To celebrate the eighth season of this local institution, Hussein Moses goes behind the scenes of the series putting New Zealand rappers to the test.
David Dallas is waiting. It’s mid-morning on a weekday in May and as he sits in the control room of Red Bull Music Studio Auckland, a camera crew sets up on the other side of the glass. Seated next to him is Ben Lawson, the studio’s longtime audio engineer, who was involved in the making of his 2017 album Hood Country Club. Today, it won’t be Dallas stepping up to the mic.
Both are here to record the new season of Red Bull 64 Bars, the video series co-created by Dallas and the brand that’s found a new way to get emerging hip hop artists in front of New Zealand rap fans. The series puts local rappers to the test by asking them to write and perform a 64-bar verse – around three minutes of non-stop rapping. The performances regularly clock over 100,000 views and have uncovered some of the best underground talent in the country.
It’s a high-pressure environment, especially for the young artists that haven’t performed in front of cameras before. If anyone would know what it’s like, it’s Dallas. He made his name off an unforgettable verse of his own when he appeared on Scribe’s ‘Not Many (Remix)’ in 2003, and has since established himself as an icon of New Zealand hip-hop, with four solo albums to his name and a heap of awards to match.
As usual, he’s hand-picked each of the three artists coming into the studio to record their 64 today. Now in its eighth season, the series has become a rite of passage for a legion of underground hip-hop acts. Recording a track is an invaluable opportunity to work with Dallas, and provides vital exposure. Many of those who laid down bars in Red Bull’s Auckland studio – think JessB, Melodownz, Raiza Biza and SWIDT’s INF – have gone on to become veterans of the local culture.
It’s an opportunity many would kill for, but at the end of the day, says Dallas, it’s all about who’s going to benefit the most from the exposure. “There’s just no point in getting someone that everyone knows is a fucking awesome rapper.”
The Red Bull 64 Bars series has been so successful in helping gain mainstream exposure for young up and coming artists, it has even recently expanded into Japan and South Africa.
The vibe in the studio is surprisingly relaxed as the first artist of the day steps into the booth. Mo Muse reps Mt Roskill, Massey and Dunedin in his music – but that hints at just a small part of the 25-year-old’s journey so far. He moved to New Zealand as a refugee when he was two after his family escaped civil war and famine in Somalia. Only recently has he begun to open up about it as he’s come to understand the importance of his history and that’s become an important part of his music.
“I think I owe it to a lot of people from similar backgrounds to get my story out there,” he says.
Muse recorded his first song just four years ago, but it’s clear that he’s ready to take the next step. He has a new EP is on the way and then he plans to get to work on a debut album.
Personally, the call from David Dallas came at a vital moment. Questioning his future in music, being asked to take part in Red Bull 64 Bars was “a real saving grace,” he confesses.
“That was the point I felt the lowest in terms of my music. I didn’t know if I could keep doing this.”
It’s the middle of the holy month and the Muslim rapper is observing Ramadan. As it’s customary to abstain from water during the day, he’s determined to lay down his 64 bars in the first take or two before his mouth dries out. He makes it look easy, with a clever and unapologetic verse that touches on everything from his life as a refugee to New Zealand’s youth suicide problem.
“You talk to everyone who’s young in New Zealand and they know somebody, or know of somebody that’s committed suicide,” he explains. “This is an epidemic. It’s that bad.”
In April he released ‘Friday’, a protest song dedicated to the people who lost their lives in the Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15. He had a close connection to the Muslim community in Christchurch, often travelling up to Al Noor mosque during the five years he studied to be a pharmacist at Otago University.
“We were really close to the family that had the three-year-old boy murdered. He was the sweetest little boy. For that to happen… it just made me feel so sick,” he says.
In the song, he takes aim at conservative politicians and media commentators like Mike Hosking and Winston Peters, who he says have contributed to creating a narrative of othering and Islamophobic sentiment.
“There’s years of things that brew up for a tragedy like that to happen. It’s disingenuous to the victims to act like this happened out of the blue – and that this is not us.”
Muse is unafraid to speak out about the injustices he sees in his community, even though he was recently targeted by racist online commenters for doing so. The hostile reaction to an interview he gave to the NZ Herald about the stigma that refugees are “bottom-feeding leeches” is something he dives into with his bars.
