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Melodownz is Carrying on the NZ Hip Hop Lineage

New Zealand’s Melodownz has spent the last 5 years breaking down barriers for the Aotearoa rap scene and opening doors for the next wave of NZ talent. Now, having released his debut album LONE WOLF, the Avondale local reflects on the evolution of his artistry, the power of his indigenous roots and pushing the culture forward and beyond expectation.

With thought-provoking lyricism and an old-school hip-hop flair that has changed and transformed with the experimentation of Melodownz’s creative chops, the NZ rapper celebrates the release of his debut album, LONE WOLF. Since embarking on his musical journey in the early 2010s, this street poet’s growth has been seen through project drops like Avontales, the 2017 mixtape that paid homage to Melodownz’s West Auckland hometown Avondale, which turned the heads of local hip-hop lovers. Then in 2018, he released his double-EP Melo & Blues, where he showed off his artistic versatility with more melodic vocals. Continuing his steady ascent, Melodownz now delivers the 14-track album LONE WOLF, stacked with stellar features from the likes of Denzel Curry, BLEU, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter INK, Lisi, Maxo Kream and Melodownz’s funk idol, Bootsy Collins.

The Samoan-Māori artist has received recognition from his own community through the Pacific Music Awards, as he was dubbed Best Hip Hop Artist in 2021. He also received online nods from huge names in the global music sphere like T-Pain, Brockhampton and the Dreamville collective, all foreshadowing his upward trajectory. We caught up with the Avondale local after the release of his album as he talks about the love he has for his community and passing on the torch, while acknowledging other trailblazers in New Zealand hip hop, both past and present. He reflects on how his Colors performance pushed him into the international sphere, touring Australia with Houston rapper Maxo Kream and the evolution of his career as an Aotearoa hip hop artist.

On behalf of our team here at Acclaim, we just wanna send our condolences to your whānau (family) for your loss, but also on that same note, congratulations because I know you’re a father now. It must be a hectic time for you!
Awww appreciate that! It’s pretty crazy if I’m being honest, but that’s kind of like what my life is like. When I have my highs, I have the highest of highs, and when I have my lows, I have the lowest of lows, but I never experienced it all at the same time. That’s pretty cool- aw not cool I mean it’s been like a beautiful, organic kind of situation. I love the learnings and I guess; when life puts you to the test, it’s really cool to see how you navigate it, how you combat it and stuff. I feel like just already I’ve come out the other end like a very strong kind of person. 

That’s beautiful. It’s nice you can see the beauty in that process. So congratulations on your debut album LONE WOLF. You’ve been doing music for a hot minute now; how does it feel to reach this pivotal point in your career?
I just do music because I love it to be honest, and like when I did my first project Avontales—I was in a group called Third Eye before that and when I did Avontales it was me breaking away just doing my own thing—I wanted to narrate my own story and all that. So I’ve just been experimenting, even with Melo & Blues, it was kind of like a double EP. It could’ve been an album, but I feel like now I’m at this point where it’s just like I’m ready, I think I’ve found the sound that I like, and I’m so versatile anyway so I thought it’s the perfect time for a debut album, yeah.

How many years in the making is this album?
I started this album back in 2019 so all these songs to me are very old [laughs]. I’ve already got this next project finished, so I’m just like ready to go. Before I started promoting this album, I forgot I even had it. I was already fixated on this new thing that I’ve been working on, and then it’s like oh that’s right I still got LONE WOLF! So it’s cool to be able to push it, and I guess when new people listen to it, it just gives it a fresh perspective, and as an artist, I forget about that because I can’t even listen to the project now. I guess it feels better listening to it now that it’s out, but before then I was just over all the songs [laughs]. But I’m proud of it for sure!

