With the current strength of Australian hip-hop, it’s easy to forget that before its current era of popularity and diversity it was very much a niche underground scene. An artist with ties to those earlier days of small venues and a lack of national exposure is Frankston born and raised Illy, who is hell-bent on making both the scene and his own artistry bigger than confined to one genre. The next step in doing so is his fifth album, Two Degrees, set to be released this Friday November 11.
Produced entirely by Australian legend M-Phazes, the first taste of Illy’s next chapter came with the critically acclaimed double-platinum single ‘Papercuts’ (feat. Vera Blue) which continued the genre-morphing work he had began on his fourth LP, Cinematic. As well as recently unleashing his second single from Two Degrees, ‘Catch 22′ (feat. Anne-Marie), Illy has been nominated for six 2016 ARIAs and officially became one of the highest streaming Australian hip-hop artists.
But before his current success, Illy’s career began back in 2009 with his debut record Long Story Short and his signing to Obese Records. His first three albums on the legendary Australian hip-hop label progressed him from underground champion to festival darling, but it wasn’t until leaving Obese and founding record label OneTwo with Unified, that Illy began the next step by flexing his pop sensibilities to create a modern and progressive sound on Cinematic.
However what makes Illy’s journey all the more empowering is how hard-fought it has been. His first two records were made mid law degree, a path which nearly didn’t happen due to poor VCE scores, but one that he managed to complete whilst also carving out his own niche within Australia’s rapidly developing hip-hop scene.
We caught up with Illy to talk about the new album, juggling music with education throughout his long career and whether or not he is the best FIFA player on the planet.
The message of your new album Two Degrees is inspired by a Barack Obama quote, and it’s one of steady but impactful progress. But I looked at it simply as: Two Degrees is your fifth album and, as stories usually follow a five act structure, if each of your albums is a step in a narrative, what would each one be, to get to the message of Two Degrees?
(laughs) That’s a good question, fuck (laughs) Damn man, I mean they’re all kind of self-explanatory. Long Story Short was the 23 years that preceded it in an album. The Chase was written at a time where I was still studying and struggling to make that work and make the music career work. So that was me literally chasing my goals and my dream as far as music. Bring It Back was throwing back it my roots, coming up in the underground hip-hop scene in Melbourne. Cinematic was me trying to reach and become something more and bigger than a hip-hop artist. And Two Degrees is all of that cumulatively building up to being very different than what I was on Long Story Short.
After listening to Two Degrees there’s a clear evolution of sound between your Obese Era and your current One Two era. Was the evolution you just mentioned equal parts conscious decision and natural growth?
Yeah, definitely, it was. I don’t want to be complacent. I hate the idea of resting on my laurels, or just people in general resting on their laurels. I think if you’re not striving to be something better you’re wasting your time and you can get left behind very quickly. So that’s the conscious part of it. But naturally, I think as well. It’s happened because I’ve simply been doing this for longer. I have a lot more experience. And I view the last 8 years in terms of album cycles and when the album’s done it’s a clear full stop mark and you can’t really revisit that. Once that full stop’s there you move on and you don’t want to do the same thing. So it’s both a natural and a conscious not wanting to do the same fucking shit basically.
Two Degrees was recorded in New York, England, LA, Sydney & Melbourne, you’ve said that overhearing artists in LA made you step your game up. How did each location impact on the songs?
All the overseas stuff was part of that natural and conscious wanting to move out of my comfort zone and develop as an artist. The majority of the tracks, the demos were done in LA, a couple in New York, one in England. But LA’s the main location and from LA I got that work ethic. The way that they work over there, the whole mentality is really inspiring. It’s quite tough to go into from Australia, where we kind of do work at our own pace, to go over there. There’s dudes doing back to back 8 hour sessions, and they do that 6 days a week. It’s very much on the clock. It’s a different way of making music. Some would be like that seems really manufactured, but when you’re over there and you’re amongst it, it’s just inspiring creative people who actually really bust their fucking ass. LA really gave me that. New York is just a place that I love, so being able to make music there was great but I don’t think even that or England gave too much beyond just being a session and creating. But I took away that work ethic from LA.
You’ve spoken openly about how you fucked up Year 12 but you still manage to secure a law degree, but all of that went to the side when you kicked off a music career, but do you think young people are pressured to follow the traditional school then uni then job path as their only option?
Yeah I do and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Parents just want their kids to be okay, so it’s always coming from a good place, but I think the way that creative fields and creative pursuits are frowned upon by, I hate to say, “the establishment” but whatever it is, I really feel like that is a downer. I don’t like seeing creativity beaten out of people by the weight of the world. The only issue I have with, “study, get a job, go into a career”, is like, “Where do you have time to colour in?” We’ve got an education minister who’s trying to defund a lot of the arts and creative fields in uni or tertiary education, who gives very little value to those things. And I think that’s, not an outrage, but it’s extremely disappointing, because to have the government openly shitting on creative types is fucking lame.
