Bliss N Eso are one of the — if not THE — biggest hip hop acts in Australia. They've helped make hip hop more palpable to a mainstream audience.
Their last album, 2010's Running On Air, has gone platinum at a time when the genre is bigger than it's ever been. The trio sell out stadium gigs on the regular.
So when they play a string of North American shows over the next month it'll be a starkly different scene, playing to clubs of 200 or 300 people. The massive road crews will be whittled down to a few local professionals helping with stage set up and sound checks. The shows themselves will be free of the bombastic light shows and top-tier sound systems of their down under gigs.
In North America, they're just three dudes from Sydney working out on stage to hold your attention. Will this damage their egos?
"I think it's healthy, if anything, because to get back over here suddenly there's a reality check," says Bliss, better known to his family as Jonathan Notley. "It's like, 'Okay, we really have to work this crowd.' It makes us employ all those tactics that you had to back in the day."
It's those skills — the high-velocity live show, the beautifully streamlined rhyming, and the emotional depth of the songs — that has earned them considerable success in Australia.
The supporting Down by the River tour was sold out in every city, including 8,000 people in Brisbane, which has been touted as the highest selling local hip hop show ever.
They're also the first Australian hip hop act to tour the U.S., — a market that's notoriously xenophobic when it comes to hip hop — and while the numbers have been comparatively modest, Notley says the crowds seem "refreshed" wherever they go.
"(We're) so far away from the total over-commercial pop, bling, bling candy sound that (has) dominated so much of the radio over there," he says.
Bliss N Eso have tapped into a social and spiritual communion with audiences, one that preaches awareness and personal transformation that's more commonly associated with folk and electronic music than mainstream hip hop. "I'm a soldier of the sun/with a gun that blows roses," is not your typical rap lyric.
"An album for us is a journey and we want to be able to take the listener on that journey, on all its varied ups and downs," Notley says. "We never want to get to where we're making this type of album or this type of song. I don't ever want to be pigeonholed into one thing."
This desire to outdo themselves with each album has been crucial to their success but not fundamental. See, Bliss N Eso have always enjoyed an upper hand over their contemporaries: Notley grew up studying American hip hop in Virginia before emigrating to Australia with his parents, when he was 13.