Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Urban Pacifika profiled/reviewed, 99

Urban Pacifika crew. Photo: Gary Brandon / Real Groove, 1999
Urban Pacifika crew. Photo: Gary Brandon/Real Groove

Family ties: Urban Pacifika

By Stephen Jewell, Real Groove, Issue 72, June 1999, p22-23

Philip Fuemana formed Urban Pacifika Records in 1996 out of a determined desire to place their own musical destinies in their own hands. Fuemana assembled four groups, Moizna, Lost Tribe, AKA Brown, and Dei Hamo, who between them cover the full spectrum of black music from R&B to hiphop. Now three years and several successful singles down the track, Urban Pacifika is about to release its debut album, Pioneers of a Pacifikan Frontier, a compilation featuring contributions from all four acts,  plus Fuemana himself.

"Urban Pacifika is an extension of what we've been doing for a decade," Fuemana tells me when I meet him at the headquarters of Urban Pacifika 's distributing label, BMG Records. "Different styles but all in the same Polynesian genre, island drums etc. Urban Pacifika  came about mostly because of control. We did Proud, [then] a Christmas album, but we had no creative control  Instead of doing a song, walking away and leaving someone else to finish off, I said 'No. We'll start and finish it.' Out there right now, there's a lot of hiphop and R&B artists, but most of those guys have to go to producers and someone else has the rights to their songs. With us, we record, write, arrange and produce. We own everything. We're up here [at BMG] not as their artists but as a part of the company. That's a big difference."

Urban Pacifika spent some time finding its feet, but with Pioneers... about to drop, you get the impression that Fuemana and his crew have finally arrived. "We took nearly a year shaking off the old ways of thinking,"admits Fuemana. "Thinking it's all about artistic credibility, but that aint got nothing to do with it. You come to the deal with your cultural soul intact and they want what you bought. We're not changing anything, we're doing what we love. We love being on the radio, being on Mai and bFM. We didn't contrive all that, but that's what our aim has always been, getting out to the people."

However, the popularity of Lost Tribe, whose track B.U.N.G.A has spent months on bFM's Top 10, certainly came as a pleasant surprise. "In South Auckland, bFM is an unknown entity," explains Fuemana.

"The amount of music on the station that we're into is really small because we are R&B, and R&B is conceived as dumb cousin music. It's seen lyrically as pretty naive but people don't realise that in R&B there's very little to the lyric, it's more about the feel. R&B judges a song by the feel, how it's produced, the vocal execution. It's only now being accepted for what it is. With our groups, AKA Brown and Moizna, they're representing R&B for this country. Showing that it can be thought out and original and still have our flavour."

Hiphop may be flourishing in Aotearoa currently, but most attention has thus far focussed on central city rappers, while South Auckland has been neglected. However the tide may be about to turn. "We've just done our own thing, stayed in Otara and done our music,"asserts Fuemana. "We don't come to many gigs in the city. It's crossed over nicely. Now everybody's coming down to our patch to see us."

Otara is now going from strength to strength as various music and art schools have recently opened their doors in the suburb. "The reason they're in Otara is because we created a vibe in Otara,"declares Fuemana. "Otara is the birth capital of the music. Ermehn, Ardijah, Moana and the Moahunters... we all come from Otara. This little town that had no rec centre or swimming pool for ages, no parks, no toilets, because it was made very quickly to house all of us [Polynesian] that got kicked out of Parnell."[Fuemana's family grew up in Parnell, before shifting to Otara - their father worked on the docks.]

Needless to say, Urban Pacifika won't be moving uptown in a hurry. "We're very loyal to Otara because our success is down to determination triumphing over adversity," states Fuemana. "But look at the wider picture, Otara is very separate. There is a real stigma with South and West Auckland through gangsta rap. That's why I signed Moizna, being a West Auckland band, because [UPR] being all South Auckland would be too much. As a New Zealand label, hopefully we will become wider. not just South Auckland."

