Twenty years on from the release of his debut album 2b S.Pacific, RNZ Music‘s Sam Wicks speaks to Che Fu about how getting kicked out of Supergroove lit the fire that helped him create his landmark album.
In October 1998, BMG New Zealand released the debut solo project from Che-Fu (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Whakatere), an artist who – at the time – was better known as Che Ness, ex-frontman for Supergroove.
While being pushed from the funk-rock outfit was the catalyst for his hip-hop and R&B-spanning solo debut 2b S.Pacific, Che’s total hip-hop immersion first came via ‘Chains’ with DLT
On the back of that track’s chart success, Che drew together a team of tastemakers, beatmakers and musicians including King Kapisi, Manuel Bundy, John Chong-Nee, and others and harnessed their powers for a project forged deep in the Pacific.
Fourteen songs that would cement a legacy that stands apart from that of his former band.
This is how Che-Fu broke free on 2b S.Pacific:
Che Ness aka Che-Fu: I guess for me it starts with a young Māori-Niuean boy from Ponsonby who’d just left a huge band, a huge career with Supergroove. Pretty much from there, I was thrown into the oven and I’d been prompted to do a record, an album, my first album. It was definitely something I relished, a challenge that I relished, but also it was a nervous time. I had spent eight years with a rock band and here I was about to venture into making a hip-hop record, which I have to say was not only new ground for myself but for the industry, I guess.
Philip Bell aka DJ Sir-Vere (ex-Assistant A&R at BMG New Zealand, Mai FM Content Director): Getting thrown out of the band lit the fire. I saw a guy who was deeply invested in Supergroove, who loved that band to death, and then I was there the day that they kicked him out […] Che became a solo artist that moment.
Che Ness: I do remember getting called up to come into the office and to have a big powwow about what type of direction I was going to head towards musically with my first album. They asked me to come into the BMG offices and sit in the big room and play them some CDs that I was feeling.
I had a clear direction on what I wanted to do, and I pretty much wanted to make East Coast rap beat type of music and I wanted to sing on top of it. Man, they weren’t prepared for that! […] The next day they gave me a call and they said, ‘You know, we’re not too sure on the direction you’re taking – we’re a bit mystified about how to push the reggae feel of your music,’ and I was thinking, reggae feel, is that what you guys got from what I played y’all?
And so they said, ‘We’d like to send you to New York for a couple of months, maybe you can soak up the atmosphere of the city and perhaps move away from the reggae direction and head towards the hip hop direction’. And I was like, aight!
Philip Bell: Let me tell you what I know. I believe it was hoped that when Che-Fu and DLT went to New York City that they would immerse themselves in the hip hop culture that that city is. I also think that they were thinking Che would […] see the hip hop/rap landscape and decide that he would want to just sing again.It almost worked in reverse. Che went there, realised he loved hip hop music and just made more of it. How ironic is that? That that trip worked in reverse but then he came back and made potentially one of the greatest New Zealand hip hop and R&B records of all time.
Che Ness: I come back to New Zealand. Basically Kirk [Harding, ex- A&R Director for BMG New Zealand] wanted me to make the record with [DLT]. We did that for a couple of weeks, I wasn’t really feeling it […] I basically wanted to make the album with Submariner, reason being I had already been jamming with Submariner for two or three years while I was in Supergroove.
In my downtime, in my holidays and stuff, I’d be playing music with another bunch of friends. We’d call ourselves Token Village and we were just like a bunch of musos and rappers and Submariner was in that crew, and I knew that he was someone that I wanted to work with because I felt that he had a good idea on how to make mean hip hop.
Andy Morton aka Submariner (2b S.Pacific co-producer and engineer): I think it was kind of the middle of ’96 we did some first demos. Isaac Tucker [The New Loungehead] was playing the drums, Ned Ngatae [KillaManRaro, The Black Seeds] on guitar, I think that was the first time Chip Matthews [The New Loungehead, Che-Fu & The Krates] came in […] And they were great demos. I mean, I was really excited to be a part of it all and I thought Che had some really great songwriting going on.
Che Ness: I wanted the album title to be like an address, an address code for your street and your city – I live at ‘2b Spacific’.
I wasn’t really seeking a global audience at all. I was basically wanting to rep my neighbourhood, rep my country. I just felt, not like a pressure, but I felt like a duty to put out a record that represented my people really well because up until that point from memory there weren’t that many records that had been given – like rap records – that had been given a big budget, a big push, and was about to get a good shot at it and so I really took that to heart.
Andy Morton: I think Che was really keen to show everybody what he had. He had been part of Supergroove and everybody kind of knew him from that, but he had a whole ’nother side of himself that people hadn’t really seen. Probably just all the reggae as well – you know, that’s his history, that’s his family, it’s kind of what he was raised on.
Philip Bell: There’s a really crucial part of the story for me personally. In 1998 – January 19 – my son Ethan was born. We’re in the thick of the Che-Fu project, the record label’s demanding me to do things that I just don’t agree with, like staying out all night at these things, and I had to call it, man. I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and then they kind of threatened me and I literally walked out the door.
I had to go and see Che a week later and he was… he may not admit it, but he was pissed with me. It was a really difficult time.
Che Ness: In terms of the record company and the type of role they played in making this record, they were pretty unsure – that’s how I felt – on how to market the record, how to direct me in making the record. So, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, but I wasn’t really going to budge because I was pretty sure when it came to rap music I knew what I was doing, you know what I mean?
Andy Morton: It was very last minute when we actually pulled it all together at the end. Everybody came back and we ended up making most of the final choices with the album just in my little studio, and I actually knocked down a wall and built a little booth just so I could accommodate it.
Che Ness: We were pretty much up against it. The deadline I think had been pushed back a couple of times already. Many a time me and Submariner would wake up face down on the desk, and so we were doing crazy hours around the clock trying to get this record done. It was a mission, bro, it was a mission. And when we finally got it in the can it was a huge feeling of relief.
How I felt everybody received the record, it was great, everyone dug it. Radio was loving it; the public was feeling it. For me, one of the most important things was that the record company realised that I was a serious record maker. Like, if I was going to do some more, it wasn’t going to be a risk.
It was like I finished the exam, you know what I mean? I finished the test! I could do it, I can make records. And I felt like it proved the point to [BMG] and I felt extremely happy about that ’cause it meant that I was able to have a career in this.
Philip Bell: The legacy of 2b S.Pacific is that it was the first fully-realised story and project in a hip-hop and R&B-fused fashion this country had ever seen, and I don’t think it’s ever been done as well ever again because it’s a watershed moment in our history.
Che is that guy, it’s like this was the moment. You need to listen to it all to understand his journey, where he’s come from, where he’s been, his father’s [Tigilau Ness] influence on his life, the importance of marijuana in his life, dawn raids, Ponsonby. You know, really confronting issues. Che nailed it with that record.
Andy Morton: I was excited about it from the minute I heard Che sing me the basic songs. I felt like it was really honest writing, really honest music. It never really blew up to be a big record, but I do know it influenced a lot of people and set things up. It had a sound and I think it kind of influenced the general scene. It had a place in the history.
Che Ness: When I think about that record, I think about a young man, a young boy even, making his way like Jango Fett, you know what I mean? Just a Māori boy trying to make his way through the universe.
I think about, wow, we did it. And it was the first piece of the puzzle, it was the first domino that kicked off the chain there.
LISTEN TO 2B S.PACIFIC:
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.