Interview: NZ Hip Hop History with Spell-Part 1

Feature, Interview, Music

spell many

Spell’s story begins where this interview ends. He explains his hip hop career to date, ‘Took 10 years and I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight…I’m just finishing off laying the foundation for the rest of my career and yeah it’s all part of the plan.”

Raised in Hamilton where he dropped out of high school to pursue DJ’ing, he knew back then that he’d have to be patient. “I was like, I’m dropping out of high school to do this, and now I’m doing it.” During fried rice, dumplings, juice crushes and two hours and forty minutes of record time we talk about hip hop. Whether he was DJ’ing, graffiti writing or breakin’, he explains that for him, when something catches his attention he has this thing happen where he locks on and consumes whatever it is. ‘Like right now, what we’re doing. I’m doing it. I’m trying to give you everything.’

Thoroughly focussed on his art, the one theme that remains throughout his obsessions, from wrestling or film making, is hip hop. It was seeing the breakin’ in the Run DMC vs. Jason Nevins, It’s Like That video that did it. He says, ‘That just blew my mind’ and he fell in love with the culture then. Speaking to him is like a first-hand account of some of NZ’s legendary Hip Hop moments; from Auckland’s Hip Hop summit in 2001, to 4 Corners, to DJ’ing for Bboy battles and recently opening for KRS-One. Despite 10 years past and some pretty cool titles earned- that would make other people rest on their laurels, he simply notes, he is on the right track and looks to successes yet to come:

HH: How did you come up with the name Spell?

S: Well actually I started writing graffiti in 2001, I saw a video called King Destroy The Cope2 Video and I was third form and after that I was like yeah I’m gonna start writing graffiti. I came up with a whole bunch of names and there were heaps of really shitty names- I had been tagging since primary in 1993 or something. My first name was ‘Shorty’- I was always the shortest kid in school. I started writing ‘Spec’ and I had that name for maybe a year. One night I went out bombing and did this big bubble letter Spec with a character and that was that. Eventually word got around, like at church, and came back to my parents. My mum had found out and she was mad, like disappointed. So I was like yeah I’ll just change my name a little bit and then no one will know it was me. So I just dropped the C and put an L on it. But everyone knew it was me of course.

HH: But Not Mum?

S: Nah she knew it was me but by then they’d eased up. My parents were actually pretty supportive after that… mad supportive. They saw that I was passionate about it. They were really worried about me like roaming the streets by myself late at night and getting jumped or something like that.

HH: Where are you from?

S: This all happened in West Hamilton, H-Town. It’s cool, small. People say there’s nothing to do there, but for me it was the perfect place to grow as an artist. We had a nice little hip hop scene, everybody knows each other and that’s when I really got into hip hop.

HH: So by the time one year rolled around were you with a crew?

S: I had friends that I would talk into coming with me. I’d be sitting on MSN like, bro come help me, go bombing. Yeah so my friends would come and help me like my friend Lamar Tenwold. We’d meet up at The Point and I’d tell him what the spot was and we’d go there. He’s taller so I’d get on his shoulders and then that would get more height. There was a bunch of dudes, I was always the youngest in the group.

HH: How did that come to be?

S: They just kind of saw me as like a little brother. As well through church. The guys that really showed me how to do this [hip hop] shit were all the older guys. My friend Leal really helped me out, he was a couple of years older and I looked up to him like big time.

HH: Are these guys still in the scene?

S: Nah. But for me it was like this is gonna be what I do forever. For everyone else it was like just something that everybody did. Everybody listened to rap and like everyone was breakin’ back then so it was all just a trend and the cool thing that everybody did and the older kids did. And I wanted to be like the older kids.

HH: How did you come to the decision that hip hop would be forever for you?

S: Those early years. I was just so influenced by it right off the bat, I fell in love with it and I didn’t think about anything else. Actually you need to go back to 1998 that’s when I saw Run DMC vs. Jason Nevins, just the video on TV. In that video there’s breakin’ in it and that was the first time I had seen breakin’. I was 10 going on 11. And that’s, really, when it all changed.

HH: So breakin’ came before graph?

S: Yeah I started breakin’. I heard on Radio Tainui that Time Bandits were going to be teaching some Bboy workshops, we were driving in the car, me and my mum. Mum asked about what it was, I asked if I could go and she was like break dancing? You don’t dance, but she said, yeah I’ll take you down. I was at Kura Kaupapa going to Rakaumanga, actually no I wasn’t I had gone to public school for one year. I wanted to see what it was like.

