Off the back of an array of solo projects and internationally acknowledged releases, friends Illbaz, Raiza Biza and Melodownz have joined forces to release a collaborative album under the bright light brand of High Beams. Sam Dunlay talked with the three exceptional musical talents about the project and just how they find the local hip hop scene, together and alone.
‘High Beams’ is both the name of the act and the name of the album that incorporates three of the most creatively exciting forces in NZ hip hop right now. Rappers Raiza Biza and Melowdownz set the scene with their recognisably unique vocals and delivery, while Illbaz provides the production through a mix of soulful, jazz-inspired instrumentals.
The trio put together an exceptionally cohesive seven-track album that is as captivating, as it is thought-provoking. Established solo artists in their own right with a variety of international tours under their belts, the three artists looked to create a little something different on ‘High Beams’.
“We’re all friends and have been making music together for the last five years. We didn’t really link up for this project, it just came about by us being friends,” says Illbaz. “Initially we didn’t really have an idea for it, everyone would just come around to my house. I’d make the beats and they would just write to whatever they liked. Then within a space of a year or so we realised we were sitting on a whole bunch of demos. A lot of them were quite cohesive and seemed to work. From there we had the idea to put something out as an album.”
There are a variety of views on the album, unsurprisingly covering subjects such as political inequality, racism and the struggle with fitting in. Now residing in the melting pot of culture that is Auckland, all three artists have cultural roots outside of NZ. IllBaz is Palestinian, Melodownz is Polynesian and Raiza Biza is from Rwanda., commenting on,
“We represent our cultures,” Illbaz explains of how their roots influence the music they create. “Melo’s a walking Samoan flag you know?! Anything we do has our culture in it. If we’re doing music, you best believe it’s going to have our culture influencing it. The thing is we’re not the only ones man, there’s a lot of us out here, especially in Auckland. The least we can do is to use our talent and give those people a voice. Immigrants seem to always be forgotten around here man.”
“I’m a product of colonisation,” Melodownz continues. “I’m half-white and half-brown and we like to speak on it.”
Living in Auckland the artists share a geographical landscape with a lot of talented artists such as Bailey Wiley, Lukan Rai$ey and Eno x Dirty, Melodownz looks to this artistic competition as motivation.
“It’s inspiring man. The thing about hip hop is that it’s mad competitive. The whole thing started with the mindset of, ‘I’m the best.’ So, when you have all these amazing artists surrounding you, it just pushes you to go even harder.”
“But at the end of the day we’re all homies, so we’re trying to push each other forward and try to support each other,” Illbaz explains. “Whenever Eno x Dirty drop a crazy track, it makes us think, ‘Damn, we need to make something even better than that!”
Despite their talk of competition within the local music industry, there is a sincere amount of respect and admiration between artists. Raiza Biza has been around long enough to bear witness to positive changes.
“It’s not like the old days, when I was young and just becoming a part of the scene, the older generation was a lot more competitive and a lot more divisive. There was a lot of beef and wasn’t anywhere near as supportive as it is now. At the end of the Deceptikonz and Scribe era it started to really change. I think the reason why it’s successful now is because we’re all friends and actively support each other’s music. We’re all still competitive but it’s a great time to be a part of the scene, it’s really healthy and only developing more.”
Both Melodownz and Raiza Biza have performed on the European-based ‘Colours Show’, a Youtube series displaying some of the most talented artists around the world. This kind of recognition has led to the high regard shown to NZ artists of all types, as Melodownz discusses.
“I think it’s funny also because a lot of NZ producers are starting to get picked up. So a lot of the rappers and singers who are working with these producers are like, ‘Wow, NZ actually has some awesome music.’ They’re slowly figuring out that it’s not just production it’s also singers, rappers and dancers. We’re a melting pot of creativity.”
There has been a lot of success on the international scene for NZ artists of late, but they still find a disconnect with the audiences back home.
“I just got back from China doing like four shows,” Raiza Biza expands. “I don’t think the people of NZ really know how well the local artists are doing overseas. There were a lot of people who didn’t even know I was in China. Melo’s toured Europe. A part of that can be a little frustrating, sometimes it feels like you have to get validation from outside of NZ before you can get taken seriously locally.”
“We self-fund our tours and get picked up in Europe, Japan and China, but because we didn’t get funding from some type of New Zealand organisation no one in the media puts it on,” Melodownz picks up. “They only celebrate us when we’re doing well, but when we’re starting up, we don’t get any love and have to build from the ground up. That just seems to be something that I’ve identified in the NZ music industry.”
With the New Zealand music scene being an inclusive community full of talent, the possibility of future collaborations is always on the cards.
Asked if they will continue working as a group Melowdownz responds first.
“I’ve got a direction where I want this to go. The other guys might disagree but Raiza and I are solo artists and Baz is a DJ and producer. I think this is a really good platform for Baz to work with other artists in the future. Obviously, we’re still friends and we’ll keep collaborating for sure, but I feel like Baz has created this platform where maybe he might get a singer on the next joint and that might be called something else.”
Raiza Biza continues acknowledging the difficulty of making time to hang out and make music in the way this ‘High Beams’ release came together – the success each are enjoying potentially creating roadblocks.
“Going forward, all our schedules are crazy. So as long as we can just keep hanging out and finding the time to just kick back, then I’m sure more music is going to come.”