December/January 2017

by Felix Mpunga

SWIDT: Straight Outta Onehunga

by Felix Mpunga

SWIDT: Straight Outta Onehunga

Finalists for both the 2016 Critics Choice Prize and the Urban / Hip Hop Album of the Year Tui at the NZ Music Awards that followed soon after, unassuming Auckland hip hop newcomers SWIDT missed out on both – according to the judging results that is. In what will surely be an unrepeatable turn of events for the televised national music awards, the 2016 Urban / Hip Hop Album award-winner Aaradhna promptly passed her Tui on to SWIDT. Sure the two acts rather awkwardly share the same management, but it was a statement that had right on both sides. Established and admired as a soul artist, Aaradhna shouldn’t have been (or needed to be) entered into an awards category labeled ‘Urban / Hip Hop’, and among those in the running that should the Onehunga-based hip hop crew’s album was a valid place-getter. (The only trick Aaradhna missed on the night was perhaps an aside of, “See what I did there?”) With an interview locked in ahead of the NZMA night, but now sprinkled with added spice, NZM’s Felix Mpunga met up with four of the SWIDT six – rappers SPYCC and INF, plus producers Jamal and the internationally hooked-up SmokeyGotBeatz.

On a surprisingly foggy afternoon in Onehunga, Auckland, I meet with four of the six individuals who make up SWIDT. Asher Schwencke (Boomer) and Aaryn Orchard (A.Z.A) are not present at Studio 40, a converted warehouse with office spaces, a recording studio and a common area with old school video game machines. Owned by renowned graphic artist Askew and his partner Olivia Laita, it’s a space they call home.

It’s just days after SWIDT (an acronym for ‘see what I did there?’) had been gifted the Tui trophy for NZ Music Awards’ Urban / Hip Hop Album of the Year. Legend already, the award was publicly passed on to them by voted winner Aaradhna, who felt her album ‘Brown Girl’ had been mis-categorised, and that fellow finalists SWIDT rather deserved the award and the recognition. Surprisingly I’m the only one donning a Hawaiian shirt today, the boys not wearing any colourful SWIDT ‘uniforms’ but rather hoodies and caps.

‘SmokeyGotBeatz Presents SWIDT vs Everybody’ is the oddball name of the debut SWIDT album released in May that set the tone for a year of live shows, interviews and award nominations.

Isaiah Libeau, one of the crew’s four producers, is known better as SmokeyGotBeatz – and not just around ‘Stoneyhunga’. With beatmaking credits on albums by leading U.S. rap artists including Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Audio Push and Hit-Boy, by the ripe old age of 22 he seems well on his way to being an international hip hop name. Fellow SWIDT producer Jamal Muavae, plus rappers Daniel Latu (SPYCC) and Amon McGoram (INF), take up the other seats in the room.

We’re talking because, on the back of SmokeyGotBeatz’ successes in Los Angeles, their group has attracted management and major label backing, have charted their debut album, gained widespread media and finalist slots in both the (unknown up-and-comers’) Critics Choice Award and the main NZ Music Awards. How does a pretty chilled six-man hip hop crew achieve so much in a year?

In one week their music video for No More Parties in Stoneyhunga, derived from Kanye West’s No More Parties in LA, earned them 20,000+ views, making it the fastest growing NZ hip hop video online for 2016, according to Mai FM. Their debut album ‘SmokeyGotBeatz Presents SWIDT vs Everybody’ spiked into the nation’s Top 40 Album chart at number 11 on release in mid-May, despite little radio exposure and no corresponding singles chart action.

With an evident pride of place they describe their music as honest and unapologetically Onehunga. It is shown through their lyrics, their statement-making Hawaiian shirts and videos which show them traveling around Onehunga, eating pies outside Pennylane Bakery, dancing on the roof of a house and rapping under a motorway bridge.

They wear the fast-gentrifying, harbour-edged suburb – midway between Auckland central and its airport in Mangere – on their sleeves, with hooks such as, “See what I did there, 312 baby, baby,” referencing an Onehunga bus route.

SWIDT’s early stepping stones can be easily traced back to childhood household influences and family members who were musicians. INF remembers writing his first rap verse at just nine, and his first beat, on Fruity Loops, at 11.

“I grew up in a musical household, my brother (Peter Lopes, aka J1) was in a group called R.E.S, Red Eye Society, which was a local rap group, they kind of set the tone for hard core hip hop. That’s how my love for music stemmed.”

Fellow rapper SPYCC gained his musical beginnings through family events.

“We used to go to little festivals on Saturdays and listen to music. I did guitar lessons but I was trash. The only thing I learnt was the intro to Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven, and that’s my claim to fame!”

Jamal, who also fills the main DJ duties within SWIDT, found his inspiration from his DJing father.

“The whole music thing started when I was 11. My dad turned the garage into a studio – then we got robbed. I met these guys and they were doing music and I was kind’a DJing, so I helped them do their gigs and started learning Fruity Loops. Now I use Ableton Live to create and a lot of my beats are sample-based.”

They each attended Onehunga High School, but met at different times. INF says he met SmokeyGotBeatz out of the womb.

