May/June 2023

by Richard Thorne

No Comply: Bending The Hip Hop Playbook

by Richard Thorne

No Comply: Bending The Hip Hop Playbook

Tic Tac Toe kicked things off for No Comply. That was the name of their debut single back in March 2020, and it’s fair to say the Blackwood brothers, Ethan and Fynn, bring a strong air of play when performing live, even more so in their often hilarious music videos. As the expression goes, No Comply take their music seriously, but themselves not so much. Richard Thorne talked with the energetic hip hop-plus duo about their sophomore EP release, ‘BKATIT’.

When Fynn Blackwood wrote the rap lyrics to the single BKATIT times weren’t all that great for Tāmaki Makaurau experimental hip hip duo No Comply, but they were at least on the lookup. After the mid-’21 release of their debut EP, ‘Welcome To Bad’, the energetically creative brothers had found themselves unusually constrained. It became a gap of 18 months before a follow-up single was released.

“As an intro track, I guess I just wanted to take people on sort of like an entwined journey of where we’d been, what we were going through, but also what we are here to do. And shine a little light on the support we had along the way, how strong our bond still is. Basically, it’s just like a re-introduction…

“What I was thinking in my head was just like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been gone for a while, but now we’re back at it, so don’t forget about us cos we’re still here.'”

“Our music was actually caught up with a bunch of lawyers. A bit of industry reshuffle, a bit of back and forth, and a bit of Covid possibly… That’s generally what happened,” explains Ethan, the producer half of the rapper/producer duo.

BKATIT wasn’t released until just before Christmas 2022. With I’ll Be Fine following a month later, it introduced and provided a natural title to the brothers’ sophomore EP, ‘BKATIT’, released by Warner Music NZ in April.

The debut EP had been just them, a learning curve as the brothers moved on from being quite separately involved in music making and learnt the ropes as an experimental hip hop duo. Ethan plays guitar and keys, but his principal focus has long been on computer production. Performing more as a musician and singer, Fynn also worked under the alias Dende (the Sensei).

In contrast to the insularity of ‘Welcome To Bad’, half of their new EP’s six tracks involve collaborations. The first, in terms of single flow, was hip hop heater No Mercy, notably featuring a beat provided by SWIDT‘s Amon McGoram, better known as INF.

“The INF feature came because Ethan was doing some commercial production work, and our manager [Connor Nestor] linked Ethan and him up. They were meant to do something together, for a Les Mills’ track I think.

“Amon sent us a beat, and I was like, ‘Nah, we have to write to this ourselves!’ I went into the lounge and wrote out a verse in like 20 minutes and sent that to him. He came back almost straight away, I think he’d barely mixed it! That was in lockdown and the whole exchange for No Mercy happened over like two days.”

The imaginatively-named Chef Mob feature on What Will U Be, and also play a leading role in the social and creative lives of No Comply.

“Chef Mob are a group of our friends who used to come home with Ethan after they’d been out partying, and they would whack on some horrible autotune and freestyle. Over time, they actually got pretty good at it, and created a sort of creative collective group called Chef Mob.

“They were just friends, and we’d always been doing stuff together, so that was easy.”

Written at a time (Covid) when they all were feeling a little lost, Fynn described the track as a raw take on a relationship filled (or once filled) with love and everything that comes, came, or is yet to come with it.

“The Wells track [All My Friends (feat. Wells)] was really cool, because he had sent us another demo prior that we recorded on that I really loved. When we came out of some of the heavier restrictions he came around. At the time, our studio was set up in our Grey Lynn flat, in a really tinny garage with horrible acoustics – and our neighbours loved us for it!

“We were meant to work on the demo track but he [Josh Naley] said, ‘Why don’t we start something from scratch?’

“I wasn’t that keen in the beginning but I’m really glad we did, because he’s an amazing writer and producer. He’s into a lot of hyperpop, like I am, and my brother and him – in terms of production – just got along like a house on fire.

