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Rev Run and DMC with DLT, Rhys B, DJ Tee Pee, and D-Word
Rev Run and DMC with DLT, Rhys B, DJ Tee Pee, and D-Word

This podcast explores the vibrant roots of New Zealand’s hip hop scene

In Aotearoa Hip Hop, DJ Sir-Vere talks to some of the genre’s most iconic figures and unsung heroes, exploring how music helped Māori and Pasifika kids push back against racism

In the late 1970s and early 80s, hip hop began spreading across the world from its birthplace in New York City. As pioneers of the genre such as Afrika Bambaataa and Fab Five Freddy hit the shores of Europe in 1982, rap, breakdancing, DJing, and graffiti were already making waves, everywhere from the UK to New Zealand.

A new podcast from Phil Bell, AKA DJ Sir-Vere, in collaboration with writer and Dazed contributor Martyn Pepperell, specifically hones in on Aotearoa hip hop (Aotearoa being the Māori name for New Zealand). Over the course of two, six-episode seasons, it traces how the genre landed in New Zealand — courtesy of taped radio shows and hit songs by the likes of The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash — and took the country by storm.

Titled Aotearoa Hip Hop: The Music, The People, The History, the documentary-style podcast goes on to document the “artistic golden era” of the late 90s and early 2000s, when New Zealand hip hop inspired several of the country’s most successful acts of the era, such as South Auckland’s Savage, “How Bizarre” hitmakers OMC, and Sisters Underground.

To tell this story, the show mines the insider knowledge gained by DJ Sir-Vere as a music fan, hip hop artist, and former editor of the iconic New Zealand music magazine Rip It Up. Reflecting his position at the forefront of the movement, it also features the voices of some of the scene’s most important figures and unsung heroes.

“We were both already pretty fluent in the history,” Pepperell tells Dazed. “But in the process of interviewing over one hundred people, we realised that there was a lot more going on than we initially realised, and it needed to be considered in a serious and meaningful manner.”

Of course, US hip hop provided disenfranchised youth — often from marginalised communities whose voices were rarely heard in the mainstream — a platform to speak out against racism and other forms of oppression. Similarly, in New Zealand, the subculture provided many Māori and Pasifika kids an opportunity to highlight the social challenges and discrimination they faced.

In the second episode of Aotearoa Hip Hop, Māori musician and activist Dean Hapeta (AKA D Word of Upper Hutt Posse) remembers being called a racial slur by a white motorcycle gang member, at the age of eight. Police officers used similar language toward his younger brother, he says. Later in the series, Samoan rappers including Scribe, Dei Hamo, and Ermehn also discuss fighting with racist skinheads and neo-Nazi gangs while touring New Zealand’s South Island.

“It would be deeply naive to suggest that racism is over in New Zealand,” Pepperell says, but he notes the culture that grew around hip hop has helped move the dial in the right direction. Below, Dazed talks to Pepperell about his podcast with DJ Sir-Vere, the open racism that young people have faced in New Zealand, and how hip hop helped push back.

What sparked Aotearoa Hip Hop, and how did you get involved?

DJ Sir-Vere asked me to come aboard as the writer in late 2019. His proposal was a documentary style podcast series about the history of hip hop in New Zealand. This wasn’t going to be a series of one-on-one interviews, it was going to be a fully produced and narrated production. I was initially pretty daunted, but I also liked the sound of doing something like this. 

We’d previously worked together in the late 2000s and early 2010s when he was working as the editor of New Zealand based hip hop magazine called Back2Basics and later on at Rip It Up, New Zealand’s longest running music magazine.

It’s been over three decades since the Wellington group Upper Hutt Posse released New Zealand’s first ever hip hop single, “E Tu”, so it felt like a good time to take stock and reflect on the history and legacy of the genre in this country.

How did you choose what stories and personalities to include in the podcast?

The first thing we did was put together a rough timeline of what we thought the story of hip hop in New Zealand looked like. After that, we went away and started interviewing the key figures in the scene. If they mentioned someone or something interesting, we’d go and investigate that and see where it led us. 

Putting this together during the pandemic was very challenging and I freely admit there were interviews we didn’t manage to secure or couldn’t quite work out, but we still ended up talking to over one hundred people from the last few decades. 

