Bliss N Eso s musical mountain
Bliss N Eso

Sydney hip-hop crew Bliss N Eso have been steadily climbing the mountain of music-biz success since releasing their debut album, Flowers in the Pavement, in 2004.

Subsequent releases, 2006's Day of the Dog and 2008's Flying Colours, and a commitment to touring helped establish the base camp for an assault on the summit in 2010 with fourth LP, Running on Air.

The album topped the ARIA charts, went on to become the highest-selling local release of the year and the associated run of shows sold more tickets than any hip-hop tour in Australian history.

Once dubbed the "next Hilltop Hoods", Bliss N Eso became the gold standard by which all others in the genre were measured.

You could be forgiven for thinking such success marked a figurative flag-planting ceremony at the apex of Australian music — MC Bliss disagrees.

"I guess at the time I didn't really think that. I thought onward and upward because I hope the summit is still above us," the American- born emcee says.

One listen to fifth album Circus in the Sky and it's hard not to think the man has a valid point.

Across 17 tracks, the record is a powerful statement of intent and sees the group push themselves lyrically and from a production standpoint.

The word that most readily springs to mind? Ambitious.

"Well, I hope you mean 'ambitious' and we actually met the goal we were aiming for," Bliss laughs. Bliss, aka Jonathan Notley, moved to Australia as a teenager, where he attended a Sydney high school with Eso, aka Max MacKinnon. Eso relocated to a Queensland school and met Tarik Ejjamai, DJ Izm, and a shared love of hip-hop not only brought the trio together, it gave them dreams of doing it for a living. But only their wildest dreams would have included collaborating with US rap royalty Nas, which became a reality when they teamed up with him for I Am Somebody on the new album.

"I have to pinch myself sometimes and go 'S..., is this real; have we got Nas on our record'," Bliss laughs.

"The craziest thing is that it was his idea. We were approached to do a co-headline tour with him called the Movement Festival, which unfortunately got cancelled.

"We weren't interested at all in doing it because we had our album coming out, and we wanted to do our own run, but then Nas approached us and basically said 'Jump on this tour and let's do a song together and we can perform it on stage'.

"The tour got cancelled but the song still remained so it was an honour for us for him to approach us like that." Though they haven't met Nas in person — Bliss says the song was assembled via correspondence — plans to shoot the video clip in the rapper's home town of New York will result in a face-to-face meeting.

Turns out the tyranny of distance and scheduling resulted in a similar recording process for posse track Reservoir Dogs, featuring the cream of Aussie hip-hop in 360, Pez, Seth Sentry and Perth's own Drapht.

"It was almost impossible to get them all in the studio at the same time," Bliss says.

There were, however, occasions when a proportion of the posse were in the same place at the same time and Bliss laughs as he confirms that, while what happens on tour stays on tour, what happens in the studio "goes in the article".

"I will tell you one thing, 360 wasn't even feeling the beat at first," Bliss reveals.

"When 360 came in and heard the beat he was like 'No, man, I'm not into this'. You can hear where he's going with his direction now and it's quite different from traditional hip-hop, he's mixing in a lot of dance elements, so it took a little bit of convincing.

"I remembering sitting down with him and was like 'Dude, just get back to that raw-dog, emcee S... you rhyming with your mates back and forth, that's all it is, let's have some fun. And he was like 'All right, f… it, I'll do it'.

"I told him to embrace the fact he didn't like the beat and to use that in his rhymes and he did."

Bliss says a clip inspired by the Tarantino film of the same name is in the works and he hopes to get the posse together to perform it live.

"I think when we eventually do Reservoir Dogs, with all the emcees, I have visions of like the Big Day Out with 10,000 people crammed into that thing and it's going to be incredible," he says.

On the topic of taking the new material on the road, the emcee can't hide his enthusiasm.

After more than two years of touring Running on Air and more than 18 months in the studio, where the trio were reunited with producer M-Phazes, the chance to drop new tracks on the faithful is a welcome prospect.

"Man, we get to show this to the world now and we get to see the punters scream the lyrics back to us like they wrote it with more passion than we did — it's a beautiful thing," he says.

When asked to suggest which songs will translate best to the stage, Bliss rattles off eight tracks without taking a breath — each with a compelling argument. It's unlikely any rebuttal will be forthcoming.

The smart money is on a legion of fans nodding their heads in approval as Bliss N Eso climb even higher up that mountain.

Bliss N Eso play Metro City, with Yelawolf and Pez, on July 10. Tickets are available through Oztix and Ticketek. Circus in the Sky is out now.

The West Australian

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