I rate Sam Wicks, he’s probably my favourite music journalist in the country. There is always depth in his line of questioning, his interviews are always inquisitive and thoughtful. I put him up there with Zane Lowe in terms of interviewing skill. So, after a few years in print land, I’m glad he’s come back to radio full time – especially after doing an excellent ‘making of’ piece of David Dallas ‘Falling Into Place’ for Radio New Zealand’s Music 101 show, which you can listen to below:
Because ole S dot Wicks is a GC, he handed me over the full, raw interview, and it was so good I wanted to transcribe it so I could share it with all y’all. It covers a lot of ground, but it’s definitely worth the investment. All images by Damien Nikora
Sam Wicks : You’ve chosen to call your new album, ‘Falling Into Place’, what is falling into place for you, right now?
David Dallas : I guess it’s not even necessarily what’s falling into place, when I came up with the title, it was the idea of how I wanted things to happen. I was coming off the back of the Rose Tint, which had been my most successful record to date, and I was doing a lot of things that I never thought I’d be doing. When I came up with the album title, that was kind of how it felt. I’ve always come up with album titles before I start the record, I always feel like they can pre-empt the direction you go in.
Like any project, there were times when everything felt like it was falling out of place. You start a project and things are firing along and you have all that enthusiasm, and generally around the middle, three quarter mark, you start to feel way off track, and you almost get discouraged, and then it all comes back again.
SW : By your own admission you’re an artist that has a lot of self-doubt, and your songs can fluctuate from supreme confidence, to questioning, ‘do I fit within this, what am I doing?’
DD: Absolutely. I feel like most artists I admire are like that. I think self-doubt is a necessary thing within music. It’s definitely necessary to push yourself. As long as it doesn’t fully constrain you and stifle you to where you can’t work. Some of the things that attracted me to the genre are the bravado, and being ‘the man’, it’s empowering, I love that element of Hip Hop music. At the same time, I still like people that can embrace their emotions and can open up in songs, I take from both of those things.
That vulnerability, is that a recent development in Hip Hop music? Are we talking Kanye West and the artists that followed in his steps?
Nah, artists like 2Pac and Biggie were vulnerable. That’s the generation of artists that I grew up on. The artists that I’ve always looked up to, have always had that. Definitely the ones that I really admire, it’s always been a big part of their catalogue. Even someone like Jay-Z who exudes this, ‘I’m the coolest guy of all time’ in a lot of his songs, from the start he’s always had songs like ‘D’Evils’ and ‘Regrets’ on his first album, he’s always had things that deal with that vulnerability.
Guru had Premier, Snoop had Dr Dre, Jay-Z has Timbaland and the Neptunes, Drake has 40. Are Fire & Ice that production unit that you need to complete your sound?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely on these last few projects, they have been. Between Fire & Ice and 41, for my last 3 albums, they’ve pretty much handled everything.
Fire & Ice are a huge part of my sound, the sound that is ‘David Dallas’ and I didn’t want to shy away from that. The international attention, any attention that I’ve gotten has been based on the sound that we’ve created together, so I think it’d be foolish to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got some fans now, let me go and work with some hot producer of the day.’ I’ve always felt like we’ve been on a path together, myself, Fire & Ice, 41 and P-Money when he’s in there. I’ve always felt like there’s been this constant progression. If I felt like we’d met our creative limit together, maybe I’d look around, but with every project we’ve improved.
What is it about their production style that fits your words?
Its more our taste. Myself, and (brothers) Jordan and Aaron Iusitini from Fire & Ice, we have similar taste in music. Outside of the stuff that we make ourselves, the songs that we’re listening to, we have very similar taste. I have to have that with everyone I’ve worked with. I had to have that with 41, that’s why we started Frontline, because we bonded over a Cam’ron album.
Let’s talk about the first song on the album, The Wire – featuring Ruby Frost.
Ruby Frost initially sent me just her chorus idea, just her vocal over a really basic chord progression that she’d done herself, with some keys. I found the vocal really strong, it’s really haunting, ethereal sounding. But it was super slow, and I didn’t really know what I could do with it, but I really liked the performance. I passed it on to Fire & Ice to see if they could tailor it to something that would fit me more.