 UPR boldly announced its intentions late last year with 'One', a joint single between the four acts, which also paid fitting homage to New Zealand popular music history, with its cleverly crafted Split Enz sample [Note it was replayed not sampled]. "We wanted to put out a single and have the groups involved,"recalls Fuemana. "I really liked the original 'One Step Ahead' and its bassline. We didn't want to use any more overseas sampling. 'One' was perfect for us because my philosophy is that there can only be one and it'll be us. I contacted Mushroom and they sent a demo to Neil Finn in London and he said 'Go hard, man.'I thought he'd take 50% but he took 10%. Fair enough."

UPR also collaborated with Dave Dobbyn on an R&B style mix of the latter's track 'Beside You', which began life as a special live performance at last  year's APRA awards, but will now be included on Pioneers... and as a b-side on Dobbyn's next single.

"When I gave [the UPR crew] the song they were like 'Man, it's a pretty hard song. It's got too many lyrics,' but I was like 'We'll do it'."

Moizna have so far been the most prolific Urban Pacifika act, releasing two successful singles, 'Keep On Moving', and 'Just Another Day'. The quartet have their roots in talent quests, getting together for a nationwide competition before being discovered by Fuemana at the Street Songquest. "Phil really liked our performance and rang us a few weeks afterwards to ask us to do a spot at a pool party he was holding,"recalls Alesha Siosiua.

The four members of Moizna, Alesha and sister Isabelle, Rita Tuiala and Maureen Taumatiene, grew up in Avondale and Henderson, areas that Alesha points out, have been as ignored as South Auckland. "There's a lot of talent but it's hidden,"she reasons. "There's a lot of underground groups playing in garages but it doesn't go any further than that. A lot of it is about being scared about being judged by your peers. The fear that people will take it the wrong way, that they'll not like it. It's all about shyness and having the confidence to stand up."

For Siosiua, UPR's supportive atmosphere is one of the best things about being in the collective. "UPR is like a family, a clique,"she declares. "If [the other acts] help us, then we'll help them. We push each other along. No one's above anyone else. We're all moving together. UPR is a real tight knit group."

Following hot on the heels of Moizna is Lost Tribe, whose debut single 'Summer In The Winter' went top 20 in 1997. Lost Tribe typify the UPR multicultural ethic, as the five strong group, Danny 'Brother D' Leaosavaii, Sontan Pale, Johnny 'Jester' Sagala, Jim 'DJ Fingas' Makai, and Kendall 'KD' Takai, draws members from almost all the Pacific islands. "We like the idea that there was two Samoans, a Niuean and a Tongan,"says Takai. "When I joined, they all asked 'What are you?' and I said 'I'm Raro' and they 're like 'Hey, that's all the islands!'"

South Auckland hiphop may not yet have received the props it deserves, but that could change with the release of Pioneers... and Lost Tribe's debut album, due out later this year.

"There's a negative to the positive," reasons Takai. " It's not so bad. I'd rather walk around South Auckland streets at night than somewhere in Remuera! But that's what hiphop's about. It can be a channel. We got our issues that we touch upon. Polynesian suicide, rape. We're trying to depict the life of an Islander from the day he's born to when he croaks. We see it through our own eyes. Even though South Auckland has a label, we try and bring the opposite label to it too. People in South Auckland have got just as much to say as people in central Auckland."

What goes without saying though is that hiphop in New Zealand is stronger than it's ever been. " If it's us, Ermehn, King Kaps or Che, somewhere along the line, we pick up on the same issues but we express them in different ways," says Takai. "We give it up to those guys. We support them and try to come up with our own stuff. Ten years ago the hiphop industry in New Zealand wasn't very big, but it's grown."

Dei Hamo, alias Sane Sagala, also produces hiphop but his tunes possess a lighter touch compared to Lost Tribe's sound of the streets. "I'm more relaxed, more partyish," he suggests. Sagala is a bit of an old hand, with over a decade's experience on the New Zealand hiphop scene. "I got hit by the first wave of breakdancing that came to New Zealand in the mid 80s," he recalls. "Through that, I started my own rap group around 1987. At the time bFM were holding rap competitions and my group entered the first one."

