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Pop CultureFebruary 21, 2017

Savage, New Zealand’s blockbuster rapper, is back. Again.


Henry Oliver talks to Savage about getting his songs on big Hollywood movies, outlasting so many of his New Zealand hip hop contemporaries and why he’s not interested in recording any more albums.

Two weeks ago, during the Super Bowl, over 110 million people heard a minute of ‘Push’, a year-and-a-half-old song that Savage, perhaps New Zealand’s most internationally commercially successful rapper, made with Kronic, an Australian EDM producer, and Far East Movement, an electro-rap group from LA. The song featured on The Fate of the Furious, the new installment of one of the highest-grossing movie franchises in history.

Savage’s voice is instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through the 2000s in New Zealand, and on ‘Push’ he does what he does best, bringing the energy in a pre-chorus verse that breaks into a dubstep-style breakdown chorus with a sample of Savage yelling the song’s title cut into it. It’s the kind of mindless fun that fits perfectly with the ampheta-mania of car chases, shattering glass and making-out of a Fast and Furious trailer.

When Savage came to New Zealand’s attention as a member of The Deceptikonz, a central force in New Zealand hip hop wave of the 2000s, few could have predicted that Savage would have the longest and most commercially successful career. Fellow Deceptikon Mareko, who combined lyrical skill, street cred and NY co-signs, was usually considered ‘best rapper’ (and Dawn Raid’s commercial focus). Scribe, who’s ‘Not Many (Remix)’ dominated New Zealand music television and radio in 2003, combined rap skills with popstar charisma, and Con-Psy (David Dallas) was the intricately technical newcomer. But Savage had a singular and infectious energy, and his lack of technical precision gave room for his personality (and his voice) to take centre stage.

From the opening bars of ‘Not Many’, when he calls out “Pito Saute Aukilagi … It ain’t good / It ain’t good cause you’ll get jumped in my hood”, to him closing the song with “Can you please give it up for Savage … it’s all good / It’s all good when you come to my hood … Thank you! … Very Much! …  Peace! … Holy shit!”. With ‘better rappers’ all around him, Savage sounds like he’s having the most fun and, in turn, just sounds the most fun. And it’s this fun he’s built a career out of.

While most of his contemporaries have stopped making music, and his three albums have had little commercial success, Savage continued to maintain a career out of making high-energy, club-friendly singles and getting them synced on US movies and TV shows. ‘Swing’, the lead single from his debut solo album Moonshine, was the number one single in New Zealand for five weeks in yearly 2005, but three years later, after appearing in a clubbing scene in the Judd Apatow movie Knocked Up, a new version of the song featuring Soulja Boy sold over a million copies and was certified platinum in the US. Now, nine years later, with a song in a almost-guaranteed blockbuster, Savage could be on the verge of yet another resurgence and another crack at the US market.

The Spinoff: This is a big moment for you. Did you know it was coming?

Savage: Yeah, but you know how they do, they normally don’t confirm it until you actually see it.

You’ve done super well with getting your music on movies…

I’ve had some really good success with syncing songs to movies. ‘Swing’ on Knocked Up, that just took a life of its own and then we landed a couple of songs on Superbad, which came out shortly after. And then Step Up 3, and then here we are again.

‘Freaks’ is on a new Anthony Hopkins movie. It’s on a few shows actually – you remember Training Day? They’re making a TV show and it’s on the first episode. And a new Drew Barrymore TV show. So there are all these syncs that people aren’t aware of. But I’m overseeing everything and I see where everything is going, so I’m just trying to keep the music going and work with great artists and being in business with good people.

Each time you have a song on a major movie, do you see it as another shot to build a career in the States?

I always thought ‘Swing’ was a strong record so when it didn’t go past Australia, I was a bit disappointed. But once it picked up in America, that made sense for me. It just meant I had to drop everything and had to focus in on the American market. And it just blew up. People were doing their own YouTube videos, so it kind of went viral. But this was before Facebook so social media was a lot smaller back then.

With this song, this is a song we put out at the end of 2015 and it didn’t get the push we were after – no pun intended. It’s one of the songs in my set that goes off every time and people are unfamiliar with it. So, here we are now, with the same situation as ‘Swing’ but in a different time, so the strategy is different, but the hope is still the same.

