There aren’t many MCs that make it to the top of the game in Aussie hip-hop. Becoming a household name is a tough ask indeed, but one of the locals who has climbed that mountain is Illy.
Whether it’s due to his willingness to cross between genres, or his on-point, witty lyricism, there’s something that draws the punters to Illy like a gigantic, fire-spitting magnet. With a couple of days left before he releases his sixth studio album Two Degrees this Friday, we thought it was about time for a chat.
On the eve of Illy’s biggest release yet and a string of sweaty shows to celebrate, we chat to the hip-hop star about festivals, making changes and of course, Two Degrees.
HAPPY: Hey there man, how you doing?
ILLY: Good, what’s happening dude?
HAPPY: Not much man. Shall we get straight into it?
HAPPY: Sweet as. So, just seen you’ve been chosen for the triple j feature album next week, nice one!
ILLY: Yeah, so stoked on that dude.
HAPPY: Australia has a pretty sweet scene, in terms of artist support. Especially on radio.
ILLY: Definitely man. Personally, man, I know that my career wouldn’t be where it is today without triple j and the support they’ve given me over a long period of time. I know more recently I’ve been getting played on commercial radio, and they’ve been really supportive of me and other local artists as well. I think that we have a really, really strong local music scene.
Having been elsewhere in the world, I know that there really isn’t anything like a triple j and local artists are incredibly lucky to have that, particularly at the start of their careers. And beyond just radio, I think our gig-going public is amazing. The vibe at festivals, the amount of shows that people go to… it’s really healthy. We’re very fortunate here to have really enthusiastic punters, and really great crowds generally. The people who go there don’t just go to be wallflowers.
HAPPY: So true.
ILLY: I think it’s in a really healthy spot and it has been for a long time. Even though the landscape at festivals may have changed a little bit in the last few years, there’s been a few festivals going bust or whatever, I don’t think that’s stopped the enthusiasm of punters, it’s just forced organisers to reshape and re-evaluate the way they’re doing it.
HAPPY: Nice, well you’re playing a bunch of festivals this year. You’ve been a fan of the festival since before you were making music?
ILLY: Yeah. Fuck yeah. Before I was playing them, I was going to them. I think summer and festivals go hand in hand, and a lot of people think the same way.
HAPPY: You’ve been pretty outspoken about the drug problems Aussie festivals are having, or rather the problems with drug prohibition. What do you think we need to change before the upcoming season?
ILLY: I think the logical thing would be to introduce drug testing access. I think that would be sensible, and God forbid, I hope everyone is safe and there’s no people losing their lives over summer, I really hope that’s the case. But, I think that introducing drug testing would be a way of making that more unlikely. I’m not sure the powers that be will introduce it, for whatever reason.
HAPPY: Small changes though, and that’s kind of the theme of the album, isn’t it?
ILLY: Yeah, definitely, that change is made in small increments over a period of time.
HAPPY: What other parts of society, or the world are you trying to change little by little?
ILLY: Not so much man, I’m not trying to make political statements with the album.
HAPPY: So it’s more about personal changes then.
ILLY: Yeah. It’s talking introspectively. Personal changes, the one’s I’m referring to are creative and musical ones. I think the changes that are really evident on this album is that the songwriting is a lot more broad, it’s a lot more varied, I think in some ways it’s a lot better than previous albums. It’s something I’ve been trying to focus on particularly with Cinematic and now Two Degrees is just to make songs more than ‘beat, verse, hook’ hip-hop tracks.
And yeah, I feel really happy with it, I definitely don’t think it can be classed as a hip-hop album, or as a pop album, or as an electronic album. I think there’s elements of all of it in there, but I think it can definitely be classed, front-to-back as sounding like an Illy album. That was what I set out to do, make a unique genre-bending album but still sound distinctly like me.
HAPPY: It’s something more and more artists are hating on now, those labels.
ILLY: Definitely dude. 100% agree.
