Two NZ death-rap pioneers.
SXMPRA, left, and Lilbubblegum: Spotify chart botherers. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureMay 27, 2023

The Grammy-partying, Spotify-crushing NZ rappers you’ve probably never heard of

Two NZ death-rap pioneers.
SXMPRA, left, and Lilbubblegum: Spotify chart botherers. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Archi Banal)

SXMPRA and Lilbubblegum aren’t household names yet – but their streaming numbers prove they’re already in the big leagues. 

Kalem Tarrant is feeling a little dusty. He’s sitting outside a Symonds Street burger joint at a Monday lunchtime with Luke Winther, whose dark sunglasses indicate he’s feeling the same way. The pair, known to fans as SXMPRA (pronounced “Sem-pra”) and Lilbubblegum, performed together in Wellington on Saturday night.

Afterwards, Tarrant admits, “We got up to some stuff.” No, he wouldn’t care to elaborate on what that “stuff” might be.

The pair are local musicians who make “phonk” – a dark subset of Soundcloud rap that also includes elements of metal, jazz, drum n bass and funk. Tarrant, 23, rents a flat in Wellington, and Winther, 19, lives with his parents in the West Auckland suburb of Te Atatū Peninsula. They’re in the middle of a quickfire world tour that’s taken them through America and Canada. Afterwards, SXMPRA headed to Europe solo, taking in stops in Poland, Germany, Berlin and London.

Tomorrow, the pair fly to Australia for several shows together before returning to Auckland for another one. The days, they admit, are beginning to blur. 

Success is happening, fast. They’re racking up millions of streams, eclipsing some of New Zealand’s biggest artists. Tarrant just released the song ‘LET’S RIDE!’ with his idols Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, a song that includes lyrics from the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. It appears on a soundtrack mixtape for recent blockbuster sensation Fast X. Lately, he’s been building hype for another single, a remix of his Spotify-smash ‘COWBELL WARRIOR!’ recorded with the US rap juggernaut Ski Mask the Slump God.

In February, the pair stepped off a plane in Los Angeles and headed straight to a Grammy Awards party held for rising stars. They were still in their hoodies. “We were drinking margaritas, Red Bull vodkas … two Kiwi kids at the Grammys,” says Tarrant. They were so nervous Winther admits they skipped the red carpet. “I was just wearing a T-shirt and jeans. It was buzzy as.”

Both SXMPRA and Lilbubblegum are products of the internet age. Their success hasn’t been achieved through traditional methods. Neither has a particularly large fanbase in New Zealand. They don’t film glitzy music videos, get radio airplay or receive much recognition from the local industry. Instead, they built their audiences from their bedrooms, recording music on broken equipment in wardrobes then releasing songs online as quickly as possible. 

During Covid lockdowns, both found their music spreading across social media, mostly through TikTok and Instagram. That’s why they haven’t bothered with full-length albums. “The attention span of people is shortening,” says Tarrant. “Because of TikTok and all this bite-size content, it’s important for us to be pushing singles, piece-by-piece-by-piece. It keeps us in peoples’ faces.”

Winther agrees: “You might have one or two songs that do well from the album and the rest kind of do average.”

Two local members of the death-rap community.
Lilbubblegum, left, and SXMPRA. (Photo: Supplied)

That strategy is working. Streaming numbers for both rappers are through the roof, their Spotify numbers easily putting them in the upper echelon of New Zealand artists. ‘COWBELL WARRIOR!’ – a concoction of thudding baselines and Tarrant rapping like Bone Thugs on triple-speed – now boasts 110 million streams. “This dude was making these flashy, epileptic-type videos, and he put my song behind that with the lyrics on screen and it took off,” says Tarrant about how it went viral on TikTok. From there, it blew up. “It’s just this big chain reaction.” 

Winther, too, is also enjoying huge streaming success, the monotonous chants of his jazz-infused single AF1 nearing 76 million plays. He also found success on TikTok. “It was car videos, like JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) videos, a little bit of dancing, just everything, to be honest,” he says.

