MEET: Tim Levinson
They say that good, long-lasting relationships don’t just happen; they take time, patience and understanding. And if — like Tim Levinson — your significant other is music, then the approach is pretty much the same. Managing director of hip-hop and electronic record label Elefant Traks and known by the moniker Urthboy, Levinson has played a crucial role (or two) in cultivating Australia’s hip-hop culture in a label that has evolved along with the artists it champions.
Founded by Kenny Sabir in 1998, Elefant Traks is proof that “a bunch of artists can run a business independently and endure”. Starting out as a DIY label at a time when Australian hip-hop ran mostly underground, it’s come of age as one of the country’s most respected, pioneering labels that is 100% artist owned and run. With five solo albums of his own and an award or two to show for it, Levinson has simultaneously facilitated the growth of big-name favourites such as Hermitude, Okenyo, Horror Show and Joelistics.
In a celebration befitting their 20 vibrant years, Elefant Traks is throwing a bunch of parties, live performances and a series of ‘Elefant in the Room’ talks featuring tales from the tour bus. We caught up with Levinson about shirking the safe life of superannuation and holiday pay for your true love...
Tell us a bit about how Elefant Traks came to life. Was there a ‘ding’ idea moment?
I wasn't a founder of the label but I recall Kenny Sabir talking about feeling like there was no other option for the kind of music he and his bunch of friends were making. The climate for hip-hop and electronic music was a world removed from what it is today and there wouldn't have been a single A&R trying to sign hip-hop artists. It started out DIY and has somehow retained that spirit twenty years later.
You're not only the managing director of a record label, but you’re also one of the most well regarded MC’s in Australia. When did you become Urthboy and how did you get to where you are today?
Haha. I don't even know where to start with that. I've always been driven by a genuine surprise at the things I've been fortunate enough to do and the curiosity to get away with shit that I really shouldn't is a great motivator.
For those who aren’t record label savvy, can you tell us a bit about the kind of work involved in running a record label?
We bring people together and support the creative ideas they have with music. We've built an infrastructure that provides those artists with a channel to audiences. Anyone can get music to people but the roles required for an artist to be successful are pretty diverse and require a team that is focused on those aspects.
With so many independent record labels out there, how is Elefant Traks distinguishable from the rest?
I think we're one of the better labels that genuinely support artists - we consider the community around an artist to be as important as the specific goals they have. If you stick around for more than an album or two, the hype dies down and it's impossible to avoid the darker side of being a musician/artist - and that's when you need a more holistic vision. Some of our artists have been with us for ten to fifteen years so we have a long term perspective rather than a hype-machine mentality.
Are there any challenges to working in both areas of the music industry (as both a successful hip-hop artist and a record label director), or does this go hand in hand?
It's a difficult challenge balancing the care that each role requires. A lot of artists want to start their own label and I wish them luck, because sooner or later you realise the best label staff put humility before their ego and that's not always easy for artists. But by the same token, being an artist myself gives me good insights into the pressures that artists face that aren't always apparent. Playing both roles has provided me with endless moments of personal growth that have taught me about myself. It's a huge privilege to have a 'career' as an artist, and also to be able to share in the careers of other artists.
It’s exciting to see Australia’s hip-hop culture continue to expand. When did you first get into creating hip-hop music, and how has the Australian hip-hop scene changed since you first began?
It's amazing, hip-hop culture tends to communicate the lives and context of the environment the music comes from. We're seeing a wider range of artists tell their stories now and it's not just the music industry that benefits, it's the entire country's culture. It bugs me out how great some of the emerging artists are.
Elefant Traks is based in a warehouse in Marrickville. Is this where you feel most inspired, and if not, what is your creative space like?
We moved here about nine years ago and it's a beautiful area full of personality and quirks. The dynamic between younger people moving in the area and the charm of older immigrant communities provides the place with enough of a balance and it still feels like it has a soul despite the creeping gentrification. Our immediate area is really vibrant, there are a stack of artists and small business that give the neighbourhoods an energy.
Do you think having roots in the Inner West has impacted your music, and if so, how?
Many of us either grew up here or have spent twenty years in places like Burwood, Ashfield, Campsie, Dulwich Hill, Marrickville, Enmore. Our area has a huge influence on what we do as artists.
How was Elefant Traks had an impact on the Australian Music Industry and how have things changed since the birth of Elefant Traks 20 years ago?
I feel a strong connection with a large part of the industry because you build relationships over the years. But whenever we get too close to that "industry" it reminds me of the differences at Elefant Traks that I really value. I'm no fan of the hyper-competitive commercialism of pitting artists against each other that our industry swears by (ARIAs etc), while artists kill themselves and abuse drugs and manage the extreme levels of mental illness that come with the territory. Getting back to the question, I think we're proof that a bunch of artists can run a business independently and endure.
What can party-goers of the East Coast expect from the upcoming E20 series of all-star parties?
Life, music, community, love.
The ‘Elefant in the room’ series promises tall tales from the tour bus. Can you share one of the most notable tour bus experiences?
The idea behind this event is that "the rumours are true...." and the stories are being told on the night. Sorry for deliberately not answering your question!
What career pathway would you have opted for if it wasn’t music?
Something that pays super and has holiday pay. Anything will do.
If your music could be any food, what would it be and why?
A pie. You can put almost anything in a pie and it tastes good. Hang on, we're not talking about my favourite food to cook? If my music was food, it'd be a pie though because that's what I'd cook myself.
The ET20 creative programme of parties, live music and talks will kick off next week, making its way through Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney throughout November and December.
Check out the full program and get your tickets here.