Under pressure (published in Pavement magazine, June/July 1999)
When you're responsible for making New Zealand's finest ever hiphop album, the pressure to produce an even more impressive follow-up is intense. Theis didn't deter Darryl DLT Thomson, who recruited both local and international talent to graduate from True school to Contents Under Pressure [note: album was retitled Altruism by time of release]
By Stephen Jewell. Photo by Stephen Langdon
In the 20 years since Sugarhill Gang's Rappers Delight became the first rap single to top the charts, hiphop has grown from a purely Black American phenomenon to a worldwide success. Dis, rappers, break- dancers and graffiti artists can now be found in all four corners of the globe, from France to Russia, South America to Australia and, of course, New Zealand.
Hiphop first emerged in New Zealand in the early 1980s when the seminal hiphop film Wildstyle came to town. But it was Upper Hutt Posse who produced New Zealand’s very first rap single, E Tu, paving the way in the late ‘80s for todays impressive range of New Zealand hiphop artists such as Manuel Bundy, Urban Pacifica, Dam Native and King Kapisi.
Darryl DLT Thomson began his musical career DJing for Upper Hutt Posse before striking out on his own in 1996 with the seminal album The True School, a wonderfully ambitious, intrinsically New Zealand synthesis of hiphop, reggae, dub and jungle. DLT’s entry into the competitive hiphop market not only spawned Chains, his chart-topping collaboration with former Supergroover Che Fu, but also showcased other undervalued local talent, including the Mighty Asterix, B-ware, Teremoana and Mark 'Rhythm Slave’ James.
Now on the cusp of the new millennium, Thomson is set to take New Zealand hiphop to the next level with Contents Under Pressure, an album which has him working with some of the best hiphop talent from around the world, including Canada’s Rascalz and Kardinal Offishall, Germany’s Ono and Shabaam Sahdeeq from New York’s label of the moment, Rawkus Records.
The last time I spoke to Thomson back in 1997, he and Che Fu were off to New York the following day for three months of living hiphop first hand in the home of East Coast rap. So, how was New York, Darryl?
“It was good,” Thomson tells me when we meet up again two years later in the Auckland offices of his record company, BMG. “It verified everything and helped reaffirm things. It was good to see it with my own eyes and to feel it and smell it. It’s not a fantasy but a reality of where we feel our world is. We, of course, live in this plain, nice, green, lovely place. It was a bit deeper than in just a fashion sense.”
However, Thomson’s New York experience didn’t lead directly to any of Contents Under Pressure's global collaborations. “It probably started the first day that I heard any of these artists,” reflects Thomson; “as a young guy, lying there thinking, ‘I’d love to be in the same room as, say KRS 1.' I just love that stuff. From the day I bought Criminal Minded, I’ve dreamt of meeting these people and saying... I suppose, when I was 16, it would have been, 'Yeah, that’s what it’s like where I live.' But nowaday, if I met KRS 1, for example, I’d have to say 'hello, how are you doing? Love your career'.”
Thomson is definitely taking his elevation to the international hiphop stage in his stride, believing it to be a long overdue promotion for New Zealand hiphop.
“It’s just the next album,” he claims. “Nothing’s changed. lt’s a step forward, a step up. This place is just running behind schedule, behind time, through denial of the rest of the world, ie the black world, existing.
Music, art, anything... We basically know the truth. I seem ahead but I’m not. I’m just in time with the rest of the world – or so I like to believe, in my materialistic world. It’s only a simple fact of pleasing my own tastes and my own standards that’s got me here.”
Contents Under Pressure's impressive guest list first began to take shape when Thomson went to BMG’S Kirk Harding with a wish list of hiphop luminaries with whom he wanted to work. “I just wrote down my favourites and handed the idea via the telephone to my publisher, Mitch Rubin, because he’s hooked up in the hiphop world and the music world generally’’ explains Thomson. “He said, 'Yeah, I’ll ring them.' Between us, we came up with a probable list of 15 acts and it went down to about 10 who were willing. But some of them... The excuses!
"I went straight to the top. The highest of the high. KRS 1 is up there on the top of my list; Linton Kwesi Johnson; Xzibit from the Alkoholilcs Liltwit Crew; Rakim... The brothers and sisters who are trying to change the mental state that we exist in. Invisibility they called it in Time. It’s not an attempt to be Quincy Jones, Moses, anyone like that. I was given the opportunity to make my dream list. Its like pushing your shopping trolley through the supermarket and grabbing whatever you wanted.”
An impressive line-up of worldwide rap talent was eventually assembled, most of whom, like Thompson, are rising stars in their own home markets, verging on breaking out into the global hiphop scene.