“My writing style is very unapologetic,” he says. “It wouldn’t be real otherwise. As a person, I’m very open, very respectful, very polite. But when it comes to my penmanship, it has to capture the emotion I’m feeling at that time I’m writing.”
Sven Illy is next to arrive. The rapper, who just released a new EP HIGHSIDE, proudly calls Mangere Bridge home and is hungry to prove his worth in the studio. Back in the day the 30-year-old would write rhymes to ‘Big Time’, one of David Dallas’ earliest singles. “He’s the biggest name in the NZ hip-hop scene,” Illy says of Dallas. “So for him to reach out to me to come here… it’s too much.”
Despite this kind of attention being so new to him, he exudes a quiet confidence. This is his first time performing in front of cameras. It’s also just the second time in his life that he’s been interviewed. The first was by the film crew downstairs only minutes earlier.
Illy grew up in a sports family – his brother Shea Ili plays point guard for the New Zealand Breakers – but music was always his thing. He honed his craft at SAE Institute, ditching the schoolwork for more practice time in the studio. By day he works as a sexton, where he looks after the grounds of a cemetery in Papatoetoe – a “gravedigger”, as he likes to call it.
Writing is like therapy, he says. “You don’t have to share all your raps.”
Outside of the booth, Illy doesn’t say much. He’s soft-spoken, almost to the point of shyness, but when the time comes to record he transforms. His delivery becomes animated, and his voice gruff. Like his outward persona, his lyrics are layered and subtle. The longer you look, the more you understand.
“If you listen to it the second time, you’ll hear more,” he promises. “I’m not giving my opinions on the world, or my life, or that shit. I just say shit that will make people think.”
The rapper born Albert Purcell, AP holds court for the final session of the day. At 19, he’s the youngest of today’s performers, but he’s not the youngest to ever drop 64 bars. That honour goes to Elijah ‘Church’ Manu, who together with AP has released two acclaimed EPs in the past year as Church & AP. Church’s own 64, recorded when he was 17, was lauded by local rap fans and has set the bar high for his rap partner.
“I learned a lot from Church,” AP says of his collaborator’s performance. “He’s a genius. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The two first bonded over a Chance The Rapper mixtape back when they were at Mount Albert Grammar School and started going to a nearby youth programme that had all the gear they needed to record songs. AP took inspiration from grime artists like Skepta, JME and Section Boyz when he first started writing. In them, he found permission to share his unique identity and experiences on the mic.
“I was like ‘this is crazy, they’re rapping in their accent and everyone loves it. I can do the exact same thing’. I don’t have to fake it or put on a front or an accent just to try and make it be cool. I can just be myself.”
His peers at home seem to inspire him just as much: he’s quick to shout out Abdul Kay, Nauti and Dirty – three rappers that have also taken part in the project – for helping to pave the way.
Things have been moving fast for Church & AP lately, something AP admits has at times felt overwhelming. They’ve sold out shows, played summer festivals, and on Monday night played their first show in London. Soon they’ll be boarding a flight for LA. When they return they’ll be back in Red Bull studio to record their debut album. Then they’re off on a nationwide tour in August.
The duo’s main goal, says AP, is to be financially stable. “It’s easy, in a way, to get money. The harder part is trying to keep it.”
Back when they started out, AP would often get tagged as the introvert of the group – but with all eyes on him in the studio, he comes off as self-assured and lays down his 64 convincingly. Learning to adapt to the newfound attention was something he had to do, he admits afterwards. “You have to, or else you’ll be anxious all the time. Finding comfort in everything I do is the best thing. Not to be afraid and just to do it. I was nervous coming here but I had to get over it.”
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Dallas quietly nods in approval as the two sit down together and listen back to AP’s verse booming out of the studio speakers. His characteristic humour shines through his punchline-heavy bars, and it’s easy to see he’s made strides as a lyricist. “It’s real crazy,” says AP, “to think that a year ago I was writing raps just for the fun of it.”
As Dallas already knows, one verse can change everything.
This content was created in paid partnership with Red Bull. Learn more about our partnerships here.
For 20 years, Red Bull has celebrated music, its culture and the creative minds behind it. With multiple festivals, music education workshops, collaborations with artists and thousands of initiatives, Red Bull supports artists and local music communities around the world. www.redbull.co.nz/64bars