From grassroots to international success: meet Ladi6

Kiwi songstress Ladi6 (aka Ladi) has had a prominent following in New Zealand and Europe for many years, but has only recently emerged on the Australian scene with her latest EP release, Royal Blue 3000.

The multi-talented singer, rapper and producer grew up with music and core hip-hop beliefs, with family members and close friends such as Scribe and Fat Freddy’s Drop being prominent figures helping her to shape success.

Ladi6‘s indescribable and entirely hypnotising fusion of soul, hip-hop and RnB is only just starting to get the recognition it deserves on our golden soils, with the artist’s latest work released earlier this month. Oozing with futuristic funk, soothing sonic production and a menagerie of genre influences, Ladi6 offers us modern electronic sounds with organic, exotic influences that flourish from cultural roots and humble integrity.

Ladi’s partner, Parks, has been a career-long collaborator with her work, and the pair have played with industry heavyweights by the likes of The RootsMos Def and 50 Cent. We got the chance to chat with her about the rawer aspects of the music industry, her captivating musical journey and also got some schooling on the true meaning of hip-hop.

You’re fairly new on our radar, despite having achieved great success in New Zealand and internationally. So dropping in some big openers: who are you, what are you?

Well I’m Ladi, I’m Ladi6. I was given that name Ladi6 when I started out as a rapper, many years ago straight from in from high school, and I started a band not too long after that. From there I became really interested in singing and then I started my own band. Now, I’m at a three piece, well I have a three piece that back me, and we are from New Zealand. Does that cover everything do you think?

Yeah! Now, you spent some time in Africa in your teenager?

Yeah exactly. So just before I discovered hip-hop I suppose, I learned how to play the guitar in Africa.

My parents were sort of head hunted by a volunteer service over here in New Zealand that head hunts certain people with certain types of skills. Both my parents are social workers and youth workers, and so they were sought after to work with the street children of Urrutia in Tanzania. Me and my sister, my younger sister – I’m one of six siblings altogether, but me and my younger sister were both under 18; I was 16 at the time and she was 15 – we went over with our parents to live in Africa and we lived there for about a year and a half.

How did that influence you creatively? There obviously would have been a lot of influences, but stylistically was it really African influenced?

Well actually, no. In Africa they play a lot of… I don’t know what the genre is exactly, but it’s sort of African world music and really beachy, and then that is really influenced by reggae. But, coming from a big Polynesian family I sort of had a lot of influences anyway, musically. We were very much a family that was raised on Motown, and my dad really loved funk music – so Tower of Power and obviously Jimi Hendrix. All of that was a huge influence over me, but when I was in Africa it was kind of the early 1990s and I was listening to a lot of ‘High and Dry’ by Radiohead. I was this wannabe grunge girl, and into a lot of that music. So that’s why I really wanted to play the guitar, first and foremost as well – I was wanting to really hammer this idea of being a singer-songwriter… I don’t know, sort of Nirvana-y… hoping I could come up with these songs. They were always super emo and about missing home, missing out on parties with my friends and all the normal stuff. All my friends were writing to me about what was going on in their lives as 16 year olds, and then my older sister started getting really deeply into hip-hop in New Zealand and she was writing to us about her influences at the time and sending these little mix tapes.

I was already raised with it, with my brothers being really into MC Hammer and Young MC in the late 1980s, so I already had that going on. It was just a lot of everything, but personally I was kind of picking trip-hop and what was really happening at that time in the UK was really where my heart was at and what I was really into.

You mentioned your sister was into performing hip-hop. Do many of your other family members play music? Are they musicians as well?

Yeah actually everybody was really into hip-hop. By the time I got back to New Zealand, which would have been 1998… my cousin, Scribe, who was huge in Australia and huge here in New Zealand was just getting discovered, so hip-hop then overtook my family. Everybody was stupidly into it, and my family is super large anyway, I have around 100 first cousins and everyone is super talented and musical, so Scribe was one that really influenced me. He took me on tour, around the Big Day Out circuit, and I got to meet Lily Allen and everyone who was hot at the time. We were hobnobbing with them backstage, which was amazing. I do come from a big long line of musicians and creatives and that. I would definitely say that Scribe had the most influence on me, especially with my hip-hop.

