by Kat Parsons

Rei: Running Hot

by Kat Parsons

Rei: Running Hot

The engagingly upbeat latest single from prolific Auckland artist Callum McDougall, aka Rei, is the result of a determined chase to collaborate with the members of Drax Project. The Māori/Pākehā urban electronic musician chatted with Kat Parsons about Wera Matao and his upcoming album. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.

Already recognised with awards on the local front, there is a sense that bigger doors are now opening for versatile and determined Auckland hip hop artist Rei.

“I went travelling in April and May – went to the States and Europe with my DJs, Sweet Mix Kids [Sandon James and Chris Scott]. Getting to perform overseas was definitely a highlight! We played a show in Indio, this pre-Coachella pop-up party the night before Coachella Festival.

“It was my first time performing to a crowd outside of Aotearoa and it was a real fun experience. I was a bit nervous as to how my music was going to be received. I didn’t know if I should do more or less of my te reo stuff. But it went down really well and people were interested. I did a little mihi to the First Nations’ people over there during my performance and that was appreciated. I also got to play a pool party in Nashville.”

Combined with a fantastic stage presence, his evident drive and passion will undoubtedly take Rei and his music far and wide in the future. His 2015 debut album ‘Chief’ and third album ‘Hoea’ (2020) both won trophies at the Waiata Māori Music Awards, while his 2017 sophomore project, ‘A Place To Stand’, topped the local iTunes Hip Hop chart.

“My only advice is; write, release, analyse, repeat. That’s Rei’s 4 Steps to Success,” he laughs. “The repeat is the important part, because most people just write, release and then give up because their first song doesn’t do well. But you’ve just gotta keep going.”

With thick harmonies and a pulsing bass line, his latest single Wera Matao is a vibrantly energetic yet soulful Te Reo Māori track that mixes Rei’s sweet, effortless melodic vocals with his deep and sultry rap resonance. Primarily a hip hop artist, this waiata engages with some definitive pop elements, most likely due to the input of his writing partners Drax Project.

“I’m the same age as the Drax Project boys,” Rei reveals. “I was studying in Wellington at the same time they were so I knew of them and we’d done a show together back in the uni days. I saw them backstage at a music award and talked about getting in the studio with them and doing a track together. I kept chasing them up and managed to have a session with them last year!”

Drax members Shaan Singh, Sam Thomson, Matt Beachen, and Ben O’Leary teamed up with Rei and Kog Studio’s Chris Chetland to produce the expressive, rhythm-driven song.

“I kind of had the bones of a beat that I brought to the session and then we started toplining,” Rei continues. “It was cool working with them because they’re all talented musicians and producers. Their little production additions to the song, they’re all pretty subtle but they just made it sound way more expensive and way more pop. They took what was an urban beat and just pop-a-fied it!

“At the start of the second verse there’s this cool little interplay between my lead vocal and Shaan on the saxophone,” Rei adds after a pause. “It’s quite subtle, but he did this cool sax line and then harmonised it, and we chucked that through a bunch of effects. We kind of looked at it like the saxophone was the female element of the song. It was me talking about my frustrations to this wāhine, and the saxophone was the wāhine singing back to me. I think one of the last things we added to the song was Shaan’s solo. It just tied off the song and made it a main climax.

“Hopefully we will get to do it live together someday – fingers crossed!”

Wera Matao which translates to ‘hot and cold’ was, like many songs are, based around some real-life circumstances.

“It was just what I was going through at the time,” says Rei. “I was in a relationship where there were a few ups and downs and it was a bit ‘hot and cold’, so that’s what I ended up writing about on the day.”

The song will feature on Rei’s upcoming te reo album this year, a follow-up to ‘Enjoy the Ride, Pt. 1’ which dropped last year. He is excited, working hard to finish the new project so he can share it with the world.

“It’s mostly been myself on this one, to be honest. I’ve got a few collaborations on there though, which is good: Swizl Jager [Nikora Edwards]; Huia [Hamon] on a track with Olivia Foa’i [Te Vaka]. She’s an amazing Pacific Island artist who sings in Tokelauan, so there’s a cool little te reo/Tokelauan crossover. It’s exciting for me because not many te reo artists actually collaborate much with our Polynesian cuzzies. I think that’s something that we should do more.”

Rei’s dual heritage – Ngati Huia on his mother’s side with Scottish roots on his father’s, has left a footprint on his musical journey. The passion he has for his te reo waiatas alongside other English and bi-lingual songs evoke an emotional and empowering spirit that captivates, even across the oceans. His dedication to this endeavour is one he wants to instill in his peers.

“I’m trying to do a te reo album one year and then an English or bi-lingual album the next,” Rei explains. “I’ve been doing that the past few years. It’s to keep up my writing chops in te reo and also keep spreading the kaupapa. As long as I can release one project a year I’m pretty happy.

“It’s cool that everyone is releasing translations of their songs at the moment,” Rei acknowledges. “It also helps me keep motivated to want to be at the forefront and be the guy that’s always releasing in te reo – not just in Māori language week.

“But I do see that as a stepping stone for the next step, which is for people wanting to release more original Te Reo Māori waiata. So yeah, it’s a step in the right direction, but it definitely will be good to see more original music coming out soon.”

With a strong career history already and so much to look forward to, Rei insists he finds it hard to pick just one thing he is grateful for.

“I’m grateful that I’m making music at a time when it’s cool to sing and rap in Te Reo Māori,” he affirms. “Because if I was doing this 10 years ago, I’d have to have a part-time job. Not to say the industry and everything is exactly where it needs to be in terms of Māori music. We have still got a lot of room for improvement, but we’ve made a lot of headway in the last few years. So I’m grateful for that and also grateful for the future.”