[MUSIC: Interview] Hilltop Hoods
All Grown Up
By David Seidler
Hilltop Hoods are surprised: surprised that over 20 years after the group’s inception in the halls of Adelaide’s Blackwood High School, the three of them, Suffa, MC Pressure and DJ Debris, are still kicking it together; astounded that, now six albums in, their popularity and critical acclaim continues to grow; overwhelmed by how far Australian hip hop (which couldn’t have sounded more oxymoronic just a decade ago) has come. Sitting down with Suffa and Debris over drinks at Surry Hills’ swanky hotspot The Winery, the chief sentiment expressed is awe – as though they can’t quite understand how they’ve gone from high school mates and hip hop enthusiasts to double-Platinum-selling icons. “Hip hop is just huge in this country,” says Suffa, behind shades. “For years, with each album that we released we thought, it’s definitely going to plateau. We were like, ‘It can’t get any bigger than this’.” And then, inevitably, it did.
But even as ‘I Love It’, released last November as the first single from the forthcoming Drinking From The Sun, garners commercial airplay and cements its Top 10 chart status, the Hilltop Hoods can’t quite forget their roots. While fellow Adelaide local Sia’s anthemic chorus takes hold across the country, the group stay true to that chorus’ closing words: “Now we’re all grown up and it’s still about hip hop.” With the prospect of a fully-fledged attempt at cracking the US market looming, the Hoods aren’t about to sell out. “I don’t think we’re over there targeting the rap fans,” Suffa contends. So no incursions into Flo Rida territory then, I ask? “Nah. They’re not going to want a bar of it and fair enough,” he says, “because we don’t want a bar of them.”
Having remastered an entire album (2008’s The Hard Road) with the “fucking expensive” Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and toured the country with The Hard Road Restrung, one doesn’t imagine the brand of hip hop that the group purveys will resonate with too many who adored ‘Right Round’. Rather than engage in the ploys for pop audiences that characterise much American rap today, the Hilltop Hoods have consistently reinforced a certain intense musicality. On Drinking From The Sun, that entails the introduction of a string quartet, a choir and more guitar than you might expect. Live, the thick beats will be reproduced by Plutonic Labs on drums, multi-instrumentalist and producer One Above, and Debris behind the decks. But the band won’t be expanding to former symphonic proportions any time soon, Debris assures me. “We’ve done it before…and they didn’t like it when bottles came on stage.”
Three years in the making, Drinking From The Sun was delayed by extensive local and international tours, management duties for their record label Golden Era’s fledgling signings – and putting out Parade Of The Dead, a cinematic treatment of one of the tracks from 2009’s State Of The Art, motivated by Suffa’s zombie obsession. “I’m not allowed to do that again,” Suffa says, obviously peeved. “Pressure’s put the kibosh on it. He thought one zombie DVD was enough. I wanted to make the sequel Ninjas Raid The Whorehouse,” he says earnestly.
It’s obvious that a major driving force for Hilltop Hoods is obsession. Suffa, who only last week completed his ‘Top 100 Hip Hop Albums of the ‘90s’ list on Twitter (Nas’ Illmatic came in at #1), has a profound knowledge of the genre. The self-professed “vinyl junky” described how he chased down the ten or 20 albums on the list that he didn’t already own on wax. From that very list, The Roots’ (#36) Black Thought and Jurassic 5’s (#35) Chali 2na guest on Drinking From The Sun – and Suffa, “a fucking starstruck fan,” is patently chuffed. “Our goal is to work with as many of our favourite artists as possible,” he says, adding, almost disbelievingly, “I’m working through my ‘Top 10 MCs’ at the moment.”
At the top of the pecking order is the man Suffa identifies as the greatest living emcee, Eminem, who, along with Lil Wayne, the band toured with when he came to Australia in December last year. Playing to 50,000 noticeably partisan fans was, says Debris, “a little humbling”; but the Hoods, perennial festival favourites, relished the challenge of shifting from headliner to support act. “At festivals, there are so many other things going on, so if a crowd is in front of you, they’re there to watch you,” says Suffa, before adding a qualifier: “unless they’re the four or five little goth girls down the front at every Big Day Out, waiting six hours for My Chemical Romance, giving us the finger the whole set.”
Running the Hilltops Hood, a grants initiative for emerging hip hop artists that they founded in association with Arts SA, managing a record label, crate-digging for missing vinyl and planning DVD box sets to boot, it’s little wonder the Hilltop Hoods are so pleasantly surprised by the state of Australian hip hop – they’ve been too busy nudging it along to actively watch it prosper. And with the imminent release of Drinking From The Sun (a metaphor, they explain, for an underground culture rising up), they look set to continue that legacy of hectic immersion.
What: Drinking From The Sun is out now through Golden Era
With: Public Enemy (USA), 360, Hermitude, Andrew W.K (USA), Digitalism (GER), Kaiser Chiefs (UK), Matt Corby, Wavves (USA) and heaps more
Where: Groovin’ The Moo hits Maitland Showground (Maitland) on Saturday May 12, and The Meadows (University of Canberra) on May 13. Full lineup and tour dates at gtm.net.au