Thirty years ago, Upper Hutt Posse released the single ‘E Tū’. It was Aotearoa's first rap record. Next month, at the NZ Music Awards, they'll be inducted to the NZ Music Hall Of Fame.
In 2009, Sam Wicks spoke to Te Kupu, the voice behind the Posse, and other key members of Aotearoa's hip-hop community about the impact and influence of the politically-charged track.
“There’s a lot of people who think they’re tough today / But chiefs like Te Rauparaha would have blown them away.”
In October 1988 Upper Hutt Posse released the kaupapa-driven single 'E Tū'.
Bridging the gap between hip hop and pātere (chant), ‘E Tū’ saw Upper Hutt Posse’s D Word, aka Te Kupu (Dean Hapeta) and B-Ware (Bennett Pomana) chant down Babylon over a sparse beat, punctuated by stab scratches from DLT (Darryl Thomson).
At a time when American hip hop groups like Public Enemy were drawing on the influence of African-American leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Upper Hutt Posse delivered a Māoritanga take on rebel music, using ‘E Tū’ to pay homage to unswerving Māori leaders like Te Rauparaha, Hōne Heke and Te Kooti.
This is the history behind Aotearoa’s first real hip hop song.
Dean Hapeta AKA D Word/Te Kupu: We formed as a reggae group but the rebel music wasn’t just reggae music. It was like, ‘Living for the City’, Stevie Wonder, tunes like that. That’s a reference that all rebel music has is the struggle, the fight against the state.
I had heard stuff like ‘Maranga Ake Ai’ by Aotearoa. That was a struggle song and I seen a video for that too, man, and that was great. So I knew there was stuff there in the reggae scene.
There wasn’t a hip hop music scene [in New Zealand]. Everything revolved around records and tapes that we could get from overseas, back in ’83, ’84, ’85. See, we formed in 1985 and we’d come from breakdancing in ’83, ’84. Breakdancing died a kind of a sad death in this country in ’85 – too many people that were in it only for the fame fell by the wayside and didn’t want to breakdance in ’85 anymore because it became wack.
I was saying, I’m staying in hip hop. Although people around me ain’t going to breakdance anymore, I’m not going to say I’m not going to breakdance, I keep doing it. But I’m going to do this music thing, I’m going to start rapping.
The story which I wanted to bring was something to inspire Māori people to snap out of this, and the song that came to mind was James Brown, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’. I was like, man, that’s the same sentiment, the same message that Māori people need is like, say it loud – we’re Māori and we’re proud. Going around with that in my head, it just came – ‘E tū, stand proud/ Kia kaha, say it loud’.
Philip Bell AKA DJ Sir-Vere (DJ, Mai FM Content Director):
"First time I heard Upper Hutt Posse and saw them I felt quite threatened by them actually ’cause I was part of the Auckland hip hop community that was pretty lame and they were part of the Wellington hip hop community that was pretty incredible.
"They were extremely active, they were realising their dreams. They had videos, they had records out. So, as an Auckland hip hopper, we were quite threatened by them actually, felt quite inferior.
"The inherent difference between Auckland and Wellington at that point in time was Wellington was extremely political and Auckland was extremely party-orientated. So Upper Hutt Posse were the yin to our yang. They were extremely political, and in the grander scheme of things in my head I would listen to their records and Chuck D in the same breath and realised they were saying exactly the same thing."
Kerry Buchanan (music writer): "I was heavily into hip hop and working in retail in the late ’80s and I knew a gentleman [ex-Upper Hutt Posse producer and manager] George Hubbard who informed me of an act coming out of Wellington called the Upper Hutt Posse. That was the first time I had seen any indigenous hip hop of any sort and what made it even more attractive to both of us was the Māori-ness of it and what Upper Hutt Posse were trying to do and what they were saying and the way that they were saying it.
"So, yeah, I’m working in Sounds [record store] and George comes in one day with Dean and Darryl and a few other people that he had just brought up from Wellington and that was the Upper Hutt Posse, and then I sought of got to know them.