HH: Did you like public school?

S: Yeah I loved it I went from being like, the fucken… the white kid at kura kaupapa, the like stupid white Māori kid to like being the cool Māori kid at public school [laughs]. It was pretty buzzy. So it was a real big change for me and it was mean. I was like the popular kid at school and all the girls liked me …I got into wrestling big time, when that came out and that was my life. Then I started breakin’. The Time Bandits like, Brendan Chase taught me how to six step and that was the real start of this hip hop shit…They’d go away on these trips like to Auckland and I remember them coming back with mad stories and I’d be bummed out cause I couldn’t go. I was too young.

…And then in 1999 I went back to Rakaumanga and a DJ called Freeman came to my school and he was with a rap group. I have a feeling it was a group called Iwi. Freeman was from the H. I saw him DJ’ing live at my school, he was scratching and cuttin and my mind exploded….It was a rap show with the emcees; Freeman was DJ’ing and cuttin then maybe some kids started breakin’ and when I saw that it was like this all belongs to the same thing.

HH: Then what?

S: So then I was like I want to be a DJ.

HH: How’d you go about that?

S: I tried to convince my parents to buy me turntables. Someone at school brought a ripped page out of The Source and it had like the ads for DJ packages, like DJ In A Box. So I took that home and was like can you’s buy me some turntables.

“I didn’t know what turntables were for but I knew you could do scratching with them and that DJ’s did scratching… That’s kind of what I thought djing was all about …just scratching and that was 1999.”

…In 1997 I played rugby league and I was so shit man. I was nine…I was real bad and um I was just trying to fit in like everyone. The school I went to was just a rugby league school. So I was like fuck, I want to play rugby league. Anyways I did and I was real bad but one day after training I went back to my friend Punakai’s house and his dad was a DJ. We jumped on the couch and he was like bro check this out, and he was a little fulla as well, so we like climbed up the couch and the big stereo system seemed like it was real high and there was a turntable on top and he was like ‘yo, zigga, zigga, zigga’ you know and that was the first time I saw scratching, this was in 1997.

HH: So you’d seen it before?

S: I’d seen it, yeah but I didn’t know what was going on until 1999 when I saw Freeman.

HH: Have you ever been able to bump back into him?

S: Mmhmm. Yeah the last time I saw Freeman was in 2005.

HH: Did you get to tell him the influence he had on you?

S: Nah I didn’t tell him. But he was mad cool…I don’t even really know if he knows who I am or anything.

HH: Okay so 1999 did you get decks?

S: Nah. In 2001, third form, one of my friends from school-his dad brought him some turntables…A Gemini, DJ In A Box and with two really shitty turntables I think they were even belt driven and a really bad mixer but aw man it was off the hook cause now I had access to some turntables.

…So we’d all go to Leal’s house that was like the centre for our group of friends and we’d set up the turntables and it came with an instructional, how to dj video. We’d watch that and then yeah we’d all have a go doing these cuts…They knew me for being like the hard out kid like I was always determined to really get it sussed and so I’d just end up hogging the turntables. When everyone would go to sleep I’d still be up trying to practice.

HH: Were you always determined like that. Is that just your personality?

S: Everything I do is extreme it’s a… I have an obsessive personality… when I have something stuck in my head I just follow through with it I don’t make goals or nothing like that it’s just I have an idea and I do it. Yeah so I think the turntables would end up at my house a couple of times and my friends would all DJ. They would DJ on CD mixers like church dancers and high school dancers in H-Town. They’d hire out these CD mixers and I’d try and have a go, that’s kind of where I learnt how to beat mix, blend songs.

HH: So the DJ In a box was CD’s?

S: Nah it was vinyl.

HH: So you had a hand in being able to play with both, did you find that helpful?

S: Yip, very helpful, extremely helpful. It’s like all dj’s should learn on vinyl with records it just helps, it’s just a different feeling, feeling the vinyl. Kids these days can just learn how to mix with an iPhone. And so I am real lucky that got the tail end of that [era]. I came into it right in the middle when vinyl was just going out, CDJ’s were big and Serato hadn’t come out yet. So I got to learn how to cut on vinyl and I learned how to mix on CDJ’s-cd players and vinyl. I didn’t get Serato until 2009.

HH: You’d be self-taught then?

S: Yeah, everything was trial and error. We had no one to teach us so we were just teaching ourselves there was nothing, like there was no YouTube back then, no internet. So yeah it was all just trial and error.

