Breakdancing – a ticket around the World
Layla Mkhayber from BYDS interviews Mark Munki Muk Ross
Mark Muk Ross is testimony to the fact that life doesn’t always go as planned. A bleak future can be made successful. A lack of knowledge can be countered by lots of learning. There’s always time to grow and live the life of your dreams, as long as you have a little self-belief.
Okay, so I’m going to interview you for the Stories of Strength programme. I’m still kind of new at this, so um …
That’s alright, I’m sure you’ll do fine.
Okay. And also, the questions that I ask you may be a bit random, a bit deep … [you might] like to think about it.
Yeah, yeah that’s alright.
Preferably, we’d like [to hear] the first thing you think of, and if you think you’re talking too much, that’s fine. Just go, be like — I don’t mind big answers. Talk as much as you want.
That was the wrong thing to tell me [laughs].
Look, I’m here to listen, and I’m sure everyone would want to hear what’s behind the mystery.
So, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Mark Muk Ross.
More? Than just your name?
That’s my name. Yes, that is my name [laughs]. I grew up in Punchbowl, I also lived in Redfern and Marrickville. And, yeah, that’s about it.
Interesting. You moved from Punchbowl to —
No, no, I moved from Redfern to Marrickville, from Marrickville to Punchbowl. And then when I was like around 19 or 20, I moved out and went to — still in, like, Bankstown areas. And then I moved back into the city again. I’ve only just come back and moved out this way in the last few years.
Yeah. This way is the best way. Could you tell me when and where you were born?
Ooh, ready for this? I was born on the 8th of April, 1969.
And I was born in Marrickville, actually, there you go.
So, could you tell me a bit about your family, your background … ?
My background. My father is a — what would you call it — a mix between Australian and German. And my mother is a mix between Australian and Aboriginal.
Oh, beautiful. Could you describe the place where you spent your childhood?
What childhood? Like early childhood, or more like teenage childhood, or … ?
Why don’t you do both? Describe your childhood and then your teenage years?
Alright, when we were kids we didn’t really have much. We lived in Redfern, lived in Marrickville as well. It was alright, my dad used to just get by, you know what I mean? It was lucky for us to get a Mars Bar [laughs], if we were lucky! And then we moved out this way to Punchbowl, where I have more memories than I do when I was younger.
Oh, I do remember when I was younger though! When I was younger we used to live near Henson Park, which is the home to the Newtown Jets. [They] used to be in the NRL before they got kicked out [laughs]. I think they made the Grand Final in 1983 and then got kicked out in 1985.
Oh cool, do you know why they got kicked out?
Oh, they had no money. They were poor like me [laughs]. That’s why we used to go for Newtown, they were, like, the ‘poor team’. Anyway, they got thrown out. So then we moved to Punchbowl, and then — cos my dad used to, even right before I was born, he used to race motorbikes and also be a bit of a professional wrestler.
Ooh, that’s cool.
So yeah, that’s kind of pretty cool. Far out, when we were kids he used to practice all these mad wrestling moves on us. But, with that as well, when he used to race motorbikes, this guy that he used to race motorbikes with had a house in Punchbowl, and a house next to it as well. And he told us, because we were poor, he said ‘Oh come and move in here and just pay a little bit of rent, and I’ll look after you guys’. Which is kind of cool.
Yeah, that’s very nice.
Yeah, so that was nice of him. Yeah so I grew up there in Punchbowl and met a whole heap of cool people and yeah. Then got into — what would you call it — footy, and when hip-hop hit the scene I started doing breakdancing and going out and doing the graff [graffiti] and stuff like that. Yeah, so there you go [laughs].
Wow, that’s so cool. Could you describe one significant moment from your childhood, whether it be Punchbowl or when you lived near —Living in Punchbowl [was] a defining moment in my life. Yeah, there are probably two things that define [my childhood]. My musical background, where I got into music and where I — because I probably wasn’t very good at school, so that’s the thing. When I got into music and when I really got into breaking [breakdancing].
When I got into breaking, there was a guy down the street named Sam Manor, he was like an expert at breaking. He used to be one of the old school guys that was, like, smashing the breaking scene in 1982-1983. He was looking for younger guys to teach breaking and take to battles and stuff like that, so that was where I got my first start in the hip hop scene. It was with him.\
And then, this other guy who was a little bit younger than me, Bassam Hassan, he taught me guitar. He taught me how to play all these Midnight Oil songs.
