Henry Oliver catches the 312 bus to Onehunga with SWIDT, whose debut album Stoneyhunga is out today.
“We grew up on here,” says Spycc (Daniel Latu), one of SWIDT’s two MCs after we pile into the back of the 312 bus to Onehunga, the base of New Zealand’s most exciting hip-hop group. “This is our second home.”
312, the number of the bus which runs between Onehunga and Auckland’s CBD, through Newmarket and Royal Oak, has come to represent Onehunga suburb, and no-one represents Onehunga more than SWIDT (‘See What I Did There?’) who all wear the number proudly and use it as a recurring motif in many of their songs.
“It’s just the place where we’re from,” says Spycc, who once said that the group aren’t from New Zealand, they’re from Onehunga. “We all grew up in Onehunga, spent our whole lives there. It’s our inspiration for our music.”
“It’s got a vibe. It feels good,” says INF. “When you die and go to heaven, heaven is Onehunga.”
Rappers Spycc, INF (Amon Tyson) and producers SmokeyGotBeatz (Isaiah Libeau), Jamal (Muavae) and Boomer-Tha-God (Asher Schwencke), grew up together in Onehunga within walking distance of each other’s houses and have been best mates since primary school. As we walk through the city to the bus stop, they fuck around like the kind of friends who have been friends forever and who keep each other young. They’re constantly taking the piss out of each other, riffing on in-jokes, jumping to slap shop signs hanging from awnings. As Boomer lies on the footpath playing dead, INF says, to no-one in particular, “He’s almost 30 guys, almost 30!”
SWIDT have been making music together on-and-off since high school, but after producer Smokey started placing his beats with US rappers like J Rock and Hit-boy and spent much of 2015 in LA, he returned to Onehunga and inspired his old friends to get up to his level.
“That was a wake-up call,” says Spycc. “When he came back from LA he was more…”
“He was changed, eh?” INF interjects. “He was like, ‘We need to work harder – their work ethic is like ten times what we do here’, so he bought all of that knowledge and shared it with us and ever since then we’ve been in the studio every day, 24/7.”
“I was on this bus when I first heard his song with Jay Rock,” remembers Jamal. “And I was in the corner just buzzing out to myself, like damn, someone I know has made it.”
“All produced in a state house,” adds Spycc.
If you hadn’t heard ‘312’ or the earlier ‘No More Parties in Stoneyhunga’, you may have heard about SWIDT after last year’s New Zealand Music Awards, where Aaradhna gave up her Urban/Hip-Hop Album of the Year award to SWIDT after giving an impassioned speech about the racial implications of having an Urban award that covered artists as disparate as she and SWIDT. “I feel like if you’re putting a singer next to a hip-hop artist, it’s not fair,” she said. “I’m a singer, I’m not a rapper, I’m not a hip-hop artist. It feels like I’ve been placed in the category of brown people. That’s what it feels like.”
“We felt like some aliens landing on a different planet,” says Spycc, recalling how the group was just happy to be there, drinking with abandon, not expecting to have to give any speeches of their own. “At that moment, we were like obviously, Radz is going to win, we’ll all stand up and give her a round of applause, but then she said that speech and we were like ‘We’re down with that’. And then she said ‘I want to give this award to SWIDT’, we were just like ‘Broooooo…’. Because we were lit at the time. We were drinking everything on the table. It happened so quick. In a blink of an eye, so much stuff happened.”
Six months later, Recorded Music NZ announced that the Urban/Hip Hop category would be split into two new awards: Best Hip Hop Artist and Best Soul/RnB Artist. “It wasn’t until after seeing the impact that it made, that it really sunk in,” says Spycc. “Seeing how powerful her speech and her stance was. It’s dope, seeing someone with that platform using it to make change.”
With social and geographic specificity, Stoneyhunga is a homage to a suburb and a way of life that are both quickly disappearing. “Our whole thing is just social commentary,” says Spycc. “We rap what we see, what we’ve done, and what we’ve heard growing up.”
Like many suburbs in Auckland, Onehunga is being reshaped by the tidal wave of the housing market and an ever expanding population. State houses have been renovated into five bedroom homes, corn fields developed into apartment blocks. The places where SWIDT spent their youth – the Mee Waa’s takeaway where they played Street Fighter, the 3 Guys supermarket – are gone. The United Video where they snuck peeks at adult video covers is now a cafe with an upmarket version of chicken and waffles on the menu. “Fuck gentrification!” Spycc raps on ‘Alfred & Church’.
“There’s a lot of duality in the hood now,” he says. “Liquor stores on one side, church on the other side. On [INF’s] street there is a state house, across is a million dollar property.
“I can’t remember a cafe in the hood and now there’s like ten on the main street.”
“Sometimes you have everyone looking at you like ‘What’s this person doing here?’” says Boomer. “Man, we grew up here. You’re in my neighbourhood.”
The album is also a memoir of a youth spent walking through suburbs at night, raiding pantries at house parties, getting in fights on the way home, tagging bus seats with shared Vivids. It’s a time of flip-phones and dial-up internet, before Facebook and Tinder, when teenagers relied on free text weekends and MSN Messenger.
“It’s all about growing up in Onehunga,” says INF, “telling the stories, things that we’ve done growing up, people can relate to it. I’m sure every teenager has snuck out of their mum’s house. But we just rep hard.”
“It was a time before everyone had a smartphone,” says Spycc. “People were doing shit back then.”
“We were leaving the house more and actually going to our friend’s houses without texting them,” adds INF. “Actually walking and going outside.”
“Even though it may seem like it’s more connected nowadays, because of social media, I feel like there’s a huge disconnect face-to-face,” says Spycc. “Back in the day, you knew your neighbours’ names, you’d go to your neighbor’s house. But nowadays, you feel like you don’t even know your own neighbours.”
Stoneyhunga is filled with humour and narrative, a mix of brag raps and stories of nights out, some of which resist making the narrators the heroes of the story. On ‘Close One’, INF, Spycc and New York rapper CJ Fly (the only guest feature on the album) recall times when things didn’t turn out their way, when they weren’t in control when they were on the losing side. “We’re people too, we’re vulnerable,” says INF. “Bad things happen to us and growing up, there’s been bad things that have happened to us. It just makes a good story so why not write about it?
“When we were shooting ‘Close One’, we were shooting where what happened on my verse actually happened. Everything was replaying in my head. I was getting paranoid, getting anxiety.”
With their debut album, SWIDT are looking to follow Smokey’s lead into a career that expands beyond New Zealand and beyond the limits of rap music. “We want to clock international,” says INF as the bus nears Onehunga bus depot, a couple of hundred metres away from SWIDT’s tiny studio they rent in a shared ‘creative space’, one of the upsides of gentrification. “We don’t want to just limit ourselves.”
“We got way more shit coming,” says Spycc, hinting at another album’s worth of material that could be out before the end of the year. “We’re just trying to transcend the realms of rap. Make it more than just about the music. We might start doing movies, we might start writing kids books.”
“Nah, we will!” interjects INF. “We’ll do all of that.”
“Don’t give all the secrets!” says Boomer.
“There’s no limit,” INF continues. “The best thing about having ideas is bringing them to life.”
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