HH: If your friends weren’t so into Dj’ing is it possible that it might have passed you by?

S: Yip. It definitely had something to do with the kids I was hanging out with… But I’m sure I would have found it, I would have found some way to meet up with people that were into hip hop.

HH: Okay so you are third/fourth form learning to DJ…then what?

S: My friend Leal DJ’d a school dance at Church College, I helped him, I think that was the first time the kids at school saw me as like… ‘aw that’s the DJ guy’. So after that I was the DJ guy, also I was breakin’ at school and everyone kind of knew me as like the popping guy, the tagger, now I was the DJ guy. [At the time] everyone was listening to rap, rap was huge, you know all that early 2000 rap. In 2001/2002 there were still a lot of people breakin’ but it had died down quite a lot compared to like 98/99/2000 it was really huge. But by then it had died down and it was just like the real dedicated ones still there.

HH: So now you’re the DJ guy…

S: There’s so much. 2002 was a big year for me. That was fourth form. Sneaking out at night bombing. Going out bombing…with the same guys. Leal, the older kid, he always had a car and I was always in the passenger seat with him. We had another friend Kahukura he used to write Coke, he was a big influence on me as far as graffiti goes…And then my group of friends, like the older kids I was hanging out with, they got less and less into hip hop so… and then some of them even started getting into trouble. And I didn’t wanna fuck with that.

HH: You always knew that you weren’t going to go down that road?

S: Yeah, all I cared about was wrestling, writing graffiti, scratching and breakin’. It was all I cared about. All my friends that hung out with, it wasn’t cool to drink, smoke weed, so I was around those guys and that was the older kids that I was looking up to so I thought like fuck that shit. It just never made sense to me. It was never attractive to me.

…So yeah my friends started doing that and I just slowly started drifting away from them and then I like found my other friend Kurv and we were like the hip hop guys. He came down from Manurewa to Church College in fourth form, 2002, and yeah he was a bit of a cool fulla. Anyways I started hanging out with him all the time and we were like the hip hop guys cause there was no one really anymore by like 2003.

By this time there’d been a bunch of big events that’d happened. Like Raw Styles in 2000 at the Town Hall in Auckland. That was huge. I saw P-Money for the first time. And I remember walking in and he was playing Super Brooklyn by the Cocoa Brovaz and then the following year after that there was Battle Of The Year at St James in Auckland and that was huge and then 2002 there was another battle of the year. These are Bboys events. My parents were always supportive like getting me to Auckland they’d usually drive me and a bunch of us up, paid for our tickets, drop us off and then come back you know five hours later. Yeah my parents are super supportive man, I was real lucky to have them.

HH: You know how you said when you focus on things you go full ball. Did you focus on anything else? How was your school?

S: Nah, I didn’t do school…But I went to school, I loved school but I didn’t do any work. No work at all. I just went there and just had fun, so much fun. High school was like…aw man I loved school.

HH: How did you get away with doing no work?

S: I don’t know, I have no idea. But like by 2003 because I just didn’t do any work my teachers were like, and it’s not that I can’t do the work, I was like nah fuck the work but by 2003 I had been put into all the shitty classes like bridging and shit like where all the dumb kids were in and I was in those classes and it was off the hook. It was like wholly shit, you know they’re teaching us like year six maths and shit like 1+1. They treated us like retards and to me it was just so funny. Because it was like man I come to school and have fun and I don’t need to do any work. But I loved it, I never wagged or bunked school I was at school every day, nobody wanted to miss school cause it was like, you’d miss something.

…So ok, in 2003 the Hip Hop Summit I saw Jazzy Jeff at the Auckland Town Hall and that blew my mind and after that I was like this, I’m definitely doing this, 100%.

HH: So did your parents buy you turntables then?

S: Nah, not yet they just saw that I was determined. I had a summer job at the Warehouse. I saved my money and spent it on getting down to Body Rock in Wellington in January 2003. That was incredible, big time incredible; it was like the first time I had left the city by myself and shit. Also my dad took me to Auckland and we went to the Civic and watched a movie called Scratch as part of the film festival going on at that time. I thought this is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen I wanna be like that. Pretty much. Then somehow I conned my parents into buying me some CDJ’s… I conned my dad.

HH: You conned him?

S: I was like I need these. I’m dropping out of school and I need these cause I’m dropping out of high school to be a DJ, pretty much.

HH: Did he say ok?

