Messed!Up

Hilltop Hoods on their rise to fame, their role models and (some weird) goals in life: Interview

Kaidy Sims March 28, 2020

Australian hip hop three-piece Hilltop Hoods have been around since 1994 when Suffa (Matthew David Lamber) and Pressure (Daniel Howe Smith) joined forces. They were joined by DJ Debris (Barry John Francis) after DJ Next left the band in 1999. Since then they have released eight albums and six of those albums have reached number one on the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) albums charts, while three tracks have peaked “Top 10“ on the ARIA singles’ chart.

In 2006 they were awarded Best Independent Release and Best Urban Album for “The Hard Road“ at the ARIA Music Awards. They won Best Urban Album“ again in 2007 for their remix album “The Hard Road: Restrung“, and again in 2009 and 2012 for their album “State Of The Art“ and “Drinking From The Sun“. In 2009 DJ Debris was also awarded Engineer of the Year for his work on “State Of The Art“.

In February 2019, Hilltop Hoods released their latest album, “The Great Expanse“, and debuted number one of the ARIA  albums’ charts as the group’s sixth number one album. This set a new ARIA record for most no. 1 albums by an Australian band or group. 

Having been given the opportunity to meet with all three members, we talked and laughed about their rise to fame, their role models, and their very different goals in life. But it was also a chat about sex toy tycoons and running the country with an iron vibrator.

Mentoring bands on the Australian scene

I have been reading a lot about your Hilltop Hoods initiative which helps young artists in South Australia get their start. How did you come upon this idea?
Pressure: We have been doing it for about ten years now, but I think we have lost track of the official date in which we started it.

The grant that we do is actually Australia-wide now. We do it in conjunction with APRA [Australasian Performing Right Association]. But it started because we received a grant from the South Australian government to help us produce and distribute our first record, so it is just a nice way for us to give something back to our community.

Suffa: We haven’t done it in a year, but it is coming back next year. It‘s not that we forgot about it, we have just become so busy. It needs a shot of something new.

Pressure: Yeah, re-jig it and make it more exciting.

But in general, you take new artists and help them record their first CD, right?
Suffa: We just give them money (laughs). 

Pressure: There are sort of packages with it, like a mentoring session with their manager.

Suffa: A session with their music lawyer as well.

Pressure: I think one was studio time as well, but it kind of changes every year.

But you also did a shoe sponsorship?
Suffa: That was a while ago.

Pressure: But that was fun. I think I still have like fifty pairs of them sitting under my stairs at my house, just taking up room.

You should just throw them out at concerts!
Pressure: Well, they are all size eleven, and I think I have given a pair to everybody I know that is a size eleven (laughs).

Memorable moments and role models

Having had six chart-topping albums in Australia is nothing but a huge success and an Australian record for most chart-topping albums. However, the hip hop scene in Australia struggled for attention many years and was for a long time just a creative underground movement, but in the 1990’s major labels started to sign and release Australian hip hop bands and artists, and the scene slowly started to rise on home turf. Bands and artists as Sound Unlimited Posse, DWC and MD Opi rose to national success and paved the way for the scene’s major breakthrough in the 2000’s.

When ARIA began to recognize the growing interest in hip-hop in Australia at the beginning of the 2000’s, they introduced the scene in their annual awards. And Hilltop Hoods have since then won ten Aria Awards and have received 25 additional nominations – so far.

However, although they’re one of the most successful hip hop acts ever in Australia, the best moment of the band’s life was when they first got their music out on vinyl.

So with your music; it‘s the kind of music that you just have to dance to. Where does your inspiration come from?
Suffa: We all listen to a lot of different music and we love nineties rap, I think that was our favorite era of music.

Pressure: Definitely, because that was during our most formative years when we were in high school, and we’re probably subconsciously influenced by that, but also a lot of the music our parents handed us down. Old tunes, funk, soul, and stuff like that get into our music a lot and just a lot of other modern music. I listen to a lot of everything. 

Do you guys have personal role models? We are affected by the music we listen to and the music our parents gave us, but would you say there was any one person or multiple people in your lives that influenced you to become who you are now, like a music teacher, or your mom or a mom who was a music teacher?
Suffa: My mum was actually a music teacher! (laughs)

Pressure: And my dad was a singer-guitarist and used to play a lot of gigs when I was younger, and that probably influenced me a lot, maybe not to become a musician. Actually, I never tried to become a musician, because I‘m not a musician – I can’t play any instruments well enough to be called a musician. But setting out to make this into a career was never something we set out to do, we kind of just fell into it. 

Suffa: In Australia being a hip-hop artist wasn’t really a career. 

Pressure: No, it wasn’t. There‘s a cool underground hip-hop scene but no one is really living off it.

You have been around since 1994 and must have lots of fun memories to share. What were your most memorable moments since then?
Suffa: Probably getting our first piece of music, our own music, on vinyl.

Pressure: Our first gold record was a big moment when we sort of first blew up back at home. We got picked up by a radio station at home called the triple j and it really boosted our career. That was certainly a big moment.

Suffa: There are also all the people we got to work with; Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Brother Ali, and many more. And then probably our first international festival back home in 2005. 

Pressure: Coming to Switzerland and playing a big festival in front of roughly 50 000 people was awesome. 

Suffa: Even though the guy introducing us did introduce us with something in Swiss and then jumping around the stage like a kangaroo (laughs). 

