How Australian hip-hop pioneer Lee Monro transitioned from Figgkidd and took his name back
From being one of the first Australian rap acts to be signed to a music label in Sony Music and subsequently connecting and collaborating with the likes of Tech N9ne and Redfoo, to mentoring a whole new generation of Australian hip-hop and R&B artists. This is the story of how Lee Monro evolved as a rapper and stayed true to himself despite being shunned by Australian hip-hop.
The man formerly known as Figgkidd is filled with indelible insight into the Australian and global hip-hop world, having been signed to Sony Music in the mid-noughties. Moreover, Monro was one of the first Australian hip-hop acts alongside Melbourne group 1200 Techniques to be embraced and subsequently backed by a major music label, releasing his debut album ‘What Is Figgkidd’ in 2004.
A father, partner, artist, creative, True Wealth Music independent label head, and GODPOD ZILLACAST Podcast host, Monro has witnessed firsthand the transition of hip-hop in Australia from being deemed ‘hokey’ to now being revered as an empowering cultural landmark that gives a voice to the voiceless. His story and influence have long been unheralded, and despite this, his authenticity and work ethic has shined through and led him to play a critical part in shaping the artists that are now canvassing the hip-hop and R&B movement within Australia and beyond.
“I started when I was fourteen and I just went really hard at it, like I just was a bit obsessive about it. But the funny thing was, at the time, there wasn’t really white MCs to be honest. Eminem was yet to bust through so if you were an emcee and you were white you were considered to be like a try hard,” Monro explains.
“I got up at a lot of open mics whenever I could, there was one specific one that was under-18s at Crush in Sydney where I got up and everyone kicked a verse and whoever was considered the best won a prize. I won that and when I won the DJ turned to me and was like ‘do you want to come down and MC?’ because the old MC had lost his job. The promoter who ran the under-18s night ran the club circuit so I started to make these connections and they saw I was really about it and put me on. Sometimes I’d go to these clubs and wait until 3:00 am just to jump on the mic and show what I could do. But it paid off because then I had all of these opportunities because people would see me and remember me.
“The first time I ever actually recorded I went in this talent show at a place called Chocolate City and we jumped up and went okay, we didn’t win though. And Nino Brown saw me the next day at Anthem Records and was like ‘you’re that kid that spat last night’, and at this time like Nino Brown was like a street legend. He gives me his card and says to hit him up, now for me was really stoked to have my crew, so the first time I recorded was at Nino Brown’s folks’ house and we just did it on a 4-track over some instrumentals. And that was my first CD demo that I ever had.”
From here, Monro worked to merge the Sydney and Brisbane scenes alongside Chicago MC Baby Kane, who was critical to him taking his next major steps in the industry.
“I was in this crew; we’re doing shows and building a Sydney to Brisbane sort of collective called Outfit. Basically, it got to a point where Kane had a connect with a girl called Lui who was creating an independent label and brought us all in and asked if we could do something. Lui was a real straight shooter and said‘this is really hard to sell, people won’t really understand a Wu-Tang sort of thing, there’s no real story’. She wasn’t really against hip-hop she was just more sort of strategic and knew what the labels wanted and what they thought they could sell.
“Fast-forward I was working at my job in Burwood, Lui hit me up and said ‘I don’t think I can sell the whole thing, but I think that I could work with you specifically as far as skill and writing goes’. By this stage Eminem had been out so people were a little more open to something like that where a white MC was doing commercial rap. I said yes and tried to run it by the crew. The American guys thought I was jumping ship and I explained that I was just getting my foot in, the other guys from Australia were down because they wanted to get on.”
Monro recalls a two-year period after this where he put a stack of time and energy into crafting his first album under the guidance of his then manager, Lui.
“Lui was basically going to all of the labels and pushing trying to get my demos out. And the weird thing was, because at the time I was doing sort of cheeky-style raps and I had tattoos and I was white, I was obviously going to be compared to Eminem right? So, she was like ‘if we’re getting this Eminem comparison what we’re gonna do is call up Shady Records because we want to get the guy who mixes Eminem to mix Figg so we can make sure that they’re not similar in sound’. She ended up getting through to a guy called Joel Martin who owned Eminem’s publishing (8 Mile Style) and has since he was fourteen. And he had heard her voicemail and was interested in hearing me. From there they’re talking every day.
