The success of local hip-hop artist Scribe has been huge and fast, reward for years of dedication to his craft and self-belief in the face of doubters.
When Scribe refers to himself as a musician, a strange mix of emotion hijacks his face. He looks embarrassed, pleased and obstinate all at once. For years, people laughed, scoffed or told him to get a job when he professed himself a hip-hop artist. So now, even as he revels in the fact that no one can snigger any more, history drags its feet across his face.
Despite a double-platinum-selling album and a hit single that refuses to budge from the Top 10, he's still waiting for someone to crack up. Understandable. After years of slow progress, the 24-year-old's success has happened so swiftly and with such intensity that his mind just hasn't had time to catch up.
A few months ago the boy from Christchurch - real name Malo Luafutu - was a virtual unknown. Today he has headlines, TV time and radio airplay. Trips to the dairy become autograph moments and white middle-classers have been moved to team hoodies with caps.
It started with the release of his debut single "Stand Up" in July. The spirited call for New Zealand hip-hop to "stand the f--- up", accompanied by an extremely cool video featuring appearances by extremely cool members of the music industry, soon glided to number one on the singles charts. Damn good going for a first single, but it was nothing compared to what happened next.
Scribe awoke on the day of his debut album release - October 16 - with wild dreams of selling platinum within a year. By lunchtime, his life had changed: The Crusader had sold gold (7500 copies). Within three days the album had sold platinum (15,000 copies) and Scribe was an instant, shocked star.
For any artist in a small market such as New Zealand to sell that many CDs that quickly is impressive. For a Kiwi artist to sell gold within hours and platinum in days is phenomenal. Words don't do the sales justice - an example might: the day of The Crusader's release, one Manukau music shop sold, on average, a copy every two minutes.
Ringing tills and constant radio airplay quickly translated into more New Zealand milestones. By the end of October, he was the first Kiwi artist ever to simultaneously hold the number one spots on the album and singles charts. In November, after spending 10 weeks atop the singles chart, "Stand Up" eclipsed the 1986 America's Cup-inspired hit "Sailing Away" to become the longest-running number one by a Kiwi artist.
It is, by any measure, something more than just an impressive debut.
"IT'S BEEN SURREAL," Scribe says. "It kind of started sinking in how big a deal it was when all these people in the industry started saying, 'congratulations'. I never would have believed our little song would go to number one and that it would stay there for as long as 'Sailing Away' did back when KZ7 was around. I mean, I remember that summer - they just played that song the whole time and that we've knocked that song off is amazing!"
It's possible he will never fully digest everything that has happened. In fact, he's decided not to try. He's still stuck on what happened the day of The Crusader's release. "I was sitting here [in the Festival Mushroom Records boardroom] going, 'Oh my God!' I think I had something in my eye. My heart was racing. It was like living a movie. It was like everything I'd been working for was happening. I couldn't wait for the day to end so I could go home and tell my cousins. That day is going to be pretty hard to beat."
The rapture, however, has been accompanied by a struggle to adjust to the new-found fame. "There've been lots of ups and downs in the last six weeks ... I have to watch what I do and what I say all the time. It was a shock that it went to such an extreme so fast ... It's the gift and the curse. The gift is the talent, the curse is the fame and lack of privacy. It's kind of made me a bit reclusive. I used to go out with my friends every weekend and now I don't want to. I'm looking forward to going overseas next year because of the anonymity."
When the successful curse the side effects of fame, it can often seem ungracious. Kids worship you? You reached the top of your field? Clothing companies send you free stuff? Diddums. But Scribe deserves some sympathy: his popularity has been instantly excessive. He is not the type of celebrity whom people do a quick double take at before shuffling on. They cluster around him at the dairy, ask for his autograph at the airport and want to shake his hand on the street. People adore him.
An example: in 15 years, the Listener photographer's teenage son has never shown an interest in her work. She has photographed prime ministers, models, actors, pop stars, rock stars and sports legends and her child has never been the least bit impressed. When she told him that she was photographing Scribe, he begged her to let him come. His phone beeped all day with text messages from his friends asking him to ask her to let them come, too.
When you're 15, there is a very narrow range of things deemed cool. Very seldom does that range intersect with your parents' idea of cool. Scribe appeals to both. His effortlessly hip image and smooth sound have crossed generations.
He has even managed to straddle rigid demographics. It's not often that you find student radio network bFM, dance station George FM, Maori youth channel Mai FM and a host of commercial pop stations playing the same artist at the same time. From time to time pop and rock stars manage to woo diverse markets, but hip-hop artists rarely do.
