December/January 2016

by Martyn Pepperell

Ill Semantics: Changes of Meaning

by Martyn Pepperell

Ill Semantics: Changes of Meaning

Incredibly the story of Ill Semantics runs over more than two decades – albeit with an eight year break ahead of their getting back into the studio to record their third album. With that length of history and the association of so many ‘names’ of NZ hip hop, the richly-titled ‘Trillogy’ is as much a document of the trio’s legacy as it is a catalogue marker for the label that was established to release an Ill Semantics album that never eventuated. Martyn Pepperell talked with Mark Arona, aka MC Patriarch, the owner of Auckland’s Illegal Musik

“We were just students studying semantics in fifth form English class,”” recalls Mark Arona, aka MC Patriarch, better known as the frontman of Auckland hip hop group Ill Semantics, and one of the founders of Illegal Musik. The year was 1993. At Selwyn College in east Auckland, Mark and his friends were falling in love with the lyric-heavy West Coast hip hop sound associated with rappers like Ras Kass and the extended Hieroglyphics’ artist family.

“One of the bros was like, ‘Semantics is an ill concept’, so we just ran with it and when we decided to start a hip hop crew we called ourselves Ill Semantics.””

A group of young Maori and Polynesian kids who existed on the edges as a minority, for Mark and his friends, hip hop was a way to, as he puts it, “…stand out and hold our own in terms of identity [at the time]…””

Falling in love with, and participating in hip hop gave them access to a network of MCs, DJs, graffiti artists and break dancers around the country, and with that a sense of a wider peer community. It also motivated them to take real advantage of the high school education system.

“Back in the day we were influenced by this crew, Urban Disturbance. They were these [NZ] European cats, and their lyricism was outstanding. We could’t even spell some of those words, so we needed to educate ourselves and get schooled up. For us, it was really important to go to school and try to learn. Just breaking the stereotypes about Polynesians was really important for us.””

Mark and his friends also drew inspiration from the rise of South Auckland’s Urban Pasifika sound. They’d sneak into clubs, and hang out with other friends and family members involved in hip hop. His cousin KD was an original member of Ill Semantics, but also part of a pioneering rap group called Lost Tribe. Another member of Lost Tribe was Brotha D, aka Danny Leaosavaii, one of the founders of Dawn Raid Entertainment.

By 2002, Ill Semantics had refined itself from an extended crew into the trio of Mark, MC Nemesis and DMC plus ITF DJ champion DJCXL. By the end of that year Dawn Raid Entertainment had released the trio’s first album, ‘Theory of Meaning’.

That album established Ill Semantics as a hip hop group who, while studied in the MCing, DJing and production styles of American hip hop, were very much committed to reframing it through the NZ Polynesian and Maori cultures they were raised around.

Their singles would pitch South Pacific instrumentation and imagery against sounds and styles straight out of LA and New York. In an era when the authenticity of local rappers accents was often debated, Mark and Nemesis kept it 100.

“Mate, I’ve always rapped in my own accent,”” Mark laughs. “At the time people were focusing on what sounded good I guess. I was more interested in not sounding dumb, and I couldn’t pronounce certain words in an American accent. Faking my accent didn’t make sense to me or resonate with me.

“From an early age, me and my crew stood for pure NZ hip hop. It was bashed into us that hip hop was something you embraced and then made your own. We wanted to sound intelligent I guess? Hence why we went the way we did.”

It’s now 13 years since the release of ‘Theory of Meaning’. Since 2002, Ill Semantics has extensively toured Aotearoa and Australia, releasing a second album called ‘Good Musik’ in 2006. In 2007, they began an eight-year hiatus, the break apparently a result of Dawn Raid’s troubles and short-term liquidation around the middle of that same year.

It led Mark to connect with music promoter Hard Work, aka Eddie Bennett, and establish their label-turned lifestyle company Illegal Musik. Mark had been running Dawn Raid’s Clientele Records imprint and acquired a taste for the industry side of things. The late 2000s was a shifting time for music in NZ. Hip hop seemed to be slowing down, and RnB was picking up.

“We were running a lot of nightclub gigs at the time,”” he recalls. “We’d get dancers to come and do these 1-2 minute sets during the night. That was where we discovered J. Williams.””

