PNC, photographed by Tina Tiller
PNC, photographed by Tina Tiller

Pop CultureJune 12, 2019

Interview: PNC on Bazooka Kid, and why hip hop doesn’t win songwriting awards

PNC, photographed by Tina Tiller
PNC, photographed by Tina Tiller

Ten years after Bazooka Kid, one of the most singular New Zealand albums, Duncan Greive sits down with PNC to talk about its genesis, and why rappers still don’t get their due in this country.

2009 was a year of transition for hip hop. Lil Wayne was at his commercial peak, winning four Grammys; Kanye eventually let Taylor Swift finish at the VMAs; and a former child star named Drake released an unheralded mixtape named So Far Gone. Jay-Z was comically dislocated from the culture, putting out ‘Death of Autotune’ ahead of a decade in which autotune became one of the biggest and most sustained trends rap has ever seen.

The 2000s had been about scale, the rise of the south, beefing and money. The 2010s would be prolific, intimate and druggy, less connected to pop music while exerting more influence over it. In between the eras and a long way away from them came Bazooka Kid. The second album from Palmerston North’s PNC, and one of the most singular hip hop albums ever released in New Zealand. It gloried in big, brash ‘80s synthesisers, hard drums and dense, hyper-rhythmic verses. No disrespect to Urban Renewal, but there has never been a rap album as committed to Phil Collins. Somehow Sam Hansen, aka Palmerston North City, managed to mould a disparate group of producers into an incredibly cohesive whole, one which remains a kind of lost hip hop highway, a road not taken with a lot to commend it.

The dead-eyed ‘Intro’ (“No brother, one mother, no dad” is one of the bleaker opening lines you’ll find), the crystalline title track, the bitter reflection of ‘What’s Up’ and the uncharacteristic acoustic closer ‘Half Kast’, playing on this Samoan man raised by a Palagi solo mum. Nearly every song with a huge, crafted hook.

Since then Hansen has refined his craft, with both Under the Influence and The Luke Vailima EP now essential parts of the New Zealand rap canon. Yet years later I still think about Bazooka Kid more than almost any other New Zealand album, about the boldness and creativity it displayed – and the near-certainty of an indifferent commercial outcome. This month is ten years since it came out, spending three weeks grazing our charts before disappearing, largely unremarked upon. But it remains an extraordinary album, and I got in touch with Hansen in May to see if he wanted to talk about it.

We met up on a blindingly sunny late autumn day, him head-to-toe in black and still with the quiet composure of his prime. Now he’s studying psychology, still making music but no longer reliant on it for his identity. We talked for an hour about the album, the era, how rap has changed since and why it’s so much harder to be a rap artist than a guitar-based musician in New Zealand.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell me about your mentality when you started, blank sheet of paper, going into this project.

I really just try to make it for myself. Rookie Card was my first [album] and, like all rappers, it was my whole life up till then. And then you’ve told that story, and then it’s like, What do you talk about?’

Which I think is why a lot of second albums are shit, because you’ve done everything you wanted to do, every type of song you’d always wanted to make. So I was just making whatever I was feeling at the time, what I was into. And a lot of it had an 80s influence, a heavy synth sort of influence.

So, let’s just talk a little bit about that environment, because there wasn’t a lot of 80s influence in hip hop at the time.

It was like Miami Vice, like Phil Collins, ‘In the Air Tonight’. There were some songs, like Rick Ross had come out and he had that influence. He sampled Scarface, on ‘Push It’. I love that kind of sound. And things like Timbaland or the Neptunes would had, like an 80s influence. I think I had picked up on that, and was going full throttle with it, you know?

There’s a few different producers on it, and yet it hangs together, sonically, in a way that relatively few rap albums do. How did you achieve that?

Some of my favourite albums do that, where the songs can sound completely different, but they all fit. It’s a real hard thing to pull off. Whereas, I always think of an album like, you know Outkast, Aquemini. It’s so cohesive, but it’s really all over the show, how it sounds. As opposed to ATLiens, which is one whole vibe. Two great albums, but Aquemini, I think, is something I always gravitated towards. I think there’s a kind of skill in it.

‘Intro’ is two minutes long, no hook, it’s probably the grittiest thing on the record, but it’s so evocative, in terms of the way it conjures growing up in Palmy. What was it you were trying to convey with that?

I think that’s my favourite type of song to make, because, really, it is just rap. You just kind of black out, like a train of thought. My favourite Jay Z song is the intro to Dynasty, which is just 16 bars.

Me and [producers] Fire & Ice always had a good chemistry with those kind of songs. It’s almost like a dream, when you’re doing that, random thoughts pop into your head. Talking to my granddad, talking about my mum, and then it completely switches to something else. It’s like when people say your life flashes before your eyes. I listen back to that and you do feel like you are sort of rapping unconsciously.

Which other songs stand out to you as being the most meaningful or that have stayed with you?

It’s real interesting. That album, there’s songs that I love off it, like It Doesn’t Matter, or New Day. I don’t listen to my own shit, but I still listen to those songs, or someone randomly plays them and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, I actually like what we did here.’

