Hip-hop duo Rugged and Wylde talk to Joanna Wane about breaking down barriers through their music and rebuilding the battered image of their small Hawke’s Bay town.
Zach Stark, a freelance sound engineer whose father comes from Alabama, was already feeling a little twitchy. He and his girlfriend had moved to Wairoa in 2015, overnighting in Napier before they headed up the coast. “You’re going to Wairoa?” said the manager of the restaurant where they stopped in for dinner. “If you’re still alive in a month, I’ll give you a free bottle of wine.”
Born in New Jersey and raised in South Africa, Morocco, the UK, the US and Hong Kong, Stark had bounced around some interesting parts of the world, but was clueless about Wairoa’s reputation as a notorious gang town. “Holy shit,” he thought, picturing the street violence and drive-by shootings of LA’s badlands. “We’re going into Compton!”
Instead, he found himself loving the East Coast vibe and began putting down roots in the small riverside community. He and his father had come over from Hong Kong to install a sound system they’d designed at Wairoa’s Gaiety Theatre, which also happened to need a new manager. Stark took the job, making popcorn for movie-goers and holding live music nights.
On the other side of the Wairoa River, hip-hop artist Ratima Hauraki was “quite riled up” when a friend told him about this new guy in town who’d set up a recording studio in his garage. Born into a family of shearers, Hauraki decided early on he preferred making music to that kind of back-breaking work. Now, he was pushing 30 and it still wasn’t paying the bills. Done with music, he moved back home to Wairoa – only to discover there was something going on without him, in his own backyard.
So, he got Stark on the phone and when he agreed to a meeting, Hauraki told him he was right outside the front door. “I came out of the theatre and he was leaning against a beat-up old truck with another guy, with their sunglasses on, looking staunch,” Stark recalls. “And they were both much bigger than me. I had my really nice laptop and I was like ‘Uh-oh,’ because I was still under the impression everyone had given us on coming here: that we were going to be shot and there were huge gang problems; it was going to be bad. Little did I know, it’s really not like that at all.”
Hauraki, who grew up with the Mongrel Mob and has done prison time, was equally unimpressed. “My first thought was, ‘This boy doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into.’ But the moment Zach opened his mouth, I knew the dude was genuine,” he says. “It can be hard for some Pākehā, in a town that’s predominantly brown and can be a little intimidating. He’s just embraced it.”
Within the week, they’d written and recorded their first song together. “Man,” says Stark, “it sounded dope.” And before long, they’d settled on a name: Rugged and Wylde, combining Hauraki’s hip-hop handle Rugged A.Z. with Stark’s middle name.
Musically, their collaboration is a mash-up, too, blending rhythm and blues with hip-hop and talk of small towns and big dreams: “Take your money, power, fame, drugs – give me mana, hours, talent, love,” Stark raps in a song called “The Real Things”. A low-budget music video for the single shows them clowning around dressed in piss-take bling. Another shoot, for a song called “Slow it Down”, was filmed on a local orchard among blossoming plum trees.
Stark says small towns are full of talented young people who chase their dreams to the city. “In Wairoa, we do it our way,” says the 29-year-old, who’s also set up a video-production company, Wylde Creative. “You can’t go to Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch and get what we deliver here.”
In 2017, Rugged and Wylde were finalists at the Waiata Māori Music Awards – the first group from Wairoa to be nominated – for their debut EP 4018sis, a reference to the town’s postcode. A huge support crew, including Mayor Craig Little and local kaumātua, travelled to Hastings for the ceremony, after a fundraising hāngī was held to cover the costs. Their first full-length album, The King and the Chief, has just been released, in time for this year’s awards.
“Zach and Ratima have proved you can do things in Wairoa on a very limited budget,” says Little. “By god, they’re two good boys.”
In 2015, the mayor donned a faux-fur gangsta coat and busted some serious dance moves in a music video – filmed, edited, produced and co-composed by Stark – expressing the community’s opposition to amalgamating Wairoa and four other Hawke’s Bay councils into a single super-body. Two-thirds of voters across the region rejected the proposal; in Wairoa, the “no” vote was almost 90%.
When he came on to the council, Little says, the talk was all about how to manage the town’s downhill spiral. “The perception was that Wairoa was dying and there was no hope. But Wairoa is a wonderful place. The people are fantastic and the main street is pretty lively for a rural town. We’re just as good as anywhere else, and Zach and Ratima are showing that, too.”
With a population holding steady at around 8000, Wairoa does have a natural charm. A river runs through it, and a string of historic buildings on Marine Parade adds a touch of faded glory. A riverside walk and cycleway runs out to Whakamahia Beach on what’s become known as the “Space Coast”, where you can sit among sun-bleached driftwood to watch Rocket Lab’s latest launch take off from the Māhia Peninsula, or look for dotterels and oystercatchers pottering about the lagoons and tidal flats.
