3 Aug 2017

The Singles Life: How NZ hip-hop artists are telling stories that no one else can

11:48 am on 3 August 2017

Welcome to weekly series The Singles Life, where known experts Katie Parker and Hussein Moses peruse, ponder and pontificate on the latest and (maybe) greatest in New Zealand music.

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Like many other NZ hip-hop artists, Avondale emcee MeloDownz is making waves with tales of the suburb he knows best. Katie and Hussein talk about why setting the scene is essential for the stories Kiwi artists have to tell.


Hussein: I'm not that big on Malcolm Gladwell, but I've been listening to the new season of his podcast Revisionist History. In one of the latest episodes - The King of Tears - he talks about how the specificity of country and hip-hop music makes it hit so much harder than, say, rock or pop music.

“Hip-hop and country are both tightly-knit communities,” he says, “and when you're speaking to people who understand your world and your culture and your language, you can tell much more complicated stories. You can use much more precise imagery. You can lay yourself bare because you're among your own.”

That idea can also be extended to hip-hop music made here in New Zealand. Not that this hyper-localisation is anything new. Whether it's Mareko's 'City Line', or something like Scribe's 'Stand Up', we've seen examples of it shoot up over the years.

But it also does feel like it's something that's become more prevalent as of late. Home Brew have their dole day anthem 'Benefit'; David Dallas took aim at the media for their racist framing of the Auckland housing crisis; and PNC has used local sporting icons like Sonny Bill Williams and Jonah Lomu as inspiration for his own music.

And while everyone lately has been (rightfully) obsessed with SWIDT's new album, which documents Onehunga before it was drowning in gentrification, Avondale emcee MeloDownz just released a new record of his own. It's called Avontales and it's a project that focuses on the Auckland suburb he knows best.

Katie: It’s funny because I’ve always thought of it as such a specifically New Zealand phenomenon that we respond so strongly to our own image. It’s kind of intoxicating, I think, particularly for our generation. It's always felt so isolated here, and almost all the media I consumed was from overseas. When I did watch or hear something made here it never felt like part of the cultural conversation - or even that there was a cultural conversation.

I think that’s why, in the ~age of the internet~, Kiwis are obsessed with nostalgia. Realising that NZ-specific things like old Shortland Street, True Bliss, Cobb & Co etc didn’t happen only in our minds, but in real life and that they live on as part of the collective national consciousness is kind of mind blowing.

It makes a lot of sense for artists to capitalise on that stuff, but it is also pretty much impossible to do if it's not genuine. MeloDownz is speaking directly to us, and it's weird how thrilling that is when so much of what we consume feels so far removed.

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Hussein: All that kind of stuff has become more palatable as time has gone on, right? This is definitely a conversation for another time, but it reminds me of how a lot of local musicians used to sing in an American accent instead of doing what comes natural to them. It seems - to me at least - that the cringe factor around music made in New Zealand is really beginning to disappear now.

It’s also kind of important for musicians and artists to explore this stuff because it documents and preserves a time that might otherwise be looked over. That’s what’s cool about MeloDownz: his storytelling is really vivid and when he raps about something like an old Avondale College friend who he sees getting harassed by the police - like he does on ‘Pandemonium’ - it paints a picture that’s incredibly unique to us.

Katie: The accent thing is so interesting to me. I always loved this Michael McClelland piece on The Corner about local music’s relationship with the New Zealand accent and the kind of self-loathing that manifests in our desire to perform with an American patois.

He’s just talked about Home Brew - who use Kiwi accents, and who are namechecked by MeloDownz on Avontales - when he writes:

“If you ask me, I think it’s radically subversive to be posing a challenge to the ridiculousness of the fact that we can’t tolerate the sound of our own voice, like spotted teenagers in front of a bedroom mirror.”

I think you’re right that with Melodownz and SWIDT and David Dallas and a bunch of other New Zealand hip-hop maybe that’s starting to change.

Hussein: The thing about Avondale is that it feels like it's on the cusp of being gentrified - but it hasn't gone the way of New Lynn which is one suburb over and resembles close to nothing of 10 years ago. Avontales is a project about what MeloDownz has seen and experienced growing up in the area, but it also speaks to a generation that feels caught between how things used to be and what's inevitably coming. Think of it as the first chapter of a much larger story - one that MeloDownz is more than capable of telling.

Follow Katie and Hussein on Twitter.