You’re qualified for a law career but you’re a musician, my take on Two Degrees as a title is saying you have a degree in law and you have a degree now in music. Do you think some people might take away the message as being; you have more than one option in life?
Funnily enough I’d never even fucking thought of that but that makes total sense (laughs) Full on, dude, that’s fucking brilliant!
I mean yeah, if the shit I do, or the shit that I’ve done, or the music that I make can give people inspiration to try and achieve something that they don’t have the confidence otherwise. To even give them a little more confidence to try something that they wouldn’t be comfortable with, and get them out of their comfort zone, then that’s fucking awesome.
You’ve been involved in the Australian hip-hop scene since before its current glory of triple j regular rotation and big festival slots. I saw you play, and got to meet you, in Prahran when you first launched Long Story Short in 2009.
Hectic! Where was that? What venue was that bro?
That was like the town hall or something.
I can’t even remember…
It was a Freeza gig.
Oh okay, alright, yeah, yeah. Fuck man!
I also ran into you at Bliss n Eso’s Unified tour at Monash Caulfield.
Right, word! I remember that one!
I went to three of those shows. They were hectic; every single one of them!
That Monash Caulfield one at the cafe was fucking insane!
We nearly brought down the walls at that place!
For real, I was just there six hours beforehand getting a fucking latte and then that evening it was getting torn apart by hip-hop heads.
Do you find for an artist like yourself who has ties to those humble beginnings, that established artists need to reinvent themselves?
I think that it’s vital. I think if you’re not reinventing yourself… it’s a hard one because you don’t want to speak too generally, but it feels to me that people who just make the same album over and over again aren’t doing it for the right reasons. It feels like short-changing your fan base to just keep doing the same thing and not evolving. I think personally if you intend on having a career that’s gonna last longer than an album or two then you have to improve and get better and evolve.
Do you think the “real hip-hop” mentality is slowly dying out?
Yeah, I definitely think so man. The scene basically doesn’t exist anymore. Not like I knew it or not like it was when I was coming up. I think the last five years hip-hop in Australia has changed dramatically. I think in the last year or two it’s changed dramatically. And I think in the next couple of years it’s going to change even more. I feel sad because I obviously spent most of my life in hip-hop here, when I was coming up and young. You look back and get nostalgic; you had a lot of great times. But I feel bad for the young kids coming up that there’s not the same opportunities that there was when I was coming up.
I would’ve played open mic nights four nights a week and play shows and there was a lot more opportunities to get on a stage, but we didn’t have social media the same way it is now, so I guess there’s a trade off. But you know the kids will make their own shit, and I’m not gonna old man them and son them and be like, “Back in my day, this shit was so much better” cause it’s not man. I mean when we were coming up, I had older heads being like, “Oh it’s different now, it’s all fucked up.” And it’s like, if you start taking that jaded approach and not caring about what’s coming up and not being excited about what’s coming up then that’s the start of you falling the fuck off. I think that everything’s gonna be just fine with hip-hop in Australia, but I do think the old ways are dying off and it’s natural.
M-Phazes produced all of Two Degrees and you executive produced. Now, how the fuck do you tell Phazes what to do?
Oh (laughs) very politely. Me and Phizzle have such a long standing friendship and working relationship that we don’t pull punches. We can be close to killing each other at the depths of an album but there’s that much shared experience and that many runs on the board. He’s one of my closest mates in music and I know that every time he’s pushed me or told me to raise my game, I always come out better for it. Even if at the time it shits me up the wall, I have that complete faith in what he thinks.
And it goes both ways – if something’s not up to scratch on my part, he’ll tell me, and if something’s not up to scratch on what he’s doing, I’ll tell him. But we can do that because we’ve been doing this for so long together and we’ve done quite well from it, we have won more than we’ve lost, so you have that trust from that, so it’s all good.
Running a label as an artist, do you sometimes feel that you’re at odds with yourself? Like you’ll approach a decision from a CEO side or an artist side?
Kind of, but I’m lucky that OneTwo isn’t just me. My business partner Jaddan Comerford, in my opinion is the best person in the music industry under 35 in Australia. I think there’s a lot of great people involved with One Two and Unified who I can count on for advice. So that even if I have my artist hat on, I’m not making calls for the label and for the artist that aren’t right.
There’s a lot of experience and a lot of talent beyond just me. Even if I am at odds with myself, which doesn’t happen, I’m able to kind of separate the two. But even if it were to get to that point, there’s enough steady hands involved that it’s gonna be cool.
Other than yourself, who is the deadliest musician you’ve come up against playing FIFA?
(laughs) A musician? I don’t know. I think I’ve smoked every single musician I’ve played on FIFA. If you know anyone, tell them to holla at me! But I’m undefeated as far as I can remember.
Every time I challenge someone, I get my ass kicked.
(laughs) It’s a dangerous game man!
How come you haven’t been on a FIFA sound track yet?
Broooo! I know! I fucking know! It better happen on FIFA 18, that’s all I can say!