Hans. made his name in the Soundcloud rap scene, but last year made the leap with his one-and-only track on Spotify which racked up 1.5 million streams. More recently, he’s been working with another standout from the local scene – beat producer, SWRLY. Gareth Shute catches up with Hans. to discuss this collab and his new EP, Puddles.
Hans (officially written with a full-stop at the end) is the kind of rapper who drives lovers of old-school hip-hop crazy, with his almost sleepy delivery and disinterest in heavy-hitting rhymes. Yet, ironically, it was ’90s hip-hop that first inspired a young Hanju Kim to start messing around with beats in his bedroom. “Biggie was the first artist I heard,” he says. “Up until then, I’d only heard pop music on the radio because I was only thirteen and that was mostly rock music at the time. I think the raw emotion and honesty really drew me to it… But I don’t think I’ve ever tried to make a Biggie-esque track. I realised early that I can’t do the hard-hitting stuff – it just doesn’t work with me. I feel more comfortable on this kind of more mellowed out, laidback style, even if the tracks themselves are upbeat.”
It was only once Hans moved from his hometown of Kerikeri to Auckland’s North Shore that he met other musicians, like his schoolmates the synthpop duo Imugi. In 2014, he uploaded his first tracks as Hans K, rhyming over beats he found on Soundcloud. Yet he eventually decided mellow raps over mellow beats made for a ‘one dimensional’ result, so he switched things up in 2017 by releasing the track ‘Better’ (off his 1995 EP), which placed his rapping over a poppy beat by a Korean producer that was created around a sample of R’n’B singer Ciara (on ‘Better’). It was a perfect fit.
In these early years, his experiments on Soundcloud were like the way rappers used to come up: dropping mixtapes of raps over uncleared beats while they found an audience and their own sound. Yet when Hans moved from Soundcloud to Spotify with his track ‘Froyo’, he again took an unusual route forward. His sister had shown him a video by a young US singer called Clairo, who’d been gaining an audience by posting videos of herself singing on YouTube. Hans had already recorded his part of ‘Froyo’ but wasn’t sure what to do with it. “I’d been sitting on that song for five months, thinking of getting people on it. I had a break between classes and I just emailed Clairo because I thought she’d be perfect and I had nothing else to do. I honestly didn’t expect a reply, because even then she was pretty big, but she emailed me back five minutes later saying, ‘I love it, I’ll do it.’ “
The track clocked 1.5 million streams on the major streaming sites, but just as important was the buzz it created around him in the local Soundcloud rap community. Hans was approached by the young producer, SWRLY, who was making his own waves in the scene. “SWRLY hit me up and said, ‘I’ve got these beats, do you want to jump on them?’ I just listened and I started writing. When he sent me the beat for ‘Go’, I heard it, wrote the lyrics and did everything in the hour that I got it, so that’s the final take you hear. It was real organic, the way that one came about.’
Hans’ next EP, Lagoon, featured two of the tracks he’d done with SWRLY and showed the pair to be perfectly matched. Yet SWRLY admits it was a collaboration that probably wouldn’t have happened without Soundcloud, given their varying backgrounds. “I was born here in Auckland,” he says. “But my parents are from South Africa. I grew up on a lot of Gloria Gaynor, Stevie Wonder and Al Jerrau. Things took a very very sharp turn when Dad first introduced me to a midi keyboard. College is really where I started taking it seriously. I’d previously worked with other artists prior to Hans thanks to Soundcloud. I think that’s one of the other main reasons I fell into producing – you network with so many like-minded people and ones that are open to trying new things within music. [It] also helps you discover some little hiddenn gems.”
“When I heard 1995, I was hooked on his style, the way he transitioned from funky beats to more mellow stuff. I had a bunch of beats around that could do with an organic touch, rather than an acapella off YouTube. So I hit him up and, to be honest, didn’t expect a reply. But look where we are now! It also gave me a chance to experiment with what I could make, as I came into the game as an EDM trap producer, and still am a bass head at heart. He had the right type of vocal to play off upbeat and also downbeat songs. And he has good taste in food.’
In the meantime, SWRLY has also co-produced beats for US rapper Tobi Lou – one of which (‘Darlin’) is closing in on it’s own million-stream milestone on Spotify. In fact, it was overseas interest in SWRLY’s work that eventually led to one of his latest collabs with Hans: ‘Honeysea II’ came about when Australian singer, Ivoris, messaged SWRLY about making a tune together.
Hans soon found himself drawn into the project as well. “SWRLY heard Ivoris’ song ‘Honeysea’ and decided to remix it. Then he sent it to me for a listen. Again it was one of those ‘click’ moments, like ‘Go’. I wrote my verse super quick – it just came to me. I chopped the beat up slightly – there was only one chorus on SWRLY’s original version, so I doubled the chorus parts and made it into an actual song. Then I hit up Ivoris and said ‘can I use it on my EP?’ and she said sure. She wanted Honeysea in the name, so that’s why we called it Honeysea II. It’s more of a pop-sounding banger so I think it’ll be a fun one to do live.’
The resulting track is the first of three that Hans recorded at Red Bull Studios in Auckland for his new EP, Puddles. He was excited to take his music out of the bedroom and create a more full-spectrum sound. Yet the upbeat sound of the opening track belies the inspiration for the EP, which refers back to a dark patch Hans went through at the end of last year. “I’d had depression before, but it got real bad,” he says. “Usually, you can see the warning signs and get help, but I didn’t do that. I just funneled it in and in. I didn’t leave home at all. I was just not in a state where I could do anything. It was pretty dark.”
“In the end, I started talking about it properly with my family and found a lot of it was coming from internalising. If you don’t talk about it and isolate yourself from everyone, then it can kinda drive you crazy and I was doing that for a while. I slowly started addressing everything and gradually got better … It definitely affected how this current project came about. Even that second song [‘Petulia’] is about self-help. In general, the project is real upbeat and a celebration of sorts. That’s why I named it Puddles, because if last year was the storm then now I’m kind of in the aftermath stage, excited about what’s coming next.”
The Puddles EP is a perfect distillation of Hans’ approach with the pop of ‘Honeysea II’, and is balanced out by two more chilled numbers – the SWRLY collab ‘Imart’ (named after the pair’s favourite Korean grocery store) and ‘Petulia’, which was produced by overseas producer Chouji. It still isn’t the kind of music that is likely to sway any hip-hop traditionalists, but Hans believes the health of the current scene is shown by how broad it is and how accepting it is to the different styles that are coming up.
“I don’t think anyone in Auckland has ever heard my tracks and said, ‘What is that music? What are you doing?’ Everyone can see it for what it is and people are real accepting of it… And I’ve always just loved classic New Zealand hip-hop. Even now, a lot of the artists that you see they’re so diverse and can do so many different things. I’ve been listening to the High Beams project heaps lately, the amount of different sounds they cover – I love that shit! In terms of my place in the scene, I think I have a lane to myself. Being Asian might help, because I’m like one of the only Korean artists in the scene rapping in English. It’s weird but I feel like something is brewing in New Zealand hip-hop. The talent pool is really crazy and artists are getting international attention regularly as well. It’s cool to be a part of it right now, it almost feels like a new golden age.”