‘We fought tooth and nail’: How Elefant Traks changed Australian music

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‘We fought tooth and nail’: How Elefant Traks changed Australian music

Elefant Traks
Words by Tyler Jenke

Urthboy looks back at Elefant Traks' extraordinary legacy, before the label bids farewell at Melbourne Recital Centre this June.

After 26 years, how do you say farewell to one of Australia’s most successful independent labels?

That’s exactly the problem faced by the Elefant Traks team when they announced the impending closure of the pioneering hip-hop label back in May.

First formed by Kenny Sabir, aka Traksewt, in Sydney in 1998, the label soon grew, recruiting the likes of Tim Levinson, aka Urthboy, and growing exponentially from there on. Across its quarter-century run, the label has released 1300 songs, 66 albums, and 40 EPs, and fostered groups like Hermitude, The Last Kinection, Horrorshow, Joelistics, and The Herd, of which Sabir and Levinson are members.

Elefant Traks 25th Anniversary – The Finale

  • Saturday 15 June 2024 3pm and 7.30pm
  • Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
  • Tickets here

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

“Kenny and the Elefant Traks were just DIY-ing their way into creating a record label, because there really wasn’t an ecosystem of independent record labels in the late ‘90s; it just didn’t exist,” Levinson remembers. “It was really a fun and inspiring time.”

At the time, mainstream acceptance of Australian hip-hop was almost non-existent, with even the musically-liberal triple j rarely playing the genre. As such, Elefant Traks provided a way for its artists to find a home, to feel supported, and embrace a sense of community. Needless to say, without wider approval of the genre, its longevity was never guaranteed, so the goal became for everyone to surround themselves with like-minded artists to craft this close-knit family of creatives.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that community is not a destination that you aspire to create and then settle on – it is continually evolving and restless,” he adds. “It’s a place for a whole bunch of really disparate people to share a vision.”

While 2024 brings with it the imminent closure of the Elefant Traks, there are mixed feelings among those involved. On one hand, there’s the sadness of finality, but on the other, there are the exciting new prospects opened up by the label’s roster who will continue to create.

Still, the changing landscape of music, the rise of streaming, and the oversaturation of the market now mean that the work done by Elefant Traks – and the world in which they operate – is totally different to when it started. What remains is an impactful legacy, one that has fostered greater representation in and focus on hip-hop, and one that has provided its artists a platform to speak out publicly, and without fear.

“The thing that I hope that we are remembered for is that we stood up for what we believed in and we worked with artists that we backed and were ahead of their time in a lot of ways,” Levinson says. “Our label was founded by a Sri Lankan Australian; we were very multicultural from day one, we watched in the ‘00s as nationalism and racism became big parts of the Australian identity under John Howard, and we fought tooth and nail against that, and stood up for what we believed in.

“I hope that our legacy is that our independence allowed us to speak freely, and our independence allowed us to be the voice that artists should have in a society.”

Now, with the label coming to a close, Elefant Traks are saying farewell with a run of shows around the country. Celebratory in their focus rather than morose, Melbourne will receive two gala-style shows at the Recital Centre on June 15 as names like The Herd, Hermitude, Horrorshow, Nardean, Joelistics, The Last Kinection, Ozi Batla, and Jimblah perform with a live band to wrap a bow on the label’s legacy.

“We wanted to actually zoom out and look at this incredible achievement,” Levinson says. “I mean, we weren’t supposed to last 26 years – we were probably supposed to last two.

“The venue in Melbourne is such a beautiful room and we chose it because it feels so special,” he adds.

With so many artists, so many songs, and so many moments, Levinson admits it’s impossible to shine a light on everyone who made the Elefant Traks story a successful one, but it’s a chance to zoom out, to bask in the special moments they were a part of, and the role they played in so many lives.

“These performances are really just a snapshot of the label, and it’s capturing everybody together in a – literally – never-to-be-repeated gig,” Levinson concludes. “I think all you can do is just have a party.”

Elefant Traks 25th Anniversary – The Finale is happening at Melbourne Recital Centre on June 15, get tickets here.

This article was made in partnership with Melbourne Recital Centre.