SPREADING THE MESSAGE
Thank God for Anton Agius! Not only did the late Maltese sculptor create countless fantastic and inspiring artistic pieces, but his monument in Rabat provides some very welcome shade on this unbearably hot summer morning. Sitting next to me on the steps of said monument is Żdong, co-founding member of the notorious Maltese hiphop crew Sempliċiment Tat-Triq (STT). Between us is a plate with pastizzi from the famous Crystal Palace (just across the road from us), a glass of tea for me and the obligatory coffee - iswed, tnejnzokkor, of course, as was clearly documented in STT's acclaimed 2012 release of the same name - for Żdong.
A lot has happened since that track first surfaced by way of a simple but effective video on YouTube. For starters, it catapulted STT from their relatively unknown status to the attention of the local music scene, beyond the underground hip hop circuit they had been largely involved in. Almost 60K views of that video later, the band has gone on to release two CD albums, the latest of which, Dellijiet ta' l-istess pezza, has only just been released a few weeks ago. In between, there have been countless local gigs, collaborations aplenty, an MMA Award nomination (not that STT care for that sort of thing) and a number of European tours. Six to be precise, including the extensive 29-date tour STT embarked on at the end of last month.
I ask Żdong for his take of the band's activities since debut album Qumu Minn Hemm's release in 2014. "Well to begin with, we don't consider that as an actual album at all", he clarifies. "It was more a compilation of tracks we'd recorded over the years, which we only decided to put together so we'd have a CD to sell when the touring opportunity had presented itself so unexpectedly". Fair enough, I think, although with 13 all killer/no filler tracks, it's as close to an album as one can get, not to mention that it did its job reasonably well, earning the band a following and much respect beyond these shores.
As he talks of the various tours and the European towns and cities STT stopped during their travels, I am of course intrigued by the simple but significant fact that, despite rapping in Maltese, STT still manage to establish a connection with their audiences abroad. "That was never an issue for us", he responds. "Somehow, we still manage to get our message across, and in the end making that connection is what is most important", emphasizing the anti-oppression beliefs that fuel STT's work. Indeed, they've never shied away from voicing their concerns, both in their music and on social media, even if this may sometimes come across as a voice in the wilderness. "The problem is that there's too much apathy on this island", Żdong is quick to point out. "Not enough people stand up for their beliefs or to protest when an injustice takes place". He explains that even the simple act of boycotting a product can be a significant act of protest. "Some people won't even do that, never mind taking their protests to the streets".
This of course has not deterred STT in anyway, and a listen to their latest CD easily confirms this. Featuring 10 tracks (officially, as there are a couple of hidden extras), Dellijiet ta' l-istess pezza features songs STT have recorded these past couple of years, all of them addressing socio-political concerns and openly expressing STT's views. "And no, this isn't the album proper either", Żdong tells me with a grin as he anticipates my question. "It's just another collection of stuff we've been working on with various people", he adds, clearly referring to the countless collaborations featured on the new CD. "We've always been open to working with other people from any genre", he continues, mentioning the likes of Venomous2000, Brown Izcalli, Brown Lucci and QuattroAlbe. "Actually, QuattroAlbe is now part of our present line-up, which also includes MCSka, Susa, FrancisHP, DannSann, Brozer and Ħażen Neċessarju".
I can't help but mention that my favourite track off Dellijiet ta' l-istess pezza is Ħadd Mhu Illegali. It's a powerful song - direct and explicit; in fact it is everything you'd expect STT to throw at you in order to get their message across. It does, and with a funky groove at its core to boot. STT have never subscribed to conventional methods in anything they do, and that includes their musical output. But more importantly, they've never relied on anyone but themselves to get things done, which is why their latest tour is rather significant. "We'll be performing 29 gigs in 30 days", Żdong says. "The tour starts and ends in France, but in between we will be performing in Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Italy". It is by all means a hectic schedule, but one that, as Żdong bluntly puts it, "what STT is all about - this isn't just about the people in the band or our music, it's about everyone we work with, everyone who supports us and shares our beliefs".
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta's Escape magazine (09 October 2016)