So what’s the strategy now? If you look at recent rap songs that have been huge, crossover hits, ‘Black Beatles’ and ‘Bad and Bougie’, these are songs that are more than songs, they’ve become memes.

It’s all online, so you’ve got to catch something that’s going to help it go viral, for it to get on people’s screens, for the song to be familiar to people, just like with the mannequin challenge and the ‘Black Beatles’ record. That song took off mainly because of the mannequin challenge. that’s what we’re hoping for, that something’s going to happen like that.

So how does a two-year-old song get on a Fast and Furious movie?

It’s all due to the publishing company. I’m signed with 120 publishing company, which is part of Ministry of Sound Australia. And they have made things happen for this record, through Universal. What it comes down to is being able to get your music in the right catalogues for people involved in the movies that are going to come out – they look through all these songs and they’ll pick out something that catches their ear straight away. So you always hope you have that 15 second connecting factor. You only really have 15 seconds for a person to really connect with a record. If you lose them, they’re going to skip it. So it’s a matter of capturing them instantly. That’s the main focus, putting the right records on these catalogues to capture the attention of people like the guys from Fast and Furious.

And the beauty of it for us down here is our quality is at an international level. That’s the best thing about Kiwi music and music from our side of the world. We can compete against others, but unfortunately we don’t have the revenues and opportunities they do. But the quality of music is the same so when you have big blockbuster movies like this go through songs for the movie and then they weigh it up – ‘This is a well-known song that’s gonna cost this much to get it, when we can have this song, that is just as good and will do the same job but for x amount’. That helps us, the marketing budget. They played that trailer during the Super Bowl which had over a hundred million viewers. That’s an awesome plug. I would have paid them fifty grand to put that on. So it just works really well. It’s something that’s important for artists to understand. You’ve got to think outside the box to get your music out there and this is one avenue that we’ve found.

One of the songs you’re most well-known for here is ‘Not Many’, which was one of the biggest songs of the 2000s in New Zealand …

It’s a classic. I’m proud to have been a part of it because it’s an iconic Kiwi song.

But while it was such a huge song here, it didn’t travel beyond Australia like ‘Swing’ did. Was there a difference in the sound, or in the localness, that separated the two songs?

It’s funny you say that because I’ve been to places where people still know that record. I was in Brooklyn, New York filming the video clip for ‘Moonshine’ and some random guy pulled over who happened to be a professor at a university and asked where I was from. I said I’m from New Zealand and he’s like, ‘Man, I’ve got this song from New Zealand that I bought in Japan and I love it, I can’t stop listening to it.’ And he plays it and it’s ‘Not Many’. I’m like, ‘Bro, that’s my voice! That’s me right there.’

I think what it was with ‘Not Many’ was really bad timing I guess, and whoever was handling it at the time. That’s what it comes down to. Timing. Me personally, I don’t look at myself and think I’m the best rapper in New Zealand, because I don’t look at myself that way. I may think of myself as one of the hardest working artists, but I’ve never thought of myself as the most lyrical artist. But the one thing I’ve always had on my side is timing, timing things perfectly, to the point where I tend to get a lot further than others.

Because it was such a huge hit and because it had multiple people on it, that song kind of represents that generation of New Zealand hip hop …

When that song came out, that’s when artists like myself and Scribe and David Dallas and the Deceptikonz and Nesian Mystik and every other artist that was out at the time, we were all brothers, we were all together, we were united. But it was also a song that created revenue so the business started to take over, and that’s where the circle starts to close off. You have the Dirty Records circle over here, you have the Dawn Raid circle here, everyone started to go back into their own little crews. That was the sad thing about it. Once the music started selling and started to make money, that’s when it changed everything.

When you think about ‘Not Many’, everybody that had any kind of involvement on the record became someone big in their own right, from myself to D Dot [David Dallas], to Scribe, who was already massive. You’ve got to think about this guy – when they first added the urban category to the New Zealand music awards, he cleaned it up, not just the urban category – everything. He took out almost every award you could think of that year. That was a big statement. Think about what he accomplished, what P-Money accomplished, what the guy who directed the video, Chris Graham, accomplished after that. It was just one of those records that helped everybody but at the same time kinda doomed everything too. Everyone went into their own little corners, and there were little tussles between management and record labels. It’s like they say – whenever there’s a hit, there’s a split.

Was that the case with Deceptikonz too?