For me, some of the real joys were learning more about the late 70s and early 80s nightclub scenes in New Zealand, finding out how the local kids got hold of music from overseas, and learning more about a series of fascinating cultural connections between New Zealand, Samoa, and America. Many of the interviewees describe the early days as naive, but they were beautiful as well.

“Sometimes the most radical way to push back is to — knowing very well that your enemies or oppressors are watching — continue to party and have fun” — Martyn Pepperell

Briefly, how did hip hop help shape the youth culture of New Zealand?

From the moment that hip hop and breakdancing arrived in New Zealand in the late 70s, the youth of this country embraced it. They loved how the music made them feel, how it allowed them to dress, and how it let them express themselves through music, dance and art. In 2021, we live in a hip hop world. In this sense, the way hip hop connected with local youth — who eventually worked out how to reinterpret it in their own signature styles, and more than that, use it as a way to have financial agency — is a story that has played out in similar-but-different ways across the globe.

Can you tell us more about the discrimination Māori and Pasifika kids faced in the early days of New Zealand’s hip hop scene?

While their generation was growing up in the 70s and 80s, racism was open, explicit, and often went unchecked. These experiences led Dean (Hapeta) and his contemporaries toward the writing of Black American activists such as Malcom X and Bobby Seale from the Black Panther party. They saw commonalities between what those thinkers were articulating and their everyday experience, which helped inform how they approached and engaged with the challenges they faced in the world around them. 

During the seventies, a group of young Pasifika men founded an organisation called The Polynesian Panther Party in Auckland, who borrowed thinking and frameworks from The Black Panther Party before remaking them in their own modes. (The Polynesian Panther Party was also partly formed in response to the disproportionate targeting of Pacific Islanders in “dawn raids” against those who had overstayed work visas.)

Fittingly, the children of the Polynesian Panthers were some of the first and second generation of hip hop artists in New Zealand.

How did hip hop help push back against this discrimination?

People talk about hip hop as this amazing global phenomenon, which sure, it is. At the same time, when you look at the conditions it emerged within throughout many countries around the world, it seems pretty elementary that the real global phenomenon is oppression and discrimination. Hip hop was a way to fight back. I’m not just talking about political or social hip hop either. Sometimes the most radical way to push back is to — knowing very well that your enemies or oppressors are watching — continue to party and have fun.

(In the late 70s and early 80s) hip hop was the new cool, and whether you’re talking about dancing, rapping, or DJing, Māori and Pasifika kids were quickly streets ahead of the white New Zealand youth. 

Throughout the interviews we conducted, there were a few common threads. One of them was how hip hop helped generation after generation of local rappers, DJs, producers, and dancers build up their confidence and self-esteem. Beyond that, it gave them a platform to say the things they needed to say. Outside of music, the attitude of hip hop bled into the local arts, film and TV, fashion, and publishing industries, giving rise to new generations who had more of an international awareness and were less willing to accept the racism and discrimination of earlier years.

It would be deeply naive to suggest that racism is over in New Zealand, especially in light of ongoing institutional and structural issues the country’s indigenous Māori and Pasifika populations, and immigrant groups, continue to face. Many of (these issues) have been thrown into a sharp light over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. That said, successive generations have continued to move the dial and act as of agents of change toward ongoing cultural and social shifts.

“Hip hop was the new cool, and whether you’re talking about dancing, rapping, or DJing, Māori and Pasifika kids were quickly streets ahead of the white New Zealand youth” — Martyn Pepperell

What do you hope that people unfamiliar with NZ culture will take away from the podcast?

You don’t need to be a hip hop fan to enjoy the stories shared in this documentary podcast and similarly, I don’t think you need to already be invested in New Zealand hip hop to connect with it. I think for those outside of New Zealand, it’s a different lens to use to look at a set of themes that have played out in different ways right around the world. The music and the people who made it have their own charms as well, so hopefully you’ll come away with a few albums you’d like to listen to, or at the least, some songs to add to your playlists. 

You can listen to the first season of Aotearoa Hip Hop here. The second season is scheduled to be released in 2022.