When Che-Fu released his acclaimed album Navigator in 2001 it charted new territory for New Zealand Hip Hop. Its seamless blending of reggae, RnB and Hip Hop telling real life experiences reflected a truly Pacific soul.
When he started work on his second album from a room called the 'Chop Shop' at the back of his Auckland home, it was on the back of big changes in his life. By any metric, Che's solo debut 2b S.Pacific was a hit, cementing his status as one of the country's most beloved musicians.
He'd signed to a new record company that was anticipating big things from their new signee. And he was navigating the uncharted waters of young fatherhood.
This is the story of Che-Fu's Navigator, as told by the creators behind this Aotearoa classic.
Che Ness AKA Che-Fu: When I first embarked on the second album, my mindset was definitely one of confidence. I felt that after doing 2b S.Pacific, I really needed to up my game. Also, mentally, I just had my first child and so that was a big part of my life. That whole sort of learning how to balance music and family was a new thing for me.
My first-born child, his name was Loxmyn. He arrived in '98 and I was living out here in Grey Lynn. I was building my studio at the time, my little shack of sounds AKA the Chop Shop. It was just steadily building and [I was] basically tapping into my other DJ friends and music friends doing the same sort of thing at the time. And we were just a hub of sharing of information.
Kirk Harding, who was the cat that signed me to BMG via Supergroove - just before the release of [2b S.Pacific], he had left the record company to do other things. And I'd actually been approached by my good friend Malcolm Black, rest in love, to see if I wanted to head over to Sony. And I was like, man, yeah, I'd love to. And because he was basically saying that he'd give me the full backing for my second album, I had a lot of resources to be able to do the record.
And so when The Navigator came around, it meant that I had to once again pull together another bunch of cats to come play for me. And I reached out to a few of the homies. I was really stoked to be able to reach out to my man Paul Russell, who was a very close friend of mine from the Supergroove days, and that was awesome bringing the brother in.
Paul Russell (drummer with Supergroove, Eight and the Kratez): I said yes straight away to the project because Che and I go way back and we've got a long history and he's a very dear friend, but also musically I just love what he does. He's a genius creative talent, and it was nice to be around that. I liked the potential of what he was wanting to do with the band and the album. So, it was like, let's get together, let's get in a room, let's see what happens.
Che Ness: Another addition that was outside my usual circle was reaching out to the brother, [guitarist] Brian Zeb. Him coming on board was massive because Brian was a part of the [Rastafarian group] 12 Tribes of Israel, so he was very familiar to me.
And then Chip Matthews was already playing with me as well from the previous band. And Chip brought in Godfrey [De Grut] because they were playing in a band called The New Loungehead.
Chip Matthews (bass player with The New Loungehead and the Kratez): I was part of all three albums for Che, and then somewhere along the way there we became the Kratez. I suppose I was one of the last parts of the mix to come in. And then I think after that was when Peter Wadams became involved.
Peter Wadams AKA P-Money (producer and DJ with the Kratez): DJ Manuel Bundy, the absolute legend that he is, he called me out of the blue and said, "Hey man, would you ever be interested in DJing for Che?" And I said, "Yeah, of course, he's my favourite local artist. I can't think of anyone who I'd rather DJ for".
I turned up to band practice at Brian's house and I brought my equipment and my records, and I followed instructions and performed to a good standard, I guess. And Che was like, "You got the gig".
Godfrey De Grut (keyboardist with The New Loungehead and the Kratez): Traditional hip hop was based in the idea of borrowing and hybridising recorded material and then reconfiguring it as samples and breaks. [Che] wanted the band to be like a human version of a sampler, so that's why we call it the Kratez. We were essentially just records that were kind of offering these little elements of music and combining them all together.
Che Ness: I wrote the song 'Fade Away' and that song was inspired by these conversations that I would have with one of my close buddies, a brother called Bob Mita - rest in peace, my bro. We just had our firstborn child at the same time. He had a son, I had a son. And we would bounce ideas on how we were going to be fathers and so forth. Being able to talk to someone else who was in the same sort of boat at the same time was definitely helping me. And so I wrote about our convos, and basically the song was about when he moved away and not being able to have these conversations anymore.
We recorded the Navigator at Revolver Studios. The big homie Neil Baldock engineered the record. A mad shout-out to that guy, he was flipping awesome. I just felt really comfortable and knew that he trusted me to be able to do these songs. And that trust filled me with confidence.