Then there’s ‘Half Kast’, probably the song I get people talk to me the most. I think a lot of that album and that time in my life was me trying to find myself as a writer. It still feels like then I’m still in demo stage. Which is funny, because you say you love the album, and I still think I’m trying to find myself as an artist.

It’s something that I’ve thought about more in life, as being a person of mixed ethnicity, growing up in New Zealand. I didn’t think about much at the time, then randomly someone will talk to me about it. ‘That’s how I felt growing up, as well,’ or something.

We have a tendency to ascribe a singular ethnic identity to people that doesn’t always capture the complexities of many people’s lives.

I’m half Samoan, but I grew up with my mum’s side, which is the white side. And I had nothing to do with my Samoan side, but obviously I look really Samoan. So I grew up in a white family, but obviously I was treated as Samoan. People asking, ‘where are you from?’

I guess ‘Half Kast’, what I was talking about is, you grow up being too brown to be white, or too white to be brown. How do you negotiate that? It’s complex feelings or contradictory feelings, about your identity in New Zealand. Since then a lot of people have told me they feel the same way.

When it comes to identity, I’m also an only child. I identify as that, as much as I do as Samoan. I come from a solo parent household. Or it’s being half-caste – it’s not a problem. I’m proud of that, is what I was saying in there.

Even now there’s a lot of people you look up to, locally and internationally – Steven Adams or Sonny Bill Williams or Drake, or a lot of mixed ethnicity people. It’s not a binary thing that you have to pick one or the other. I’ve always felt like you should be allowed to be proud to be mixed.

It seems like this era doesn’t really encourage that.

No, not at all. It’s seen like, ‘You’re confused.’ And you can be, but you think of it in a different way, where maybe there’s advantages to it as well. Because my mum pushed so hard that I was Samoan, she never told me to discount my Samoan side. She was the opposite: ‘You should be proud of your Samoan side.’ So I always felt like the opposite, comfortable in different zones, rather than uncomfortable in any zone.

Another song I really like is ‘What’s Up’, because of the tone shift halfway through. Your lyrics have this real specificity to them. It seems to engage with the good and the bad of being a sort of semi-public figure.

That’s a song I really like off it. That was me trying to show how you interact with people that listen to your music. At that time, being a hip hop artist in New Zealand, and that’s the type of feedback that you get, wherever you go. I don’t say it was equal, but sometimes the negative feedback you get, especially when you’re younger, starting up, hits harder.

The same sort of person can come at you, all these different ways. The same sort of fan. But really, at the end of the day, it’s just rap music and it’s all good. That’s what I was trying to convey. It’s just me reflecting, how you get messages on the internet, or see people out, and the kind of experience that was, being an artist. Probably even more so at that time as well. Just how people thought about hip hop music.

That was near the height of that really super prominent period for New Zealand rap music, that whole generation of you, Scribe, Dawn Raid, David, Smashproof, with more of a club or going out scene in Auckland. Was it hard being part of that wave, loved but also heavily scrutinised?

It definitely was. Being young and starting out, you can definitely take those things to heart. It was the internet generation, the first time people could just throw things at you behind avatars. And I think, when I came out, there was kind of a backlash to hip hop.

And to New Zealand hip hop.

New Zealand hip hop had this peak and then this huge valley that I felt like a lot of the guys around my era came in on, and there was a resistance to it.

The irony is that a lot of you were arguably creating better work, more sophisticated work than had come in that few years earlier.

There was this period where Money and Scribe and Deceptikonz came out, and it was this thing where, New Zealand was actually making cool hip hop on a commercial level. And people were just loving it and celebrating.

It was a cultural thing, even like Eight Mile kind of educated people about hip hop. Eminem had educated. People that didn’t understand hip hop, out of nowhere, understood it, and Scribe came at perfect time.

After this wave, then people decided they didn’t like it, or they got tired of it. There was a quick backlash to it. And that’s when we came up. It was more like apathy towards it. You’re wondering, ‘do these dudes think hip hop is just a fad?’

What were the ambitions for Bazooka Kid? It didn’t feel like it was shooting for a number one single.

I’m really just making music for myself. Stemmed from shit that I’m into. I even wonder if it’s coming from Palmerston North in the 90s. It’s kind of like a music desert. I just got certain things, like [compilation series] Rhythm Volume CDs, or just one good radio station. So the music I was exposed to was different. I didn’t have the same set of parameters.

People don’t understand what music scarcity was like…

It will never exist again. Back then something like a Wu-Tang CD – like a pop song was as influential to me as Wu-Tang was because I’d get this music and it’s all I had to listen to, or it was all that was in the local music shop. So Bazooka Kid had pop sensibilities to it, whereas , if I grew up only surrounded by hip hop, it probably wouldn’t happen that way.

Even though you’re not writing chart hip hop, I think, at any point in your career, your hooks are always beautifully constructed in a pop style.

Pop music and making a great pop song is the most impressive thing in music to me. It’s what I grew up on. I remember at the time I was listening to lots of the Phil Collins’ Face Value album. What I always liked about Phil Collins, he seems like an everyday dude who makes these grand songs.

