Many people in Aotearoa New Zealand have been inspired by the music, dance, visual art and expressive language of international hip hop culture, and have used it to tell stories of their own experiences, struggles and aspirations.
Hip hop culture refers to a range of music and art practices: DJing, MCing (which includes rapping), graffiti art and b-boying/b-girling (also known as breaking or breakdancing). It may also be used to refer to choreographed dances set to hip hop music.
Hip hop culture developed in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s through a process of innovative interplay between disc jockeys (DJs), the dancers they played for (b-boys and b-girls) and charismatic emcees (MCs) who talked or ‘rapped’ over the music to encourage crowd participation. Hip hop appeared internationally in music videos, films, books and other media from the early 1980s.
Hip hop’s association with urban populations experiencing poverty and race- and class-based discrimination in the United States – most notably African Americans and Latinos – gave it particular power for others similarly disadvantaged. In Aotearoa hip hop gained a strong Māori and Pacific Island following.
The first commercially successful hip hop single, ‘Rapper’s delight’, was released by the New York-based Sugarhill Gang in 1979, and entered the New Zealand Top 50 in 1980. Although it peaked at number 18, many New Zealanders heartily disliked rap, and some radio stations refused to play it.
The dances associated with hip hop culture played a significant part in its initial spread and popularity in the early 1980s. After the first wave of dance popularity subsided, core groups of young people in New Zealand’s major cities continued to develop their knowledge of hip hop’s other artistic forms.
The first MC competition was held in Taita in the Hutt Valley in 1986, and Upper Hutt Posse released New Zealand’s first hip hop single (‘E tu’) in 1988. The 1990s saw the further development of artists, some of whom achieved modest commercial success. There were hip hop radio shows, and Mai time, a youth magazine programme shown on TV2, featured hip hop dance and music.
While the development of local hip hop art forms was and would continue to be significantly driven by artists of Māori and Pacific descent, participants and audiences came from all backgrounds and social classes. Many Aotearoa participants saw hip hop as a tool for promoting social justice as well as a sense of community across diverse populations.
In the 2000s hip hop music maintained the highest commercial profile of all hip hop art forms, with a commercial explosion of New Zealand hip hop in 2003 and 2004. This was made possible by:
Hip hop became mainstream. Hip hop music regularly featured on New Zealand charts alongside other genres, DJs continued their work in nightclubs and international competitions, hip hop dance crews appeared on television and won international competitions, and graffiti art – some legally sanctioned and some not – adorned urban centres.
Digital technologies and increased mobility meant that many Aotearoa artists communicated and collaborated internationally. But local hip hop communities were also conscious of their own unique and maturing perspectives.
One aspect of this was the communal and family-oriented practices of Polynesian culture, and the retention of these cultural values while also connecting and engaging with broader society. Those in New Zealand used hip hop, an imported form, to present their unique voices, stories and ways of being to the world.
The first significant wave of hip hop influence and participation in New Zealand occurred in the early 1980s. It centred on b-boying (breaking or breakdancing), and other urban American dance forms such as popping and locking. ‘Bop’ was a term used by many in New Zealand to collectively refer to all these forms, though some dancers distinguished between the undulating, vertically danced ‘bop’ (popping) and the close-to-the floor footwork and spins of ‘break’ (breaking).
While there is evidence of the initial introduction of these dance forms through Samoan kinship connections to the United States, their widespread popularity resulted from the influence of imported US media. In the mid-1980s breaking and popping featured in music videos, an episode of That’s incredible and the movies Flashdance and Beat Street.
A handful of young Samoans began bopping as early as 1981 after seeing it through family networks that stretched to the US and its territory of American Samoa.
The local popularity of bop prompted the organisation of national competitions such as 1984’s Bop Olympics at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland and the televised Shazam Bop Competition in 1985. Bop was also documented in the 1985 book Street action Aotearoa by Mark Scott and Peter Black, and dancers featured in a range of locally produced media, including television news specials, commercials and music videos. Joe Moana’s cameo dance segments in the video for the Pātea Māori Club’s 1984 number one hit ‘Poi e’ were especially significant.
New Zealand has achieved international recognition in choreographed, competitive forms of hip hop dance. Auckland choreographer Parris Goebel, whose Palace Dance Company has won numerous international competitions, coined the term ‘Polyswag’ to encapsulate the unique energy and attitude of her choreography.
Although the first flush of enthusiasm died down, hip hop dance experienced a resurgence after the mid-1990s. In addition to the b-boys and b-girls traditionally associated with hip hop, New Zealand produced a number of internationally competitive crews practising more choreographed forms of hip hop dance, including the Parris Goebel-led Royal Family crews and DZIAH (renamed Prestige in the early 2000s), which won numerous international titles in the 2000s.
Hip hop remained strong within Pacific Island communities. In its choreographed forms, it also spread into dance schools around the country (attracting more boys than any other form of dance) and was integrated by some contemporary dancers into their practice. Annual competitions such as the Wellington-based Body Rock were held, and hip hop dancing featured on television and film.
Hip hop-associated graffiti is distinguished from other forms of street art by its sustained focus on letters. Words (usually a name adopted by the artist) are rendered in highly stylised fonts. These vary in scale and complexity, ranging from basic ‘tags’ scrawled swiftly, and typically illegally, in a single colour, through to large, intricate multi-coloured pieces embellished using a range of artistic techniques.
