Don Rowe talks to Auckland rapper Ryan Hendriks about music, travel and performative confrontation in the wake of his first solo album, Old Zealand.
Old Zealand, the first solo release by Auckland rapper Ryan Hendriks, is a testament to the quality and diversity of Auckland’s evolving hip-hop scene, and the extended flora and fauna which support it. One half of conscious rap crew Bad Corporation, perhaps the most well known of the crop of artists and musicians to come from the Grow Room collective, Hendriks is a wide-eyed, dreadlocked, preacher-esque figure. His lyric smash together philosophy, hip-hop and a healthy dose of marijuana mysticism to create eclectic, exciting tracks, all underscored by genre-spanning beats.
Fresh off a European tour, where he wrote and recorded Old Zealand at The Hague, Hendriks is back with a fresh perspective – and, in his own words, a lot of shit to figure out. We met at Verona, within shout of the original Grow Room on K Rd, to talk hip-hop, travel and why upsetting the sensibilities of an audience might be the whole point of rap.
I’ve seen you perform once as Bad Corporation, right outside St Kevin’s Arcade here, and there was a girl absolutely jamming out, totally naked, while you played.
Ruthless eh? That was one of the best nights of my life. She came by, grabbed all the money out of her purse, threw it in our hat, smashed it and then started pissing on it. I was just like ‘…whoa’, and everyone was like ‘oh my god, what is going on here?’
Then she got totally naked and did her thing. After the show we went back to the Grow Room, and there she is putting her clothes on. I was like ‘Oh my God, thank you’ and she was totally sober, going ‘Oh no problem, thought I’d help out’ and it was performance art. I thought she was crazy, it turns out she was totally clear.
We were so grateful to her for bringing that, because it brought a whole other aspect to the thing. It was very much K Rd. We’d played a show previously in the same spot with a full band and I set a suit on fire, but what she brought was something else again.
She brought the fire.
Fucken’ K Rd, right?
That’s a nice image of what this place is though.
Yea, and more specifically what it was. I burned that suit as a metaphor for what’s happening around here, because when Ethan and I started the Grow Room up the top of the St Kevin’s Arcade, it wasn’t tiled, it was old and dirty with graffiti everywhere. Right next door to the Grow Room was a Chinese karaoke bar and the dude ended up getting shut down because he was importing meth, he’s serving like 18 years in prison now. It was still in that era of K Rd. And then literally over maybe six months something happened.
It’s very nostalgic for me thinking back on that arcade and that moment in time. But I’m out of the loop now, I just got back and I’m tripping out at the street eh.
What was your background for people who haven’t heard of you?
I started busking in Byron Bay in Australia when I was like 18 with my friend Ethan, we moved over there and just started living off hip-hop. We’d make maybe $150 a night and it would be enough to survive. You don’t need much when you’re living that style of life, you’re just at the beach all day so that was the initial getaway.
Then we lived in Melbourne for a year playing open mic shows there as Bad Crop. We tried recording music too, but it was a mindfuck because when we were 18 and 19 making music, we thought we had to be doing it overseas to be noticed. Then when we got there we realised we should probably actually be in Auckland. That’s why we came back and started the Grow Room.
But then I changed my mind again, I started wondering if that was the right approach, or if it should be about personal growth and personal experience. It’s a mind-fuck, I’m still trying to get my head around what music is as a form of culture.
I think of it like gardening: we started as Bad Crop, our music was released as The Harvest, we had an EP called Seeds and Stems, we did a two-project EP called So and Sow – ‘so we sow’ – then there was Germination and after that we created the Grow Room. It’s like permaculture; you’re giving to people to help them grow and that naturally gives back.
A rising tide lifts all ships?
Exactly. We stuck to that, and at the Grow Room we’d always talked about Bad Corp being a flip of Bad Crop, it seemed fitting especially with the gentrification going on around us. Then we were like ‘Oh shit, it’s too real’ because it manifested itself.
What drove your decision to move to Amsterdam? Were you there to bring back or there to escape?
It was a bit of both, man. My cultural heritage is Dutch-Māori, so it’s always been about colonisation and decolonisation. I have experience on both sides of the coin. I’m the coloniser and the colonised. I’d always travelled with Ethan – Australia for two years, through Asia – and so this time it was more about self-growth. I’d been here for three years and we’d created the Grow Room and it got to a point where I felt like there were enough people here doing it, it wasn’t just mine anymore. It never was mine, it was something we nurtured and helped, but it was never mine, and so for me getting away wasn’t about running away but having an experience and being able to add back to it.