On Spotify, both are doing bigger numbers than Six60 and L.A.B. They’re rare examples of local acts able to make Spotify’s notoriously low streaming payouts work for them. “A million plays is about $US4000 – so about $NZ6000,” says Tarrant. That would mean earnings of $NZ660,000 for ‘COWBELL WARRIOR!’ alone.

Ask them about that and they’ll shrug their shoulders and mutter, “Mmm.” Tarrant says: “That’s what the internet can do for you.”

On Spotify, the dominant streaming service, only Lorde and Benee are bigger. Yet the pair have arrived at Symond Street’s Burger Geek sans label representation, management or entourage. No one’s there to put restrictions on my questions or moderate our chat. Fans don’t stop by to say hi. Ask them if they’ve received help from the local music industry and Tarrant replies: “That’s a controversial question … you have to achieve pretty extraordinary shit for them to even turn their heads.” 

Their audience is overseas, and they both say that is just how they like it – even if it means many more dusty days recovering from life on the road ahead of them. “I’m very much a homebody,” says Winther, who enjoys returning from tours to rest up in his childhood bedroom decorated with Skyrim and Back to the Future posters. “New Zealand … is a real tough crowd,” says Tarrant. Winther agrees. “Our music … we try to aim for it to be more global.”

How’d all this happen? Tarrant began making music after becoming disillusioned at film school in Hamilton. He took the soundtrack of his childhood – his parents played a lot of AC/DC and Metallica – as well as his love of distorted, chaotic Soundcloud hip-hop and began rapping into his Xbox headset, converting them into songs on his broken laptop.

Tarrant had no plans to release anything. He just wanted his favourite artists to release music quicker, so he began aping them. “Fuck it, I’m gonna make music like this so I can listen to it,” was his attitude, he told Sniffers.

His mother would often be in the next room while he recorded angry, aggressive lyrics over glitchy, distorted, bass-heavy beats. “She’s just sitting in the lounge, watching TV, and I’m in my room screaming at the microphone,” he says. Tarrant would pop his head out to tell her: “I just recorded a good one.” As his songs racked up plays on Soundcloud, he quit film school and moved to Wellington to focus on music full-time.

Around the same time, Winther was at boarding school. He began sneaking into Dilworth’s music room to make his own songs when he should have been doing his homework. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. At home, he’d close the door to his wardrobe and rap to beats supplied by his mates on his iPhone 5 in the dark. A sock placed over a microphone helped distort his vocals.

We’re sitting just around the corner from Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios, where megawatt radio stars like Adele and Drake have recorded and rehearsed in the confines of its acoustically-calibrated walls. Both say they’d feel too much pressure to make music in a proper studio like that. Instead of making perfectly formed songs glimmering with studio sheen, they prefer to craft music that sounds rough around the edges. Genre titans $uicideBoy$, a cult New Orleans favourite who recently performed at Coachella, are the inspiration. “They’ve definitely set the bar for people like us,” says Tarrant.

They still make music the same way as when they started. That, they say, is the best way to create the vibe they’re going for. If they’re feeling it, their fans will too. “It’s like a release,” says Tarrant. “This is a product of me, of my emotions and the way I’m feeling at the time. I guess it can be the same sort of thing as a painting.” It’s a canvas that’s deliberately aggressive, and Tarrant readily admits their shows can be full-on. “My fans, they like a little bit of violence,” he says.

Next weekend, they’ll get the chance to do that in Hamilton and Auckland when they perform small but breakneck shows together. The pair’s sets are so full-on, so energetic, and require so much breath control to rap at the pace that they do they can only perform for 30 minutes at a time. That, they say, is enough for everyone to get what they want out of their shows. “It’s moshing, it’s energy, [fans] come to let off steam,” says Tarrant. Winther nods as he listens. “It’s good fun.”

SXMPRA play Hamilton’s Last Place Bar on June 2, and Auckland’s Neck of the Woods on June 3.

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