with substance. It can get them out of [their] struggle—your words can go miles. It’s very important and I feel as if people need to put more emphasis on it.
You’re a part of the Bodega Collective, an independent music collective that also features artists like Kwame. As a member of a movement like this, do you feel that traditional music labels are needed anymore?
For me personally, I feel like a label would be nice. But honestly, I’m just so content with where I am right now. The people around me at Bodega have helped so much with things like my transition to Australia. I owe them everything. I feel like the people who work in the back end and behind the scenes at Bodega deserve more credit than the artists even. They keep everybody afloat. They do so much to make our voices heard. They are at the frontline of shit and some of the best people I’ve ever met.
You recently released your latest single All Aboard’, which is another change in style for you, and feels like your most accessible track yet. Could you talk me through the creation process?
I live with the producer of the song ‘I Digress.’ He hit me up with a bunch of beats he wanted me to work on, and ‘All Aboard’ was one of them. As soon as I heard the beat, I thought of the hook, and we made it in like 30 minutes. We thought it was a really good song and that we could get some real numbers with it. I didn’t want people to think that I just get on the mic and scream, and I wanted to show that I have some diversity in my sound. Every style of hip-hop is at my disposal.
Lyrically, it feels like a celebration of everything you’ve achieved so far. Looking back, is there anything you’d change?
Nah man, I embrace all the struggles. Everything I went through before I came to Australia, and while I’ve been in Australia feels like it led me to where I am today. It’s turned me into the man I am. This path led to things like you interviewing me right now (laughs). I wouldn’t change anything because I feel like it’d change where I am today, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. I’m very grateful for everything. The path has been stressful up to this point, but I’ve loved it. I’ve smashed through the trials and tribulations. I’m appreciative of this journey.
Follow Raj Mahal here and check him out on Spotify below