Hilltop Hoods - The Calling
‘Let me introduce myself, raise them beers, Suffa MC been doing this for more than ten years.’
Artists often get asked, when reflecting on their earlier works, if they feel a sense of having achieved something noteworthy, something that resonates with people. Often the answer is something along the lines of ‘Nah, we were just making the song.’
But listening to the Hilltop Hoods deliver ‘Testimonial Year’ with its laidback piano plinking and balmy Sunday afternoon beat, one does get the sense of a readiness by this South Aussie trio to step up, and step forward. And the success of the album it came from put everyone on notice that Australian hip hop was now more than just an underground interest.
MCs Pressure (Daniel Smith) and Suffa (Matthew Lambert) met at high school and put together some of their earliest raps joking about their teachers. Busting out raps while drunk in the park turned into four track bedroom recordings and then sneaking into open mic nights with the assistance of some older members of a local crew.
Hip hop was yet to take off in Australia, but groups like Def Wish Cast were pivotal to their convictions and love of the music. Pressure told Billabout in 2012 that the Sydney pioneers “…made us realise that we could take our music to the next level.”
The big breakthrough came when triple j started flogging ‘Dumb Enough’ and ‘The Nosebleed Section’, the latter liberally incorporating a sample of Melanie Safka’s ‘The People In The Front Row.’
“We started getting a lot of festival gigs, show offers, stuff like that,” Suffa says of the after-effects. But it might have been a completely different story.
When asked on triple j in 2012 what song they were proudest of working on at the time, Pressure revealed his early thoughts about their breakthrough hit.
“Well it definitely wasn’t ‘Nosebleed [Section]’ …that was going to get left off,” he said. “That was like a last-minute addition to the album, only because Suffa didn’t want to put it on there.
“Me and Debris had to convince him, cause we knew it was a dope track.
“We made that pretty late in the day. I found the break for it on a Sunday drive with my girlfriend, and I left the record I sampled it from at the restaurant. The restaurant owner chased me down the road and gave it back to me, so if he hadn’t chased me down the road, I would have never made that song.
“I was thinking it didn’t fit in with the other songs. We try to make really cohesive records where every track feels like it comes from the same place and maybe that one stuck out a bit, but it stuck out in a good way.”
The album’s success was significant at a more basic level as well. It gave the group the means to dedicate more time and focus to their creative work.
“We got to quit the factory job we were working to tour and do music professionally,” Suffa said. “That’s bigger than some of the big moments.”
Reminders of the long hours and hard work that went into this album’s making are evident throughout, especially on tracks like ‘Tomorrow Will Do’.
“At the time, we were all stuck in a day to day rut of dead end jobs and juggling it pretty badly with music,” DJ Debris says of the song.
“We were all up til 2 or 3am recording that album and getting up for work at 6 or 7am,” Pressure added. “It was the last album that we did, where we were all working and studying at the time of making it.”
Suffa’s folks’ house proved to be a handy base for recording.
“The majority of the album was produced on my parent’s computer through my mum’s ghetto blaster,” Suffa said.
But the stereo only had one working speaker.
“That’s why a lot of the beats are mono!” Suffa laughed.
They had ambitions though to set up a place of their own, and Suffa believes DJ Debris deserves big kudos for his role in making it a reality, working long hours running a courier business on the side to fund the dream.
“It did so much for Adelaide hip hop,” he said. “So many people recorded there and mixed there. One day, people will look back and appreciate how hard [he] worked to build a place that they could do what they did, and that’s what helped the scene in South Australia be so strong.”
Debris quips that taking the punt to quit their day jobs was more than worthwhile.
“Luckily it worked for us, otherwise I’d be selling my undies to buy my courier van back!”
The album’s title track and its lyrics ‘Thanks to hip hop, I got a bed in every state’ is a tribute to the opportunities that making music opened them up to.
“We were basically a smallish touring band,” Suffa said. “We’d go interstate with a promoter who was another artist or a friend, do the show, sleep on someone’s couch. But, to us, that was huge to be able to do that. Travel, go around the country and meet people.”
For the Hilltop Hoods, four more chart topping albums have followed on from The Calling so far, as well as the establishment of their own Golden Era Record label, huge international supports and regular overseas touring.
More broadly, there is a very healthy and growing representation of hip hop artists all around the country, which the group has also had a long running hand in expanding through the Hilltop Hoods Initiative.
There’s no doubt that the appreciation of hip hop in Australia has experienced a major shift. But Suffa remains reluctant to take credit for the role his group played.
“It’s a lot to do with timing and luck and all the stars being aligned,” he told Tone Deaf in 2012.
“We were one of the groups that were there at the beginning, with a lot of other groups. I think it was inevitable that a group was going to break through because hip hop was just becoming such a popular subculture. The bubble had to burst.”
Briggs, rapper and member of 2017 J Award winners A.B. Original recalls his reaction to The Calling’s tracks.
“When I heard it, I was like ‘A-ha! It can be done! Rap isn’t just an American artform.’,” he told Double J. “Even if you weren’t a fan of the Hilltop Hoods, you couldn’t deny that this [album] was the icebreaker. This opened the door for the possibilities, it wasn’t a pisstake, it wasn’t anything but real hip hop music…
“I whole-heartedly believe that that was the enigma machine, that was the codebreaker for so many of us. All the things that trickled down through that. There’s been no one more generous than these guys, and you couldn’t ask for better dudes at the helm. And that’s partly why they are at the helm!”