Prior to your solo work with Ladi6, you formed Verse Two with your partner, Parks, and quite a few other talents. Was that your first collaboration with your cousin Scribe and Mu of Fat Freddy’s Drop?

Yeah that’s exactly right. Mu was really hyped as being the next big thing, and he must of been 19. I’m a year and a half younger than him, and we decided that we would move to Auckland [from Christchurch] around the same time he was recording his first record. So he flew up, and Parks and I drove up and formed Verse Two. Scribe was in that band as well, but he could only really be in it for maybe six months before his album came out and he skyrocketed and I didn’t see him again for like a year. But, me and Parks held down this five piece band, doing a mixture of what The Roots were doing: kind of this live band hip-hop sound that we were driving towards. We didn’t have any digital gear at the time, so there were no synths like we have now. I think we had a Rhodes keyboard, which was our most digital sound. I grew up with Joe Dukie (Dallas Tamaira) who is the lead singer of Fat Freddy’s Drop and was their biggest fan, so when the opportunity came up to go to Wellington and meet Mu and write a song and hang out with Dallas I was like “please, I’ll do anything to get there”. From there my relationship with Fat Freddy’s Drop grew really strong, and a year later they took me around Europe with them and I co-write ‘Roady’ with them, from their first record.

I guess creative minds all stick together in a nice way like that, and obviously great things came out of it. You mentioned The Roots before: you supported them as well didn’t you? As well as De La Soul and 50 Cent.

That’s right. We ended up getting to support them but it was funny… it was a round-about way because it was actually Scribe that supported them and I jumped up with him, I think. Is that right? Do you know? I do remember at the time that I was pregnant, and they had been my idols forever. Forever, forever! And I just remember it kind of being a bit seedy –  they had this classic hip-hop thing where they get all the girls to come up and and I remember thinking it was gross and weird and uncomfortable. These guys were my idols and there’s this memory from at the very end of a show, backstage there was about 20 of these really young looking girls, and I remember feeling really uneasy. Just reflecting on hip-hop and its misogyny, and questioning my love of hip-hop and my ideas around being a woman. We did support them and I loved their music and I was kind of stoked, but at the same time wondering what was going on there.

Did you take anything away from that experience then – with your own music or your view of the industry and hip-hop?

Well my understanding of New Zealand hip-hop was that it is very inclusive and anytime that anyone would ever ask me “what’s it like” –  because Sheila Rock, my first group, was an all female hip-hop crew, specifically to encourage other girls to get into it. Not really the fight of misogyny in hip-hop or anything like that, I didn’t feel like it even existed. In my experience, I thought it was very balanced and that was very skill based: if you could rap then it didn’t matter whether you’re a girl or boy; if you could do graffiti, It didn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy; what mattered was your skill level. So, then when I supported The Roots, I started to see this really weird icky side where I felt like there were power trips, and maybe they were using their power to kind of get girls and that kind of weirded out and I wasn’t quite sure, I hadn’t really like thought about it a lot. I suppose really it just made me want to look further than hip-hop as the sole way of sort of expressing myself musically and that lead me to want to discover new and other ways of expressing myself musically and stepping out of that a little bit. Before that I was kind of just obsessed, and I still feel the influence of that will never go for me, and the more pure influences from that weren’t tarnished by that ‘all-boy” thing. I’ll still have the influence positively, but when I felt it was time for me to step away and explore things outside of that, I was very comfortable. Even though it was a weird experience, it was still good for me artistically.

That all inclusiveness that you mentioned you have at home with everyone being treated really equally – do you feel like that’s exclusive to New Zealand, or did you feel that in other countries that you performed in after having a different view with American groups?