"And they came around to my place. I remember lending Dean a copy of Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time, so they were right into the whole Black Panther thing, which I was always intrigued about. So, I liked their whole angle. Apart from the hip hop stuff I just liked their intent."
Dean Hapeta: "When I wrote [‘E Tū’] in ’87, man, there was still so many people who just believed that Māori gave away the land willingly for blankets or whatnot, some trinkets, some tokens, and that’s just ridiculous. Everyone knows about the Māori Wars, people were killed and there’s the Aukati Line, everything. But still they’d say, ‘No, no, you Māori, you are doing alright now. Never mind about all those wars and that.’
"The lyrics are focusing on Māori leaders of old, those that really didn’t choose to acquiesce to the white man’s ways and those that fought violently. I really wanted to make a point in the song. That’s why in ‘E Tū’ I don’t mention like Te Whiti. I mention Hōne Heke but I’ve got nothing against Te Whiti, but I’m just talking about more the violent approach and I’m saying non-violence is a choice, it ain’t a rule.
"We were listening to Malcolm X tapes and then got on to some [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan tapes. I got The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I read that and I guess I passed that on to everyone – that and Seize the Time [The Story of The Black Panther Party]. I was into getting the books and passing them around – well those books that interested me, and they ended up interesting everybody else.
"I find comfort in listening to Malcolm X, listening to Louis Farrakhan, the same way I feel comfort in the haka of Te Rauparaha and I hear the stories about the battles that Māori had against settlers coming to take their land, our lands. So, it’s all linked tightly like that for me.
"Really, the song ‘E Tū’ is like talking about our Malcolm X heroes, who are Hōne Heke, Te Rauparaha, those who fought against the white man.
"Definitely I knew it’d be a hard sell. For a start the title is in Māori and it’s a rap song when we’re not meant to be able to rap or else if you rap you think you’re black and we’ve got nothing in common with Black America. Everyone would always say [that] back then. It was like, ah bullsh**. I’m already loving Malcolm X, what do you know?"
Philip Bell: "I think [‘E Tū’] was pretty threatening. I think it was just as bad as any other Māori on TV sticking his tongue out on the screen. They were like, I can’t handle this.
"I know there was quite a lot of controversy around Upper Hutt Posse as a group. There was always something going on with Dean. Like Dean was always getting confronted by the press or by some right-wing politician or something … obviously he was a threat ’cause he had a big mouth and he had heaps to say and I always thought that it was awesome."
Dean Hapeta: "In terms of what the New Zealand music industry had to say didn’t matter at all. We were going to do this record and it’s going to come out and I reckon that student radio will play it and Iwi stations will play it and that’ll do me fine. It’s like, we don’t do music for any specific demographic or anything. There’s no target audience, never has been. The song is for everybody who’s got ears to listen to it.
"Hey, actually, I was speaking kind of generally just then because ‘E Tū’ was more directed at Māori people. Elder people loved it. It’s like the generation older than me and older than that generation, those are the ones that freak out a bit. But the kaumātua, when ‘E Tū’ came out, man, they loved it. Yeah, it’s a pātere!"
Philip Bell: "We all took up arms, for sure – if you were Māori. If you were Samoan or Tongan or Pacific Islander in general, [you] probably didn’t get Upper Hutt Posse and neither you should. I mean, maybe you might understand the cause but a call to action from someone who’s not your own people doesn’t make too much sense.
"But, certainly from a Māori’s perspective, there was me and a group of people that absolutely took the message that Dean and B-Ware were saying and moved on it. It was really cool, actually. It was necessary.
"‘E Tū’ should be noted as the point in time where everyone in Aotearoa hip hop became active and it was fuelled by jealousy and it turned into a motivator. It was kind of like everyone was trying but ‘E Tū’ showed us the way. It’s pure, ‘E Tū’ is historic, ‘E Tū’ is sonically challenging. It’s just a great song and deserves to be called Aotearoa’s first real hip hop song. That is where our journey began."
Upper Hutt Posse will be admitted to the NZ Music Hall of Fame at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards on Thursday, November 15 at Auckland's Spark Arena.