Awesome, that’s so cool.
And what’s even funnier is, since then [I’ve worked with] Midnight Oil and told them this story, and they were so excited about this story, about this guy Bassam Hassan who taught me how to play guitar. And that’s what he taught me, he taught me Midnight Oil because he was into them, and I was into them as well. But then I started getting really good at guitar, and he goes ‘Man, you’ve gotta go to the next level man’. He goes, ‘I’ll take you to my cousin, Fouad’.
Anyway, so then we used to go to Lakemba to this other guy’s house, Fouad. And he was, like, into Hendrix and Frank Zappa and all this stuff. So he’s, like, the next level up in guitar [laughs]. So if it wasn’t for all these people, I would never be able to do what I’ve done over the last 30-40 years.
That’s so cool. Could you tell me a bit about music, like, can you remember maybe an iconic song or iconic music event that really defined your childhood, or defined you as a new artist when you were younger?
Indeed, and it would be nobody. Because what I used to do is — my dad, he used to come from these sale auctions and he’d bring records home. And there were records that I’d never seen in my life, that I’d never heard of. So even when I was a little kid, I used to play them all the time and think, ‘Oh, what’s this!’ But if I hear the same thing over and over again, I’ll take it off. I want to hear something new every time. So the first thing I [did] when I started buying records when I was a kid, is playing the song on the B-side. Cos I already know the song on the A-side.
Could you tell me a bit about what the B-side is?
The B-side would be like — on a piece of vinyl, it would be the song you don’t know. So the hit single would be the A-side, and on the B-side would be another song, because they’d have to fill the vinyl up, so there’d be another song. I’d be into the B-sides going, ‘Oh man, what’s this song, I don’t know it. Let’s check it out!’
That’s the first thing that I would do. And then, [I got] all these, like, rare albums, and then I think that gave me a grounding for looking for new music, and looking for new styles of music, and then creating music.
That is really cool.
I didn’t really answer your question because there’s no real defining song.
No that’s fine, I got a lot out of that. Going again back to your childhood, whether it be your early teens or when you were a child, can you remember a smell or taste, or an image or object that reminds you of those years?
That’s a hard one. Probably not. Oh yeah, sometimes when I was really little, I used to go with my dad when he used to race with other guys or whatever. And there’d be that smell of — what would you call it — it’s like a special petrol that they have on these motorbikes. And I always thought, ‘Far out man. That’s like no smell ever’. The only place you’ll ever smell that type of fuel is at racing.
So there you go, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. But yeah, there isn’t that much that — taste and smell, like, that’s interesting, because — yeah, that’ll do [laughs]. That’s about the only thing that I can pull out of that one, good question.
Yeah, it is a really interesting question. We always get really interesting answers out of that. So, can you tell me a bit about where you live now?
Yeah, I live in Panania now, which is on the other side of Bankstown near Holsworthy. I live there with my family, and I haven’t lived with my family since I was, like, 17.
It’s only when I’m rolling towards 50 that I finally get to live with my family, so it’s an interesting concept. But yeah, it’s good, it’s good. It’s very interesting.
Who lives in the house with you?
Oh, so my Auntie lives in there. My brother and his wife and the kids, and my other brother, and we had my Uncle there for awhile. Sometimes my sister-in-law’s brother comes.
Big, big house.
Yeah, it’s a pretty big house.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a 7 bedroom house. It’s pretty big. Yeah, so that’s kind of cool. It’s interesting because since I was, like, a kid I never really had that. I was either living on my own, or times when I had a partner I’d be living in that situation. So it’s the first time really in my life that I’ve lived with so many people [laughs].
Would you say that it feels like home?
Yeah, but I haven’t spent that much time there. Cos I don’t spend that much time in Australia these days.
Where are you, where do you go?
Where do I go? The last five years I’ve been producing a lot of Asian pop music, so I go to Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and make music.
Wow, that’s awesome. Could you tell me a bit about producing? So, what do you do? Do you work for a record company?
Good question. No, I’ve always worked in my own little realm. Which is kind of pretty cool. Self-taught, as well. Cos that’s the thing — it all goes back to breakdancing.
Yeah, tell me.
So what happened there is, when I started doing breakdancing, about 1984 I started doing breakdancing shows. So I started getting paid for doing breakdancing shows. From there, I met people who were into music — because we’d be on the shows, and there’d be guys who were into music and stuff like that. And being the inquisitive type of person that I am, I was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve always wanted to know how you make this music stuff’.