I definitely feel like it’s a worldwide thing, especially when it comes to more of what you would call “purist hip-hop” heads. People that really believe the elements of hip-hop and it’s not so much about rap music really as it is like those four elements being graffiti, turntablism, rapping or MCeeing and B-Girl and B-Boying. I still feel like it’s very inclusive and I still feel like it’s skill based. If you have the skill you get down and you’re good, no one’s really looking at your gender as the reason why you can or you can’t do something. You definitely get props from whether you’re just basically good at it and I still feel like that exists, and that is very different from the music industry and rap groups. I think that’s something that I’ve grown to realise is that hip-hop and the four elements movement is very different from rap music and what’s happening in the music industry. I think when you take those four elements and the ideas around hip-hop and its very beginnings, you can take that to Africa and do some really positive things with it. Or, you can take that to Japan and everybody feels included in it and it’s very inclusive and everyone can have a go. It’s just sort of spreading the word about art and creation of art and I think that is always an inclusive thing, especially because it’s all about sort of cultivating a skill. It is about if you put in so many hours you will be a good graffiti writer, if you love it so much and you put in so many hours… so it always goes back to those fundamental things about creating art. So I feel like that is always inclusive; I don’t feel like there can be any exclusivity there, but I do know that it’s very different from what the music industry is and what all of that is still to this day.

I feel so fortunate to have that as my base where I came up from as a musician and as an artist. It rooted me in some good foundations as to what art can do in the community, there’s a real grassroots level. So we never kind of get too carried away with this music stuff, it’s never like I’m kind of gunning for the money and I know that there’s more that it can do as well.

So how do you transition then from Verse and into your solo stuff as Ladi in the line-up for Ladi6?

Well I just decided really that I wanted to do my own thing and I had met Mu through recording this one track with Verse Two, ‘Gold’, and asked him to produce my first record Time Is Not Much. We both got Parks involved in that because he was struggling to put it together, put the instrumentals in and produce the songs. So it went from one year to two years, to then the whole record took four years to make. Within that time of working really closely with Parks, he did a huge amount of work on that record and so did Mu, and it was from there that Parks and I realised that we could kind of do this whole thing different between ourselves if we wanted to. And we never really agreed to do it like that, it just kind of organically grew that we would be Ladi6 from then on.

The first album Time Is Not Much debuted at number four on the New Zealand charts, and then your second album The Liberation Of… reached certified gold and came in pretty hot on the charts as well with the lead single ‘Like Water’ riching certified platinum: how did this propel your career and is your reputation internationally as well as in New Zealand?

It was quite incredible. It was our first hit, and I remember just being in Berlin and having the music video of it playing on the train and at the train stations. That was incredible, like I’m on the train and it’s playing on that little screen – and in all the Burger Kings in Germany as well, which was really bizarre. It earned me quite a lot of money too. It’s quite amazing how much you can actually make off a song that’s a hit on the radio in New Zealand and that sells so many copies. I never thought that that was possible and it gave me quite a lot of freedom to live wherever I wanted and tour around for a bit in Europe.

I actually was in Germany when that song was a hit in New Zealand so I had no idea how big it had gotten here. It wasn’t until I got back and we won quite a lot of awards – I was quite shocked!  I got a couple of e-mails but no one really like told me the extent of how big it was. And because we are indie too and it was the first time we’d had a hit, we didn’t even realise until long after the hype had died down what we had done. We never got to celebrate it really which is a shame, but it was it was fantastic and gave me the idea that maybe I could do that for a real career. I stopped looking every year at uni brochures to see what I should actually be; it gave me confidence to say “I’m a musician. That’s cool, let’s do this”.

So when you were in Berlin, were you living there, or just you were touring there? That was when you were really getting big, and ‘Like Water’ got released on a German label as well.  

I was living there and touring there, and we’d been picked up by quite a big booking agency called For Artists, which was fantastic. Just on the back of that you get interest from all of these other agencies. At that time my son must’ve been 5 and going to school there, and I just remember we were living there and it being totally surreal and I just wasn’t taking in it at all. That was the time we supported Mos Def over there and in France, and I supported Erykah Badu over in Berlin and it was all surreal. It was great, but I wasn’t really recognising that it was quite significant success. I was just kind of rolling along with it, I wish that I had really taken more notice and lived in the moment a little bit more.

