The ‘Ready or Not’ hitmakers talk ambition, competition, and how things change when you accidentally become the most buzzed-about young rap group in the country.
Church & AP didn’t plan for this. The rappers born Elijah Manū and Albert Purcell were still attending high school in Auckland’s central suburbs when they started working together, more out of proximal convenience than any grand design. While they quickly found that the contrasts in their individual styles made them a compelling creative pairing, neither had a hard-set plan or set of expectations for what their partnership might be. And then ‘Ready or Not’ happened.
Upending the standard operating procedure for an act who at that time had little profile outside of student radio and Auckland’s humming underground rap scene, they serviced the track to radio a couple of weeks prior to its official release. They didn’t have high expectations, but the song quickly hit first the A-rotate playlist on Aotearoa’s major rap stations, then the top of the country’s Shazam charts.
Momentum stayed high following the arrival of ‘Ready or Not’ on streaming platforms, with the song picking up spins on BBC’s Radio 1 and 1Xtra stations and Australia’s Triple J, and in June of this year that same momentum saw them visit the Northern Hemisphere for a brief tour that included a handful of UK shows, studio sessions in London, LA and Amsterdam, and a straight-off-the-plane appearance on UK rap tastemaker Jamz Supernova’s 1Xtra show.
Back home, they’ve been hesitant to rest on laurels or wait for things to happen for them. The year to date has seen the release of split double EP Cathedral / All Purpose and singles ‘Dandelion’ and ‘Roulette’, and they’ve also just been announced as performing at this year’s Rhythm and Vines festival and as a support act for Six60’s 2020 return to Western Springs. With the end of August seeing Church & AP tour New Zealand, we caught up with them to discuss their rise, the challenges imposed by expectation, and how it feels when your circle has to get smaller.
You’ve just come back from the Northern Hemisphere, how did that whole trip come together? And where did you actually go?
Church: We were in London for two weeks, then Amsterdam for three days, then like a week and a half in LA. The London stuff came through our distribution company, Kartel, but a lot of LA and Amsterdam was just through our manager (Manu Taylor).
AP: The majority of it.
C: Because he had those connections. In LA, he put us in touch with basically everybody that he knew, and DJ Sir-Vere put us onto an old friend of his, who does like a lot of production work with, like DJ Snake–
AP: He just owns this crazy studio.
C: It was the same guys that work on, like Justin Bieber songs. So we got to meet real crazy people. We’d go into studios and there’d be Grammys for, like Frank Ocean, right there.
AP: Plaques everywhere.
C: We weren’t allowed to have any expectations, because they might just hate us. But by the end they were like, “We love you guys, let’s work.” That was probably the biggest compliment of our whole trip. Being able to meet people to validate what we do.
Are you sitting on a bunch of material now, or were you mostly writing for future projects?
AP: In LA we were doing a lot of writing.
C: We were learning to topline. Just getting better at writing for other people. Because we both have natural ability at writing things that are catchy, but it’s trying to implement that for, like, a Camila Cabello or something. Somebody that’s far away from what we’re doing.
AP: But in the UK and Amsterdam we were recording like a track a day. So we have a little cassette tape from there that we’re putting out at the moment.
Is there anything that you’re holding a bit closer?
C: There’s a few songs where we’re like, “Yeah, that has legs, we can do something with that,” but most of all it was about building relationships. Like, we can go back there now.
AP: And just getting knowledge from all of these producers.
C: Yeah, guys that were, like, in the UK Top 10 would just pull up to the studio. They’d produced some of the biggest songs by, like, Dave, or J Hus, and we didn’t even know, they were just like normal people. Like, “Oh you’re from New Zealand? Cool as.”
Is it kind of weird having the horizon widened this much so early in your career?
C: I think it’s almost too good. And that’s why we haven’t just tried to create the next ‘Ready or Not’. Like we’re more trying to find some consistency, so that we’re not gone as fast as we came.
Has the success of that song changed your artistic approach at all? Like do you think that’s made you move in a direction that you hadn’t anticipated?
AP: We were still trying to find our sound making that song.
C: It’s just really like a snapshot of what we can do, but not really what we want to do. But you know, when people first hear it, if that’s the first thing they hear of you, that’s what they’ll assume. Like, “These guys just make hype party music,” or whatever.
Does it go the other way then? Like the stuff that you’ve released since then has been a bit weirder, bit more left-field. Was that a conscious approach?
C: I think for us that’s always been the sound we were kind of aiming for. We didn’t have the right people – we didn’t really start hanging out with Dera Meelan until a few months after we made Ready or Not, and he’s our main producer now, but we had to take time to find that sound.
AP: And that person.
What’s the process like with Dera? Because from the outside, it seems like he’s just one of those polymath dudes who can just make whatever he feels like.
C: He’s a hilarious guy. He is like that, but we don’t care.
AP: We just tell him what we want.
C: We simplify it. We’ll sit in a room with him for eight hours, and on the eighth hour we’ll be like, “Oh yup, that one.” And meanwhile he’s racking his brain about how to make this beautiful thing, but we’re just like, “No. Make something that sounds like this.”
AP: We’ll start making a beat, and he’ll be working on it for an hour, then he’ll be like “Do you guys like it?” And we won’t even say anything. He’s just like, “Fuck you guys.”
Has your circle changed at all since Church & AP became a real, serious thing?
C: It’s smaller. There are people we don’t work with any more, that we don’t associate with any more.