“Fast-forward again, Dave Massey who was the head of Sony in the States is over doing a visit and overhears my demo CD in Pat Handlin’s room. Pat was like 16 at the time and hanging out with all of us at the time, him and his little mate Kemp, which was funny. He hears that CD and asks Denis Handlin what Pat is listening to and he pretty much says ‘it’s from a kid we’re looking to sign for Sony’. And this Dave Massey guy asks to tee up a meeting on a Friday, and it just so happened that I was doing a show that night. And he came down to our show, and once all of the labels knew that Dave Massey was going down, they all ended up down there as well. My manager was like ‘here’s fifty bucks put some credit on your phone, text all your mates, tell them all to come down and pack it out’. My manager put a mad sound system in so it was gonna be like full blast, and we’d been rehearsing so we were fucking fully prepared.
“We smashed out our set and Dave Massey was like ‘you need to sign this kid’ and within a couple of weeks we had the deal sorted.”
Having initially established himself under the penname Figgkidd in an era where cassettes were well out of fashion and LimeWire was yet to arrive, where streaming numbers and Instagram reach wasn’t a determinative factor in your success as an artist, Monro recognises his own determination and hustle in being critical to him getting noticed by a label.
“No one was talking to the labels like that, at all. 1200 Techniques had a deal down south, but no one was making a deal like that. We were one of the biggest deals as well which was pretty crazy,” he explains.
“Back then it was different. You know what’s fucking insane? I was before downloads. I was one of the last artists before downloads. I was before Napster; I was before LimeWire. The way that you made it back on those days was a record deal, there was no such thing as independent or people that did digital distribution. They pressed, they made your shit and they shipped it. It wasn’t just chuck it on Distrokid and Bob’s your uncle.
“What’s so crazy is everything happened so fast, like downloads weren’t really affecting the music industry but by the time I dropped at the end of 2004 shit had hit the fan. Physical copies were down the gurgler, it just… in the span of about a year or two it was just done. It was a whole different ball game. Essentially you had to turn around and start justifying to these labels sales and that was ultimately out of control because everyone was just downloading shit.
“As far as like allure to go there [and be signed], nah absolutely not. I mean that was the goal like everybody was trying to get a deal. Everybody’s biggest prayers would be answered if they got a record deal with a major label but it’s different now.”
Monro has been outspoken on his socials through the years about the lack of acknowledgement and respect he received once he signed to Sony, particularly from the Australian rap scene’s older heads who disparaged the commercial evolution of rap Monro was spearheading in the country.
“I got jammed up by this cunt called Blaze who used to write for a really big street publication called 3D World. I had done my yards in Sydney and people within Sydney knew that, but people from other cities hadn’t really seen me yet. So, I seemingly came out of nowhere for a lot of people in the scene particularly outside of Sydney.
“Before I came out Sony turned to a writer for a big publication people read up on and said ‘we’ve got Australia’s answer to Eminem’. Now that’s obviously a big fucking no-no in hip-hop. So, here’s me working my ass off more than any cunt that I knew at the time, no one was working like me I’m telling you that much. They were either putting in work for the music but selling drugs and they’d be into their graf as well, I just know for myself the reason I got in was that I outworked anybody. And I committed, like I was working in Liverpool at the time and I was trekking all the way to Crows Nest where the studio was basically five times a week at night just to record. So, it was hectic.
“The reception initially was really mixed. People that were just fresh to it and it was new to them they fucking loved it. Like I’ve got Figgkidd fans to this day that are adamant they want to see me do some Figgkidd shit which is insane. Whereas the hip-hop guys their noses were out of joint, they were like ‘why this kid’? Like the amount of fucking bullshit stories I heard. I grew up in Sefton, it’s a shitty little ass-end of Chester Hill industrial piece of shit area where nothing much happens. But I was driven.
“I felt like I earnt my way but some of these guys were like ‘where is this kid from’? I heard rumors that ‘my dad worked for Sony’, that my ‘parents sold everything to put a silver spoon in my mouth’ when the reality was my dad wanted me to be a tradie like him. My dad didn’t understand arts, still to this day he’s got a bit of an air of ‘I told you so’ because like any money that I make from music is in addition to the income that I have to make as a retail professional. It’s crazy to hear that sort of reception from the guys that ultimately you looked up to and you wanted validation from, [where] they kept you on the outside and almost weren’t inclusive of you. And still, my name isn’t inclusive in a lot of conversations when I was like a beginner.”
