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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Imon Starr: The Culture of Sound

Ahmen Mahal, aka Imon Starr, has been playing up a storm around Wellington with his new outfit Olmecha Supreme, and is well known as the MC in Rhombus. Recently SALIENT volunteer Michelle Goh caught up with him to philosophise about the culture of sound, and the politics of music in Wellington and New Zealand.

HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE TERM ‘HIP-HOP’ AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU?
Hip-hop is an indicator of a specific movement in music, and then it’s not necessarily just music, it’s sort of like a specific period of culture.

SO FOR YOU IS HIP-HOP SORT OF LIKE A LIFESTYLE?
In real world considerations, it’s a lot of things for a lot of people. For me specifically, hip hop is a vehicle. I’ve always said, sound-wise, that Olmecha Supreme and my general take on our sound is that we’re rooted in world music, dub music, reggae music and traditional African music.

Hip-hop openly exists based on the use of technology to sample, speaking purely in a musical sense. With the turntable we can sample the past. It’s a vehicle of time in a way.

WOULD YOU CLASSIFY YOURSELF AS A ‘NEW ZEALAND HIP HOP ARTIST’?
I really, really try to defeat all classifications. I mean, they’re really good for news, and for writing things and classifying different movements. Once you have identified the demographic you want to get a certain amount of exposure, or some sort of financial gain at the end of that exposure. New Zealand hip-hop artists have definitely been influenced by the land and in some contexts people might consider me a ‘New Zealand hip hop artist’.

ARE THERE ANY ASPECTS OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY THAT WE CAN EXPECT TO FIND IN YOUR MUSIC?
Absolutely. Hip-hop is all about the community. It’s not about the television or anything. Hip-hop as a movement does not exist without the community, so to call yourself a hip hop artist or hip-hopper, is to say that you are in touch; that you are in the New Zealand community.

SO IT’S THE COMMUNITY THAT DEFINES YOU AS AN ARTIST?
No, I’m not saying that the community defines you as an artist; I’m saying that hip-hop is defined by the community. Hip-hop does not exist without the community. I guess you can say to a certain degree the community does define you, but it’s not the end definition. Those again are just tags that you can associate with.

The media is not capable of portraying hip-hop properly at all. I don’t think it actually lends itself to media portrayal, or lends itself to portrayal in any medium, whether it’s in writing or anything. Bob Marley said that “he who feels it knows it”. And he’s right, you kind of have to be there.

ACCORDING TO GRANT SMITHIES, YOUR MUSIC “DOESN’T SOUND LIKE SOMETHING BORN FROM THE CONCEPTUALLY CONSERVATIVE LOCAL HIP-HOP SCENE”. WOULD YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF TO BE PART OF THE UNDERGROUND HIP-HOP SCENE OR THE MAINSTREAM?
Yeah, I don’t know. Honestly, like my younger brother says: “screw the underground and the mainstream, let’s talk about being on a higher ground”. I’m not going to limit myself in any way, shape, or form.

I’m not going to let myself be outlined by what other people construe. I’m not going to limit myself to conform to boundaries that are established by either the underground or mainstream. Somebody else makes up the rules and you sort of adhere to them. You know, like, “oh I’m underground”, “oh I’m overground”, “I’m left-ground, I’m right-ground”.

THE MAJORITY OF HIP-HOP TEXTS AND OTHER POPULAR MUSIC GENRES COME FROM AMERICA OR THE UK. WOULD YOU SAY THAT KIWIS HAVE TRANSLATED HIP-HOP INTO THEIR OWN CULTURE OR IS THIS AN EXAMPLE OF CULTURAL DOMINATION BY THOSE IN POWER?
There’s a really interesting show called Hip Hop 101. Sam Stevenson, a.k.a. the Thorax, said something and he really made his point. In the middle of his freestyle he said, basically, they’re really anti-New Zealand hip-hop because New Zealand hiphoppers go out of their way to sound ‘American’. He said this is very hypocritical and out of the balance with the rock bands that sound just like American rock bands, like the proto-punk bands taking after Blink182. What is actually, authentically New Zealand, everybody is pursuing. It’s not like meat-packing sheep you know, It’s the struggle for definition. As far as New Zealand culture goes, is it Pakeha culture? What is Pakeha? Is it Maori culture? What is Maori culture? Is it Polynesian culture? What is Polynesian culture?

