Duncan Greive interviews David Dallas about his furious new single ‘Don’t Rate That’.
David Dallas might have the most consistent trajectory in New Zealand hip hop. He’d established an instantly familiar style, and spent his last couple of albums polishing it, crafting huge hooks and eyeing up the America. It worked out pretty well by him: he got signed to a legendary US label, had big radio hits, won awards and got the kind of syncs which help turn music from a hobby to a career.
This juncture of his life – a little over a decade in, married, a solid following – would seem like the perfect opportunity to double down on that strategy. Chase all of the above, only more so.
Instead his new single ‘Don’t Rate That’ felt like the most caustic and irritated of his career; the lyrics vicious, the chorus an afterthought.
He was looking around at Auckland, not out at the world. And he didn’t like what he saw, talking very specifically about contemporary social and political life. On his shitlist: Stacey Jones and Instant Finance; Phil Twyford and the Labour Party; hashtag activism. And more besides.
I thought they were the best and fiercest lyrics of his career, and met up with him to talk about them at a café in Britomart. He wore a David Dallas hoodie and serious expression and seemed very pleased with the damage the song had done.
“I’d always sit in the car so I’d turn the radio on and I’d hear Instant Finance and I’m just like, ‘these cunts are on like every ad break man; this is bullshit’…
“[But when] I was up at Mai FM today they were saying that Instant Finance has stopped advertising there!”
Duncan: It was the specificity of ‘Don’t Rate That’ struck me; that’s what I really liked. What prompted you to do that?
David: I think it’s more just the way I write. Some people have that ability to be quite abstract, you know? I think hip hop for the most part, or at least the rap that I really liked, the majority of it was quite literal. So I think that’s not even a conscious decision on my part – it’s just the way I know how to do it. I’m not saying anything that isn’t fact. I don’t agree with fucking Instant Finance putting just brown people on their ads. That’s not even subjective to me; that’s just a fact. That’s what they do.
Duncan: Absolutely. I’ve seen Stacey Jones in those Instant Finance ads and it’s really rankled me. I’ve wanted to write about them, but I’ve also thought, who gives a shit if I have a problem with it? Is it even my place – I’m a middle-class white dude – to criticise this Stacey Jones for getting his?
David: This legendary rugby league player…
Duncan: Absolutely. But it did seem like some kind of betrayal and it feels like that is what you’re articulating.
David: Yeah, and I feel like it felt like that for heaps of the community. Stacey was the one that really popped up. No doubt about it, there’ll be more. And those sort of things they always hurt more. Because I know that people in our community will look to Stacey Jones.
Duncan: For sure. The song also discusses the analysis of Chinese names.
David: That fucked me off.
Duncan: That came from Labour who were once –
David: Who were our party.
Duncan: Did that make it worse?
David: Definitely. And I felt like…it’s not like I had some minority viewpoint on it; I felt like everyone was saying it.
Duncan: But they [Labour] stuck with it. What was it precisely about that which you found so offensive?
David: Well it’s affronting for the most part because it belittles migrants; and I guess I can recognise it because I’m a first generation migrant. My brothers, all my siblings are born in Samoa; so flip that and make it Samoan man; so if there were Samoan investors or something that would be me that they’re talking about, you know?
And that’s terrible. They shouldn’t be doing that. And then because buying a house is such a New Zealand value, it’s such a cheap way to score points with people who should know better. But because people are stressed out about trying to find housing for themselves, they’re looking for someone to blame, you know what I mean?
You’re actually preying on people who should know better; their frustrations. Because there are so many people who are in a position to buy a house or whatever, and they’re like, fuck, I can’t buy a house; why can’t I buy a house? It’s because of these cunts. And it’s using that leverage as a way to score points. It’s like, you think the Labour Party doesn’t know better?
Duncan: Have you had conversations with people in Labour?
David: I’ve got family that was in the Labour Party; do you remember MP Winnie Laban? That’s my first cousin. So I’ve got family ties to that Party. But nah, I wouldn’t talk to anyone about the political shit; I’m not political that way.
Duncan: It feels like your music for a while there, from The Rose Tint on, was about you becoming a global artist. Whereas this is all about Auckland really. It’s kind of shrank down to your home town. What prompted that, that swing back?
David: Why did I do that? I just thought: what do I have to say? What do I want to write about? I could riff on about being awesome or some shit forever, and there’s absolutely still a place for those sort of songs, I love that sort of shit. But when it comes down to specific things or specific topics I want to speak about, I’ve never been one of those sort of people that can write in the third person, write someone else’s story; I don’t really have that ability. I don’t know if I want that ability; it’s just not me. I guess when I thought about what I actually wanted to say this is what felt comfortable to me and what felt sincere to me.
Duncan: It’s where you’re from but it’s also when we listen to YG or Young Thug or something, the sense of place from their music and describing their environment is part of why you like it, right?
David: Exactly. I grew up listening to Snoop Dogg talking about Compton. I got Auckland; that’s what I can talk about. That’s where I’m at and I can’t just keep making the same song and I can’t just talk about fuck all all the time.
I feel like locally, as far as urban artists, especially the ones that get played on radio and things like that here, it’s just not much; it’s not much that people are talking about. So unless people like me do something like that then the kids coming up are going to think that. It’s cool man; Auckland’s cool.
Duncan: It is, absolutely. And there’s that line in the song “ain’t from the trap or the bando” – talking about the adoption of slang and trying to impose it on your own geography where it doesn’t particularly fit. I always remember that was one of the first exhilarating things about hearing the Deceptikonz for the first time, talking about being about Southmall and particular bus lines and so on.
David: And I’m like, if the prominent artists like myself don’t do it, then it makes it more difficult for kids coming up to go there, because then like they’re like, fuck – if the guys I looked up to didn’t do it, why am I going to do it, you know?
Duncan: Is that kind of thing going to thematically inform the next record?
David: I don’t know about themes. But this album has way more of a focus on the lyrics. There is a time when you start focusing on the songwriting, right. Everyone wants to write great songs that people like and shit like that, whereas when you start out rapping you just want to be an awesome rapper. Now, it’s not that I don’t want to make great songs or anything but verses are still very important. Just really focusing on what you’re saying, what the theme is. And what your point is. I don’t know, maybe I need some crisis, but I’m like, ‘I just wanted to say shit’.
Duncan: Does it feel like that? Did you have moments where you questioned who you were or what your point was?
David: I had moments. Not so much what it is or what I do but it was more just, what am I going to say, because I just don’t want to say the same thing over and over. And what can I say and how can I say it in a way that’s still cool.
You know, you have people who champion “conscious rappers”, and you’re like, ‘yeah, but the song fucking sucks’. I hear it and I’m like, ‘this is a great point – but I’d read this in a book’. I wouldn’t listen to the song. So it’s that balance. How do I make songs that are still true to the shit that I really like. Because I want to make shirt that’s hard, I want to make shit that knocks.