Adelaide’s much-loved hip-hop group Hilltop Hoods are primed to have a massive 2019. They’ll roll out their eighth album, The Great Expanse, initially expected this month, on 22 February. MCs Suffa (aka Matt Lambert) and Pressure (Daniel Smith) plus DJ Debris (Barry Francis) have just dropped the latest single, ‘Leave Me Lonely’, following July’s ‘Clark Griswold’ (which showcased the local hip-hop blues singer Adrian Eagle, who gave the Hoods a shout-out on his own ’17 Again’).
‘Leave Me Lonely’ is a summery uptempo bop with a retro funk-rock twist. In fact, the track borrows from Richard Berry’s ’50s ‘Have Love, Will Travel’, a song covered twice before by Aussie acts – namely Diesel and The Basics. In a presser, Suffa jocularly explains, “‘Leave Me Lonely’ is a song about the eternal struggle of being cornered by a close-talker. It’s a song that’s relatable to anyone that’s ever been outside. Or in a room with more than four people.”
Originating in the mid-’90s, Hilltop Hoods are today hailed as the game-changers of Australian hip-hop. They’ve enjoyed successive #1 albums on the ARIA Charts – starting with album four, The Hard Road, in 2006. And the Hoods have won several ARIAs. The trio even augured the trend for pop acts to collaborate with orchestras, presenting a ‘restrung’ edition of The Hard Road – in the process, defying anyone tagging them “barbecue rap”. The Hoods last ventured out in 2014 with Walking Under Stars, taking in the mega-hits ‘Won’t Let You Down’ (featuring Maverick Sabre) and ‘Cosby Sweater’.
However, two years ago they issued Drinking From The Sun, Walking Under Stars Restrung, another orchestral record (the epic accompanying arena tour is immortalised in a new doco, Restrung Live). In 2008, the Hoods founded Golden Era Records, nurturing the likes of Briggs (and AB Original). But, last December, the group announced that they were relinquishing the label.
Hilltop Hoods haven’t been wholly bunkered down in the studio this year. The Hoods performed at Splendour In The Grass. Then they toured Europe, culminating in a billing at the UK’s traditionally rock-centric Reading and Leeds Festivals (Kendrick Lamar headlined!). Suffa is buoyant as he spruiks ‘Leave Me Lonely’ as well as the Hoods’ appearances Falls Festival. Inevitably, they’ll be touring more next year.
“We’re still planning out our next year, to be honest – like we’ve got some things on the table that we hope pan out. But we’ll definitely be doing an Australian tour, a Europe tour and a North American tour.” Indeed, the Hoods’ immediate challenge might be finding the time to shoot another cult video for ‘Leave Me Lonely’ between Falls rehearsals, album prep, Christmas and what Suffa calls “life”.
Music Feeds: You’re back with a new single, ‘Leave Me Lonely’. How is this setting you up for the album, The Great Expanse?
Suffa: Well, we have the luxury this time of being able to choose our favourite songs off an album because it’s kind of pretty much finished. Usually, we’re sort of rolling with what’s finished (laughs), like a first or second single. So, yeah, ‘Leave Me Lonely’ is probably our favourite track.
MF: I’m intrigued that you have actually finished the album. I guess the time of year would suggest it’s already been handed in. What kind of mindset were you in when you made this record?
S: It’s not completely finished. We’re still tinkering – we’ve got little bits and pieces to do, so I’ve gotta be honest (laughs). I mean ‘finished’ as in it’s all written and produced and mostly recorded… It’s a real mixed bag sort of thing. We didn’t sit down at the beginning and say, “This is the album we wanna write” or anything. It’s just the songs that have come together in that time period and they’re all under the umbrella of this record. But I guess me becoming a dad has definitely affected my outlook since our last album – well, even since the last release we had, which was Restrung, I’ve had two kids. So that’s definitely informed the way I look at the world. I can’t speak for the other two. But, yeah, personally that’s informed my outlook.
MF: You’ve always been pushing the envelope with the guests you’ve worked with – having features by everyone from Sia to Black Thought to Brother Ali. Have you lined up anyone cool for this record?
S: You know what? It’s mainly locals. With this album, for whatever reason – once again, it wasn’t like something we made a formal decision about or anything, it just turned out that all the people that we wanted to work with were local acts.
MF: A lot of people may not know that you’ve given up Golden Era…
S: Well, we don’t have time any more, so we actually stepped away from the label. Late last year I was building a studio and I’d had two kids and we were trying to make an album and there was too much going on. Beforehand, it was very much me that was hands-on and I worked with our Operations Manager, Ben Martin. But, yeah, I stepped away last year and we handed over the business to Ben – and the label and everything that came with it, we just handed it over to the Operations Manager and he’s taken over.
MF: How do you keep things fresh, given that you have done so much? You’ve done the orchestral thing, you’ve done all kinds of collaborations… At this stage in your career you could get jaded. How do you stop yourselves from stagnating?
