Pauly Fuemana was the son and fourth child of a Niuean father and Māori (Ngai Tūhoe) mother. Raised by his grandmother in central Auckland, by the time he reached his teens he was living with his siblings in the South Auckland suburb of Otara. He hung out with gangs and criminals and his childhood was punctuated with spells in borstal.
The Fuemanas were a musical clan. Sister Christina was an excellent R&B singer who fronted club bands from the late 80s. Elder brother Phillip was a producer, fundamental to the pioneering South Auckland soul sounds of the early 90s. Phillip and Christina performed in Houseparty, who released a single ‘Dangerous Love’ on Southside in 1991, before changing their name to Fuemana for the album New Urban Polynesian, released on Deep Grooves in 1994.
Alan Jansson grew up in Wellington and in the late 70s, inspired by punk and new wave, he formed the Steroids in which he played guitar. But by the early 80s his fascination had shifted to electronica, and he had started The Body Electric, a synth-pop outfit whose 1983 single ‘Pulsing’ was a New Zealand hit.
Relocating to Auckland in 1984, he established his own studio Module 8, investing in a state-of-the-art Fairlight CMI digital sampler and sequencer – “with the famous Page R” – the first digital recording machine. Of the many artists who came through the studio doors, Jansson was particularly impressed by the young R&B and hip-hop acts from South and West Auckland. Jansson had chart success with Chain Gang’s ‘Jump’ (1988) and ‘Break The Beat’ (1989) – 3 The Hard Way came out of Chain Gang. When Jansson moved the studio to Freemans Bay in 1991, it was renamed Uptown.
After the initial singles gained traction – especially in the Australian club scene – Jansson was encouraged by Andrew Penhallow of Australian label Volition to put together a compilation that would showcase this burgeoning Polynesian movement. The result was Proud: A Pacific Streetsoul Compilation, which was well received, especially across the Tasman.
It was Jansson’s instinct to emphasise elements of the music that reflected the Pacifican background of the artists, and throughout the album one could hear log drums, ukuleles and the so-called ‘Māori strum’ which Jansson had first encountered at after-work parties on the building sites where he had worked as a teenager. The result was a sound uniquely New Zealand, and strikingly different from the R&B and hip-hop coming from anywhere else at the time.
One of the standout tracks was ‘We R The OMC’, a rap anthem.
One of the standout tracks was ‘We R The OMC’, a rap anthem by a posse comprised of Phil and Pauly Fuemana, fellow MC Herman Lotto and others. OMC stood for Otara Millionaires Club. Though the name was initially just a joke – millionaires being conspicuously scarce on the working class streets of Otara – it turned out to be prescient.
The album was preceded by a national tour featuring many of the Proud artists, that lost money but boosted their profile. After the tour the original OMC fell apart, with Pauly taking the name. He turned up late one night at Alan Jansson's door asking if Jansson would work with him on new recordings. Pauly enthused over Jansson's work on Proud.
But not all of the Proud participants were enamoured of Jansson’s input, and some were heard to grumble that his highlighting of their Polynesian heritage meant their recordings “didn’t sound American enough.”
To Jansson, that was the whole point: To make something that was non-imitative and unique.
Pauly Fuemana did get what Jansson was doing and he later told Simon Grigg that when he had heard Alan lay the acoustic guitar on ‘We R The OMC’ he knew immediately he had found his collaborator and mentor.
Pauly guested as a vocalist on Shift Left, the debut album of Auckland saxophone virtuoso Nathan Haines, before settling down to work with Jansson on a new single.
Andrew Penhallow of Volition arranged for OMC and Sisters Underground to appear on the 1995 Big Day Out festivals in New Zealand and Australia. For the tour, OMC were joined by young South Auckland singer Sina Saipaia, previously from the group Sistermatic.
The shows in Australia were particularly well received, with Clinton Walker picking Pauly’s star potential in a feature for Rolling Stone: “Fuemana is an absolute natural, a man who sings and moves with the sharp easy grace of a young Marvin Gaye.”
Fuemana was reminded of another phrase JaNSSON frequently used: ‘How Bizarre’.
