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John Safran


Bound for Rottofest, John Safran has a knack for throwing himself into situations he hasn’t prepared for – Haitian voodoo ceremonies, successfully placing a fatwa on Rove McManus,  roping maverick priest Fr. Bob Macguire into a regular radio show. While touring with his new book, Murder In Mississippi, he’s been signed up for a DJ set by Perth partystarters Chocolate Jesus. ZOE KILBOURN chats with John ahead of his Friday, September 19 DJ set at The Good Shepherd. 

“You have to put yourself in new circumstances and – not in an over-the-top way – you have to shake things up a bit. Somehow, my regular thing is not quite knowing what to ask, and the asking the wrong questions. That can somehow work out. You go somewhere, ask something inappropriate, there’s blowback – and then you get something awesome out of that.”

John Safran is talking about the crazy method behind Murder In Mississippi, and possibly every other career highlight. John’s in Perth for a Rottofest presentation of the book’s “expansion pack”: the book tour includes phone recordings, footage the ABC couldn’t air, personal insights the book couldn’t accommodate. While planning, Chocolate Jesus wore him down.

“These guys have been emailing me for years, like, every six months. I think they might’ve just emailed me when the Rottofest thing was being planned, so I just said, “Oh, same time, why not?” I’ve only DJed twice before – I mean, what are they expecting? I’ve locked into just doing ‘80s hip hop I’ve got on vinyl, that’s the limitation I’ve given myself. I really liked 80s hip hop growing up, I hope that’ll make it interesting.”

John really likes ‘80s hip hop. As a uni student in the early ‘90s, he even found himself part of a crew called Raspberry Cordial. He won’t be rapping for his Good Shepherd set, but you can expect a lot of Public Enemy and Beastie Boys.

“One of the biggest mistakes of my early life was buying hip hop cassettes. I’ve got all these first pressings of De La Soul and Public Enemy and whatever, and it’s all on cassette. I mean, cassette was more portable, but what was I thinking? All these records I’ve found have accumulated over the years since then. And also, some of the stuff back then I couldn’t get on cassette so I just bought on vinyl anyway.

“On New Year’s Eve I did a DJ set, which was sort of my first one in Melbourne. Midnight Juggernauts were playing. I did the same thing as I’ll do at this gig, although I slipped in one ‘90s record, and someone noticed it. Not this time.”

“In rap, there’s such an obvious blueprint for story telling,” he says. “I took it all as being kind of cheeky – I never took the lyrics seriously – like when LL Cool J was banging on about how cool he was, I just thought it was meant to be funny. Like, not like I’m laughing at him, but that he’s putting on an act. I liked the whole thing – it wasn’t comedy, it was nearly comedy – transgressive, offensive, all that kind of stuff.”

“I’ve actually been reading all these old crime books from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I think early rap was kind of like that  – there was no guarantee that society was then going to consider it as an art form., and subsequently they’re seen as classics and great works. People just were kind of running on this energy – it was very unpretentious, and it’s fascinating trying to figure out where it was coming from. Early Public Enemy records – it’s so idiosyncratic. You kind of go, What was there before it? It’s like this combo of black militant lyrics and then this weird sound of like, punk rock, but not – it was confusing and exciting and it burst out there when no one was looking for it.”

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