S: Sort of, I remember I was like give me 700 or 800 dollars so I could put a deposit on them. They were about a grand each. So it was a lot of money and man I must have just caught my dad on a really good day because he gave me the money, I went to Auckland and stayed with some friends. I had a girlfriend at the time her name was Miriam her brother was in a Bboy crew called Breakemon from Mt Roskill and I must have gone up to see her at the same time I was hanging out with the GBAKers, before they were GBAK who were two different crews, AK and GB and we’d go write graffiti…

…So yeah I went to DMC and was like I want to buy two CDJ-800’s please, I have my deposit, here’s all the money. And the guy was like you have five weeks to pay it or we keep all the money and I was like fuck, okay. So I went back to Hamilton and was like okay you need to give me all the money now otherwise we’re going to lose the money, so that’s how that happened… I had two CDJ’s and that they became my life.

HH: For how long?

S: For the next 13 years, ever since.

HH: Have you still got them?

S: I ended up swapping my flat mates for turntables so yeah, nah not anymore that was the actual beginning of my DJ career. I dropped out of high school at sixth form. All the teachers were mad nice to me they worked around me being so difficult and saying fuck school it’s so gay. So they gave me like three music classes and two PE’s… I stayed for one term and then the second term I didn’t go at all. In the end I told my mum to go in and sort it out and that was the end of my high school. Because it was heaps of fun but I was like I’m not gaining anything and I felt like I needed to do something. [I thought] I really want to be a DJ so that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna drop out and practice in my room every day.

HH: At that time, did you or your parents know there would eventually be a way for you to get paid doing it?

S: In my mind I was like, yeah, I’m going to be Sir-Vere. He’s on TV, he has his own TV show, he must be rich. That’s what I thought and I was like yeah if P-Money and Sir-Vere can do it. I can do it. But yeah I didn’t know anything man, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into…So yeah my parents let me stay at home in my room.

HH: Did you watch wrestling at this point or had you left it behind?

S: Nah I had stop watching wrestling by now and yeah this hip hop shit just consumed my brain.

HH: Then what?

S: I got put down in a crew 4 Corners which is a legendary H-Town hip hop crew, an all elements crew. I was writing graffiti with Swarm and I was good friends with Are-K and Delight the two Bboys… I got put down in the crew and Omega B really saw that I had some potential. They put me down as a graffiti writer they didn’t know that I was a DJ yet. I think they had heard.

HH: Were you recording mixes?

S: Yip I was making mixtapes and selling them at school for $5. At the time I was listening to a lot of funk and soul, a lot of Bboy breaks. It just came with the whole breakin’ culture all that kind of music just came with it and I became really obsessed with finding these songs I would hear at these events I would be at. But in 1998, 1999, 2000 we were breakin’ to a lot of electro. Like Planet Rock. That’s all we were dancing to there was no funk breaks we didn’t know what breaks were, we just knew this is the music we were supposed to be dancing to. It was just left over from the whole bop era, the bop generation from the 80’s, that bled into the 90’s and then when we picked it up in 1998 it was still the music that everyone was breakin’ to. Like Soul Sonic Force, Twilight 22, Cybertron.

HH: Okay so Omega B…

S: Yeah Omega B saw potential in me and he was like oh yeah let’s put him in the crew or I don’t know how the
conversation went but yeah he really liked me because I was real hard out into hip hop and was like, ‘hip hop for life’ and I didn’t drink or smoke or do all these bad things that everyone else did so he was like this kids really onto it. At least that’s what I think…And 2004 I was doing graff heavily and popping and I was djing in my room. I played my first party in 2004 by myself in Nawton and my friend Blane Rakena put that party on… and he didn’t pay me. I remember that. [laughs].

HH: So you walked away not paid, but were you like man that was cool?

S: Yeah I was like yeah I’m actually probably good at this. I was just playing like commercial top 40 stuff, you know, that’s what I was listening to, a lot of Luda and T.I just what everyone else was listening to. But at the same time I was listening to a lot of funk and soul and I was getting good at playing that kind of music. I’d take my turntables up to Youth Zone twice a week Tuesday’s and Thursday’s and DJ for the Bboys to jam and practice because we were sick of listening to the same breakin’ mixtapes that we got from Body Rocks’… Element tapes… So that’s where I got good at playing breaks and it was like a job to me. I had to show up because the Bboys were depending on me to play some music.

To be continued….

4 thoughts on “Interview: NZ Hip Hop History with Spell-Part 1

  1. Nice interview, cool to hear how you transitioned into each art form Spell! Awesome history for hip hop in NZ, so good that it’s documented.

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