“There’s both compromise and propaganda in that,” explains Thomson. “It’s partly down to the record company wanting the cheapest artists out there because they had to initially fork out the money to get these people on the record because, if this fails, heads roll. But also, for me, any rapper is good. At the end of the day I don’t mind as long they are talking good shit.”
Harding embarked on a trip to Europe and America in 1997, during which he met Sol Guy; who worked for Arista Records in New York before setting up his own management company Figure IV Entertainment. Figure IV's roster includes two of the brightest talents in Canadian hiphop, the Rascalz and Kardinal Offishall, both of whom contribute to Contents Under Pressure.
According to Kemo, the Rascalz’s DJ and producer, the opportunity to collaborate with DLT was an opportunity too good to pass up. “It’s cool. It’s different,” he tells me down the line from Vancouver.
“We haven’t really done anything like this before but with the next album we release, we want to go worldwide and connect with all types of people from everywhere.’’
So what’s the hip-hop scene in Canada like? “It’s very diverse,’’ claims Kemo. “A lot of Filipino kids in Canada are into breakdancing. You can’t really separate it. Every culture is involved, every race. A lot of black people in Canada are from the West Indies and they’ve got that flavour in their rhymes. Myself, I’m from Chile and hiphop is large down there. Hiphop is definitely worldwide. We’ve been to Europe and I was surprised by the amount of fans who come out. Even if they don’t understand the language, they relate to the music and the presence of the show.”
Unfortunately, the status of hiphop artists in Canada appears to be remarkably similar to that in New Zealand, where the musical style has struggled to gain recognition from the music industry. Comparable to the way The Feelers cleaned up at the New Zealand Music Awards, where Che Fu could only pick up Single of the Year with Scene Three despite the huge success of his album 2 B Spacific, the Canadian music industry begrudgingly gave the Rascalz an award in 1998, presenting it in the first five minutes of the show before the telecast had even begun. The Rascalz had no hesitation in turning the award down, though.
"We wanted to let the Canadian music industry know that the way they were giving us the award was just a token gesture,” explains Kemo. “Even before we won the award, we were like, ‘We’re going to give these people a piece of our minds.’ This year though, they let us perform during the televised part. They gave us what we asked for, so we were like, 'All right!’”
Toronto-based rapper Kardinal Offishall, aka Jason Harrow, also believes that the state of Canadian hip-hop is changing for the better. “A couple of years ago, people like Master P wouldn’t have been able to get played but now Canada is opening up to different genres,” says Harrow. ‘A lot of Canadians are being exposed to different flavours and people are open to a lot more different styles.”
Harrow’s contribution to Contents Under Pressure should be extra special, with the Canadian set to play rap rag team with South Auckland’s Lost-tribe on a track about ‘common wealth’. “The song’s got a different kind of feel but I can flip it and add a nice flavour,” declares Harrow.
“To me, it’s intriguing. Doing stuff with people around the world is the dope stuff. It’ll be good for me over here and good for them over there. It’ll open up doors.”
Thomson also recruited European-based rappers for Contents under Pressure, including South African-born, German-based Ono, who contributes rhymes to the track Black Sun. Once again, it was Harding who made the first connection when he met Ono’s publisher in London. ‘’I was so happy when I was told that I was going to be on a record in New Zealand,” laughs Ono, on the phone from Cologne, Germany “It's so far away. Not many people get that chance.”
Ono is a self-confessed Michael Jackson fan who hadn’t heard hiphop until he moved to Germany 12 years ago. Before then, I didn’t know anything about hip-hop, apart from breakdancing’’ he declares. “I didn’t know that breakdancing was a part of hiphop. I thought it was a dance that people in South Africa did.”
Ono has already recorded two albums for Warner Music’s German offshoot, Downbeat Records, also home to Rockers Hi-fi and Earl 16. His second album was released earlier this year and contains collaborations with Jeru the Damaja and The Roots, musicians who, along with A Tribe Called Quest, reflect Ono’s more cerebral attitude towards hip-hop.
“I like groups like A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots because of their lyrical content and how they rap,” Ono explains. ‘’How they speak about things is not the usual street knowledge. They have smarts in their rhymes. They don’t use the usual ‘Nigger this, Nigger that’ language. It’s more universal, which is something I can relate to myself.
"It’s not old school. I call it general school. They’re in a class of their own. I consider their music songs, whereas most people, even though I like their stuff play tracks. If you listen to an A Tribe Called Quest song, I can almost follow the arrangement of their music. That’s what I loved about the DLT song. It has a beginning, a little talk and an intro and then it has strings and different elements. It’s not just one loop and a baseline. There’s more to the song than a beat and a sample.”
