But there was more to the story of their success. One of their producers, SmokeyGotBeatz, was already working with heavyweight acts in the US, and the group’s MCs, SPYCC and INF, had a depth to their rhymes which came from a decade of putting in work.
Their first video as an official crew was released in April 2016 and immediately turned heads. It started with an unremarkable shot of the motorway going over Māngere Bridge, then panned down to the pedestrian walkway underneath, where a throng of youths in Hawaiian shirts were nodding their heads to a pounding beat.
There was no doubt that a new force in local hip hop had arrived.
The Kanye West song title ‘No More Parties In LA’ was flipped on its head as ‘No More Parties In Stoneyhunga’, with the video showing a rooftop in Onehunga, above the home studio where the crew made their beats. The music dropped down to a bassline, allowing the beat to kick back even harder when it returned, with the two rappers delivering rhymes with the same energy as the bouncing crew that surrounded them. There was humour too, particularly in the interlude which had group member Boomer sitting at a bar, slowly removing his Hawaiian shirt, and joking about the group being able to spit their verses in one take – “Was it only one take? One take! Who writes these days?”
Once the three minutes were up, there was no doubt that a new force in local hip hop had arrived. While the song might be one starting point, at least in terms of the popular consciousness, things for the group were already well underway.
The two key rappers behind SWIDT are INF (pronounced I-N-F) aka Amon McGoram, and SPYCC (pronounced “Spike”) aka Daniel Latu. They both began rapping at an early age, with INF writing his verse at nine years old and creating his first beat on beat-making software Fruity Loops at age 11. An inspiration was his older brother Peter Lopes, who rapped as J1 in cult hip hop crew, R.E.S. (Red Eye Society).
INF was blasting beats under the library stairs and trading rhymes with his friends.
By the time he reached Onehunga College, INF was taking his computer speakers to school, blasting beats under the library stairs and trading rhymes with his friends. It wasn’t long before both INF and SPYCC were posting mixtapes of their rapping online, where it was shared by underground hip hop blog, Aye Bro. They repped hard for their local neighbourhood from the start, with SPYCC releasing a track in 2008 (‘That’s Right’), credited to “312”, the number of the local bus route.
One of the key connections they made in those early years was with JAMAL (Jamal Muavae) who became interested in music making aged 11 when his dad set up a studio in their garage (sadly, most of the gear was stolen in a break-in). Jamal was a budding DJ, so started backing SPYCC and INF for their live gigs and taught himself beat-making on Fruity Loops. Meanwhile, Jamal’s nephew Isaiah Libeau aka SmokeyGotBeatz was also taking an interest in production.
Boomer (Asher Schwencke) lived in the house behind INF’s place, so he became another member of their slowly solidifying crew. In the early years, the group also included Aaryn Orchard (A.Z.A) but his involvement was short-lived.
Smokey had the first taste of success. In 2013, he saw a tweet from US rapper Jay Rock asking one of his regular producers (Willie B) for beats, so Smokey offered some of his own. Jay Rock supplied his email address so he could send some through. However, it took two years until Smokey finally received an email asking for the stems (basic digital tracks) for one of the ideas he had supplied. Jay Rock used his beat for the track ‘Parental Advisory’ and made a video for it, which amassed millions of views.
What drew him to Smokey’s production was the clear influence of music from his home state of California. Smokey later explained to Sam Wicks at RNZ, “The West Coast sound describes my sound base. Like Dre – The Chronic 2001. The funky sound from the early new millennium back to the late 80s … My older brothers and my mum would play NWA or Dr Dre. I was raised on it.”
Smokey then arranged another US placement with producer-turned-rapper Hit-Boy, before he was approached by Andy Murnane, one of the founders of the Dawn Raid label. This led to Smokey signing with Andy’s 1979 Management company, though gradually SPYCC’s partner Serra Galuvao was trained to run SWIDT’s day-to-day affairs.
In May 2015, Murnane took Smokey to LA so he could meet potential collaborators and run sessions at the Melrose Sound music studio. Smokey took with him a laptop loaded with over 300 beats, but it was still overwhelming when his first day saw him presenting ideas to superstar rapper Xzibit, as well as hot producers from the label Jay Rock was signed to, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE).