From the moment Fire & Ice got her stems back, it was literally about an hour or two after I’d sent them over, Aaron was like, ‘Yo, this is sounding swaggy bro, this is going to be dope.’ When he sent over a basic arrangement of it, I knew it was going to be the intro on the record.
From the jump I knew this song was going to be the intro, and it’s written as if it’s going to be the intro. Lyrically, I listened to what she said, and I interpreted ‘the wire’, as the transition into being ‘somebody’, or being nothing, and the precarious balance of trying to make something of yourself, and whether you’re actually ready for that. That’s the angle I took with it, lyrically.
She makes reference to ‘one minute it is here, and another it is gone’, as if it’s fame or career success, is that what you took from her words?
Yeah, that’s exactly it.
So, she kind of set the agenda for the start of the album.
The concept of that track comes entirely from her. I never talked to her about it, in fact it was probably when we were shooting the video for the track a month ago, but she said, ‘Yeah, you summed it up perfectly’. So, that was good. We were on the same page.
You have the lyric, ‘As kiwi kids, it ain’t in our nature to boast, so we be playing things down, we be making jokes, in case we choke’…Have you been guilty of that in the past?
Yeah. It’s funny you point that out, the line just after that, ‘rather make out like we didn’t try, than bear the shame that we built a plane that didn’t fly’, that’s probably my favourite line on the whole record. I know people like that. Super talented people, but they think, ‘if I put myself out there, and I try really hard, and everyone sees that I’m trying, and it flops or fails, then I’m gonna be embarrassed.’ So we’d rather play it off like it’s nothing. I feel like that’s a very kiwi attitude.
Was there a point where you felt like you broke through that?
I don’t know, I feel like I’m still guilty of it myself. I was reading a book that Seth Godin wrote. He wrote this little piece about the ridiculousness of embarrassed. He’s saying, why are you embarrassed for pushing something you love, or showing people that you’re into something? If it’s something that you’re passionate about, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to put yourself out there. But we all suffer from it. That really resonated with me.
Do you feel like that particularly kiwi attitude, can be particularly jarring within Hip Hop music, the nature of which is competitive, where you’re not meant to downplay your victories?
Yeah, it can be.
How are those kinks worked out in New Zealand in your experience?
I don’t think they necessarily are. There are so many talented artists here that still suffer from that sort of thing, and have hindered themselves because of it. Whether that’s just here, or more prevalent here, I don’t know. But that fear of failure, that affects everyone.
Have you ever found yourself thinking, ‘Man, if we didn’t have that feeling, where would our music community be?
Yeah, it does make me wonder. At the same time, the experience I had with touring America and meeting so many artists over there, maybe there’s a few artists who could have been more successful, but on the whole I think, has it made us just cooler, more down to earth people? Especially in New York, you meet so many people that are so upfront and forward, but their music is not there, their creativity is nowhere near there. I probably wouldn’t even get out of bed and try this, if I had a similar level of ability to some of these people talking themselves up.
Have you found yourself trying to cultivate an attitude that’s better for American media, so you can genuinely talk up the music that you’re making in a way that makes sense to American ears?
Nah, it doesn’t really work for me, to be honest. That’s my point of difference, it’s an advantage and disadvantage, but at least it’s a point of difference. At least they remember, and at least it stands out to them that you’re from this other place, and your attitude is just slightly different, culturally you’re just different.
We talked before about how Ruby Frosts words set something of an agenda with The Wire. For the song ‘Runnin’, how do you take a spiritual and match that with a song that is about breaking through a pain barrier, or staying one click ahead of the curve?
I don’t know, it’s really moody. I don’t know if it was the lyrics, it’s just the overall feel. It’s the chord progression, it really informed me where I was going with it, the chords and the energy of the percussion. Aaron (Fire & Ice) really killed it with the percussion on this song, there’s just something about it, it just drives.
You really have to move around that percussion.