The song they began to write was initially titled ‘Doof It Up’ – South Auckland street slang for a scrap or a tussle – before becoming ‘Big Top’, in reference to the circus motif that would remain a part of the final lyric. After Jansson opined that the ‘doof it up’ line was ‘too bizarre’, Fuemana was reminded of another phrase Alan frequently used: ‘How Bizarre’.
To Pauly’s verses – which he delivered in a conversational sing-song with a pronounced Polynesian accent, utterly unlike any other current rapper or singer – Jansson added a catchy melodic chorus, bringing in Sina Saipaia (namechecked in the lyric as ‘Sister Sina’) to sing duet. Further flourishes included a mariachi style trumpet (played by expatriate British jazz musician George Chisholm), an accordion (courtesy of transplanted New Yorker and Jews Brothers’ founder Herschel Herscher) and the essential Māori strum, supplied by musician and moviemaker Lee Baker.
In New Zealand ‘How Bizarre’ was released in December 1995 on the huh! label, an Auckland-based indie licensed through PolyGram, which Simon Grigg had founded, initially to release Haines’ album.
PolyGram in New Zealand were reluctant to go with the quirky single but had their hand forced by the enthusiastic reaction when Grigg and Jansson took the initiative and presented the record directly to PolyGram Australia.
The single won the immediate support of urban Auckland station Mai FM. As the song’s impact spread from its South Auckland epicentre, other stations began to rotate the record. By the end of January, it was No.1 in New Zealand. It was released in Australia in March 1996, where it also headed to the top of the charts.
By the time the follow-up song ‘Right On’ was released (in May 1996 in New Zealand, August in Australia), Polydor had picked up the option to release ‘How Bizarre’ in Britain.
Though the record initially seemed to have flopped in Britain, a BBC Radio One host Chris Evans happened to hear it on a visit to Australia and began to play it heavily on his prime time breakfast show. As it began its ascent of the British charts, Pauly was summoned to London for a television appearance on that cultural institution Top of The Pops. No sooner had he completed the 20,000 mile round-trip, he was called to London again. And so began a pattern of globetrotting that would keep Fuemana moving around the world for the next few years, promoting his hit.
The song eventually made the Top 10 in 15 countries, and reached No.1 in many territories.
The song eventually became the biggest hit ever written and recorded in New Zealand by a New Zealand artist, made the Top 10 in 15 countries, and reached No.1 in many territories including Austria, Canada, Ireland and on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart in the US (a chart that measures airplay).
By this time Jansson and Fuemana had completed the album, also titled How Bizarre, which spawned further singles ‘On The Run’ and ‘Land Of Plenty’. Though these deeply autobiographical pieces showed there was far more range and potential in OMC than their novel No.1 might have suggested, they had little impact as singles outside New Zealand. The album, however, sold well on account of its title track, selling platinum (one million units) in the USA.
By this time, Pauly was a wealthy man, spending his newfound fortune on clothes, cars, recording equipment and international holidays for himself and his family, and generally living the high life. But he was also growing exhausted, and this, combined with his short temper, led to numerous and sometimes violent confrontations. At one point it was reported that he had assaulted a representative of his American record label.
In addition, he was under pressure from international agents to work with producers other than Jansson. This resulted in a critically and commercially disastrous cover version of Randy Newman’s ‘I Love LA’, recorded in the US with American producer Peter Zizzo and featured in the Rowan Atkinson film Bean: The Movie. Jansson and Fuemana would not work together for almost a decade.
Eventually sales slowed, touring and recording ground to a complete halt; only the spending continued. In June 2006 Pauly Fuemana was declared bankrupt.
In 2007 OMC released ‘4 All Of Us’ to commemorate the Human Rights Commission’s Race Relations Day, produced and co-written by Jansson. The gentle appealing song featured a guest appearance by actor Lucy Lawless, internationally known for her title role in the TV series Xena, Warrior Princess. However it made little commercial impact, while the accompanying video, in which Fuemana appeared gaunt and uncoordinated, prompted questions about the singer’s health.
Though Jansson and Fuemana developed some other material at this time, the partnership dissolved again and no further OMC records would ever be released. Fuemana was discharged from bankruptcy in 2009. In January the following year he died at North Shore Hospital, of complications from what was described as a “chronic degenerative disease.”