By Andrew Hughes
'First Edition' is more than just an album title. It’s a name intended to represent the beginning of Dei Hamo, the professional. It is a record commencing a new story, which will span the Samoan emcee’s rap career. It is the first album release on HiRUYS/Universal, and the first album from an artist who proclaims he is "the first sex symbol whose ass is chubby".
Recognised and admired for his humorous persona and skill in writing story-book songs, Sane Sagala was behind some of our favourite smooth street soul of the late ‘90s. His voice and rhymes appear twice on the now legendary ‘Proud’ compilation, together with his brother Johnny Sagala as thePacifican Descendants. He has been involved with Urban Pacifika Records, worked with Dave Dobbyn, AKA Brown and P-Money, whilst getting spins on 96dot1 (before it became Cool Blue) around 1999.
Back then he reminded me of Jay-Z, but in the last six years Dei Hamo (meaning ‘I’m Samoan’), has gained definition and also extended his silky-suave style to the emcee wardrobe. He stands out, without a doubt, toting the mic like a spray can, putting his name up in chrome with dark outlines and bright fades.
"I was like, ‘Yeah finally’," he said of the album release, "... It’s been three years in the studio and now it’s out!"
The ‘First Edition’ development started at the end of 2001, Dei Hamo making demo songs at home with his own equipment. He was actually tailoring the first few cuts for an independent album, to be released by his own hustle. Not long after he and well known talent spotter Matty Ruys rendezvoused to talk about a deal. The two had known each other since the early ‘90s, friends who have become successful business associates.
"He’s all about the music, that’s one thing I pride myself on, that I really want the music to stand out. Just being with Matty, I know he’s a hard working person, he’d push the album out as far as it could go."
The album took three years of work from start to finish, being recorded at Urban Pacifika Studios and Beaver Studios in Auckland, engineered by Sammy B, Sonna Fergert, Andre Upston, Simon Holloway (who also handled mixing), and mastered by Glenn Schick in Atlanta.
"I’m real fussy about my music, I wanted to make sure it was right. If anything, I didn’t want to push it out too early," Dei Hamo admits.
As a wordsmith Dei Hamo is very unique in his style, though neither one extreme nor the other. A blend of the simple, meaningful lyrics of Scribe, the humour of the Misfits of Science and the gangster of Ermehn make his verses interesting, funny, captivating and cool. But his real strength is in story telling. This is him, this is who others would be compared to if they made a concept story song, and he can fit it into party tracks - foreign territory to most - like a glove.
"I don’t really plan what I’m gonna write, it’s just something that happens naturally. It’s not something where I sit down and say, ‘Okay this is how it’s gonna go’. It’s all spontaneous, it happens automatically."
And when it works it’s all good. First single We Gon Ride lasted three months in our Top 10, five of them in the top slot. The week after it finally dropped off the Top 40 To Tha Floor entered at #5. Meanwhile ‘First Edition’ entered the Top 40 album chart at #13.
Another Dei Hamo strength in the mic-booth is his vocal control. He has a great awareness of voice projection, rhythm and pitch - all of which are often disregarded by inexperienced emcees.
"I listen to the beat and try to hear what the beat is telling me, some people try to write songs and fit it to beats, where I like to tailor make verses to fit perfectly over the top of the instrumental. It’s like another instrument, so you have to listen for the gaps."
Dei Hamo claims on the album that he is ‘... a player, true player fo’ real’, and as evidence the majority of the songs are based on women, love and seduction. He diversifies on tracks like Do Work, and Home Invasion which emphasise the media’s influence on children and the ills of modern society. But overall, ‘First Edition’ is designed as a night time album, with joints like the No.1 hit We Gon’ Ride and second single To Tha Floor, "... you can party to it", and the more relaxing ballads like Pillow Talk and Whateva, "... you can chill to it".
The other integral creative mind involved on the record was John Chong-Nee, who Dei Hamo met while both were signed to UPR. One of New Zealand’s top hip hop beat makers, Chong Nee’s style incorporates distorted basslines, synthesisers and minimal sampling using an Akai MPC sampler and Korg Triton keyboard. Many tracks on the album blend funky percussion, keys filtered by a phaser and organic sounding drums. Nee, like his counter-part, goes against the grain with his beats and ends up with a unique product which only he could author.
Chong Nee handles all production duties on the album, and even features on next single This Is My Life as a vocalist. Other artists featuring include Tim Finn on the remake of the Split Enz classic I Hope I Never, now called Cry Again, Boh Runga on Home Invasion, and new talent Crystal on two tracks.
"It was cool. They were real easy to work with, all being musos we understood that we were making a song and our musical differences would be settled on the track. Working with Tim Finn was easy. We already had the music there, he came in and laid his vocals in half an hour. It went smooth, I was just buzzing out that we had Tim Finn on the song!"
Killer videos of course help and Dei Hamo has enjoyed the services of Chris Graham for We Gon Ride and To Tha Floor. And then, of course, there is the slick-as marketing which extended to a society pages who’s who launch party in a glam city bar. It had the desired effect with photo spreads in the Sunday papers.
Universal’s MD Adam Holt says he expects ‘First Edition’ to go platinum in NZ. The album will be released in Australia through Universal later this year. We Gon Ride, the first single released in Australia, peaked at #11 on their Urban Single chart and the second It’s My Life will be released May/June. Dei Hamo is currently part of the Boost Hook Up tour which started on April 15. After that he will be heading to Australia for a promo tour.
‘First Edition’ will stand as 2005’s testament to the ever-evolving realm of New Zealand hip hop music, blending international style with local influence. But summing up Dei Hamo is a difficult task, I think Matty Ruys did it best on the ‘First Edition’ sleeve;
"Great lyrics? Yes. Killer flow? Check. Charisma? Without a doubt. Dei Hamo a.k.a Sane Sagala has all the defining qualities of a world class MC."