I always felt like I was really stressed out and it was all happening to me and I didn’t understand. We were so busy, it was fabulous. I look back now and think, “Wow, I can’t believe that happened”. You don’t have the people, you don’t have the team support to be like “by the way, this is a huge deal, celebrate this”. It was just me, Parks, our band and our manager who had never managed before either.

Obviously you had awesome reception in Europe and the European music scene with living in Germany and playing in France and having some really well reviewed gigs in the UK.  How does it compare playing to the international crowds versus that your home grown community or in New Zealand?

It’s always a little bit more exciting to play to a new crowd because you’ve kind of got a feeling that you’ve got to win them over, so every gig is you trying to do your absolute best. When you do it’s really satisfying, it feels like you’ve achieved something really significant. But, of course, with the home crowd it’s always feels good to hear your words sung back to you because they know the songs so well and it always feels good to look out at the audience and see people you know, to say inside jokes that you know they’ll get, or little comments about being a Kiwi – it gets everyone really hyped up. So there’s pros and cons to both really.

The worst thing about playing overseas is that people may not even know who you are. I remember going to Glastonbury when we did some of our first shows over there, and one show was really great because it was a specifically set up New Zealand tent, so every expat Kiwi shut themselves in there, It was packed you. And then one stage was just for new artists that hadn’t been heard of before and no one came. I think Beyonce was on another stage at the same time so of course no one is going to be there. But if you’re reading through program [for Glastonbury] and people haven’t heard of it, they won’t go over there. It was just like you were performing to nobody and it can feel really deflating.

You’re definitely going to take the good with the bad. Right after my set I was able to run over and sing her see ‘Halo’, even though I’m not the hugest Beyonce fan, it was amazing and I did cry a little bit. I may not have performed to anybody, but I got to see my favourite artists at the time, and Beyonce – so shut up, I’ll take it!

You’ve been an advocate for many health campaigns and helped to profile certain issues through speaking out on social media and community involvement. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I get behind different campaigns for promoting different things. I did a nonsmoking campaign really early in my career, straight after ‘Like Water’ came out and that was more of a personal push for myself to quit smoking because I grew up in a smoking family, so I’ve smoked since I was about nine. I struggled with it and I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was in terms of trying to help myself quit as well and just kind of speak about my own issues with it.

I get asked to do a lot of things: my dad works very closely with the domestic violence campaigns here in New Zealand and he’s asked me to be on an ad over here. It’s called the ‘It’s Not Okay’ campaign, which just highlights domestic violence and the high statistics that we have for domestic violence. I basically just jump on board if I really have a personal connection to a campaign and if I do feel like I can add value to the campaign. I definitely don’t shy away from it, but I would also say that I’m not an activist and I’m certainly not out there actively involved like I know some people are in the community. Where I can, I try to lend my position that I have through my music to help out here.

You’ve been in the music scene for a quite a while now and grew up in it. What advice would you give to people just starting out or trying make a career in the music scene?

I feel like when I first started I used to give the same advice, which is just go out there and jump on any open mic that you can and really refine your your performance and make sure that you’re really good, and to be honest that advice wouldn’t change. I definitely feel like the industry has changed, with the advent of technology and social media and you can really build your own profile online now and get a following simply online.

I do believe that if you have a really good live show and if you can perform well live, there is still an experience that people are paying for and you can still get premium dollar. So if you get really good at that, I do still feel like that an important aspect to really home. But also, you know, you can build a fanbase just from bedroom. That has been proven over and over again over the last 15 years or so. Just make your songs, put them out online and go for gold – because you can! Why not?

You mentioned earlier that Scribe and your sister were pretty big influences for your musically, are there any other artists that you’re most inspired by?

I’m really inspired by my friends. That doesn’t sound proper, but I am! I’m inspired by my friends and what they do and the music that they make and the moves they make in music.

I am especially inspired by them because I feel like we all started from the same place – I’m talking about Fat Freddy’s Drop, I’m talking about everything still going is very inspirational to me it makes me feel like I could do it too. I’m really inspired by artists who change up their sound. I loved it when Erykah Badu last year brought out that mixtape, her cell phone series that was that Drake cover. I love those kind of like unique ideas. I’m really inspired by Hiatus Kaiyote and everything they’re doing there in Australia.

