Tipene: Letter To The Stars

Tipene: Letter To The Stars

Hawkes Bay rapper Stephen Harmer is making tracks. The self-confessed country boy recently relocated to Auckland from his hometown of Flaxmere, and with this move, his debut album ‘Tautoko’, a compilation of life that’s been more than five long years in the making, is finally set to be released. Sam Smith caught up with the keeping-it-honest hip hop artist better known as Tipene.

Stephen Harmer, aka Tipene, has been rapping for roughly two decades but has mostly stayed out of the limelight since he began releasing tracks around seven years ago. This is partly due to being based in rural Hawkes Bay, but mostly due to the man himself, an artist who doesn’t go looking for celebrity, choosing instead to focus purely on his music.

“I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t want anything to influence my music other than my own creativity. And a lot of my ideas have come from talking to kids. Like asking them, ‘Have you been on a marae before?’ Usually, the answer is no, and I go, ‘Well maybe I can take you there in a song.’”

His music reflects a strong pride in and love for his Māori heritage, friends, family, and community, and his new album ‘Tautoko’ is very much inspired by these things.

“Whakapapa is everything to me. I didn’t really think about that until I started releasing music and seeing how different it was to the stuff that was out there. But it’s my genealogy that empowers me as a person and as an artist.”

It is the importance of whakapapa that he seeks to share through his music, in particular hoping to inspire young Māori to find themselves.

“We are so unique out there in the world. The world comes here to see us and our culture and to embrace it because it is beautiful. I see a lot of our young people, through no fault of their own, emulating something else, being gangsters or trying to look like Americans. So you know, hold on to your culture and look after your family, because we don’t know what we have got until they are not there anymore. It really comes down to finding out who you are, and then that becomes your grounding in life and you can sail away in whichever direction you want.”

‘Tautoko’, the title of his upcoming album means ‘support’, and in many respects is an acknowledgement from Tipene that he hasn’t made it this far on his own.

“Anyone that has done anything in their life will say they didn’t get there by themselves. It is really acknowledgement to the people who got me into music, the people that still keep me in music, and for the future ones that are out there listening. Everyone has a part to play in your life and it takes a village to raise a warrior.”

He has worked with producers Sickdrum, Juse and Chong Nee on the album which is released on Empire Records. Across its 14 tracks ‘Tautoko’ is musically varied, described aptly by Tipene as being a mean boil up.

“It has got a bit of old school, it has got a bit of new school, it has definitely got strong messages right through it. I am first and foremost a writer, so I am always focusing on that. The music is really about trying to draw people into the message, so you will see a timeline really from the first song that was released, West Side Hori [2012], and then Tautoko [with Prince Tui Teka soundbites], and right up to B.A.D. [tribal drum’n’bass] and Nannys House [featuring Tyna], how the production has grown.”

\The songs themselves are mostly autobiographical, acting as an anecdote to what growing up in the provinces around the arrival of the 2000s has been like for many Māori. Raised “…on the west side of Flaxmere”, music he says, helped him deal with stuff, rapping a way to vent about the things happening to him and around him.

“It is like a photo album for me. It is archiving parts of my life. West Side Hori was thanking everybody that helped bring us up in a dysfunctional hood. Time In The Sunshine was a time when we were healing because life wasn’t always roses, and summer was a great time. Letters To The Stars is a tribute to my brother and my nannies, and everyone who has passed on.”

In recording the album Tipene was fortunate to have the opportunity to call on many of his local hip hop heroes and people who were responsible for influencing him to become a rapper. Among others, the album features the likes of Scribe, Dam Native and Che Fu, Aotearoa hip hop royalty he gives tribute to in the song Pioneers.

“It wasn’t until I saw local stuff like Che Fu and Scribe that made me go, ‘Wow, I can actually do this and be myself within this,’ because I always thought only Americans could do it. Those guys were the dudes that really made me think I want to give this a good crack. And when I actually met them, I wasn’t like a fan and they were just stars – it was kind of like we were both fans of each other’s music, which was really cool because it smashed down those barriers of being a fanboy and stuff.”

Given the seven-year itch that ‘Tautoko’ became, Tipene surprises with the news he’s already lining up his next move.

“I want to release one more project this year. It has come along a lot quicker but it is a bit easier, I think. I didn’t really intend on doing an album, I was just writing songs, and when a song did well, I was like, ‘Wow, better write another one and another one. At the moment I am just striking the iron while it is hot. It is like I have got the meanest boil up right now and you can all come over and have a feed!”