Friday, September 28, 2012

Speaking In Tongues

Hilltop Hoods “Speaking in Tongues Tour” 2012
Groovin the Moo, Canberra May 13th
Hordern Pavillion, Sydney August 4th
University of Canberra    August 12th


I feel like I'm obligated to be super impressed with Hilltop Hoods show because they are one of the groups that founded Australian hip hop, and because of everything that they have done to get hip hop in this country to the level that it is today. Certainly they are the group that turned many people onto this genre of music, and I have a lot of respect for what they have done. I contemplated whether I should express my real opinion about the shows that I attended on their recent tour because I don't want to immediately alienate people, by taking a stance on something that is in such stark contrast to the almost universally accepted reality of the situation. But having different opinions is what makes life interesting, so I hope you will find that I have touched on some good points, and opened the path for a discussion, even if you completely disagree with what I have to say.

The background story:

Surf Beach, New South Wales south coast
Alright, before we get too far into it, first let me tell you a little story about what Hilltop Hoods mean to me. It started in the summer of 2006.  I had been into Rhymesayers music for quite some time, especially Atmosphere. I was also bumping a lot of Sublime and Mystic Roots at the time. This was my second trip to Australia, my first being a year long stay as an exchange student in 2002. A friend and I, both from Upstate New York, were living in a little beach town near Batemans Bay on the south coast of NSW and starting to get a bit bored. One day a neighbour came over and while I played hip hop off my laptop he asked, “Have you heard any Australian hip hop?” And right then a new obsession was born. I didn't know Australian hip hop existed. I think like a lot of Australians, I was partial to anything Australian just because it was Australian. It had that accent, that attitude, it was something different. It came from here, it came from us not them. And so it was automatically special to us, it was better. (I had always felt since I first came to Australia that I was more at home than I was in the United States, that's why I referred to Australia as “us,” even then.)

me in our Surf Beach apartment 2007
The Hard Road and The Calling where my introduction to Australian hip hop. I may have fallen for the catchy chorus of “The Nosebleed Section” like everybody else, but it was the songs that went a bit deeper like “Testimonial Year” and “1979” that made it stick. That's when I saw that they had something different to say, something personal. The Hard Road was a strong album, and at the time, it was something that I associated with. But it wasn't long before I moved on in my listening to other Australian emcees and admittedly my attention to what the Hilltop Hoods were doing began to wane after that. I hate to sound like someone who says, “I only like their old shit,” because that's not true either, I actually think their new album is much, much better than any of their others. I like most of the songs, they are catchy and easy to listen to. I think the lyrics in the song “Speaking in Tongues” come across with a good message about unity, that I can identify with. I was extremely hyped to see what a tour promoting this album would include. Many years now into my Australian hip hop obsession, and many many performances under my belt, I had yet to see “the mighty Hilltops” perform. I expected them to put on a performance that said “we are the top of hip hop in this country” loud and clear. I expected them to pull out every stop possible.   

My honest opinion:

Having seen Hilltop Hood perform three times this year, I have to say that each time I was underwhelmed. I guess that's because I was expecting something more. They have this reputation for being the greatest thing that ever happened to Australian hip hop, so I had extremely high expectations. Maybe I had unreasonably high expectations, and that's why they fell short. But I think that once you get everyone's attention the way that they have, you better hope like hell that you have a message for them. Hopefully the message is something that will make people think, and that their lives will be enriched by the experience of sharing your music with you. Making a great party song, may get you a lot of attention, but it doesn't make you a great artist. It's the songs with a real message about life that people will actually take something away from and appreciate more in the end.

I'm not saying that the shows were terrible at all, they were good concerts. The audience was involved and activated. There was great energy between performers and audience. That by itself can make for a good and unifying experience. I'm sure for a lot of newcomers, first time concert goers, and those that attend only a few concerts a year, it may have been the best thing they have ever seen. That is fantastic, I know almost every person there did feel something great. But if I look at all the concerts that I have attended just in the last six months, the Hilltop Hoods performances, for me, fell short of what I thought they were capable of achieving. We went to the edge but not over it. It was missing that something extra, that a group, with their knowledge, skill, experience, and especially with their monetary backing, could have brought to the game. I was looking for them to step it up another notch from anything we have seen so far before, but it was like somehow we missed a step up and the playing field just began to level out.

In comparison

I think maybe a lot of it comes down to the fact that I'm a huge Bliss n Eso fan. Honestly, the show they put on for their “Running on Air” tour is still the best hip hop show I have seen from this country. Of course they connected with the audience, and yes there was a lot of audience participation and feed back. (Standard.) They played games with us that we may have seen before already at a Bliss n Eso show in the past (they have their traditions), but WOW did they really surprise us. And yes, I think they did step it up and push their performance to the next level.

