It’s not actually that long ago that Australian hip hop was a divisive, underground subgenre. Over the last decade it’s evolved from being a minority movement to a chart-dominating force and acts like Bliss N Eso now seem inextricably woven into the fabric of the local music scene. Ahead of the Sydney trio’s biggest tour yet, MC Bliss (AKA Jonathan Notley) recognises the role they’ve had in hip hop’s rise into the mainstream.

“There’s a handful of groups that are really the pioneers of bringing the culture forward in the country,” he says. “First it was 1200 Techniques who had success on radio, then the Hoods were the first real big group. We were the second, equally as big group, and we led the way with them [and] a bunch of other acts. We’re very blessed and honoured to be a part of some of those pioneering artists.”

The forthcoming Circus Under The Stars tour is yet another instance of the platinum-selling group breaking new ground. Bliss N Eso (completed by MC Eso/Max MacKinnon and DJ Izm/Tarik Ejjamai) will take over a stack of venues customarily used as festival sites, including Sydney’s The Domain on Thursday April 17. Also along for the ride are Melbourne MC Seth Sentry and Sydney duo Horrorshow.

“This is definitely the biggest tour we’ve ever done and it’s probably the strongest lineup we’ve ever had,” says Notley. “It’s three super solid acts, so it’s going to be amazing. They’re all outdoor shows, it’s licensed and all ages so there’s no restrictions there. It’s exciting for us to do something on this scale.”

Not only does the tour encompass a mammoth list of venues nationwide, Bliss N Eso will be backed by a live band for the first time. “That brings an entirely new energy to the show, which is fantastic,” Notley says. “The DJ’s still the heart and soul in terms of the beats that everyone knows, it’s just we’re adding onto that. It’s more embellished and a little bit deeper.”

Teaming up with a full live band might seem like a curious decision for a group that’s very comfortably used an old-school MCs-and-DJ set-up since forming near the turn of the 21st century. However, Notley explains they’ve been toying with the idea of live backing for years.

“We actually had a gig back in the day with a band called Truelive. It was just a one-off where the band actually played all our beats for us live and it was amazing. The energy onstage was phenomenal and we were loving it. Ever since then we’ve always said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get a live band going!’”

Thankfully, expanding the band’s personnel hasn’t forced the show schedule to be any shorter. In addition to playing in all major cities, the Circus Under The Stars will visit a large chunk of regional Australia. From the moment they achieved substantial success, Bliss N Eso have made an effort to take Australian hip hop into many of the nation’s less frequented regions.

“We’re bringing hip hop to some of these regional centres who have never had hip hop shows before, ever,” says Notley. “We were the first group to do that. Even that is breeding more bedroom MCs, more artists that are coming up.”

Speaking of MC-breeding, touring partners Sentry and Horrorshow are two acts advantaged by the game-changing foundations laid by the likes of Hilltop Hoods and Bliss N Eso. On top of invading the airwaves, Bliss N Eso have long been determined to nurture younger artists.

“We’ve pretty much always toured with local acts,” says Notley. “The Australian community’s pretty tight – we’re mates with most of these guys. It was a no-brainer for us [to say], ‘Well, let’s get Seth and Horrorshow involved.’”

While Bliss N Eso and their fellow hip hop pioneers certainly paved the way for the wave of Australian performers rising up in the last few years, that doesn’t simply mean a bunch of sound-alikes emerged. Indeed, by now the collective tag ‘Aussie hip hop’ seems ill-equipped to account for the diversity of music being made.

“When I’m driving around it’s amazing how often I hear Australian hip hop artists on triple j,” Notley says. “It freaks me out, there’s all these new artists coming out that I’ve never even heard of. The quality of the music is just getting so much better these days and it really has evolved so much from its humble beginnings. It’s really good to see and it’s inspiring.”

Far from being superseded by the new crop of innovative acts, Bliss N Eso’s success has continued to grow – 2013’s Circus In The Sky, their fifth LP, was their second straight ARIA number one. Despite the commercial triumphs, they aren’t resting on their laurels just yet.
“Every time you put out a record,” Notley says, “you have to inject all your heart and soul into it, do the best you can. The main thing is you’re feeling it, that’s first and foremost. We don’t really go in with major expectations of, ‘We’ve got to sell this much,’ or, ‘We’ve got to hit this number of views on our videos,’ because that kind of thinking can sabotage the creative process. We just try to focus on the music and then if people like it, they like it.

“I’m not going to lie – sometimes the external factors definitely play a part in our thinking. It’s almost impossible to totally cut it out because obviously you need to be aware of what’s going on in your career and make certain decisions based on what’s happening. But fundamentally the idea is to try to phase everything out and just focus on the music.”

Notley and his longstanding collaborators have been working together since the late ’90s and their collective bond clearly helps to fend off outside contamination. Likewise, the trio’s perseverance through the scrutiny that was heaped on those early Aussie hip hop experiments allows them to truly appreciate their current position.

“We’ve been together as a group for well over 15 years now and we’ve built this platform where we’ve got the attention of people. Sometimes you get a little bit burnt out by the years and years of plugging away and you just need to remember how hard you’ve worked to get here. It’s inspiring to go, ‘Fuck man, I’m sitting in this position where people care what I say.’ I can put everything into it and actually bypass what it was when we started; how hard it was just to get people to hear your music.

“I don’t want to get complacent and lazy now,” Notley adds, “because that’s when the next generation is going to come up and basically take over. You need to remember where you come from, appreciate the fact that you got to where you are, realise how special that is and then embrace that.”

Circus In The Sky is out now through Illusive/Liberation. See Bliss N Eso with Seth Sentry and Horrorshow at Nobbys Beach Reserve, Newcastle on Saturday April 12 and The Domain, Sydney on Thursday April 17.

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