Rap Pioneers Hilltop Hoods Take On USA

MC Pressure from Australian hip hop royalty Hilltop Hoods chats to Billabout about the rap game, their new LP ‘Drinking From the Sun’ and their November US ‘We Got the Alien into Your Country’ tour (working title).

How did the Hilltop Hoods form?
I met Suffa in 1990. We were 12 years-old, it was the start of high school in Adelaide. We both found we had a love for music and came from hip hop musical backgrounds. So we started rapping for a joke really taking the piss out of teachers for a bit of fun and started freestyling. By the mid ’90s we sort of left high school and were hanging out in parks getting drunk. Then we recorded a few tunes on cassette on a four-track tape recorder in a bedroom.

How did it transition from messing around to a career?
We met a local rapper in Adelaide who was going to open mic nights with a crew that was older than us and they started sneaking me and Suffa in the back door venues when we were about 15. We got put onto a crew from Sydney who were Death Wish Cast, who were kind of the pinnacle of Australian pop and they made us realize that we could take our music to the next level. Through the late ’90s we just started making hip hop for a hobby because we loved doin’ it.

You must have been heavily influence by American hip hop growing up?
Definitely. Public Enemy and Run DMC were probably the two groups who I first heard that got me into hip hop. We grew up on very much a diet of east coast hip hop, late ’80s early to mid ’90s kind of stuff – Eric B. & Rakim, Leda, Notorious B.I.G. and Woo Tang and Nas. Pharoahe Monch got up with us on stage with us in New York and it was a really amazing experience for us and one of those things that we got to tick off the bucket list.

It’s been three years between ‘State of the Art’ and ‘Drinking from the Sun.’ Why?
Everyone’s like three years between albums – that’s a long time! You guys been sailing around the Caribbean or somethin’? We’re like, “Hell, funkin’ no.” We toured that album for a year and a half straight. We did close to a hundred shows around Australia and internationally – Great Britain, Germany, Amsterdam, Switzerland and Canada. Then we made a zombie film for a DVD release.

A zombie film??
Yeah, as strange as it sounds. We got bored of just doing normal live performance DVDs, so we decided to do a zombie film instead.

Then we all took a month off; I went to Italy for a month with my brother and partner and just chilled. Then we came back and for a year straight just sat in the studio making ‘Drinking From the Sun’ and it took us that long. We did a tour with Eminem when he came to Australia and we did the Big Day Out Tour as well; we’re always busy doing something, but I don’t even know what it is that we do, half the time.

Did you talk to Eminem?
No. He’s pretty recluse. I understand, he’s the biggest live entertainer in the world at the moment.

When were you in the States last?
We took a bit of a short trip over there in March and performed in New York, Boulder and LA. We’re planning to come back in November for a more comprehensive tour of 20 cities or so. I love New York. It’s an amazing city.

What did you make of it?
It was my first time in the States. It was like everything went against us on that tour, except the shows themselves which came off amazingly. We had some problems getting DJ Debris to the States as he had previous convictions back in Australia from when he was under 18. Then our drummer’s Mother died half way through the tour so he had to go home. Despite everything going against us, we had an amazing tour. We can’t wait to get over there and do something a bit bigger.

What’s the difference between Aussie and US hip hop?
The accent sticks out like a sore thumb, apart from that, it’s just a more old school sort variety of boo/bap hip hop. It’s not as electronically produced so it’s definitely got a different sound. It doesn’t have sort of a commercial club vibe to it.

What’s the writing process for a Hilltop Hoods track?
The beat will be produced then either me or Suffa will write a hook to it. Debris will start working in some scratches or cuts. We might get some session musicians in after that. Guitars, keys, strings, even choir on the last album.

Fellow Aussie singer Sia did a guest appearance as well. How did that collaboration come about?
She’s from Adelaide as well and I met her about 10 years ago. We met back up with her at the ARIA awards and she was like ‘Let’s do a track together’ and we’re like fuck yeah. She was so cool to work with as well. So many artists want money or percentages, she wrote and recorded the chorus for us and just went, ‘I don’t want anything for it. It was a pleasure working with you guys’. And we’re like, that’s the way music should be made.

Describe your shows for us?

A ton of crazy energy. We’re very hype – hyperactive even. Lots of call and response, and lots of crowd interaction. Most importantly, we try to get everyone in the crowd as hyped as we are and for them to have a good time. I think you’ve got to bring a little bit extra. You’ve got to mess with your tracks a bit, most of the people who come to the show have heard the music so you want to give them a different experience live than you do listening to it at home.

Why the focus on the States now and not earlier?
The US is the biggest music market in the world, and you can actually buy our music in the States for the first time ever. We didn’t wanna just do a couple of shows and be like, ‘Oh, that didn’t work as well as we wanted it to.’ We wanted to give it a proper go. We’ve hopefully got enough cards on the table to give it a good shot.

You guys seem to be pioneering Aussie hip hop?
Yeah, I guess, a little. We go out of our way to help a lot of hip hop acts. It’s just something we want to do because we love the music and we don’t have a competitive nature that we look at other bands like competition that we don’t want them to succeed. We gave a $10K grant in conjunction with Australian Performing Rights Association to an up and coming hip hop act.

A couple of acts you’ve earmarked?
The rapper and songwriter Soles from from Horror Shows, and Funkles are a grimy and street level style hip hop crew.

Tell us about Adelaide. Is there much of a music scene?
There’s such a strong music culture in Adelaide. There are a lot of good live venues that are teeming with good acts, local and international, every weekend – like the Governor Hindmarsh. Punters here just seem to love their live music. I don’t know if that’s just the sunshine or because we’re a nation of booze heads or what it is.

Any Adelaide travel tips for us?
The wine center of the country, Penfolds is a favourite…I’m trying to get some free wine. Check out some of our beautiful beaches in the southern suburbs down in the south coast and around South Australia.

What are you calling your November US tour?
‘We Finally Got the DJ In the Country Tour’ – I don’t know, we haven’t thought of that. That’s a terrible name for a tour, so we’ll probably roll with that. ‘Finally Legal’? ‘We Got the Alien Into Your Country Tour’?

Well, we look forward to when you come back over later in the year.
Yeah. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

Interview by Pete Maiden

The Hilltop Hoods

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