Distinctly Kiwi: How New Zealand Hip-Hop Grew From Authentic Roots To A Diverse Sound For Future Generations
Words: Reshma Madhi
New Zealand and Hip Hop. Sounds as mysterious and intriguing as that modestly sized country at the end of the world map. Despite the mass popularity of world travel and access to just about everything online these days, for those in other parts of the globe, it’s still a country that is relatively untapped and unknown. I still raised a few eyebrows when I said I was moving there for a few months late last year. “New Zealand?! I’ve heard its really nice there but they’re a bit behind or something aren’t they? Its very far away too. How long’s the flight?” I was bemused. I didn’t mind that it was a secret gem that can get overlooked. Yes, it is very isolated from the rest of the world (though obviously a lot less so these days) but that is kind of part of the beauty to the place. I was intrigued for my second visit to get to know the local music scene.
The government supports homegrown music (grants given to up and coming artists) and there’s a genuine support for non-commercial sounds, which felt refreshing. The country has long been passionate about Hip Hop and with a country that small, there’s a definite ‘family and community feel’ support, with collaborations easily set up. Journalist Gareth Shute wrote the book Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa (he later heard how one of the publishing editors apparently commented that “hip-hop fans don’t read”), just as the scene was tipped for its breakthrough in the 2000’s. He reflects how in the nineties, there was a lot of concern over whether people were rapping with American accents and local acts trying to make their own fresh version by incorporating local flavour, like Che Fu featuring Cook Island drums on his hit, 'Waka' or Feelstyle rapping in Samoan. Shute thinks that these days people are comfortable just doing what comes natural, whether picking up on trends from the US or the opposite: “It's a very broad scene now that runs from old school Hip Hop right through to trap and SoundCloud rap.”
The Roots of Poly / Māori Consciousness
Hip Hop culture grew during the 1980’s, appealing particularly to Māori and Pacific Island groups with its sense of community through breakdancing and DJ-ing, as well as rap’s ability to allow disenfranchised and minority groups to make powerful statements.
The New York-based Sugarhill Gang’s single ‘Rapper’s delight’ entered the New Zealand Top 50 in 1980. Despite peaking at No. 18, many New Zealanders disliked rap and some radio stations refused to play the song. Ethnomusicologist Kirsten Zemke moved to New Zealand from LA as a teenager back in 1981, so saw how the genre grew from its early days. Based at University of Auckland, she explored New Zealand Hip Hop for her PhD in the early 2000’s, just when academic institutions were beginning to take a more serious interest in researching local topics and popular culture.
Zemke sees how initially the scene was a direct copycat of the US genre but soon developed its own unique flavour in each major city. “There’s an active component that tries to remain very loyal to OG (Original Gangster) Hip Hop, not just what comes across in pop music. New Zealand is a small place. They aren’t going to take Hip Hop and create a whole new thing (like Grime in UK). They want to execute Hip Hop with authenticity and respect, but also transplant it into the fertile ground of their own stories and places, without losing the OG spirit of Hip Hop.”
Upper Hutt Posse’s ‘E Tu’, released in 1988, is widely considered New Zealand’s first Hip Hop record. Echoing early rap’s social consciousness, the track tells the story of the great 19th century Māori warrior chiefs but also preaches about speaking honestly rather than about bragging or wearing gold chains.
It typifies how Māori and Pacific groups led in using the scene to create a distinctly Kiwi sound, such as incorporating Te Reo (Māori language) into lyrics; an opportunity for diverse groups to voice social commentary as well as positively celebrate their communal practices and ancestral identity. Zemke talks about how New Zealand Hip Hop has had strong Reggae links in the past, similar to US Hip Hop and ties in with the cultural practices of certain Kiwi communities. “In New Zealand, Hip Hop and Reggae are best friends. They are together at festivals and gigs, in families and friendships, and muso collectives.” Music by some of its leading figures, such as Che-Fu, has had a heavy Reggae influence, so is very much embedded in the scene. The same goes for Poly/Māori style New Zealand Hip Hop. “It will always be there and has finally been accepted as a New Zealand music. Kiwi Hip Hop was previously considered too American, yet New Zealand Jazz, Rock, Indie and punk were not somehow also copies of overseas trends. Mostly due to racism in the music industry and public.”