Sagala first hooked up with Fuemana on 1994's Proud tour and signed with Urban Pacifika upon its formation. And, just like Moizna and Lost Tribe, he values the collective's camaraderie above all else. "Outside of the record label, we're all friends, which is important. We're always at each other's houses, we go out clubbing together. Plus, me, Phil and John [Chong Nee of AKA Brown] do all the production as well."

On top of his production duties, Chong Nee, along with Sam Feo II, make up AKA Brown, whose single 'Something I Need' immediately preceded Pioneers of a Pacifikan Frontier. Chong Nee also helped produce Che Fu's 2 B Spacfic and was once a member of Raw Meat For The Balcony, the industrial band from whom Kog Transmissions was created. " We all have our own different styles," says Chong Nee, of UPR. "The others mix up R&B and hiphop but our sound is strictly R&B."

That diversity of sound should prove the key to UPR's national, and indeed international success. " UPR is an extension of our love of all Polynesian people worldwide," concludes Fuemana. " We are the only Polynesian-owned record company. There's nothing in the States or the Islands. They're all owned by someone else. It's my goal to have our own films, our own print, to tell our stories. I don't give a shit if no one buys it because someone will. My family and their friends will buy it.

"How did Pauly [Fuemana, OMC] become a millionaire? How did Phil get his company? We started UPR in 1996 and since then we've been to the Music Awards, done everything we dreamed about. Now we just want to get overseas. We got our own nightclub which is packed every other night, we got our own gridiron team, which has got 50 members. All from one idea."

Real Groove, June 1999, album reviews, p26....
Urban Pacifika - Pioneers of a Pacifikan Frontier, reviewed by Kerry Buchanan

" Better recognise... Southside... out of the darkness, justice bought to your speakers..." It's been a long time coming. Both this fine album and the importance of forging the Pacifikan frontier, where Brown power is, as brother James Brown said, 'loud and proud.'

Let's check that for a while. Polynesian culture in Aotearoa has had to be adaptive (listen to Lost Tribe's 'Summer in the Winter' for the poetic politics) but not submissive. To attempt to assimilate with white middle class thought is not a good thing - you lose so much, your soul becomes rootless. Same with music. The Pacifikan frontier represents links with black American styles, funk, soul slow jam and hiphop. Once again, adaptive not submissive. It's an expansion of a musical heritage that has meaning and feeling to us. It's got nothing to do with mindless copycat actions, but a forging of a new attitude, a new style and bringing out a culture of Polynesian creativity.

Pioneers of a Pacifikan Frontier is a celebration of all that. It's easy to praise the hiphop elements: the social commentary of  'One', ' Hark', '5 B.U.N.G.A' or the party styles of Dei Hamo, who rocks on 'Whirlrocker' (great guitar riff and funky flow from the man himself) and drops fantastic rhymes on  'Hamostyle'. But when it comes to the slow jams, that's when it becomes problematic; most can accept the hardcore, but the softcore, that's a different matter.

See, that's what makes Pioneers... so important. The slow jams are the shit. 'Something I Need' from AKA Brown is my favourite song this year; great vocals in the R&B tradition and beautiful sentiments. Same with 'Baby We Can Do It', that uses an interpolation of the SOS Band and builds a fine song. Moizna are wistful on ' Summer Goodbye' (love that 'I was so young.. you were so outta your head' stuff), indeed all of their cuts deserve major success. 'Keep On Moving' is pure R&B perfection in my eyes.

The kicker here is the duet between AKA Brown and Dave Dobbyn on 'Beside You'. A coming together of differing iconographies that place R&B to the forefront, a transformation of what could be simply another pop song, into a finely structured vocal gem. The use of contemporary R&B styles, with its funk, soul and spatial diversity is superb. Dobbyn doesn't lose anything, but gains so much in this revelation of a song. Lovely.

At the Snoop Dogg concert, Urban Pacifika were truly spectacular; shout outs to the South Auckland area code, the integration of styles and the forthright and joyous nature of it all just gelled for me. Now, with this mighty release, their future is secure and with that our own is also assured. You're just damn stupid if you don't become a part of it.

Real Groove june 1999, Urban Pacifika, photo by Gary Brandon
photo: Gary Brandon

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