As hip hop in Australia continues to experience a growth in exposure and popularity it has attracted a young audience who identify closely with the artists. The fact that home grown hip hop has become more openly proud of being Aussie on a mainstream level has improved its ability to be relatable. The youth audience who flock to the live shows and show their support can see someone not much older than them, talking about every day issues in a voice they can recognise. There are several artists being held up as the poster boys for this new generation of Aussie hip hop, with the most obvious example being the now ubiquitous 360.
Obese Records, Australia’s flagship hip hop label, has been a part of much of that growth and has been establishing its next wave of artists in the wake of earlier successes such as the Hilltop Hoods. Now the likes of Skryptcha, Spit Syndicate and our subject here, Illy, are carrying things into the future. The Melbourne bred emcee is gearing up to release his third studio album Bring It Back, which finds him looking back to his roots. The stripped back production and unfiltered lyrics mark a change from 2010’s The Chase and while it may appear an interesting if strategic move after having a commercial success, the choice was a natural one.
We catch Illy, real name Al Murray, the day after his birthday and as he prepares for the Melbourne stop on his Bring It Back Tour. While his voice shows signs of exhaustion, the busy performer sounds energised about the album and what he has coming up. “When I started putting together the album it wasn’t intended to be an album,” Murray reveals. “I was just making some tracks with mates that were a bit different from what I normally do. Gradually we ended up getting about half a dozen tracks down and I thought these tracks were good enough to make an album out of. So the process of making the album only really began probably six tracks in.”
Bring It Back finds him working with a range of artists, from veteran Reason, who appears on the appropriately titled The Bridge, to fellow new schooler Pez, who drops by on Where Ya Been. The collaborators also happen to be friends with Murray, which gives the album an authentic feel, rather than sounding like a group of people being forced to work together. As soon as the boom-bap heavy title track drops in you know you’re in for a different ride. “Told my label new plan I’ma take it to my roots with a new jam, after that resume programming,” he says on Bring it Back.
Free of the pressure that would come with recording a traditional album, the process was refreshing for someone who has experienced such a boost in profile. “It took the pressure off, it was just making music for myself really. There was no intention of having a massively commercial album. I just wanted to make some music with my mates. People have been saying it’s a risky move but I don’t think it is. If you’re making music but not pushing yourself to try different stuff I think that’s a much more risky thing to do.”
Murray took a similar risk when recording The Chase, as he focused more on hooks and production as opposed to trying to cater strictly to straight hip hop fans. As someone still looking to establish themselves he was relatively unknown on a national scale. “No one cared enough for there to be pressure. The Chase was the album that really made a lot of people aware of who I was and what I was doing.”
Flash forward a couple of years and Illy is now one of the more prominent local acts. For those, however, who only know Murray for singles like the Gold selling It Can’t Wait and Cigarettes, new tracks like Say it to Me and Where is my Mind Pt 2 showcase another side to the talented emcee. “It shows a different side and it’s a lot more in line with the local hip hop I was listening to coming up. I love the other stuff I’ve done. I write my own hooks so all the songs that have singers on them I’ve written. So obviously I’m fond of those songs but it’s been good to do something a bit different as well.”
In some ways Bring It Back plays as a tribute to the Aussie hip hop he came up on and the artists that influenced him and he has enjoyed the chance to perform the new material to live audiences. “The shows have been really really good. We’ve played some places that we haven’t played before which has been good and we’ve had some of our biggest shows. We had our biggest show in Sydney, our biggest show in Perth. I really can’t complain considering the tour was planned around an album release date that ended up getting pushed back. We’ve basically done this really great tour off the strength of the single [Heard it All], which is awesome and a massive relief as well.”
Despite the differences between Bring It Back and his previous work he has found the reception and energy from the live crowds hasn’t been too different at his recent shows. “It’s been very similar, which is great because we didn’t really know how it would go. The love is very much still there and it’s reciprocated.”
Now selling out shows nationally Murray has come a long way from the up and comer who dropped his debut mixtape in 2007. Before signing with Obese Records he used to hang out at their record store headquarters as a teen. “I was going there from about 17 to 21 and then I signed with Obese at 23. I wasn’t there religiously but the trips to the store were definitely something everyone used to do from time to time, go pick up CDs and hang out. It’s awesome to have a place like that.”
Like most of his contemporaries he has had to work his way up and has put in the hard yards. “I had to build it up, I had to do a lot of shows, a lot of touring, a lot of work to get where I’m at. It’s inevitable that if you’re gonna stick with music and if you’re gonna make any headway that that there’s a lot of work involved. It’s been a process, it’s been a long one but it’s one I’ve taken because I know it needs to be done.”
Even with his status now as one of the leaders of the new school the humble emcee tends to shy away from the plaudits and labels bestowed on him. “I just do my thing. People like my music, that’s good and that’s all I can really hope for.” Acknowledging that his style may be unique compared to others, he ultimately believes that he carries similar beliefs and principles throughout his work. “I guess I’m younger than a lot of the more prominent dudes and I guess my music does sound a bit different but I’m mates with a lot of those dudes, like the [Hilltop] Hoods, Drapht, Bliss N Eso. So I wouldn’t say I’m too fundamentally different but my music might be. It’s up to other people to make that call. I don’t really care too much about it.”
With Bring It Back ready to be released Murray is now focused on what he considers the official follow up to The Chase. “We were working on it before Bring It Back was put together. I was just recording tracks for the fun of it and at that time we were working on the follow up to The Chase, so we’re about to get stuck back into finishing that off.”
The yet-to-be-titled album will be produced almost entirely by fellow ARIA chart topper and producer extraordinaire M-Phazes, who has been working with Murray dating back to his earliest work. He is clearly excited about how the project is coming along as well as his progression as an artist. “I really want to focus on this next album as soon as I can and push myself with that. I’m quite excited about the potential for that one. Some of the stuff we’ve put down is really really solid. There’s a bit of pressure with that but I don’t let it get to me too much. I’m able to take the pressure and work with it rather than let it freak me out.”
The music industry can come with many trappings and excesses, however for Murray his sights are firmly set on developing his craft and continuing to remain a productive recording artist. “I don’t have too many goals beyond wanting to keep making music and keep touring and have people keep listening to my stuff.“
BY ANDREW 'HAZARD' HICKEY
Illy's [AUS] album Bring It Back is out on Friday September 21 through Obese record. He plays at Pyramid Rock Festival which takes place at Phillip Island from Saturday December 29 - Tuesday January 1