NZ Musician December/January 2003 (Vol:10, No:6)
By Stephen Jewell
It seems fitting that hip-hop young gun Scribe's Stand Up was recently replaced at the top of the New Zealand singles chart, albeit for only one week, by hip-hop veterans 3 The Hard Way with their long overdue comeback single, It's On. While homegrown hip-hop is currently experiencing something of a renaissance with Scribe's 'The Crusader' album selling double platinum to date and Nesian Mystik's 'Polysaturated' so far selling triple platinum, it should be remembered that local hip-hop singles in the form of 3 The Hard Way's 10CC-riffing Hip Hop Holiday reached number one in 1994, almost a decade before Stand Up's runaway success.
3 The Hard Way's Chris Maiai (vocals and rap), DJ Mike 'Mixx' Paton (beats and turntables) and turntabilist Lance Manuel, first met in the early 1990s when they were students at West Auckland's Waitakere College. Lance left the group back in 1996.
"We kicked around at a young age from about 15 onwards at school and after school," recalls Maiai when I meet him and his producer and record label co-owner Alan Jansson at the latter's Victoria Park Market-based Uptown Studios, in central Auckland.
"I then became involved in a couple of different projects and one of the early ones was with Alan as The Chain Gang. At that time, Mike and Lance had been like circuit DJs. We ended up bumping into each other again and laid down the roots for 3 The Hard Way.
"We played a gig and got signed on the basis of that. Had some reasonable success with Hip Hop Holiday (which actually reached number one in New Zealand and top five in Australia) and did a bit of touring. That was a good eye opener, including into some of the difficulties we had. Then over time, Mike and I had young families and we were still going down pretty much the same path but Lance took a different path and we grew apart".
Maiai and Paton released the debut 3 The Hard Way album, 'Old School Pranksters' in 1994 but soon ran into trouble with their then record label, the now defunct Deepgrooves, from whom they have only recently regained the rights to that first LP.
"We sat out the last four or five years of our recording contract with Deepgrooves," states Maiai. "We weren't too happy. There were a few things that happened over that time and we decided that the only satisfactory way we could go about it was to sit out the rest of the contract and not release anything.
"Mike and I have always backed ourselves to be able to secure another record contract reasonably easily, but that wasn't really the case I suppose. We both had regular busy lives bringing up the kids and taking care of normal day to day life. 3 The Hard Way was still firmly entrenched in the back of our minds but it couldn't be our focus."
Despite releasing the seminal 'Proud' compilation, which included Sisters Underground's Top 10 hit In The Neighbourhood, in 1994, the same year as Hip Hop Holiday, Jansson, who later made his name through OMC's How Bizarre, had not worked with Maiai since the early days of Chain Gang.
"I had 'Proud' out and Chris was tied to a contract so there wasn't any chance of us getting together to do any work," explains Jansson,. "But everything comes to pass and we got back together at a time when I felt that I could bring a lot more to the party than I could back then. I also think the boys are a hell of a lot better now than they were back then.
"We met up again by chance. Chris does some voiceover work here, not local ads, but he did one for Papua New Guinea. Then we bumped into each other at New World. It's one of the advantages of having a supermarket across the road. You see everybody there. I saw Dean Barker once but more importantly I met Chris. We got talking, got together again and Chris brought Mike to the party."
Jansson signed 3 The Hard Way to a three album deal with Joy Music Ltd, one of the labels that he runs with long time business partner Simon Grigg.
"Simon and I had done stuff on huh! but at that point, Simon was doing more compilations (like 'Nice 'n' Urlich' and 'Room Service') and people were identifying huh! with those compilations. So we set up another label that just does the bands."
After an abortive attempt to work with Carly Binding on her debut album, Jansson then turned his production attention to 3 The Hard Way, signing a distribution with Sony Music.
"I like the way that they have brought back careers for artists like Dave Dobbyn and Che Fu," says Jansson. "And I think that Bic Runga and that whole (Kiwi music) brand thing is amazing. So when the boys came along, Sony said to me bring in six tracks, which we did in March 2003. We then told Sony we'd have an album by the end of August and by September 9th, we'd done it."
