NZ Musician August/September 2005 (Vol:12, No:4) by Melanie Selby
Having previewed Ermehn's album I admit to being slightly apprehensive about interviewing this character. 'The Path of Blood' is reasonably described as New Zealand's first pure gangsta album.
Indeed it is a musical drive by shot with expletives and physically confrontational topics including bank robberies, gang fighting, shootings, tinny houses, crack whores, drug dealers and the like.
This was going to be a challenging deviation from the usual interviews of skinny rock'n'rollers, clad in tight black jeans and desperately trying to sound dangerous.
If Sony BMG's press release is to be trusted this guy was responsible for establishing the methamphetamine trade here in Godzone. Oh, and it also mentions he was a patched member of the notorious King Cobras gang for four years.
That's some bad ass publicity angle for a major to take and I was expecting to meet some well-muscled tattoos with a serious chip on at least one shoulder, and x-rated dialogue - someone a little bit scary for a nice middle class girl from Christchurch like myself.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. A polite, eloquent man greeted me, shook my hand, removed his beanie and was immediately keen to get the point across that the person written about in the press release was someone he was five years ago - back when the album was written and recorded.
"I'm sort of like Mike Chunn - you've got to know me before you judge me," explains Ermehn, perhaps confusing his tele ads a bit. "The guy on the album is someone I used to be and that person is still a part of me, but there's a time and a place to be a gangsta, just like there's a time and place to be a musician or a dad or whatever. I don't walk around swearing at everybody or swearing in front of my kids (he has two) or my mum or dad. It's not like that at all. When I swear on the album it's just to make a point - people react to swearing. It's like yelling out 'fire'."
Prior to any involvement in the drug and gang lifestyle, music played an important part in Ermehn's life. As Herman Lotto in the mid '90s he was part of the Otara Millionaires Club, sharing writing credits for we r the o.m.c along with the Fuemana brothers, also involved in the 'Proud' album and touring party with Radio Back Stab.
His own debut album 'Samoans Part II' was released during this time (1998) on Deepgrooves, licensed through Sony and distributed by Festival. But not long after Ermehn's gangsta life took over.
"In Otara basically when you've got nothing the only thing on the table at the time is either going out and hustling, selling drugs and joining a gang - or joining a rugby club and becoming a great rugby league star. I fell into the pitfalls of the hood and ended up hustling and put my music aside and just embraced the darkness.
"I came out of it a few years later and I thought I'd do an album. I had the money at the time and I thought, well NZ On Air aren't going to give me the money, so I funded the album on gangsta money - so it is a pure gangsta album."
In fact Ermehn's indie label Heart Music received a $10,000 grant from the Pacific Business Trust for his album. The label also got a $20,000 grant from Creative NZ in 2002 supporting the composition and recording of three new albums by him, Dam Native and Khas (Tha Feelstyle - who coincidentally featured on 'Samoans Part II' as The Field Style/Khaz!). In the same CNZ funding round Heart Music was also offered a $10,000 grant towards the development and rehearsal of live shows by the same artists plus DLT, King Kapisi and Black Sam.
Ermehn says the decision to give up his drug-fuelled lifestyle came about after talking to old gangstas and seeing where they were at in their lives.
"At the end of the day, you either end up in a grave or in jail. I kept doing bad things. It's like your mother telling you not to do something but you keep doing it anyway. I woke up and snapped out of it. I'd had a couple of close calls - death I suppose - threats from other gangstas and a couple of drive-bys and it was a wake up call. It put my life into perspective.
"When I left [the gang scene] I wanted to see what I had left and it was the music," he explains.
Ermehn headed into the Otara Music and Arts Centre to start recording his second album.
"When I was at Otara some of the people didn't like what I was doing there - the hardcore-ness of my music. They were Christians and were a bit anti all the dodgy people coming into the studio, so we moved it to South Auckland Studios in Manukau and did the rest of it there."
Recorded by Alan Togi, OMAC's head engineer, the album was originally planned to be sold out of the boot of Ermehn's car. He played it to his mate DLT who passed a copy on to Heart Music founder Malcolm Black - also conveniently the A&R Contractor for Sony BMG NZ. Black has known Ermehn for 10 years and has been working with him on this album for about three.
"I thought the album was musically very strong, thought that Ermehn was a charismatic MC and thought he had an interesting story to tell, and one that wasn't being told," says Black.
Considering the balance of Sony BMG's New Zealand artist roster - the squeaky clean Christian-likes ofBrooke Fraser, Yulia and Dave Dobbyn - it is hard to see just how Ermehn fits.
Sony BMG label manager Nicky Harrop says Ermehn has been a welcome addition to their roster and one they had been trying to secure for some time (BMG had been in talks over the release of the album since early last year).
"Prior to the Sony BMG merger both companies have enjoyed success with a number of local hip hop artists and this is certainly something that we don't envisage changing moving forward," she says.
As for many songwriters, it is the telling part of the story that is important to Ermehn. The honesty about his past he maintains is not just a clever publicity stunt to promote the album.
"I've always been honest with myself... What separates [his album from other hip hop releases] is the story telling and for me that's what hip hop is - good story telling. It is not make believe with fast cars and nice chicks and all that. It's the real South Auckland," he explains.
Ermehn certainly has a convincing and engaging way of telling his story, but with a major international record company now involved there will be a need to sell copies. Just how marketable is Kiwi gangsta rap? Sure, the story might interest for a while, but what about the music? Even inside Sony BMG potential sales are reckoned at under 2000 copies, rather light for a major label.
Singles Bank Job and Silver and Gold have both had videos produced by Oscar Kightly and are receiving TV play, although Bank Job has to play after 9pm due to its content. While the theme of Bank Job may be obvious (robbing a bank to pay the bills), Silver and Gold (which received a $5000 NZ On Air video grant) features Destiny Church supporters. It confronts the aftermath of criminality where Ermehn talks of "lost souls" and fractured families. Indeed the album isn't all drugs, robberies and gang life - as it progresses an element of redemption can be seen in tracks like Better Place and Outside Looking In.
"I hope music enthusiasts buy the album because this album will become part of NZ hip hop history," deadpans Ermehn.
"I'm not out there to recruit 'little Ermehns' or little gangstas but if these kids do listen to it I just want them to walk away from it thinking 'Okay, cool, he's just told us what this lifestyle is like, maybe we don't want to go there'. If I can turn kids away from that then it's cool. If I can scare them towards Christianity, then that's even better." Ermehn makes it abundantly clear on the album liner notes that he is indeed a Christian, however he's quick to say Destiny Church is not for him.
Touring is one thing Ermehn admits he is out of practice with but is keen to get back into. Having been in the studio for the last few years he has nearly completed a follow up album which he hopes to release next year. That one, he claims, is a great deal more "user friendly - the kids will be able to listen to it".
"People remind me that I used to rip up the stage when I was younger and that was before the drugs. I hope to capture my stage presence again and capture my performance. With this album, if I was to perform it, it would probably be at a nice dodgy club - I don't think I'll be getting asked to perform at Pasifika any time soon."