Sons Of The Underground Arise

18 March 2012 | 12:22 pm | Staff Writer

“If there’s some chick dancing to this record at her local RSL, good – we’ve done our job properly “

More Hilltop Hoods More Hilltop Hoods

If there's one group that has been responsible for bringing Australian hip hop out of the shadows and into the light it's Hilltop Hoods. The accepted narrative is a simple one. This trio, Emcee/producer Suffa (Matt Lambert), emcee Pressure (Daniel Smith) and DJ Debris (Barry Francis), seemingly came out of nowhere with the triple j hit, Nosebleed Section, a track driven by native accents and an infectious Melanie Safka sample, and opened the floodgates for a new generation of hip hop artists who were products of this land, not some foreign ghetto. The truth is actually a little more mundane. You see, like any hard-working pub rock band that finds themselves one day conquering the world, Hilltop Hoods earned their success the old-fashioned way. Formed in their native Adelaide way back in 1990s, the 'Hoods played every damn place that would have them and churned out underground classic albums like A Matter Of Time and Left Foot Right Foot to a small but growing band of fans who realised that the local product could be as good as anything made overseas. But it wasn't just perseverance that set Hilltop Hoods apart. These guys were good; like, really good. Where a lot of the local product relied heavily on cultural stereotypes, Hilltop Hoods made elegant hip hop that not only boasted intricate rhyme play and boom-bap beats, but also a keen ear for melody and memorable hooks. In retrospect it wasn't a matter of if they were going to achieve commercial success, it was a matter of when.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the 'Hoods have just dropped their sixth full-length album. Your ten year old cousin knows all the words to The Hard Road and the trio is selling out venues across the nation. But despite all the success, the boys are still proud standard bearers for the culture that nurtured them and inspires them to this day.

Drinking From The Sun is basically a statement about underground hip hop culture coming up into the light,” says Lambert. “It's a statement about survival and perseverance and making sure that once the culture is there for the mainstream to enjoy that's it's protected, fought for and keeps flourishing. The worst thing we can do is try and adapt to what people want us to be. We'll never forget where we came from and we still consider ourselves ambassadors for the hip hop underground.”

But can Hilltop Hoods really consider themselves part of the hip hop underground when they're shifting multi-platinum units to a wide cross-section of the community?

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“Of course, just because there are more people appreciating what we do doesn't mean that we've deliberately left our roots behind or changed what we do to win some kind of commercial appeal,” says Smith. “It's like when Nosebleed Section really broke for us; you had a small minority of the underground heads – you know the guys who don't even want any of their neighbours to know the names of any of the music they listen to – who were quick to call us sell-outs. But they came around because they saw that we were sticking to our guns and that other local artists were blowing up as well. But we still consider ourselves to be an underground group despite our success. Australian music is still dominated by rock and hip hop still has to struggle hard to get a seat at the table. But we're still fighting and there's some really raw hip hop on this album that underground heads will love, but hopefully everyone else will love as well. And quite frankly, if there's some chick dancing to this record at her local RSL, good – we've done our job properly.”

Musically Drinking From The Sun isn't a radical departure from 2009's State Of The Art. Instead, it showcases a group refining their songwriting to a razor-sharp point.

“We were really happy with the last LP,” says Francis. “There was nothing that we really felt that we had to change for the next project. In fact that was the first record we walked away completely satisfied, so there was no real need to do anything radical this time around.”


“If you're really looking for changes it's the obvious stuff that stands out to me – there's a wider array of producers and more guest emcees and session musicians,” adds Smith, citing the likes of Black Thought, Charlie 2na and Trials. “There's actually a lot of continuity, especially in the use of strings, which we've always loved because it adds a real drama and melancholy to the sound. You've also got to remember that some of the beats here are like three years old, so the record is a natural fit with State Of The Art.”

Lyrically, Hilltop Hoods stick to what they know – slick and stylish wordplay and social commentary that's insightful but never preachy.