But like so many poor communities off the main trunk line, Wairoa has a drug problem and the unemployment rate is viciously high. Around 60% of the population is Māori (it’s official council policy that the town be bilingual by 2040) and most people have multi-generational family ties to either the Mongrel Mob or Black Power. Historic gang tensions in the town are legendary: in 1988, two men were shot dead on the main street, and a Black Power associate was killed by a sniper in 2003.
Stark reckons that’s ancient history now: patches aren’t banned but he says most of the gang members you see downtown these days are walking their grandchildren around. He and Hauraki have collaborated on projects with musicians linked to both gangs – occasionally at the same time.
However, as much as Rugged and Wylde have used music to bring Wairoa together, their close friendship has come at a cost for both of them. “I never thought I’d have white friends,” laughs Hauraki, flicking his eyebrows at Stark. “Well, not as white as you.”
Now 34, it’s seven years since Hauraki was last in jail but he’s been to some dark places in his life, doing time for aggravated robbery and assault. After he and Stark began hanging out, the president of the local Mongrel Mob turned up unannounced to investigate rumours they were doing drug deals.
Some of the crowd Hauraki used to run with have accused him of turning away from his roots. The reality is he’s connecting more closely with his culture than ever, living next door to Takitimu Marae with his mother Wikitoria, who’s chairperson of the marae. “My mum has never given up on me,” he says. “I don’t give her enough credit for that.”
Hauraki’s chequered background still counts against him, and townsfolk remain understandably wary of the potential for gang violence to flare. In May, the plug was pulled on a concert he and Stark had organised at the Gaiety Theatre because a member of the Mongrel Mob’s Notorious chapter was on the main bill. More than once, Stark has been told to cut Hauraki loose.
“They tell me I’d be so much further in music if I wasn’t doing it with him,” he says. “Well, then we’d have nothing to say! The contrast is more than just our skin. Our bitching and moaning is different – it gives a little bit of breadth, you know? The problems we see are different, but the results we want are the same. And when we gel on something, it’s cool to see two sides of the same coin.”
Like New Orleans soul singer Aaron Neville, Hauraki has the voice of an angel and oil drums for arms, heavily inked with tattoos. He’s trying to go sugar-free – including with his choice of beer – but Stark still looks scrawny beside him, with his hipster-country look and occasionally bedazzled beard.
A misfit at school in his own way, Stark was drawn to hip-hop because it’s the musical genre that uses the most words. “It’s good to have party music, but it’s nice to hear what’s going on and how people actually feel about their lives.”
One of Rugged and Wylde’s first singles, “Low Life”, confronts Wairoa’s gangland reputation head-on with a music video that shows the pair driving round town doing street deals through the car window. But instead of drugs, they’re handing out mix tapes. “I’m a low life,” raps Hauraki. “I bet that’s what you think of me. The expression on your face says it automatically... came a long way from where I used to be. Still the same Māori boy from the WRD.”
Hauraki says his friendship with Stark has been “like an awakening” that’s changed his way of looking at life. Stark’s parents, Eric and Lindsay, followed their son out from Hong Kong and have become part of Hauraki’s whānau. It was Eric who told him the world already had enough rappers who sounded American and that he needed to find his own voice.
Based in Auckland, the senior Starks commute regularly to Wairoa, where they’re refurbishing the old Clyde Hotel, a shabby-chic grande dame overlooking the river. Built in 1913, it’s now decked out with memorabilia from their travels, including Eric’s chopstick collection and a dining-room table made from centuries-old African railway sleepers.
Zach, who finished up at the Gaiety Theatre last October, runs his video-production company from the hotel, which now has a recording and sound-mix studio on the ground floor, and a new editing and colour-grading suite. He pitches for work internationally, and one of his biggest projects so far has been mixing the English dub for a 75-episode TV series loosely described as a Chinese Game of Thrones. He’s also started filming stories around Wairoa with local iwi, and recording hui at some of the region’s marae. Eventually, he hopes the hotel will become a production hub where local musicians, artists, animators and filmmakers can pool their talent and develop marketable skills.
With no record company or major backer behind them, Rugged and Wylde have struggled to get the traction their music deserves. After every knock-back – and there have been a few – Hauraki admits he’s tempted to quietly slip back into his old life. “But when that thought comes into my head, I just look at it and think I’ve done too much to go back. Telling myself those words gets me through.”
As welcome at the Clyde Hotel as Stark is on the marae, Hauraki knows he has more people to let down now, too.
Stark still loves the East Coast, the sense of community, the space, the way people don’t walk all over each other to get ahead here. He and Hauraki are “pretty immersed” in each other’s lives now, he says. “We hang out, making funky food from far away, while Ratima talks about local stories and tells me how things work here. Just two cultures getting along...”
This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.