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.
Hip hop in New Zealand
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.
The mainstreaming of hip hop
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:
- the years of toil throughout the 1990s to build capable artists, receptive audiences and a sense of community
- new digital technology that broadened artists’ access to production, and fans’ access to information via the internet
- an additional range of hip hop-friendly television programmes on music station C4 (launched in 2003) and Māori Television (launched in 2004)
- the release of a steady stream of infectious, radio-friendly singles by local MCs.
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.
Local and international perspectives
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.