S: You know, it’s corny, but just making sure you stay grateful for being able to make music for a living. The role I had before I was a musician was process worker in a factory. I was making cement furniture. So I’m very grateful to not be doing that anymore – not that there’s anything wrong with doing that. But I’m just very grateful to be able to follow my passion, which is music, for a living. So just always being aware of that keeps you on your toes – and not wanting to lose that connection, not wanting to lose that passion and wanting to keep on with this as a career just keeps you on your toes, I think.
MF: One noticeable thing in hip-hop is the generational shift, or divide, between ‘lyrical rappers’ and ‘mumble rappers’. Eminem has gone full grump on cloud rappers. But it’s really just the reference points have changed. Like for young rappers, Kanye West and KiD CuDi are their ground zero, whereas maybe for your generation it was Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan. What’s your take on that? Are you a hater of mumble rap or are you a live-and-let-live?
S: I’m definitely a live-and-let-live, because my thing is like every generation has a problem with the generation that came before them. I mean, even G[angsta] rap and stuff like that, when they came through in [the] late ’80s, early ’90s, the generation before them were mad at that generation for swearing – because, when hip-hop was in its youth, it was in the park and it was very family orientated as well. So there’s always been a generational gap. If you look at the ridiculous things that people have been mad at along the way, like when people got mad at people for wearing tight jeans (laughs) – like given time and looking back, all these things are just so ridiculous. And it’s not for me, the stuff that’s coming out. I don’t listen to Trippie Redd, I don’t listen to Tekashi [6ix9ine]; I don’t listen to any of that. But I do listen to a lot of new stuff that’s coming out which is great, [and] which is for me – like Jay Rock and Jidenna and stuff like that. It’s the same way music’s always been for me. It’s that I’ve had to find the stuff I like – and for me it’s never been the stuff that was completely mainstream and completely popular. But I don’t know why there’s so much complaining about this generation of rappers when you’ve got Kendrick… There’s so much there for hip-hop fans. You don’t have to listen to the stuff that you don’t like. So don’t be mad!
MF: If you were advising Eminem, would you tell him to just let it go? Or do you think he gets a power from taking on mumble rappers?
S: I think what he does is fun. I think I respect him on his fun – like that sport, you know what I mean? I like watching that sport. Eminem’s probably the best rapper in the world. So I wouldn’t be giving Eminem any kind of advice!
MF: You had a tour overseas this year. You played Reading and Leeds Festivals and you took Adrian with you. What’s it like performing to those audiences now? Because REMI is touring a lot overseas and Tkay Maidza. It seems to have really opened up for Australian hip-hop.
S: Yeah, we have places where we’re really strong that really surprises – like Germany’s very strong for us now and Switzerland. So it’s sort of surprising. For me, it’s always been touring, touring, touring… When we first played in Berlin, we played to a handful of people. Then we went back and went back and went back – and now it’s opened up for us over there. So I don’t think it’s a shift in Europe towards hip-hop from Australia, but we grind it out and [REMI’s] Remi and Sensible J grind it out. If you keep coming back, you’ll build an audience.
MF: Do you think that could happen in the States, because even the grime MCs have struggled to break down the barriers there. I guess Drake broke them down – I never thought a Canadian rapper would be accepted, but he did it.
S: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, Drake’s a different beast altogether. He’s probably the biggest pop star in the world. He’s probably eclipsed [Justin] Bieber – another Canadian. But I don’t think Americans think of Justin Bieber and Drake as Canadian. I think they just think of them as North Americans. But we’ve been going back to the States for about the last decade and, once again, ’cause we grind it out, our audience is growing and growing every time we go back. But it’s not an overnight thing. It’s not like we had a single there and it took off and we got some traction and stuff like that. We’re literally just grinding it out by touring as hard as we can when we’re over there and trying to give people the best show that we can when we’re over there.
MF: You have Falls this summer. I wondered if there’s any chance you’ll be previewing album material – or maybe you have to keep it under wraps because of YouTube?
S: I didn’t even think of that! We’re sort of discussing [it]. We’ll be doing the new one, ‘Leave Me Lonely’, we’ll be doing ‘Clark Griswold’ – we’ll actually have Adrian Eagle along with us for the tour – and maybe one or two others. But now you’ve got me worried (laughs). I think that maybe that is an issue. But I don’t know – yeah, maybe.
MF: Is Adrian doing music? Is he recording an album on the DL?
S: He’s working on his EP at the moment. He was over [from his Melbourne base] the last week, or the week before, in Adelaide for his nan’s birthday. He played me a couple of tracks off it – a couple of tracks that I hadn’t heard, I’ve heard most of it. But, man, I think it’s gonna be huge. I’m such a huge fan.
MF: The Resin Dogs have made a comeback and they make even you guys look like babies. Can you see yourselves just keeping going on or do you see a time when you might quit?
S: There’s not a master plan; there’s not a bigger idea. Obviously, there will come a day [when we quit], but that day’s not anytime soon. The way I look at it, I’m the same age as Kanye! (laughs) And I’m younger than Em and JAY[-Z] and all these people who’re still going really hard. Even though we’ve been doing it for a long time, we started very young. So I feel like there’s still a lot ahead of us.