Tauranga is known for many things – beaches, sunshine, surf; the things people move hundreds of miles for – but contemporary introspective hip-hop music isn’t one of them. UnderRated were born from a shared vision of creativity and burning ambition.
WORDS AND PHOTOS TEZ MERCER
It started with a caravan.
“I used to live in a caravan,” explains Joe (rapper, composer and producer). “This would have been four or five years ago; I was living in a one-bed caravan with a friend out the back of Nako’s house. Two couches, one bed, one blanket and one pillow. We’d all meet there, like 12 of us, hang out, pull out a microphone, have some fun, and slowly that developed into what we have now: UnderRated.”
This wasn’t a band assembled by committee or through TV shows trying to produce singers for a quick hit; it was an organic collective of like minds making the music they wanted to listen to. “We just did it for fun.” Shaayd explains further, “Back when the caravan was the place to be, there was Nako’s house, the caravan, and a friend’s house all on the same property so you’d just roll over and someone would ask ‘Hey, wanna lay down a track?’ and you’d just think ‘Yeah, why not’?”
The three core members of Shaayd (pronounced shade), Joe Hayden (also known as Coulston) and Nako met at high school and officially formed UnderRated during 2011. Rolling a cigarette, Joe explains how the name came about: “Not much was expected of us, nobody thought we’d amount to much. We dropped out of college and became rappers. We were underrated from the start.” The members of UnderRated enrolled at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, where on one hand they could learn about recording and producing music, and on the other the prospect of being able to use the Polytechnic’s equipment and tools to record their own music appealed to them. UnderRated were the first students to use the Polytechnics equipment to record a whole album.
HOLD IT DOWN
You may be familiar with UnderRated because of their video for their song Hold It Down, a reggae and soul-inspired tune about life in the Bay of Plenty and Tauranga (look it up on YouTube). Anyone expecting a badly produced, tinny and fuzzy recording of some kids playing at rappers is in for a loud wake-up call. It hits you that these guys are good at what they do. Tight, articulate verses glimmer then slide into quick angular jerks and just when you wonder if they’ve lost the beat, it hooks right back. The beat flows and rolls, more reminiscent of James Brown than NWA. As self-professed perfectionists it isn’t low-hanging fruit by any means; it’s thoughtful, well-produced music that takes itself seriously and sweeps you into the groove; then you remember this is a bunch of guys who used to do this in a caravan to kill some time but the production could have just come out of the hallowed halls of Hollywood. Slick. Other tracks come at life from different angles. The song You Should Know is about a friend serving time in prison, Put Me On pays homage to old-school rap in the vein of RUN DMC or De La Soul but they’re all masterfully produced and arranged.
All the members write their own lyrics covering a plethora of topics. Sometimes they’re heartfelt and tender, like when rapping soulfully about an incarcerated friend, and sometimes there’s a human vulnerability and emotional depth to the unapologetically honest lyrics. The flip side of that is that sometimes it’s angry, frustrated, confrontational, and rails against society, as on the track Yo u.
When it comes to musical influences the group draw from a broad range of genres – rock, funk, soul, hip-hop, classic rap, blues, jazz – and weave these threads into a cohesive sound: “We can’t keep ourselves to one genre; good music is good music,” says Shaayd. UnderRated grew up listening to a diverse range of music from Wu Tang Clan, to Guns N Roses, to hip-hop stalwarts like A Tribe Called Quest, to classical horn music. Shaayd says: “I was born into hip-hop. My uncles and family were the first to breakdance in Tauranga. They started everything so as soon as I was born, there was hip-hop.”
Shaayd is a multi-instrumentalist and regarded as being the primary musician in the band. “I’ll make a beat, find a mood or a feeling and then craft around it.” Each member then crafts their own lyrical verses which are recorded and assembled in the studio into a cohesive narrative. If a particular passage doesn’t work for a particular song it’s kept and stored; these guys have text files and folders, notes scribbled on napkins or in the margins of books because you never know when that one passage will be the missing link in a composition.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SAY?
The members have differing approaches to the delivery of their lyrics, giving each part of the track a distinct identity.
Joe: “I’ve been known to rap about everything from my friends having kids and how they’re dealing with it, to bailiffs calling me on the phone that they’re trying to cut off – I try to keep it relatable. My stuff now is a lot more introspective. Like ‘Let’s just get behind a mic and say something real.’ I try and be positive. I don’t feel the need to be inspired lyrically by someone ‘important.’ Why can’t you be inspired by your friends, or what’s going on locally?”
Shaayd: “I like a little bit of anger in there. When I was young, hip-hop was all competition but without violence, like words were the weapons… I swear in almost every song, not because I don’t have enough lyrics but because I believe in saying whatever you want.”
Nako: “At first my lyrics were a response to how people saw us, the image. I’m stuck between making really soft music that touches people and trying to make some hard, dark, stuff… I haven’t found the balance yet,” he says with an effacing smile.
Being a rap group anywhere is difficult, but being a rap group in a relatively small seaside city on the other side of the world far from the hubs of the music industry must make it difficult to spread the word. Joe explains that “A lot of our stuff is independent. We write, record, produce and promote it ourselves. There’s a lot of freedom and with social media, you can do a lot for yourself.” The video for Hold it Down has been a slow-burning sensation on YouTube, originally promoted across social media by the band until it got picked up by the mainstream viewers browsing YouTube. Locally, UnderRated have experienced a taste of success around Tauranga, having performed at The Hop House, Rehab, and Brewers Bar among others and notably sharing the stage with well-known R&B artist Lloyd during his tour of New Zealand. The Mount is regarded as being one of the more accepting places to play, with a great vibe and a willingness to listen to new or underground acts.
The next stop for UnderRated is focusing on building a body of work after missing out on a lucrative gig recently. “We want to be in a position where, should anyone contact us, we can say ‘Here’s our press kit, here’s our information, here’s our active social media and we’ve got 50 minutes of material so we can rock up to any situation ready’.” The social media accounts are updated often and due to such prolific output from the band, new music is never far away.
Polite, inquisitive, hard-working, and unquestionably talented, UnderRated may need to change their name.