In his one-month trip Smokey sold beats to half a dozen US acts.
In his one-month trip Smokey sold beats to half a dozen US acts. Even some of the low-key placements gained decent numbers and sometimes had impressive cameos – for example, ‘Vacation Forever’ by Sword Beach gained a million streams and had a verse by Prodigy (Mobb Deep). Most mind-blowing of all was the new track he’d made for Jay Rock, ‘Easy Bake’, which features rap legend Kendrick Lamar and hit singer SZA, whose reputation helped it surpass 10 million streams.
Over this same period, SPYCC and INF were busy building their own reputations. SPYCC’s increasingly professional looking music videos on YouTube went from thousands of views to tens of thousands, especially after he released ‘Slow Down’ (2013) and ‘Bad Habit’ (2014). INF had his own breakthrough in 2015, when he appeared on a track by legendary rapper PNC (‘The Codes’). INF and Jamal also spent time studying audio engineering and music production at MAINZ.
It took a while for the friends to officially come together as a group, with INF first using SWIDT as a catchphrase to end posts on Facebook – “See What I Did There” – before they took it up as a crew name from 2014 onward. The music video for ‘No More Parties In Stoneyhunga’ provided a perfect introduction to the group and was directed by street artist Askew One (Elliott O’Donnell). Smokey began working out of Askew’s Studio 40, which he was running with his partner Olivia Laita in Onehunga.
Smokey decided to release the tracks he’d created as a mixtape: SmokeyGotBeatz Presents: SWIDT Vs Everybody (2016), which dipped into the local charts at No.11. Surprisingly, it didn’t feature ‘No More Parties In Stoneyhunga’, but was instead promoted by ‘Ain’t A Phase’ which had SPYCC rapping alongside David Dallas, a longtime supporter of the group. The follow-up single was the INF track, ‘Know Us.’
The album also featured rappers Smokey had worked with in the US, such as Bushwick Bill, Ganxsta Ridd (Boo-Yaa Tribe), King Lil G, Blaison Maven, and MC Eiht.
However, the track that became a student radio hit and million streamer was the SWIDT anthem, ‘312’.
The album was released through a publishing and distribution deal with Universal and launched with a show at Neck of the Woods in K Rd, Auckland. The crew performed two more “SWIDT Vs Everybody” shows at the venue over subsequent months, and they held a “312 Day” at the Trident Tavern in Onehunga to keep their connection to their local hood (this event was repeated the following year).
‘SWIDT VS EVERYBODY’ GAINED A SURPRISE WIN AT THE 2016 NZ MUSIC AWARDS.
The bonus of having multiple members was that SPYCC and INF could play their own shows as a duo, while the other members were free to join in or not as suited them. The pair toured nationally as part of Louie Knuxx’s album release tour, supported US rapper Homeboy Sandman, and appeared at the Others Way Festival. They also released solo tracks: INF featured on the Sachi track ‘Eyes Blue’; SPYCC released ‘Midnight Groove’ and ‘Other Lover’. The initial aim was for each of them to release a solo album, but the growing success of SWIDT saw this plan shelved indefinitely.
Members of SWIDT also took time to contribute back to the scene – taking part in the “Rock It” music mentoring programme through Auckland Museum to support the careers of upcoming artists – and as a group, SWIDT performed for free at a fundraiser for DJ Spell to attend the DMC competition overseas. Jamal became involved with the 312 Hub community space in Onehunga, running workshops and DJing at their events.
SWIDT Vs Everybody was listed among only three local entries on NZ Herald’s 20 best albums of 2016 and gained a surprise win at the NZ Music Awards. Aaradhna was initially chosen over them in the “Urban / Hip Hop Album of the Year” category, but she bristled at the odd award category which seemed to simply lump all the brown-skinned artists together. Instead, she told the audience, “I want to give it to SWIDT because I believe that you guys are the future of hip hop” – and so the crew took to the stage to collect the award from her.
Red Bull released a short documentary about Smokey’s incredible success, which followed on from the SWIDT working on the album at the company’s studio in Auckland with in-house engineers Ben Lawson and Dan Mawby.
SWIDT were an overnight success story, even if it had been years in the making.
