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January 14, 2016

Book Notes - Omar Musa "Here Come the Dogs"

Here Come the Dogs

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Omar Musa's Here Come the Dogs innovatively blends prose and poetry into an incendiary, unforgettable novel.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A bravado novel about survival and rebirth in a subculture that moves to its own rhythms."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Omar Musa's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Here Come the Dogs:

To paraphrase one of my creative heroes, Werner Herzog, part of art is extending sympathy where it has not been extended before, to look for stories where they have not been looked for before. I feel that hip hop is rarely written well about in fiction (and in the case of Australian hip hop, never written about at all). It seems to me that the great hip hop books are non-fiction or sociological in some way. So, in my novel Here Come the Dogs, I decided to delve into the world of young Australian men, often fatherless, often the children of migrants, who seek redemption from a sense of powerlessness through beats and raps and spraypaint.

I have been a rapper for about fifteen years and like the characters in the novel, I am "ethnic" and from a small Australian town, so I thought I was in a unique position to write this book. I wanted to write about the Australia I see around me — liquor-soaked, pulsing with violence and prejudice, fuelled by a burning, collective madness. I also wanted the book to have a soundtrack, mostly comprised of Australian hip hop. I assume most American readers will be unfamiliar with Australian hip hop, but it is a thriving and diverse scene, which I have tried to represent by absolutely drenching it in Aussie rap references and songs. I have also added two beautiful non-hip hop songs that influenced the book. Here's to music, poetry and the beautiful outsiders!

1) Face the Fire — Jimblah: This book is all about fire. The fires that burn within us, the fires that burn within our relationships, the literal fires that ignite the tinderbox Australian landscape every year. The first kernel of an idea for writing this book came from witnessing the Canberra bushfires in 2003 that destroyed homes and took lives. I remember ash falling from the sky like black snow and thinking, "one day I will write about this." Each of the characters in my novel are forced to face a fire at some point, which is why I decided to make the title of this Jimblah song the opening quote of the book. He is one of my favourite musicians in Australia — singer, rapper, producer, proud Aboriginal man and someone who, in his music, gets to the painful heart of the things that matter.

2) Spice 1 — Face of a Desperate Man: Spice 1 is a classic West Coast gangsta rapper. This tune, from 1994, with its squelchy bassline and searing synths, combines melancholy verses about the street life with a Caribbean-tinted hook. Aleks, a Macedonian-Australian guy who drifts in an out of the criminal world, is listening to Spice 1 as he drives to a graveyard to arrange a drug deal. Many of the characters in my novel have "the face of a desperate man", and I tried to use them to provide a window into the rage of toxic Australian masculinity. I also felt that Aleks being a fan of Spice 1 might show his age a bit. He and the other characters are very much a product of an older generation of rap fans and partly the book is about how hip hop itself is changing, not just the lives of the characters.

3) Animal Kingdom — Trem: Trem is beloved by hardcore Australian rap fans and the characters in this book. Aleks describes him as having a voice like a "diamond cutter". After many years of secrecy and hearsay as to what he was up to, Trem released an album named "For the Term of his Natural Life" around the time I began writing this novel and it has already become a cult classic. Although he writes a lot about graffiti, this song is actually about the Melbourne underworld. Regardless, its shadowy paranoia and dramatic Prowla beat felt perfect for a scene where Solomon and Jimmy are plotting a graff mission. "They ain't show you this side of the city in their postcards."

4) Listen Close — Horrorshow. Horrorshow, comprised of producer/DJ Adit and MC Solo, is a brilliant act from the Inner West of Sydney whose work is a diary of the times. Make sure you check them out. This song is about gentrification and the layers of history that lie beneath a city (in this case, Sydney), with Solo rapping "Everyday, the heritage fades/ gentrification — nothing's gonna get in the way." In my book, Solomon, a Samoan-Australian ex-basketball player, raps these lyrics. He is is increasingly disturbed by the gentrification of his small, working class hometown, something that ends up affecting him very personally.

5) Life Is… — David Dallas: New Zealand has produced a lot of amazing hip hop artists, like King Kapisi, Che Fu, Tom Scott and Scribe. David Dallas is right now at the pinnacle. Produced by Fire n Ice, this song has a dreamy, synthed-out vibe, and I thought it would be a good backdrop for Solomon, who has just been smoking weed, to meet Scarlett Snow, a Kiwi tattoo artist who he eventually falls in love with. Incidentally, I made it that Scarlett comes from Papatoetoe, a suburb of South Auckland that David Dallas also hails from. A lot of this book is preoccupied with dreams and hallucinations and I love it when I can make the tunes reflect that.

6) NY State of Mind — Nas: Tuuuuune! Absolutely. Fucken. Classic. When I was in my early to mid-teens, I loved West Coast rappers so much that I didn't want to listen to East Coast rap, kind of like I was showing solidarity with 2Pac and Snoop when all the shit was going down. Also, West Coast beats were funky and fun and expansive. As an Australian, I felt like I could relate to them. By contrast, East Coast beats seemed so dense and paranoid. However, listening to Nas 'Illmatic" for the first time at the age of seventeen, the driving bassline and street poetry of this song just blew me away and I realised I'd been missing out — that "oh shit!" moment from which you never turn back. I used this classic as the backdrop for a streetball duel, where Solomon is facing his age and his past as much as an opponent.