And luckily enough, some artist said, ‘Oh yeah, come to the recording studio with us and check it out’. So, me being the type of person that I am, I watched everything that was going on. This does this, this does that. And then I met another guy in that studio who was at a record label. I was like, ‘Man, can you get me a job at this record label?’ I didn’t ask long, I asked about three weeks I reckon. But what I did, I didn’t do my work.
I went and I checked out how this record company works, from the top guy and to the warehouse. From the General Manager to the warehouse, I knew them all, they all knew me because I’d go around and yarn to them. They’d think, ‘Does this guy even have a job here or what? Does he ever do his work?’ [laughs]. And actually my job at the time, which I wasn’t very good at, was that CDs were just invented. And they gave me this job to order CDs. So the reason I got the big sack was cos I ordered too many new U2 CDs. Which they go, ‘Hey, you can’t order 4,000 CDs. There’s not 4,000 people with CD players in the country’.
Oh my god.
So anyway, little did they know, that album, The Joshua Tree, probably sold 5 million CDs after that. So eventually they would’ve [all] got sold and I got the sack for nothing! But the thing is that I went there and I learned every person’s job, so I learned how a major record company runs. You know what I mean?
So I kind of got the studio grounding, which taught me the production side of things. Then I started buying my own equipment, getting all these bits of equipment. Started recording my own stuff and recording other people and all that sort of thing.
That’s awesome. What dreams did you have for your future when you were younger?
To tell you the truth, none. I was always in that situation where it’s like, you’re worthless. Really. To be honest, it’s like my situation was more of — there’s no way that I could ever amount to anything. That’s just the honest truth, really. Yeah, from my family surroundings to what I was doing, you know what I mean? It was up to myself to get into the breakdancing and start earning the money and et cetera, and move on. And my whole career rolled forward from doing that.
It was more like … ‘make my own’. Well, that’s what I always thought. Even when I was, like, not really studying at school, I thought, ‘Man. These guys are studying. Say you want to be a doctor, right? These guys go to Uni, they learn, but at the end of the day all they do is read these books’. So if I go to the library and I read the same books, I reckon I can learn exactly what they’re learning. So I started, like — I wasn’t that good at reading. So instead of getting in trouble a lot, I started going to the library a fair bit. Which is Bankstown Library.
So I’d go there and read. And people would spin out that I would wanna go and read. And I used to love it, because what I was doing then was learning words. Because I was starting to get into rap then, as well. That was probably around ‘86-’87. I started getting into doing rhyming and stuff, and when I started doing that I needed to learn words. Far out, at school I was in ESL, which is English as a Second Language, and English was my first language. So I that’s how bad my knowledge was — I wouldn’t think that even probably ten years after that I [would be like] doing rhyming and doing shows and doing all this stuff with words.
So that’s how I really got that [success], was through going to the library, reading books. But once again, doing it off my own back, because it’s like, man I kind of screwed up at school so … it’s like a ‘need to know’ basis, you know what I mean? Writing was alright, I could write really good. Because of graffiti I was pretty good at it [laughs].
And drawing, I was really good at drawing things, and getting my letters and stuff like that. People would always go like, ‘Ah man, you got handwriting like a girl’. Cos my handwriting was very, very neat, and very tidy, and it was all from doing graff stuff [laughs].
So, what dreams do you have for your future now?
Oh, at my age, far out. Like, kind of live as long as possible [laughs]. To be honest. It’s more like – you know what I mean, when you hit 50 or so, you start to think that you’ve lived more years than you’ve got in front of you. And I think about that a fair bit, you know what I mean? And my health over the last few years has been, like – even though I still breakdance at my age as well. I still breakdance, I still do all the music and that sort of stuff.
Probably, my health isn’t as good as it was 20 years ago. So it’s more like trying to take care of my health and trying to, like – it’s probably a fear that I’ve done so many things in my life. You know what I mean? Have I shortened my lifespan? Who knows. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future, that’s probably like a fear. But my dream is to try and get as many more years possible as I can.
Definitely. What does strength mean to you?
Strength? When people think of strength they probably think of physical strength, but me, I think strength is more mental strength. It’s, like, if you have mental strength you can pull through situations – you know what I mean? I’m unfortunate enough to have plenty of friends who are not here on this planet anymore, or who have done things and gone to jail, and et cetera. You know what I mean? It’s, like, I think mental strength is what keeps people going.
