Since 2003, South Auckland’s David Dallas has been one of the most consistent figures within New Zealand rap music. He stole the show on ‘Not Many – The Remix,’ proved his underground credentials alongside 41 in their duo Frontline, went solo, took on the US hip-hop world as part of Duck Down Music, and in 2013, delivered the biggest hits of his career with ‘Runnin’ and ‘The Wire.’ Over his career, Dave’s performed throughout Australasia, Europe, and North America, sharing stages with the likes of Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Run the Jewels, and Joey Bada$$, and recorded with the likes of Freddie Gibbs, Buckshot, The Kid Daytona & Tayyib Ali.
He’s internationally accomplished, but a huge portion of Dave’s story relates back to his experiences in New Zealand, and his local collaborators, recognisable New Zealand rap figures like Fire & Ice and PNC, and lesser known voices such as Lukan Raisey, Kid$eb, and Trey Bond. His music might draw on the braggadocio of classic New York hip-hop, and the laidback vibes of Californian party rap, but as an Afakasi (half European and half Samoan), the emotional heart of his work has long been local. Local slang, local stories and local values you can directly connect to his upbringing in South Auckland. He’s a traditionalist with consistent values, open ears, and a critical and objective perspective.
Hood Country Club is Dave’s first album in four years, and it ripples with the sort of confidence that comes from growing into yourself, working out what you think is right and wrong with the world around you, and having a few ideas about how things need to change. With production from Stylaz Fuego, Nic M, SmokeyGotBeatz and Fire & Ice, Dave’s observations and honest truths are set against a backdrop where woozy West Coast synthesisers rub against neck-snapping boom bap drums, shades of UK Garage, and touches of the frosty minimalism of modern grime music.
Between releases, Dave took some time out to live life, travel overseas, and marry his long-time partner, Radio New Zealand’s Leilani Momoisea. However, he’s still been playing regular live shows, and through initiatives like his 64 Bars rhyme showcase series with Red Bull, and the much-loved Shenanigan party series, continuing to contribute to the development of New Zealand’s local rap music culture. Two days after his headline performance at The Powerstation in late May, he sat down with us to talk about what he’s been up to, how he’s feeling, and what he thinks needs to change.
Sniffers: Sometimes I feel like your Shenanigan party might be the Hood Country Club?
David Dallas: For real, I’ve never actually thought about that to be honest [laughs].
I say that to say this, while you haven’t released much music over the last four years, you’ve become very involved in the community in Auckland through projects like Shenanigan and 64 Bars.
It’s the same thinking behind Shenanigan and 64 Bars. Previously, I needed to make music and work to survive. I didn’t have enough money to start looking outside of what I was doing for myself. I always wanted to though. Me and my boy Che Kamikaze, we tried to do a couple of things up at Khuja Lounge back in the day. We had a party called Mean As. It was the same principle as Shenanigan, but we had dudes do live performances. I think Spycc did one of his first live performances there.
Once I had some space after the last album, I started to look at what was going on locally. I had enough money to survive, and I wasn’t as worried about my bills. I started thinking about what would be fun for my mates – what would be good for the scene? That was it. I think that’s why Shenanigan worked.
It’s awesome how much effort people put into their outfits; and how they turn up in squads.
I had no idea that was all going to happen. We started it with the simplest principles. We wanted to get DJs who could actually DJ. Everybody thinks they have great taste in music these days – but not just anybody can do that shit. There still needs to be a lane for people who can DJ well. They take people on a journey, and that’s important. I wanted an event that me and my mates could go to, chill out, have a drink and dance, that started in the daytime and didn’t run too late. I also wanted the DJs to have free reign over what they played – no pressure to play the same songs they play everywhere else & keep the dance floor pumping etc. That’s probably why noone’s turned me down when I’ve asked if they want to play Shenanigan. And noone’s ever asked what they’re getting paid. People actually wanna play there. That’s a great position for a party to be in.
As far as people caring about their outfits and coming through, I never expected it. But I definitely thought there were other people like my friends who wanted to hear the same sort of stuff that I do. I never foresaw how popular it is now though. We threw the first couple of nights at a tiny place called Malt Bar. Then we had to move to Sweatshop, which was formerly Sale Street. My conception of that place was that it was pretty corporate and way too big, but we needed somewhere, and they had a little cash so we could at least pay the DJ’s. We ran it monthly over a winter, and we’d always told them if we could get to summer it would blow up. We got to that first summer, and it did.
Over the last five years, the political and social landscape of the world has shifted a lot. Even people who would have identified as apolitical in the past have something to say now. Are you one of those people?
A lot of people have said, “You’re more political on this record.” But, it’s just a more political time. I don’t even think that is something you consciously have to do. To live in this time, that’s just where we are at. I think some of it is to do with age, but also, this is what we are talking about around the dinner table. Everyone has an opinion on the things I spoke about on the record; it’s just mine are in song form.
To your mind, what are the big issues right now?
Because I’m from South Auckland, I see the effects of homelessness. Even on the street my family grew up on, I see the effects of inequality. It’s either tonnes of people crammed into a house or a piece of land getting subdivided. The irony is I’m seeing open home signs all down the street, yet we’re supposedly in a housing crisis. So that’s very near my mind at the moment.
You have to write about your reality, right?