I will honestly say, hand on my heart, we were probably the closest crew that I could ever think of. We actually never really fought against each other, or disagreed or argued. We were so much on the same level that we thought of each other as equals, all the time. When Mareko did White Sunday, we were behind Mareko with White Sunday. When Alphrisk did Alphrisk the Apostle, we were behind Alphrisk, and when I did Moonshine, the boys were right behind me, supporting me. And the same thing with Devolo’s album, we were all right behind Devolo. We were always supporting each other, one hundred percent. That was the beauty of my crew, there was nothing – not money, not women, not nothing  – that could split us apart. That was the best thing about my crew – we were so close and even to this day we’re still very close. When we did our last album Evolution together, two of the guys moved to Brisbane, just to set up a better life for their family and it was only just me and Devolo back here, but we’re still very close.


Why do you think you’ve continued while the others haven’t?

Whenever we had to question certain things with our record label, I was always the one that was anointed to ask the questions. So I started trying to figure out the industry, where the others weren’t really interested in that part. They just wanted to do the music and focus on writing and performing, where I took initiative to try and learn the industry. And I think that’s what kept me going. Once I had the success in the US and came back to New Zealand and we released our group album, I still felt that I had something to offer. But in order for me to do that, I had to finish my last album for Dawn Raid and to venture on my own to see whether the ideas and plans I had always thought about would connect and work. And give it up to the Dawn Raid guys for actually letting me go, for letting me venture off and do my thing. And as you can see from everything I’ve done, it’s all just connecting the dots. I was able to put my knowledge into my own thing and the drive i had was to know that I was in full control of my career. That’s important for an artist to keep going, is to have that freedom. I think that’s the whole reason why I was able to go on after the D-konz. At the time when we released the last album I could see that everyone had moved on in their lives.

Do you think you handled the success differently from someone like Scribe who got so big and then disappeared…

Scribe is someone I have the utmost respect for. To be able to come from nothing and walk into an industry that has doors closed on us already. So, for the first year they added the urban award to the New Zealand Music Awards, for him to take that out. He’s the only artist I’ve ever seen to this day to have that Justin Bieber effect. I remember watching from my hotel room in Wellington and looking out of the record store where he was doing his signing and him trying to exit out through the back door and him getting chased by hundreds of people. I have not seen that since him. For him to be able to do his thing, become accepted and taken in as an Australian in Australia and take off over there and become one of the biggest rappers there. For him to be able to one day say ‘I’m good, I’m happy, I want to go and focus on my family now’. I can only respect a person like that.

That’s when you see that morals outweigh the fame and all those other demands that other people want to become rappers for. You gotta respect that. I tell him all the time, the only one that can bring hip hop back to its true form in New Zealand is him.

He had the Justin Bieber effect. I haven’t seen anyone in this country since then have that effect. People running with the bus and crying. Trying to follow us back to the hotel. It was crazy. It was awesome to watch. And when you go see the theatre show that he does with his father and his brother, that’s when it just makes sense, that’s what he walked away for. Because that’s the way he was. He didn’t care about the fame, didn’t care about the money. None of that would ever change him. He did it because he wanted to and now he doesn’t want to, and no one can force him to do it.

You’ve had big gaps between albums, your last album came out nearly five years ago. But, are you just constantly working on music?

This is a record that’s come out now, that people are hearing about, that was done a year and a bit ago and since then I haven’t released many other records. It’s just a matter of lining them up for certain things for it to have some light shining on it. Once I got my own feet in the industry and was able to go direct to a label like Ministry and do my own deal directly, that gave me the passion for my music again. Like, I want to go to a studio. I’m a father of three, so my studio sessions are from ten o’clock to two o’clock, from right after I drop off my kids to school and I’m in the studio until the time I pick them up from school. I love that I’m able to do that. It just gives me more of a boost to get in the studio and write music. It’s exciting.

I’ve been in the industry for 16, 17 years now and to still have that fire is important. I’ve never looked at myself as someone like David Dallas or Scribe, where people anticipated their next album. I was never that kind of artist. But people always anticipated my next single. So that’s why once I went on my own, singles are what I’m focused on. Just singles. Because that’s my strength. Why would I put all my effort and time into creating an album that people don’t want when I can put all that effort into one song or a couple of songs. With my label now, it’s all single deals, not albums deals. I’m not interested in recording an album, I’m more interested in building a catalogue so I can put out a compilation.

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