Ono’s lyrics for Black Sun embody this sense of depth, meaning as much to black South Africans as it does to Maori.
‘’I’m very fortunate over here in Germany because I’m doing something that I love doing, which is making music,” reflects Ono. “But, although I’m glad to be here, sometimes I have to think of what would have happened in my life if I’d stayed in South Africa, how the time that I spent there influenced me as a person.
" It made me strong and made me understand that I’m not here for nothing. I have a mission. I have to make everybody else who has experienced what I experienced in South Africa feel strong and not to think that their lives are wasted because they are black.
“DLT told me what he is all about, so I thought, 'Okay, since we seem to be from the same background, I could lace it like that’. DLT and I have the same goal: to remain strong. Black Sun was dedicated, not just to black people, but to all people who are oppressed, to just make them understand that even though they are black, they shine like the sun, the black sun.”
Contents Under Pressure undergoes a distinctive change of pace on Liquid Sky, a languid, r&b inflected ballad sung by Ryad, an Algerian-born vocalist who was raised in Paris but now lives in Brooklyn. Ryad compares himself to Lenny Kravitz and Seal but, despite being signed to BMG’S Urban offshoot, nobody seems to know quite what to do with him.
‘’Here in the US, everything has to be in a certain format,” he explains from New York. ‘’To be a hip- hop or r&b artist, you have to be black. I’m not that but some of my early music had elements of that.”
According to Ryad, Liquid Sky happened purely by accident.
‘’My publisher had a tape of some tracks that DLT did,” says Ryad. “I listened to the tracks and there was one that I was interested in. I went into the studio and recorded the song in a couple of days. DLT heard it and obviously liked it, as Liquid Sky has ended up on the album. I’ve never met DLT but we’ve spoken a couple of times on the phone. I’m glad that it happened like it did because he’s a great guy. He’s very grounded, very spiritual.”
Ryad refuses to be pinned down when it comes to explaining the actual meaning behind the lyrics to Liquid Sky.
“The first time I heard the track it was very cinematic,” he recalls. “I saw this picture of a couple in a motel room in the desert. They’re in the middle of nowhere, which is a metaphor for being in the middle of nowhere in their lives. It’s a moment of silent conversation between two people who have known each other for a long time and aren’t strangers. It all takes place in this room with the neon light outside flickering in the rain; all those B-movie cliches. It’s whatever you want it to mean. I’ll be interested in what DLT thinks the meaning of the song is.
“Ive heard DLT’s other album [True School] and it’s very much in-your-face hip-hop,”continues Ryad. “It’s a nice contrast to have a song like Liquid Sky on his album because everything else is so much about reality. I don’t know what the other writers have written but when I spoke with Darryl, he told me about his background, how he grew up, and his tribe... I felt the same way growing up in France being an Algerian, with racism and all that stuff.
"I grew up listening to hiphop, dub, reggae... When you grow up in the projects, that’s what you get. I was going to say ghetto music but it’s basically music that points the finger at something.That’s what I used to do at the beginning but now I’m more into writing lyrics which are a lithe bit more passive. Not being a doormat but but saying ‘Hey, listen. This is a moment of music. Trust me, this is ambient music.’ These are ambient lyrics. There’s no real defined drawing, just a combination of colours. As long as they have some meaning to you in your life, then it works.”
After True School's home truths, Thomson has broadened his scope on Contents Under Pressure to encompass more universal political concerns.
Simply witness the album’s title. “Contents Under Pressure is a state of mind,” declares Thomson. “It refers to the hook-up with graffiti and the way that hiphop is recognised. There are strategies. We’re going to blast out with a hip-hop track. Since I’m holding stuff will be worth something overseas and I’m going to be at home, I have to hold something in. Slamming some hardcore hiphop lyrical expression down the throats of New Zealand on air.. . Not Brendan Smythe [from NZ On Air] and his crew, but the whole concept of New Zealand as an industry. Fuck, they’re all my best friends: Dave Dobbyn, Neil Finn... But I have to hold myself in because the whole of South Auckland, over a million people, has been denied. Whenever a new radio station starts in Auckland. it’s always classic this or rock that...
“King Kapisi comes out with a tiny indie track, a great video and a cruisy hiphop sense and it just dives into the charts,’’ continues Thomson.
“It rips it apart locally and destroyed video by the fucking Feelers.We saw this happening when we moved to Auckland in 1988: ‘Fuck it, let’s get on top of that one. we’re been happy all this time but now it’. We’ve been happy all this time but now it’s gone beyond where thought it would go.
"Even though I've lived and dreamed of the day when rock didn’t dominate our airwaves, I didn’t dream it would be so quick, so overnight.”