Regardless of the theme or imagery of a particular piece, graffiti is intended to bring the artist recognition or notoriety. In hip hop graffiti, even a basic ‘tag’ of the artist’s name should be executed with style.
Graffiti art was the second hip hop art form to be widely practised in New Zealand. Local artists were initially inspired by the US documentary Style wars, screened on television in 1983. The practice of graffiti art steadily developed in all of New Zealand’s main urban centres throughout the 1990s and 2000s. International recognition grew as artists travelled, collaborated with artists from other countries and began using the internet to disseminate photos of their work. Auckland-based crew TMD garnered additional attention for New Zealand graffiti after winning European competitions in 2006 and 2008.
Hip hop graffiti offers great flexibility for local adaptation. While some local artists stick to a letter style similar to that of the classic New York City subway train graffiti of the late 1970s and early 1980s, others attempt to come up with recognisably distinct new styles. Local design elements can be incorporated into the letter forms themselves, the colours and patterns used to embellish letters, and the cartoon-like characters that sometimes accompany more elaborate graffiti pieces.
Additionally, the words used in a piece can go beyond self-aggrandisement and mark locally significant events. For instance, large-scale, multi-artist graffiti murals, featuring letters, characters and elaborate backgrounds, have been painted to celebrate Aotearoa’s indigenous heritage, mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, protest controversial legislation such as the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, memorialise local or international people of significance to the artists, and commemorate the victims and survivors of natural disasters such as the 2009 Samoan tsunami and 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
In Elliot O’Donnell’s 2007 book InForm graffiti artist 2Tone says, ‘Bombing [illegal tagging] is the essence. I don’t do as much as I would like, but it’s the most fun part. I think I’ll always paint in some form or another illegally. Catching a whole bunch of legal walls just gets boring. It sounds really generic but graffiti represents freedom for me as an individual.’1
In the 2000s graffiti remained a controversial artform, with its positive aspects often overshadowed in the media by a focus on the economic impacts of vandalism, or by a presumption of relationships between graffiti and gang activity.
Some tagging has been recognised by the mainstream art world, and the practice has proven to be a gateway for artists who have subsequently channelled their talents into professional art and design work, gallery exhibitions and even feature-film direction.
In the 1980s the inaccessibility and expense of professional equipment and records was a limiting factor for local DJs. Nightclubs provided important opportunities for the country’s first hip hop DJs to hone and display their skill, and the advent of regular hip hop radio programmes grew the hip hop community. The incorporation of Aotearoa New Zealand into international DJ competition circuits operated by the Disco Mixing Club (DMC) and International Turntablist Federation (ITF) encouraged the further development of local DJ talent in the 1990s and 2000s.
Aotearoa’s early stars didn’t gain acclaim just for their talent in mixing and manipulating records. Getting the right vinyl, even rare vinyl, was a source of prestige. The best supplier was often an overseas friend who would find and send over records. Failing that, a friendly record store might help.
Locally produced hip hop music was the last of the hip hop arts to develop in Aotearoa. Musical acts formed as early as 1985, and the first MC competition took place in the Hutt Valley’s Taita in 1986. The first commercial hip hop recording – the single ‘E tu’ by Wellington-area group Upper Hutt Posse – was released in 1988.
Local hip hop music – like the US imports from which it took inspiration – ran the gamut of topics. Releases from Upper Hutt Posse and other artists of Māori and Pacific Island ancestry voiced strident social commentary, while other recordings focused more on relaxed, celebratory themes or on the braggadocio that has always marked hip hop wordplay.
Pauly Fuemana and Ōtara Millionaires’ Club’s single ‘How bizarre’ reached number one on the charts in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and Austria. It reached number four in the United States and also charted in many other countries.
Local hip hop music production experienced slow but incremental growth throughout the 1990s. A handful of acts attracted interest from music labels, and some found commercial or critical success. The growing visibility of hip hop was further enhanced by the launch of local television programmes receptive to hip hop music and fashion.
A sense of community was actively nurtured throughout the 1990s and 2000s through opportunities for local, regional and international exchange. 1994’s Proud tour and the associated compilation album, featuring a variety of South Auckland-based hip hop and vocal artists, was a key milestone.
Artists from around the country shared billing at regular club promotions such as Wellington’s Phunk Republic gigs (1992–2005), and local artists received exposure as opening acts for touring international DJs and hip hop acts. A handful of people involved in Aotearoa hip hop relocated to cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Dublin, and became key conduits of information.
Signalling the consolidation of hip hop music’s collective local significance, visibility and self-belief were the release of:
The launch of hip hop-dedicated local magazine Back2Basics in 2001 – which for a time was packaged with an accompanying mixed CD – and the production of Auckland iwi station Mai FM’s mixtape series Majour flavours, mixed by DJ Sirvere, provided further opportunities for showcasing local artists and building up audiences.
The organisation of national hip hop ‘summits’ in Auckland (1998, 2001–5 and 2012) and Christchurch (2000) provided further opportunities for fostering connection and collaboration. National gatherings were also important for re-emphasising the interconnectedness of the various hip hop art forms and ensuring that dance and graffiti featured alongside music performance. All of these events helped to foster a sense of community, by drawing together like-minded people with a shared passion for hip hop culture and facilitating the exchange of information between older and younger artists.
O’Donnell, Elliott. InForm. Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2007.
Scott, Mark, and Peter Black. Street-action Aotearoa. Auckland: Arohanui Publications, 1985.
Shute, Gareth, and Peter Black. Hip hop music in Aotearoa. Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2004.