Home About

Brotha D, Godfather of New Zealand Hip-Hop

Alexander Bisley



In the 1970s, in a regrettable period in New Zealand’s history, Robert Muldoon’s government indiscriminately targeted the Polynesian communities in Auckland with dawn raids where families were rudely awakened as the police boorishly searched for “overstayers.” It was a hurtful, hard to understand experience for Brotha D aka Danny Leaosavaii. “It’s something that happened to my family back in the 70s, it happened to me when I was a little kid, it’s something I remember. When I had the opportunity to find out what it really was I did, and I held on to that. Now that I had the opportunity to start a company with a good friend of mine [co-CEO Y.D.N.A aka Andy Murnane]… he understood and that’s why we have the name Dawn Raid. Absolutely, hook into it as much as we can, it is there for that reason. Just a reminder to the younger generation there was a time in our history this happened with the Muldoon government and all… We’re survivors from the dawn raid days. We’ve all moved on… Look at us now. We’re successful.”
Indeed. Hip-hop is a major cultural force in New Zealand; the music is very popular with New Zealanders of all ethnicities. King Kapisi, who publishes under the label Overstayer (also the name of his clothing business), is another who has reclaimed the language/culture from racism. American heavyweight rapper Mobb Deep (rightly) describes Dawn Raid as the label that runs New Zealand hip-hop. How does Brotha D – one of the most respected men in South Auckland – find being the boss? “Honestly, I don’t try and think about it as much as people would like to think. I just be me, you know what I mean. I don’t proclaim to be this, I don’t proclaim to be that. I love hip-hop. I saw there was a massive gap in the NZ industry, the NZ music industry.”
Brotha D may be the godfather of New Zealand hip-hop, but he’s no “gangsta” and is refreshingly without the arrogant swagger that appears to accompany many American rappers. When I meet him for a chat at Manners Mall during the Boost Mobile Hook-Up National Tour’s day in Wellington he’s humble, relaxed, soft-spoken, and likeable. Wellington’s wind and the noise booming from dozens of excited fans and Mareko (aka Mark Kolani Sagapolutele) on the mic at a nearby signing table drown out part of the recording of our conversation on my dictaphone. When I chat briefly to Mareko backstage at the gig later that night, he too is modest and friendly. As well as performing with Deceptikonz, Brotha D MCs the concert. Thousands of Wellingtonians enjoy it.
Fittingly, the first cover of the new Polynesian magazine Spasifik, titled “Dawn of an era,” features a group of Polynesian hip-hop artists, who are all signed to Dawn Raid or part of the extended family, such as DJ Sir Vere (the man behind the Major Flavours compilations, described as “the king of the mix tape” by Obie Trice). The genesis for Dawn Raid was when Brotha D and Y.D.N.A met at a business course at the Manukau Polytech in Otara. Brotha D had been a rapper in hip-hop group The Lost Tribe, who recorded the hit single ‘Summa in Da Winter’ in 1996. The experience had made him realise being independent was the way to go. The duo began working on the label from 1997, the first album Southside Story was recorded in 1999 – its first track live from Waikeria Prison – and released in April 2000. It established Dawn Raid as a fresh, sharp, important voice. Southside Story2: International followed in May 2001 before Deceptikonz’s Elimination in March 2002. The members of Deceptikonz are Mareko, Savage (aka Demetrius Savelio) Devolo, and Alphrisk. The album featured the outstanding singles ‘Beware,’ ‘Broken Home,’ ‘Elimination,’ and ‘Fallen Angels.’ Like its music video, ‘Fallen Angels’ is a powerful and moving song, with spot-on lyrics:
Man, lessons to life are found in the most awkward places
Just when you thought things were really basic
Well man tries to rearrange God’s plan
The gap between the poor and rich expands
I live humble, even though I’m on the broke side
Against all odds we kiwis do fly.
Ill Semantics’ Theory of Meaning was next in November, before Mareko’s White Sunday, which came out in July 2003. This great album, better than Scribe’s The Crusader, is the jewel in Dawn Raid’s crown, one of the best New Zealand hip-hop albums ever. Smokecds.com proclaimed it “The finest hip-hop album our country has produced… Expect this album to become a classic and open the doors for NZ hip-hop worldwide.” While The Listener enthused “White Sunday [is] the first local release to truly speak the global language. And glorious it sounds, too, as Mareko trades uncompromised verses, soaked in New Zealand culture, with international hotshots.”
Every self-respecting New Zealand hip-hop fan should have a copy of White Sunday, an album which features an impressive roll-call of significant and major names in American hip-hop and was recorded in New York. The Beatnuts’ Psycho Les – best known for A Musical Massacre – raps on ‘Oh Shit’; Inspectah Deck of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan – the crew behind the essential masterpiece Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – raps on ‘Street Rap’; Roc Raida – the grandmaster DJ – performs on ‘Don’t Need Protection’; and Sadat X raps on ‘Major Flavour.’ Then there’s contributions by Celph Titled, Tha Liks, and Scram Jones. Mareko, an MC with supreme mic skills, exceptional presence, flow, and delivery, holds his own against all these cats, even bettering some of them.
