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Making Music in New Zealand | Oct 05, 2005 09:20

GUEST Gareth Shute on writing about music


This week sees the release of my new book, Making Music in New Zealand and Russell Brown thought it would be a good time for me to write a post about music, writing about music, and hip hop in this country (my previous book was Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa. It also happens to be the week of the annual hip hop summit at the Town Hall and Aotea Square in Auckland (a free event, though tickets have to be picked up from Ticketek), so it's all the more timely for me to have a soapbox to briefly stand on. I do occasionally write in my own online journal , but let's hope what I have to say is more ordered than the random rants that I put down there.

Music writing in New Zealand has always been a mixed bag, though, like NZ music, it has had one thing going for it - since there is little chance of making money from it, most people involved in the field did it due to genuine interest rather the search for monetary gain. Nonetheless when I spoke at the Writer's festival earlier this year, Graham Reid was also on the panel and made an interesting point - there used to be a time when a journalist could write about a band at any time and there didn't need to be an album or tour to promote in order to justify an article.

It is also disappointing to read articles that are focused more on the musician as celebrity rather than the musician as an artist (or worse, articles that tell you more about the journalist than about the musician). I suppose this is one reason why I have based my two music books around long sections of quotes from musicians, with only a little bit of interruption from my own narration. Therefore, my latest book is primarily local musicians telling anecdotes and relating experiences from their own careers. My intention was to create a book that fans of NZ music might appreciate, whilst also creating a source book for young musicians so that they would be inspired and knowledgeable about the field they were getting into (and there are more specific sections that provide crucial knowledge for such musicians).

The New Zealand music scene has grown enormously over the last decade and a big part of that has been through government initiatives, which have created a mainstream music culture to sit on top of the underground music culture that always existed. This didn't just occur because of the money which was thrown at musicians for music videos and recordings but also because of the dedicated work of the NZ on Air pluggers. In the US, record companies are constantly berating radio stations through their pluggers to play their music, but in NZ the record labels couldn't justify the spending, so the government filled the gap - providing pluggers for appropriate NZ tracks. Now we are in the happy position of having a continuum of music from the underground bands of K'Rd right through to the chart successes of the Feelers and Scribe.

Now there is more of a platform for NZ musicians to take their music overseas. If there are two lessons that I would like musicians to take from my latest book then they are these: a musician needs to know how APRA works; and a musician will sometimes need to be innovative and bypass usual channels if they are to succeed. Record companies are often quite supportive in terms of giving advance royalties to cover recording costs and promotion, but musicians need to realize that this money will have to be paid off before they get money from album sales.

APRA provides a more direct income source through broadcasting/performance rights for song-writers - which is one reason Carly Binding has a successful career (since she now writes her own songs) whilst Ben Lummis is still wondering how he could sell so many albums and still be so poor. The off-shoots of the major labels who exist in NZ will often sign acts that fit a certain genre that has succeeded overseas, but this can be limiting since taking this music overseas will be simply taking more of the same music that they already have in abundance. Often it is still necessary to take your music directly to the US, just as the artists from Flying Nun found they had to do in the 80s and 90s.

One discovery that all artists soon make is that they are at the bottom of the food-chain when it comes to getting paid: the gallery owner might make a living whilst the artists who exhibit in the gallery do not and it is the same with musicians and their record labels. This is one reason why I hope my book makes musicians a little more savvy about the industry (rather than claiming just to be artists and burying their heads in the sand).

To exemplify this point a bit, I think it is worth quoting DJ Ali, who was the original organizer of the annual hip hop summit. The following is a quote that I left out of my previous book on Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa:

