An evening at San Fran, one of Cuba Street’s most frequented venues, is never gonna let you down if you’re looking to sit back or throw down to live and often local music. From alt-pop to jazz to electronic to indie rock to punk, the heavily graffitied walls of San Fran have seen it all. And amidst the constant stream of incredible performers that grace their stage, one act I stumbled upon recently stood out: MĀ and WYNONA.
The hip-hop duo sang, laughed, danced and soliloquised to a crowd that was both hyped and hypnotised – and their tracks covering everything from doing the dishes at your whare to indistinct summer situationships to the struggles of tupuna.
Hip-hop artists and theatre kids at their core, in the short time they’ve been on the scene MĀ and WYNONA have caught the attention of big names in and out of Aotearoa – opening for the likes of Tom Scott and Ice Cube.
MĀ has her own independent projects, like her 2021 album Breakfast With Hades, filled with mystical RnB tracks and emotionally charged lyricism. Likewise, WYNONA is a DJ and producer in his own rite. Together, the pair have combined to release their upcoming EP under the duo name Iti Bubbas.
VICE chatted to MĀ and WYNONA about their creative relationship, the unusual story behind their EP and what Aotearoa is bringing to hip-hop.
VICE: Tell me who you both are?
WYNONA: Kia ora I'm WYNONA, or Reon Bell. I produce, I DJ, and I make music with MĀ.
Where did the name WYNONA come from?
WYNONA: I needed a DJ name and at the time, and still now, I've always had an obsession with the aesthetic of Winona Ryder and her career as an actress. I just think she's the coolest and I wanted to pay homage to her. The name is kind of androgynous and I think that's cool, it's a cool name.
That’s the most unexpected influence on a DJ name. That’s great.
And MĀ, tell me about you?
MĀ: Kia ora, I'm MĀ. Musician, artist, ranger, good homie, good partner. All those things. Good cat Mom.
How did you guys come together to create MĀ and WYNONA?
WYNONA: So we worked on a theatre show in 2022, almost a year ago. The show has a lot of music in it. Half of it was made by MĀ and the other half by me. And then on the last song we were told to collaborate on the track, and the making of it went so well and we kind of vibed as people and as musicians, and as lovers of both theatre and music.
So that kind of just inspired us to be like, Well, we've already made these songs and we own the rights to them, so we should make more of them, and then turn them into an EP.
There were gigs coming up and MĀ asked me if I wanted to DJ for her gigs and I said, Yes, and that's how it's continued to flourish. So in a couple of weeks, it'll be our one-year anniversary of meeting each other and working together.
And when is the EP coming?
WYNONA: So it'll be called the Idiot Check EP, and it will be released before the end of June. It's under our duo name, under Iti Bubba's.
What can people expect from your music and your sound?
MĀ: We've been anchored to 90s hip-hop, that's how we've kind of just jammed together.
But I think with this EP, because it was birthed in theatre, the soundscapes are really kind of random, the lyricism pretty random… We've got one track where the lyrics talk about Air New Zealand breaking WYNONA’s decks on tour. It wasn't like, one topic we wanted to talk about, it was more like, what related to the show.
What was the show about?
WYNONA: It's about a brother and sister who live at their marae, and it's about them sort of unravelling their family issues around trust and money as well, which is present on the EP. Like, what are you willing to do for your family in order to help them succeed? And when you don't agree on things, or when unexpected things happen? It's really comical and quite fun, but the undertone is about family and about what you're willing to do for each other, whether it be ridiculous or quite sincere and genuine.
MĀ: The brother basically wanted to rip off the whole family, sell the marae, sell the land. So it's like deep concepts, but the way that it's shown and portrayed to audiences is through miming, a bit of dance, bit of singing.
WYNONA: It's a wild ride
It’s really interesting learning that it did have those roots in theatre, because when I saw you perform at San Fran it felt like there was so much humour and the tracks did almost feel like monologues.
Is that humour – and theatricality – in the music something you want to continue to do? Or did that only really happen because the show is that way.
WYNONA: I think it's the way me and MĀ write and work together. We'll joke around about something and then two weeks later MĀ's written a verse about. It's quite important to the way that we creatively express ourselves.
MĀ: 100%, like, we're not the most obvious looking hip-hop musicians, so I think us being able to laugh about the way we look, about our sexuality, the values that we have, that comes out, and that's why we've just been taking this EP in a very light-hearted way.
We are touching on some deep issues that we're facing and trying to shed some light on some heavy stuff, but at the end of the day, we're just here to have some fun.
How does it feel to be able to perform that?
WYNONA: It feels good to play something that you, or you and someone else, have made. And to be able to like support or tautoko it in front of people. That is a pleasure as well as a huge adrenaline rush.
(Performing live) It's always like, something could go wrong, but that's what keeps me focused as well.
MĀ: I also think that, like, we've done a couple of gigs now and each time we are predominantly doing the same set, but we've managed to grow the set and are talking to the audience more… Like, I used to tell WYNONA to just play the music, and we would just get through the set because I was so shit scared and nervous all the time. But now we're starting to do callbacks with the crowd and look at each other more and put breaks in, and I've enjoyed that growth.
So outside of theatre, what – or who – are some of the other influences on your music?
WYNONA: In terms of beats and production, all of the people that you would consider, like, chill hip hop, or Lo Fi like Madlib, or any of those classic overarching hip-hop producers. It seems important to bring up Kaytranada and Amine's recent EP because MĀ has sent it to me like three times in the last day.
Tribe Called Quest, I think is probably one of the bigger ones for both of us in the early videos, when they would just dance around in the sun, wearing bright colours and just be talking about something as mundane as just hanging out.
MĀ: I feel like the way that we do our music is, we're not trying to create something new, it's like an ode to every hip-hop musician that we've ever loved. That goes from Digable Planets to Che Fu to OMC. We're just acknowledging the greats and what they have established for us to be able to make this kind of music.
What do you think Aotearoa brings to hip-hop that isn’t found anywhere else right now?
MĀ: I think it’s the fact that we talk about our families, is the fact that we talk about, you know, our parents work on diggers and are tradies. Hip-hop is telling a story of your life, and things like that are just another addition that New Zealanders and Aotearoa's Maori musicians can bring to the genre.
Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa.