From down and out in South Auckland to making music history in America, Savage is a hip-hop success story. And, on the eve of releasing his second album, he tells SCOTT KARA, he's now happy with his lot
The thing about Savage is, he's not that savage at all. The Samoan rapper - who last year booted down the door of the impenetrable American music industry with the song Swing - is polite, mellow, and, when it's called for, can flash a beaming friendly smile.
He wasn't always like that. At school, Demetrius Savelio (who became known as Savage) was a ratbag. Expelled from a number of high schools, it wasn't until his brother persuaded him to spend a year at south Auckland's Wesley College in the late 90s - whose alumni include Jonah Lomu and Temuera Morrison - that he got his life on track.
"I was from a poor family. As a teenager I was among the street gang culture, I was very aggressive and very angry. I had no idea where I was heading. But the culture and tradition of Wesley made me think about life and what I wanted to do."
He decided to make music. "We didn't have a lot, my brothers and sisters but we had a stereo," he smiles, lounging on the couch at the record company offices of Universal in Auckland.
And now this decision is paying off. Along with his crew the Deceptikonz - also made up of Mareko, Devolo and Alphrisk - Savage has maintained a big profile on the local music scene since 2000. But last year his solo career took off internationally with Swing becoming one of the biggest songs in the United States and launching him into the exclusive world of American hip-hop.
The rise of the song, which was first released in 2005 on his debut solo album Moonshine, started in 2007 when it was played in a nightclub scene during the movie Knocked Up. Then Savage's MySpace site started getting bombarded, the video was in hot demand on YouTube, and last year his local record company, Dawn Raid, got it on iTunes in the US. It has now sold more than 1.5 million copies so far - that's around one copy for everyone living in greater Auckland - and is the highest selling New Zealand single in American history.
In short, Savage has "made history" with a song that simply implores people to "shake that ass" and "let me see your hips swing".
Although New Zealand's other big songs like Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over and OMC's How Bizarre didn't have the benefit of digital downloads, Savage's achievement is astounding in a world where there is more music available than ever before.
The success of the song scored him a four-album deal with New York's Universal Republic - also home to like-minded artists Akon, Lil Jon and Lil Wayne, as well as big names like Jack Johnson and Amy Winehouse.
Then in August last year he started recording Savage Island - his first US album and second local release - in Atlanta with Benny D, the right-hand man of St Louis vocalist Akon, who sung on the song Moonshine.
A US version of the album, with bonus tracks including Scribe's Not Many (The Remix), which Savage guests on ("It's a huge song that will always last. We wanted to take that to the US.") and Moonshine, came out over there on December 23 and so far has sold 15,000 copies and holding strong in the top 50 Billboard Heatseekers and Hip-Hop and R&B charts.
It is released in New Zealand on Monday.
Also in the past six months, based in a loft apartment in New York with Dawn Raid co-CEO Andy Murnane, he's performed in 42 cities around North America, including places like Detroit where he visited Motown's Hitsville USA headquarters ("I'm a big fan of the Temptations and to be standing outside the recording studio was amazing.")
With his mix of staunch and cheeky rhymes and that coarse, husky bark, he still has a lot of street mongrel, and that fearsome attitude from his old days. It comes in handy in the cut-throat world of American hip-hop. And this aggression - he is quick to point out it's not negative aggression but sonic aggression - is no better revealed than on a song like Knock A Hater Out, the opening track on Savage Island.
Savage also has presence. Not only is his large frame somewhat intimidating but he is immaculately turned out, with perfectly braided hair, a painstakingly sculpted beard, including a perfect pencil thin line of moustache above his top lip.
Although, says Murnane, it's the 27-year-old's good manners and approachability that got him respect stateside.
"Instantly he's got that huge presence that, 'Woah, this dude could beat me up', but the New Zealand culture, and the manners, and the way we are brought up goes a long way in America."
Savage's success also comes at a good time for Dawn Raid who went into liquidation in 2007 and then got given an investment lifeline last year from two Auckland businessmen.
Murnane says the Savage deal means Dawn Raid has now got its foot in the door in the US which allows it to expose more of its acts in the country's lucrative music market.
"The biggest thing though is that it shows our music is world class and if our music is world class then the rest of New Zealand's music is world class, which is what we've all been chasing all these years."
While Savage has very broad shoulders he is feeling the weight of expectation with the release of Savage Island.
"But to be honest I kind of do what makes my family proud and what makes me happy first I guess," he says.
As well as two remix versions of Swing, the album also includes new single Wild Out (Choo Oho Oo), featuring Baby Bash who Savage met after chatting to the Houston rapper's Samoan bodyguard ("I walked up to him and started talking Samoan to him and we were like brothers instantly."); the smooth club track Hot Like Fire (which could be the next Swing he reckons); the crunching Knock A Hater Out (with Ganxsta Ridd from fellow Samoan heavyweights Boo-Yaa Tribe); and the laid-back lilt of I Love The Islands.
Even though he's made many new friends stateside, as the hundreds who turned out for the video to Wild Out attests, there's no fear of this South Auckland lad changing allegiances - he loves home too much.
"I really am enjoying the journey and seeing places like Hitsville. But to be honest there is no place like home. There is no place in the world like New Zealand."
He's a family man, with a fiance and two children, and would prefer to be based here.Whether he has to move to New York or not is dependent on how the album goes.
"I am a family man now and it makes it easier for me not to go out there and be an idiot and go out and party like they do in Hollywood. I go there, do my work, and I call it a day. I'm mainly there to work for my family."
A song like I'm Good sums up where Savage is at: "I ain't got no bills, no stress, no problems, only got the bills that you put in your wallet."
He's not showing off, he's just happy with his lot. "I'm not fussed about the money or the fame and fortune. I'm not a multi-millionaire but where I am I'm comfortable and have a really happy living. It's all about setting one goal and then moving on to the next one, that's how I got to where I am now."
Savage on ...
The origins of Swing:
"It came about from an idea by Andy [Murnane] from Dawn Raid who told me to make a song with one word. At first I said, 'What are you talking about?' But I went away, got the beat, came up with the hook, recorded the hook, came up with the verses, recorded the verses, and the rest is history. It was just one of those songs that pieced together really well."
Why Swing, originally released on Moonshine, also turns up on the new album:
"It's got the remixes. They weren't available on Moonshine and only available by download. Plus it's history for us. This album certifies the goals I achieved in the US. Swing is my biggest song ever and it's the song that went 1.5 million the same year Barack Obama made history."
His digital sales success:
"As frustrating as it is for us old schoolers who are used to physical sales, it's just a matter of adjusting to it, working around it and with it as well. And to my advantage I got my record deal because of digital sales. It's just so easy to get music now because everyone has a cellphone. It has gone back to the days of the Temptations [one of his favourite bands], it's a singles world. It's gone full circle."
Who: Savage (real name Demetrius Savelio)
What: History making hip-hop MC
New album: Savage Island, out Monday
Past albums: With Deceptikonz, Elimination (2002); As Savage, Moonshine (2005); with the Horsemen Family, My Shout: The Album (2008)
Where & when: Savage Island at Rainbow's End, Manukau, February 28, 6pm-11pm