By the end of 2016, SWIDT were not only established as a group, but they also incorporated as a company. While their own style might have relied on Hawaiian shirts – always opened to a bare chest in Boomer’s case – they also did a good line in Stoneyhunga 312 T-shirts.
Smokey was still getting overseas placements, such as two tracks with local producer Matt Noble for CJ Fly’s album, Flytrap (2016) – ‘Diamonds' and 'Lethal Allure'. Meanwhile, SWIDT kept their fans happy by releasing a surplus track from the album, ‘Drippin feat Reggie Hampton’, on their Soundcloud account.
STONEYHUNGA shot to No.4 on the national album chart.
They started the new year with festival slots (Northern Bass, Homegrown) and a magazine cover (NZ Musician), despite their debut album still being in the works. The first release arrived in March with ‘Alfred and Church’ – a sinister beat by Tae Beast (from TDE) overlaid with real life stories of their life growing up in Onehunga. The title referenced the two intersecting streets they’d grown up on. The following months saw two more singles. ‘Little Did She Know’ recounted humorous tales of slipping out from your mum’s watchful eye, while ‘Close One feat CJ Fly’ described times when danger had been a heartbeat away.
The album STONEYHUNGA (2017) arrived on 28 July and shot to No.4 on the national album chart. It received a boost from another powerful single, ‘Player of the Day’ which had been released the week before. The accompanying music video included cameos by UFC fighter Dan “The Hangman” Hooker, and league player Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
In the preceding months, they kept up a presence on the home front, selling T-shirts at Pakuranga night markets and performing a free show outside Onehunga library. Their approach reached its zenith with a pop-up store at Studio 40, where they held listening parties and an exhibition. On the final day, you could even get a free haircut with any purchase.
STONEYHUNGA was packed with great tracks, so the big singles kept dropping. ‘Ric Flair (Wooo!)’ took its name from the 1990s professional wrestler who was known for his flashy robes and over the top attitude. The music video gave the crew the chance to dress outrageously themselves, and they brought some local wrestlers into the ring to show off their moves, though Boomer stole the show with an interlude that showed him being fired from wrestling trio The Pretty Boys by UFC legend Israel “The Stylebender” Adesanya and Reggie Handsome. SWIDT followed it up with the libido-filled song of seduction ‘Tonight’ and turned themselves into a boy band for the video.
Even the non-single cuts from the album were solid. ‘R.I.P Shirt’ was a masterclass in battle rap punchlines: “I eat rappers like quarter packs, they’re too peaceful”; “see this, your tangi, put them in the dirt like a hāngī.” Then at the other end of the spectrum was the groovy track ‘Mine’ with live instruments by Yoko Zuna and a falsetto vocal by INF. The heartfelt album closer, ‘Before Tears Dry’, described the pain of losing loved ones: INF spoke on losing his father while SPYCC talked about his grandmother.
Most of the group members could no longer afford to live in Onehunga.
One theme which was carried across multiple tracks on the album was their sadness in seeing their home suburb of Onehunga being gentrified and the old landmarks they’d grown up with being erased before their eyes. Most of the group members could no longer afford to live in Onehunga due to rising rents. INF had moved to Ōtāhuhu and SPYCC was based in Manurewa, but they were still determined to represent their home suburb to the fullest.
The album propelled SWIDT to the forefront of the local scene. Even Neil Finn was co-signing the crew’s talents, having them record tracks for the album at his Roundhead Studios and bringing them in for the livestream performance. They were recognised at the NZ Music Awards, where they received Best Group and Best Hip Hop Artist.
Their reputation spread to Australia, where they played their first shows in November. From this point onward they were local festival favourites, appearing that summer at Wondergarden, Soundsplash, Auckland City Limits, Bay Dreams, Mai Summer Jam, and Rhythm and Vines, not to mention a support slot with Post Malone at Vector Arena.
They had enough extra tracks from the album that they were able to release the Stoneyhunga Bootleg EP (2018) which also dipped into the Top 40. It featured guests such as HIGH HØØPS from Leisure (who SPYCC had worked with on ‘Other Lover’ in 2015) and hot new rappers Diggy Dupé and MELODOWNZ. Lead single ‘Conquer’ would be one of their biggest tracks, with over a million streams.
