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December/January 2018

by Aabir Mazumdar

Naram: Chief Propaganda Advisor

by Aabir Mazumdar

Naram: Chief Propaganda Advisor

Tom Langford, aka Naram, traces his first exposure to music back to piano lessons at the age of nine. Despite those lessons stopping shortly after, he inevitably got back into it four years later when he downloaded a cracked version of the music production software Fruity Loops. Now in his early thirties, he is a label-owning reggae and dub producer. Aabir Mazumdar caught up with him to talk about forging an international career in a niche genre, and the current state of Aotearoan reggae.

Wellingtonian Tom Langford creates digital dancehall music under the name of Naram. While reggae has been wildly popular in NZ for decades, the subgenre that is Dancehall, originating in the ’70s in Jamaica, is less densely populated. Even more surprising then, that we house one of that genre’s rising international stars.

“There was something about music that I was always interested in”, says Naram as he remembers his early years with music.

“There was something about music that I was always interested in”, says Naram as he remembers his early years with music.

“I started making some horrendously shit drum’n’bass and techno music on Fruity Loops. I called it techno but when you’re a 13-year-old kid in NZ, anything vaguely electronic is just ‘techno’.

“It wasn’t exactly informed by the greats of Detroit or Berlin, it was just me sequencing kick drums and making weird noises.”

Having given that up while still at school he went on to university in Dunedin, studying film studies and politics. He also took a couple of audio engineering papers, so downloaded Fruity Loops again and got back into making music. This time though he was making reggae music, influenced by sound system culture, a unique type of speaker system designed especially for reggae, dub and dancehall music. Not directly by the Jamaican sound system culture, but much more locally.

“One of the ways I really learned about it was through a guy called Marty Vital who built New Zealand’s first sound system. That was Vital Sounds Hi Fi and he launched it in the mid-2000s. I became known as a ‘box boy,’ which is the name for a person who helps carry the speakers around and sometimes gets to play records. So I was a volunteer of the Vital Sounds Hi Fi group and that was a very helpful thing for me musically, to be introduced to more deep selections.

“A reggae sound system is very different to a club PA. It’s got these huge 18” super scoop boxes [sub boxes]. The bass is so prominent, it’s a very different experience hearing music through that, and that’s the way reggae was always played in Jamaica. When you hear a reggae record played through a reggae sound system it’s a very different experience to listening to it off iTunes or playing it on a club PA.”

At the age of 24, he wanted to go travelling and got an idea from seeing some German travellers riding bikes around the west coast of NZ.

He decided to travel by bicycle from Adelaide across the world, cycling through Asia into Europe and finally stopping in Glasgow. In Hanoi he downsized his baggage, sending home his laptop and buying an iPod Nano instead. With an app called Nanostudio he started making beats.

It was during this trip that Naram first got in touch with Disrupt, the head of Leipzig-based label Jahtari.
“I saw that this label I really liked, called Jahtari, had just put out a new album called ‘Dubbers Volume 3’ I think it was. And I had been doing a little bit of music writing for this website called niceup.co.nz, which is a NZ reggae website. I wrote to Jahtari and asked if I would be able to get a download of that album so I might write a little review.”

One discussion led to another and Disrupt eventually invited Naram to stay at the label headquarters in Leipzig when he got to Europe.

“I had a really cool four days with him. He was playing me all this music and showing me his studio, and for me it was really inspirational.”

When he mentioned that he had been making some beats on his iPod, Disrupt was keen to hear them.

“I played him a couple of things and to my astonishment he really liked it. One of those songs was an instrumental to a March Of The Gremlins song.

“He asked if I could bounce this song down as stems so he could mix it. Two weeks later I had made it as far as Ireland and I stopped at an internet café to check my emails. I had an email from him and it was a link to a Youtube video. The video had 20,000 hits or something and was of him playing one of my songs at a really big music event in Paris with like a thousand people. And these two singers, one of them was Jamaican and this French guy called Pupajim, were both freestyling on this iPod beat that I had made. It was really surreal for me.”

The impact on Naram was massive.

“At that point I thought, maybe I should take this stuff seriously,” he remembers. “I can honestly say that if that chance encounter hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be making music today.”

He is currently Jahtari’s ‘Chief Propaganda Advisor’.

“Basically I write their promo, ha ha! The reason I say that is because before I was doing music full time I was working in PR, so it was kind of like propaganda. I’ve worked for a few city councils and I was basically writing propaganda for them. Normally friendly propaganda like about a new park, or encouraging people to recycle, but I thought it would be funny to drop that in there.”

Naram is quite an outspoken critic about the state of reggae in Aotearoa.

“To be honest, I’ve been quite disillusioned by the state of NZ reggae. I grew up listening to groups like Salmonella Dub, and even Katchafire and The Black Seeds to a lesser extent.But I’ve felt like for the last decade they’ve sort of been churning water a little bit and in some ways regurgitating the sounds of the earlier roots period of NZ, but often in a quite uninspired way.

“One of the big problems with NZ reggae is rock producers producing reggae albums. They don’t understand the proper recording techniques, the proper way that reggae music should be recorded and how it should be produced and sound. Reggae has a very specific production tradition and I think in NZ, frankly, they just don’t get it. With the exception of Lee Prebble, he gets it”.

However, he is at the same time optimistic for the future of our own reggae.

“There’re good things happening for underground dub and reggae culture for sure. It’s been building up and sometime soon it might start to swell over and become a bit more known, which I hope.

“A lot of people in NZ associate reggae with The Black Seeds, Sons of Zion, or even Six60 or whatever, but there’s a swelling underground movement of people who are interested in a much more hardcore form of reggae, of traditional roots reggae. And they’re building their boxes [sound systems], and they’re putting on events.”

Naram recently co-founded a sub-label to Jahtari with local radio personality Michael Robins of Te Mata – Red Robin.

“We put out vinyl 12” records and on each side we have three cuts. We have the ‘vocal cut’ which is with the singer. We have the ‘deejay cut’, which is with the MC. And then we have the third cut which is the ‘version’ or ‘the dub’ and that’s where I really go crazy with the studio effects. It’s a Disco Mix where they are linear and run into each other.

“The ‘dub cut’ you can play by itself, but it’s also good if in the sound system there’s an MC there and they can ride that riddim and do their rapping and MCing on top of that version. Basically, that’s a traditional style of presenting music from Jamaican culture. It’s called the 12” Disco Mix. We’re trying to follow a fairly classic Jamaican formula, but with a NZ twist.

“We’ve got a new release coming out in about three weeks time on the Red Robin label and that’s something that people can check for. The main single is called Bobby Was A Gangster and that’s why I’m going to Jamaica in a few weeks – to record a music video for that. Thankfully NZ On Air gave us some funding and I’d like to thank them for that. It’s nice that they’re supporting some reggae music that’s not commonly heard in NZ.”

soundcloud.com/naram