It proved to be a rare rainy Saturday afternoon in January when Chip Matthews met up with The Funky North, DJ Definite and MC Blaksword. Making it doubly ironic, the two musicians in focus hail from Kaikohe in the ‘winterless north’. Meeting ahead of soundcheck for The Funky North’s debut Auckland gig at Black Note bar they discussed the fledgling act’s journey so far.
The Funky North is Brent Strathdee-Pehi, aka DJ Definite, and Tremaine Poutama, aka MC Blaksword. As we talk it is soon apparent that these two have had varied stories, leading up to the band’s formation in late-2013.
Brent is the one with a more established pathway in the NZ music scene. Having played in Wellington’s Tetsuo and with DW Browne in Auckland in the late ’90s/early ’00s, it was his work as part of Definite & Bling that arguably first brought this multi-talented musician to prominence. Following that he played with rock/groove band Hangman, before moving first to Dunedin, and then settling in Kaikohe with his family.
The diversity exemplified by the various genres Brent’s musical career has embraced provides an insight to what would be the early sound of The Funky North. That sound however continues evolving.
“It’s all just music, regardless of whether it’s punk, rock or hip-hop,” he says, illustrating the approach both musicians have towards their music.”
It’s a consistent theme throughout our chat, that The Funky North seek to engage with music at their pace, and with an ethos, as Brent later mentions, where, “Everything we do… is reflective on the group.”
Tremaine’s musical background was rather more subdued. Originally out of Onehunga, Auckland, he was what he describes as a “bedroom MC”. Writing rhymes whilst at high school and doing formative recordings at home.
“In the 90s, when hip hop was great,” he jokes.
Tremaine had a connection to hip hop via another Onehunga-based group, RES, in his cousin Venomous. As an aside, it was at this point, where interviewer and interviewee, worked out they were whanaunga. But it was not until a move north to Kaikohe with his partner – then expecting their first child – that his own relationship with music further developed. Hearing of each other as being local musicians, and connecting online, Tremaine and Brent came together to record a first track called Mad Life.
Reflecting on his relationship with the more musically experienced– Brent, Tremaine adds.
“It’s because of this man here, that I have this knowledge and experience, I’m just a sponge… and I’m definitely blessed.”
The early sound of the still unofficial group was more built around live musicianship than traditional hip hop production. Brent played guitar while Tremaine MCed. Throughout these early days that Brent’s brother, DJ, was asked to jam with the duo, on djembe. What followed soon after was Brent’s push to get them performing live through busking.
“It was to take our music on the street and have some fun, and it just kept sort’a like growing.”
Indeed it got to the point where realising they were a three-piece, now with 10 songs. Thus, the unofficial became official.
“We’re enjoying what we do, and we’ve got a sound that’s quite unique – we’re The Funky North bro, that’s us.”
The group spent the summer of 2013/14 playing shows in and around Kaikohe, however the three-piece became two, with the departure of DJ. Brent and Tremaine resolved to move forward. It also signalled a change in the musical composition of the group, as Brent explains:
“We adjusted, Brent laughs. “Okay, dust off the turntables…get the mixer out… yeah bro.”
I ask how the group managed to keep a continuous thread between the two quite separate approaches to their shows.
“Regardless of the tools we use to present our music, ultimately we’re presenting ourselves,” Brent replies, before adding that “the songs and the narrative, is the same.”
In August last year, the group released a street album which brought together all that they had recorded to that point. Incorporating the diverse range of tunes, it included a traditional DJ mix as well as recorded tracks and acoustic demos. A small physical release sold well at shows, and it served as a pivot point; a form of demarcation from transient to more settled.
Looking forward, The Funky North recently completed a new EP, which they will look to release over the coming months. To be released on USB, along with extra content, it is another way the band are seeking to work in a more unconventional model.
Our conversation was broad, covering topics from musical infrastructure, the moving to a small Northland town – as well as the need to be everything from musician, to promoter, to logistics person, to accountant. What came through was a resolve to approach their music on their own terms, as well as contentment with the place music played in their lives.
Set against their other more primary life roles, The Funky North seem to approach their music with incremental and considered moves, all the while, as Brent reflects, keeping it pretty loose.