The mainstreaming of Hip Hop
The genre grew to have more widely receptive audiences in the 1990’s. This was an era when the scene got one of its few moments of international recognition with the South Auckland scene producing OMC (Otara Millionaires Club - Otara being the working-class suburb where he grew up), who had the worldwide hit 'How Bizarre' and a platinum-selling album in the US. With foundations already laid by original pioneers of the scene like Upper Hutt Posse and Che-Fu, by the mid-2000s, New Zealand Hip Hop crossed over to the mainstream, thanks to a new wave of confident, outspoken artists releasing catchy, radio-friendly tracks. Most notably, the likes of Scribe and Nesian Mystik, who both had popularity in Australia for a while. Savage (who appeared on one of Scribe's breakthrough tracks) is another key success story, with hit songs in the US featuring on Hollywood soundtracks. Shute highlights how he is a case in point of an artist getting amazing success overseas without the audience at home even being really able to appreciate it.
Under the Radar?
Shute goes on to discuss how the scene is seen internationally. “I don't think people overseas think of a particular 'Hip Hop scene' existing in New Zealand. Instead, we have often have success stories that go under the radar, especially in the case of producers working with big overseas acts like LMC, who worked with Rich The Kid, via collaboration work with Danny Wolf from Hoodrich, Montell2099 (with 21 Savage), SmokeyGotBeats (creating beats for Jay Rock and Hit-boy) and P Money (producing a hit for Australian Starley).” Sam Smith, music journalist at Auckland radio station 95bFM and co-founder of online music blog Nowhere bros, also echoes this thought. He sees how the scene has had waves of popularity in its 30-year history and other times been overlooked. “There is always the chance New Zealand rap could get more attention globally, especially with the advent of streaming. The groups just have to keep pushing but obviously you are always going to be up against the best from the States.”
Smith doesn’t think the scene has changed too much since the 90s and 00s. “Artists are still rapping about their own personal experiences of growing up and living in New Zealand, which has always been the case. Sound-wise, the influence of boom bap and g-funk is still prominent. We are yet to see the influence of trap and mumble rap really take off in the local stuff but that still might happen in time.”
“It will always have a social/political bend to it and that is what makes it special compared to a lot of other styles in New Zealand. Acts like Home Brew have addressed welfare, politics and prison, while SWIDT talk about gentrification in their home suburb of Onehunga”. Both Smith and Shute see how Hip Hop is such a commercial genre these days. Smith describes it as the new rock and roll amongst young people and Shute sees how “Hip Hop pretty much is pop music now, in terms of the way the music is produced. It's getting harder to make distinctions.” He feels that there is still a conscious to the genre, “though perhaps not so overtly. Acts like SWIDT and JessB speak directly from their experiences and give a viewpoint that isn't always well covered in the mainstream media. I don't think they feel tied down to making a political statement and some of their tracks might seem on the surface like they're just about partying or slaying the competition but they're good enough rappers that they always go beyond that.” Zemke points out there is always room for overtly political Hip Hop, but there is also room for fun Hip Hop.
Diversity Keeps it Movin’
Whilst it may be very much the current mainstream pop sound, the changes to the music industry have also allowed the genre to become more appreciative of diverse sounds and artists, keeping in time with the changing demographics of New Zealand, with more representation of non-Māori and non-Pacific Island persons of colour for example. Shute mentions classic acts like SWIDT who, “seem fresh and uniquely local, though retain a connection to classic Hip Hop.”
“At the same time, you can have an act like Hans, a Kiwi-Korean dude whose delivery is super-laidback and contemporary. He found success in a very modern way, collaborating with a US singer who made her career via YouTube. There's such a range, that's the great thing.” Smith agrees. “The diversity in the local scene here is probably the best it has ever been. There is always support for it. It is probably the most diverse music scene in New Zealand. We also see a lot of collaboration between R&B/soul and Hip Hop artists. Those two communities very much support each other.”
Zemke highlights other diverse examples: “pro-queer rappers like Jess B and Coco Solid, Māori Pop Star Stan Walker rapping, South Auckland gangster rapper Savage having great success with pop and dance styles, emerging immigrant rappers like the African Unchained XL and Iranian GNOME, trap artists like Gino October, Hip Hop producers working with orchestras, bedroom beat-makers and internationally winning Hip Hop dance crews, while more established ‘stars’ like SWIDT, King Kapisi, David Dallas, PNC and Ladi6 continue to release music. It goes to the heart of the power of Hip Hop to speak for and about disenfranchised and minority groups and this diversity may well be the reason for its current strength and any possible future success. Zemke does feel there is still prejudice though for certain voices. “Not many people want to hear Pasifika indigenous voices, they are marginalised in any global arena, Hip Hop is no exception”.