Neil Baldock (studio engineer and producer): I think I was just keen as to do whatever he wanted, to be fair. As a recording engineer you're making someone else's record, so you're trying to work out what they want and to make them happy. And I think that's how our relationship started.
Godfrey De Grut: The recording process at Revolver from an outsider's perspective might have seemed to be fairly chaotic. There would be a lot of 'breaks' for relaxation, and sometimes it got quite tiring because it was so late at night. I remember we were going into the wee hours, and I don't know how those guys kept awake. It was somewhat messy, but just kind of fun at the same time.
Neil Baldock: We did long days; people could turn up six hours late. A 10-hour recording day could be a 20-hour recording day just because someone was like eight hours late to the studio. But we're all doing it together. Being involved in that, it's one of the things I love about recording is those moments that you can't quantify. They just happen when they happen.
Che Ness: My hat's off to Neil for being so open because we were using really expensive gear, you know what I mean? And he was just letting us just run riot with it.
Chip Matthews: Che has a lot of mana, he's a very patient man. He was a very calm and patient person and was able to guide me through it. And I think that's just reflective of who he is as a human being. He honours those he deals with and that really comes across in the way he would teach me his music.
Neil Baldock: When [Che] opens his mouth and sings, it's pure magic. I almost felt bad saying, "Can you do that one more time?" because he's so good, his sound is so soulful. It's just like everything is so magical. Che had a vision and he conveyed it to me, and we just kind of made it work and didn't stop until he was happy.
Peter Wadams: I had four songs on the album and Che trusted my input or just wanted to make sure that I was happy with the final version. So, he included me on that trip [to Melbourne's Sing Sing Studios, where Navigator was mastered]. I think we only had a couple of days and Neil had to mix all these records. It was like three hours on a mix or something ridiculous like that.
Che Ness: I went into the booth and there were some champagne bottles in there. And then the young intern of the studio ran in and took them out and said, "Sorry, guys, we've got to clean up in here". I was thinking, yo, whose bottles are those? And he was like, Aaliyah had just been in the week before and Puff Daddy had been there. I was like, damn, we're in the right place then.
Peter Wadams: I remember [Navigator] going to number one pretty fast. I remember 'Fade Away' moving up the charts very quickly and the video was really fun to make. Seeing that on TV, on those countdown shows, I'd grown up watching the weekly countdown since I can remember. And to actually experience that, I felt like I had the cheat code. I was like, I've seen how it's done.
Godfrey De Grut: Somebody rang me up and said, "Oh my God, 'Misty [Frequencies]' is a finalist for the Silver Scroll. I was like, "Oh my God, that is so cool!"
Che Ness: I'll be straight with you, I'd always wanted to grab that one. So when we got nominated, me and Godfrey turned up there, and in all honesty I didn't think we'd get it.
Godfrey De Grut: All of a sudden it was announced [that 'Misty Frequencies' had won] and… butterflies. Che and I went up and we did our little thank yous, and then we went off stage and did a little bit of media. And then Che handed me the Scroll and said, "You look after this bro".
Chip Matthews: It wasn't until a little bit after the release of Navigator that I realised that Che had done something that really resonated. Not only resonated but resonated with a sector of our society that maybe wasn't seeing themselves reflected in the pop charts at that point. And I think that was where the weight of it really hit home, that we're engaging a really beautiful wide section of New Zealand that maybe wasn't always reflected in the charts.
Godfrey De Grut: It's just such a great album, and I'd like to think that we kind of opened a few doors, made people aware that there was this specific hip hop that was going on. There were things that Kiwis and people of the Pacific living in our era could talk about, like our stories, I think that's a big thing. And Navigator is just a really wide ranging, sonically designed album. Maybe it helped people see that if you were only into hip hop, you could also be into R&B. And there were these elements of reggae and rock and soul - there's a little bit of something in it for everybody.
Che Ness: I guess you could say that it's my defining record. I mean, for me personally, I think the songs on it are defining for me. But I'm just an egotistical songwriter, bro. I think I still got some more gems in me, so I'm still writing that book myself.
Twenty years on, I just feel pretty pleased, that record was received so well. And to this day I see kids TikToking to it… just to see it still resonates with people fills me with joy, man. It's what any songwriter would want.
The transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
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Written and Produced by Sam Wicks and Presented by Mark Williams aka MC Slave