DJ Ali - "When we started, a lot of people in hip hop undersold themselves. And I did it as well - I didn't realise the worth of what we were doing. Like for me personally, I'm from South Auckland and I've never had any money, ya know, so for someone to give me a free shirt to wear at a gig, I was like - hell yeah, I don't need to pay for that shirt! But it's only a few years down the track I realised - oh shit, if 500 people in the club see me wearing their shirt, they might wanna go buy that shirt the next day. So I'm making a lot of money for this person that's giving me a shirt, which might've cost him only ten dollars to make. They could possibly make a hundred, two-hundred dollars off of me. Until you make that connection then you're sorta like - 'Yeah, hell, yeah, can I have a pair of undies as well? Make it really special!' Now it's like - fuck giving me a T-shirt, give me some fucking money as well. But when you approach people in that type of way, it doesn't go down too well. But if we all accept free T-shirts and free drinks at the bar then that'll be the way the industry goes for a long time. But until we all say - 'nah, you fucking give me some serious money and then we can talk' - then that's the reality, ya know? Being at the top of the charts is like being an All Black, even if it's for a very short amount of time, so you have to equate that into a certain amount of pulling power and say - 'I don't want a free T-shirt or drinks at the bar. I wanna get me a car.' But until we all think that way, it'll never happen because this is what'll happen - the marketers will just go, nah I can just hire that dude over there, he's probably gonna replace you next week anyway, and I can just give him fuck all. If you compare us to the level of rugby sponsorship or whatever, we don't get anywhere near that. But it took a long time for rugby and all the marketing money to get to where it is. We came up in a time back in 2000 when everyone was laughing at Dawnraid and what they wanted to achieve. Then they bought a printing firm, a hairdressing business, and a studio - and now everyone's like "oh, yeah, true, you can do that." . So we've come from a time when we had fuck all, and we're at a time now when everyone thinks anything's possible ... I mean, my aim is still to have fun, but making money is a big part of it, because if you don't make money what are you going to do? You'll be dead in the water. You've gotta make money to live. But talking about making money off being a musician, especially in hip hop, is sorta taboo. You don't want to talk about it, because people get really jealous and envious of it. But when we talk about making money to live - that's the reality. It's not like making money to fuckin' buy mansions. We're definitely focused on making money ... Love is a bit part of the hip hop community but love only goes so far. Love doesn't pay the bills!"

Things have definitely come a long way for hip hop and now it is no surprise to see it plastered over the media in different forms. I hope that the fact that my book on Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa won a Montana Award might help to extend people' s understanding that hip hop isn't just an imported fad. However, I still a bit disappointed when I see something like "hip hop tours" used as a political football. I'm not going to try to justify the money spent on that particular piece of funding, but it is worthwhile to note that it was actually only one "tour" not multiple "tours" and that Sara Tamati was one of the people that created the strong Christchurch hip hop scene, out of which came both Scribe and the original hip hop summit (both of which have gone on to generate huge amounts of money). Perhaps it is time that the wider public started taking on some of the positive aspects of hip hop. Here is another unused quote from my hip hop book, which says what I would've hoped would be obvious:

Koma (from Four Corners) "People've probably heard it over and over again but if it wasn't for this hip hop thing man, things'd be different for us. Like most of the Maori brothers from our neighbourhood go to jail. And that's it - you spend a year in jail, come out, do a year in jail, come out. We're surrounded by people like that, that's how it rolls down here. But hip hop is pretty much our hold on what we wanna do. It's a positive thing, it keeps you out of trouble - if you're breaking or MCing or cutting it up. Even the graf these days, cats are getting down with it, letting you paint it on their community wall and stuff. So it is a positive thing .... Me and Heps haven't been to jail - we're probably the only two cats out of our mates that haven't been to jail yet. We're trying to keep it like that. Some of the cats we know that've been there and done that tell us - 'nah, nah, it's a horrible place, it's not for you man, you guys keep doing this.' So hip hop is a positive thing, it's had a good effect on us."

As for the negative side of hip hop, let me defer to a couple more unused quotes:

P-Money "Rappers ARE violent, rappers ARE sexist, rappers are ALSO intelligent, stupid, funny, enthralling, thought provoking, political, apathetic, melancholy, spiritual, capitalists, business-minded, criminal-minded and all things in between. To say hip-hop is exclusively violent and sexist is ignorant. I personally feel that there is a lack of responsibility felt by most mainstream rappers today, which is of great concern, but I still feel that the positive impact of hip-hop amongst the young people of the world far outweighs the negative ... Emerging hip-hop generation of New Zealand are creating and discovering new business opportunities that didn't exist before (ala dawnraid, disruptiv, holla, dirty records etc.). And these businesses combined with the music are serving to inspire the current generation of young New Zealanders by showing them that you can make a life for yourself and a career out of doing what you love."

