Inner West Sydney hip-hop crew Triple One are nothing if not ambitious. In unleashing their highly anticipated debut album, ‘Panic Force’, the foursome – rappers Obi III Terrors (real name Conor Grealish) and Marty Bugatti (Martin Guilfoyle), singer Lil Dijon (Dominic Kim), plus DJ/producer William “Billy” Gunns – should become pop stars. Their wildest goal? “I’d love to work with Beyoncé sometime in the future,” Obi says, quite casually.
Chatting to NME from their respective pads on Zoom, Obi and Dijon represent a study in contrast – much like Triple One’s music, with its combination of gutter rap and uplifting, sung hooks. The capped Obi is restless, direct and brash, swearing and assuming comic voices. But Triple One’s crooner Dijon, in all-black, is reflective and wry.
The group boast an unusual dynamic. Zane Lowe has compared them to Brockhampton – and, coincidentally, Triple One played 2018’s Listen Out alongside the US group in Sydney as a triple j Unearthed act. And like Brockhampton, Triple One assembled as mates.
“Billy and Martin went to school together,” Obi relates. “Billy used to do stuff with the MPC, and Billy and Martin used to share information about hip-hop and rap music in art class together. I went to a school a few suburbs across. We met each other by playing footy and [going to] parties and being stupid teenagers.
“Then we started collaborating together in about 2012, 2013. We probably made music for about a year – pretty lighthearted stuff. And then we met Dom and got real drunk and made some more music.” Initially, the collective messed around with tracks in Billy’s garage. They grew serious in 2016, uploading the banger ‘Doozy’ to the cloud rap YouTube channel Astari, where it went viral.
Today, Triple One are post-genre rather than hip-hop. On the bold ‘Panic Force’, they connect trap, avant ’n’ B, emo, punk and metal by way of an eccentric sci-fi narrative. They largely have backgrounds in punk, alternative and emo; My Chemical Romance remain a favourite band. Hip-hop – and trap – came later. Says Dijon, “We use all those different substances and knot them all together into what is our Triple One music.”
“I think we all are little emo boys deep down” – Obi III Terrors
Triple One fell into Western Sydney’s hip-hop underground, attracting a fervent grassroots following with their energetic live shows. However, they found homegrown rap limiting. “I think, from the start, we weren’t happy with ‘Aussie hip-hop’ or with how it sounded and the acts – and so we tried to make our own,” Obi explains. “With what we’re doing now, we’re still trying to just challenge people’s perceptions and challenge people’s ideas of what they think Australian rap is and fucking make it cool.”
Triple One would release three cult EPs – beginning with 2017’s ‘The Libertine.’ – on which they advanced their sonic hybrid. The projects were “little testers” for the group, Obi says. “You can just dabble in a few things and really experiment and find out what you like and what you don’t like, and where you’re comfortable and where you wanna push your sounds more, without actually putting the label ‘album’ on it.”
Notably, Triple One collaborated with the grime phenomenon Chillinit (and Mitchos Da Menace) on ‘Wild Fire’. “Bill met him in Penshurst – we’re all from the same suburb – and Bill went to primary school with him,” Obi recalls. “We’ve made tracks with him for years – probably since we were 18 or something.” Meanwhile, Sydney hip-hop veterans Horrorshow solicited Triple One for the song ‘Monkey Bars’.
Last year, Triple One enjoyed their biggest hit yet with ‘Butter’ – which was eventually certified Gold by ARIA. Significantly for a subculture that extols hypermasculinity, it addressed mental health – and not by merely leaning into cloud rap’s sad boi trope.
“I’ve personally had a lot of mental health issues and stuff like that,” Dijon reveals. He’s glad that ‘Butter’ resonated with audiences. “The response of people streaming and listening to the song was crazy to see for us.” Adds Obi, “[Mental health is] something we’ve never really shied away from as a group.” They hope to “normalise” discussion of mental struggles “and make it less fucking weird for dudes to talk about their feelings”.
So it’s not too surprising to hear that Triple One have embraced their emo influences on ‘Panic Force’. “I think we all are little emo boys deep down,” Obi posits. “We were just definitely of that generation where emo was so prevalent in the years that we were developing or coming of age.” He acknowledges that emo is often considered “uncool or shit” – but say they aim to make it “relevant again” and “less cringe”.
‘Panic Force’ has a radio anthem in ‘Loverose’, the lead single. But Triple One also go from Lil Peep-mode emo-rap like ‘Salina’ to moshable rock bangers such as ‘Skinless Man’ to the ballad ‘Crylence’. “We’ve always tried to say that you shouldn’t expect what the next song is going to sound like exactly,” Dijon stresses. “It’s always going to be different; always going to be something new and refreshing, hopefully, to the listeners’ ears.”
‘Panic Force’ unites these diverse sounds under what Obi summarises as “a post-apocalyptic space theme”. The narrative, spun by Marty Bugatti, is about what happens when the Earth is doomed due to humanity’s destructiveness: the galactic squadron Panic Force swoops in to salvage its art, but leave Triple One’s album behind. “When you listen to it from start to finish, you wouldn’t think it’s a concept album,” Obi concedes. That’s partly because lyrically, Triple One dig into the ground broken with ‘Butter’, chronicling their own struggles with anxiety, self-doubt and unravelling.
“We use all those different substances and knot them all together into what is our Triple One music” – Lil Dijon
To work on ‘Panic Force’, Triple One arranged songwriting trips, staying in Airbnbs in regional or coastal NSW. They have worked with outsiders – DMA’S guitarist Matt Mason, Horrorshow beatmaker Adit Gauchan, and Sydney producer 18YOMAN (“a musical genius,” claims Dijon). Yet, being self-sufficient, Triple One don’t necessarily need sounding boards. “We know each other quite well,” Dijon observes. “So we are able to just tell each other when someone’s doing – not a bad job, but doing something when it could be done better.”
Conspicuously, ‘Panic Force’ doesn’t have any features – even after Triple One teamed with Kwame and, somewhat randomly, Matt Corby for last year’s loosie ‘So Easy’. They contemplated international guests before deciding to centre the album on themselves, Obi affirms. “Bill was like, ‘Nah – you just want to make your mark on your first album, you don’t want to fuck around.’”
In recent years Australian hip-hop – once tagged ‘barbecue rap’ – has undergone a generational shift, and the scene is now more diverse and individualistic. But, with ‘Panic Force’, Triple One feel they’ve outgrown it.
“I think at first we were a huge part of the movement – and we still are to this day, doing all those BODYBAGMEDIA shows a couple years ago with all these grime acts that were coming up,” Dijon says. “Now, us personally, we still obviously love rap music and everything, but we try to just diversify our own personal sounds ourselves and try to make different things.”
Triple One are launching ‘Panic Force’ with a sold-out, “stripped-back” gig at Sydney’s Factory Theatre. And they’re already planning to travel – COVID-19 or not. They got bitten by the bug last year, when they visited Europe for their first international shows. “We played a show in Germany, in an old SS building – Hamburg,” Obi remembers. Triple One’s German fans spoke “really shit broken English,” he laughs, “but they could sing ‘Autumn Collection’!”
But, as Sydney’s The Kid LAROI has done, Triple One really aspire to crack the US. They mean to spend time Stateside in 2021, possibly arranging studio sessions. “Yeah, trying to break America would be the big thing,” Obi declares. “The market is just so much bigger, you can make a lot more money, play a lot bigger shows, and meet a lot of people that we idolise.” Beyoncé, stand by.
Triple One’s ‘Panic Force’ is out October 30