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A different kind of buzz: Why hip-hop artist Lukas is rejecting the upbeat NZ sound

Lukas created his first buzz on Soundcloud before crossing over to a wider audience with his track ‘Comfort Clouds,’ which has quickly reached 120,000 streams on Spotify. He explains to Gareth Shute why he sees himself as part of a new wave of downbeat hip-hop acts poised to rise up from the underground.

“I wouldn’t even say that I rap. I don’t like to think of myself as a rapper,” Lukas says with a wry grin. He prefers to simply call himself as a musician and, listening to his tracks, you can soon hear why. His music is sparse and moody, with thumping subs and warped synth lines. Often, he’ll speak on a track rather than rapping or use Autotune to turn his vocals into another texture over the backing music.

If you’re expecting the upbeat, punchline-driven raps that New Zealand is known for, you’ll be sorely disappointed – this is a world away from the rapping of Scribe or David Dallas, or even SWIDT. Lukas got his introduction to hip-hop through trap music and has followed the style to its recent zenith in the US – over the last couple of years the Billboard album charts have been topped by Migos, Travis Scott and Young Jeezy. The bass-heavy, ominous sound of trap has meant it has also been appropriated by some EDM and dubstep artists (Flosstradamus, RL Grime), helping it further spread across the musical landscape.

The most important aspect of trap is the hypnotic, grimey atmosphere with vocals twisted to fit – rhymes chosen primarily for how they flow over a beat and often warped by production effects. It somehow seems fitting that the Obama era heralded Kendrick’s masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, while the Trump era is seeing far darker, more nihilistic acts emerging. Lukas agrees that he’s seen a slow progression away from lyricism as a central focus.

“It does feel like a shift of consciousness has happened and I think that’s on a global scale,” he says. “When Kendrick’s Madd City was out, a lot of rappers were about what really matters. I don’t know what happened, but the Little Pumps and the Smokepurpps and the not-giving-a-shit-about-anything is way more prevalent now. I do like lyricism – the crazy bars and punchlines – but it’s more just music now, it’s not rap. Lyrics still matter, but not enough to get in the way of a better flow or a better sound.

“I watched this Migos interview where they said ‘We don’t write, we just freestyle’. I thought it was lame at first, but it can be good because what comes out isn’t affected by getting up on whether people will like it or not. The hook for my latest track ‘Downfall’ came out first take. It just felt cool to do it that way.”

It has taken a few years for Lukas to find this confidence in his sound. He grew up in Nelson, where he played guitar and drums at high school but soon switched to making hip-hop. He lived a nomadic lifestyle in the following years, leaving Nelson when his mother vacated the family home to live in a housebus. After stints in Auckland and Wellington, he settled in Hamilton where rent was cheap enough for him to afford a spare room to use as a studio. He found an early ally in beatmaker/DJ LMC, who had been a schoolmate back in Nelson.

“LMC is doing big things now. He’s got a placement for Rich the Kid, so he’s been working with some big dudes. Back in Nelson, he was the first guy I knew that made beats and got the rest of us learning to use FL Studio and trying to rap. When I got into making beats properly, I was messaging him all the time: ‘You should just re-post my song, you’ve got like 30,000 followers!’ But he’d be like, ‘No, you’re not good enough yet.’ He’d be real honest. But I’d come up to Auckland and he’d introduce me to producers, so that’s how I got started.”

Lukas’ influences broadened over the subsequent years and now range from trap star Travis Scott to the stoner rap of Kid Cudi to Lil Wayne to Nothing Was The Same-era Drake. He gradually built a following by posting tracks to Soundcloud – a platform popular with young rappers and hip-hop producers, where they can often get away with using uncleared samples and putting up more raw, lo-fi tracks. Amongst the names rising up on the local scene via this route are Kiwi-Korean producer/MC Hans who recently clocked up 60,000 streams for collaboration with US viral-star, Clairo, and phonk rapper Hxrman whose track ‘Iowanna’ has 90,000 views on Youtube (notable also for having tattoos enough to rival Lil Peep).

Things stepped up a level for Lukas when he moved his music to Spotify and the other streaming platforms. “It starts to feel real,” he says. “You can’t just make it on the night, think it’s fire and then drop it. You have to send it to the distribution company that you’re working with and then it takes a while. You start thinking, ‘maybe I shouldn’t release it’ or ‘maybe I shouldn’t have said that’. Also, most of the stuff on Spotify is mixed and mastered well, so you want to spend more time on your music to get it perfect. With Soundcloud, you can just make a song and put it straight up. Then if you decide you don’t like it, you can delete it or make it private instantly.”

LUKAS IN THE STUDIO (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Lukas’s first single, ‘Comfort Clouds,’ was a reference both to taking comfort in smoking weed and his desire to keep his head in the clouds so he could aim high in his rap career (despite the doubts of those around him). It was featured on a Spotify playlist which helped it beyond 110k streams and his next single ‘Motions feat Lunar’ reached the Top Five NZ Heatseekers chart. This brought up more opportunities for him to reach out to collaborators.

“One of the guys I’ve been working with, his name is Rahul. His music just came up on Facebook – he made a music video on a phone or something and he was getting hate,” he says. “I just heard something and I thought ‘nah, this guy could be super-cool and he looks real cool as well’. He’s from Hamilton, so I told him to come over and made him a beat, gave it my best mix and we dropped that. People stopped hating on him straight away, he just needed to be recorded well. We made this track called ‘Zoomzoom’ and it’s got 20,000 streams, then the next track we did got 30,000 streams and was re-posted by big underground dudes like Craig Xen.’

More recently, Lukas has become part of the Small Fortunes crew, put together by musician and entrepreneur Bryan Anderson (aka N eo), who co-owns Olly Cafe in Mt Eden (with Chlöe Swarbrick), and runs clothing label You’re Welcome. The other members of the crew – Dharmarat, Rich James, NIC, and Jinzo – all vary in style and most also produce their own beats. So far they’ve focused on putting on shows in Auckland, but also put together an EP as a collective (recorded entirely over the course of a single day).

The rest of the Small Fortunes crew: Bryan (aka N eo), NIC, Adam, Rich, Jinzo

While he still feels like an outsider, Lukas admits that he’s increasingly hyped about the potential he sees in the local scene. “I think New Zealand hip-hop could really blow up internationally if we keep doing what we’re doing. There’s so many crews making important music for the scene, like Small Fortunes, Kome Boys, Ammo Nation, Stay Savage, Shadow Music, KWOE and Slo:wave. America’s trap scene is like a new wave and we’re doing the new wave of our shit. When you think about LMC placing a beat with Rich Tha Kid, Montell2009 working with 21 Savage or the stuff that SmokeyGotBeatz is doing. Soon artists from New Zealand will just be popping up on the US scene and it’ll be normal. Pop artists have been doing that for New Zealand lately so I feel like that could happen for us too.”


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