When you think hip-hop certain unavoidable connotations arise. Stereotypes infiltrate your mind’s eye, and mind’s ear, with everything from gold chains and pristine Adidas sneakers to lyrics rich in poppin’ caps, intimate relations with the law enforcement and an over-healthy fascination with female dogs. It has become a lifestyle, a whole sub-species of humanity with its own language, fashion code and culture. But, lest we forget, hip hop is, first and foremost, a musical style, and it is with this perspective, fresh, pure and unfettered, that Illy started making music. Much of hip-hop’s influence has been bred of injustice, primarily to the Afro-American minorities, and has an inherent anger and negativity. But growing up on the ‘mean streets’ of Melbourne was hardly cause for Illy to scream about the unfairness readily dished out to him on a daily basis. “I don’t have that much wrong in my life,” Illy shares of his background. “I’ve had my hardships and I’ve gone through my share of struggles, but at the end of the day I’ve never had any real, insanely trying circumstances that I’ve had to rise above. I’m an Australian, I’m from a middle-class family, so I don’t want to make angry music that doesn’t reflect the way that I view life. “If I were to make really aggressive, angry hip-hop I don’t think it would be genuine because I don’t have that much to feel angry about.” Listening to his latest album, Cinematic, released at the tail end of last year, you’re faced with a collection of conundrums. Aggression, for one, is not on the agenda, there is no heavy, repetitive bass line and his vocals flow gently with a storytelling grace, rather than being venomously spat forth in vengeance or defiance. And yet the entire sound remains intrinsically hip-hop. Illy released his first album five years ago drifting gently on the same stream as Hilltop Hoods and Drapht, with whom he has numerously collaborated. But it has been with his own style. “I would say that my stuff is different to a lot of Australian hip-hop in that it’s more melodic, it sounds larger and the production is bigger and there’s not much anger through it. Some people want that anger, some people don’t, but as far as what I create, that’s where my grounding is coming from.” It’s been a struggle getting to today, but Illy is now in a place of wealth. Perhaps not in his bank manager’s eyes, and he’s the first to admit he hasn’t ‘made it’ into the limelight, but he is recognised and is now able to spread his wings just a little further. Cinematic has afforded him the opportunity to explore the depths of his music, bringing in numerous collaborators, including his mates the Hilltops and Drapht but also pop crooner Daniel Merriweather and The Amity Affliction’s Ahren Stringer, blending musical genres to create a rich, balanced sound testament to Illy’s evolution as an artist. He doesn’t have to say yes to every gig, can be selective in his commitments and it has afforded him the time to develop his work to a whole new level. “[Cinematic] is my fourth album and, over that time, there’s been a lot of experience gained and honing what I do,” he expresses. “With this one, I was a lot more confident in my abilities and because of that I was more able and willing to push the envelope and try different things. I think Cinematic is easily the most ambitious album I have ever done.” 2014 is gearing up for Illy. The release of Cinematic, as is the way in the music world, has instigated a national tour, beginning with the six-stop Groovin’ The Moo festival before visiting our corner of Australia for Splendour in the Grass. This year’s booked out, next is already filling up and Illy is a man in demand. But his feet remain firmly on the ground, never one to fall victim to stardom and retaining an admirable humility, however his career may be expanding. “I don’t feel like I’ve made it. As soon as you start feeling like that you tend to get a bit slack and complacency’s never a good thing, especially in something as competitive as the music industry. But I’m in a position now where I have got a lot of good, really talented people around and my profile is such that I don’t have to take every offer that comes. I’m not going to make any crazy demands but I’m now able to actually ask things of people.” Prior to the release of Cinematic, Illy’s recording contract expired. It was just one of those things; he wasn’t dropped from his label, there was no negativity, it simply ran out. He could possibly have re-signed or even looked to another label for support, but instead he embraced the opportunity and saw it not as a hindrance but as a way to pay it forward, to give support back to the industry that has provided him with so much. “I’ve always been interested in the business side of music and I was in a position where I was out of contract. I want to be involved in music beyond being an artist, so establishing my own label was a good way to do it. Helping the next generation is important to me because I was given a lot of help by people and if you want Australian hip-hop, or any genre for that matter, to keep improving, it has to keep regenerating. If the young kids aren’t getting help the same way that my generation were, then it’s not going to be as strong.” Setting up his own label, OneTwo, was a means to an end, enabling the production and distribution of his own music, but that motivation was the minority, a recognition of his own career and the help it was given providing the inspiration to return the favour. A total flipside to those first impressions of a hip-hop artist, Illy exudes positivity and compassion, through his lyrics, as an individual and now through his business and actions. He’s come a long way, but with his fourth album it seems like the struggle’s almost over now has come the time to grow. Illy’s latest album, Cinematic, is available on iTunes.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Apr 28, 2014