Wellington hip-hop pioneers Upper Hutt Posse were inducted into the Hall of Fame on Thursday at the Vodafone NZ Music Awards. Members Darryl Thomson aka, DLT and Bennett Pomana, aka MC B-Ware, joined Alex Behan to select songs and tell stories for the RNZ Music Mixtape.
Alex: Tell me about the early days of Upper Hutt Posse and what you wanted to do and what was around at the time.
Darryl: Okay. 1980 we heard 'Rappers Delight', a new genre of sound. We got our heads around it, oh it's poetry to beats, cool, it's cool. Okay and then - a spanner got thrown in the works and this song came out called 'Planet Rock'.
Now ‘Planet Rock' was one of the early songs that used drum machine. And it done weird things to your body. When you are raised on the analog recording of music, like anything; disco, funk, any genre, it has a waveform where it can dip and it can get excited and then it can be somber, but with digital music like drum machines, it was like, on- glack glack clack clack- like a German marching crew all the way to the end, so it did something different to you. There was no organic flow. It’s on, it’s bang. Woah.
That excited us, well it excited me, like really cool and I had heard Kraftwerk before, my mother was out the gate when it came to buying music and she'd come home with Kraftwerk in 1978.
Keith LeBlanc - ‘Malcom X, No Sell Out’
Darryl: This came out 1982. We listened to it because as teenagers we got together and decided to re-educate ourselves via the wisdom of D-Word - Te Kupu, Dean Hapeta.
And he was our political staff sergeant and we had to lift our game and get some knowledge and so we went to the library in Lower Hutt, and found The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which we had heard his name in rap songs. So we read this book and then it turned us aware- gave us a sense of awareness and then this song came out and it was like, "Yes! There is definitely synchronization going on here!”
The thing with Keith Leblanc is he is the drummer on all the early Sugar Hill records. He's on 'Rappers Delight' and 'The Message' [by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five], all these songs. Him and Doug Wimbish were Sylvia Robinson's [Sugar Hill founder] studio band in the early 80s, so all the classics. Then, they fell out, and they formed Tackhead They went to England and hooked up with Adrian Sherwood, and became the On-U Sound Posse. That's why I chose the song. It has so much resonance in our lives.
Our love for Keith was immense. We break danced and grooved our teenage years to their vibe.
Alex: You weren't just about music, you were about all elements of hip-hop - break dance, rap, beats, graffiti.
Darryl: Yes. The culture. That's the elemental culture of hip-hop. It's not gangster rap, it's not twerking. Those are the bastard children of the culture. We're elemental. That's what makes us the pioneers.
Bennett: We read the books, The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. We listened to the tapes of Louis Farrakhan, just to educate ourselves.
Darryl: We borrowed from the Civil Rights movement leaders, who were not taking a step back. We were a generation of kids who had grown up in Aotearoa and we weren't allowed to speak [trails off] … all that shit. We were sick of it. We were seriously ready to die for it. Without picking up arms, we educated ourselves and then we had a decent argument. We had answers for questions, and it came via reading books. It came via the music, the culture.
Bennett: Fans, they loved it. If you understood what we were on about, it was cool. The majority of the media and the like, did not like it. They assumed that, because we were pro tangata whenua, then we were anti-them.
A song came out around 1984 called ‘The Message’, which really pointed out to us that, this oppressive nature is global. Our little fight at home became this global thing, pre-internet. We started seeing the real picture. We were stuck by censorship in New Zealand of, "Everything's hunky dory." We didn't know any James Brown and Parliament, and all those crew. They didn't play that shit on the radio.
Brother D and Silver Fox - ‘How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise’
Bennett: The lyrics explain the song. It meant so much to us, as 16 and 17-year-old kids. When we heard the lyrics of this, when we broke it down, it changed everything. This could be the anthem of Upper Hutt Posse.
