Tucked away on a quiet side street in Auckland’s Eden Terrace, Woodcut Productions specialises in recording, audio post-production and mastering, sound design, ringtones, jingles and so on. Woodcut is also home to Move The Crowd Records (MTC) and Empire Records, labels representing artists including Drew, Kidz in Space, Abby Lee and Juse. MTC label jewels, Smashproof, have just released their sophomore album ‘Forever’. NZM’s Anna Loveys met up with longtime friends Sid Diamond (Young Sid), Tyree and Deach to discuss their new album, the social consciousness in their work and the chart-topping group’s extended hiatus from the scene.
It has been five years since the Auckland-based hip hop trio Smashproof arrived firmly into the New Zealand charts with their debut album.
‘The Weekend’ featured that chart topping hit Brother, a song which did at least as much for the song’s co-star, Gin Wigmore, as it did for them. Brother was certified twice platinum, selling over 30,000 copies, and remained on the charts for 29 weeks from January to October 2009. The 11 weeks it spent at the number one spot broke the record previously held by Sailing Away, by All Of Us, which had nine weeks at number one during 1986.
While quite that degree of success was perhaps unexpected, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise as the three individually creative members share a long collaborative history. Sitting down with the three MCs, what quickly becomes apparent is the presence of a strong brotherly bond – a club of old friends, no outsiders.
This adds to the strength of this group in the present day. The new album has finally appeared five years after their debut, reminding many of their existence. Beyond how they are seen in the public eye, it strikes me they will long remain as musical collaborators, whether releasing material as ‘Smashproof’ or as individuals. Added to which, they all belong to a bigger family in their Move The Crowd Records label, providing strong support here, plus the benefit of having co-owner Kirk Harding based in New York.
The Smashproof trio originally met through the break-dancing circuits of Auckland, in their teenage years as Tyree explains.
“These two were already a group. I knew them on the break-dancing scene at the time. I used to see Deach when they had an open mic during the competitions – he would go up with his cassette tapes and freestyle. And Sid went to my school, Papatoetoe High.”
The three eventually began working together under the name ‘Smashproof, a play on words for ‘’bulletproof’’, and entering local talent quests. Over the years their creative bond and collaborative process has become more streamlined, allowing them to work readily as a creative force.
“It’s an easy process for us – we’ve been doing this forever. Sometimes I’d ring Sid and say it’s about ‘this topic’. He wouldn’t know what the song sounds like but then he’’d write his verse. Same with Deach – that’s how we used to do it back in the day.”
The trio who grew up listening to the likes of Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony, Tupac, Che Fu and Lost Tribe have honed in on a confronting style of presentation of their subject matter, smoothing it over with fresh hooks, guest vocalists, good looks and a rough charm.
We sit outside on the porch, the three facing me in quiet reflection between moments of explosive laughter, usually spurred on by a joke or sneaky shots at each other. Tyree is the outgoing family spokesperson, Sid preferring to be mysterious while Deach is the calm reflector. They laugh frequently together but no one feels the need to talk over another.
Once the success of ‘‘The Weekend’’ had finally slowed down for them, the trio took a break to re-direct their creative energies into solo careers. Deach released his ‘Vision’ EP in 2010, which drew attention to the rapper’’s mastery of flow, that deeply reflective character coming alive in his work. In the same year Young Sid released his second album, ‘’What Doesn’t Kill Me…’ a set of 16 raw, bitingly direct and heavy tracks.
Tyree followed up his 2006 debut album ‘Now Or Never’ in early 2013, telling NZM that his disillusionment with the music business led him to skip off to Australia where he focused on family. ‘Motivation’ was deliberately positive and uplifting, encapsulating his creative vision and individuality, while displaying a gift for creating catchy hooks.
“We just wanted to test the waters to see if we had what it takes on our own,” Sid explains.
“But we didn’t, so we’re back!” adds Tyree, the three cracking up laughing.
Their label encouraged the separate endeavours as Tyree explains.
“Kirk Harding had other plans as opposed to [us] getting back together as a group. He wanted me to have a solo album, and for Sid and Deach to do their solo stuff.”
Bounce forward five years and their combined sophomore album has taken shape. Though just seven tracks long, ‘Forever’ presents itself as a definitive patchwork of social commentary, hearty monologues and party anthems. The album is a contrast of gritty, bass-laden tracks like L.A.B. and opener Smashproof Watt, with others like Forever, Survivors and Paint Fade that unarguably share a lighter, pop edge.
