He raises chickens and lives in the bush. He’s also a mysterious rapper approved by Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Who is the real Scalper?
A few weeks before Tāmaki Makaurau’s latest lockdown began, Nadeem Shafi rose early and turned himself into a clown. He smeared white paint over his face, and donned a red hat and bow tie to match his nose. Then, as the sun rose, he wandered through the sand dunes at Te Henga clutching a bunch of balloons.
It was a quiet morning but to anyone who saw him, Shafi’s confrontational outfit stood out. “These two girls … came around the corner, face-to-face with me,” he says. “It’s the last thing you’re going to expect.” He’d been trying to warm up, and was drinking a hot chocolate at the time. They yelled “random!” at him.
This was no Halloween costume. Shafi is a local musician who makes claustrophobic rap music under the name Scalper, and the 53-year-old was filming his latest video. In ‘Silence Speaks,’ he raps about shedding disguises over eerie drum loops. “Be like bees,” he performs to the camera, flipping off his shoes, then removing his hat and jacket.
Shafi works hard on his videos, spending months thinking through concepts and picking outfits and locations. He likes his visuals to match his introspective music. “If it feels like it’s going to represent what I’ve done from the heart, I’m willing to go to extremes,” he says. “I surrender to it.”
At the end of ‘Silence Speaks,’ Shafi’s down to his pants and shirt. Standing over a pool of water, he washes off his face paint, shedding his clown suit once and for all.
Te Henga (Bethells Beach), on Tāmaki Makaurau’s West Coast, plays an important part in Shafi’s life. A British-born Pakistani, he’s lived there for 14 years, and loves the serenity. Shafi makes the most of his surroundings, raising chickens, enjoying the solitude, and getting back to nature. “I’m right in the bush,” he says. “I love the quiet.”
From his vantage point, he can see the ocean, waves from the Tasman lashing at the shore. When the region’s main road was blocked by a rock slip during lockdown, Shafi didn’t mind at all.
Speaking softly on a Zoom call, he admits recent pandemic restrictions don’t affect him, as he prefers the isolation. Growing up in London, he felt flustered by the pace of life. “My mind feels so clear here,” he says. As he talks, a rooster crows in the background.
It’s paradise. Yet, when he gets the urge, Shafi enters his small studio, a converted laundry painted black, and makes some of the darkest hip-hop imaginable. Across four self-produced albums, he’s stripped the art form back to its barest essentials: sparse beats smothered in brooding metaphors and haunting imagery, with songs often ending in repetitive mantras.
His music feels insular, and personal. It makes you worry about Shafi’s mind state. “I summon my heart to the fore / Death be knocking on that door,” he spits on ‘Threepointonefour,’ a song from his 2010 debut, Flesh & Bone. “Traps are set / Watch where you’re walking in,” he raps on ‘Emptiness’, a song from last year’s record The Beauty and the Beast.
Ask him and Shafi will tell you he doesn’t consider his music to be dark. He says it comes from a happy place. “People see [darkness] as something demonic, malevolent, something bad,” he says. “I’m finding the uncomfortable spaces to shine out of them and cut through the layers … I’m in a love space.”
His music videos are at odds with this belief. Over the years, Shafi’s amassed a collection of terrifying clips that will please anyone who enjoys a good horror film. For ‘Emptiness’, he filmed in an abandoned French homestead, peddling a child’s tricycle around the cracked floorboards for so long he could barely walk.
In ‘Dust’, he’s haunted by a giant figure who towers over him. He wraps his hands around Shafi’s head and yells in his face, a physical representation of inner demons.
Scalper’s been doing this as long as he can remember. Growing up in the UK, he was bored by school, so started writing rhymes. His first group, Made In Britain, fell apart when the producer left to have a baby. His second, a collective called Fun-Da-Mental, fizzled out in the mid 90s. Instead, Shafi became so obsessed with making beats he stopped leaving the house. “I was MC mad,” he says. In 1997, he went solo, and has been there ever since.
Shafi’s music can be spellbinding. It bears the fingerprints of Tricky, the notoriously troubled 90s trip-hop pioneer, and SpaceGhostPurrp, the shadowy, hypnotic Florida rapper. But his aesthetic reminds more of Ka, the Brooklyn firefighter who releases rap records sporadically, and gets them to fans the old school way, sometimes standing on street corners, or charging for mp3 downloads through his website.
Scalper uses Bandcamp, where you can buy his entire catalogue for just $66. So far, Shafi’s collection of four EPs and four albums hasn’t earned him industry attention, or widespread acclaim. Some of that might be his location: he plays and tours only sporadically. Instead, he makes music for himself, hoping others connect to his catharsis. “Life is a trauma,” he says. “This is my way of healing.”
But doing it for the love won’t pay the bills. Shafi’s a labourer by trade, and takes on occasional tiling and plastering jobs. Music’s never paid the way. “I find it hard to get people interested in what I’m doing,” he says. “It still feels like a struggle to get heard.” Lately, he’s thought: “I’m 53 and I’m like, bleargh, part of me can’t even be bothered to send it to people. Just put it out.”
Shafi plys his trade almost in the dark. But he does have one famous fan: Public Enemy founder Chuck D. The pair met when Shafi opened for the American hip-hop trailblazers on their 2011 New Zealand tour, and the founder began playing Scalper songs on his American radio show. Shafi mentions others fans, small groups who pack out shows in France and Switzerland, and appreciative DJs in Australia, Canada and British Columbia, that keep him going. “I get good play in little pockets,” he says.
On Monday, those fans get another fix when Shafi releases the next single from his new album, planned for early next year. Called ‘Toxicity Toxifies’, it features gentle flute loops and a chorus supplied by kids who live nearby. “Daggers in the dark,” raps Scalper. “Open up your arm and implant.” You can almost hear Te Henga’s beach breeze wafting through the studio doors. It might be the prettiest song he’s made.