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Honolulu’s local tight-knit hip-hop scene is expanding.
By this point you’ve probably heard their names–Tassho Pearce, Creed Chameleon, that Deadbeat Harumi–but what you really need to know is that unless you’re actually part of the local hip-hop game, the players aren’t doing any of it for you. One could argue that this can be said of almost any art form–that the creative process is about self-expression and, lucky for the rest of us, it just so happens to manifest itself in a way that others can gather around and enjoy.
But something about hip-hop seems more exclusive in many ways–the aggressive delivery, the fierce loyalty within crews, the lyrical conflict and the fact that, on O’ahu, the scene itself is somewhat hard to follow. Part of that is because most members of the local hip-hop community, even those who have strong underground followings, not only have day jobs but also have limited options for where and when they can perform. And whether they like it or not, the same crews throwing down at the same Chinatown clubs week after week and a smattering of once-or-twice-monthly DJ battles elsewhere doesn’t exactly make for a take-your-pick hip-hop buffet. But none of that is for lack of passion or talent on musicians’ behalf.
“If we could make money off of this, we’d be doing it 24/7, but we don’t,” said Kalani Pokipala, also known as DJ Packo, who spins for the Spacifics and just released the so-called glitchtape mixtape Mosquito Diesel. “Still we try to play as many gigs as we can and I think local hip-hop is growing. It’s getting bigger and I can’t say it’s getting worse. There are more emcees, more DJs and there’s still so much room to expand.”
The Spacifics–who bill themselves as “locally grown” and “guaranteed fresh” on their myspace page–came together a couple of years ago with a drummer, guitarist, bass player and rotating emcees. It wasn’t until Pokipala came along that they had someone scratching–and in many cases adding even more local flavor to performances.
“Just to be from Hawai’i and representing our style is unique in itself because every city and every location has its own unique sound,” said Pokipala. “Of course there’s East Coast rap and West Coast rap, but you can distinguish hip-hop by any region if you listen closely. You know if you really listen to the vocalism, the way someone’s cadence is and what they talk about or if you’re mixing in Hawaiian samples or quotes from the movie North Shore, things like that. It all contributes to how we want to sound good and, being from Hawai’i, we are trying to have our own sound. The sound of aloha.”
The local sound is distinctive enough that, more and more, it’s drawing in national and international talents. The Spacifics regularly work with Pearce and Chameleon, both of whom are repeatedly cited in the hip-hop community as the most promising names in local music–Pearce gets some radio airtime on L.A. stations. The Spacifics also work with Meiso, who moved to Honolulu from Japan more than a decade ago and raps in Japanese.
“It’s awesome, I don’t know what he’s saying but it sounds cool,” said Pokipala. “We always try to get translations but it’s so tough because it’s kind of hard to get an equivalent. We just listen to his delivery and vibe with him.”
Come Jan. 9, Pokipala is slated to take the stage at Loft with the legendary Californian DJ Swamp, who has worked with Beck and is known to literally set his turntables on fire during performances, along with Chameleon and up-and-coming Southern Californian emcee Tommy “Kahlee” Victorino, among others.
“I’ve been trying to get back out to do Hawai’i for a long time,” Kahlee said. “I grew up Hawaiianized because my dad was born there. You know the Polynesian hip-hop artists, before this year, I didn’t know that there were any emcees. I knew there were b-boys, a lot of street stuff, but they weren’t really that dope to me. Now, like in this last year, I’ve been running into, either in person or on the Internet, a lot of Polynesian cats who just really turned the gas on for me.”
Kahlee said in addition to the January performance, he’s working with a group of Polynesian artists on a compilation hip-hop album, which he hopes to release by late spring. He said the pride he feels for his Hawaiian heritage runs parallel to the kind of loyalty that runs through the hip-hop community.
“Hip-hop is different for everyone,” he said. “But the whole spirit of aloha is real. If I see a Hawaiian dude in a car, I am probably going to let him pass before I let someone else pass. It probably isn’t even intentional, but that’s what it’s about in hip-hop in a lot of ways when you have someone’s back. That’s like a common bond. You know, I got my boys in Hawai’i that are hustlin’ hard. They’re dope and I would be listening to them even if I didn’t know them. There’s going to be a lot of mentions about being Polynesian because that’s what we are. The main thing is, you got the positive hip-hop movement and you got the negative hip-hop movement. But for us, it’s just the music and it’s up to the people to hear what it’s all about.”