“He’s my sister’s son, my nephew technically – but we just say that we’re brothers because it’s easier.”

As a ‘little brother’ SmokeyGotBeatz would hang around when INF was producing music, quietly looking over his shoulder and learning the ropes.

“I lived on Church St. my whole life, probably like 10 houses away from those two,” says SPYCC. “Boomer [Asher Schwencke], he stays like five houses away from me. So we all just lived in the neighbourhood.”

“When I left school I was hanging out with these guys and partying and clubbing. Then I started getting into music so we just all started meeting up,” adds Jamal.

The six mates have been a crew for several years but weren’t collectivised as SWIDT until 2012.

“We used to make Facebook statuses with puns in them, and at the end just put, ‘See what I did there?’” INF explains. “We did it for ages then kind of turned it into an acronym, and from there it snowballed into this.”

Hip hop, both US and NZ, runs deep and wide through all their lives, but SWIDT’s influences aren’t limited to the genre, psychedelic music gets a mention for instance. “Leisure’s moves (business) are so smooth and well orchestrated. Josh Fountain is a solid producer and singer,” Jamal says enthusiastically.

“For me one person that inspires me is High Hoops [Jordan Arts], his vibe, his taste in everything and style and sound. And plus he’s from Onehunga too,” says SPYCC.

Team Dynamite put us on. We came up with them and at one of their album release shows they let us play,” INF adds.

The creative process is evidently as laid-back as they are in person. The way INF describes it sounds like a group of friends having a party in the studio. The environment they usher when creating a track is inclusive and democratic – often hard to come by in more rigidly defined bands and groups.

“Whoever’s making the beats, like Smokey and Jamal, will usually say, ‘Check your emails.’ Then a visit here [Studio 40] and Smokey or Jamal will play the beats here. If we’re feeling it then we’ll get in the zone, have the door open, music loud and just vibe for a while. It’s all off each other’s energies. We usually ask each other how we feel when we hear a certain part of the song. Should we write about this topic or? We just talk about it really. If the vibe is right we go from there,” SPYCC.

The energy they bounce off each other is magnetic, apparent in the room even as I interview them. They share jokes between each question, usually at the expense of someone. For example when Jamal is asked about his other interests outside of music SPYCC interrupts with “Sleep”, and everyone erupts in laughter in that way siblings and close school friends do. INF and SPYCC seem to run the dialogue but as soon as the subject shifts to production Smokey perks up. In between questions they seem distracted by their phones and upcoming events. They’re are a pretty docile bunch, something you wouldn’t expect from their high energy performances, it might have something to do with the NZMAs just been.

Running such a music crew professionally is no easy feat, and SWIDT have wisely sourced help to run things from various entities.

“We have our manager, Andy Murnane of 1979 Management, Serra Galuvao and Olivia who runs this space (Studio 40) with partner Askew. Andy’s the overall manager but Serra G handles us on a day to day basis,” SPYCC explains.

Murnane has a long-held connection to Universal NZ from back in his Dawn Raid days. SWIDT opted for a publishing and distribution deal with the major label in May 2016.

“We own the rights to the masters. They just put the music out there, we have full creative control.”

With calculated moves, a genuine authenticity and a strong team it’s no wonder SWIDT are considered by many to be the next big thing in NZ hip hop.

“We haven’t had to reach out for help and because we’ve been ourselves. People have reached out to us, because we dress a certain way, we drink where we aren’t supposed to drink, we talk a certain way, we go to interviews and say stupid shit – that’s just how we are,” laughs INF.

They caught their first real break when SmokeyGotBeatz gained a production placement with TDE, a powerhouse American record label that’s home to artists Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolBoyQ, Ab-Soul and more…

“I saw [US rapper] Jay Rock tweet Willie B [a fellow American hip hop producer] to send him beats. I saw that tweet and tweeted Jay Rock who sent me his email for me to send him beats. First song I got with Jay Rock didn’t get released for like 2-3 years later. Jay Rock emailed me one day asking for stems, and usually when artists ask for stems you probably have a placement.

“A couple of days later I got a phone call from TDE and we sorted out contracts and Parental Advisory dropped. I also got credited on Jay Rock’s ‘90059’ album [2015], on the song Easy Bake featuring Kendrick Lamar and SZA.”

Smokey is credited on both tracks – a combination of Youtube and Spotify streams adds up to over five million at the time of writing.

With a simple tweet SmokeyGotBeatz had unlocked the keys to the hip hop kingdom. It attracted the attention of Murnane (Aaradhna’s manager) who has extensive US hip hop contacts, and helped get him to LA to work directly with TDE and others in April 2015.

“Andy caught wind of it and he got in contact with me. Him and I had a sit down to go through the contracts I was signing. He just asked if I had a manager and knew what I was doing. I said, ‘No’ and Andy asked if I wanted him to be my manager. I agreed and he’s been my manager since April 2015.”

SmokeyGotBeatz’ success attracted attention towards SWIDT, caught the eyes of Redbull Studios and led to the production of an online documentary titled ‘SWIDT vs Everybody’ – a documentation of SmokeyGotBeatz’ early beginnings and his journey. It features appearances from TDE producer Skyhe Hutch along with praising comments from luminary locals P-Money, David Dallas and DJ Sir-Vere.

