Beauty and the geek

Ladi6, aka Karoline Tamati
Ladi6, aka Karoline Tamati
It's a decade since Ladi6 picked up a microphone with New Zealand's first all-girl hip-hop outfit Sheelahroc. Now, after much trial and error and plenty of growth spurts, she has released her debut solo album. Shane Gilchrist reports.

Birth, death, love, celebration and reflection form the bedrock of Ladi6's debut solo album Time Is Not Much.

Big themes all, some are stated boldly and come coupled to a hip-hop beat; others reside in the space between the music, their explanations found not in the lyrics but in the liner notes.

With a national tour starting in Auckland last night, and plans in place for a European assault, there is plenty happening in the life of Ladi6.

However, it is equally interesting to look back on what has happened: she has fallen in love, had a baby and, more recently, grieved over the death of a young family member.

The music has also been quite a journey.

Ladi6, aka Karoline Tamati, first took to the stage in 1998 with Christchurch all-girl hip-hop act Sheelahroc.

Building on the profile of that group, which enjoyed success with early single If I Gave You The Mic, Tamati's next band, Verse 2, has supported international acts such as De La Soul, the Roots and 50 Cent; it also won the bNet "best new act" award in 2004.

Tamati has featured on albums by Fat Freddys Drop, Shapeshifter, opensouls and her cousin, Scribe, aka Malo Luafutu, who has returned the favour and contributed vocals to a couple of tracks on Time Is Not Much.

Another cousin, Tyra Hammond, provides backing vocals on at least three songs.

Tamati, who has also toured Europe with Fat Freddys Drop and Australia with Scribe as well as performing her own shows, has been staying at her sister's Auckland home since her return three weeks ago from a successful tour of Europe and the United Kingdom, where she is working on securing release deals for the album as well as promotion and support for a return visit in April next year.

She is clearly excited about Time Is Not Much.

Though Tamati admits she is something of a chatterbox, the flow of words from the other end of the telephone line is impressive.

Still, it should come as no surprise given her prowess behind a microphone in a genre where rapid-fire delivery is a baseline requirement.

"It is the hugest thing I could do, really," she enthuses.

"I did my first gig with Sheelahroc in 1998 so it has been 10 years since I started doing this. It's also a natural progression to where I had to go. Everything I have done in the past led me to do a solo album."

Time Is Not Much has been a few years in the making.

Having moved from Christchurch to Auckland, Tamati and Brent Parks, her partner, musically and romantically, decided to record an album when their son, Philly, turned 1.

Philly is now 4 and fast approaching school age.

"I don't really know what I wanted from it," Tamati says.

"When I started out I wanted to have the physical CD to show myself and my son, obviously, that I had achieved something.

"For a lot of those years, music just came quite naturally for me so it always felt like a bit of a rip-off, in that I needed to get a real job at some stage.

"When I decided to do the solo album, that was me deciding that this was going to be my career.

"Our original plan was to block out the months and we went into the whole thing not knowing what we were getting into, thinking you could make the album in a month.

"But after the first year and a-half . . . We had a lot of bumps in the road."

Those bumps included the fact the pair had no money with which to record.

A plan was required, as was a manager.

Enter Rebecca Caughey who, earlier this year, at the age of 26, became the youngest recipient of the Peter Blake Emerging Leader Award.

"She had just finished uni and was on her way to do her big OE," Tamati (27) recalls.

"She was younger than I am. I asked her if she'd manage me and she decided to put off the OE and stay. She was a bit of a fan at the time, which was lucky for me.

"We got an album starter grant [up to $5000] from Creative New Zealand and that helped us buy our laptop. Then we got the Coke Tunes Fund [$15,000], which helped to buy equipment like keyboards and compressors."

Tamati says almost all of the 11 songs on Time is Not Much are recent compositions.

There is the odd track that's a little older, such as Down And Out, a soul-infused Verse 2 number that has the feel of the former outfit's jam-based approach.

Though the album clearly benefits from collaborations with a range of musicians, from those cousins of hers to beat-maker and producer Mu and other members of Fat Freddys Drop, Tamati says she was keen to put herself front and centre.

After all, it is her debut solo album.

"We created little bits, then went back and changed things. That was a constant thing. I'd be in the studio and add a hook and leave it at that. Parks would start with a loop, a guitar line or something and from that we would keep building."

Entwined in all the music is a love story, albeit one accompanied by a few laughs from Tamati.

"There was a big band competition at [Christchurch bar] the Dux de Lux. Parks had been coming over to my house, annoying me, wanting to write some songs.

