There’s a fair amount of hype at the moment about the state of New Zealand hip-hop, but DJ Mu ain’t buying it. ‘I don’t believe that New Zealand hip-hop’s in a good way at the moment. We’ve had some good successes with people like Scribe, but a lot of it, especially the Dawn Raid stuff, is just copying American styles. One thing that I’m proud of with what we’ve done with Freddy’s is that you listen to our music and it definitely belongs. It’s a fusion of heaps of different things but it does belong here in New Zealand, you can tell it came from this country.’
Fat Freddy’s Drop, Mu’s supergroup, definitely has an authentic, major home-grown flavour. An innovative and original Pacific-style fusion of soul, dub, funk, jazz, roots reggae, and blues guitar, Freddy’s are one of New Zealand’s hottest live acts.
A recent tour to Europe saw them snare similar acclaim: in one rave review, BBC World Live heralded them as ‘definitely one of the best shows I’ve seen in One World Live, if not the best’. The tour took in six weeks in London, a month in Berlin, three weeks in Amsterdam and a weekend in Austria (at the famous Dub Club).
Mu, aka Chris Faiumu aka Fitchie, enjoyed the tour. ‘Europe was good. It was bit of an eye-opener for everybody. For most of the guys it was their first time over there.
Freddy’s encountered a different musical culture. ‘Bigger countries, bigger histories. They’ve got a much bigger music history, everything’s a lot more purist. Jazz goes back years, soul goes back years. Compared to here in New Zealand I think we have no music history really, not in contemporary music anyway. We’re happy to break the rules, its harder to break the rules over there, there’s not much fusion between genres happens over in London, not that I saw. Here in New Zealand we don’t have any rules to play by, we just do whatever.’
Mu, laidback and likeable, ‘has always been into music, but it hasn’t always been his all-consuming passion. Growing up as the youngest of five in a family of first generation Samoan ex-pats in Wainui, Mu’s background was sporting rather than musical; rugby was his first passion. ‘I was in much better nick back then,’ he laughs. The long and late hours and stress of the music lifestyle means Mu, a big guy, no longer enjoys the physique of a lock/number eight.
It seems like he was quite a rugby player, captaining several top teams. Had there been more options professionally, things might have turned out differently. ‘I played rugby to quite a serious level…I played Senior First rugby in Wellington, played Wellington Under 21s. Had Super 12 been around when I was playing there might have been an aspiration to actually [make a career of it]. Other than if you were going to be an All Black you could just forget about it, there were no career moves there. These days there’s Super 12, NPC.
Luckily for Wellington’s music scene, music won out. ‘DJing [meant] too many late nights in clubs and bars, I stopped playing rugby. Sport was my life before music… Music just took over in the end.’ High culture snobs might tell you otherwise, but there are actually similarities between rugby and music. ‘There’s certainly some parallels. Growing up playing rugby I captained most of my sides, especially A grade stuff. Playing and managing Fat Freddy’s there’s some parallels there with being a captain in a rugby team, you’ve gotta try and keep it all locked down. There’s seven or eight people in Freddy’s and so trying to keep the focus is quite a similar job to captaining a rugby team really,’ Mu laughs uproariously.
Mu, who has always had a huge record collection, is self-taught. He established himself as one of Wellington’s top DJs at clubs and bars around town like the Matterhorn. He has an eclectic range of influences. ‘Musically a lot of them come from the dub side of things: people like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry and on the soul, singers like Donny Hathaway and D’ Angelo. I’m a big fan of D’Angelo… Most of my influences are actually from my peers, people I actually hang out with here in Wellington… bands like Twinset, Trinity [Roots] and The Black Seeds. Initially my inspirations came from those records I use to buy, King Tubby and all those guys. These days it’s more going into town and checking out dudes I know that are playing in other bands.’
So what was Freddy’s genesis? ‘The initial three were myself, Toby and Dallas, Toby, the trombone player, Dallas, the singer. Kinda started of more as just turntables. Dallas improvising over some of my DJ sets at clubs and bars in town, Toby just jamming a bit of freestyle horn. It goes back a bit further as well. We had a band called Bongmaster, which was a big jam band with a live rhythm section, a bass player and a drummer. We took the whole improvisation attitude from that band which kinda died off after a while because people had other focuses and other bands. We kinda picked it up again with Dallas and Toby jamming just over my DJ sets. That kinda rekindled something, moving away from the turntables and programming our own original tracks, rhythms beats and getting more players in and again just jamming. Two or three years later it’s seven people.’
The seven people are: Mu, who programs the beats on his Akai MPC; Dallas, with the lyrics; Jet Lag Johnson (Tehimana) on guitar and Dobie Blaze on keys. Then there’s the horn section Fulla Flash (Warryn) on sax, Suga Two-Tone (Toby Laing) on trumpet and Hopepa (Joe Lyndsay) on trombone. Seven people facing big expectations as they record their latest album at The Drop, Mu’s studio at his home in Lyall Bay.
While on tour in Europe Freddy’s released a beautiful 10” vinyl, with the very dope tracks ‘Hope’ and ‘Bluey.’ It was one of 2003’s musical highlights, as Rip It Up Editor Scott Kara rightly pointed out. Only 2000 copies were released, and it sold out still really in demand. ‘It could be quite a good thing I reckon, keep it quite exclusive. It’s a good pay off for the fans that got in early.’ Freddy’s previous release in 2001, a live album titled Live at the Matterhorn was also deservedly acclaimed; Mu’s track ‘Midnight Marauders’ was nominated for best song at b.net’s 2002 awards.
