Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: The Wellytown Get Down, Wellington Museum, 18 August 2016

I love a bit of nostalgia down here in the padded cell that doubles as the basement at the everythingsgonegreen mansion. Especially when it comes to celebrating all things local and grassroots. So when an event/gig with a focus on Wellington club culture in the Eighties comes along … well, let's just say things don't get much more near and dear to my heart, or indeed, more local or grassroots than that.

The event was called the Wellytown Get Down, and it took place last Thursday night at the unlikely but salubrious surrounds of the Wellington Museum on Queen's Wharf. It was essentially a chat-seminar-presentation put together by youthful next-gen hip hop aficionado/curator Sen Ski, featuring four genuine pioneers of the Wellington scene: past New Zealand DMC champs Rhys B and DJ Raw, plus ex Radio Active DJ Mark Cubey, and ex Soul Mine owner/event promoter, Tony Murdoch. What these four men (collectively) don’t know about the Wellington club/party scene in the Eighties, really isn’t worth knowing.

The idea was that each man would present, play, and discuss five records that they considered important to the era, with audience participation encouraged – that audience numbering roughly 80-100 by the time the event was in full flow. Sen Ski had clearly done his homework, and the backdrop to the stage – which housed a two-turntable rig/mixer – featured the projection of a series of images and video clips of the time, mostly specific to Wellington and those involved, but also some visuals offering wider scene-setting context (early break-dancing clips etc).

Murdoch was first to (re)present; his essentials being a mixture of hip hop and early house – see Digital Underground, Jungle Brothers, Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul et al – and he was thoroughly entertaining throughout, his knowledge shining through as he dispensed with facts and tidbits relating to each tune, and more generally providing an insider’s view of the dance music scene as it related to music retail and event promotion. Murdoch also paid tribute to two absent DJ’s who were also crucial to the Wellington scene – the now US-based pioneer Tony Pene (“TP”), and the prolifically talented but now sadly incapacitated Jason Harding (“Clinton Smiley”). Murdoch is a natural showman (he’d deny it) and during the course of his “set” was able to offer definitive proof that men can multi-task when he took a phone call (from his “homeboy”, who he urged to join us) while simultaneously continuing to present and play music. Remarkable.

Next up, Mark Cubey was equally entertaining, his angle being that of the student radio DJ – see Radio Active’s Uncut Funk Show and the Wednesday Night Jam – but he was also a genuine mover and shaker within the scene, as an event promoter, a club DJ, and (I’m pretty sure) as a performer in his own right as part of the wider Love Factory Band collective in the early Nineties. Cubey made the point that when he first started at Radio Active in the immediate post-punk era, the early to mid-Eighties, 90 percent of the music the station played was “white”. It was something he set about changing with the help of Pene, who became a fixture on the show, and Dr Johns nightclub, which was an early sponsor. Cubey talked a little bit about the influence of sampling, referencing the widespread use of Chic’s ‘Good Times’, and made mention of the important labels – like Sugar Hill, and Tommy Boy in particular. His selections covered off the Jonzun Crew, the Beastie Boys, and the seminal hip hop precursor ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’.

Funky 4: Cubey, Murdoch, Raw, Rhys B (credit: unknown/but thanks!)

I managed to have a quick chat with DJ Rhys B (Rhys Bell) prior to the event getting underway as I wanted to thank him personally for helping out with some photos for the AudioCulture piece I wrote a few years back, and he’s still the same earthy and modest guy he always was. I don’t think the current generation of DJ’s – beyond the likes of Sen Ski and perhaps one or two others who know the history – can really appreciate what a living legend he is within the context of Wellington and Aotearoa dance music circles. He is a pioneer DJ in so many ways, not just in terms of club and warehouse party culture, but as a performance DJ in a competitive environment, winning the first NZ DMC title before travelling to London in 1990 to represent Aotearoa at the World champs, where he finished a creditable 12th, and met the great hip hop icon Tupac, among other major industry identities. Rhys B talked primarily about what hip hop (specifically) means to him, about how it possibly saved him and a few others “from the gang scene”, about belt-drive turntables, and about the wider culture of the genre. His selections included music by the Fat Boys and Grandmaster Flash, and yes, it wasn’t until pushed by the audience that he revealed that Tupac connection.

Speaking of humble, DJ Raw (Ian Seumanu), was the final guest selector. Raw is another ex-NZ DMC champ and still very much involved in the scene, as head of the DJ programme at Whitireia Polytechnic and an active mentor for many others in “DJ Battle” circles. I don’t think any of the other presenters will mind me saying that this was very much a case of saving the best until last because Raw closed out the show with a compelling display of what is known as turntablism (or cutting and scratching to us mortals), putting on a show and getting the biggest cheer of the night. Prior to that Raw talked about growing up around older guys like Pene, and Rhys B, and attending clubs for the first time, about how he was influenced by the NME charts, the scene at the Soul Mine, and how getting access to rare early DMC footage on video had effectively changed his life. After being blown away by his closing party trick, I’m struggling to recall his earlier selections but I do know they included Shannon’s high energy ‘Let The Music Play’ and perhaps something from Full Force.

Regardless, whether you’re a nostalgia freak like me, a massive hip hop or dance music fan, or simply someone who loves music and/or local history, the Wellington Museum was a pretty damn fine place to be hanging out last Thursday night. Huge respect to Sen Ski for having the vision and wherewithal to piece it together, and thanks to the participants who took the time to tell their wholly unique stories. It might just have been the best couple of hours I’ve had all year.

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