“As emcees we love dropping clever rhymes and dope verses – just playing with words even if they don't end up being stunning philosophical statements. It's what we both live for,” laughs Lambert. “But we also like to talk from the heart about things we know – the struggles we've gone through and that many in our communities endure on a daily basis. We took the hard road and we know there are plenty of other people out there struggling right now. One song I'm really proud of on the new record is Speaking In Tongues, which is a statement against bigotry full stop – xenophobia, racism, homophobia and sexism, whatever it may happen to be. Let's face it, even today these things are everywhere – even in hip hop culture – and we wanted to speak out against them in a strong way.”

“That's the joy of emceeing,” adds Smith. “You can just play with words and develop complex rhymes for fun, but you can also reach people with your words and make them think about the world we all live in.”

The success enjoyed by Hilltop Hoods is not restricted to our fair shores. The group has travelled across the world and played in front of audiences in North America, Switzerland, South Korea, Germany and the UK among others. If it took so long for Australians to accept Australian hip hop, how has the rest of the world taken to the local vintage?

“We've been really surprised at how hip hop fans from other countries have supported us,” says Francis. “State Of The Art sold five or six thousand copies in Canada, which in this day and age is an incredible result for a group like ours. But it's the live shows that have really blown us away. To go to England and have everyone in the place screaming back the verses and nodding their heads is awesome. It just shows that good hip hop is good hip hop; it doesn't matter where it comes from because the culture is universal. I think this is best illustrated by our shows in the States, the birthplace of hip hop. They appreciate that the culture has spread and love to see a group from Australia out there.”

With Drinking From The Sun in the can, the group is now set for a mammoth round of live dates, starting with an upcoming North American tour and then a raft of dates across Australia, including the Groovin The Moo festival. Expect mayhem, expect beats, rhymes and life, expect, um, “monogamy”?

“Sorry girls, we're all in committed relationships,” says a sheepish Lambert on the topic of the 'fringe benefits and other miscellaniea' of touring. “But you can come along and sleep with the support acts if you want – they'll appreciate you.”

After the laughter dies down, the boys do promise that this round of touring will have something for everyone.

“We're planning some great things for the tour,” reveals Smith. “I won't give too much away, but I will say that we'll be giving you a dose of the Drinking From The Sun, all the stuff people know and some surprises as well. We can't wait to get back out on the road and bring the Hilltop Hoods to people live. That's why we started all those years ago and that's what drives us on. The day we don't want to get out on stage is the day we'll all hang it up and quit.”


It's the most recognised moniker in Australian hip hop, but as it turns out the boys aren't in love with being 'Hoods'. “It's the elephant in the room – and has been for a while,” sighs Suffa, aka Matt Lambert. “We don't really like the name 'Hilltop Hoods' and we do cringe a bit from time to time just thinking about it.”

Pressure (Daniel Smith) explains the origins of the much-maligned moniker. “We started the group when we were kids really and we wanted a name. We lived in the Hills of Adelaide, which people referred to as the 'Hilltop'. Then someone suggested that we add the term 'Hoods' and you know, it fit because it wasn't like we were at home staying out of trouble. And there you have it – we were the Hilltop Hoods.

“But now it doesn't really fit anymore. Let's face it; it is a name that kids would come up with.”

So is there any chance that the group would consider going through a re-branding exercise?

“I think it's far too late for that to happen,” laughs Lambert. “We're resigned to the fact that people know us as the Hilltop Hoods. We've been the Hilltop Hoods for so long now that it would just cause complete confusion if we changed our name. Besides, I must admit when I hear that chant of 'Hilltop' before we come on stage, I am proud of what we've achieved as the Hilltop Hoods, so even though it isn't really the name we'd choose at this stage in our lives, it has served us well until now and I'm sure it will continue to in the future. I mean people know we're not out there trying to say we're gangsters or criminals or anything else you associate with the word 'Hoods'. And if there are people out there that are going to be turned off by a name without listening to us, then it's not like they were particularly interested in what we do anyway.”