There’s a natural enough mystery as to why the album is called what it is. SPYCC quickly demystifies it by explaining that it was really a compilation album.

“The idea was to push the crew off of what was happening around Smokey’s situation and successes.”

‘SmokeyGotBeatz presents SWIDT vs Everybody’ was born out of sessions in Los Angeles and Redbull’s Auckland studios with engineers Ben Lawson and Dan Mawby. The bulk of it was done in LA.

“Melrose Sound was the main studio we were working out of and the main engineer there was JP who owns the studio. I recorded Aaradhna, Gxnsta Ridd, Bushwick Bill in L.A,” explains INF remarkably casually.

Released in May through their own imprint SWIDT Ltd, ‘SmokeyGotBeatz vs Everybody’ is reminiscent of West Coast hip hop circa The Chronic by Dr Dre, mixed with some Onehunga swagger. The physical album almost incredibly features appearances from iconic US rappers Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Audio Push MC Eiht, Bushwick Bill and revered producer Hit-Boy, alongside local music heavyweights David Dallas and Aaradhna.

The striking 16-track compilation deservedly earned SWIDT a finalist position in the 2016 Critics Choice Awards – by way of SPYCC and INF. The Critics Choice entry conditions have been shifting in recent years, but you can’t be nominated for the award if you’ve released an album or single that’s appeared on the official NZ Charts. SWIDT’s album crossed that boundary for one week in May, but SPYCC and INF as rap artists had not.

In the three-way final at The Tuning Fork in Auckland SPYCC and INF lost out to Jimmy Mac’s Scuba Diva, despite a stellar performance in which the pair plus Jamal had changed the ambience from a stiff industry event to a party where everyone was suddenly dancing. This was the first year in which the winner was decided ahead of the awards night, meaning the on-stage chemistry and masterful showmanship of the two emcees was not part of the critics’ judging. Much of the commentary afterwards however hovered around SWIDT.

Only two weeks later the full group were one of three finalists in the Best Urban / Hip Hop Album category at the 2016 NZ Music Awards. Controversy doesn’t begin to describe what unfurled on the night.

Given the strength of her ‘Brown Girl’ album it was really no surprise that Aaradhna, who has over a decade and several albums moved from being a princess to the country’s queen of R&B and soul, was named as the Tui winner. What no one could have anticipated was that in her apparent acceptance speech the proudly Samoan/Indian artist would promptly turn down the award, and instead pass it on to SWIDT. Having been pipped as the Critics’ Choice the colourful crew got to mount the stage and collect a Tui instead.

Aaradhna very eloquently and movingly made her case, finishing, “I want to give it to SWIDT because I believe that you guys are the future of hip hop.”

It was a prop that couldn’t have been more public, or more powerful as a propulsion within the local industry. Her protest action even attracted some international press commentary, including the UK’s Daily Mail, Huffington Post and Mashable in Australia.

SPYCC is first to describe his thoughts after realising they’d been passed the award.

“I didn’t feel anything, it happened so quickly, it was like, ‘What’s going on?’ and boom we were off the stage. We’re just happy to be part of that history.”

“The most powerful thing about her speech is that she’s not the first person to think that or talk about it,” says SPYCC. “But she’s the first one to stand on that platform, from what I know, and speak her mind so freely, without any fear of the repercussions of the industry or the system. We were so caught off guard because we were thinking, ‘What do we do in this situation? Do we go up and accept it?’”

“She has that lyric in her song that says, ‘I’m more than hip hop and RnB,” SPYCC continues before INF chimes in.

“What she says in her song Brown Girl about people of colour always being put in a box, in this case she was put into a category which she doesn’t belong. Her music, RnB and soul, was lumped into a hip hop category.”

Tami Neilson has soulful music and her album would never be placed in the Urban category,” Jamal takes up. “Why would you place Aaradhna in that category?”

As Aaradhna said, we need a Soul/ RnB category.”

Many heads in a group can impede productivity but not, it seems, for SWIDT. They clearly intend to build on their collective success as they talk of plans for a SPYCC and INF album release in 2017 – and for that album to be regarded as one of the best NZ has ever produced.

“We’re currently recording demos for an album we want out next year. That’s why we’ve been skipping classes. [INF and JAMAL are currently students MAINZ in Auckland, studying Audio Engineering and Music Production]. We’re lucky to have this space because it allows us to be creative and have the space and time,” says INF.

“The main thing I feel like is when Scribe dropped his album ‘Crusader’, that was… I feel like that’s what we wanna be, but better than that. There hasn’t been an album that really made an impact like Scribe’s ‘Crusader’ album, for me personally. We want to make that impact.”

“And definitely making the transition to taking over the world, and being international for our music to be heard,” SPYCC enthusiastically adds.

“We’re really just looking for the perfect album for us. I’m keen to kick off my career on the DJ scene and get gigs on my solo name. I’ll probably work on my own music, mostly festival music,” says Jamal.

See what they did there? Working together SWIDT have now generated enough local and international attention to allow and empower their individual talents to be brought to the fore. Genius.