You can't think of Australian hip-hop now without running into these guys, and they're a perfect touchstone for anyone remotely curious about what this term "Aussie hip-hop" even means.
If anyone outside Australia was really paying any attention, they would probably have observed that the fight for legitimacy among Aussie hip-hop has produced some intelligent, funky acts that -- best of all -- don't take themselves over-seriously. If 1200 Techniques broke the genre from the underground and the Herd intellectualized and politicized it, Hilltop Hoods have to be the group that really legitimized the genre. You can't think of Australian hip-hop now without running into these guys, either through their own work or on multiple guest appearances on friends' albums, and they're a perfect touchstone for anyone remotely curious about what this term "Aussie hip-hop" even means (you're thinking -- they're rapping? In the accent from the Crocodile Hunter?) Before you go all "shrimp on the barbie" on me, let me just say -- this is real hip-hop, and The Hard Road is a real hip-hop release with shiny production and polished verses; plenty of guests with fine pedigree on the Australian scene; and more than two top-10 single-worthy tracks.
The Hoods' breakthrough was The Calling (in fact their fourth album, though the first to receive widespread attention, even in Australia), the first Aussie hip-hop group to reach Platinum status. The album's success was built upon a couple of insanely catchy songs: "The Nosebleed Section" with its Annie-style flute accompaniment, and "Dumb Enough?" with its clever, repeatedly funny lyrics ("I'll make origami of your lyrics, / Geez, that's good Suffa, what is it? . . . It's a swan", and that line about making the crowd bounce "like bedsprings on a honeymoon"). Over these killer singles, it's a fairly standard mix of adequate (though not phenomenal) commercial hip-hop production, influenced by Kanye's debut, and passable raps.
The Hard Road, as a whole, is a step forward, even if it still sits in the shadow of The College Dropout like a belligerent, slightly slow but nonetheless lovable cousin. The production's tighter, more professional; and the songs are collectively of higher quality. Hilltop Hoods' two MCs, Suffa and Pressure, have similar-sounding voices and, though the accent is easily discernable, even faster passages are polished by almost ten years' recording experience: this doesn't sound like a novelty any more. DJ Debris' production lends towards melodic party cuts, using plenty of flute, high piano melody lines, and the occasional Latin rhythm: the overall atmosphere is light and only half-serious -- perfect for the still largely scoffed-at genre in which raps still sound somehow provincial.
Like The Calling, The Hoods' latest jumps off the back of two great singles that kick-start the record (though there are more great tracks in the album's second half). "Clown Prince" is a sunny first cut, all tongue-in-cheek and dealing with a topic dear to Aussies' hearts: "It's your round if you're hanging at the back of the bar". Then "The Hard Road" picks up where "Nosebleed Section" left off, speeding up and pitch-raising Leon Russell's "Out In The Woods" to dizzying heights. The stay-on-the-tracks message is not trivialized through cliché, and the song's overall dark tone serves it well -- in no way does it come off trite, the way some "positive" hip-hop can.
But unlike their earlier effort, The Hard Road keeps up the high quality throughout. Suffa and Pressure's flow is pleasingly varied but by no means virtuosic; so if you're looking for some under-the-radar next saviour of rap, these guys aren't it. Just solid songs produced and executed with admirable skill. "Stopping All Stations" uses flute, again, to provide a laid-back accompaniment to the tale of urban desperation. "What A Great Night (DNR)" is a great party track, a harder-hitting electro beat fueling a drunken celebration (self-parodying): "They call me Suff', when I get drunk they call me 'Fuck off'". And "Monster's Ball" expands the sonic palette, sounding vaguely similar to "Lose Yourself" with atmospheric low strings and a cool soul sample.
The group has a way of creating these phrases that, while hardly melodic, catch as choruses: "the universal language of relaxation", in "Conversations From A Speakeasy", for example, or "Don't touch me, 'cos I'm electric" in "Circuit Breaker". Elsewhere, they're still having fun without trying too hard. When the beat drops out and the MCs joke around out of time, it recalls the Herd's likeable 2001 hit "Scallops".
I'm not sure if the rest of the world is open-minded enough to take Aussie hip-hop seriously yet, but if you're curious The Hard Road is a perfect place to get your feet wet. And for the Hoods a big accomplishment -- a consistently engaging and enjoyable album that doesn't flaunt its Australian-ness but incorporates it wholly into the fabric of the music.