Oscar Kightley’s 2020 documentary ‘Dawn Raid’ depicts the rise, fall and rebirth of the titular South Auckland label of the same name. Monro’s own admiration for seeing the figures behind Dawn Raid get their flowers is reaffirmed by the fact that he identifies his initial signing to Sony Music as having paved the way for them to successfully champion hip-hop and R&B acts in New Zealand and follow the same path.
“What’s so funny is like you know that Dawn Raid documentary right, now Mareko, the whole Deceptikonz, like Scribe, P-Money, all these guys that are OG revered homies, right? They all know me. If they see me face-to-face like they show me love. Now Andy – there’s Brotha D and Andy who run that label – I only saw in Auckland a couple of years ago and he turned around and was like ‘we based our whole Deceptikonz deal in Australia off of Figgkidd. We were like a guidepost at the time, that’s like how forward we were. People were looking at what we got and were like ‘based off that, we demand this’. And people were getting paid off the coattails of us.
“Mind you, all the hip-hop guys, we were new to the music business like we didn’t know really what was going on behind-the-scenes and as far as royalties and having money straight, we were still learning all that. But the Figgkidd shit was a guidepost for a lot of people just to see where they need to be.”
For lack of a more tried-and-true way of articulating the phrase, Monro getting his foot in the door made the door bigger for others to come through it and succeed.
“We kicked it in and everyone just flooded through. And that’s why in a couple of my raps I’ve got lines like “the first one through the door takes the bullets”, everyone else comes through after. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes when they talk about the history and they give a lot of cats their flowers for accomplishment and I’ve even had people say like ‘but you’re still rapping now, you’re still MCing now, you need to kick back and give other guys an opportunity’. I’m never not giving other guys an opportunity. When is it that you guys turn around and be like ‘props for the contribution bro, we see you’? Anyways it’s funny, it’s all gs. I mean I’ve gotta function either way so I just keep doing what I do and just try to lead by example as far as action gets.”
The release of ‘I Gotta Know’, featuring Tech N9ne and Redfoo, represented a huge moment for Monro. His unwavering self-belief and commitment to remaining steadfast in the face of doubters allowed him to bring together, what was in hindsight, undoubtedly one of the biggest collaborations in Australian rap history.
Looking at it from afar, one would assume the features were secured via the label and conducted without the artists ever meeting in order to simply procure a radio-friendly banger, as has sometimes been the case for domestic artists securing overseas features in Australia. However, on the contrary, Monro facilitated it himself and absolutely thrived in the setting of needing to construct a more accessible rap track.
“To be really honest at the time I had no problem with it. I had no problem admitting that I was a hip-hop artist with commercial values because my history is in R&B. Before I rapped, I used to sing and rap. So, that’s why you’ll hear a lot of singing, hooks or melodic-type stuff on my shit is because ultimately that’s where my history lies as well. It wasn’t just in hip-hop it was hip-hop and R&B, and essentially the whole culture.
“But what was dope was they [Sony] did still give us creative control. Redfoo you’ve got to remember he wasn’t in LMFAO yet, and Tech N9ne wasn’t on Forbes lists yet for being the most successful all-time independent artist, these were still underground hip-hop heads. So, when I met them and I connected with them it was organic. Redfoo I actually met through another friend of his Jay, they came down to the studio to try and see if I needed some beats. We didn’t really need some beats from Jay and when we went back to the US we saw Foo at the strip club and he came out and was like ‘last time you came here I didn’t want to show you this beat but I made a beat for you Figg because you inspired me to do music again’.
“On the trip prior to that I’d met Tech at a publishing party and he loved one of my tracks ‘Fairytale Master’ just because it was hell creative right. So, he was like ‘I really fuck with this so if you ever wanna work let me know’. So, Tech was a shoe-in. I literally hit up Tech on the message and was like ‘I’m back in LA you wanna work?’ and he was like ‘bet, let’s make it happen’. And that was it. It just so happened that what we made at that time was dope enough to be the single and we excited the record execs enough with it that they were happy with it. So, although it was a weird place to be writing a single it was not on their terms. Even down to the film clip, it’s trippy. The guy that did that, Spencer Susser, was actually the person who did ‘All I Know’ by Rahzel.”
When I ask Monro about what it was like being signed to a music label and whether he’d suffered from the rollercoaster highs and lows that come with the pressure, his answer reflects a grounded, levelheaded thought pattern that his held him in good stead from his younger days to now.