Let me just briefly recount the things that made “Running On Air” a standout performance. First of all, you can't go past what is in your face from the very beginning. A running video montage accompanies each and every one of their songs. It's not just a large TV showing their performance on a big screen so that those in the back can see better, which is what most artists do. (And that's a good thing as well, no doubt.) But what they do is actually create a unique film clip that goes with each performance as an accompaniment to compliment the lyrics of each song and drive their point home. Like they have a DJ mixing, bringing in elements from so many different musical genres into one, they also have a VJ mixing clips in the same way. Already this is a different sort of performance, but let's look at what else they did. The song “Fire it Up” was actually accompanied by real flames on stage. Their interludes between songs included actual skits, like pretend fishing before “Down by the River.” And the most amazing part of the whole night, visually and sonically, was when unveiled that a grand piano had been moved onto the stage for their performance of “At Midnight,” my favourite song of theirs. All of these points were driven home when we went back and watched the DVD of this performance after seeing the Canberra Hilltop Hoods show. I don't expect to see these types of things in every oz hip hop performance obviously because doing these types of things on stage requires a lot of money to pull off. However I was put off by the lack of these types of surprises in the Hilltop Hoods show considering they most likely have even more in the way of monetary backing than Bliss n Eso does.
 Don't get me wrong, it's not only big production and big displays of waving money around that gets me excited about a hip hop show. I would be more than happy to watch just an emcee and a DJ on stage doing nothing special, if what they had to say was real and meaningful. I may even actually prefer it because the theatrics of it all can distract from the message. I think what is most important in hip hop and everyone would have to agree, is the lyrics. Everything else is just done in support of what is being said. And I was listening, really listening hard at the Hilltop Hoods show, like I do at every show, and lyrically they just weren't doing it for me.


Last night, I spent hours pouring over Hilltop Hoods lyrics to see if maybe I was just missing something. What I found out is some of their rhymes are pretty tight and intricate. But what really gets to me is that so many of their songs seem to be about the same thing, how great of lyricists and emcees they are, how much better their crew is than anyone else's . We know they can tell a good story, with songs like “The Sentinel,” “Audience with the Devil,” and “Stopping All Stations,” but those are pretty rare. We all know they can make a great banging party song like, “What A Great Night” and “Blue Blooded All Stars.” But do they represent something more than that? What I'm looking for is a simple message, what point are they actually trying to get out there? Yet line after line reads like this “My lyrics range from better than yours to way better than yours,” while at the same time lacking substance in their words. 

Cultural Resistance

I think a big problem is how do you keep pushing yourself after you've already “made it”? I think no matter what the Hilltop Hoods put out now they will still get love from the masses. I think it would be hard when you get to that point to keep from being lazy. Especially since laziness in Australia is almost a praised characteristic.

It's part of Australian culture to be lazy, you can't help it really. Australia has such a laid back and easy lifestyle. It comes with the whole no worries philosophy: Don't worry, don't plan, everything just works out fine on it's own, no stress. The thing is sometimes stress is the only way that anything gets done, it's a motivating factor. As I see it, it's hard at every level for an Australian emcee (or any artist in Australia for that matter). It's hard to get started in the first place, because life is just too easy for most people to be bothered to put any extra effort into anything. It's hard to start to establish and make a name for yourself because of the way society tends to look down on those “overachievers.” And it's even hard once you've “made it” to find the motivation to keep pushing yourself.

Having lived in the US where stress rules the land, and you are judged purely on what you have achieved rather than who you are, and in Australia where “no worries” is a lifelong philosophy, I can see both sides of the coin. Now before you get all high and mighty on me, realise that I chose to live here so obviously I think the Australian lifestyle is a much better choice. But there are positives and negatives to every situation. Australia has something embedded in the society that the United States does not, and it's commonly referred to as “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” As far as I see it, this means that anyone that tries to grow too big or reach too far toward the stars gets immediately knocked down. Whether it's verbally, physically, or just perceptually, the group will tend to look down on or beat down on the one who stands out until they feel bad about themselves and withdraw to the same level as their peers.

