20 Feb 2021

Che Fu on 20 years of Navigator

From Music 101, 3:10 pm on 20 February 2021

Che Fu's 2001 album Navigator mixed Polynesian sounds with hip-hop, soul and reggae to deliver tracks that became Kiwi classics like 'Misty Frequencies' and 'Fade Away'.

To celebrate 20 years of the album, Che and his band, The Kratez, are performing Navigator live as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. He opens up to Charlotte about life, and how it feels playing the album again after all this time.

His father, Tigi Ness, is also a prominent musician and Che said his childhood was different to other kids. "I guess at the time I didn't really know how special he was and how special the work he was doing was until I got older...I was pretty thankful and fortunate to have been around him at those times."

He said his mother also influenced his musical upbringing.

Che was brought up as a Rastafarian and the type of hip-hop and rap he was listening to in his youth was called "conscious rap" because the artists such as Jeru the Damaja and Public Enemy were well known for their politics. This was reflected in their lyrics which focused on the disparity between rich and poor and other aspects of social justice.

Che Fu in 2002

Che Fu in 2002 Photo: FOTOPRESS/Dean Purcell

At the time there was a lot of nightclub and gangster rap happening and the conscious rap wasn't so prominent, he said.

"It's not as saleable as some of the other stuff was but it just so happened that me and my friends were getting into it and so that heavily influenced me to lean towards that style of rap music.

"I felt like we were part of something new... in the late nineties and early 2000s we started recognising, hey we can do this ourselves."

'Chains' single artwork

'Chains' single artwork Photo: Supplied

Che said the public took on Aotearoa rap once they realised that artists like him were talking about where they grew up and sharing their own stories rather than just imitating US rap.

His first proper group was Lowdown Dirty Blues band (later Supergroove) and he enjoyed "a whole lot of fun" and success with them. It came as a huge shock when he was fired just after returning from a world tour.

"It was heavily upsetting," but he has since settled his differences with them, he added.

Another artist DLT became his mentor and the pair recorded a hit together, 'Chains', which Che Fu wrote.  

"It was the first song I'd ever written by myself, so I basically put all the best things I could think of into that song, in terms of the lyrics.  All the greatest ideas that I thought at that time were all put into the song.

"So when I listen back to it, I kind of chuckle a little. I think 'wow definitely a young man at that time, hadn't done too much'. So I look at it fondly but with a little bit of chuckle at the same time."

He said while he cringes about some of the material he has written, there is nothing to be embarrassed about on Navigator.

"At that time I was very confident in the way that the record came together. All that learning definitely made the Navigator a whole lot easier in terms of the crafting, the writing, and the producing of it."

Che Fu: Navigator album cover

Photo: album cover

He knew the process well enough to be confident to record, mix and engineer the record himself, meaning it's a "truthful account" of how the songs should be. He also praised the contribution of Neil Baldock who engineered it. At the time hip-hop was still relatively new in this country, he said.

"I was stoked with how it turned out."  

The songs remain his "good friends"; he has performed them many times over the last 20 years and is pleased they continue to resonate with fans. He nominates 'Misty Frequencies' as among his favourites.

Che Fu, who is not signed up with any label, said he remains creative, performing and writing songs sometimes with three of his sons.

"I create all the time. I'm very fortunate that I have the space to do that. I have a little bit of a studio in my house that allows me to bounce off the walls and create."

He said advances in technology have allowed more musicians to record in their own studios and avoid the pressures that sometimes accompany being signed to a record label.

Click here for tickets to Return of the Navigator at the Auckland Arts Festival