The new album is due out in June. Mu, in striking contrast to the off- putting bragging that follows hip-hop, is modest as ever. ‘Yeah. It’s gonna be a good one I reckon… More song based, not twenty minute jams, quite structured… about ten minute songs.’ As well as being on CD, it will be a double or triple vinyl album “financially permitting, ” which is important to have it played by the right DJs.
Freddy’s albums are very good, but their reputation rests on their great live acts.
This summer, as per usual, they were a main attraction at gigs up and down New Zealand, with Vic’s Orientation and the Cuba St Carnival coming soon. The highlights? ‘Kaikoura Roots on the tenth of January was great. Alpine Unity I really enjoyed. They’d obviously had a lot of troubles in their management early on…a lot of people were dissing them… we’re looking forward to playing Wanaka at Rippon, that and Sploor.’
What about the Big Day Out? ‘Surprisingly good. I played the Big Day Out as part of a different line up and it was horrendous, that was a few years ago. This year I quite enjoyed it… We managed to fill that whole area out once we played and it felt like it went off to us.’ Mu still feels the BDO still has plenty of room for improvment though, especially the hip-hop stage where they played. ‘It felt like it was a bit of an afterthought really. The production on that area wasn’t that sophisticated… the PA wasn’t quite big enough, the stage wasn’t big enough.‘ These problems were particularly noticeable, we concur, during DJ Afrikaa Bambataa- one of the godfathers of hip-hop- set.
One of the reasons for Freddy’s popularity is their independent, underground aesthetic, and Mu assures me they’ll remain true to this. ‘We want to maintain the balance really. We don’t want to be underground snobs, we do actually want our music to get out as far as possible but just to maintain control of how we’re perceived publicly and how we conduct our business, and you can only really do that if you remain independent. If you go with a major label there’s too many outside factors that you can’t control.’
Say what you like about labels, but they’re not known for their generosity towards their artists. Last year, talking to Nesian Mystik, I was surprised to find that despite their album Polysaturated selling well over double platinum they were virtually making no money from it. Being independent cuts out the middle-man. ‘We’ve probably made more money out of our Live at the Matterhorn album than Nesian Mystik,’ Mu replies when I recount that story. ‘I think the major labels are in trouble. Being independent’s becoming more and more obvious as the way to go.’
All the members of popular dub act Salmonella Dub bar one have day jobs. Making a living as a professional music in New Zealand has plenty of challenges. ‘It’s very hard. Especially if you’re wanting to make good music with integrity. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I’m doing it, our band’s doing it, no one in our band’s got a day job. None of us are particularly rich, but we’re all surviving. I think we’ve thrown a good three or four years at Freddy’s and I think once this album comes out we’re going to make some good money out of it.’
How does he explain Freddy’s success? ‘We had the right attitude right from the start and that was to build something that was fun and build it slowly, and it’s slowly come from this jam band to something that’s obviously got quite popular and something a bit more serious. The key to it is for us is having fun. We all get on well together. We all have good ears and listen to what each other’s playing… It’s essential just to keep having fun.’
Fun, as I remember from Freddy’s great gig at Orientation 03, being what FFD is all about. ‘That’s what I think an audience does get from a Fat Freddy’s live show. People can tell how good a time we having on stage and that definitely translates to the audience.’
The massive technological advances of recent years have been very helpful. ‘The whole digital thing has allowed us to be able to produce our music at home and not have to go to big studios and fork out big production dollars and that. Everything we’ve done has totally been on the DIY. If we do it that way we can do it exactly how we want it.’
Mu has some good advice for aspiring musicians. ’There is no quick fix, you’ve just got to hang in there. Its just been a natural progression [for me]… Sort out quickly what you really want to do. And if you’re confident just hang in there. Try not to copy.’ Originality is of tantamount importance. ‘That’s the thing, you’ve got to try and write music that does have a point of difference and just stick with it and eventually people will start to buy into it and realise what you’re doing is original. Hang in there, it takes a while. We’ve still got a long way to go. Things have picked up in the last couple of years and it’s quite exciting.’
Mu finds the New Zealand government’s support for the arts mixed. ‘They’re quite varied. Creative NZ are great; really helpful to us last year, given us a good bunch of money to help us get overseas… NZ on Air they’re a bit dodgy I reckon. They seem to be more preoccupied with producing pop music. They seem to be throwing a whole lot of money at trying to copy overseas work.’
All in all, though, Mu is very happy with the state of play in Aotearoa. ‘There’s a willingness for New Zealand music the last five years that’s just been amazing, that’s helped us go off. People want to buy NZ music at the moment, its been like that for the last few years and doesn’t look like its going to slow down. So I’m sure funding bodies will start to reflect that a bit more when they realise how big NZ music is… So maybe they are doing a good job: a lot of people are doing good shit, so maybe that’s because a lot of people have been given good funding.’
Mu cites Jerry Collins as another influence, family are very important. ‘I get a lot of support from my family. My partner Nicole is our business manager, I manage the music and band side of things…I’m hopeless with money, always have been. I have a good vision and good interpretation of the big picture I reckon.’
Mu’s never been to Samoa, but has recently accrued enough airpoints to go. ‘My first time going to Samoa I think I really need to go with my mum. I’ve lost the language a little bit…. Like I said earlier there’s no obvious music link in my family, but I’ve been into music since I was a kid, it must have come from somewhere. It’ll be good to get back there and check it out.’