Hilltop Hoods – The Golden Era Begins

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Music Australia Guide #67, July 2009.

Hilltop Hoods re-wrote the book on Australian hip hop with The Hard Road, but the Adelaide trio’s new opus State of the Art, released through their own Golden Era label, opens a whole new chapter. By Dan Rule.

Conversation with Dan Smith assumes a distinctly philosophical bent when broaching the topic of success. “I don’t think being anywhere in life is a limitation to your work as long as you’re still passionate and still very much into what you’re doing,” he tells MAG, sitting between his two Hilltop Hoods band mates at a bar overlooking an icy Yarra River on the fringe of Melbourne’s CBD.

The man better known as MC Pressure gives a shrug and stares out over the water for a time before laying down his hand.
“I think the more experiences you have in life and in the industry, the more you have to give back to an audience,” he offers measuredly, re-establishing eye contact. It’s rare moment of calm in an otherwise raucous encounter – the Hoods all beers and light-hearted bluster – but one that encapsulates colossal new record State of the Art.

In a career that has spanned a decade and a half and four five independently produced and released studio album, the Adelaide trio – Smith, MC and producer Matt Lambert (aka Suffa) and DJ Barry Francis (aka Debris) – have defied a record industry that makes stars in a flash and forgets them just as quickly. The Hoods’ narrative is one of gradual, self-made success and longstanding commitment to their art. The chart-topping success of 2006’s ARIA award-winning The Hard Road and 2003’s breakthrough The Calling (the first Australian hip hop release to gain Gold and later Platinum sales accreditation) aren’t the story, but mere chapters.

“Each record made the next record seem more possible,” says Francis of the Hoods’ early material, long-players Matter of Time (1999) and Left Foot, Right Foot (2001) to name a couple. “The only difference now is that we just have more time and more resources to make an idea reality.”

The point is repeated when canvassing their split from a seemingly synergistic relationship with iconic Melbourne hip hop imprint Obese. Having released The Calling, The Hard Road and The Hard Road: Restrung (their 2007 joint with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra) via the label, and together, effectively dragged Australian hip hop into the mainstream on its own terms, news of the Hoods’ decision to go it alone with their new Golden Era imprint was read by some in the scene as glaringly narcissistic.

Lambert puts it in very different terms. “Well, the thing about Obese, really, was that it was a fairly short relationship in the context of how long we’ve been doing this,” he says, “and before that, we were doing all our records by ourselves.”

“We just wanted to go back to that and control our own shit.”

It’s something of a return for the Hoods. Forming in the early 90s, after Francis – who hailed from Noarlunga in Adelaide’s outer southern suburbs – hooked up with promising rappers Lambert and Smith from nearby Blackwood, the Hoods roots were about as unassuming as they come. Taking their cues from the classic golden era hip hop of the time – from KRS One and Common Sense to Nas and Organized Konfusion – as well as a “terrifying mentor” who went by the name of Flak, the Hoods would spend their spare time hanging out and freestyling in the local park, blissfully unaware that it would get them anywhere.

“We used to freestyle before we even know what freestyling was,” recalls Lambert. “We thought we’d invented it,” he laughs.

But it wasn’t until they came across the seminal 1993 album Knights of the Underground Table by pioneering Sydney crew Def Wish Cast, that the Hoods realised the possibilities of rap.  “We were rapping but you have no idea that you can make records,” says Lambert. “It just didn’t even enter your mind back then.”

“They were are who made us realise that we could do it, you know, that it was possible,” adds Smith.

State of the Art sees the Hoods push their brand of rugged, straight-up hip hop to its furthest reaches yet. A meditation on the state of music industry and hip hop community, the record pulses with abrasive, rock-based hooks (The Return, The Light You Burned, Parade of the Dead), reggae flecked grooves (Still Standing) and flashes of downbeat orchestration (Last Confession, Fifty in Five). It’s some of Lambert’s most intricate production work to date, not to mention some of he and Smith’s most adept verses.

They’re not alone. In something of a coup, they managed to enlist legendary NYC rapper Pharoahe Monch, who flew out to Australia to lay a blistering verse on the funk-ripped soul of Classic Example.

While something of a proud moment, the Hoods aren’t about to give themselves a congratulatory slap on the back. They may have conquered the hard road to mainstream success in Australia, but according to them, their biggest and best is still ahead.

“We want to sign and develop artists who we think deserved it and we want to make inroads overseas and we want to take Oz hip hop to the world,” urges Lambert.

“I think good music can do well wherever it’s from.”

State of the Art is out now via Golden Era/Universal

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