I’ve mostly been inspired by people around me and what they’re doing, and I’m inspired by my band and Parks and the music that they make right here in our home studio. Ultimately, I don’t really listen to that much music. I don’t really need to because Parks listens to enough for both of us and is constantly playing music around the house so I really am quite fortunate to have got my own personal deejay 24/7.

Jumping forward to your most recent release, your Royal Blue 3000 EP: It is a really interesting progression from your previous bodies of work. ‘Guru’ was the first track I heard and I absolutely loved it, and ‘Outta Time’ is a real highlight for me as well. There are so many variances between the tracks, I love it so much for that. Each track has its own identity and it just gels well as a whole. Can you tell us a little bit about his EP? What was happening around you when you made it and what went into it for you and Parks?

First I just want to say, you’re the first person who’s told me ‘Outta Time’ is one of their favourite tracks. ‘Outta Time’ is my favourite track on the EP, and no is mentioning that here in New Zealand and I’m getting really heartbroken about it! I love that track! It’s so much fun to play live, it’s just such a good vibe. Everyone’s just talking about ‘Royal Blue’ and ‘Guru’ here, I mean I love the whole EP, but ‘Outta Time’ is by far my favourite.

Just to get some context around those songs: we were trying to figure out a really great process, a new process, something really exciting and fun for us. So we started taking all the parts that we would make usually in the studio and took them all to the stage and did a series of shows over two weekends. We made the shows super cheap to come to and just took little snippets of ideas to elaborate on, and just kind of break through heaps of ideas at them. Usually we would just play one song for like 15 minutes or something and just keep going over and over again, and from that series called The Alpha Sessions grew some ideas of some songs.

That whole process gave us this new sound, and also with Parks and Brandon Haru working heavily on their synth sounds and banking new sounds we haven’t used before. We ended up coming up with a brand new sound for us. It’s still in essence the same kind of sound that we’ve had, it’s just kind of refined. It sounds good and it feels good to play live, and the reaction we’ve had from EP is sort of like a pat on the back that we did everything right.

What’s next for you and Ladi6 following on from the EP?

We’ve got some shows coming up and I really can’t wait for those ones, particularly the Brisbane show. I don’t think we’ve ever played in Brisbane before. We’re gonna work on some remixes, and we’ve asked quite a few artists around the world if they could remix this record, so that’s the next new music from us. We’re sitting on a whole bunch of tunes that we haven’t had the time to get into and make into proper songs, but that’ll be out next big project.

Lastly, you started your entertainment career in New Zealand as a breakdancer and with your hip-hop crew. Do you still break? Are you still a B-Girl?

[Laughs] The weirdest thing is I don’t, but every time I get real drunk off my wits, I try and I’m so shit! In order to be good, you actually have to keep it up and there’s no was you can still do it just because you did it high school. I never actually B-Girled for very long. I tried every element [of hip-hop] so I know a little bit about all of it. I know a little bit how to scratch, I can tag but I can’t do amazing pieces and I can do a top rock and get down into a six-step. But then I discovered rapping, and that was me. I just focussed in on that. I’m going to say no… But I am “that girl”. That embarrassing girl that is down on the ground flip-flopping around like an idiot. 

Ladi6 will be performing two shows in Brisbane and Sydney in July. See here for tickets and check out the dates below!

Thur 13 July – Hudson Ballroom – Sydney

Fri 14 July – The Foundry – Brisbane

Words by FREYA DINESEN

READ MORE INTERVIEWS HERE

SEE ALSO

LET YOUR SOUL BE GUIDED BY LADI6’S NEW SINGLE ‘GURU’

HARE SQUEAD SHOW US ‘PURE’ UNIQUE IRISH HIP-HOP

AH MER AH SU TAKES TABOOS TO THE DANCEFLOOR WITH ‘KLONOPIN’ CLUB REMIX

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Ex-con(servatorium) music nerd sharing some cents.