You know, you can have all the physical strength in the world that you like, but at the end of the day if you don’t have the mental strength to go with it, then it’s probably not much use having that physical strength. So, to me, strength is all about your mindset. Not being strong-minded, you know what I mean? It’s more resilience, that’s what I would call it. That’s the word for it.
Can you tell me what is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to overcome?
Oh, plenty of things. There’s plenty, there’s plenty …
First thing you thought of.
Plenty of things. Um, honestly, people dying. You know what I mean? From friends, to my parents, to whoever. So many people that I know aren’t on the planet anymore, which is why I think hopefully I’ve got as many years as I can get on this planet. That’s probably a hard thing, you know what I mean? These people that are gone. It’s like, far out, you don’t get to see them again, you don’t get to have conversations with them anymore. Many people go way too young as well. So, it’s like, yeah. That’s probably a hard thing to overcome, is that, you know what I mean?
As a joke, you could say being a struggling artist for 20 years was hard to overcome [laughs]. I was lucky enough to just get through on doing, like, little jobs here and there for many, many years. I’ve got other people to thank for that, so, yeah. Between them two things they’re probably the two hardships.
How have you turned both those two things into personal strengths?
Oh, living each day as much as I can. Even five, no, well eight years ago now, I would never have thought that I would start going overseas. You know, I’ve been overseas before that, I’ve been to do some events over in America and through Europe and stuff like that, just as a guest, but I never had the thought of spending the majority of my time not in this country.
Which I think that is — seeing an opportunity, or being given an opportunity, to make some music overseas, and make some hit songs over there as well. Which is, like, crazy, I’ve never — the populations are so big in those places that it’s quite easy to sell a couple million records. I would never in my life think that I would pull up YouTube songs for people, and they [would] go, ‘Whoa man, 25 million views, what the hell!’
Can you name me any songs? Maybe I can take a look, or have a listen?
Yeah, yeah, there’s a couple of tracks. There’s one that I just done, like, last year that was #1 in Indonesia for 20 weeks or so.
It’s called Aku Mahal, by an artist called Poppy Kelly, previously Poppy Mareka, who was an ex-Miss Universe contestant for Indonesia. And Soapy Star, we’ve just done a little deal there to — fingers crossed — they’re gonna make a movie on that song. So that’s quite exciting. So, yeah, that’s pretty good.
Another song that I did in the Philippines is called Kakai Babe, by a singed named Donnalyn Bartolome, which got into a movie soundtrack. Which is known all throughout the Philippines as something that is very interesting and exciting, for me anyway. Because all of these songs, both of these songs aren’t in English at all. So Poppy’s song is in Indonesian and Donnalyn’s song is in Tagalog, which is the Filipino language.
I’ve also been lucky enough to go on Eat Bulaga!, which is a daytime variety show in the Philippines … watched daily by 60 million people or so [laughs].
Which is, like, crazy. So yeah, jumped up and did a bit of freestyle there in Taglish, which is a mix between Tagalog and English. And same in Thailand, I’ve got a few groups that I’ve been working with in Thailand for awhile now. I was just talking to Zainab here, who is Thai as well, and yeah, I’ve been working with some legendary artists over there. Some of the big players in the Thailand music scene.
There’s an all-girl group that I’ve kind of been looking after over the last few years called Yellow Fang that are doing amazing things all around the planet. They’re like a 3 piece all-girl punk band. Really, they’re indie-rock-pop-punk type music. And I work with another guy, his stage name is Vitamin A. He is one of the first ever guys to do, like, dance and Western type music in Thailand back in the ‘90s, who is judging on The Voice — the Thailand version [laughs]. So, yeah, even like feeling the presence and knowing all these people is an absolute honour and privilege for me.
On that note, can you tell me one quality you love about yourself?
Ooh, I’m not really that big on talking about myself. Probably the love that I’ve had over, even before I went to Asia, say for like 10 years before that, even longer, probably 15 years before that. Working in my own community, in the Aboriginal community, and starting up programmes and all that sort of stuff. To moving on to being on Koori Radio, and you know what I mean, being a broadcaster, being behind-the-scenes as well. And these days, being a board member of the organisation, putting on fantastic events.
So, giving back?
