Izzy n The Profit
It's midnight in midwest Sydney and Izzy n The Profit are whipping a crowd into a full-blown frenzy.
The audience is tiny, but the rappers are leaping around the Rooty Hill RSL like they’re ripping the roof off a stadium. Emptier emcees would have been dispirited by the sparse turnout. Ropier rappers would have been put off by the soulless venue. But this dynamic duo are bounding all over the stage, spitting out the lyrics to their searing single "Rattle Ya Cage" like they’re shaking up the Superbowl.
We're not here to battle, we're here to rattle ya cage
Izzy n The Profit make no mistake
You know we’re raising the stakes
You get put in your place
Our punchlines will kick in like a foot to the face
It’s the kind of swaggering bravado that suggests they know no fear.
A few months later, I spot the stout, stocky frame of Izzy marching through the crowd at the Platform 5 Hip-Hop Festival near Redfern, and pull him aside for a chat. It is here, huddled under a tin awning to shelter from the pounding beats and the drizzling rain, that Izzy reveals the unexpected way in which he came to lose his sense of fear.
"It’s kind of a bit of an out-there topic for some," he begins, a little hesitantly.
His hair, which is slicked back from a finely sculpted hairline into a Japanese plait, shimmers with the faint remnants of rain.
“In my early childhood,” he continues, “probably somewhere between the ages of three and six, I lived in a house that was possessed.”
He pauses, a faint smile playing across his angular features.
“Yeah man, pretty crazy. So for three years as a kid, I witnessed a lot of spiritual stuff happening. My mum was a Christian and she still is, so I was raised knowing all that side as well. But as for the dark side of things, I witnessed quite a bit from a young age - just a lot of really nightmarish things happening in my room as a kid. You know, voices, figures, things moving, all sorts of stuff, you know, the whole kit and caboodle.”
The house was in Penrith, 50km west of central Sydney. Most of the local Indigenous Mulgoa people were killed by smallpox shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Did Izzy find out if there was any story behind the strange goings-on in the house?
“No, we didn’t end up finding out,” he says.
“It was a funny thing with that house. Just before we moved, mum got pastors to come in and pray over the house and then it went. Then we moved and every time I’d go past that house, people would move in. Not even a week later, they’re out. We were just the ones dumb enough to stay there for three years.”
“Mum didn’t realise how much it affected me, but it did because it ended up instilling a lot of fear in me from being a young kid up until early teenage years. Then that fear, I thought it got squashed or whatever when I was about 14, I thought I’d got rid of it, but I think it just reversed into, like, extreme anger. Like, 'I’m not going to be scared of anything, whether it’s physical, spiritual, nothing can scare me.’
“Even as a teen living in different houses and that, even when I was living on my own, my mum would come over and she’d be like, 'Make sure you lock your door.’ And I’d be like ‘Nah, I’m not locking my door, if someone comes in, they come through me.’
“That was my mentality, because I just didn’t want to fear anything, I just became really angry against fear. If anyone was trying to instill fear in me, I would fire up. So obviously it hadn’t been squashed, it was just expressed in another form.”
When he was barely in his teens, Izzy also found out something that most kids would fear: that his father was not who he thought he was.
"My last name on my birth certificate and everything is Ballard, which is English, but biologically I'm a Beale," he says.
"I was 14 when I found out that I wasn’t English, but I was Aboriginal, and then I met my dad. Our mob is quite big. I’m still meeting people and run into people all the time that are, like, family and stuff like that. It’s funny. Kamileroi is the mob."
Indigenous people in Australia have had an uneasy relationship with Christianity, to say the least. The missionaries’ mission to “civilise the Godless” - despite Aboriginal people already having their own gods - provided a useful cover for Britain’s imperial ambitions. But for the persecuted Indigenous people, the missions then became a refuge from the murderous pioneers and pastoralists.
John Harris, who wrote the book One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity, notes: “Scientists were telling people that Aborigines were subhuman, didn’t have the same level of evolving as European races. So there was this view among the population that it wasn’t so bad to kill Aborigines. And it was only the missionaries who said, in their, you know, 18th century way, 'These people are descended from Adam. They are children of God and they have souls and we shouldn’t be shooting them. God has made of one blood all nations of the earth.’
“Missionaries did protect and give life to Aborigines where they would not have had it. Missionaries were educating Aborigines and saying, ‘We’re going to show that they are the white man’s equal.’
“The problems came when there was no longer any need to protect Aborigines but now they were all locked up in institutions and churches wanted to maintain those institutions and maintain their hold over Aboriginal people when they no longer needed to do that. And that was when something that began as a good thing, because it was a reaction to great evil, became a bad thing.”
Christianity maintained its hold over Izzy. If anything, his faith deepened after he found out his Aboriginal heritage. He is a warm, engaging person - solid in character as well as build. Those meeting him for the first time may get the impression that he would not need the steadying hand of religion had he not been introduced to it. But for Izzy, his faith has been a great source of strength and redemption.
"In my early teens, probably 15 or 16, I started getting involved with gangs and stuff like that out west, Penrith, just the western Sydney area," he says.
“I always believed in God as well, so I always had a strong faith, but I kind of just ignored that and ran with what I was doing. At about 18, I got sentenced to prison, not for long, it was eight months, it was a string of offences, like breaking and entering, theft and a few other things. But the judge overruled it and turned it over at the last minute and gave me a suspended sentence.
“I think if I'd gone in at that time and in that frame of mind that I was in, it wouldn’t have done me good. I think I would have come out a frigging psycho. So things happen for a reason. I think I was favoured there.”
It was that lucky escape - or divine intervention - that set him on his musical journey.
“Me and my good mate, we’d hang out the front of this youth centre, you know, causing trouble and that. But this guy, a dude from Vanuatu, nicest guy ever, he was a youth worker. He kinda took us both under his wing and just started mentoring us and getting us involved in things and whatnot.