7) Jean Grae — A-Alikes: I wanted to write well about a live rap show — the joy, the fanaticism, the "general madness in the air." Jean Grae and Pharaohe Monche are two American MCs who have shown a lot of love to Australia, so it felt right to immortalise them in this scene. I do remember doing support for Jean Grae once and she was wearing a blood-soaked white dress. This song doesn't make an appearance in the book per se, but it was the first tune that made me take notice of what a force of nature she is as a rapper. I wanted a live show to be the backdrop for a meditation on why the boys got into hip hop in the first place. As Pharaohe Monche rocks the stage, I try to delve into how how hip hop acts as a replacement culture for those who are born of fracture and how so many rap fans/rappers seem to be fatherless or have a horrible relationship with their father.

8) Game's Wired — Dialect and Despair: This duo out of Adelaide are always on point, with a sampled, early '90s New York vibe. I actually did support for them back in the day. Dialect always seemed wise beyond his years, with a raspy voice that reminds me a bit of Nas and razor-sharp lyrics that are grimy but verge on the mystical. Jimmy quotes this song in a scene where he is drunk and feels at his most powerless. Many of the characters feel as if they have no choices, that the game is wired against them. Aleks, the product of a war-torn country, at one wonders if we get to choose our choices and if his violence is conditioned or hard-wired. Solomon at one point compares he and his friends to Mercury Fire, an ageing racing greyhound, who runs and runs but will never catch the rabbit he is after. He thinks that the true winner is always "the man in the stands with the ticket in his hands."

9) Dime Piece — J Dilla and Dwele: Just a good, soulful song for lovemaking. Scarlett Snow is definitely Solomon's dime piece, his ten out of ten. My main aim for my sex scenes was not to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I don't know what else to say — this song is just beautiful.

10) A Pei Se Vaitafe — Samoan hymn: I travelled to Samoa twice in the writing of this book and I made sure when I was there I visited a church on Sunday so I could hear the singing. The harmonies were breathtaking. The centrality of the church in village life was also something you can't help but notice. Solomon is an atheist, which puts him at odds with other members of his family, but it is to church where he goes to try to reconnect with his Samoan heritage. I also wanted to show how a lot of people who are into hip hop come from families/communities that have rich musical traditions, and how hip hop allows them to tap into the ancient in a modern way. It is always a contentious thing to write from the point of view of someone from a culture other than your own, that it can't help but end up as appropriation. I agree that it is a tightrope, but at the same time, it's important to see if we can get into other people's shoes. That is the point of fiction. Otherwise, why don't we just all write autobiography and be done with it? I would never claim, as a Malaysian-Australian, that I truly got to the heart of Samoan culture or what it means to be Samoan, but for me, part of this book was trying to learn a bit more about the cultures of people I grew up around. Australia would be a better place if we just put in a bit more effort and tried to learn more about our neighbours stories. I don't know whether I pulled it off or not, but I tried. I tried to research as much as I could, tried to empathise with my characters in the best way I could, and was willing to face criticism if it came.

11) Gajdarsko — Dragan Dautovksi Quartet: This astonishing piece of music is a traditional 'oro, made with a gajda, the Macedonian bagpipe. It starts off with a slow drumbeat and builds to a frenzy. I travelled to Macedonia twice to research this book. It is a fascinating part of the world — a lot of heart, a lot of (very confusing) history, a lot of trauma. I grew up in a small Australian town and a lot of my friends were Macedonian and had seen war up close, which was partly why I wanted to try to delve into this culture through the character of Aleks. I asked a friend to make me a mixtape of Macedonian music and this song was one that gave me chills every time. Aleks dances to an 'oro in a scene where he is making a crucial decision for he and his family and it is one of my favourite parts of the book. The scene is heavily influenced by a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. Kudos to anyone who can figure out which story. I actually wrote fair chunks of this book to this particular song, because it has no lyrics and induced an almost trance-like state in me.

12) Spit Syndicate — Beauty in the Bricks: "Beauty in the Bricks" is what this whole book is about. This song, by the two slick rhymers from Spit Syndicate out of Sydney, appears in a scene where the characters have come to realisations about their place in the world. Australian is often portrayed in a very shiny way — beaches, blonde surfers, bronzed babes — or the rugged majesty of the outback, but many of us grew up in the suburbs, in flats, amongst bricks and concrete in places that were seen as banal and ugly. We learned to find beauty, love and redemption in these places. I wanted to write about that.

The men I write about in this book are largely ignored or demonised in Australian society. I wanted to add nuance and complexity to their story, while not apologising for some of their bad actions. I wanted to write about minorities (and minorities within minorities) to show that their stories may seem small, but they matter.

Omar Musa and Here Come the Dogs links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
video trailer for the book

Guardian review
The Lifted Brow review
Los Angeles Times review
Sydney Morning Herald review
Sydney Morning Herald review

The Australian profile of the author
Malaysian Star profile of the author
Melbourne Spoken Word interview with the author
Sydney Morning Herald profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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