Bliss N Eso are to many the definition of Australian hip hop. MCs Eso (Max MacKinnon), Bliss (Jonathan Notley) and DJ Izm (Tarik Ejjamai) carved a name for themselves in a genre that was virtually untouched by mainstream music, with a career spanning 17 years and now, with the release of Off The Grid, six albums, leading the way for acts such as Spit Syndicate, Hilltop Hoods, Thundamentals, Urthboy and many more.
With their sixth album hot off the press and a tour underway, Bliss N Eso are determined to make tracks on their new path – a little older, a little wiser. Single Moments featuring Irishman Gavin James was released earlier this year to great success, emotive and true to the band’s melodic style. “A friend of mine suggested to us ‘You know what would be cool is talking about the first time’, you know, all of the different first times a person has,” explains Notley.
“I wrote down some stuff… then that spawned into what I wanted to say which was: ‘These moments and memories help define you and shape who you are.’ And as life progresses you get older and you get wrapped up in different things and you can lose pieces of yourself and pieces of your identity, and this is really about recapturing that.”
But the road hasn’t been as easy as one would have hoped, battles with addiction, deaths, relationships and social media controversy have surrounded the trio since 2013’s Circus In The Sky. Earlier this year Bliss N Eso, alongside their team, were rocked to the core when stuntman Johann Ofner was shot during the filming of one of their clips. Hearing Notley speak on those events, it’s clear they’re still carrying the battle scars. “[It was] an incident which was a horrific, terrible, terrible time for all of us and it hit us pretty hard, we’ve been through a lot. It’s one of the reasons that I really loved the new front cover and the artwork for the album.”
The cover in question depicts their signature hooded figure, this time shrouded in black, who holds a stark white scull birthing a golden rose from the crown. “I think it represents the time we’ve been through. It wasn’t preconceived at all, it all just kind of happened, the stars aligned, beauty going through the darkness kind of thing.”
With a thread of remembrance running deep through Off The Grid, it seems that while they are undoubtedly feeling the strain in their personal lives, Bliss N Eso remain true to their art form, using their lyricism as a form of catharsis, a chance to tell their story. “Yes, we have been through some big changes in our lives, all that sort of stuff with drinking and with this album we really wanted to tackle that,” explains Notley.
“Early on I said to Eso ‘Man, you’ve got a great story, you’ve come through a really hard times, I think our fans would really appreciate that and get a lot from it and I think you should share it.’ He kind of took that on board and we started writing and I guess hearing some of the stuff that he was saying, I started opening up about things and I guess this album is a real reflection of Jonathan and Max and where we are in life and the things that we’ve gone through. We’ve got some history under our belt now, we’ve got things to say.”
While they have addressed many dark moments through the record, one left untouched is the social media fiasco of 2014, in which MacKinnon posted three misogynistic Instagram posts while holidaying in LA. The MC, who was visiting Madame Tussauds in Beverly Hills, posted a snap of him posing with a wax sculpture of Rhianna, captioned: “Where did ya throw those fucking car keys woman!?! #smackmybitch #shelovesthewayithurts,” and two others in a similar fashion.
“I think we dealt with it at the time and you can look up our response to everything, I can’t talk about it personally because I wasn’t there and I didn’t post those images,” Notley says. “All I can say is it was a stupid thing that happened, anyone who knows Eso can say that he was a huge joker and he’s a lovely guy with a huge heart and he meant absolutely no malice by it what so ever. It was a case of doing something and not thinking about it… it was a stupid thing to do.”
These guys are veterans on the Aussie festival circuit and have seen their fair share of enormous crowds. I was lucky enough to share my first festival experience with them in 2011, watching the famous proposal on stage at Sydney’s Big Day Out. “We are constantly evolving and constantly learning and we are adapting to an ever-changing music industry as well. [Compared to] when we started, it’s a completely different playing field,” muses Notley.
“I think if you’re going to thrive and survive you really have to be smart about your approach and you need to change and adapt as you go, as any animal does living in a hostile environment, that’s what it is. It’s constantly being aware of your environment and connecting with people, which is the aim of the game with music.”
Notley is not lost for advice to give to the next generation of artists looking to write the next chapter in this story: “There is a lot of opportunity. In Australia when we started there was no scene; we had to forge a scene and be pioneers of our craft,” he remembers. “We stumbled around in the dark with things like how you make beats and where knowledge wasn’t readily available.
“All I can say to up and comers is work hard, hone your craft, and don’t be afraid to take constructive criticism, because you will always look back on songs you’ve done a year or two years ago and go ‘Man, I could kill that I’m so much better now.’ It’s important to understand that you’re always going to be in a state of evolution… Don’t get cocky with it. I think it’s a really exciting time for Australian hip hop.”