“It was things he suggested like recording an old shitty guitar that only had four strings. We didn’t plug it in we just played it into an iPhone, and then just limit-bashed it and put some grain on it. He knew what sound we wanted to go for from the very start. That was a cool process, it was super organic, and the first time that I sort of bounced back and forth off someone like that.”

Already proving a singalong live favourite, the single has been given a highly entertaining video treatment by Connor Pritchard. Their creative space has since upwardly progressed to a home studio in Takapuna, which Fynn agrees is pretty sweet.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky with that because our dad, he was a musician, and I guess he always just wanted to see us excel in music. So along with us sort of procuring and collecting instruments, and bits of tech over the years, he has along the way as well. When we were in our first house he had a small recording studio. He’s taken some of the old gear out of that and just slowly we’ve added and upgraded. Yeah, we’re pretty lucky in that regard!”

As No Comply the brothers mostly produce their music from home, about 90% of the time Fynn reckons.

“In the past we’ve done some stuff with our friend Morgan Allen at The Depot in Devonport. We were also lucky enough get to have a couple of days at Roundhead, thanks to Apple when they wanted some fresh creative work done. And Warner has a studio at Parachute, so we’ve been going in and treating some things there. But all the ideas sort of start in the home studio.”

Experimental hip hop remains a descriptor the pair are happy with, though Fynn notes there are many other elements and styles in their music as well, meaning it’s tricky to point to any one genre at a time. No Comply seem to specialise in such diversity, but Ethan suggests that’s an exploratory journey that is perhaps leading him to a destination.

“I feel like, eventually, my production style will kind of refine to a point where it is more or less – not the same every time – but you’ll hear it and go, ‘Oh that’s that No Comply production,’ you know?

“I feel like that just comes down to practising and making more and more songs. And the creative process is a lifelong journey. We’ve both been influenced by so many different styles, and production, with like EDM to jazz, so it’s hard to focus on just one area, because we’re just so keen to just get out whatever we’re feeling at the time.”

All My Friends and What Will U Be apart, the expected guitar sound isn’t as evident across ‘BKATIT’ as previously.

“Actually it was quite a while ago when we made all the songs, and I was probably going through a deep hiatus of no guitar!” Ethan explains with a smile. “So that’s why you don’t really hear many guitars on there. But I’m still playing the guitar, and as well as playing the guitar, I’m loving playing the guitar! I just got Guitar Rig VST and it’s so much fun.”

Ethan also gets to present a couple of verses on the EP, which he is quietly proud about. The starting point of their tracks is another variable.

“It completely depends on the day. Like sometimes I’ll just start a song with the guitar, or sometimes if I start with a sample I might not use any guitar. It really just depends on the mood. I think your confidence kind of goes in waves. For me and singing that is a definite. Especially with production I do get a little bit too obsessive over the mixing of the vocals and making it sound perfect. So like that definitely comes in waves.”

“Mostly, Ethan will have come up with beats and I’ll write to it,” Fynn continues on the subject of their songwriting process. “Sometimes I’ve already written something and I’ll find something that he’s got, or he’ll make something that fits piece of writing. Or sometimes we’ll sit in the studio and he’ll produce and I’ll write at the same time, and sort of write it ground up.”

Both smile at the suggestion that with so many subjects and words in some tracks, perhaps the overall message only reveals itself at the end.

“Definitely,” Fynn agrees. “I think even sometimes I’ll go in with a meaning, or I’ll be feeling a type of way and I’ll start writing, then by the time I finish the song the meaning is completely transformed to me. It’s even like subconsciously I’ve written about something else. And then, when I re-listen to it, it’s taken on like a new shape or form. It happens quite a lot.”

“That’s the beauty of art, I feel,” adds Ethan. “Like you were just in the moment, channelling this creative inspiration, and then you put all the pieces together at the end. And someone else might have a quite different meaning that they attach to it than we do, but that’s the beauty of it.”