Yeah, from the way the verse is patterned, from the moment we put it down, I thought it just sit in the pocket perfectly. I was like, yeah, I need to ride that, I need to stay with that pattern, and it was fun to do that. I feel like I haven’t done that with a song in awhile, just being really technical with rapping, as far as the patterns and the way things sit.
Is that because you felt early on that you had proven yourself technically, and it was about falling back and proving you could do this casually as well?
Yeah, I think so. My early rapping was such an exercise in technicality, that’s all I was interested in, being the ‘rappers’ rapper’. I didn’t even care what I was saying, I just wanted to say it in a really cool, technical way that you can’t do. I wanna flow quick, or take one syllable and rhyme it for the whole verse, because you can’t do that. I came up wanting to impress other rappers. But then I got that I just wanted to start writing good songs.
This is maybe a middle ground between the two?
This is trying to get both, into one.
This song was synced with the Madden 25 American Football Game, and FIFA 14. You also had Big Time synced to the French Open. Have you ever written a song, thinking it could work for a specific placement?
Nah, I guess I’m so precious about the stuff I write, I just hope someone likes it. Once you start getting the feedback, you start to realize, maybe I did do something right, it boosts your confidence, but when you’ve just written a song and no one’s heard it, that’s the hardest time, putting your work in front of someone. Because artists are fragile, regardless of how tough you say you are, when you’ve put your heart into something…as much as people say they don’t need it, you still need that feedback to know it’s good to validate it, so you can carry on, I think.
Who are those ears for you?
Obviously everyone that’s in the studio, Jordan and Aaron, P-Money has always been a good one. I’ve always felt like he’s always been on point, with stuff that he hasn’t worked on and that he hasn’t produced, he will still give you an honest opinion. Him and my partner really, my partner is my biggest creative advisor. She’s comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know about that’, so it’s good.
Does that hurt?
Oh, I can get defensive about it, but it doesn’t hurt as much coming from her, so it’s good.
Let’s talk about ‘My Mentality’
I was real surprised by this one when we put it out. I thought I was going to encounter more negativity than I did.
Because of the smoothness?
Nah, just because, being a New Zealand artist, I thought people were gonna hit me and up and be like, ‘You’re an artist and you’re mentioning money? Being money orientated, that’s bad’.
Yeah, its not something we do locally, maybe it’s because there’s not a lot of money in it, compared to state-side artists. ‘My mentality is money orientated’ – you’re not pulling any punches with that claim. Is this a recent development, or has this always been front and centre of your motivations, even if you haven’t declared it?
I mean, I’m not 24/7 ‘money, money, money, money, money.’ ‘Money orientated’ is actually a quote from AZ and Nas ‘Life’s a Bitch’. We wanted to make a really Hip Hop, hard spitting song, over this really beautiful ethereal backdrop, something that harkened back to just spitting. I always liked that flow and pattern AZ did on that. As far as my actual thinking process, everyone is money orientated. You get out of bed, to go do a job, that’s money orientated. But a lot of time with art, people think you’re not, or that you can survive without it. It’s like, that do or die attitude, like nah, I gotta get money sometimes. That’s not saying everything is about money, it’s about not having to rely on anyone else, anyone else’s discretion to just put you out. Sometimes you gotta just go for yours.
Is part of that lyric, ‘my mentality is money orientated’, about finding a fit for Freddie on there?
It was finding a middle ground that we could both agree on, a common theme that we both experience. That was definitely it. We sent it to Gibbs first, so he laid the groundwork for that song. When I got his verse back, I knew where we’d go with it.
You played a show with Freddie recently, is that an interesting fit for you? You have this connection with a rapper from a very different background from yours, who makes very different music from yours, but the connection is solid.
Yeah, it’s a trip, and the rad thing about it is because there is that big difference, the songs turned out so well. That’s why they work. It’s the contrast, from everything from the voice to the style, the content, the persona. On paper, it shouldn’t work, but for some reason it has, and it’s been really embraced by people.
Let’s talk about ‘Southside’. This is the introduction to your neighbourhood, and you’ve brought in Sidney Diamond and Mareko, who open a door on their South Auckland neighbourhoods as well.