Of course Scribe is not the first. Che Fu, King Kapisi, Nesian Mystik and P-Money have all become household names, and as hip-hop's popularity continues to soar others are bound to follow, but if they took New Zealand hip-hop to the mainstream, then Scribe has to be credited with cementing its presence there. After all, he has managed to do what none before him have: break records that even national treasures such as Dave Dobbyn and the Finn brothers could not.
How does one achieve such stellar success? Scribe isn't exactly sure. "I never wanted to have a number one album and break records, I wanted to do an album and tell my story. I was proud of the album and everything that has come along with it is very humbling."
Scribe might be humbled, but he is not shy. You need only listen to the incredibly catchy hook from "Not Many" to know that:
How many dudes you know roll like this?
How many dudes you know flow like this?
Not many if any.
Not many if any.
How many dudes you know got the skills to go and rock a show like this?
Uh uh, uh uh, I don't know anybody.
Not exactly modest. "Hip-hop is like that - egotistical," he offers. "It's very competitive because everyone's going for the same goal." But he says he does believe everything he wrote. "I do believe I am the greatest. I am special and unique and so are you. Everyone is unique and special."
Scribe reckons that he has never had trouble retaining a robust belief in himself. Even in the face of strong opposition from his family, he knew he could make it as an MC. His Samoan parents (mother New Zealand-born, father from Samoa) are musical, but didn't want their son to risk his all on a hip-hop career. His father, a guitarist, attempted to make a career out of the blues when Scribe was small, and knew how difficult a path his son had chosen.
When Scribe dropped out of school in the sixth form without School C and intent on a music career, they tried to persuade him otherwise. "They wanted me to stay in school, get an education and become the first Samoan Prime Minister. The more they discouraged me, the more I wanted it."
These days Scribe concedes that his parents were wise (he name-checks them generously, along with God and a host of extended family, in the credits of his hit album). In fact, he wishes he had an education as a fall-back position, but at the time he had utter faith that he'd make it in music. "I've always been a believer ... I've always felt like that. I've always had the vision that I can do it."
Even when he was tiny, he was a natural performer. "My Mum and Dad both have 12 brothers and sisters, so I've got 1000 cousins. Christmas time was like the Partridge family - all the kids would get up and do acts ... from a young age I had a passion for music and being the centre of attention."
As he hit his teens, Scribe discovered a taste for hip-hop and idolised American rappers Public Enemy and NWA ("I wanted to be a gangsta homie"), but his tastes quickly changed. "I grew up and got in touch with my own identity as a Polynesian living in the South Pacific ... It's a reality for them [American rappers]. They do have guns, they do kill cops, they do have bling-bling and hos. We don't have guns. We don't wanna kill."
His change of attitude was cemented when, after leaving school, he joined hip-hop band Beats 'n' Pieces. "I was the youngest and they taught me everything about hip-hop ... Lots of people think hip-hop is about killing cops and hos. We didn't. We were about explaining ourselves. We were about getting people to participate and educating people that hip-hop wasn't gangsta rap. It was about art, about expressing ourselves as a painter would with paint and canvas."
The group disbanded in 1999, but Scribe and mate DJ Ali were determined to keep Christchurch's virtually non-existent hip-hop scene alive. "The only way we were going to have a hip-hop gig in Christchurch was if we did it ourselves. So we brought down [DJ] P-Money and DJ Sirvere."
Scribe hit it off with P-Money and the friendship eventually gave his career a powerful boost. When P-Money made the 2002 album Big Things, he asked Scribe to include some of his songs. "I was a bit reluctant at first because they were for my album, but if I hadn't done it things would be very different. I got experience in making videos and doing albums."
P-Money repaid the favour, producing The Crusader on his label, Dirty. "I never thought it would do as well as Big Things did," says Scribe. "I didn't particularly write it to cross over [to the mainstream]. I wrote what was true and honest and I expected it to do good with a few like-minded people, but to cross over like it did ..."
He's shaking his hooded head again. He's still surprised, still disbelieving. "When I came up here [to Auckland] last year I didn't have shit. Auckland's the big smoke for someone like me. I was on the dole. Rent was like what you'd pay for a four-bedroom house in Christchurch and there was all these things like fashion that don't matter down there."
His family's behaviour, however, reassures him that everything that has happened since has not been a dream. "I'm so glad that I can be taken seriously ... my aunties and uncles are suddenly very interested in what I'm doing now ... My brother is very proud. He gets away with being me. He's been going to clubs and saying, 'I'm Scribe', and they let him and all his friends in ... And my parents are proud. It's funny 'cos they're the same parents who weren't very proud at all, they were disappointed. Now they can see why I did what I did."