Yeah. To a point, yes. But to me it’s more, community is community, you know what I mean? We’re only a small percent of the population in this country, so pretty much everyone knows who each other are that are in the community, and it’s like a family thing. Even though there’s, you know, people have beefs and that sort of stuff, but at the end of the day when it comes down to it, we all get out and champion the same things.
Awesome. If you had one piece of advice for your younger self, what would that be?
Oh, good question. If I had advice for my younger self? Probably would’ve went overseas sooner. But then again, that’s a catch 22 situation because maybe then I wouldn’t have had the expertise and the — see the other thing about going overseas as well, people think that it’s an easy thing to do when it’s not. Because you’ve gotta have respect, I think that comes from the Aboriginal culture, is having respect for other people’s cultures as well.
And having that whole respect system — whereas many, many foreigners go to Asian countries to try to make music and usually get the door shut on them, because there’s enough good producers and musicians in these countries that they don’t need foreigners to come and do that. I think it’s more of having that respect thing, where you can go into another culture and people actually like you for who you are, for if you’re a decent person, and you respect the culture, you try to learn the language as much as you can. And also learn the culture, you know what I mean? Just be respectful to people.
And then you’ll find that, like — it’s not always gonna happen, it’s not a formula or anything. You’ve gotta be a person that people like as well, and say, ‘Oh wow! I met this guy the other day from Australia, you’ve gotta check this guy out!’ You know what I mean? And all these people become good friends. I never went to Asia with — I went there to meet some friends who invited me to do some work there. I never went there with the assumption that I’m gonna make some hit records and do this sort of stuff. I never had that assumption at all. I just wanted to go there, check out how everything happens over there, you know what I mean?
Get into a bit of the breaking, get into a bit of the battle stuff as well — which I’m proud that FlipTop, if you look up the FlipTop Battles – they’re all in Tagalog – but if you look at the view count, I think last year we did, like, 1 billion views. Which is … 1 billion views, that’s a thousand million. So, that’s how big that thing — you know what I mean? Knowing them guys and being a part of that at certain stages is an honour and a privilege as well. So it’s like, I’ve met some really, really good people.
That’s what I mean, something I could’ve told myself is probably, trust in yourself to go overseas and put yourself in other markets. Like I said, that’s probably a Catch 22. Cos did I have the knowledge back then to [be able to put myself out there]? Which … that’s a yes or a no answer, I can’t answer that one. We’ll say yes, we’ll say yes just to answer the question [laughs].
So, just a final question. What advice would you give to others who have shared your experiences or who have had similar experiences? And how do you think you can help them, or people in general, recognise their own strengths?
Um, I think I do that already, I’m lucky enough to be able to do that already. I’ve got lots of people that I’m fortunate enough, I don’t know how, to be a role model for.
Cos you’re amazing.
Which is like, oh. See I’m not really into, like, talking about myself and bigging myself up, that’s like the last thing — people check out my Facebook and you won’t find selfies on there or anything like that, anything that I do post on there is anything interesting that’s going on in the community, or it’s usually that other people have taken some crazy photos of me flying in the air or something like that.
But what I can do is, I like to be inclusive as well. So, I like to include everyone in my — like, in being able to give advice and stuff like that. All I can do is give advice on what’s happened to me and what I’ve done, you know what I mean? I can’t give advice on what you’ve done, because I don’t know [laughs]. I can’t do that. But if someone comes and asks me for advice on any topic that I’m half knowledgeable on, which could be anything from — you know what I mean? I’ve done University lectures and all that sort of stuff, and been in places where people know more about me than I do [laughs]. Which sometimes is even crazier.
But to be able to even talk politics or, doesn’t have to be music, doesn’t have to be dance, could be, like, politics, could be other things that I’m into. Even a bit of sport as well, and that sort of thing. So I’m pretty knowledgeable in all sort of realms. So, to be able to pass any knowledge onto anyone is an honour. And that’s the way I look at it. It’s an honour for me to come and – you know, people like yourself. Who would think forty years ago that you’d be sitting here interviewing me about what I know and what I’ve done [laughs]. So, to me that’s an absolute honour and pleasure, and thank you for that.
You should be very proud of all your accomplishments. Thank you very much for taking the time to let me interview you.
Thank you, thank you.
Okay, the end.
Transcribed by Isabella Teixeira Henriques
Edited by Fay Al-Janabi
Photography by Chris Woe