It’s a good story. One weekend Mark and Bennett took a van load of dancers on a road trip to perform in Whangarei. They asked them what else they were doing with their lives. It turned out one of them, a young Joshua Elia Williams, could really sing.

“We turned off the radio, and he sang. He sounded so good that we nearly crashed the van,”” Mark laughs. “We pulled over, looked at each other and said, ‘‘This is the future!”'”

Later that week they sneaked their find into the Dawn Raid studios, recorded a demo and submitted it for funding from NZ On Air. They got the green light, and Mark used J. Williams’ music to kick off a longstanding business relationship with Warner Music NZ.

It was through Williams they linked with in-house producer Inoke Finau, aka Nox. Coming from a band background as a guitarist himself, Nox brought a different sensibility to Illegal Musik. Rather than just making beats for artists, he would have them write a song and bring it to him. Then he would arrange music around it and produce it. As J. Williams began to score chart hits with RnB songs like Blow Your Mind, Ghetto Flower and You Got Me featuring Scribe, Illegal expanded their roster. They brought in blue-collar Masterton rapper K.One, Auckland RnB singers Erakah and Vince Harder, Wellington ‘sunshine reggae’ band Tomorrow People and pop singers like Brooke Duff. In 2012, Illegal Musik partnered with The Edge to create multi-platinum Kiwi boy band Titanium, currently doing good things in the States.

As they began to achieve chart success, commercial hip hop and RnB was entering into an era defined by multi-platinum hit-making American and Canadian rappers and singers like Drake, Little Wayne and Nicki Minaj. Mark encouraged his artists to understand the aesthetic required to achieve radio play and sales success while still holding onto their individual identity and roots as NZ musicians.

“It wasn’t about mimicking a sound,” he says. “It was about understanding what was required in terms of dynamic to put out good music that would achieve mainstream success under that climate.””

Early in 2015, he realised that almost a decade had passed since Ill Semantics’’ second album.

“It got to a point where I thought, ‘Shit, I’m delivering on hopes and dreams for everyone else, but what about my crew?’ People don’t realise this, but we originally set up Illegal Musik to deliver an Ill Semantics’ album. That never happened, and that’s what this whole movement is based on.””

While on tour with Illegal Musik rapper K.One and RnB singer Pieter T in May, he decided it had to happen. Having been deeply involved in hip hop from here and abroad for over two decades, Mark had an impressive list of contacts and friends who crossed the generations. He talked with DJCXL, Nemesis and Nox. They decided that ‘Trillogy’ was going to be about more than just them. 16 songs long, the album features appearances from a diverse cast of rappers, singers and DJs, including Scribe, Mareko, K.One, Sikeone, Tyna, J.B, Nikki Montana, Madis, KD, Giant Killa, Sir T, Ashley Hughes, Flows and more. A list so long that ‘Trillogy’ feels more like a compilation album showcasing Illegal Musik and friends under the Ill Semantics’ banner.

“Absolutely! You’ve hit the nail on the head there,”” Mark enthuses. “I can bore people with my raps and my passion, or I can use this platform and what we’ve built over the years to promote people, while bringing things back to the aesthetic ideals Ill Semantics was originally based on – unity and community.””

In the process Ill Semantics use the album to draw a line between several different eras in local and international hip hop. It’s a line best illustrated through the album’s title.

“‘Ill’ is an old school hip hop term, and in the southern states in America, that evolved into ‘trill’, which means ‘true and real’. As a crew, Ill Semantics stands for being true and real. ‘Trill’ makes sense as a word to us because everything we’ve always done had to be ill. The ‘-ogy’, as in ‘trilogy’, part of the title comes this being our third body of work in this 21-year journey. You don’t hear Nemesis on this album as much as you did on our first two, but she’s still very much part of the family.”

In line with Ill Semantics’ and Illegal Musik’s history and current sound, the album blends their early roots with club RnB, dance music and modern hip hop production, in the process attempting to acknowledge the steps and stages in their journey – while still pushing into new territory. When he looks around and surveys the contemporary local hip hop scene in 2015, Mark sees a lack of unity and love. Another part of the compilation feel of ‘Trillogy’ is an attempt to get back to the community vibes of 10 to 15 years ago.

“We used to collaborate within the community. We used to have the yearly hip hop summit. We don’t have that anymore,”” he says. “We’re just trying to bring a level of love back to our hip hop community. Whether they choose to understand it or not is up to them.””