Identity Crisis

18 March 2012 | 12:07 pm | Matt O'Neill

Hilltop Hoods’ State Of The Art saw the Adelaide ensemble take Australian hip hop to commercial and critical acclaim undreamt of.

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For many years, Hilltop Hoods have existed within a category of one. Australian hip hop may have exploded wholesale over the past decade but no act has ridden that success – or, speaking bluntly, been quite as responsible for it – as Hilltop Hoods. Since 2003's The Calling, Adelaide's most celebrated hip hop export have been developing a profile distinctly larger than and separate from any and all of their fellow genre proponents.

“I think the point where we all quit our jobs was around 2004,” co-founder Daniel 'MC Pressure' Smith reflects of the transition. “It was around a year after The Calling had been released, [breakthrough single] The Nosebleed Section blew up and we were so busy I'd already dropped to part-time work. When I actually told my boss, he basically said he'd expected me to quit six months ago and told me to fucking go for it.”

In the years since, Hilltop Hoods have evolved beyond the limitations of their genre and into one of Australia's most bankable pop products. They've three ARIA Awards under their belt; each of their three subsequent albums has debuted at number one on the ARIA charts and been certified gold within a week of release; and they've long been mainstays of triple j rotation.

“It's come as a surprise to me, yes. Definitely,” Smith says of the group's success. “If you'd have asked me ten years ago if I'd ever be making music full-time for a living, I would have laughed at you. Even leading up to when we finally realised that we would be permitted to do that, it wasn't even thought of as a possibility, I don't think. All I know is that, once we realised we could get away with it, it was just 'hallelujah!' sort of thing.”

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Such has been the group's success, it has grown to completely obscure their own accomplishment. It's taken as a given that their latest album will be a critical and commercial success – but few still appreciate the sheer scale of achievement represented by those expectations. Think of it; Drinking From The Sun is the independently-released sixth studio album of an outfit who, for 20 years, have been performing in a genre many deemed non-existent for (at least) half that time.Yet – that album has already debuted at number one. Within less than a week of release, it's already been certified gold. Prior to even being released, it was featured as triple j's Album of the Week. Such success for an act – specifically, an Australian hip hop act – on their sixth album is literally unprecedented within Australian music. At this point, it's no exaggeration to describe Hilltop Hoods as an institution. They exist on a level independent to that of their peers.

“I'd actually like to think our approach to this album was like every other album we've made. We make music for ourselves and for people that enjoy hip hop,” Smith says matter-of-factly. “We really put our heart into our music and I'd like to think that's one of the reasons people have stayed with us for so long. Our approach has always been to make the kind of music that we would like to hear ourselves and, even though it's our sixth album, we've tried to stick with that mentality.

“I mean, sure, as far as the art goes, it's very important for us to progress in some way,” the MC adds. “It's always a fine line, though. You don't want to progress to the point where your music doesn't sound like you – because then you alienate your listening base; all those people who have followed Hilltop Hoods for X amount of records.”

The irony being – you could not find an act more reluctant to assume such a mantle. The trio's ambition may have expanded in proportion with their success (see: 2007's The Hard Road Restrung – a collaboration with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra) but, in spite of that success (or, more likely, because of it), Hilltop Hoods have never publicly settled into their role as Australian hip hop's mainstream representatives. They know they have a product – but they refuse to sell it.

“I hate thinking of Hilltop Hoods as a brand. It's not,” Smith says. “For the most part, we're not involved in the business side of things – because you can get caught up in that and that's not something I want to do. I would rather remain a musician. If other people are discussing us or using us as a brand, I can't stop that. It is what it is; when you get to the stage we're at with our careers, you're going to have a lot of business people involved in your work. We are making music for a living, so we have to be smart about the decisions we make, but, at the end of the day, we make our decisions based on the music, not the company. I know there are people out there who are thinking of our work in those terms on a daily basis – but that's their job. Our job is to make the music. We are the music – they sell it. Not us.”

In the wake of their commercial advent, Hilltop Hoods have invested most of their cultural capital in initiatives designed to strengthen and expand their musical community. Since 2005, the trio have been working with Arts South Australia to deliver the Hilltop Hoods Initiative Grant to emerging hip hop artists. In 2008, they founded Golden Era Records – an independent label designed around showcasing the work of hip hop artists like Vents and The Funkoars.

“It's very important to us to stay in touch with the grassroots of Australian hip hop. That's why we do the grant,” Smith explains. “We want to see hip hop grow – and it has and, for us, that's amazing. It makes it all worthwhile, sometimes, to see hip hop doing so well in Australia since we've been doing this grant.”

Drinking From The Sun is a record informed through tension and transition. Hilltop Hoods are currently poised at multiple intersections within their careers – both commercial and philosophical. Undisputed conquerors of Australia, Adelaide's celebrated sons will next reach out to America. Indeed, having supported Eminem and Lil Wayne and roped in members of The Roots and Jurassic Five for their sixth album, foundations have already been laid for the group's transition.

“To be honest, I hate it being labelled 'Australian hip hop' – it's just hip hop at the end of the day,” Smith reflects. “It doesn't matter what accent you rap in as long as what you're doing is you and you're keeping it real. As long as you're being yourself and you're good music, it doesn't matter.”

Reluctant to acknowledge their supremacy even within their own country, Hilltop Hoods will soon be caught at a midway point between globetrotting pop stardom and grassroots anonymity. Drinking From The Sun could be their most fascinating and rewarding album – simply because no-one has any idea where it will lead.

“Do I ever worry that the wave could crash? Of course,” Smith reflects. “It is something we're very conscious of – that idea of things coming to an end. I don't want to be one of those bands who stick around for three albums too long. I don't want to be washed-up. Nothing lasts forever and all things must end – but, while hip hop is still growing in Australia and we're still on top of our game and we're still making our best music and giving it our all, I think we have another few albums in us.”



Australian hip hop may have become more widely accepted over the past ten years – but it's still one of our country's most divisive musical movements. We asked MC Pressure to take us through some of the genre's most enduring criticisms.

That Accent – “I just don't think the Australian accent really fits hip hop”

“When we started, there was a huge social debate going on,” Pressure laughs. “From everyday conversation to forums to wherever else, there was a huge debate about the Australian accent versus the American accent. There were actually a lot of crews putting on American accents and mimicking what they had heard and grown up on and were influenced by from the states.

“The other half was people like us. We just kind of said, 'Look, we're Australian, that's our identity – we don't want to be something that we're not – which is kids that grew up in America; that's just not us'. I think hip hop, when you're rapping, is very personal. If you try to be something you're not, you're never going to connect with your audience.

“Eventually – around about the mid-to-late-'90s – that whole American movement kind of faded away. I think people just saw through it eventually,” the MC reflects. “It may have been easier to swallow – I know when we first turned up with Australian accents, people were fucking baffled – but you can't connect with it. Eventually, people connected with us.”

It All Sounds The Same – “Man, I don't mind some Australian hip hop, but most of it just sounds like Hilltop Hoods

“I really don't think any of those acts sound like us,” Pressure says bluntly. “I think the sound of Australian hip hop is new to a lot of people and, because these acts are rapping with Australian accents and playing the same genre of music, those people then end up pointing the finger and saying, 'Oh, they sound like Hilltop Hoods'.

“And I don't think they sound like us at all. Drapht, 360, Horrorshow, Bliss N Eso – none of those acts sound like us. People just need to get used to the genre. It's the same thing as when hip hop started in America in the early-'80s – 'it all sounds the same, just people speaking over a beat' – but people got used to it. It's just a timing thing.”