'Eyes On The Prize' was released in early November, debuting at number 14 in the album sales chart and by the beginning of December had sold nearly 4000 copies. "It's a good start," Maiai notes, though nothing like Scribe's phenomenal debut album sales.
"It's a different landscape now than whenever I've released anything before," says Jansson, who agrees that hip-hop is the flavour of the year. "But it wasn't when we first started making the album at the end of 2001. Kiwi music in general is really popular at the moment but back in the day, if you had New Zealand on your record, it was like the kiss of death."
"As far as hip-hop and R&B goes, New Zealand is following a global trend," adds Maiai. "It's not like New Zealand is in isolation. Hip-hop is claiming the top spots all over the world. It's moved on almost a generation now (since 3 The Hard Way's first album) and kids have grown up listening to that sort of music and hip hop has become almost the first choice. Songs are selling and making money and money inspires loyalty. It's all good."
Encouragingly, Sony have already released It's On in Australia with 'Eyes on the Prize' scheduled to follow in the new year. "Because Hip Hop Holiday did well over there, there's already interest," says Maiai, who describes international success as "... the prize we had our eyes on."
"The funny thing is that the whole New Zealand music thing is taking off but when we made this album, we didn't have New Zealand in mind at all," adds Jansson. "We were aiming for some kind of international crossover."
Having misfird with Carly Binding and former OMC backing vocalist Sina (Siapia) before that, 'Eyes on the Prize' is also Jansson's first fully fledged album since the massive worldwide success of OMC's How Bizarre.
"After How Bizarre, I spent a lot of time getting more gear," says Jansson. "I bought a new desk and it's only now that I know how to use it properly. I've never once read the manual. But it's been great because we've been able to mix the album as we go and it only took us a couple of weeks to do the final mix.
"I believe that the '60s, it was all about the band thing, the '70s was the guitar thing, the '80s was the electronic thing but the instrument of choice in the '90s and the new millennium is the studio. People are sick of working with Pro Tools and they're going back to real studios to do it properly. Sure, there's a lot of guys making records now (in their bedrooms) who wouldn't have been making them before but they don't have major contracts. (Home computer technology) gives them the ability to make records but, over the years, people have got sick of that grainy, high frequency sound and a lot of them are going back to tape."
Maiai and Paton worked with numerous other vocalists and musicians on 'Eyes on the Prize' including ex-pat Kiwi, now Brisbane-based Clem Karauti who sings on It's On and Sina, who appears on three tracks including Higher Than High and Girls, which are both based on songs from her ill-fated debut album. "I did a whole album with Sina but when Polygram and Universal merged, she was one of the artists that unfortunately never took the next step," explains Jansson. "Sina had originally done a song called Boy (which was subsequently renamed Girls) and Mike had said 'We need something to get our teeth into and just remix.' So I gave it to the boys but when I got it back the parts that I liked weren't even in there anymore and what they'd done, I liked even more."
And while 'Eyes On The Prize' has only just hit the shops, Maiai and Paton have already written six tracks for their next album. Jansson also intends to concentrate on 3 The Hard Way for the foreseeable future, refraining from signing any other artists to Joy until their next album is complete as there are still many remixes, mastering and backing tracks for live performances to be done. But don't hold your breath if you're waiting for 3 The Hard Way to play live.
"We have no immediate plans," confirms Maiai. "Initially our plan had been to slide in under the radar a bit because a lot of bands were being hyped quite hard and us being the contrary people that we are, we wanted to go for no hype. Let the music speak for itself and basically wait for the people to want to hear it played live.
"I don't want us to have to gig around to build up a following. We've spent so much time getting this album done in the way that we wanted it to sound so I think we'll take a lot of time developing our live set so that it can sound the way we want it to sound. When we do play live, I'd like it to be more of an event. Put on a show, not a showcase."