The album has a stellar tracklist with features from these huge, international artists which I feel like is unprecedented for a New Zealand hip-hop artist. What does it mean to you to have these great names be a part of your journey?
I appreciate that. Yeah to be honest it feels like an honour for me, like as an artist, when I think about where I come from and how I grew up getting into music; we started in a garage with the boys, drinking Codys, like just freestyling around like YouTube instrumentals. So like to come to this point where I’ve got one of my musical idols, Bootsy Collins alongside me on a song and like Denzel Curry, Maxo Kream, rappers that I get inspired by in terms of their artistic, creative license or whatever you want to say. It’s cool to be able to have that and just- not set an example but kind of show that other kids from the hood, or people from Avondale or South Auckland or wherever they’re from, like if this weirdo can do it, can make music with international artists then anyone can do it kind of thing. So yeah, the power of the internet and just like being, I think, being your true authentic self gets you through doors and stuff like that. So that’s just kind of what I want to put out there — just to be yourself.

I feel like you getting these international co-signs is a real nod to New Zealand hip-hop and your place within that, pushing it forward.
I appreciate that; it means a lot because last year Scribe came over and we kicked it for a bit and like, I grew up with Scribe [listening to his music] so to be chopping it up with him was just really cool, and he was telling me about like, ‘whether you know it or not, you’re New Zealand hip hop lineage’. And I was just like aw, that’s so cool to be a part of this culture and this community, and I guess I’m just playing my part in order for the next generation or whoever comes after me, to do better and bigger things. So hopefully by me opening a door just a little bit, the next person that comes through smashes it down. I just want to contribute to that in any way I can, and I feel like this album does that as well.

Yeah, you’re definitely deepening the trails because Scribe, Savage and their era of NZ hip hop already paved the way.
Yeah, that’s it because I was just like man, I can’t believe these are my peers now. Like Scribe’s one of the boys, Tom Scott, they’re like family, so it’s cool to be able to have that.

That must be a real full-circle moment for you. How does it feel to be representing New Zealand hip hop on the world stage because you know, you’re taking it out of the country?
Yeah, I haven’t really even thought of it like that. But I guess because wherever you go, you carry your home with you like when I go to LA or when I go to Europe and stuff, people always ask like, oh what’s your accent? Where are you from? As soon as I say New Zealand, a lot of people don’t know where New Zealand is so then I’m like ‘oh I’m Samoan or like a Māori’ and they can resonate or be like ‘oh this guys Samoan, cool’, so I’m real proud of my culture and being able to represent that on a world platform in a way.

I think that’s what I like about your artistry; throughout all the accolades you’ve really been repping your Polynesian heritage wholeheartedly
For real, I think like representing your identity and where you’re from is one of the most important things you can do, especially as an indigenous artist or indigenous person because we’re so very small like, there’s not many of us and so, when you see people like Parris Goebel doing stuff with Fenty and Rihanna, it’s truly showing us that anyone can do that if you stay dedicated to the craft. I know it’s cliche, but anyone could do that if you just keep working hard, so that’s kind of what I’m trying to be doing. So yeah, it’s cool being able to represent Polynesian culture on the world stage.

What does your culture mean to you? Not just on a personal level but when it comes to music too?
It’s one of the most important things to me. I’ve recently discovered my Māori side as well, so I’m getting more into that. Just learning about my tīpuna, all of my ancestors and the things that they had to do in order for us to be here was very significant and very powerful. And just to know that we carry that, I don’t know that DNA memory as well, that’s another thing that’s important to me because I feel like once you figure out your identity, then you know where you’re going. I see a lot of people like, ‘aw where are you from? Aw I’m from America’, but they don’t actually know where they are from. We still have that, so I’m very honoured to be able to trace back to like where we come from, and I guess it just gives you more strength just knowing who you are. My grandma moved from Samoa to Grey Lynn, but I was born and raised in Avondale. It’s like a life journey getting to know your ancestry, you’ll never know everything, but every day you’ll learn something new which is cool. I did this documentary on where I’m from on my Māori side and because my last name is Wihongi, after that documentary dropped all these people with that last name were messaging me like, ‘bro you’re my cousin!’ I didn’t realise I have so much family! It’s cool to be able to meet new whānau, and it’s so powerful too.