“It was a bit of a funny one where these songs were not going to suit, side by side, but this is what we wanted to do,” explains Tyree.
“It’s all on there,” Sid reminisces. “People know we can do the social commentary stuff – they already know we’’re all for that. We just wanted to have a little fun and be more free range with this one.”
Decisions get made democratically as a group, especially regarding this new release.
“We know what we like when we hear it,” says Tyree. “Josh [Josh Fountain – Woodcut Studios’ producer] could be showing us all of his beats – and we’’ll know what we like together as a group.”
The trio mention their admiration for Fountain, referring to him multiple times during our chat in relation to his involvement with beat production and creativity in this latest project.
“I’m a fan of Josh – we’ve always wanted to work with Kidz In Space, for that point of difference. He’’s an amazing artist as well as a producer, so it was only right to get him on,” Tyree reflects.
One third of electronic hip hop/pop trio Kidz In Space, Fountain is the resident producer at Woodcut Studios, and a technical whizz kid of sorts – usually found hiding away in his cave of technology in the Auckland studio’s edit suite.
The first sketches of the new album were put together in September 2012, on a writing and recording bender at Sid’’s bach in Waihi.
“I ended up getting really sick that weekend,” he recounts. “Luckily the guys put up with me. We came up with a bunch of songs and ended up using a couple of them from this session like Out Of This World and L.A.B. Because I was the only guy working on it from NZ I was more involved with everything. From the songs that I worked on, I wanted to try something a little bit differently with them, musically. I did three of them and then mixed a couple of others.”
Recording and mixing of the album tracks continued on at Woodcut Studios, where the group worked with a variety of producers that included Twice as Nice, Ice, Shuko, Daniel Love (D. Love) and of course, Fountain.
As well as utilising their home group at MTC and Woodcut over the span of two years, Sid sought creative input from connections in the U.S. to construct a chorus for Paint Fade. The catchy hook demo that came back from the States, using an American singer, was pitched way too high for any of them to contemplate replicating.
“The only dude that we knew who could sing that high was Drew – he’s got that silky, smooth, feminine [tone],” says Tyree to laughter.
Drew is, of course, well-known youth TV presenter/singer Drew Neemia, who has himself released a handful of singles, including 2013’s Tonight which featured Tyree.
“They’ve got a really close relationship with Drew, being signed to Empire Records,” Fountain explains. “And he was a good fit for that song really. The same with Pieter T. They’r’e all good friends and Pieter has an amazing voice – it really suited the song.”
The listed directors of Empire Records are Justin Ferguson (Juse) and Aaron Christie – who both also head Woodcut Productions, as well as MTC, along with Kirk Harding. It’s a tight knit and very creative place.
Others featuring on the album include Pieter T and Get Well (Fountain’s solo project). Unsurprisingly ‘Forever’ has already been challenged by reviewers for its brevity. Sid explains that the concept for the album was really quite simple.
“We just wanted hit songs. A whole album of singles.”
Rather than admitting to a creative shortage, Deach explains there was a large process of elimination during the production of material for the album, while hinting at the prospect of another album to be released later this year.
“We made over 20 – 30 [demos] and we just picked seven. For some reason it just worked.”
Individually and collectively the three have become well known for the discussion of hearty subject matter in their music. Brother, of course, found fame as much for the size of its vocal hooks and its open discussion of violence, crime and the hope for change in Smashproof’s South Auckland neighbourhood.
The likely candidate for a Brother-type crossover success was surely closing track Paint Fade. Having debuted Top 10 in June last year it faded rather quicker than its chorus urged. Survivors, featuring the vocal contribution of Pieter T, is a particularly thought-provoking track that takes on another issue that’s close to home for the group, as Sid explains.
“We know people that go through that struggle. We know people who have committed suicide and stuff. The two [people] that we are talking about –– they’re real characters.”
Tyree shared the first verse, which he admits, meant a lot to him due to the stories he’’s picked up working as a teacher aide at Auckland’s Rosehill Intermediate School.
“That verse means so much to me, and what we’re talking about is so true about what’s going on in our DNAs right now. I can’t wait to release that song – people need to know.”