Yeah. So just being back here and seeing that stuff, being closer to it first hand, it just became the easiest thing to write about. I never want to write about things that are forced. I’m not trying to say I don’t want to write about things I have to think about, I just don’t want to write about things I have no passion for or investment in.
Last night at Powerstation, I noticed you doubled the volume on your “What you read don’t make you shit / What you do does” line from ‘Don’t Rate That.’
Initially, my thinking with that line was more to do with religion [laughs]. Especially with Polynesian communities, I think the answer for everything is often the bible. I’m all for spirituality if it helps people get where they need to go. I’ve got cases where I’ve had friends or known people who were on a messed up path, and religion saved them. It’s not for me, but if it helps a person get on track and sort their life out, cool. I see a lot of people in the Pacific Island communities who pick up the good word and say, the bible says this and this, but they do nothing about it, or they have a holier than thou attitude just because they’ve read the book. That ain’t it, and it also hasn’t saved our community yet. That’s what I was thinking with that line, but it applies across the board, because there is so much faux activism and yeah, I guess with the internet now, there’s just so much talk.
Do you feel like Hood Country Club is a cold album?
If you listen to a lot of the production, it’s definitely dark. When I say dark, I don’t just mean the lyrical content; I mean the sounds of the music are darker. You might have noticed it with the stage show and the lights last night; I wanted it to be moodier. I didn’t want it to be brightly lit; I’m cool with being a silhouette. Me and Lani have talked about this a lot; it felt like we came full circle back to Borrowed Time. It’s almost like it’s not until it’s done that you realise how dark or serious it is. I don’t think the next thing I do will be like that. I think as I become more insular or work by myself more, that is where I gravitate. I head over there.
When people start learning piano, they often find they naturally gravitate towards playing minor scales. Sadness and darkness are places we go to naturally. It can be a fight to go the other way.
That’s a fight for me, but I didn’t realise it was a common thing [laughs]. That’s good for me to hear. Sometimes I find myself asking myself, “Am I fucked up? Why do I gravitate towards this?” It’s not that I don’t like some happy songs. It’s still definitely part of my personality.
We’re at an interesting time with local hip-hop right now. A lot of really high-quality music is being created at an underground level, but only a tiny amount of it is making its way into the mainstream.
I definitely get where you are coming from. I feel like the overall standard of music is higher, and there is a higher level of participation, but it’s still the same guys in the spotlight. When festivals go to book someone, they get me, Savage, Homebrew, and now SWIDT. That’s it. It can’t stay like that; there needs to be other acts coming through. Obviously, people are making the music, so I don’t know where the fault lies? Is it just they are not making commercially viable songs, which means they don’t get on the radio, which means no one hears it? Is it the fact that there is too much shit on social media, it’s too saturated, and no one can get through? Or is it that it’s good, but it’s not good enough? I don’t really have the answers there, but as far as the rapping element, that’s why I wanted to do something like 64 Bars. At least that’s one avenue.
If we look at the surge we had in the early 2000s; it was about Maori and Polynesian hip-hop and RnB. What we’re seeing now is the rise of African rappers in New Zealand. They’re great, but they don’t seem to get the same support? You have to ask yourself, why could it happen then, but not now?
Is it a case of by the time the 2000s had come along, Polynesian people had infiltrated into the radio stations in New Zealand? Polynesians had been making good urban music across the 90s, but over that time you only had Che-Fu, King Kaps, Dam Native. At max, it was one guy at a time. It felt like the labels would be like, this is our local brown person act, and we’re going to put everything behind it. Even the fact that there are iwi stations like Mai FM, there’s at least some sort of polynesian infrastructure there. But as far as for the African New Zealanders, that doesn’t exist yet. Hopefully that’s only a matter of time? These artists and their communities are important. They’re part of what New Zealand is now, you know? That’s part of our hip-hop scene.
There’s always a lag time isn’t there. Things don’t connect up quickly.
People always say it, but it’s always one song or one artist away. One kid will come through, whether it’s Raiza, Abdul Kay or NASH, or whoever. Someone will do it. Someone will come through with the song that can get that level of support and once that happens it blows the doors off for everyone else. I’m super excited about a lot of them and what they’re going to do. I think they’re super talented.
Back in the early 2000s, a lot of the online discussions around local hip-hop happened on forums like hiphopnz. These days, they happen on social media, which is a lot more fragmented. It’s easy to forget, but we don’t read the same timelines.
The discussions happen in mixed places now, and if you’re not part of the discussion, there is no way for you to become part of it now. If you’re not in the loop and don’t know anyone, you won’t find the conversation in the first place. At least with forums, you didn’t need to know anyone, but you could go to a place where the conversation happened and joined it. There might be dudes conversating on topic, but if all your mates are regular tradies and you’re hardcore into rap, you’re like; I don’t know who the New Zealand guys are who are into rap that I can talk about it with? I don’t know where to go, how are you going to find them on twitter?
Even for myself I find when it comes to discovering music; it’s not the same anymore. There was a point from around 2007 to 2011 where it was just the [web]sites. They were everything; you’d hit up the blogs, Nah Right, etc. You’d look at them daily for new music. Now a lot of the time, fuck, I’m discovering stuff from algorithms, I’m discovering it off the YouTube sidebar, off my Spotify release radar, based on what I have listened to before. It’s crazy, right? You’re leaving your taste to a computer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.