Mareko "I remember when Eminem came out, people were like - this dude should be banned. Then, all of a sudden, he wins one Grammy and those same dudes are saying - this dude's a poet, one of the best poets of our time. And I'm like - that's all good, but people have been doing stuff like that for years. The reality is that only a minority of cats that do that negative stuff. From the start, Hip hop was based on positivity - it was born out of poverty and hardship and ghettos - and hip hop was like a media for fun and having a good time ... You do have the derogatory part of hip hop - it's like everything, you've gotta have that balance of negativity and positivity. Hip hop has that same balance. There's that gangsta rapping that appeals to kids more and you might see a lot of gansta rapping on TV and that, but there's heaps of positive stuff out there too . The good thing about New Zealand is that the hip hop in the mainstream is good hip hop music. It's not some watered down bubble-gum pop shit that America might be getting in their top twenty . If you look at something like Scribe's song, 'Stand Up', that's good hip hop music, it's not wack . I mean, Scribe and me, we're like the youngest dudes and I'm like twenty-two this year [in 2003]. And all of a sudden we're on this massive trip that a lot of cats will never do in their lifetimes. When I see myself on the cover of a magazine, I still can't believe it. I tell everyone it's not real - it's crazy."

Hopefully, if you've got this far then you will be happy enough if I finish this piece with another quote from my unused backlog. I thought it would be fitting to end with some words from Phil Fuemana who was one of the pioneers of hip hop in South Auckland during the 90s and who died earlier this year:

Phil Fuemana "I am pretty sure that most of us - like me, in our mid-to-late thirties - we remember what our parents gave up for us ... The shit that they had to go through was unbelievable. They had the whole dawn raid thing. My Dad got put in prison 'cause they thought he was Samoan overstayer. I remember walking into a shop and him getting chased and running away. Cops running past us and grabbing him. I was just standing there - I was probably about seven, just watching this go down and thinking 'what tha?' He came back a few hours later, but that distress, it makes you think of that Bowling in Columbine movie - living in fear. Now, whenever I walk into a restaurant, everyone's all - 'fuck I'd better watch out' - ya know? I'm the last person to bloody beat you up. Probably some other dopey egg is gonna do it. Like I wanna jeopardise my life like that - but that's the way it's perceived ... When me and my crew started out in the music biz we never wanted to save the world. We didn't say - 'let's save everyone, lets lead the way for PIs' - fuck off! We were trying to make money and dissing everyone else along the way - 'they're fuckin' useless, we'll do a better R'n'B track than them, we'll do a better hip hop track than them.' We were as arrogant as anyone else, but that's what happens on nearly all projects that are inspirational to people - they just happen. They're driven and then you think - fuck I'm gonna be like that. Now I read an article in Real Groove and Andy [Murnane, from Dawnraid] mentions me and I remember it was Andy's job carrying the bags - he was just this white guy, who was Danny's mate and now he's one of the leading hip hop innovators for our country. I didn't even know him. That's what inspiration is - him and Danny have gone on to inspire heaps of people ... Some people in the media did used to pick on us because they thought we were trying to be American, but then they'd fuckin' eat KFC and McDonalds like everyone else. But all they saw was these brownies - who are perceived to be the ones who do all the trouble - choosing a genre that's equal to trouble in the States. But I wouldn't even believe what you hear from the States. I mean, there's probably a million times more black people not into hip hop, ya know? There 's a whole heap of black people in the US who are middle class and they probably like country music or soul music ... So as far as that argument about us in the media - it just seems like something to look at ... At the same time, we're lucky because as PIs, our hip hop does have a PI flavour and gives us a unique point of difference. And in the end, as Kiwis - whether that be Coconuts, Maoris, Pakehas, or whatever - we have our flavour and that's gonna be what gets us to wherever we're going . And I am happy with how things have turned out over the years, because these days I can look at the charts and see a group like Nesian Mystik on there and I know it 's been worthwhile. It's definitely all good."

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