NZ Musician
2008 (Vol: 14, No: 6)

By Lydia Jenkin

Karoline Tamati has been making her mark on the NZ music scene for a decade, first notably as a member of Sheelahroc, then with Verse Two and more latterly as herself, Ladi6. Along that winding road her silky smooth voice has been key to a number of songs that have been hits for others, so it may seem a little odd that she’s only now releasing her own debut album. Actually, for Ladi6, it has almost come as a surprise to find herself poised to drop ‘Time Is Not Much’, as she tells Lydia Jenkin.

Despite her inspiring musical heritage, 10 years ago Ladi had no idea she would ever have her own album.

"Truth is, until my son Philli [now four] was born and I got over the initial first year raising him, I never had the inclination to make my own solo album – so that covers the years pre-baby. Then, when we did decide to make an album, it simply just took this long to put together and make."

Interestingly, despite the absence of a solo release, Ladi6 has become a household name – a strong and smart MC and warm soul singer she has stamped her vocal talents all over our national consciousness and music charts through collaborations with some of our highest selling artists. Tracks from the likes of Fat Freddys, Shapeshifter and Scribe have all become Kiwi favourites, in part due to the stylish rhyming and husky melodies of Ladi6. She has also worked with Solaa, 4Corners, Opensouls, Breakin Wreckwordz, and 50 Hz among others, and opened on stage for The Roots, De La Soul and 50 Cent.

But she hasn’t always been a guest MC. Ladi began her lifelong involvement with the world of hip hop as a b-girl, breakdancing at the local hip hop summit in Christchurch. You can credit her family with pointing her down the path of music and hip hop, indeed her extended family famously includes cousins Tyra Hammond and Malo Luafutu, aka Scribe.

"My whole entire family can sing, dance, play all sorts of instruments. I’m not even near the top three in my family for vocalists, but growing up in a family like that did help me in terms of performance. We performed for church and at holiday programs, even sitting around the kitchen table talking would turn into some sort of performance. That was happening all the time, and had a huge influence on me."

After realising the empowerment (and fun) to be gained with MCing, and getting a taste for the stage, she started Sheelahroc – an all girl three-piece hip hop act which won Most Promising New Act at the 2001 bNet Awards after If I Gave You The Mic spun across the airwaves. She then went on to form Verse Two along with Mark Vanilau, Brent Park (MC Parks, now her partner on stage, in the studio and in life), Julien Dyne, and Matipi Turua plus a revolving roster of guest musicians. Verse Two also rolled down the red carpet at the bNets, judged Best New Act in 2004.

Without intending to, Ladi has built herself a strong local profile and also softened the ice overseas, having toured through Europe with Fat Freddys Drop, all of which will stand her in good stead with this new release.

"It all was pre-ordained by fate and destiny. I had no idea that by saying ‘yes’ to people asking me if I could do a track with them it would, ‘build a profile’ for my own release," she laughs. "The NZ music industry is pretty small, and, it didn’t help that I couldn’t say ‘no’. In saying that, most of the time, I just didn’t want to say ‘no’. Majority of the time it was my friends asking, and, of course, I wanted to be a part of their projects – in any way or form."

Meeting Ladi6 in person, it’s easy to understand why she’s so in demand. Genuinely charismatic and warm, she’s also enthusiastic, and after 10 years in the industry she still bubbles when talking about where she draws inspiration from.

"The first time I realised that maybe I could get up on stage and sing was when I was 17 or 18, at the Dux de Lux, and I just happened to be friends with a mutual friend of Anika Moa’s. And she had short hair and bare feet, and she was up there playing a Bob Marley song with a guitar and it was kind’a like, ‘Check out this chick. She’s the same age as me, if she can get up there and talk crap and have a laugh, then I reckon I could do it.’

"And it’s felt a little bit like that with everybody. Malo’s been a massive influence on my decision to make music, just watching him do his thing since he was 16 - we’re only a year apart and really close. And the Sheelahroc girls, trying to take on NZ and do our little hip hop thing. And then Dallas [Tamaira] is actually the brother of Sarah Tamaira who was in Sheelahroc. One time at Alpine Unity – we were performing there as Verse Two – I saw Dallas on stage and was like, ‘Woah, what’s Dallas doing here?’ and, ‘Oh he’s just in this amazing band called Fat Freddys Drop’. So mostly it’s just watching all my mates and becoming friends with these amazing Kiwi musicians, and going, ‘Well if they can do it, they have the same background as I do, I can do it’."

