“It could change over night with the right plan, with little more than a mac book and a mic stand”.
Barely three years ago, Melbourne emcee Illy could only have dreamed that he would be penning rhymes about his whirlwind success, let alone delivering them to sold out shows across the nation. These days he stands alongside the trailblazers of modern Aussie hiphop, the likes of which include The Hilltop Hoods and Bliss n Eso, as one of the most popular hiphop acts in the country.
Already well-established on the local hiphop circuit, Illy first entered the public conscience as a fresh-faced 23 year old. His debut album Long Story Short crashed onto the national music scene in 2009, with his hit single “Pictures” repeatedly riding the nation’s airwaves as hip-hop lovers requested it into high rotation on Triple J. It became Illy’s “discovery” track, earning him a coveted spot on 2009’s Hottest 100 and scoring him a legion of fans.
Since then, Illy has lyricized his journey from struggling artist to headline act in his hugely successfully follow-up album, The Chase. Despite having scored an ARIA-nomination for an album that echoes the tireless pursuit of a dream in the face of doubters – wickedly sweet icing on the cake of poetic irony – Illy remains charmingly modest when asked if he feels like he’s “finally made it”:
“A little bit. I’ve done quite well but there is still a fair bit left to do and I’ve still got a few goals left on the list yet.”
Bring it Back, Illy’s upcoming third album, represents one of the goals which will be crossed off the list when it is unleashed later this year. Packed full of collaborations with Aussie hiphop royalty, including Pez, Reason, Mantra and Trials, Illy describes it as “passion project”, one which taps into his fundamental hiphop roots. The album’s two most stereotypically-Illy sounding tracks, the up-tempo and cheeky “Where ya been?” and “Heard it all”, have already been released as singles. But while Illy cautions that the rest of the album “is a little more aggressive and a little more traditional hiphop-sounding than you’d normally hear on an Illy record”, critics are already giving it their discerning nod of approval.
While at just 26 years old, it’s tempting to conclude that Illy’s path to success is more “snowball than struggle”, he stresses that his backstory is that of a quintessential struggling artist.
“I’ve done a lot of paying dues. I’ve been doing gigs since I was 17 and the first 150 shows, more even, I wasn’t getting paid, so I definitely wasn’t making a living off it.”
With the first few headlines shows bringing in little more than a “couple of hundreds of bucks, which got split up between myself and M-Phazes (his legendary producer)”, hiphop only began paying Illy’s bills about a year and a half ago.
“Man, it was a long time of not paying the rent through music before that, and now that I’m able to I really appreciate the position that I’m in”.
Where Illy’s pre-success story does deviate from the norm is in his pursuit of his side-project – a law degree. And just how does one go about balancing live shows and textbooks?
“Oh man, it was a struggle at times…there was one week where I had a Friday, Saturday, Sunday run [of shows] and I got a flight home at 2am on Monday morning and sat an exam at 9:30am. It was sheer stubbornness and will that got me through but don’t know if I could do that again”.
In an industry which attracts a lot of haters for its perceived cultivation of obnoxious egos and hyper-arrogance, as well as its demeaning representation of women, Illy’s take on the perennial “bitches and hoes” debate comes as a breath of fresh and reasoned air.
“Having a sexist or really misogynist view on women is pretty much ignorant. We’re from a country that doesn’t need that sort of bullshit, and that’s reflected in the way I talk about women…so to turn my back on that so that a few people can think I’m cool, well, I’m just not going to do that”.
With Aussie hiphop undergoing a transformation from an underground, niche genre of music to one which enjoys mainstream listenership, timing has certainly been on Illy’s side.
“There’s definitely some luck involved in it. People my age got to benefit massively from the scene as it was at the start of the 2000s…so I was definitely of the right age and coming up at the exact right time to have a lot of outlets and a lot of people helping out”.
Serendipitous though the timing has been, there’s no denying Illy’s own contribution to the popularisation of hiphop in Australia. Like all hiphop artists, he stakes his integrity on the quality of his lyrics and sincerity of his delivery, but it’s his showcase of song writing talent, from pop-infused crowd-bouncers to more introspective tracks, that has produced sold-out shows and delivered a more eclectic audience to the sounds of Aussie hiphop.
Bring it Back sees Illy’s repertoire diversify once again and, with the shows on his upcoming tour already selling out, it seems the fans aren’t too stressed about where he’s been…they’re just pretty damn glad he’s back.
Catch Illy on his Bring It Back tour at Zierholz @ UC on August 24, 9pm. Tickets are $28.60 through Oztix.