Yeah, again it was just the idea of contrast. I feel like we’re three prominent Hip Hop artists from South Auckland, and we’re all from different parts of South Auckland. So it’s kind of like, covering all the boroughs with different styles, and it’s artists from South Auckland whom I really respect. This whole concept came from Jordan from Fire & Ice, he did the beat and he pitched me the idea. He said, ‘I reckon you should do a real song about South Auckland, no fake posturing, corny thing, something that invokes pride in our neighbourhood and something that comments on our social situation, without glorifying stupid shit. Something real’. I just wanted it to be something that’s proud of our neighbourhood for the right reasons.
Do stereotypes of South Auckland that you see in the media still bite?
Yeah, some of them are just absurd. It’s not even just the media, I guess it comes from the media, but I’ll meet people whose perception of Otara is that they can’t walk around at night, or anywhere in Otara, you’ll get rolled. Any part of Otara, they’re fully scared of it, because all they’ve seen about it is on Police 10/7. Of course there are rough elements to it, but to think of it in only that way is wrong.
Talking about media you say, ‘and you look at what they reinforce, only talking about us doing crime, playing sports, standing in the dole line, or at court, think it don’t affect us at all?’ As if those are the only forums where South Aucklanders can succeed.
Yeah, and I think there is an effect in that, absolutely. If that’s all that’s talked about of your neighbourhood, then that’s what you have to take pride in. I think that’s a big part of why you get dudes who just walk around with their chest puffed out, saying ‘I’m from the hardest hood ever’. If we could highlight some other things about it, then maybe people will start being prouder of that stuff. That’s why Rex’s verse is so great, because people don’t think of John Walker and Scott Dixon, David Lange. They’re all South Auckland People.
Black, brown, yellow, you’ve got a lyric that says ‘immigration central’…
Yeah. I remember the first time I went to see where my old man grew up. He’s from Otago, in central Alexandra. Having spent my whole life in South Auckland, and then going there, it was the first time I had seen white people own a Dairy, and things like that. It wasn’t just that South Auckland is full of Polynesians and Maori, we’ve got everything, the full spectrum, I’ve got middle Eastern friends, Indian friends, Asian friends, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, that’s how we grow up. So going to other places that are predominantly New Zealand Europeans, it felt like a different country to me.
‘Follow’ comes right after ‘Southside’. These two songs, back to back are like your genesis story, these are your origins. You have a neat turn of phrase where you say, ‘I was birthed in Middlemore for a reason’, as if it’s clicking for you, ‘I was meant to come from this place, and all that it offered me.’
Yeah, I do, and I think that. I’m from this area, and I’m a bit different for a reason. Not to be a super vain guy or anything, but I feel like I’m a different story and a different type of artist than there has been before me. And I feel like there is going to be a lot more kids after me, that will look to what I was like, and think, OK we can be the way we are.
I know that I didn’t have anyone who was like myself to look towards. I feel like if I can be that for some other people, then that’s awesome, and I should try to put that out there. Because if I’m like me, then there must be other people like me. I don’t have to make stuff up, or try and be something I’m not. In this big world of ours, there’s gotta be some other people out there like you.
The last song, track 13, ‘The Gate’. This is an explanation in the way of a song.
It’s the travelling man anthem. Its definitely emotive, something about that horn line, there’s a longing in it. This one came together really easily for me. I wrote the whole song with the melody to go with. I said to Ruby Frost, see what you think of this, and she came back straight away with these amazing harmonies. What she did was far beyond what I thought she’d do with it, it was one of those great situations where you send it away, and it came back better than what I’d hoped for, like, wow, it was so wicked.
There’s a lot of honesty in this song. You say you wanna be a breadwinner. It must be gutsy to admit to your partner, ‘I’ve been a drain on you in the past, I want to pay my way.’
I really wanted to make a song that wasn’t only about musicians, I don’t make too much reference to music. It’s a situation that anyone can relate to, whatever you’re trying to do, if you’ve got this ambition, and it’s not really paying financial dividends yet, and you’re trying to keep your relationship together. Everyone knows financial issues and not being around, are the biggest strains on a relationship, so I just wanted to write something that normal folk can relate to.