Is that by design, or has it just been that getting that level of success so early just created tension?
AP: I think that’s it.
C: Yeah, it just creates tension that we weren’t expecting. And then everybody had, like, reservations about when this happens, what it should be like. And when that doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do, it just doesn’t work. It’s stink. It’s probably the most stink feeling that we’ve had so far in music, because you’re like, there’s so much potential here for something to be good. There’s been a lot of highs, but that’s been the one low, just no longer having relationships with people because of music. When music is the thing that brought you together.
Has it changed your relationship to each other?
AP: When we started Church & AP we barely knew each other.
C: We weren’t even really friends like that, we were just the only two people doing music where we were.
AP: And Auckland’s so small. I just knew people that knew his people.
C: But going to LA, I was living with Albert for a month.
AP: That’s the longest time we’ve ever spent together.
C: So you have to have trust in the people that you’re with. Like our manager included, we had to trust him. When you’re in those studio sessions you spend like 13 hours in a room. And you don’t leave, you know? You come out and it’s another day. So we figured out what we were good at, and we were given a lot of good advice about how to work together more. Because even with something like ‘Ready or Not’, that was a very separate process.
AP: We both wrote that at different times.
C: And that was how a lot of our earlier music worked.
AP: A lot has changed in our writing process, our creative process. There’s a lot more working together.
But you’re both doing quite a bit of work outside the partnership right? Like Church, you’re on the JessB EP, AP is on Dharmarat’s record.
AP: People want features, so we’re giving them features.
Is there a part of you that’s like, “We’ve got this shine now, let’s spread this out to people we like”?
AP: Yeah, hard.
C: I think the other thing that we’ve learned, though, is that if you’re not pushing people, are they going to do it? If you’re the one telling them every day, “Let’s finish this song, come into the studio, what’s our business plan?” then do they really care about what’s happening with the music?
Is that a bit of a trust exercise? Like if you’re working with someone who’s been at it a while but who hasn’t had something break through like “Ready or Not” did, is it harder to convince them to follow your work ethic?
C: It’s harder because of misconceptions. I have to be like, “This won’t work in this space. Let’s market this, don’t just drop it as soon as it’s done.” Even Dera, for example, because he came after ‘Ready or Not’, we had to tell him, “We’re not just dropping this song on Soundcloud.” We held onto ‘Dandelion’ for like six months, and every week he’d be like, “Yo, when does ‘Dandelion’ drop? Can we drop it?” That’s the interesting thing with working people outside what you’d call “the industry” I guess. And I mean we’re still kind of outside – we do this all on our own but we know what industry expectations are, we know how to handle the business side of it.
Has it been hard that nothing you’ve dropped since ‘Ready or Not’ has really hit like that did?
C: Yeah, it is. Because every time you’re like–
AP: It’s unpredictable.
C: That’s the bad thing about numbers, because if people are only looking at numbers, they’re gonna be like “Oh their songs aren’t as good as ‘Ready or Not’ anymore, I don’t know if I care about these guys.” That’s probably the hardest thing. And we know that we could try and make another ‘Ready or Not’ tomorrow, but it’s not fulfilling. I’d rather make, like, a house song. It’s a weird trade off, because you don’t want to compromise your integrity just for a hit song so your numbers look good.
Do you feel like your approach for whatever happens next will be affected by how the tour goes?
C: I think it’ll affect what we want the album, what we want the finished product to be. If certain songs work live, how people react to them. Like for example, we played ‘Roulette’ for the first time in the UK, and that was the crowd’s biggest reaction, the guy that was DJing for us reloaded it. We didn’t even plan for it to be the next single until that. But I think we just have to look forward, and the one thing we can’t do is get too big for our boots.
It feels like the local scene is really supportive at the moment though, like people are really interested in putting each other on.
AP: Yeah, it’s healthy.
C: I feel like there needs to be some competition though. For me, when we worked on the JessB EP at Roundhead, that was like a competitive space for me, so I was going in every day. And I didn’t need to go in every day. I did ‘Bump Bump’ on the first day, but I wanted to go in every day and be like, “Yo I’m writing all of these.” Like the amount of hooks I sent their way, and obviously they didn’t choose all of them, but it was just for me to be like, “OK, P Money’s here, Abdul Kay’s here, Soraya LaPread’s here.” You know? Toney Douglas.
C: There’s all of these people in one space, let me show all of these people that we can really do this. That we can really make music.
So now that you’ve made these connections, do you see yourselves leaving Auckland? Or would you like to base yourselves here, but still do the music everywhere else?
C: I think that was the dream until, like, three days ago. I’ve been here, like, a bit too long and not much is happening. And like when we were in the UK and LA–
AP: We were just busy, constantly.
C: There was just something happening always, someone wanting to work always. That’s why I’ve been working with Soraya a lot, because she can constantly work; she lived in LA, that’s where she’s from, so she’s used to that pace. But a lot of people just won’t do that. Like if you want to do a session, it’s in a week. I can’t call somebody and be like, “Yo, let’s do something right now.” Which is why I kind of want to get out.
I guess sometimes that approach comes from patience, but sometimes it’s reticence – that classic New Zealand thing of not wanting to be too enthusiastic.
C: It’s stupid. In the industry we’re in, why are you shy? Do you want to sell a concert? Come on. I’d like to leave something, so that in five years people are like, “Oh, Church & AP did that first. They started that wave.” That’s something that I would have pride in.
This piece was made with support from NZ on Air.