There's a good reason why Upper Hutt Posse's "E Tu" is one of the most important hip-hop songs in New Zealand history. While it's widely known for being the first rap single to be released in Aotearoa, the 1988 record also broke ground by incorporating Te Reo Māori, Aotearoa's indigenous language, and an uncompromising political message that would influence generations of local hip-hop stars that came after them.
As we found out, pioneering frontman and chief lyricist of the group Dean Hapeta is still as unflinching as ever.
NOISEY: What was it like growing up in Upper Hutt during the 70s and 80s?
Dean Hapeta: I had a great childhood growing up in Upper Hutt. That's not to say that the place is great. But Maoribank, where I grew up was great. There was a river next door, we'd swim all through summer, and we'd go eeling with my father. I had a great childhood. But we had rednecks around there. There's white folks all over this country and they are a part of the colonial conquest that happened in this country in the early 1800s, in which Māori fought against in the 1860s. This was still hanging over everybody through the 1960s and 70s when I grew up. It was like, everything white is all right and being Māori is not such a fabulous thing.
That never concerned me until I found out that I was brown-skinned. Through being called a n***** by some bikie clown that rode past on his bike and almost ran me over when I was crossing the road. That was an awakening to my skin colour consciousness. Around that time, when I was 8 or 9, I clued onto what was happening on the 6pm news. I developed a sharp sense of understanding of what's going on in the world, especially when it comes to people who were being oppressed.
There was a lot of reggae coming out in the 70s. How do you think it influenced this consciousness as a kid?
It was more the 80s when I started listening to the likes of Bob Marley. In the 70s, I was listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, whatever I could get my hands on the radio here, be it a black or white singer. There weren't many conscious songs, but Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" was one that I did hear. But you connected with what Bob Marley was saying. What he is saying is what you are experiencing. His lyrics are speaking to us. Fighting against oppression, then and now. We identify with his stories. That question's been asked so much, of myself and many Māori musicians: "Oh, What's the connection with Bob Marley?" He sings about oppression. And these are some of the ills we are facing: colonialism, oppression and racism.
Did early hip-hop influence you and your crew?
We were influenced by "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. The first rap song I heard was "Rapper's Deligh" by Sugarhill Gang. I wasn't so keen on figuring myself to be a singer at that stage, but I thought, "Hey, I can rap like that." We loved that tune when we heard it. It was a big hit; for us, anyway. We didn't hear many rap songs after that. It took a while. But it was rap that allowed me to get my foot in the door.
Another part of your legacy was incorporating Te Reo Māori into your music. Were you guys consciously putting in an effort, or did you do what you felt was right?
Well, I wrote "E Tu", which was the first song that brought in Māori lyrics in that way. I wrote that in 1987. But I was inspired to write that song by James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud".
Do you think the New Zealand hip-hop scene has progressed? Do you like what you have seen it evolve into?
I don't know if progressive is the word to use. It's gotten more successful; it's gotten more commercial; it's gotten more accepted by the so-called mainstream. I think it's great that everyone wants to be a rapper now. When it first came out people said "Oh, it's a fad. It's not gonna last. Rap music is not real music." I just laughed it off, because it didn't bother me what they said. They are wrong, anyway.
But I think it's great how there's so many more people rapping. It's great to see. The only thing I'd say is let's have some consciousness, please people. That's what I don't hear enough of and I would love to see more of it.
I feel you. We need to be a lot more confronting about our browness. Hip-hop has become more commercial, but it's plateaued in a sense in its attacking and aggressive nature, which is what draws a lot of people to hip-hop in the first place.
Well it should be like that even more so today. People should comment critically on what's going on. Come up with some wise-ass lyrics about how we're going to dismantle the system which not only oppresses Māori people, but poor white people, Pacific Islanders, Indians. It oppresses everybody, except those clowns that are up there at the top making all that money. Fuck them. This is what hip-hop is about.
Atereano Mateariki is an Auckland producer. Follow him on Twitter.