God on the Mind, and on the Mic
‘God has changed since Genesis,” sings Romy Hoffman, aka Macromantics, on her new album — and then follows it up with a sly vocal wink at the listener: “Haven’t we all?”
It’s a rare burst into song for the Australian hip-hop emcee whose debut album, “Moments in Movement,” was released last month. But Macromantics definitely isn’t your average rapper. A clean-cut white Jewish girl born in South Africa and raised in Australia, she’s everything that hip-hop stars aren’t supposed to be — insecure, politically active, supremely geeky in her worship of wordplay, culture clashes and bad puns. She’ll cut a nursery-rhyme-like song, funky and bouncing and seamlessly dance-club oriented, and then she’ll follow it up with a darkly haunting piece in which she imagines her own death.
It might be that flair that got Hoffman signed to Kill Rock Stars, one of indie rock’s biggest record labels. It’s a first for Kill Rock Stars, as well, a company whose roster includes anti-folk pioneer Elliot Smith, and riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, but almost no hip-hop.
Listening to “Moments,” however, one realizes that the shidduch isn’t so unexpected — certainly not as unexpected as the album itself, which finds Hoffman running the gamut between the brisk and clever wordplay of “Miss Macro,” the anti-folk groove of “Dark Side of Dallas,” and the playfulness and intensity of her characteristic lyrical bombast, which can be deeply introverted — personal and confessional at one moment, and rhyming “Melanie Griffith” with “Lemony Snicket” the next.
But Hoffman is somewhat of an enigma herself. A queer-identified, Orthodox-raised artist, she got her start in quite a different arena: the Australian punk scene. At 15 she was playing in the backup band for Australian pop icon Ben Lee. Soon Hoffman got the opportunity to tour America, which opened her eyes to the world of hip-hop and gave her the impetus to start performing on her own.
“It was on the U.S. tour that I saw hip-hop music being lived, breathed, eaten and spoken firsthand,” Hoffman said in an interview with the Forward. “I became in awe of this movement, this social and cultural force.”
After that, she started writing her own hip-hop compositions, freestyling an hour or more a day. Often her pieces would be so freeform that they were barely songs — more like strands of free-association words and mumbo-jumbo nursery rhymes. She started getting her own gigs, and eventually piggybacked as an opening act for such major hip-hop figures as Aesop Rock and Jean Grae on their Australian tours.
Fierce and intensely personal, Hoffman’s hip hop takes a sharp right turn at such conventional hip-hop themes as braggadocio and ego polishing. “I’m armed with a therapist and a pair of fists,” she said — sounding more like a confession than a threat. She also talks about her religious background, and her feelings about God, with a surprising degree of candidness. Jewish allusions creep throughout her work, from growing up in the Jewish community in Johannesburg to growing up Orthodox. But her rebellious streak — and, more so, her individualistic streak — seems to come up against them: “I know that I can go to my thousandth shiur,” she raps, “But I must look within myself in order to be pure.”
Last year, to inspire an artistic and creative change — what Hoffman terms “cell regeneration” — she moved from Sydney, a bustling and down-to-business city with an established and corporate music scene, to the smaller and more creatively experimental Melbourne. For an artist who’s barely 30 years old and has only just released her first full-length album, Hoffman’s tight as a whip about her career; she’s careful and reticent, but wise. “I do what I do because if I didn’t do it, I’d be a sad, dangerous person,” she said. “Art is my release. I will do it regardless of what people think or say.”
Matthue Roth’s new book, “Candy in Action,” a novel about supermodels who know kung fu, comes out in April.