SWIDT no longer needed the big push of an album release and instead spent the next few years releasing EPs and singles so they could put new material out into the world while it was still fresh.
First up was The Most Electrifying EP (2018) which produced bangers like ‘Who Run It’ and ‘Praise’ (two million streams and counting). These hits pushed the EP into the Top 20, though there were thoughtful cuts too. ‘No Emotions In The Wild’ started out with a heartfelt verse from SPYCC about the idea that “real men don’t cry tears”.
SWIDT were awarded Best Pacific Hip Hop Act at the Pacific Music Awards in 2019.
“That’s what the whole toxic masculinity thing is,” SPYCC explained later to RNZ, “us feeling like we can’t open up or be who we are or feel how we want to feel, based on this perception of what a man is supposed to be like. Wherever we go, we’re just ourselves. We don’t conform, we don’t change who we are.”
The Most Electrifying EP saw SWIDT awarded Best Pacific Hip Hop Act at the Pacific Music Awards in 2019. They were now popular enough to headline their own shows at Studio in Auckland and were given third billing on the Six60 stadium tour in 2019, which included iconic venue Western Springs Stadium. There were more festival appearances and support slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jay Rock, though their releases slowed to a trickle.
In October 2019, they released ‘BUNGA’– their most politically charged song to date – and it was matched with an incredible video by director Anehera Parata and cinematographer Bevan Crothers. The song hit out at the stereotyping of Polynesians in Aotearoa:
“They call me a bunga, they poke fun at the accent, yet only speak one language …
Bunga, our only meetings are court proceedings, they only love us if it’s sports achievements,
Siana, see a bunga’s what they call that, unless you scoring tries for the All Blacks, then you Kiwi.”
The video showed actor Chris Alosio in his family home, mouthing the words of the rap. Then it abruptly shifts from afternoon to evening and the police show up. He appears at the front door wearing a Polynesian Panther beret and holding a child in his arms, ready to defend his rights. It moved TV host John Campbell so much that he immediately booked them on the TVNZ Breakfast show to explain the meaning of the song in depth.
The lyrics were equally thoughtful in the follow-up ‘Preacher Man’, which took aim at rappers who were only in the game for likes online and internet clout (all over a beat by rising local star, Montell2099). The press release explained their approach: “It’s just like when your parents tried to feed you veges as a kid. They would dice up the veges into fine pieces and then mix it in with the meat. Well, this is that.”
Unfortunately, like all other local artists they found their plans over the next two years disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. They did put out a single, ‘WHO R U’, and the GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES EP in 2020 (featuring minor hit ‘WONDERS’) and a ‘SEIZE THE DAY feat Savage’ in 2021, but without as many live shows to back them up, the releases didn’t get the attention they deserved.
Meanwhile Smokeygotbeatz was continuing to work with other acts, including US rappers P-Lo (‘Here’ featuring Dom Kennedy) and REASON (‘Fall’), as well as over half-a-dozen beats for local artist POETIK, including his breakthrough single ‘For My City’. There was even a mind-bending moment when hit producer Timbaland shared a video of himself beatboxing along to one of Smokey’s beats and exclaiming, “Damn Smokey!”
In the background, SWIDT were working on a follow-up album, waiting until they had the perfect complement of tracks. There was little point in doing a big release until the live scene had returned to normal. However, they did remind the listeners of their talents at the tail end of 2021 with a three-song EP, 312 Day.
The opening track was a new version of a reggae song, ‘KELZ GARAGE’, intended as an interlude on their debut album. It was reworked into a full-length song with reggae singer Lomez Brown, who already had gold-selling singles of his own and now gave SWIDT their own gold certification. Brown took part in a live video of the track they filmed at Roundhead Studios. John Campbell brought them onto TVNZ’s Breakfast again to perform it, as did TV3 evening show The Project.
‘KELZ GARAGE’ soon raced past 2.5 million streams online and saw SWIDT receive Best Pacific Song and Best Pacific Group at the 2022 Pacific Music Awards. Just another reminder that SWIDT remains the “most electrifying rap group in New Zealand”.