Madcap hip-hop guy Tommy Ill talks to Lydia Jenkin about his change of style and new album.

He used to be the local hip-hopper who wore the wolfman headgear but now Tommy Ill has said that's fur enough. His funny funky sophomore album comes entitled New Hat and a Haircut.

"The original [wolf hat] got nicked a couple of years back at a show sadly, and there's a second one floating around somewhere, but I haven't worn it in a while. It gets a bit hot and sweaty."

Instead, when he performs around the country next month with his collaborators Buck Beauchamp and Kelvin Neal, he might be wearing a business suit. Or just a cool cap.

You'll have to wait and see, because Tommy Ill (real name Tom Young, who's a Wellington graphic designer by day) is known for unexpected antics at live shows, and has always taken his own different path as a hip-hop artist.


Coming from a musical family (his dad played guitar, his mum the piano, and his sister is a singer-songwriter) he was drawn into singing, in a casual sort of way.

"Everyone was always singing, not planned singing so much, but people would always be singing something, and people would join in, and it was like that. But when I hit puberty, my angelic singing voice sort of disappeared, so I had to find something else to do."

Rapping was what he was drawn to, so around the age of 14 he began making tracks of his own, inspired by the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest.

He would raid his parents' CD and record collections, and put together backing tracks.

"I'd try to take bits of songs and loop them, but it was always weird music that probably wasn't right for it, you know country songs, or anything I could find. And then the internet came along, and that helped a bit," he notes, dryly.

Young got plenty of bNet attention for tracks on his early EPs Toast and Tea Kettles, Matchsticks and Come Home Mr Ill, and found a niche for himself as a rapper playing live shows with up and coming indie pop bands, and appearing at festivals like Camp A Low Hum.

"A bunch of my best friends were in a band called Holiday With Friends, and they needed a place to play, and I needed a place to play, and I'd become a bit disillusioned with rap, so together we started this night at Bar Bodega in Wellington called Make Out City, and every time we'd have a guest band, plus Holiday With Friends and Tommy Ill.

"It wasn't a conscious move that I made to go and be a part of a certain scene. We just got the best response from those sort of crowds."

Two of those friends - Beauchamp and Neal - would make guest appearances during Tommy Ill's set, and contribute backing vocals, but several years on they're now fully fledged band members, and were integral to the creation of New Hat and a Haircut, contributing equal thirds to the beat-making.

Young also had the talents of NZSO percussionist Steve Bremner and Wellingtonian DJ/scratcher Alphabethead to work with, leading to a hip-hop album where the beats on the production are less sample-reliant, and more custom-designed.

It's a party collection, with a strong emphasis on horns and melody, and a strong rhythmical interaction between the beats and vocals.

"I really like Northern Soul kind of stuff, and I don't know, for me, some rappers have quite strong and piercing voices, but I really don't think I do, so there's a certain style of music that my voice carries over better.

"But it's just the music I like. It makes sampling stuff a bit more fun, because if you have to listen to a bunch of music over and over again trying to find the right bit to use, it's good if you actually enjoy listening to it as well."

They also had good friend and sound engineer James Goldmsith, recording and mixing, and lending out his mum's walk-in-wardrobe as a live room while she was on holiday.

"James couldn't see me in the wardrobe, he could only hear me, so I was making all these jokes about wearning his mum's dresses while I was singing, just to freak him out ...

There's certainly an irreverence, and youthful mischievousness to Young's rhymes, but hip-hop that knows how to make fun of itself is a refreshing take, and seems to be part of a new wave of a more generally accessible genre in New Zealand.

"Maybe people used to be a little bit threatened by hip-hop, because I think until quite recently, you had to be a hip-hop purist in order to be into hip-hop. It was almost a lifestyle, like metal.

"Perhaps it's not in the spotlight as much as it was 10 years ago, but people like Home Brew and Tourettes, David Dallas and so on, there's a bunch of different branches of rap music going on, and they seem to co-exist, which is great."

What: Local hip-hop artist Tommy Ill, new album New Hat And A Haircut out now.

When and where: Playing at Bar Bodega in Wellington on Saturday May 5, at Dux Live in Christchurch on Friday May 11, and at The King's Arms in Auckland on Saturday May 12.

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