“There was no anxiety because the internet wasn’t telling everyone they have anxiety back then, but there was a bit of a weird two feelings in there. In one way you’re like ‘this is dope’ and sharing press rooms with Delta Goodrem, Guy Sebastian, Pete Murray, Shannon Noll – all these guys are now in my circle and I’m at that level. I really felt like ‘fuck man I’m in newspapers, I’m on the TV, I’m on the radio, you name it I’m on it, people know me I get stopped in public, I sign things’, it was wild. I was on the way to star status vibes.
“But on the other hand, you were still the kid that no one wanted because you were like the hip-hop guy in the label, and they didn’t really understand it. It was crazy, it was funny, and it was this really sort of half-half where you felt amazing and you also felt like you were always watching your back at the same time. That coupled with having to deal with the scene.
“I remember touring with Cypress Hill and doing every other city and showing me love. And doing Adelaide and them throwing up an ounce of weed on stage for us. And then I remember doing Sydney and the Sony execs were there to watch us open, it was Bliss n Eso, me, then Cypress Hill. I go to do the gig, and Hordern Pavilion is notorious for people throwing shit at the acts, and they were always throwing shit at us. I remember Xzibit got hit in the face with a fucking water bottle. So, I was literally just blocking cans and fucking rapping through it but I got real mad and I started screaming my shit at cunts, my mates are in the crowd punching fucking punching on with cunts. And I remember getting off and it was so funny I was on the plane with DJ Muggs and saying that it was fucked up that it was my first tour and they were throwing shit at me and he’s like ‘that’s nothing bro we’ve been fully ourselves at our peak and one time we went to Greece and they were throwing boulders at us’. But as far as like the label understanding that they didn’t get how you could be on the way up but you’ve still got to go through those ropes.”
A few years into his time with Sony Music, Monro parted ways with the music media titans in pursuit of a distribution deal with MGM that would afford him greater opportunity for self-sustainability as an artist. He cites this period as being one of the toughest in his artistic journey.
“Basically, it was really hard for me to keep up at that time, I was doing like shows everywhere and I’d had my first daughter. I always wanted kids relatively early and so having my daughter I was pumped. I remember when I found out that I was having my first daughter I’d just come back off the Nelly tour around 2005. And when the pressure because the dynamic changed, we negotiated our way out of the Sony deal because it wasn’t working and my manager was like ‘it’s all good I’ve got a dope distribution deal with MGM where we’ll get direct buy-in to Sanity’. So, she had this fucking hectic setup but she was like ‘I’ve just gotta ask you, are you cool to run with it? Cause I need you to be more self-sustainable as an artist.’”
“Because the business changed it made it very tough for me. I had to go source all of my own producers where I was working with her as an executive producer before so that dynamic changed. And then trying to find my feet as a father, as an artist, and it got to the point where the pressure got hectic and I wanted out. And my manager, it fucking killed her, but she was like ‘I can’t force you to do it if you don’t want to do it’. So, I had to step out of it and it was tough because I was exhausted. I was mentally fucked, I felt like I always had to watch my back or I was always defending myself. I felt like cunts were never happy. Mind you, the trap of the internet, you only ever really see the hate. I didn’t feel the love that would’ve helped me get past it. It just felt like everyone was talking shit.
“I sort of pulled the plug around 2006, 2007. And then I kept doing a little bit here and there but it wasn’t until 2009 or 2010 where I started to write again. And then I got back into it and changed into Lee Monro. It was a difficult transition out, and unfortunately it is something that I still obviously hold onto to this very day because there’s shit that I do regret that I didn’t stick out.”
A pure love for hip-hop as an artform and expression, as well as linking up with fellow West Sydney rap veteran Ello. C, instigated Monro’s refocusing as an artist on simply doing what he loved doing; writing and rapping.
“Hip-hop [got me back in] bro, I loved it. I was still an MC, I was still passionate, I still felt like I could compete with a lot of these guys and I was still young. I wanted to jump back in and be in the booth again, and write again and be on the mic again. There’s nothing like being up and being live. I got back and the reception was really good. I got inspired by Ello. C to write again and we were in a duo. But I really wanted to leave the Figgkidd thing behind and really wanted to come in as Lee Monro. It took people a while to understand why I changed my name. I remember going to a Bliss n Eso show backstage at Enmore and they were massive at this point, and mind you we came up together, the show sold out and the merch was selling fast. And Bliss was like ‘you’re out again but your name’s Lee Monro, how’d you come up with that?’ I’m like ‘nah bro that’s my name!’. Cause everybody only ever knew me as Figg.