Tall poppy syndrome can stifle creativity because anyone who tries too hard at anything will be knocked down and hated on. That's why laziness is so treasured in Australia. This is why mediocrity tends to rule. If you stand out too much, you're a try-hard, putting in too much effort. It's like when we were in school and the people who were good at it and always did their homework got made fun of, except extended into a whole life philosophy. It's just the opposite in the United States. With so much competition for every little aspect of life, standing out from the crowd is the only way to survive, so being extremely ambitious is a valued and desirable character trait.This isn't to say that all (or even most) the stuff that comes out of the US is excellent or that everything that comes out of Australia is mediocre. It just helps us to understand the cultural mindset that the artist comes up against in this country.

There are so many artists in this country I don't think are striving to reach their greatest potential, simply because they don't even know what their greatest potential could be. Perhaps they are aiming too low, purposely melding themselves to fit in with their peers because unconsciously, that is what they are culturally programed to do. I'm not going to name any more names or make this entry into one of hate or placing blame, because that's not what I'm all about. I'm simply stating that what comes from the top trickles down. I think in this culture we can all get along together, but that everyone should be focusing much harder on each forming their own unique point of view and going for that as hard as they can. It takes many different pieces to make the whole picture, if all the pieces are too similar the picture will only turn out to be a fuzzy blur when what we need is clear cut edges and defined brush strokes. We should try and show our best face to the world, and that's not going to happen if we keep trying to cut each other down and conform around a set standard.

The opening act

Horrorshow in Canberra
Well enough of that tangent and back to the actual shows. I won't go on about all the little things that I found annoying, overall I did enjoy myself. However there was one thing that I couldn't get over which is worth mentioning. I think they missed a golden opportunity in not bringing Solo out on stage with them to perform “The Underground.” It is one of the best tracks on their new album and was in the running to become the second single, beaten out by “Shredding the Balloon,” only just. They brought Horrorshow on tour with them because obviously they respect and want to showcase this younger group, so why not bring Solo on stage to perform his track with them? I think it would have made for a very memorable moment in the show.

It's actually Horrorshow's Sydney performance that sticks out the most in my mind from these shows. The tour had just returned from Europe days before the Sydney gig. Horrorshow stepped out on stage to their home crowd, a year after performing this same venue with Bliss n Eso, with a new confidence and a very strong presence that I hadn't yet seen from them. There was no uncertainty at all. I think going overseas can give you such a refreshed perspective on life. And coming back to perform to a sold out home crowd, at the very venue that they themselves saw their very first concert, I can imagine they just threw everything that they had into it, and that confidence shone through in the best way. “We got this one,” was the note to self backstage.
Both of their performances I remember so differently, even though they played the same songs both times. Each performance carried a completely different vibe. The Sydney show was all about far away blue lights, slow songs, and haunting lyrics. Their new song “Dead Star Shine” stood out as pretty much the highlight of my night. Even though it was a brand new song and no one knew it yet, you could tell it went over very well, and I think he even got us all singing along to the chorus in the end. At the Canberra show of course we were able to get much closer. I remember the lighting as being more energetic, orange and yellow and greens with “Thoughtcrime” being the most stand-out song of the night.
Sally with Adit and Solo

There's certainly room in this scene and in the world scene for music like Horrorshow's hip hop style. They come from a much softer, very heartfelt place that I think a lot of artists are afraid to show. Their respect for the greats of this genre is evident in Solo's lyrics as well as the samples that Adit chooses. And yet they have managed to come out with something completely different. Solo wears his heart on his sleeve, and that's very refreshing coming from a genre that has a reputation for being about how hard you are, or pulling off a gangster persona.

In closing:

Again, I don't want this to come off the wrong way. Of course I don't hate the Hilltop Hoods, I have nothing but respect for them and what they have accomplished and continue to accomplish. I more have the attitude of that overbearing father or older brother in that because I love them, I'm harder on them because I want them to push themselves even more to reach their very best potential.

I invite anyone reading this, please change my mind about them. I'm open to listening again and being proven wrong. I actually would love to be. So send me lyrics and songs to listen to that really displays their point of view cause I would love it if I was just missing something.

Here is Hilltop Hoods new video clip. It's a big love fest, it's all about unity among the hip hop community.  Do you think that message comes across?

I'll leave you now with these thoughts. I was recently speaking to an Australian emcee about how I was looking for more, I wanted to hear something profound coming from the artist on stage in order to really enjoy the show. And his response disappointed me more than anything. What he said was, “Well we're only rappers you can't expect too much from us.” But I expect more from an emcee than an average person. I expect the whole world to be explained, and the whole world to be brought together as one just through one song. Because that is hip hop.

Links - information about Hilltop Hoods new single and video as well as links to their charity auction items
Horrorshow- artist info, merchandise, upcoming gigs
Flying Colours - Bliss n Eso's merchandise site where you can purchase the Running On Air DVD

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