"He was the most geeky dude I'd ever met. I only knew him through one of the girls in Sheelahroc. I thought he was a total geek: 'Oh my God, here he comes again with his guitar, wanting to write songs about . . . Colombo St or something'.

"Anyway, after him coming around visiting me every second Saturday and me not having it in my heart to say, 'look dude, don't come around anymore', he asked me to be in his band.

I knew nothing about bands.

I didn't know what an amp was, but I said 'of course'."

Thus began a parallel learning curve: as Tamati found out more about Parks, she was also exposed to a greater array of music.

"Parks introduced me to the world of musicians and music generally, opened up my eyes to every kind of music . . . I'd be 10 years behind had Parks not introduced me to all of that stuff."

Reminded of the fact that the "geeky guy" to whom she refers is now father to her son, Tamati laughs: "How did that happen? OK, I know, but . . . through falling in love with music, I fell in love with him at the same time. Isn't he lucky."

There have been other inspirations, too.

"I remember when I was 18 and going to the Dux de Lux and just watching Anika Moa and she had short hair and bare feet and she was doing some Bob Marley song and she dedicated this song to me because I had just met her and was staying at her house because I was friends with her flatmate.

"That was how I ended up deciding I could do music. It wasn't the fact I could sing - I could always sing - it was because she dedicated a song to me. I thought if she can get up there and make everyone laugh then, flip, I can.

"It was always like that, like watching my cousin Malo [Scribe] do it, then . . . you're supporting De La Soul.

"It was like that touring Europe. You think what you do here in New Zealand may not translate or they might have heaps of Ladi6s over there. But it's just not true. There aren't 100 Ladi6s; I am the only one. The response was fantastic and it was just me and Parks . . . you just keep thinking, 'maybe anything is possible'.

"It keeps opening up; doors fling open and you walk through and think, 'sweet'."

It hasn't been all good news, however.

Two months ago, Tamati's 10-year-old cousin, Shaquille, died after suffering a stroke.

The album is dedicated to her.

In fact, its title is taken from a poem Shaquille wrote before she died.

"No-one even knew that she had written these. She was always writing. For a 10-year-old to write 'Time Is Not Much' . . . it seemed she was telling us to use our time wisely. How amazing is that? We have to take that and learn from that."

Tamati and Park worked Shaquille's poem into musical shape.

Although a mere two-minute interlude, it nonetheless forms the spiritual heart of the album, providing a counterpoint for the more joyous release of other tracks.

"It gave the album more meaning, rather than it just being a record of music I made. She wanted to be a singer."

The influence of family on Tamati's music is not limited to cousins Shaquille, Scribe and Tyra either.

The vision of her Samoan parents has an ongoing resonance.

"My parents started up a youth centre in Christchurch, founded a women's refuge . . . They were always bringing work home with them, kids home with them - they were social workers - so I definitely got that from my parents.

"The six of us knew that Mum and Dad were busy so the house ran like a machine, on clockwork. At the same time, my parents had ideas and made them reality. This is what I watched constantly, so it wasn't a thing for me to have a dream to be a musician. They were 110% behind me.

"When I was in Sheelahroc, it was Dad who drove us to Dunedin for Waitangi Day gigs; it was Mum who came to Auckland and made sure we ironed our shirts; she came to the bNet Awards and introduced us to Che Fu.

"In all honesty, I only work like this when it is my idea, when I feel like I own it. I've had jobs at McDonald's, at cafés and other places and I was absolutely useless, always late, awful coffee. I'd come to work hungover. I don't know if my work ethic is good. It depends on who I'm working for."

Tamati and Parks have been working hard.

Their recent trip to Europe to master the album as well as "impress a couple of people" resulted in a series of unplanned gigs.

They have also picked up a couple of promoters in Germany and received interest from record labels and distributors.

Though no record deals have been sealed, the signs are positive.

"Because the album is coming out so soon after we've been there, it's perfect timing. It's not like they are going to forget about you . . . We just sent the album over last week and they are still processing it, taking it in, but we've definitely got our promoters and gigs happening in Europe."

Back home, Time Is Not Much has been released independently.

Copyright is owned by the couple's Question Music imprint, with Rhythm Method handling distribution.

"We shopped it around to the major labels, but the deal you get being independent is way more in the hand, so it was an obvious choice," Tamati explains.

Now it's a case of wait and see.

"That's nothing new. It's always about having the fingers and toes crossed. My toes and fingers are totally munted from being crossed all the time. But it's exciting at the same time.

"It's not all do or die; it's not all resting on this album, hoping it's going to make us heaps of money, because that's just not realistic.

"It's more the beginning. And it's a great beginning. It's a good place to start."


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