Friendships have also led to her working with Chris Faiumu (aka Mu of Fat Freddys) as producer, in his ‘old drop’ headquarters studio in Lyall Bay, Wellington. ‘Time Is Not Much’ was recorded back and forth between the Auckland home studio which Parks runs, and in Wellington with Mu. It has meant some geographical compromise (moving down to the windy city with Parks and Philli for seven months), but has resulted in 10 tracks of fluid and soulful funk and vibrant beats.

First single Walk Right Up has been in the Ladi6 set list for a while but all the other material is new.

"Usually [Parks] comes up with a loop of some sort, and then from there I can find a key, and from the key I can figure out a melody. Then he rearranges his beat to suit my melody, and then we just carry on like that, back and forth until the song’s done. So that’s how we made this album, but in the future I think there are faster ways!"

The next single (and video) is likely to be Dark Brown – a club pleaser with deep beat groove and old school funk feel, full of lush vocal harmonies and rolling Rhodes chords.

"It was one of the last ones we did for the album, and Parks just came up with a beat, and I think I just went downstairs one night, and whatever came out, came out… Because it’s a sexy, dark, slinky song, I just matched the words with it."

Believe Meis more contemporary, the deep, percussive, electronic beats contrasting nicely with Ladi’s relaxed and rhythmical rhyme delivery. Call You Out is one of two tracks which feature Scribe – calling out the fakers and players with his whip smart wit and pop culture references from Amy Winehouse and GHD hair straighteners to Daily Keno and poker. It’s also one of a handful of tracks which utilise a more ‘live sound’, with horn lines and drum kit coming through. This is not an indication that they’re planning on becoming a band though.

"I really like the whole DJ/MC thing, it’s what I’m used to. Me and Parks have been performing like that now for just over four years, so we’ve kinda got it all locked down. Originally when the NZ tour came along we wanted to put a band together, so we did that, had one rehearsal and kind’a realised that we were undoing everything that we’d already built together."

The album has in part been funded by two major grants which Ladi received in 2005 – $15,000 from the since defunct CokeTunes and $7000 from the Pacific Arts Committee.

"Both grants enabled us to start recording independently, buy our own studio equipment so we could, in the beginning, at least record demos and start to structure songs. Before the grants we didn’t even own a computer, computer programs or microphones."

"I feel really comfortable in the studio now, whereas previously I was really self-conscious. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to use Pro Tools when we first started, I just felt like a third wheel, the dummy. But because it was such a long process we had time to learn things, and skill ourselves up."

Collaborating with friends (and relations) has also been helpful, because Ladi is clearly a doting mum, and this has allowed her to work as a full time musician while raising her son.

"I try to encourage Philli to sing, but he prefers to breakdance, which is pretty cool."

And being a funky mum also has its advantages in the business world. Ladi and Parks recently returned from an extensive overseas trip which was partly funded by Kiwi-owned (but internationally renowned) baby gear company Phil and Teds.

"They approached us and asked us to go over to Las Vegas and Cologne to be a part of these big world trade shows for baby gear. Phil and Teds pride themselves on being funky and hip and they knew I was a mum, and they’re doing a graffiti range, so they asked us to go over there. They bought our tickets basically and we just saw the opportunity to tag on the mastering and a little tour."

The album was mastered in Berlin at the famed Calyx Studios, with Bo Kondren at the helm.

"They did ‘Based On A True Story’ there, and actually when we rolled in, they’d just finished Andrew Spraggon’s record the day before. It’s a two-storey house, and they record everything analogue upstairs, and then they transfer it all downstairs. That’s where Bo – he’s kind of like a conductor, crazy genius, mastering guy – he sits there and absorbs the music, touches the buttons and fiddles with stuff."

The trip lasted nearly a month, and became Ladi’s first solo European tour with them playing seven shows in Germany, France and the UK.

"We just wanted to hopefully impress all these people that we’d never performed to before, and we did, so that was good. And we picked up a lot of interest from different promoters and so on in Berlin, and we might have a lawyer sorted in the UK, so it went really well. You never really know whether your music translates to what they’re into, because they’re so far away. You kind’a think they’ve probably got 12 Ladi6s, and 14 Tyras and 20 Scribes – but they don’t really. So it was sweet."

They hope to hook up with a European label, but in the meantime the album is being independently released here in NZ at the end of October, with distribution by Rhythmethod. An eight date NZ tour will follow, and then it’s off to Australia, back here for Christmas and New Year (and to film that new video), and hopefully heading back to Europe next April.

"I think that it might actually give us the possibility of sustainability and longevity. That’s the main thing…If I could stay in NZ (full time) and do it – earn money and sell albums and make a living from it – I would, but because that’s not really possible. Europe seems like a good option. "

The world may be a necessary stage to provide her with a bigger audience, but Karoline Tamati will no doubt remain our leading Ladi.