Doesn’t look like much.

No, no – like balding, like middle-aged dude making, wearing a turtleneck, making this insanely provocative music. And the rest of his music has this, like, unashamed pop vibe to it, you know what I mean? I watched a ‘Classic Albums’ documentary on him back then, about making ‘In the Air Tonight’ in his room, by himself, just kind of freestyling with drum machines and stuff. And I think that’s how I grew up, making music in my bedroom in Feilding on a shitty PC mic. There’s also people like Prince or Michael Jackson that I grew up listening to, obviously influencing a lot of the sound, and the whole New Wave sound with it. That real 80s excess sort of stuff I just loved.

Was there ever a kind of pressure from label type people that they wanted you to do something that was a bit more conventional?

Being on Dirty, back then, it really was P-Money and Callum August’s label. P-Money was such a supportive dude with music, and he recognised someone’s creative process. He would give advice and have his thoughts, but he wouldn’t sit down and be like, ‘a banger sounds like this right now,’ because that’s not how he makes music either.

Around the same time you did that little remix of Cascada’s ‘Evacuate the Dancefloor’, which I loved. It felt super 90s, even though it was contemporary song, just this idea of a rapper doing a little 20 second verse on a smash pop song.

That was when Jay Reeves hosted ZM and someone thought it was me on the song and it became a thing, they asked ‘would you rap on it?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, of course’. But that’s happened in rap for years. It’s like Puff Daddy putting Ol’ Dirty Bastard on a Mariah Carey songs. I just like to think of mashing this extreme pop with someone who’s not usually associated with that.

Growing up, I never had this idea of guilty pleasure. I just liked the song, even if it was Ace of Base or something. The song is the song. It definitely comes across in something like Bazooka Kid or ‘Take Me Home’. I liked Boyz to Men or Nelly as much as I liked Nas.

Was some of what drove Bazooka Kid’s sound the fact hip hop was in a state of flux at the time, caught between two eras?

Hip hop worldwide when I came out was in a weird place. I think you even saw it with P-Money, he became a dance producer. So with Bazooka Kid, it’s almost like there’s a boredom with hip hop. I’d grown up on Jay-Z and Outkast and Biggie, and then it became like the biggest dudes who were doing that didn’t have that importance of skill. Then it came back with guys like Drake.

Drake creates amazing pop songs, so you can kind of forget that whenever he wants to, he can do a verse that just destroys the world.

I see people online getting mad at people that have Drake in their top five records or something, it blows my mind. I’m like, ‘Do you even listen to the verses?’ Drake, he’s easily one of the best rappers in the world, every year has the best verse, every year. Or best guest feature. Or he does his series of ‘5am In Toronto’ and stuff where he raps for three minutes. But because he makes these pop songs, you discount that for some reason.

When you look back on your career, do you feel like it was harder because you made hip hop? It’s a lot easier for white artists or artists who work with predominantly white musical forms to get corporate work, to play at the opening of a car dealership or a sync that helps sustain a career. In a way that an artist like yourself is just prevented from doing. Did it ever frustrate you then, or subsequently, the way that the world is different for you as an artist versus someone who just happens to make a different song that’s kind of a bit more palatable?

Yeah, definitely. It’s that feeling that your music isn’t quite legitimate. Your whole career is, how do you make this viable? You feel like you’re making music that’s as good or better than these people, and other people who are doing a different genre can more easily convert it into a career.

Being a musician in New Zealand is hard, but being a rapper in New Zealand is even harder. You can’t get the same gigs. I don’t listen to much commercial radio stations, but it’s weird that hip hop still isn’t really played on those type of radio stations.

It’s the biggest music in the world. It headlines Coachella. It destroys Spotify, and yet…

There’s a resistance to it. It’s just not the type of music that is the status quo in New Zealand. Even in the songwriting awards. I think of the songwriting awards, it means a white person with a guitar. It’s this anomaly if a hip hop song was to get it.

It’s like people being shocked that ‘Sicko Mode’ has 30 writers.

I remember there was a meme where people couldn’t believe a Beyonce song was nominated for Best Song. It had 30 writers and was pitted up against ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. With like, one writer. They were saying ‘this is real music’. Who cares? ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is obviously an amazing song, but just because one person wrote this and 30 people wrote another song, the end product is the end product.

So because hip hop is sampling, it’s drum machines, it’s not singing – these are things that people discount it for against ‘real music’.

How was Bazooka Kid received at the time?

Well from what I remember. ‘Tonight’, back when C4 was on, got quite a lot of play. It’s funny with putting out music, you can feel kind of disconnected from it. Almost like what people think of it doesn’t matter.

When you look back across your career, where does it sit in terms of things that you’ve done?

Personally as an artist, as a rapper, I was still trying to find my zone of comfort for the first 10 years. I think of Luke Vailima or Under the Influence as just refined, I’ve become refined, and I know what my strong suits are. But Bazooka Kid, it’s more earnest at times, because I’m just trying things out.

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