“Is that guy from New Zealand? Really? He’s great!” Seth Rogen once exclaimed about Savage before collapsing into laughter like his affectionate Knocked Up character. We were discussing his and Judd Apatow’s accidental father classic: the South Auckland rapper’s ‘Swing’ scored that scene where Rogen hooks up with Katherine Heigl’s hottie on the club dance floor.
Before Demetrius Christian Taanuu Savelio’s smash hit took him to the charts in America, Australia and New Zealand, came an extraordinary journey up from South Auckland’s toughest streets. Cool and collected, Savage shakes my hand firmly during three interviews over the last year.
Dawn Raid and their star act parted ways amicably last year. “If I don’t evolve like Snoop Dogg’s evolved, I fall off the face of the earth.” The poker dabbler’s put chips on a significant Australian single release, where he plays lots. Indeed, Savage and Joel Fletcher’s ‘Swing’ remix has been in the top five on the Australian charts for months during 2014, peaking at No.2 [and gaining double platinum status in Australia].
"I was born a fuckin' mistake," Savage growls on 2012’s 'All In'. There was violence at home; while Demetrius’ mother Aiga was pregnant with him in 1981, she was looked after by a Greek woman. Two decades on, Dawn Raid’s Deceptikonz dropped their pioneering 2002 album Elimination. Savage’s song ‘Broken Home’, the Once Were Warriors of hip-hop on meth, hacked its way into heads like mine:
“Brought up in Manurewa was a little rugged kid/ I struggled through pain as if I broke a hundred ribs/ ...You never once held me or showed me love ... It’s hard for me to stay still and stay calm/ I looked into the mirror ripped half of my face off.”
At his lowest ebb, Big Sav tells me, he was homeless and sleeping under bridges, inspiring ‘Set Me Free’.
I raise his 2005 debut solo album Moonshine’s ‘Set Me Free’, where he orated about overcoming being suicidal. I thank him for representing on suicide, mentioning a close friend killed himself. “Oh bro,” Savage says emotionally. “If I’m not out there letting people know that they’re not alone, then I’m not doing my job, not just as a rapper, but as a human being.”
At his lowest ebb, Big Sav tells me, he was homeless and sleeping under bridges, inspiring ‘Set Me Free’. The earthy, genial guy is wearing a black lavalava, T-shirt, glasses and cap, with a sweat-soaked white towel draped around his shoulders. After Elimination, he realised he had to let go of all the anger and hurt about what his father did and didn’t do; it was gnawing away at his insides. “You’ve gotta let go of it,” he says. “A lot of it really fucked me up as a teenager. I did a lot of bad things.” He was expelled from high school, and got caught up in gangs, drug dealing, and violence.
“You will find peace beneath the wood beneath the stone” — ‘Fallen Angels’ kicked off the journey that changed his life. In 2008, the song’s totemic line “Against all odds we kiwis do fly” came true. Moonshine’s 'Swing' soared through an American music industry decimated by piracy, selling 1.8 million singles [and gaining US platinum status]. ‘Swing’ scored more than 33 million downloads on Savage’s Myspace page, YouTube saw tens of millions of hits and multiple covers.
I watched Savage several times on stage during 2013, pumping out tunes like ‘Swing’, ‘They Don’t Know’ and Sione’s Wedding 2’s ‘Wild Out’. He’s a big man, but he can move!
He laughs a lot during our conversations; humour kept him going during the years touring the USA. Once, at a gig in Utah: “This stoner dude just walks up to me and he’s like, ‘Man, you guys Samoan?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m Samoan, he’s Rarotongan.’ He goes, ‘Man, can I hang out with you guys?’ Well you know, I looked at this dude like, this dude’s a weirdo. So I was like, ‘No, get the hell outta here, man.’” Turns out, he chuckles, “it was none other than Wiz Khalifa”, the skinny black rapper behind mega-hits like ‘Black and Yellow’.
In America, some rappers made fun of his Samoan Kiwi accent, or that he was from the Land of Hobbits. The staunch South Aucklander shut them down: “Unfortunately for me, or maybe fortunately for me, I come from the ghetto of New Zealand.”
There was too much concrete and craziness living in New York. “Being a Pacific Islander, I love the sea. I like to see trees and greenery and the ocean. LA’s a better feeling, more tropical. You’ve got the Pacific Ocean right there and at the back of your mind there’s only one flight to get you home.”
In 2004, Savage and his crew were driving to Hamilton to play the Warriors League game half time slot. He recalls taking a cellphone call from his sister. She started crying, because their dad had died. “He died the way I predicted it to be" [in ‘Broken Home’]. At the end of the day we all flew over to Samoa to go and help. I wrote a little letter, put it on his casket, I just let him know that I was burying all my burden with him. I was at a point where I was going to change my last name. We all agreed to keep the name, but start new.”
‘I Love the Islands’, his music video paean to Samoa, became poignant after the 2009 tsunami. “Definitely brought a few tears for me.” Savage, later the highlight of Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Feel Inside’ video, led organising relief concerts throughout New Zealand. He was heartened that New Zealanders gave $350,000. “It made me feel so proud to be a Kiwi, man.” He beams that huge Savage smile, optimistic about Samoa’s recovery. “The one thing you can’t kill about our people is our spirit.”
Savage’s now at the serious stage; his priority is to be a good dad till his time ticks over. “That’s very sacred – it’s my cornerstone. It’s what makes me me.” ‘All In’, from 2012 winter album Mayhem and Miracles, lets people know what he does is for Skylah, Caleb and Hailo.
Savage feels that he’s laid everything out on the table, like he’s closing in on redemption. He looks me straight in the eye. “I don’t want this to sound like a sloppy, sad story.” Savage’s calling post performing ain’t surprising. He smiles, recalling the youth worker who planted the seeds that turned his violent life around. “I truly believe that the man upstairs put me in music to achieve such status that I’ll be able to go back down to help at-risk youth, the kids that need to be inspired.”