December/January 2022

by Sam Smith

Y$O: $trategic Collectivi$m

by Sam Smith

Y$O: $trategic Collectivi$m

In a local hip hop and RnB scene bursting with talent, and this streaming age where music fans’ attention spans are limited, it can be quite hard to be seen and heard. However, one collective of musicians is using this to their advantage and are slowly building momentum as they grind their way through the music industry. They are Y$O (Young and Slept On), and they are happy doing things their own way, and in their own time, as Sam Smith reveals.

Formed in 2019, the Auckland collective Y$O is made up of young and up and coming rappers, singers and producers, all with plenty of ambition and lofty goals in music. Sam V (Sam Verlinden), Jarna Parsons, Brokeboi Ace (Mareko Johnson), and Aidan Fine handle the vocals, while Edy (Edward Liu), CreationKit (TJ Buford), and M4 (Malachi Samuelu) produce. Hey, they even have their own self-appointed mascot in Siegs (Ethan Siegel).

The seeds of Y$O began with Sam Verlinden and Liu, who met while still at school, as Verlinden explains.

“He was at Avondale and I was at St. Peter’s when we met. And then when he was at uni and I was in my final year at St. Peter’s we started jamming a little bit. I think we always thought of the possibility of either starting a label or a collective. I then decided to start hosting shows under this Y$O name, and then gradually we started meeting people that we felt fit the young and slept on agenda.”

It was through various filters that the other members of the collective such as Mareko Johnson, Jarna Parsons and Aidan Fine were discovered, then accepted into the Y$O realm. For Parsons, this was through performing.
“I studied popular music at university, and it was during my second year when I first met Edy. He saw me performing at finals, him and Sam, they hit me up for some work and then yeah, it just grew from there.”

Fine has been making music as a solo artist since arriving in NZ from South Africa but has enjoyed being able to collaborate with others.

“I first moved to Auckland two years ago, and Sam and I just got talking online. Then I did a show, and that’s kind of how it all started. We did a show together. I performed at the Y$O lockdown edition and then we did Y$O Volume 4.”

Over time, these showcase gigs of the artists involved in the collective have seen the audience numbers multiplying nearly 10-fold. Verlinden says Fine, Johnson and Parsons were perfect for Y$O and represented exactly what he was looking for in performers.

“I like artists who are out there doing it without reason, or without someone motivating them. They are just doing it because they are passionate about it. I think I saw that and recognised that in Aidan and was keen to get him amongst the crew. Mareko, I met him through a programme called Uni Prep. I was catching the bus, and I met him there and we got talking about music.”

Verlinden himself had what he describes as “… an interesting kind of trajectory or ascension in the music industry” as well.

“Like I was signed personally when I was 11 by Parachute Music on a development deal, right after they saw me perform at this, like, talent show – which is the only talent quest I’ve lost! And then I was signed again at 13 by DNK, who are a conglomerate of Dawn Raid.”

Y$O stands for ‘young and slept on’ and represents the true ethos of this collective and their journey as they strive for success in Aotearoa’s music industry. Verlinden says he came up with the name.

“The slept on mentality from artists that I know and that I’ve seen can be a little ugly. It’s kind of like a ‘pick me and sell’ mindset, but with music. But we’re like, ‘No, we are more aligned to a real grind, a real hustle mentality.’ Slept on as in, ‘we want the whole world to be able to recognise who we are and what we’re all about.’”

Liu agrees. “It’s less of, like, the meaning, and more of, like, just bringing young people together, I guess. Because getting slept on, it’s just another way for us to be, like, let’s keep pushing for it, you know. It doesn’t necessarily mean oh, we deserve to be successful, it’s kind of more like we’ll just keep grinding until something sticks.”

Just don’t call them a group, though. Verlinden suggests they are like The Avengers, coming together and showcasing their collective chops.

“I have always been open with these guys about not looking at it as if we’re a group bound by destiny and fate. Edy’s collaborating, Brokeboi Ace put out his second-ever single earlier this year, and he’s looking to do a third. Jarna has come out with a second mixtape. Everyone is doing their own ventures, and that’s really how I want it to be, similar to Dreamville and J Cole. We just do it project by project, and I never want it to dampen what people are doing as solo artists.”

When it comes to writing and recording though, the collaborative nature of Y$O is plain to see, with music the centre point that binds all the members together collectively, as Fine explains.

“Everyone contributes to the production of the songs in some or other way. We all discuss almost every aspect collectively, like, what do we want the album cover to look like, what do we want the general concept of the album to sound like? And we always do it in a collaborative way, which is challenging at times, because there’s so many of us! But generally, we get a good result at the end because it’s kind of distilled through quite a few of us, and any disagreements tend to result in something that we all end up kind of happy with.”

Talking about the collective’s first album release, ‘Young And $lept On’, Liu says the songs mostly started with a basic skeleton from one before others brought their ideas to proceedings.

“I would split us into two groups, each working on a separate idea. And I think we did that for maybe six weeks straight or something, and we easily had 12 songs by the end of the six weeks, which is pretty cool. We kind of just focused on what we were aiming for, like, if we felt like doing some RnB we would just invite the RnB heads. If we felt like doing some rap then we would invite the rap heads.”

Fine explains this is down to the different individuals having different tastes and influences in music.
“I think the one thing that makes us quite unique is the fusion of musical interests. Edy’s really into RnB production, Sam’s got those crazy traditional RnB vocal chops, and then me and Ace are hip hop heads that are into both local hip hop, but also overseas stuff like Tyler, The Creator. There are a lot of rap collectives, but there’s actually not really any RnB collectives, and there’s not many RnB/rap collectives!”

Covid-19 has brought its own set of problems though for Y$O, with this collective that’s quickly become known for their live shows prevented from performing – and continuing on the success that saw them go from playing to a half-empty Wine Cellar to selling out The Tuning Fork.

“We started off 50 people,” says Verlinden, “and then with the album launch it got to 100, and Y$O Volume 2 had about 200! By this point, we’re thinking ‘Okay, we now have to start growing our venues because the shows keep growing.” That’s kind of where we set our numbers at, around 300. I’m sure that maybe by now we would have done a 4-500 person show, just because of the perseverance, and that the shows are super high energy.”

Fine thinks the popularity of their live gigs is down to their genre-blend and collectivising their separate audiences.

“It’s packed, and then one artist goes off and the crowd leaves, and then the next artist goes out and it’s a totally new crowd that comes in. It’s like this revolving window of everyone’s audiences individually rooting for their person. We have the individual fan bases, but there is also the collective fan base as well.”

For much of 2021 though the thought of playing live has been on hold, with Covid forcing the individuals to focus on other things, as Verlinden says.

“We have just been using this time to focus on those little solo projects that we might have been putting off, but we will definitely re-gather when we can, and start working towards something for next year.

“We don’t want to set any deadlines, or time frames for it, when it happens it’ll happen. I’m sure it’s inevitable within the next 12 months we will put out another couple of singles and maybe a project. Y$O is a project-by-project thing, we never want this to be something where you are bound and you are restricted. It’s just something that we can do to support what we’re already doing with our music careers.”

In the meantime, they are just happy moving forward under the radar, with Verlinden clear on where he sees Y$O within the NZ music landscape.

“We just try and stand-alone and do our own thing because that’s kind of the whole premise and the kaupapa of what Young And $lept On is. We’re just marching to the beat of our own drums. I think as we release more music, and we’re more consistent with our shows, and our solo careers, more doors will open, but for the moment, we just kind of want to do our own thing.”