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A selection of still images from OneFour: Against All Odds
Scenes from a revolution thwarted (image: Archi Banal / Supplied)

Pop CultureNovember 6, 2023

Review: OneFour Against All Odds is brilliant, infuriating and the music doco of the year

A selection of still images from OneFour: Against All Odds
Scenes from a revolution thwarted (image: Archi Banal / Supplied)

They were briefly the most exciting new voices in rap. Then Australia’s anti-gang cops got involved.

This review first ran in The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up here.

In 2019, Sydney’s OneFour were briefly inescapable: songs like ‘The Message’ and ‘In the Beginning’ had that rarest of qualities – a truly original sound, that of strong Sāmoan-Australian accents talking about violence over doleful production which recalled UK artists like Stormzy. They were dubbed ‘Australian drill’, related to a raw form of hip hop which had emerged from Chicago a few years earlier. It was those unaffected voices which really hooked you: this was not the usual sound of Australia. Their music was a window into a community where the future led one of three ways: “footy, the factory or a life of crime”, as OneFour’s YP says.

Once the novelty wore off, the visuals and lyrics kept people spellbound. Videos showed huge crowds of Pacific men, often with bandanas covering their faces, shrouded in smoke and eerily lit. The intro to ‘The Message’ bore a warning: “the lyrics and characters of this song are all fictional and should not be taken literal”, before muffled audio recorded from prison which implied they were deadly serious. The song went globally viral, with the blunt, aggressive lyrics creating unavoidable critical comparisons to NWA, who emerged from a similar community in LA with another electric new sound in the late 80s.

OneFour played a sold out show at Auckland’s Powerstation in 2019, and seemed destined for international stardom. For those not playing close attention, especially here in New Zealand, they seemed to just fade away. This is hardly atypical of artists who break out, especially in the hyperchurn era of social media, which played a crucial role in their rise. The algorithm often gets bored and moves on. The real story is the subject of OneFour: Against All Odds, a new feature-length documentary on Netflix which tells the shocking story of how their past came back to haunt them, before Australia’s police conspired to brazenly harass the group into submission.

The group emerged from Mt Druitt, an impoverished Western suburb a long way from Sydney’s CBD. They were childhood friends who went to the same Mormon church, but also lived in rough streets and hung tight together for protection. They don’t dispute that they also got into scraps, including one particularly brutal pub brawl in 2018 which would come back to haunt them. To its great credit, Against All Odds does not flinch in its portrayal of their backstory, and includes wince-inducing CCTV footage of that incident. Three members were charged as a result, though the trial would not arrive for another two years.

That was enough of a window. They started working in a community recording studio, and the songs caught the ear of a major label and management, who signed them and helped the group professionalise. Then those singles dropped, the global frenzy happened, and shows were booked. It was at this point that Sydney’s conservative media took notice, and drew a line between the knife-play in the lyrics and the decades-old “postcode wars” between inner and outer suburbs. 

From there it was a short step to the NSW Police’s Strike Force Raptor, the same elite anti-gang force briefly pushed as a model here by National. Despite their pending charges, OneFour don’t profile like any kind of organised crime group, seeming more like kids growing up in a tough environment and lacking a natural path – until they carved one for themselves. Strike Force Raptor, on the other hand, have a name which sounds like a social media account and likewise operated as if they were policing for likes and shares. They became obsessed with OneFour, with a leader passing on a message via ABC journalist Osman Faruqi that they would “make your life miserable until you stop doing what you’re doing”. 

To be clear, what they were doing was rapping. But the police proved as good as their word, and used intimidation around liquor licensing to shut down shows not just in Sydney, but all around the country. In fact the only show of their first tour that went ahead was at Auckland’s Powerstation, and just a single member took the stage due to a combination of prison sentences and Strike Force Raptor contacting New Zealand’s police.

OneFour are a complex phenomenon. Their lyrics are part documentary, and their motives might not be to all tastes. “I never wanted to rap until I realised I could diss people I didn’t like,” says YP. They deliberately referenced a murder impacting a rival gang called Ward 21, and many lyrics are brazen threats of beatings or stabbings. Yet they were operating in a country where Chopper Reid became a beloved larrikin star for doing an even more lurid version of the same, just in a different medium. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it was the conservative-media-whipped fear of Pacific men that drove the police response.

Against All Odds barrels along, and uses a selection of cerebral music journalists to provide context while also giving police ample opportunity to present their case. The archive footage is sharply presented, played on televisions in idyllic suburban homes as a way of showing how it must have landed for Australians finding out about the group over breakfast. Yet while it clearly has a point of view, it’s not one-eyed, and does not shrink from explaining how the group’s own actions were more than enough of an obstacle without authorities’ involvement.

After more than an hour of maddening, almost torturous behaviour from Australia’s police there is a moment of cathartic redemption which I won’t spoil. I got real chills watching it happen, and it provides a measure of emotional payoff. But knowing how pop music works, it’s hard to imagine that the momentum lost can be regained. OneFour are now all out of a prison and able to pursue a career, even as Strike Force Raptor still mercilessly harass them.

Sadly it seems likely that the group’s legacy won’t be a reward for their toil and innovation but instead watching those they inspire swell and prosper in their wake. A couple of weeks ago a Melbourne group called HP Boyz played a show at Auckland’s Ōtāhuhu College alongside TikTokers like Terrell and Uce Gang. The crowd lit up with a very pure energy – and every part of it was unimaginable without what OneFour brought into the world. It’s appalling that they are unlikely to reap the benefits of what they started. But the abiding message of Against All Odds is that, as with NWA decades earlier, draconian action only serves to make the fire spread and brighten.

OneFour: Against All Odds is streaming now on Netflix.

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