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Hilltop Hoods Talk Defying Expectations, Playing Future Music & The Evolution Of Aus Hip-Hop

Written by David James Young on February 27, 2015

2014 was nothing short of an exceptional year for Hilltop Hoods. In their 20th year as a group, they enjoyed some of the greatest commercial and critical success to date on the back of their seventh studio album, Walking Under Stars, and a subsequent string of extremely successful singles.

It’s rare that a career will attain a peak in relevance after such an extensive period, but it’s worth mentioning that the band spent the bulk of their first decade together in obscurity. It was only with the release of The Calling in 2003 that their audience spread beyond the immediate circles of Australian hip-hop, which itself was still finding its own identity within the music community. Long before nation-wide sell-out tours, platinum albums and entire festivals dedicated to it, there was The Calling.

By the time the Hoods dropped The Hard Road in 2006, all bets were off. The trio secured not only the first ever number-one album for themselves, it was the first number-one album for an Australian hip-hop act, ever. Every album the trio have released since has dutifully done the double of both hitting number one and going platinum – in some cases, twice over.

What began with a high-school friendship and bonding over hip-hop in suburban Adelaide has transformed into a commodity of contemporary Australian music; as well as something that has been paramount to shifting the public’s perception on the potential of home-made hip-hop.

As the trio moves into 2015, there are no signs of slowing momentum. A remix EP is on the way, as are festival dates with Future Music and Groovin’ the Moo. Ahead of another busy period in the world of Hilltop Hoods, we spoke with Matt Lambert – aka Suffa MC – about the current state of the genre, music videos no-one gets and that performance of Cosby Sweater at Beat the Drum.

Watch: Hilltop Hoods – Cosby Sweater (Featuring Illy, Horrorshow, Drapht, Seth Sentry, Tkay Maidza and Thundamentals) live at triple j’s Beat The Drum (Sydney, The Domain 16/01/15)

Music Feeds: So, you’re at home in Adelaide at the moment?

Suffa: That’s right, yeah. I’ve actually got Scott Dooley staying on my couch at the moment. He’s here doing his new stand-up show for Adelaide Fringe.

MF: What’s Dools like as a house guest?

S: He’s good! I mean, he’s not cleaning my kitchen, but he’s also not blowing up my dishwasher, so that’s good…

MF: You’ve been on the set of a music video for the next single this week. Is that all wrapped up now?

: Almost. I think we might have to go back and pick up a couple of things, but the bulk of it is ready to go. We’ll be revealing everything soon.

MF: Where does a video typically start for you guys? Are you pitched ideas based on the songs or do you know from the outset what you want?

S: Typically, I’m the one that writes the treatment for our videos. We choose the track and then try and build ideas for the video around it. It’s a chicken and egg thing, in a way. I had a pretty clear idea for what I wanted for this video.

MF: There’s been some great Hoods videos in the past. Won’t Let You Down came out last year, which was fantastic but got a very mixed response from fans.

S: [Laughs] Yeah, pretty divisive clip, that one. Some people were getting outright angry about it! I was getting a lot of responses through Twitter, so I just wrote, “I’d rather confuse you than bore you.” I stand by that.

MF: You’ve also been sharing some remixes of tracks from Walking Under Stars that you’ve done yourself. What sparked the idea of reworking these songs?

S: When we put out [2012 album] Drinking From the Sun, we were promoting a tour and thought it would be a good idea to throw out a free remix EP. It was supposed to be a companion piece to the tour – we got some of the acts we were touring with to do some verses, stuff like that. It was really well-received, so we thought we’d do one again.

We’ve got Thundamentals on it, who we toured with last year on the Cosby Sweater tour. It’s also a bit of serendipity, as well, that we can use it as a thank you to the people that had to wait for the deluxe album packages that were delayed last year.

Watch: Hilltop Hoods – Won’t Let You Down feat. Maverick Sabre

MF: There’s been a bit of breathing space now from the release of Walking Under Stars, and it’s also taken a life of its own through your touring in support of it. Have your feelings about these songs changed over the course of time?

S: When it first came out, I didn’t know what people were going to respond to about the album and in what way. That tends to be the thing that surprises you the most. The things you think are the strongest tend to go unnoticed, while people pick up on the things that you didn’t expect them to. Cosby Sweater,in particular. We thought the song might do well, but we had no idea it woud do that well.

MF: Of all the songs on Walking Under Stars, that’s definitely the one that’s taken a life of its own. That was more or less cemented with your performance of it at triple j’s Beat the Drum in Sydney; bringing in all those different artists to drop verses on it. It seemed as though it was a logistical nightmare to organise, but it paid off tenfold.

S: Initially, it just started off as just having a couple of people involved. The ideas started spitballing, “We should get this person! We should get that person!” It got a little out of control. Everyone’s management was stressing out!

I had everyone in a group email and it was quite funny to try and organise everyone. It all came together wonderfully, though. I was so grateful for everyone’s time and effort into making it a possibility. Man, it was fun. I don’t really go back and watch or listen to any of our stuff, but I’ve rewatched that video so many times. I couldn’t believe that we pulled it off.

MF: It felt a lot like a time capsule in a way – you had a lot of established acts, the up-and-comers, the old, the new. How do you perceive the current state of Australian hip-hop?

S: I think it’s really interesting at the moment. I think the genre has never had a more varied sound. Where everyone was at, say, ten years ago, I guess you could say the sound was a lot more by-the-numbers and a lot more similar for the most part. Nowadays, you’ve got so much diversity in what constitutes Australian hip-hop.

You’ve got the underground stuff like Maundz and the Crate Cartel guys; across to the other side to Remi and Tkay [Maidza], who both have really modern sounds. Tkay, I think, in particular, is going to do really well in the States.

What I’m noticing most is that, for the first time, hip-hop in Australia has sub-genres unto itself. That didn’t really feel like it was a possibility ten years ago – either hip-hop you were listening to was underground or it was commercial. There’s a lot more to it now.

MF: Future Music Festival is up next for you guys. From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem odd that you’re playing an EDM festival, but it’s not as if this is the first time you have been an odd one out on the bill. There was that time you played Bluesfest all those years ago.

S: That was pretty funny. I remember at the time, internet forums were a bit more primitive back then. The organisers were getting a lot of backlash for having us on the bill. When it actually came down to it, though, we went on stage and had a huge crowd from all different age groups.

We’ve played so many festivals, we can try and morph ourselves into pretty much anything. A lot of our music can be danced to! I’m looking forward to Future – it’s something we’ve never done, and it’s a bit outside of everyone’s comfort zone. It’ll be weird, but it’ll be fun.

Hilltop Hoods will play Future Music festival which kicks off in Sydney this weekend and are amongst the acts named on the 2015 Groovin The Moo 2015 lineup.

Hilltop Hoods, Thundamentals, K21 – Sydney, Hordern Pavillion 24/10/14. Photographed by Liam Cameron

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