That’s beautiful! So back to the album, the track with Maxo Kream is crazy and I know you recently toured Australia with him. How was that whole experience for you?
I don’t know if I can say much! [laughs] Yeah nah it was cool; it was dope being on tour with him. There’s heaps of like gangster rappers and stuff like that, and they come across like—that guy doesn’t look like you can approach him type of thing—and I think once bro let his guard down, he was the coolest dude. He’s such an open dude and like, he’s just on the same ground as me, but we’re just cut from different cloths. Like he’s from Houston, he grew up around gang territory. I’m like from Avondale where New Zealand is colonized, but we still have our culture and stuff like that, so there were a few similarities I could relate to with the bro, but yeah, he just wants to provide for his family; he wants to get the money and like just pretty much what I wanna do too, just spread the love. So it was cool being on tour with him and all his Kream boys as well; they’re solid. He’s funny, he’s the man. Where they’re from, they drink lean I mean I don’t know if he drinks it, but codeine and promethazine is seen as a culture over there in America, and because I drink kava, he’s always replying to my stories like ‘yo is that like lean?’ and I’m like yeah it’s natural like I’m tryna explain to him it’s like a natural lean in the most respectful way. But yeah, shoutout to Maxo Kream.

Let’s get to your 2017 mixtape Avontales. It was really like a cultural reset in terms of the Auckland-New Zealand context. I remember hearing songs like The Anthem, $on of a Queen, 8ight 2wenty 8ight absolutely everywhere. What comes to your mind when you reflect back to that era?
Yeah, that was cool because it felt like for me, I was finally getting recognition for my work. Before then I was in the group Third Eye, and we were doing our thing for a minute as well when I was a bit younger, but I think that the content we were doing was like people didn’t really get it because I’m quite spiritual and so I was talking about like third eyes, having your third eye open and meditation and like putting this narrative out there because I was researching new things every day and that’s how I was getting it across. Once I kind of took it back to the community and my roots I guess, that’s when all the other boys started being like ‘bro this is on’, and even people out South Auckland would jam my music and that’s when I saw a change like, oh this is cool. Like when I went to Ōtara markets, people would be jamming it and some of the boys had my songs on their sirens, so it was kind of like, wow this is dope, and that’s when I started noticing a cultural change in the music as well.

I feel like it’s quite hard for New Zealand artists to crack into the New Zealand fanbase but you really did that.
That was cool and because I had never done a headline solo show, it was cool to sell that out and then also Diggy Dupé and Rizván dropped around the same time and we kind of come from the same stable, like Rizván mixed, mastered and recorded that whole project and he did his own one and Diggy’s as well so we dropped like one after the other. So we feel it’s a big push in terms of putting our people on which is cool because we’re all from different areas so it was cool to be able to bring our people together for the music.

You were also one of the first New Zealand artists to perform on Colors which was huge!
Yeah Raiza Biza was the first! I’m trying to get on again. I emailed them, and they said they’re gonna get back to me [laughs] but they’re like at a point now where they just get full-on superstars like YG, I think even the Migos went on there. That was cool because I was staying with my friend Noah Slee, an R&B-soul artist, shoutout Noah Slee, he’s actually from NZ, but he lives in Berlin now. He hooked that up, he got me on Colors so he told them I was there and they were keen as so I think this was just when they were messing with underground artists. When they hit me up, they were like choose a song, so I chose $on of a Queen, and they liked it. I was actually drunk because in Berlin you can drink like during the day and it’s not really a thing so like I’d been drinking beers all day. It was a vibe though, as I left Mahalia pulled up, she was like dripped out in red and I was like, oh who is this? Suwoop. She was cool though, I didn’t realize who she was until her one blew up and then she blew up, so that was mean because I got to meet her before that stuff.

Oh that’s so cool! I remember you were wearing socks & slides in that which I feel really brought the essence of NZ.
That’s the thing, I wasn’t supposed to! But because I was out drinking, and then the bro was like ‘oh your Colors is this afternoon’ and I couldn’t be bothered going back to get changed so I was just like oh I’ll just go like this [laughs]. 

What was your reaction to seeing how well received your Colors performance was?
I was overwhelmed because that’s kind of what really pushed me more into the international lens like after that, I was doing interviews in Belgium and getting booked for shows in Australia and getting asked to come back to Europe and stuff so yeah, that was cool. Even people found out about my music from other places in Europe that would’ve never ever discovered my music if it wasn’t for Colors, so that was cool. Even people now always buy my merch all the way from Greece and other random places, and I’m just like damn, it’s crazy. There’s even like, dudes from Portugal and whenever I drop something, they always send me videos of them telling me how much they like the new record!

