The girl she usually is

by Olivia Kember / 06 December, 2003
Straight outta ... Christchurch, and now in Auckland, hip-hop artist LadiSix - Scribe's cousin, and just off the road supporting Carly Binding - is on her way.

Karoline Tamati is the artist known as LadiSix. Although everyone can rattle off a list of local female singer-songwriters who do the acoustic guitar thing under their christened names, and hip-hop fans can provide a bunch of male pseudonyms, any New Zealand musician who wants success in both genres had better be determined. Tamati, at 23, is ruthless enough to make it.

Cousin of the more famous Scribe, and fellow member of soul-flavoured hip-hop group Verse Two, she has sung and MCed across the spectrum, appearing with groups from Fat Freddy's Drop to drum'n'bass outfits Shapeshifter and 50hz. Before Verse Two, she was part of Christchurch's all-girl hip-hop act Sheelahroc, which was nominated for most promising new act at the 2001 bNet awards, an award Verse Two won this year.

"I've had it real good so far," she says, in a low, slightly scratchy voice. When she sings, she sounds similar to Erykah Badu but more substantial; not far from Angie Jones. As an MC, she is strong but not aggressive, with an intimate manner that focuses a crowd. She is known in the industry as someone who can roll into a studio, having heard the instrumental tracks once, and freestyle - singing or rhyming - finishing a track in a few hours. "If I can't think of anything to make up, I'll make it into a love song, sweet as." She has never needed the love song.

Verse Two have just begun a summer tour of New Zealand. Last month, she took her guitar around the North Island in support of Carly Binding. How was that? "It was good. It was short."

Anything in the past that she sees as irrelevant is quickly dealt with. She learnt the guitar in Africa, where her parents were helping homeless children, but she can't remember much of her year and a half there. "After you get back to New Zealand, no one really wants to look at your photos or listen to your story, so you move on." Similarly, she doesn't waste time mourning the demise of Sheelahroc, which was founded in 1999 with the honourable intention of promoting women in music, but which recently folded. "Sheelahroc died and Verse Two kept going and now I'm here."

Now is Auckland, since June 2002, but it all began in Christchurch: "Christchurch was a great place to come into hip-hop. There was a youth centre where you could go and dance all night. I'd be in there from five till the last bus."

Despite mutterings from the Auckland City Council about hip-hop's so-called "sinister side", Tamati refers to it as a "supportive family". Not just in the nuclear sense - though her sister Sara ran hip-hop nights at the centre, and her parents put on workshops for young Maori and Pacific Islanders, so she and her cousins sang and danced and performed from childhood. "The whole hip-hop community of New Zealand has always been behind me. You'd think it would be more competitive, but from the beginning we got support from everybody. And it was always really forced on everybody that was coming up in hip-hop with me that you got to keep going, you got to get up on that mic and represent where it is that you came from."

Oddly, she was at first a reluctant singer. "At school, they used to try to make me sing, and I'd cry afterwards, every single time." She started writing songs when she was 15, but "if anyone heard me or saw me writing, I would die". She dabbled in the other realms of hip-hop instead, giving up graffiti when her friends mocked her tag. At the first Hip-Hop Summit in Christ-church, she performed in a B-girl crew called Anonymous. "We used to pull out the lino at my old flat and get up and practise hard out every day."

She knows a few turntablist tricks, demonstrating "chirping", "crabbing" and "wiggywiggy" on the kitchen table. "Most people would probably start B-boying or B-girling, because that's the cheapest - you just dance. DJing obviously means you've got to fork out thousands for turntables and a mixer. MCing - that's free - but it takes a lot of confidence to get up and rock a mic."

Confidence came when she met the Sheelahroc girls. "We loved it so much, we would just force ourselves to get up there, and we felt like we were doing something special because we were all female and we wanted to encourage other females around." She began gigging for $50 bar tabs. "Not just to get drunk, but to get on that mic, so I knew I could do it again if the time came."

The assured, assertive attitude of hip-hop provided a protective persona and, Tamati says, another confidence boost. "It's an attitude of 'I don't care if you like it or not - I've got the f---in' mic', which makes your energy levels go up a step from the girl you usually are." She adopts a "hard, banging, hip-hop attitude" for hip-hop gigs, but the more soulful music that she writes for Verse Two matches her character.

Only the solo acoustic stuff still makes her nervous. She reckons she can last 20 minutes on the stage with the guitar. But she is learning to be professional. "It's about finding something inside you to pull out, whatever the situation, but also keeping something back. If you don't do that then you're just giving yourself away every night, to people who might not appreciate what you're telling them - and if they're not clapping or crying or whatever you feel like a right cock. So you have to reach a level where you don't care."

She refuses to acknowledge any setbacks, such as her mother's hospitalisation when Tamati was on her way to record in Melbourne, dismissing difficulties, as "life things you have to get through". The lacy tattoo running across the back of her left hand is a tribute to her mother, who has one to match.

"People can die and kids can be born," she says, "and I'm still going to be doing music."

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