Photography/ Charles Buenconsejo
They’re collaborating with huge US rap stars and creating (until recently) most of their tracks from one of their bedrooms. How creative collective and hip-hop group SWIDT got big in Stoneyhunga and started blowing up everywhere else.
To introduce them: There is Isaiah Libeau, known as SmokeyGotBeatz; Daniel Latu, aka SPYCC; Amon McGoram, aka INF; Asher Schwencke, aka Boomer; and Jamal Muavae, who simply goes by all-caps JAMAL. Although they’re a musical group, they call themselves a creative collective rather than a rap crew. Why’s that?
“I can tag, I can dance, we’re creative,” says Boomer.
“Belly dance!” shouts INF.
“He’s an ex-stripper,” says SPYCC. Boomer’s round belly is protruding from a colourful shirt.
Everyone laughs so hard they can barely breathe.
Behind the humour, there’s plenty of serious business about SWIDT (their name, for those who don’t know, is an acronym for ‘See What I Did There’). It’s just that it’s almost impossible to get them to talk about it. Lead mixer Smokey has recently produced tracks for four major international records, but is coy about who he’s been working with.
“Oh just these guys,” he says.
“Wow, wow! Understatement!” SPYCC shouts.
SPYCC, the chattiest member of the group, decides to spill it. “He’s worked with Kendrick, Hit Boy, Audiopush. Done stuff with YG, Xzibit.”
“Kendrick”, for the uninitiated, is Kendrick Lamar, the chart-topping US rapper. That would be a big deal for any musician, let alone a member of a group that, until recently, recorded all their songs in 21-year-old Smokey’s bedroom upstairs in the Onehunga state house where he’s lived with his grandma for most of his life. “We go round to each other’s houses; we’ve hung out with each other forever,” says SPYCC. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
More recently, they’ve had a slight upgrade of premises that now sees them producing tracks in a small side room at the front of a larger studio space, also in Onehunga. It’s a shared venue for artists and musicians, and SWIDT occupies roughly three square metres of it. Black walls make the room feel like a weird, slightly gross cave, with odours of stale sweat and old ciggies. The room has been DIY-soundproofed, and heavy bass blares from two insignificant speakers.
Last year, after over a decade of friendship and six years as a creative collective, the self-proclaimed (and self-styled) “Hawaiian shirt mafia” released their first album, SmokeyGotBeatz presents SWIDT vs Everybody. Their sophomore effort is due for release mid-year. SWIDT vs Everybody is highly produced, bassy rap with layered beats – some sampled, some created by Smokey. Music videos drip-fed to YouTube feature iconic Onehunga landmarks such as Penny Lane’s Bakery, Ollies ice cream parlour, corner dairies and neighbourhoods of state houses. A 2016 clip for their song ‘No More Parties in Stoneyhunga’ – a response to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘No More Parties in LA’ – opens to the 40 or so members of SWIDT’s clique chilling on the underside of Māngere Bridge. Lyrics deftly swoop through themes from the nine-to-five grind to fast food to social media. “We just rap about where we’re from, what we see, what we know and our experiences,” says SPYCC. “We’re from a low socio-economic background, so whatever goes on in those areas, that’s what we lived.”
Many of their songs contain a lament for the widening gap between the Onehunga of their youth and the Onehunga of today, a mix of nostalgia and resentment towards the gentrification of their ‘hood. “I miss arcade games outside of every dairy and takeaway. I miss graffiti everywhere,” says SPYCC.
“Yeah,” adds Smokey, “it’s real clean now, aye?”
“The main thing we push is that we’re keeping the essence of what Onehunga was like alive,” says SPYCC. “RIP to DEKA. That’s where the Onehunga Cafe is now.”
“It makes me feel weird aye?” INF says. “Especially when you’ve been here and grown up here for most of your life, you start to see things that aren’t usual here. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s bringing a whole other vibe and a whole load of different people in here.”
These lyrics and the group’s catchy beats have struck a chord, with the group scooping a surprise Vodafone New Zealand Music Award for best urban hip-hop album last year when the actual winner, Aaradhna, said she felt as though she’d “been lumped in the category of brown people”, that she was “a singer, not a hip-hop artist”, and gave her award to SWIDT.
Some cheered Aaradhna’s gestures – “Yes @AaradhnaPatel!” musician Anna Coddington tweeted. “What the hell does ‘Urban’ mean if not ‘brown’? Lol. Call it.” But SWIDT also got served online backlash from people who considered the incident staged, or thought Aaradhna was ungrateful. SWIDT didn’t care. They know Aaradhna and agree with her about the representation of Polynesian and Māori artists in mainstream media. INF says he was “happy she got up there and spoke the truth, especially on that platform… when she won we gave a round of applause and then she did her speech and said ‘I wanna give this award to SWIDT’ and we were all like, SHIT! Cause we were all a bit turnt off the free alcohol.”
There hasn’t just been local success. Smokey was discovered online by US hip-hop star Jay Rock in 2013 and mixed tracks on his album Parental Advisory. Since then, a series of tweets about Smokey’s talent have seen him receive a flood of offers for collaboration. This means the tracks on SWIDT’s album are often collaborations between them and various other international and local artists, including New Zealander David Dallas and the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar. Smokey says he’ll eventually move to LA to further his career but for now he’s happy at home. The others agree. They like Onehunga, and want to keep sharing what it’s like to
It’s hard to imagine SWIDT taking anything except their music seriously. In the studio, INF tells me “I was on the corner sellin’ rocks from around 10” until everyone starts laughing again.
“Selling yourself more like!” Boomer laughs.
But there’s also an undeniable pride in their rising profiles. “I can’t even go to the dairy without someone wantin’ an autograph,” says a deadpan INF.
As they become better-known, they’re giving back with more than just their music. They ran voluntary workshops at Auckland Museum’s Volume exhibition last year and are doing community centre teaching this year. “Seeing people that I grew up with, even like own family members, fall into the same cycle and seeing that cycle repeat,” is what SPYCC says has motivated him to do more community outreach. “And not so much that it’s all negative, but I feel like they have the potential of pursuing something bigger than they are pursuing. If they had someone to help guide them or show them a different point of view then that could be a positive thing.”
Their musical goals are big, too. Top of the to-do list? “Kicking Scribe’s [five-time platinum] The Crusader album off the throne of being one of the best hip-hop albums ever in New Zealand and take over and have the impact that he had on the scene,” says SPYCC.
In the meantime, they spend most of our time together taking the piss out of me, our photographer – who managed roughly three photos without someone pulling the fingers – and each other. Band co-manager Serra Galuvao, who’s got more jokes than the rest of them put together, laughs. “It’s always like this,” she says.