There’s an interview with Questlove where he talks about the difference in growth and it’s like, if someone is completely different, there’s more room to grow unlike if everyone is being too insular, which I sometimes feel with Auckland. Don’t get me wrong, the live music culture here is way past a lot of places overseas, but the trip was that I realised the more different we all are, the more growth we can realistically achieve. We don’t need a thousand people telling the same story.
It’s like genetic diversity right? We can’t all just sleep with our family, monarch-style.
Exactly, it gets incestuous. I was in Sri Lanka for a while, catching trains, and for my own growth that was a real mind fuck. I went from hanging out the side of a train, going through the rain forest, through to the Netherlands on my laptop on a two-storey train, flying around the country. That flip for me was crazy man. It’s separate from the music too. A lot of people are all about the music which is great but they forget to have a fucken life, and your music should be a direct reflection of that life. Music isn’t about sitting in the studio all day. Music is what you are. You’ve got to make the external internal, and then externalise it again.
Tell me about recording Old Zealand. You were at The Hague, right?
I met up with my friend Pat Stewart, he’s a genius, an absolute genius, and he’s studying a degree in the art of sound at the Royal School of Music in the Netherlands, to go with his degree in jazz bass.
I was having a stopover in Oman, a 25-hour layover between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands, so I’m sitting there making beats and I hit Pat up. Turned out he was living in The Hague, studying at the Royal School, and he had full access to the studio there. Literally the day I flew in I caught a train to the school and we recorded three of the songs in that first day. So for the whole summer I was living not in Amsterdam but at The Hague. It was a completely different style of life. And a long way from St Kevin’s Arcade. We had full use of the studio, recording on two microphones, hiring out 50k worth of shit every session.
I met a band over there and I played a show at the Melkweg. We were playing in front of 200 people with a six piece band, and it was like “…yeeya.” These were all cats doing their masters on their specific instruments, so it was dope. There was a fucken soul singer on stage helping with vocals, and it was just cool.
There’s a saying you can apply it to a lot of different things, and it basically goes that when you’re climbing a mountain you can’t see the mountain, you can’t see the totality of the mountain or the beauty and size of it until you step back. And that’s how I felt, I needed some perspective on what I was writing about – it’s hard to write about something without that distance because it’s still affecting you. When you stand off you have a little more clarity, and then you come back and start climbing the mountain once again. But this time I know the way up.
What about the title itself? The old Zealand is in the Netherlands, and it was a Dutch guy who coined ‘New Zealand’.
The whole trip about New Zealand and Old Zealand, well, my girlfriend is from France, and there you have a lot of external things to remind you about tradition. She lives in a fucking castle, basically. In the back of her house there’s a building from the 1300s, an old pigeon tower. And here we are in New Zealand, which we constantly reaffirm as being ‘new’ because it’s right there in the name, and there’s nothing here to draw us back into the past. The Māori culture is still here, but it’s been polished and cleaned up in a lot of ways to present to other people. That all has an effect. In France, that tradition can make it hard to bring in new ideas and outside influences, but they’re maybe less susceptible to what we have, which is so much American influence and this modern globalist culture. The corporate life is fucking so many of us, and we’re just like “…this is what it is.” Coming back, in a lot of ways it’s like nothing has changed.
So it’s about the balance between new and old, but writing Old Zealand has also been a journey from my past to my present, and some of that is stuff I still haven’t really figured out. This project was just about, as all my music is, my own internal shit. I care that people listen, I respect people that relate to it, because they’re fans, but at the same time I don’t try and make music for anyone.
What about performing? Who’s that for?
I opened for a rapper called Zeroh once, he’s the don of Cali hip-hop for me. At the show Zeroh was singing and producing and someone in the crowd, who’s actually a good friend now, calls out ‘You should rap!’ and Zeroh slapped the mic away, stood up and started yelling ‘Who the fuck said that?’ This was at a time where the Auckland hip-hop scene was very different, and he starts going off. I’d never seen it, New Zealand artists are so nice on stage, ‘hey guys, thanks for coming, can’t do this without you’, and this guy’s telling the crowd to fuck off, like ‘if you don’t like this, what the fuck are you doing here? Get out!’ And I was just like ‘Yes! This is amazing!’
It was reality, it was real, he broke the fourth wall from the stage and it changed my whole outlook on hip-hop. It was the inspiration to actually do this for ourselves, because that’s the realest thing you can give. I was so grateful for that experience. He completely broke what I thought the rules were.
People remember shows that fucked them up, you know? I remember that Zeroh show so well because he challenged something in my mind and it was confronting. With New Zealand culture, if you confront someone you can really freak them out. People don’t want to be pulled out of their box. And that’s why that girl got naked – she knew it would be confronting, and people would wonder what was going on, and wonder what was real, and that’s the whole point.
Ryan Hendriks plays the Splore DJ stage on Saturday, February 24.
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