Pressure: Apparently it’s just too fucking hard to resist! (laughs) 

So of these memorable moments would you also say that they are some of your most successful moments as a band?
Pressure: I guess so because you try and really repress the memories of the terrible things (laughs).

Suffa: Not necessarily, because getting your song on vinyl isn’t being successful. It is just a moment, a personal moment, and being able to quit our jobs.

Pressure: That probably will go down as one of the best moments.

Suffa: And not having to start our jobs again! (laughs) 

DJ Debris: That’s a deep, deep-seated fear of ours (laughs).

Pressure: That’s actually kind of like a repetitive dream I have, that you wake up and you’re in high school still. 

Suffa: Sounds like a hot dream. Go on! (laughs) 

Pressure: I’m wearing short shorts (laughs). 

Back to these terrible moments that we are repressing…
Pressure: Yeah, I guess it’s all the accolades and great moments. We’ve had a lot of shitty experiences as well, like playing for three people in a veterans club during our first time in Sydney. Luckily, there are a lot more good moments than bad. 

Have you been able to find a way to appreciate these bad memories and use them to propel you further?
Suffa: Once you put a bit of distance between yourself and that, I think we’re doing pretty good. Everything is doing all right and you can start to get some perspective on that stuff and life in general.

Pressure: You need to sort of step away and appreciate what we have done and where we‘re at by weighing it up against what we had to do to get here. 

Suffa: And those things are character-building as well. I saw a band tweet the other day “Retweet this if you have ever played to less than ten people” and I was like “Fuck yeah” (laughs) – and like 4 000 or 5 000 people retweeted it.

Pressure: I remember the first time we came to Germany. We played in Berlin at a place called Cassiopeia which was kind of a youth center/skate park facility, and we played in this tiny room with a dirt floor. We were pretty much standing on boxes for a stage.

DJ Debris:: Under a railway!

Pressure: To about ten people.

The sex toy tycoon goal

After achieving more goals than many bands would ask for there can’t be much left for Hilltop Hoods to achieve. However, there are also life goals, the things you’d like to achieve in order to be satisfied with your future and who you become ranging from better relationships to starting a business, to traveling the world. And for others, it could also be to become an adult-toy-tycoon or to put it simply: run the world with a vibrator.

As you may understand, this is when everything went a little bit out of hands.

You have won a lot of awards such as the ARIA Awards, and on paper you‘re doing fantastic. But how do you guys personally measure your own success?
Pressure: I guess in the enjoyment of it. It is not something I think about very often, I kind of don’t sit there measuring my career with a measuring stick, it is just something you try and remember to appreciate. It is easy to get caught up in everything and forget to appreciate it all.

Suffa: I feel that the way it’s been going for a while though, it’s almost as if you’re not succeeding and you’re not failing. I’ve got a line on the new record that says “Every time I’ve felt success, I’ve felt confusion, ‘cause it didn’t feel like winning, it just felt like I wasn’t losing”.

Pressure: That’s very negative! (laughs) 

Suffa: It’s not negative, it’s like a passive statement, just looking at it as it is. But just being able to make a living off of music is the best measure of success. 

What are your mini-goals in life, and not necessarily your mini-music-goals but your mini-goals in general?
Pressure: I’m a goal setter and I have a list of places I would like to go to, but I wouldn’t mind finishing painting my bedroom (laughs).

Suffa: I want my kids to go to a nice school and I want them to be happy.

DJ Debris: I don’t know if I should say my goal (laughs).

Suffa: There’s a reason he doesn’t talk during interviews. Don’t let him talk, please don’t let him talk, he’ll ruin everything! (laughs)

DJ Debris: I want to be an adult-toy-tycoon (laughs).

Suffa: Ladies and gentlemen: DJ Debris! I like how there is no middle point, he’s just like “I want to be a fucking tycoon“! He wants to run this country with an iron vibrator! (laughs)

Pressure: We learned something new about you today!

Suffa: I didn’t know you were designing sex toys. Is that what you were doing today? Market research? 

DJ Debris: Yup (laughs).

Suffa: DJ Debris is going to inadvertently bring around the apocalypse. I have a theory! 

Alright let’s hear it!
Suffa: Because when they bring in the sex robots and then the AI sex robots, it’s when the robots find out that we have been building them to have sex with them and then they are going to turn on us (laughs). And you [pointing at DJ Debris] will be the first one they attack. Like I, Robot but with vibrators! (laughs)

Pressure: I think we have gone too far down this road…

I don’t think any of us saw this coming, but to sum it up our mini-goals are: traveling, happy children and sex toys. Do you guys have any other bigger group goals?
Suffa: Go home and finish the next record!

That’s a great goal! But I have a very important question. Will the next album cover debut DJ Debris’s new line of sex toys?
Pressure & Suffa: Maybe! (laughs) 

Suffa: We could give them out at concerts.

This interview started out so normal!

Pressure: It did!


Photos: ©Richie Racoon
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About The Author

American by birth, confused by nature and still don’t know how or why she ended up in Germany after a traditional beer pong party. If there’s something cheesy on stage, then there’s an American nearby; if there’s disco vibes, she’s working on her hustle. Loves everything with a saxophone in it; rumor says she has one in bed. Will run Messed!Up’s American branch in the future.

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