Bliss N Eso: Standing Tall

Published in The Music Network

 

Last year, the Sydney trio nailed the most extensive trek of the US by an Australian hip hop act. With their new album Running On Air ready for the racks, Bliss N Eso are sowing the seeds to do the unthinkable – having a pop at the home of hip hop.

One half of the duo, Jonathan ‘Bliss’ Notley has a foot in each camp. Born in the US, MC Bliss migrated to Australia as a high-school aged lad. It took a year to fit in, to acclimatise to the sports, the landscape, the way Australians interact. The hip hop community wasn’t even a blip on Australia’s cultural radar, let alone the international market. Not any longer.illu

“A new day is coming,” Bliss tells TMN. “Hip hop in America is saturated at the moment with the whole ‘bling bling’ culture and ‘gangsterism’. Australian hip hop has its own sound.” And audiences abroad, it seems, are becoming receptive to it. “We’re bringing political issues, environmental issues into the music, and the crowds find it refreshing. We heard that constantly around every show in the States.”

Home-grown hip hop has never been bigger down under. The APRA and ARIA Awards recognize hip hop in the ‘urban’ category, and the genre’s presence is felt in the album sales charts. “The quality of hip hop is getting better, and the movement is getting more exposure. That’s due to the artists’ hard work and the support Triple J has given the movement,” notes Hau Latukefu, presenter of Triple J’s hip hop show. Adelaide crew Hilltop Hoods smashed it with their fifth studio album State of the Art (Golden Era/UMA) album, which spent two weeks at No. 1 last year and was the year’s best-selling album by an Australian artist, according to ARIA data.

“Ten years ago, if you said an Australian hip hop record or band could be big here, people would have laughed,” says Adam Jankie, co-founder and Operations Manager at Melbourne-based Illusive Entertainment Group, which handles the Bliss N Eso’s releases, management, bookings and merchandise. “Five years ago, it was just starting to come through. But it was a small artform, and the acts were never expected to reach the top of the charts. That’s been disproven. Over the next three to five years we’ll start to see these acts start to break through into the international territories.”

In the live arena, Australian hip hop “has never been healthier,” explains Hilltop Hoods manager Dylan Liddy, whose wards last year played 4,000 capacity venues in the major Australian cities, and filled 1,000-2,000 capacity sites in the secondary and regional territories. “There’s clearly a strong demand even in some of the most isolated regions and the festivals are helping break domestic hip hop into the mainstream.”

For the past decade, Bliss, and his bandmates MC Esoterik (aka Max MacKinnon) and DJ Izm (aka Tarik Ejjamai) have made a habit of getting close to their fans. Wind the clock back, and the hip hoppers would fling around their cassettes and party with the fans. Cassettes are now a thing of the past, and the group’s partying days are largely behind them.

But they’re finding new avenues to connect with their tribe. The self-confessed gaming addicts enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts when their song Field of Dreams was synced to Electronic Arts’ Fight Night Round 4 game last year, where it featured alongside works by Snoop Dogg, Bloc Party and Mos Def.

The blogosphere has also played in their favour, evidence for which was waiting Stateside. While on a 15-city run of North America last year with Canada’s Swollen Members, some fans brandished the ultimate in merch – Bliss N Eso tattoos. “We were blown away, because we’d never released anything in the States,” explains Bliss. “It just shows you the power of social networking and viral marketing through the Web and the power of our music spreading digitally.”

Crafted in the Victorian bush, new album Running On Air keeps the flavour of Bliss N Eso’s ARIA Award-winning predecessor Flying Colours, while enlisting the help of some heavyweight friends. Rapper and MTV favourite Xzibit cut the album track People Up On It, Wu Tan Clan co-founder RZA appears on Smoke Like a Fire while Jehst, a UK underground hip hop member of royalty, appears on the track I Can.

Opening with the cinematic and moody title track, the album quickly slips into party mode before settling into a broody, darker hue. Lead single Down by the River is making waves into commercial radio. “It’s a solid tune, easy on the ears, it has a catchy chorus and the drums are banging,” notes Triple J’s Latukefu, who has championed the track.

There’s an unusually broad palate of samples on display, dug out from producer MPhazes’ imperious vinyl collection. The upbeat Flying Through The City bears a sample from Alright in the City, released in 1971 by New Zealand funk-rock outfit The Quincy Conserve, while on closing number Late One Night, the trio mixes it up with a cut from Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s glorious country hit Rattlin’ Bones. Art House Audio carries a piano riff lifted from cheery ‘80s TV talent scout Johnny Young.

Due July 30, the album’s 19 tracks “complement people’s different moods throughout the day,” explains Bliss. With its catchy, righteous chorus, the second single Addicted has radio written all over it. And there’s plenty of colloquial references. On Flying, Eso boasts a hunger like Nudge from Hey Dad and in Family Affair he dons his “wife beater”. American fans of the record will surely give Google a good beating.

Bliss N Eso’s career can be traced back to those days when talk of an Aussie hip hop breakthrough was accompanied with giggles. Illusion, helmed by managing director Matt Gudinski (son of Mushroom Group chairman Michael Gudinski) and Jankie, initially booked the band as the local support on a Cypress Hill tour the company was arranging. Bliss N Eso’s debut Flowers In The Pavement had been an underground hit for Obese Records in 2004, selling about 7,500 copies. Bliss N Eso jumped label and released followup Day of the Dog in 2006 through Illusive Sounds. It shifted about 27,000 copies and is nearing the gold threshold (35,000 units). In keeping with the trio’s trend for incremental album sales, Flying Colours from 2008 is on the verge of platinum status (70,000 units) having shifted 67,000 units.

In support of Running On Air, the group will tour Australia this August. Illusive is laying the groundwork for another visit to the US later this year, most likely in September and October, after which time a comprehensive Australian trek will roll out, including a confirmed appearance at Canberra’s Stonefest. The team at the music company are negotiating international partners to release the album.

America isn’t the only big target for Australia’s hip hop ranks. The Hoods are currently on an extensive UK and European jaunt through July, taking in shows at Scotland’s T In The Park festival and Ireland’s Oxegen fest. “Australian Artists like the Hilltop Hoods and Bliss N Eso are opening doors for other hiphop acts, and for the whole scene in general,” says Jankie.

“The Hoods are working their arse off to get that market building in Europe,” Gudinski adds. “And we’re taking Bliss N Eso to the territories where only pop, rock and electro Australian acts have made it. Those bands are paving the way for Aussie hip hop to have a crack over there.”

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