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Who would have thought Illy would turn out to be such a survivalist? He has earned a respected place in the echelons of Aussie hip hop, often hailed as our intelligent rapper for songs that aren’t afraid to carry a political message or speak to some of the more troubling issues facing society today. In the lead-up to his first national tour in over a year, we lure the Melbourne muso out from his cave to hear what’s coming up next.

“Man, I couldn’t even tell you what kind of day it is, because I haven’t been able to see outside,” he laughs. “I’m in the studio in a windowless room, in the belly of the beast here in terms of getting this album done, just trying to punch my way out. The last couple of weeks belong to the studio; we’re putting the finishing touches on the album now. I want to say the album will be out in April, but I’ve already said it would be out earlier and it still isn’t finished.”

The gap since 2013’s Cinematic is the longest wait between Illy records to date. Not that Illy has been sitting idle all that time. There have been international tours, the running of his label OneTwo, and festivals galore. He also claimed an ARIA Award and has a gold-selling album under his belt. But despite these successes, there are still voices in the industry keen to take cheap shots.

“It’s always going to be that way, but that’s rap,” he says. “Rappers always want to be the best. When you start rapping you need that; it gives you the confidence to get onstage with no real ability to sing and just say words over a beat. As far as I know, the criticisms I’ve got have never been from people I consider peers.”

Illy’s recently been trying to communicate his messages with more subtlety than in the past.

“Swear Jar is a silly song, but with a serious message behind it about online abuse and about artists getting on their high horse and thinking they’re top shit. But I didn’t want it to be a preachy song. I find they can be cool to a degree, but they can also date really quickly. It’s a hard balancing act.”

Swear Jar arrived last November, and in addition to promoting it through his current tour, Illy has banded together with mental health organisation Beyondblue to launch a campaign aimed at addressing the repercussions of cyber bullying. The concept even made its way onto the ARIA Awards red carpet, with artists at the ceremony last November donating dollars every time they dropped their favourite curse word.

“Swear Jar came about after I’d been getting messages from a lot of people over the years, especially kids, saying one of my songs helped them through this or that. More than a few have said they’ve been having trouble with people at school or their workplace, and the songs really help. So I wanted to address that without giving these fuck heads who do this shit the satisfaction of a [serious song]. I wanted to do it in a stupid way so people can hear it and think, ‘Yeah, fuck these guys. They’re the losers.’ From that, reaching out to Beyondblue was a bit of a no-brainer.

They do such good work with mental health, and with the song called Swear Jar, it’s not a far leap to fundraising.”

Just as there are many young people out there hearing his music and finding ways of getting through times of struggle, there are just as many who have been inspired by Illy to start experimenting with hip hop. As Illy sees it, the genre is facing a unique evolution in Australia.

“Even amongst myself, ’60 and the Hoods, we’re all very different in our approach, but between us and the generation that’s coming up it’s totally different again. You can hear the influences are very different, and that’s reflected in the music.”

Written by Adam Norris

When & Where: Groovin the Moo, Bendigo – April 30