In 2018 you released your EP Melo & Blues where we see you start to switch up your sound, getting into more melodic singing. Even with LONE WOLF, the project is versatile, and you keep pushing the boundaries of your music. How would you describe the evolution of your sound?
It always changes like this next project that I’m working on, it’s just straight bars. I think all the rap heads who like ‘$on of a Queen’ and all my old stuff will be like, this is the one. I remember when I did ‘Fine’ someone messaged me and was like, ‘why are you doing all that singing shit g, why aren’t you just rapping?’ I’m like, I’m just having fun I can’t sing sing, but I just enjoy creating in the studio, layering my vocals like yeah it’s pretty cool. So I think that’s just like the direction I like to keep at, although some people just like me rapping. It’s a vibe for me to create, so there’s not really like a deep meaning behind my direction in terms of sound, I just have fun doing it. Next week I might like a techno song and try techno; that’s literally what I do. I just like whatever I feel at the time, I’ll do it and then release it. I feel like an artist like me in this kind of landscape, in the Australasian market is hard because everyone wants to hear like drill and stuff like that and I’m not really that artist, like I’ve kind of got a little bit of that in my stuff, but that’s not me. So I’ve been finding it real interesting to be still able to keep an audience while this is all popping off, which isn’t a bad thing because I love OneFour, HP Boyz, Lisi and all that, they’re doing their thing, but that’s the one thing I’ve noticed. The music I make is so different to the new music that’s trending. So I think oh man I don’t think anyone’s gonna listen to this album because of what’s popping off, but it’s cool I still got my cult fanbase that rides for me whatever I make, which is dope [laughs].

You have this great love for your community Avondale, and it really stands out in everything you do, you really give back. How do you use this great love as inspiration when it comes to creating music?
I think like earlier, I put Avondale in my songs like everything I wrote there’ll be Avondale and like man, people on the other side of the world don’t even know what that is. Everyone nowadays is like we get it, you’re from Avondale, but for me, like I said before your identity is everything; when it comes to representing where you’re from and like hip hop comes from representing your hood, it comes from struggles as well so it’s just standard. I think when I tell my story, there are a lot people out there who listen to my music that resonate with it and in a certain way, I might talk about some things that happened in Avondale; someone from somewhere else may be like oh I know what he’s talking about because that happens here. So I think that’s why it’s so important to represent and be proud of where you’re from.

You’ve done a lot of community work mentoring local aspiring musicians. Church & AP brought you up along with Tom Scott in their interview, saying you gave them a lot of wisdom and confidence. What led you to want to help up-and-coming artists like this?
It wasn’t like an intention I had at the time, it was kind of just growing up I wish I had resources like that. When I first started out there wasn’t any music program I could go to, or there wasn’t any kind of facilitators that would help me, so I started doing youth work when I first started doing music. It felt like an opportunity where I could help out, and a friend of mine said, ‘I want you to come start a program’, so we started this youth music program for aspiring artists, and that’s when Church & AP and that came through, and yeah they were mean, but it wasn’t like I want to teach this to someone, it was something that just happened. It was this organic thing where this community came together. When I saw the impact that it was having on young people I was just like damn, this is crazy. At the time it was just a pilot program, so it didn’t have much funding, but once that was a success, we got so much more funding and we started running more and more all over Auckland. I’m not a part of the trust anymore, but Rizván and a couple of other guys run it, there are like 20 staff now with at least 10 programs running a week which is such a beautiful thing in terms of our community. Just to know I contributed to that, that’s so cool. And to see where Church & AP are at now is like, they went from coming to listen to what I had to say to being on the same level as me which I feel is exactly what needs to happen in terms of moving forward with hip-hop. Cause I feel like around Scribe’s era and stuff, that’s cool because they had that tight-knit community, but I feel there’s a lot of gatekeeping at the moment with radio stations, especially like if someone in that radio station doesn’t like you as an artist, they’re not gonna play you even though your record’s good. So I think as long as the community of us artists stay tight then that’s cool that we have each other.

Follow Meldownz here for more and stream the debut album LONE WOLF now.

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