HAPPY: And there’s so much collaboration now, you’ve got like five or six tracks on the album with collaborators yeah?
ILLY: Yeah so… I wish I could sing better than I can but unfortunately that’s not the case, so I write these hooks and then I’ll pitch them to other artists to sing, I usually write them with the distinct voice in my mind. I was really lucky with this album that all these incredible artists got sent the tracks, loved them and wanted to be involved. Everyone’s done such an amazing job, I’m privileged to be able to work with these people.
HAPPY: Well and producers too, what’s it been like having someone as high-caliber as M-Phazes by your side?
ILLY: Well me and Phazes have such a long history together, he’s been involved in all my albums and he DJ’d for me for five or six years. So, it’s great man, I can say I think he’s the best producer in the country of any genre, I think he’s truly world class and to have him as one of my closest mates in music is amazing because I trust his opinion wholeheartedly.
We’ve been working together and mates for long enough so that we don’t pull any punches, if he’s not doing something I’ll let him know and if what I’m doing isn’t up to scratch he’ll let me know. Even though it can be frustrating at the time, I know that we’ve got enough runs on the board now that even if we’re butting heads we can both see the light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll raise each other’s games to meet our expectations, so I’m really lucky man.
HAPPY: You guys come up against each other often?
ILLY: Well yeah, when you’re making an album in close quarters and the pressure’s on, you have a whole bunch of people or deadlines outside that it can get tense. But like I said, it’s always for the greater good, it’s never just blowing up for the sake of blowing up, it’s because we both set really high expectations on ourselves and demand the same from each other. It’s always done in a healthy way, it’s never, you know, cause we’re cunts.
HAPPY: Sweet as man, I think we’ll move on to the gigs you’re playing to launch the album. They all sold out in a flash, did you go for smaller venues on purpose?
ILLY: Yeah man, I mean I haven’t played a venue the size of Howler in… even my first album launch was at The Corner which is bigger than Howler. So not since before my first album, so we’re going back maybe eight or nine years since I played a venue that size. It’s gonna be awesome to do that. We wanted to play small ones, we’re going to do big shows early next year, but I didn’t want to wait so long to play these songs so yeah, rather than play big shows and take away from the plans for next year and be stressing in the lead up to the album about selling tickets we just wanted to do some one-off shows.
Like, no one in Melbourne would’ve seen me play a venue like this, and the same with Sydney and Brisbane, it’s gonna be really cool, man, I’m really excited to get the album out and then a couple of days later be playing the whole album. I’m glad we managed to pull it together, even though they are on school nights.
HAPPY: I mean, I think people will come out anyway.
ILLY: Well I hope so, they bought the tickets.
HAPPY: So it’s pretty much going to be a runthrough of the album at the gigs?
HAPPY: I guess if you’re wanting for the bigger crowds you have the festivals.
ILLY: Totally, man. We got to play a bunch of big shows, and big festivals this year so it’ll be nice to play some hot, sweaty, intimate rooms. It’s gonna be good man.
HAPPY: And once you’re done with the festival circuit and the album’s out, you said you were planning some gigs next year?
ILLY: Yep. Well there’s still a lot of work before that gets sorted but we’ll be announcing that probably in the next month, yeah. We’ll be touring next year properly for the next album.
HAPPY: Do you have plans after that, are you looking that far forward?
ILLY: Not really man, I’m just looking forward to next Friday. That’s been coming for such a long time and we got the masters back a couple of weeks ago, and when you get those back it’s kinda like the full-stop on the album process. It’s just been gearing up for next Friday and it’s going to be so cool to get it out there, and I’m hoping that people will like it.
HAPPY: Well I’m sure everyone will, man.
HAPPY: Fingers crossed bro.
HAPPY: Too easy. Well thanks man, I’ll let you get on.
HAPPY: Cheers dude!
ILLY: No worries, have a good one man.
Two Degrees is out this Friday the 11th of November and available for pre order now from Illy’s website, where you can also grab your tickets to any of his upcoming shows.