Illzilla: 100 percent live hip hop

After winning the Triple J Unearthed competition in 2006, Melbourne hip hop crew Illzilla have gone on to impress many, and have just dropped their fantastic Wasteland debut LP, which could very well see them establish a Herd like fan base. In essence a bunch of talented live musicians who are also skilled in studio production, the band known as the Zillanova Rhythm Combination provide a perfect backing for the album with MC Mantra responsible for the flow and rhymes of the collective.

And Wasteland contains the live instrumentation that makes you want to go see them play live (check out the ITM review). To mark its release, ITM speaks to MC Mantra.

First up congratulations on the album, from a crew I had heard little of it has really impressed me. How do you look at the finished product? Are you happy with it and how has the reception been?

Yeah we are really happy with it. And we bloody should be, it took us three years to finish it! But we took our time and made it sound like we wanted it to sound, and it sounds dope. The reception has been amazing so far. It’s still early days, but we’ve had a lot of positive feedback and a lot of radio stations are really getting behind it which is great.

You’ve managed to pull of the live band sound while recording in the studio. Is that a simple process to do? Was it something that was important to you to keep the live feel?

It wasn’t easy to be honest, but it was definitely something we wanted to do. The album features a real blend of live instrumentation and more electronic, programmed stuff, which gives it the warm, human live sound but with that nice crunchy bang as well. It took a lot of trial and error to get it right.

The record actually really makes me want to see you guys play live, are you first and foremost a live act? By that I mean do you find the most enjoyment performing live? What does live offer the studio can’t?

Well, we started as a live act so I guess it’s pretty important to all of us. We had heaps of fun writing the songs and making the record, but I think the thrill for us is still on stage. There’s nothing like playing to hundreds of people who love your music, it’s a shared experience unlike any other. It also lets us jam and experiment in the spur of the moment, so every show we do is different.

You took out the Triple J unearthed competition a couple of years back, did that really galvanize to you as a group you had the talent to make it? Was the foot in the door it gave you with the station for your work then and now an important thing to get?

Yeah I definitely think it gave us a boost of confidence. It really showed us that we could cut it alongside more established acts and it kinda encouraged us to step it up a bit. So we took it and ran with it, and luckily the support from people like Triple J has continued. The kind of support that they and many other smaller community radio stations offer to some of the more underground artists is invaluable to the music scene in this country.

Both Illzilla and the Herd have delivered outstanding albums this year with very much a live band feel, whilst remaining fiercely hip hop, do you think the scene is receptive to this sound? In that I mean do you think say your Lyrical Commission fans or even your Hoods fans are opening their ears to this sort of music?

I couldn’t really say! I think it probably comes down to personal taste. I mean, Lyrical Commission are one of my favourite Aussie crews, but I also feel the stuff The Herd are doing. So I think our music is like any good music. Some will like it, some won’t.

I’ve always respected you as an emcee Mantra, the Equills album was mad slept on, but I think lyrically this is far above your past work. What has driven the improvement? Is it a case of growth as an artist or just finding yourself in the highly political lyrics that are evident throughout?

It’s probably a bit of both actually. When I did the Equills stuff I was still quite young in terms of my artistic career, so I was probably a lot more raw, more hungry. I had more to prove. But over the past few years I’ve been focusing less on flexing the technical skills and more on conveying my point, telling a story. And spitting lyrics that not just other emcees are gonna understand!

The passing of Paul Havea obviously affected the members quite massively, did it mean a lot to you that his vocals could still be featured on three tracks? Was there any added pressure when recording these numbers knowing they would be his legacy?

It feels great being able to have Pauly on the album. He was such a huge presence in the group, and in our lives, it would’ve been tragic for him not to be included in this. It’s still kinda hard hearing his voice sometimes, but it makes us happy knowing everyone who listens to the album will know just how soulful and talented that man was. As for the extra pressure thing, I don’t think so. We all just knew we had to get those tracks on the album and make them sound as good as possible.

You have also recently added super talented up and coming emcee 1/6 to the mix, when are we likely to hear some more contributions from him? Are you the type of group that is always writing and recording new material?

Yeah me and 1/6 have been doing a fair bit of writing together of late and we’ve got a bunch of new tunes on the go with the band. So expect to hear a lot more of 1/6’s voice on the next album!

The members of the group all have there various side projects, who is currently involved in what and when can we expect new music from all the various crews?

Well I guess I can’t really speak on anyone’s behalf as far as releases go. Bobzilla our bassist is rockin’ with San Lazaro, while Mista Savona has his solo reggae stuff and our drummer Jules plays with percussion group Tumbarumba. I’ve been doing some shows alongside my boys Custom and Wasabi, and 1/6 performs with Urban Monk as well as with an afrofunk and hip hop band called Black Jesus.

Finally with such an impressive live feel and sound to your work, when are you taking the album out on the road? For me your music sounds perfect for the summer festival circuit, is that an aim or perhaps a tour before then?

We’ve just finished a string of gigs that took us up the East Coast. So now we’re taking a short break before a national tour in September, then hopefully some festivals over summer. Stay tuned!

Illzilla’s Wasteland is out now through Shock.