In the recording studio with Home Brew's Tom Scottby Liam Ratana
We might be alright
Back from Australia with a new perspective on life, rapper Tom Scott invites us into a garage recording session for his upcoming new album.
It’s Friday afternoon in a garage in Mount Roskill, and Scott has barricaded himself away from the world in what is pretty much a professional studio. Four microphones stand front and centre, anticipating the MC’s next attack. There’s more electrical equipment in here than an electrician would know what to do with.
Scott is recording the vocals for his album, Avantdale Bowling Club, which is set to be released early next year. Vivek Gabriel, the audio engineer helping him out, is a devout Christian, which seems odd given Scott’s propensity for speaking out against religion in his music. Scott, however, has a genuine interest in other people’s world views and hearing about their experiences. Besides, his talent tends to win people over. “When he’s here in the studio, I try to treat him like he’s the man,” says Gabriel, while Scott takes a break outside the shed. “I want him to feel invincible. I put four microphones up and you know, just let him loose. But when we’re not recording, I treat him like I would anybody else. We’re both just people at the end of the day, but the dude is gifted. He’s almost prophetical.”
Scott is now 33, and his musical talents are internationally recognised and appreciated. His continued influence on the New Zealand rap scene is undeniable. He takes a no-holds-barred approach when he opens up through his music – no topic is off limits, which gives his work a strong authenticity. He says he is “an emotional person, and can easily be dark at times”. When he writes a song, it either has to make him “really fucking angry, or cry”. Every rap he makes is shot through with a deep sense of conviction. He says that with every album he listens to, the track that he enjoys best is always “the track that makes me feel something, some way”.
His musical inspiration comes from real-life experiences. He grew up as “the only white kid” in Avondale, and is a self-confessed lefty (his grandmother was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand). His mother drank, and his father took drugs. Some of his earliest childhood memories include seeing his dad passed out next to a record player. Still, he regards his father, a jazz musician, as being his earliest musical influence in life.
Scott’s big break came in 2007 with the rap group Home Brew. He was caught sampling beats online from producer Harry Huavi, aka Haz Beats. Rather than dissing him, Haz took a liking to Scott’s lyricism and saw the potential in them collaborating. The decision to join forces was quickly vindicated. Aided by Lui Gumaka, aka Lui Silk, the group released their first EP, Vintage, and quickly made waves on the local scene, but it wasn’t until five years later that their self-titled album, Home Brew, reached the top of the New Zealand Top 40 Album chart. The group toured New Zealand and Australia multiple times, released endless amounts of music, and won a stash of awards.
As Home Brew took off, Scott continued to live a peripatetic musical existence. While remaining part of the group, he and some close friends also established Young, Gifted and Broke – a collective of underground artists, musicians, and photographers in Auckland that has aided the careers of Esther Stephens, Raiza Biza, and Erin Forsyth, among others. They are underground creatives who, thanks partly to Scott’s efforts, have been able to break through to the mainstream.
Home Brew disbanded earlier this year after a decade of being together. The fame associated with the group’s high profile took its toll. “It was at the point where I couldn’t function like a normal human being anymore,” Scott says. “I couldn’t walk down the street or go to the supermarket without people recognising me.” His notoriety peaked after he was made the subject of a police investigation after the release of an @Peace song, ‘Kill the PM’, in which he mulled over the possibility of killing John Key and having sex with his daughter. Scott made a statement saying the purpose of the song was to encourage people to enrol to vote in the 2014 election: “I do not want to literally kill this man... let’s not pretend a silly little song ever changed anything. Last I seen, famine was still going pretty strong since ‘Heal The World’ came out. It’s just a song. No different from Thatcher-era punk. Anyone ever heard ‘Maggie You C**t?’”
Despite Scott’s protestations, the media went into overdrive, with John Key saying Scott’s music wasn’t worth a response. Scott eventually decided to leave the country. He and his partner Whitney Wainui have recently returned from a four-year stint in Melbourne. Scott’s friend and fellow MC Lui Tuiasau from @Peace joined him across the ditch, where they formed the group Average Rap Band (which also has a new album coming out next year) and released El Sol, an album that quickly gained popularity on both sides of the Tasman. Still, money was tight, and eventually Scott and Wainui decided to return to Auckland. Scott says he needed to return home to be able to create Avantdale Bowling Club. He also says the new album is the best music he’s made yet. He set out to create something more “raw and original than ever before”, with topics ranging from Home Brew’s dodgy manager to a Sunday stroll at the Avondale Markets, and musical styles he calls “an eclectic mix of spiritual jazz, trap, and my own unique energy”. The challenge of recording the entire album live is part of Scott’s constant search for perfection. “You can get mean beats from a lot of producers these days… but is it the beat that I’m looking for? Probably not,” he says. He prefers to do it himself.
Scott says letting me in on the recording process “is kind of like showing you my dirty undie drawer”. The music is still Tom Scott, but like you’ve never heard before. Avantdale Bowling Club is a brutally honest and unapologetic rendition of his life – a blend of vulnerability, ruggedness and volatility – spoken over moody jazz-fusion melodies. It’s Scott’s way of acknowledging his personal development over the past four years.
It’s time for a break in the recording schedule, so we head for a quick lunch at Burger Queen in Mount Albert – but a sign on the shop door says the iconic burger joint has just closed its doors for good. “Gentrification for ya, huh?” Scott says. The old owners pull up in front of us, and Scott gets out of the car to thank them for their years of loyal service. Scott and Gabriel are forced to settle for a pie instead. Scott suggests a detour to his old stomping grounds of Avondale, which is also where he lives now. He stands proudly outside his home near the end of the cul-de-sac and tells me how pleased he is to be living here in his childhood suburb. He says he feels incredibly lucky to be able to come home to his partner and their baby boy every night. “We might be alright at the end of it all.”
Tom Scott’s album, Avantdale Bowling Club, will be released early next year.
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