Two other standout tracks are ‘City Line,’ about a long, tedious bus ride, from South Auckland into town, to a crap job with an obnoxious boss. Who can’t relate to that! It’s comprehensively, beautifully observed and scribed with a delightful sense of humour. An example of the ill lyrics: “My walkman’s essential when I catch the bus / It calms me down, even when I’m standing up cos’ it’s packed as fuck.”
The there’s ‘Stop, Drop and Roll,’ an infectious, incendiary, good-natured cut, featuring the Deceptikonz, that can get even the groove-less like myself dancing.
A collectors’ edition of White Sunday featuring instrumental versions of the tracks and two bonus songs ‘Crunch!’ and ’99 Bottles’ has recently been released.
Other artists signed to Dawn Raid include DJ CXL, R.E.S (Red Eye Society), K.A.O.S and Aaradhna.
The next Dawn Raid release? On May 3, Always and For Real, the debut album of the soulful R&B singers Adeaze, made up of brothers Nainz and Viiz Tupa’i, hits stores. The duo have been part of the family since the Southside Story, clocking up hits recently with the singles ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ and ‘A Life With You.’
The charismatic Savage’s first album, due to drop around September, is much anticipated. As well as his work with his Deceptikonz, Savage impressed with his role in Chris Graham/Scribe’s now-classic music video ‘Not Many (The Remix).’
In addition to Dawn Raid’s successes, fellow New Zealand rappers including Scribe, P-Money, Nesian Mystik, 3 The Hard Way and Che Fu have won the hearts and wallets of New Zealanders. Hip-hop makes a great, underrated contribution to New Zealand. As well as entertainment, hip-hop provides Polynesians – and all New Zealanders – with an inspiring sense of identity, belonging and pride.
Understandably, Brotha D is overjoyed that New Zealand hip-hop is now being recognised. “I’m really rapt…we’re getting the recognition…all of us getting together and doing this three week tour all over the country, getting a sponsor behind it…these guys are going down in history, you’ve got to understand that. It’s the first time [a tour] like this has been done before, artists of this calibre, they’ve sold a quarter million of [record] sales in NZ.”
Brotha D and Y.D.N.A have created a small business empire. Clothes generate most of their profits. Dawn Raid has a clothing label, a clothing factory, a clothing/music shop, a barbershop, a graphic design business, and a promo/print business. And then there’s the Dawn Raid Community Trust. The Trust teaches music courses to young Polynesian teenagers from the streets or other disadvantaged backgrounds- which have empowered and given the participants confidence. Two Str8 From the Streets compilations – albums with fine, important songs such as ‘Otara State of Mind’ – performed, recorded and produced by these kids are one result. It’s surprising something this positive hasn’t received more media coverage.
Building the community has always been one of Dawn Raid’s goals. “We never really done Dawn Raid to be high-profile, you know what I mean, it’s just grown into that. Dawn Raid for me was always for the community, by the community, you know what I mean. That’s where we started from… If music can change a person’s life, why shouldn’t it?”
“In our society today there’s too much negativity out there. I just want to be positive. Everyone around me’s positive, the whole hip-hop movement’s positive. It’s never about one artist. It’s never about Scribe or Mareko or whatever. Its about the whole movement in itself… It’s about creating a community. It’s about celebrating New Zealand… this is a great place.” Undeniably, there’s a real sense of community among New Zealand hip-hop artists as illustrated by Scribe’s ‘Stand Up’ video; confirmed by talking to any artist in the industry.
Dawn Raid challenges racism by celebrating what a great, diverse place NZ is. Brotha D has some criticisms of Don Brash. “I’ve never seen Don Brash turn to up to any of our music conferences. I never seen Don Brash support anything to do with New Zealand music. The National government never ever raised the quotas on New Zealand music.”
The next step for Dawn Raid is going international, first of all with Mareko in Australia. Brotha D’s wish for New Zealand: “I hope we can all put aside whatever issues we have in the media at the moment, it’s a lot better when we all get along.”
What does he think about the NZ media’s coverage of hip-hop? “Pretty shocking. They only seem to like to take the bad out of us. But I think that’s what’s the media’s all about on whatever.”
Misconceptions and unfortunate attitudes are all too prevalent in New Zealand. According to The Herald, when the Boost Mobile National Hook-Up Tour bus turned up at their Christchurch hotel the owner took one look at Scribe and said she wasn’t sure about having these types in their parts. “Later she conceded she had never come across a better-behaved group of people,” The Herald reported.
Brotha D confirms that hip-hop is a really tough industry, lots of hard work.
“Hell yeah. People look at me and they go ‘fuck, Dawn Raid’s got it all sewn up.’ I only keep pushing it because I believe through the example of Dawn Raid there’ll be a lot of other Dawn Raids. Others will be inspired to be what they want to be.”
In overseas hip-hop the phrase “keeping it real” is a term that is mocked and shown to be fake about as often as it is used. Talking to Brotha D, it’s clear he is someone who really does keep it real. It must be cool that’s Dawn Raid’s work is endorsed by such major names as Mobb Depp and Wu-Tang Clan? Brotha D beams a big smile: “It’s a dream to us. I live my dream everyday.”