Darryl: An MC is someone who can rock a crowd, and a rapper is someone who rhymes on the radio. Just two different worlds. So you'll never hear Brother D and Silver Fox on any radio station unless we're playing it, and that's our anthem. You understand? We've listened to their song millions of times. So like anything... like when you go looking for flowers, you gotta go through the weeds to get the flowers, so it's the same with anything. Any culture, you gotta wade through the shit to find the gold. So today's rap music is run by corporations. Whereas hip hop rap, is by the people, for the people.
Alex: Let's go back to '87, let's go back to E Tū. How did the song achieve its success?
Darryl: I guess, initially, it would've been novelty: “Look at these little angry street kids,” and we were the first, so there was no dawn raids, no... all of that shit. We're the first. So they kind of treated us like a novelty and then someone heard the sentiment and then it started to go a bit anti-us. Because it was someone in the media.
This is the chorus of E Tū: “E Tū, stand proud, kia kaha, say it loud.” So in 1987 redneck New Zealand, that was perceived as, “E Tū, stand proud, kill a cop, say it loud.”
Bennett: I couldn't understand how people could get the lyrics all twisted and stuff like that. It was like, “What?!”
Darryl: I could, we're a country full of ignorant assholes, you know? We didn't have Jack Tame and Scotty Morrison. You know what I'm saying?
Alex: Tell me about how Auckland felt about a Wellington hip-hop crew, beating them to the punch and having the first big hip-hop hit?
Darryl: Well to put it in terms that 90s people will comprehend - it was like Biggie and Tupac. Auckland was like L.A and Wellie was like New York.
I got slammed, personally, by my mates in Wellie. They called you a sell out for moving to Auckland and becoming commercial. We got slammed, I got slammed for years. Yeah.
Alex: Once you got to Auckland, did the Auckland crew accepted you?
Darryl: The people who did accept us were the freaks from K road, the alternatives, the bFM types. You know?
To the islander people, we were a nuisance. They got annoyed at us because, this hurts to say this shit, but we were rocking the boat. “Don't annoy the Pākehas, don't make life difficult for us and send us home,” kind of shit. It wasn't all hunky dory when we arrived in Tāmaki.
Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus - ‘Zion Land’
Darryl: Upper Posse is very heavily into reggae music, yup, we feel that our heartbeat and the base of reggae is a healing medicine it's a rongoā. So we've always been dedicated to that. So this song is my favorite Nyabinghi track out of thousands of them. When we were young kids in the posse, we'd get blazed and we'd grab an acoustic guitar at two in the morning and have a bongo each and sit there, and go there. Meditate out with the music, and this is one those songs.
KRS-One - ‘Love's Gonna Get Cha’
Darryl: KRS-One, first of all is like a Rangatira in our culture. He was a like a big brother to us. As young kids in New Zealand, he'd put out...he's so prolific, 25 Albums so putting out songs, we're hearing new KRS-one song every four months and it'd just killer, like that. Beautiful metaphors from the street, from the heart. Really well felt, so yeah, big up. Anyway, 1987 Cricketers Arms, Friday Night.
Bennett: You were 17, I was 14.
Darryl: Going to this pub full of Wellington, sort of hardcore kids, like hardcore music appreciators. Anyway, we do our set. It comes, we do ‘E Tū’, we do ‘No Worries in the Party Tonight’, we do ‘Hardcore Hip-hop’, and then me and Bennett step up and do ‘9mm [Goes Bang]’ by KRS-One off the album Criminal Minded.
So we done this gig, me and Bennett ... we didn't think it was a big thing ... we were kids. Not until the next day when I get up and go and grab the Dominion, and there's a review of us, of our gig in the paper.
So yeah, it was a baptism of fire. The review said it was cool. They called us black punk rockers, which to us was pretty good metaphor for 1987. They could have called us lots of other things, but I kinda liked it. It’s because we're little kids on stage swearing, (laugh), and we had enough attitude.
Alex: We're gonna talk about a song that went to number one for you Daryl. ‘Chains’ by DLT and Che Fu. What do you remember about meeting Che and what did you see in him?