The future is Kiwi Hip Hop
As digital streaming platforms allow even wider access and an appreciation of diverse sounds and identities, the world becomes familiar with Kiwi culture and what it offers and there is a lesser need to be ‘commercial and mainstream’, it will be exciting to see if Kiwi Hip Hop’s distinct flavour can kick off on the global stage. Smith agrees. “There is a large swath of young talent coming through right now. We have entered a new period of popularity in the local scene in the last few years. Hopefully it can continue to build on this and foster that new talent.” I got a chance to catch up with SPYCC, member of Hip Hop collective SWIDT (See What I Did There?). Established stars of the scene now, the five-piece hail from Onehunga, a suburb of capital city Auckland, where until recently they were making their tracks from a bedroom but have also been collaborating with big name US artists (namecheck Kendrick Lamar).
He agrees that their music is rooted in what the scene originally established. “Our stories and experiences are unique to us and I think that's been the biggest part of our success. We came with something new and relatable that people could connect with. We love Onehunga like it’s a family member & as long as we're on this earth we'll continue to be unapologetically Onehunga. We use this platform to express our thoughts and feelings and to give a voice to the voiceless.” SPYCC respects how “the OGs definitely carved their own sound from that which was definitely Kiwi centred.” He is positive about the future of Kiwi Hip Hop.
SPYCC is also supportive of the range that can be heard the scene right now. “There is a lot of diversity and the scene is definitely better for it. Different stories from different perspectives is always fresh.” He feels no pressure to be commercial or mainstream. “One thing I know for sure though is that things move in cycles. So, my advice would be just keep doing what you're doing ‘til what you're doing is poppin’ again aka just do what you love doing.”
NZ’s hip hop dance scene was likely to have developed, not just because of the influence of US culture and media but through Samoan links, with ‘Bop’ often used as a catch-all term for styles such as b-boying, popping and locking.
Most recently, Kiwi Samoan choreographer and dancer Parris Goebbels has given the NZ scene some well-deserved exposure on the global stage. Her dance crew, The Royal Family, has won the World Hip Hop Dance Championships three times. Her particular form of dance has been branded ‘Polyswagg’ and she has gone on to work with a number of mainstream US and UK artists. Most notably, she choreographed Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ video.
The Future is Female too…and more diverse…
There are many more female rappers on the scene these days. Shute highlights how acts in the past had the talent but not the industry support, such as Teremoana Rapley and Coco Solid. Although Coco is still active and doing amazingly (she's got a Fulbright scholarship to write a book at a university in Hawaii and also writes an animated series called Aroha Bridge). He highlights the current crop of widely recognised artists like JessB, Meer and also Randa, who is defying easy gender classifications. “They're all amazing and have totally changed the scene.” I had an opportunity to catch up with one of the key names of the moment, Auckland rapper and Afro-Kiwi JessB, who released her hotly anticipated debut EP, produced by P-Money, earlier in 2018.
She respects what her female peers have achieved. “There are many who have been working hard for a long time and are doing some amazing things. In a male-dominated industry, it has been a blessing to connect and work with sisters such as Bailey Wiley, Silva MC, Ladi6, Villette and Meer. They are all extremely talented musicians and great people.”
JessB sees how the current global, digital age has opened up opportunities for artists. “I think our access to musicians all over the world has allowed musical styles to grow and develop, as well as open doors to an international audience. It has enabled people to start paying more attention to the music coming out of New Zealand.”
“Every artist is unique in some way. Musicians pull their own inspiration and influences together based on their lived experiences and view of the world, cultural backgrounds etc. The beauty of creativity is this opportunity to authentically express who you are.” She also agrees there is less pressure for a commercial sound, thanks to an increased interest in Hip Hop and more control for independent artists. “Labels no longer pick and choose what is ‘mainstream’ - this is done by the audiences. The public have much more driving power now because there is a much wider access to all sorts of music.”
Words: Reshma Madhi