“I guess that I just wanted to put myself out there. Even though I was never not myself as Figg, and even though there was a character to Figg that was like mischievous and young and cheeky. But there was really also a coming-of-age and maturity aspect to Lee Monro and I didn’t want somebody to be able to turn around and be like ‘that’s Figg and that’s Lee. I wanted people to know that I put my name on this and this shit is life for me. It’s no longer a pseudonym, you see me on a bill you see my name. It doesn’t get any realer than that sort of vibe. And then I just had another lease on writing and a creative freedom, and me and Ello just kicked it and got a lot of work done in a short period of time. We were able to release a lot of music. I think we did like countless singles, four mixtapes, one that never saw the light of day, we got to work with a lot of the new artists before they popped off like Will Singe, Kennyon Brown, B Wise, INQ., Timba, Christian Joseph, all these cats. We were there with them before they even popped off.”
Seeing hip-hop and R&B in a variety of forms becoming better embraced across Australia both in the underground and mainstream has motivated Monro even more.
“It’s been good because I’ve been able to help them, people like Will is a perfect example. I didn’t meet him when he was a nobody, I met him when he was a somebody but we connected in hip-hop because he’s an MC at heart. He’s a hectic rapper. We connected and he was at a real low point and we had this real genuine personal connection, he’s a homie we’ll never not have that connection. So, I got to see these guys on the come-up and see them through some real tough times which is dope because you see them on the other side of it and it’s hectic to see someone win.”
And it’s the values of hip-hop that have guided him even in his youth work and connecting with youngsters who resonate with him as a rapper who has well and truly been there and done it.
“My priority is always going to be family but hip-hop is part of my lifestyle, for lack of a better word. I’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s second nature, it leaks into everything that I do one way or another. Whether it be how I influence people at work or at schools, or with youth. It’s how I talk, it’s how I dress, it’s my knowledge. All of that resonates. Priority now is to be the best dad, teacher, friend, partner, son – all that sort of stuff – the best person that I can be and I live by those hip-hop core values and I try to educate with them. Because still to this day I feel, some of the most important values that people can have when it’s true to you.”
Throughout our conversation it struck me that Monro has often been cast as something he’s not by outside voices who have never interacted with him on a person-to-person level. It leads me to ask what he feels people have misunderstood about Figgkidd and Lee Monro.
“As Figgkidd I don’t think they really understood where I came from because they didn’t really get to witness that and see that come-up. I wasn’t the people’s champ because they didn’t get to know me. Because I’ve always been unapologetically honest, for better or for worse, and I think sometimes that sticks with me now even as Lee Monro. Sometimes I guess I say things that people don’t want to hear or aren’t ready to hear, sometimes I’m a bit brash in my delivery. And as a result, I guess that some people tune out or unsubscribe because I guess I challenge their perception that everyone else has built around what we’re supposed to be. I do it for the betterment of the individual and their soul, and their moral compass. Because I see people changing what they do for money – which funnily enough I’ve never done – or they’re not authentic.
“In a live scenario people always go ‘wow Lee you really have been doing this for a long time we can tell’, but I’m just like ‘I’m not actually doing anything that’s the thing, you guys are calculating before you step out, you’re thinking beforehand’. Me, I’m just being me. Like 110%. And I’ve always been like that, even in the Sony days. I remember one time Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson came to the studio one time and he pressed me, because he’s the guy who presses you. I just went at him and was like ‘nah I’m good’ and backed myself, and he turned around and said ‘he’s gonna be fine, I pressed him to make him buckle’ because there’s no other version.”
Monro’s final words in our conversation ring true of the message he carries with him to all young artists and youths finding their way in Western Sydney. For Monro, genuineness will always win over any faux attempt to be something you’re not.
“Any chance I get to talk to upcoming artists I say be yourself, don’t be afraid to be yourself, show mad respect to anybody else that’s in your scene, connect, and stay business savvy. Educate yourself on business. Look at other ways to make your cash because not everybody makes those millions and millions of dollars. If you can flip a couple t-shirts to your homies that love you, if you can flip some CDs to your fans that rate your shit, and you’re always looking at others ways to adapt what is a very volatile and changing scene then you’ll always be up. Because you’re creating opportunity for yourself and you’re not waiting for someone to create opportunity for you. What you’ll find when you delve in like that, next thing you know, people will be looking to create opportunities for you because you’ve been creating opportunities for yourself.”
Words by Matthew Badrov
Cover Photo by @jeremylbrown, Photo 2 by @ozshots_ & Photo 5 / 7 by @rahim.bkar