SOME PEOPLE REGARD HIP-HOP CULTURE AS HAVING A NEGATIVE INFLUENCE ON TODAY’S YOUTH IN TERMS OF THE CONSTANT REFERENCES TO GANGS, VIOLENCE, MATERIALISM, AND THE DEGRADATION OF WOMEN. IN YOUR VIEW, TO WHAT EXTENT IS THIS THE CASE IN NZ?
A friend of mine says: “Hip-hop did not corrupt the youth, the youth corrupted hip hop.” The corrupting influences are not necessarily hip-hop itself, the corrupting influences are actually the Western culture and imperialism that comes via the conduit of media and popular culture, which is not actually run or owned by hip-hoppers. But even if there was no hip-hop, the youth would still be corrupted. It’s a great scapegoat and as far as personal responsibility goes, there’s a tremendous amount of personal responsibility for people within hip-hop. It’s like saying, is the community corrupting the community?

DO YOU THINK THE SITUATION IS AS SERIOUS, JUST COMPARATIVELY, TO AMERICA?
The situation that you have in New Zealand is one in which the mainstream media don’t want any solidarity. You get the same shit here in the record companies. A lot of the hip hop groups are totally complicit in that they’re not promoting the positive aspects of hip hop, they’re not helpful, or community based. Even when people are being selfish, they’re being selfishly selfdestructive, like drinking themselves into a coma, and acting like self-medicating is the only answer. It’s just ridiculous.

New Zealand is definitely affected by the negative aspects. Is it as bad as the United States? If it isn’t now, it will be. So all of us need to be constantly aware of this. They talk about problems with basic solutions – for people to think a bit broader, to educate themselves but not from [certain] sorts of media sources. Just turn off the frikkin’ televisions and read some books. There’s a wealth of information available that directly pertains to the hip-hop that they swear up and down that they love, that would have a tremendous amount of impact on their life, and their music and their knock-on effects would have a tremendous impact on their communities for the better.

You know, at the end of the day, I hate scenes. I’m not into ‘scenes’. There’s music, there’s movement, but the ‘scene’ is fake. You set a scene for a play or you set the scene of a movie. I guess it connotes creating an illusion in one’s mind.

SO YOU WOULD SAY THAT HIP-HOP CULTURE IS NOT FAIRLY PORTRAYED IN THE NEW ZEALAND MEDIA?
It’s not even portrayed in New Zealand media. They don’t actually understand; they’re not capable. Television media is not the best venue for hip-hop to exist in because it’s like television voyeurism, you can’t get the same feeling from actually being a part of a cipher, from actually being there, or from watching television, its just not going to happen.

The media is not capable of portraying hip-hop properly at all. I don’t think it actually lends itself to media portrayal, or lends itself to portrayal in any medium, whether it’s in writing or anything. Bob Marley said that “he who feels it knows it”. And he’s right, you kind of have to be there.

IS THERE ENOUGH FINANCIAL SUPPORT OF HIP-HOP EVENTS IN NEW ZEALAND?
No. New Zealand actually has a really, really, really poor music scene in terms of financial support. There are a lot of interesting initiatives to boost culture that the government puts forward, but their interest ultimately is in sustainability. They’re trying to create that super group that goes on to make billions and they end up paying record companies more money than artists.

I think that New Zealand has one of the best systems of support, as far as the amount of grants that you can get for something like this; just for putting on community initiatives and “hip hop” initiatives, I think that it wouldn’t exist at all without it, but it’s still not enough.

YOU RECENTLY HELD A CONCERT IN SUPPORT OF THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON PEACE AND ARMS DISARMAMENT AND HOSTED A RALLY EARLIER IN THE YEAR TO STOP LOW PAY. HOW MUCH OF A DIFFERENCE DO YOU THINK MUSIC ARTISTS CAN MAKE IN SOCIETY?
Music is like the movement of the people; the whole connection between the musician and the dancer, the spiritual motivator and the actual physical happening. How much of a difference can we make? I think we can make a tremendous amount of difference. I think that if you can impart that helpful sort of healing energy onto one person, you’ve already made a tremendous amount of difference, and if you can impart that kind of helpful, healing energy onto a lot of people, then you’ve made an even larger difference.

I don’t think people are exactly taking these opportunities, and I think that they should. I know that I’m doing what I think is best for me in these circumstances – to walk my talk, so to speak.

WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THE WELLINGTON HIP-HOP SCENE? IS THERE ANYTHING?
First off its location on the planet is unique, wherever you’re at its going to be unique. There are other things like the proximity to other music scenes. You know, at the end of the day, I hate scenes. I’m not into ‘scenes’. There’s music, there’s movement, but the ‘scene’ is fake. You set a scene for a play or you set the scene of a movie. I guess it connotes creating an illusion in one’s mind.

There’s this thing my friend said: “you always have a cultural revolution when you have lots of young people and cheap rent in one place”. So if they want to keep Wellington vibrant, if they want to continue the Wellington music scene, they need to keep the rent down and allow for people to meet and to walk around, and then you’ll always have this vivacity, this lovely scene, this lovely illusion, which eventually Coca-Cola will be able to tap and market as a clothing label and a drink and an image on television.

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  1. Robyn says:

    I think it is good, but please someone think as students.

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