“Next minute, we were volunteering at a youth drop-in centre out in Penrith and that was, I guess, my introduction to youth work. Even though we were, you know, shifty, we were mentors.”
“So that led me, I guess, to want to be primarily focused on young people and youths - I guess a 'been there, done that’ type thing, but not just that. It was that I had a guy who took the time out of his life to come and do that for us, so I feel like, it’s not that I just owe that, but it’s something that I’m passionate about as well.”
Since 2008, Izzy has been working with Christian "hip-hop church" the Krosswerdz Krew. His faith now runs through almost everything he does, from his music to his moniker.
“I've got my solo album I’ve been recording, Snake Eyes - The Art Of Deception,” he says.
“It’s a bit of a mixture of a play on words. For instance, my name being Jacob or Jake - Jacob actually means 'supplanter’, deceiver. In the Bible, the character Jacob, when he wrestled with an angel, wrestled with God, God changed his name to Israel. So Jacob, Jake; Izzy is short for Israel, which means struggle with God.”
Absent-mindedly scratching behind his right ear, where a small crucifix is tattooed, he stresses that Izzy n The Profit do not write religious music.
“Our music isn’t like Christian hip-hop or anything. I mean, like, we don’t stray from talking about God but we don’t overly preach or whatever. I mean, if anyone asks us, like, what our music’s about, it’s life in general, basically. But we just write from our hearts and that’s the way it comes out. Our music is positive.
“You know, there’s a lot of misdirection and a lot of bad teaching in hip-hop, a lack of morals in a lot of it. Not all of it, you know, there’s heaps of great stuff, but at the same time what the mainstream media portrays is mostly not what young people should really be taking into their lives and living, you know, which is a shame.”
Hip-hop has strayed far from its radical roots. The former Minister of Defence of the Black Panther Party, Geronimo ji-Jaga, had a great insight into the attempts of the establishment to subvert the genre. He was also the godfather of the late legendary rapper Tupac Shakur, so ji-Jaga saw at close hand how Tupac's hip-hop, like most at the time, changed from angst to gangsta.
Ji-Jaga noted: "Hip-hop is indigenous and it’s powerful and it scares the hell out of these people, right? So, they have to get control and employ Cointelpro-like tactics. After the leadership of the Black Panther Party was attacked at the end of the ’60s and the early ’70s, throughout the black and other oppressed communities, the role models for up-coming generations became the pimps, the drug dealers, etc.
“This is what the government wanted to happen. The result was that the gangs were coming together with a gangster mentality, as opposed to the revolutionary progressive mentality we would have given them."
As radical hip-hop producer Agent of Change puts it: “The music industry has been busily trying to turn hip-hop from a tool of freedom into a tool of oppression, projecting an image of black people that the white supremacist ruling structures are entirely happy with (that is, an image of simple, primitive, hyper-sexualised people only too willing to kill themselves with drugs and guns).”
Izzy agrees. Is that why he is trying to push a more conscious brand of rap?
“Yeah, you know and it doesn’t get as much attention,” he says. “It takes a lot more work I’d say. I can’t lie, we all like some sort of attention at some point.”
His latest project, with fellow Aboriginal rapper 21 Monks, should garner plenty of attention, not least from its attention-grabbing name, taken from the year the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove.
“The two of us together are called 1788,” he says.
So it's all about the invasion?
“Yeah, which was awesome really because for me, like I said, only finding out that I was Aboriginal when I was 14, I mean, I’m in my late 20s now, but I’m still learning more and more about my culture and about my family and about our heritage and our history. But I did research for some of this stuff and, yeah, it was killer, it was really good and in the aspect of research I really found out a lot of things that I didn’t know.
“I freestyle a lot, I write quite quick, but with this stuff we’re being purposeful and strategic, you know. It’s not that it doesn’t come so easily, but it’s more about being patient and not rushing it and not just going with the first thing that comes out.”
The first record to come out is Izzy n The Profit’s debut album, Pulling Strings.
As we speak, the video for the next single has just been completed, a controlled explosion of colour featuring reformed US gangster Sevin. The ex-member of the infamous Bloods gang approached Izzy n The Profit after sharing a stage with them in Sydney.
“I was honoured,” says Izzy. “It felt good to be asked by, not just an emcee but one of my favourite emcees who’s just a dope lyricist and a dude who’s international, from the States. He’s got, like 25, 26 albums, plus mixtapes, so the dude’s got some old stuff and it’s real street too. I love it, personally.
“He did a track not long ago that had everyone from the West Coast scene in it, like from - not everyone rapped on it but everyone was in the video - from Ice Cube to Ice-T to Snoop. Snoop rhymed on the track as well and Sevin was on the chorus - it was a massive track. So he’s known throughout the joint. And yeah, the track turned out dope. The video looks pretty cool man, I’m happy with it.”
He feels just as blessed - if not more so - to have met The Profit. Izzy crossed paths with the non-Indigenous emcee, from Gosford, New South Wales, through the Krosswerdz Krew.
"I said, 'We should do a track on each other's albums, you know’," says Izzy.
“It started with that, so we started writing a track and the first track we did was ‘What We Love’. Koori Radio played that a lot, too, which was off Profit’s album.
“Then we said, ‘Let’s do an eight-track EP together.’ Because everyone was, like, ‘Oh, you two sound really good together, you complement each other.’ That eight-track EP turned into doing an album. Doing an album tuned into becoming a crew and, yeah, the rest is history, so it’s been good.
"I’ve worked with many different dudes over time and, you know, for whatever reason, things hadn’t worked out in the long run. But with Profit it’s been … it’s been magical.”
“A bromance,” he laughs. “Exactly.”