Darryl: I could muster together a good crew really quickly and we were low-tech. I could take two tunes that were in a mixer, and two microphones, and put them on any stage, and blow it up. Just get my mates to come on and spit rhymes, while I played instrumental beats and stuff. So we were the ultimate support crew for big bands.
Supergroove was a pretty big band. Nine members or so. We played support for one of their tours. Was 31 gigs, in 30 days. We’d come off stage, then Supergroove would come on, and start their Cat Stevens Extravaganza, and I'd watch Che perform.
Now one thing caught my eye was, I seen that fellow sing a song called ‘Your White Shirt’, and man just mesmerize girls and boys in the crowd to a point where the room would go silent, and they'd all freeze. This incredible shit, but like prophetic. I saw that, and I was like “Bro, you're the dream.” What I wanted - same kaupapa as the Posse - what we want is a prophet for the next generation of kids, and someone who’s gonna sing to them and tell them of good things. Good vibes, we gotta face shit, we gotta move on, as a people.
I'm in a van, a Hiace van, going to Bluff from Queenstown. Che's in another van with Supergroove, and I've got Asterix, Slave, a whole bunch of homies, who we went on the road with, Chinaman Chu, DJ Pete, all the bros. Che could hear this mixtape I was playing out of New York by Silva Sur-fa who was, the shit. Che's like, “Oh wow can I come in your van?” and sat with me, and I was driving, and he sat next to me, and we talked and reasoned, and I said to him, cuz how bout you come to the studio, and split on some shit that we gonna put together?
And he was like yeah I'd love that. So Che had never written his own shit. He’d never arranged, produced, any of this stuff. He was literally a hired gun in Supergroove. So yeah, anyways, we got together, I made the beat, helped him write some lyrics, got him going. He got the momentum up and then the rest is history. So I went from country’s most hated, to everyone's mate.
Nina Simone - ‘Ain't Got No’
Darryl: The reason why that song is on this Mixtape is because of her resilience and her drive against injustice. Look at the results. I mean I must have 15 or 16 Nina Simone songs that I have an argument with myself when I'm drinking whiskey, which one am I going to play first. You know, half a bottle of scotch and you are married to her.
To be young, gifted and black. They're like, "Don't say that. We've got you as lazy, incompetent and foolish. What do you mean young, gifted and black?" You know? It was like inspirational stuff.
Her musicality and the way she puts the lyric to the music and the amount of resonance and her voice and the piano. The relationship between her voice and the piano is incredible. That's next level shit. That's not just talking about stuff. No, that's taking you somewhere else up there. Love it.
Alex: You’ve worked with a whole bunch of different musicians from the Skeptics or members of the Chills, tell me about working with people outside of the hip-hop genre.
Darryl: You can't complain about Injustice and racial equality and equal rights and then be an asshole and be picky and racist and prejudice towards people, so I like people based on how dedicated to their shit they are.
Now Terry Moore [of the Chills], dedicated man. Nick Roughan [of the Skeptics], dedicated man. I mean, I've recorded with Shihad, Supergroove. I even recorded with Steriogram.
There's an aspect of me or maybe it's the hip-hopper in me, that likes to flip shit and do shit that people don't think ... and keep them guessing about you and become the more enigmatic and worldly you are, the more you are giving. Instead of showing people ... we wanted to show people how to stop committing suicide, how to stop hating on shit they don't understand, how to stop blaming and get free and do something about it and make a way out of your own predicament.
By working with Shihad and Supergroove and all of the likes, it just kept my people guessing. Where is he going next? Where do I have to think beyond to see where that guy is at. It's all strategic and political as ... without ... like, I wouldn't record with a band I didn't like.
Roberta Flack - ‘This is Tryin Times’
Darryl: Once again, the lyrics say it all, but in saying that, the musicality of this song is intense and I'll tell you a secret, I just got a double bass and I'm learning and this is one of my favorite bass lines, so yeah, and the lyric ... the song was written in 1969 or something, off her first album. She has a kid as well, but it's so poignant today. Check the lyric.