by Andrew Witty

Rei: Standing Tall

by Andrew Witty

Rei: Standing Tall

A few days out from the release of his second album Auckland-based rapper Callum McDougall aka Rei passed through Wellington, finding time for a coffee with NZM writer Andrew Witty. ‘A Place To Stand’ encapsulates Rei’s movements in finding his feet as an artist.

Based on the Māori term ‘tūrangawaewae’, Rei offers a thoughtful record with versatile and hard-hitting beats with his sophomore album. On ‘A Place To Stand’ he strikes a rare balance of self-awareness and culture, while providing evocative performances entangled with global influences in his production.

“For hip hop albums balance is really important. There’s a few songs that are honest and introspective, and a few bangers for the dudes, for the bros, and a few lovey-dovey type, ladies ones!”

The album has been two years in the making. With the benefit of NZ On Air funding Rei linked up with Chris Chetland of Kog Studios in Auckland, helping to hone his sound.

“They’ve got their studio right in the forest in the Waitakere. The bushy kind’a hippy area. I spend a bit of time out there. The album release is like a co-release with Kog and Chief Sound. They’ve been guiding me through and mentoring how to do things, which is mean, a lot easier than doing it by myself in the bedroom – which I did for the first album.”

Rei’s self-produced, mixed and mastered debut album ‘C.H.I.E.F.’ covered some of his anxiety in trying to make it as an artist. Moving back up to Auckland after finishing a degree in Māori and marketing at Victoria University in Wellington, he initially battled to tap into the local scene.

“It’s less of that now – the first album was like, ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that’. And with that kind’a rap where you’re talking yourself up so much there’s a tendency to go into the negative side where you talk yourself up, but talk other people down. That’s something I try and steer away from. Save for The Chief’s Speech. I just went in because I had to. [It was about] going up to Auckland and being frustrated with people not wanting to work with me or something. I was just sitting by myself in my room writing, which is why it sounds a bit angry,” he laughs.

“But this [album] is more like, ‘I’m working hard to get to where I wanna go – and I’m doing it’. It’s not, ‘I’m gonna do it’, I’m doing it. Slowly but surely.”

‘C.H.I.E.F’ won Rei the trophy for Best Urban Album at the Waiata Māori Music Awards 2016, in his first time entering.

“That was cool as. Last year I went back and got the video award and performed as well. I found the Māori music community really supportive. I was a bit shy putting myself forward for these awards at first being a fair Māori – but they really embraced it and were really supportive.

“Everyone’s really friendly. It might be a little less picky than the overall music scene – everyone knows everyone a bit more in the Māori scene.”

Rei is embracing his Māori identity, embodying a new generation of NZ youth influenced by global sounds, but grounded in his local environment and iwi.

“Showing my culture, my Māori culture, that’s a place to stand for me – but it’s also about me finding myself in the music industry and forging out my niche. I’m proud and interested in all my heritage all my whakapapa – like talking to my Scottish grandad about all that – and the English side, Jewish side. Gotta bit of this, bit of that.”

Hāti, the first single of ‘A Place To Stand’, showcases Rei’s lyrical prowess and determination as an rapper.

“It’s not an official Māori word but if you’re a hāti Māori you’re like a hardcore, rural-as, full on Māori. It kind of means ‘hardout’. It means I’m going hard out to where I’m trying to go. I acknowledge that standing somewhere is something that does evolve. I know where I come from. I know my home. And I’m very proud of my roots and everything in NZ.”

After quitting his part-time work earlier this year, Rei is focused on moving onwards and upwards. Although he’s already making inroads into the wider local hip hop scene, his music making process evokes the classic DIY Kiwi attitude.

“Usually when I’m writing a beat I’ll come up with a melody or a rhythm. I’ve got a bunch of melodies recorded in my phone, and then I record that in the keyboard. Even in the club, I’ve got recordings of me singing melodies. You can’t even hear it, it’s distorted as. And my girlfriend, if we’re driving somewhere on a long drive, I’ll be like, ‘Can you record this for a second?’ in the phone.”

His charisma and humour combined with a realistic humility lends Rei a warm presence. But when it comes to his music, the 23-year old rapper is unabashedly and deservedly confident. He works with purpose and intent. This isn’t just a hobby for Rei, he’s aiming for the top.

“I’m always thinking a few years ahead. Twenty-year-old me hoped to be more successful,
but I’ve still achieved a lot, and gained a lot of ground. You have your good days where you’re making headway and bad days where you don’t. But if you zoom out, it’s an upward trajectory. We’re building slowly but we’re building nevertheless.”