I

t's nearing midnight at Fu Bar and celebrations are in full swing. Bass pumps and drinks flow at the Queen St venue as rap fans dance to aggressive anthems like Dr Dre's

Still Dre

and DMX's

What's My Name.

For one young rapper, his night, on April 4, 2003, is about to end dramatically.

The party's host is Phil Bell, aka DJ Sir-vere. He's just released his first Major Flavours mixtape, a 42-track CD of "mixed, cut up and destroyed" hip-hop hits, and he's taking a group of hand-picked local rappers on tour with him.

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You could call it Sir-vere's dream team, and many of the MCs are at Fu Bar partying with him. Some, like Scribe and Savage, are already household names, but there's another less recognisable name on the Major Flavours tour poster, one Sir-vere is most excited about.

Peter Lopes raps under the nickname "Jesone", or "J-One", and is part of an underground collective of gritty street rappers from Onehunga called Red Eye Society. He gifted Sir-vere an impressive two-minute freestyle for Major Flavours.

Sir-vere asked him to join the tour. "I thought he was the shit. I loved him," he says. "He said, 'F*** yeah'."

After midnight, disaster struck. Lopes did something that would see him spend the rest of the night in hospital, miss the tour and get scarred for life.

"J-One's down (at Fu Bar) wasted as f***, off his face. He's standing in front of this industrial fan," says Sir-vere, recoiling at the memory. "He put his finger in it. Cut his finger off."

Red Eye Society in the cover photo for their 2004 debut: Roy Prasad (Tek), Setefano Tofilau (Venomous) and Peter Lopes (J-One). Photo/Dawn Raid
Red Eye Society in the cover photo for their 2004 debut: Roy Prasad (Tek), Setefano Tofilau (Venomous) and Peter Lopes (J-One). Photo/Dawn Raid

It's one of the many stories surrounding the members of Red Eye Society, a group of gifted rappers that only released two albums during a 16-year career blighted by label battles, drug use, line-up changes and violence.

Despite their troubles, they left an indelible mark on the New Zealand hip-hop scene, one still being felt today. If anyone should be able to help tell their story, it's a hip-hop historian like Sir-vere. But even he shrugs his shoulders.

"The history of that group is real shady," he says. "What is the truth of R.E.S? I have no idea."

Kids writing rhymes in their bedrooms, rapping in the playground and battling in the street. It's an idyllic picture about the formation of a rap crew with big dreams.

That's exactly how Red Eye Society started. With a little more violence.

Setefano Tofilau was a member from the mid-90s until 2007, rapping under the name Venomous. He has fond memories of the group's early days in Onehunga. Mostly.

"There were seven of us originally. We all grew up together, went to primary school, intermediate, high school. We were like brothers. We smoked a lot of dope, drank a bit. We were free as f***, doing whatever we wanted."

Tofilau watched his friends mimic their favourite rappers in the school playground. "It just started with us listening to Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang. We'd trade verses at school," he says. "That was the spark."

J-One, Tek and Venomous from Red Eye Society, 2002. Photo/Dawn Raid
J-One, Tek and Venomous from Red Eye Society, 2002. Photo/Dawn Raid

He wanted to join in, but didn't know if he could rap. "I started listening to their tracks and getting envious." So one Thursday night, armed with a copy of Method Man's 1994 album

Tical

for inspiration, he stayed up all night writing.

By sunrise, he had his own 16-bar verse. He was desperate to prove he could rap. He couldn't wait, he wanted to record it straight away. He headed to his cousin's house and told him: "F*** school, I want to do this."

His cousin, who owned recording equipment, was swayed, with one condition: "Don't tell your dad you came here. He'll kick my ass." It was a warning worth listening to.

At 7.30am, Tofilau saw Lopes walking past the window and convinced him to wag school. "We sat there for three days, no shower, just rapped and recorded. By Sunday, I had the hunger. I was like, 'F*** it, let's write every day, make music, do this'."

A motley group of rappers started to form under the collective title Red Eye Society. They gave themselves suitable nicknames. "It was 'Eros', 'Kalister', 'J-One', 'Elusive'," remembers Tofilau, who began spending every spare minute at his cousin's house.

Red Eye Society backstage at the Big Day Out 2003. From left: Setefano Tofilau (Venomous), Peter Lopes (J-One), Roy Prasad (Tek) and an unnamed affiliate. Photo/Dawn Raid
Red Eye Society backstage at the Big Day Out 2003. From left: Setefano Tofilau (Venomous), Peter Lopes (J-One), Roy Prasad (Tek) and an unnamed affiliate. Photo/Dawn Raid

They had the hunger, but there was one problem. Tofilau's father, a regular churchgoer, didn't agree with his son's newfound passion. Tofilau senior was furious when he tracked his son down one day after he'd failed to turn up to church.

"I'd been drinking, I'd been at my nan's all weekend recording, hadn't had a shower. That's how hardcore we were."

David Dallas' life is about to change. It's 2001 and he's standing in Aotea Square at Auckland's first Hip-Hop Summit. Curated by DJ Sir-vere, a who's who of Kiwi hip-hop is set to perform, from King Kapisi and Che Fu to Dam Native, Sheelahroc and a headlining appearance by American group Tha Liks.

Dallas, a student, is yet to launch the career that will see him become the industry veteran he is today. But something he sees on that stage will set him on his way.

"I saw Red Eye Society the same day I saw Scribe for the first time on one of the outdoor stages," says Dallas. "I was like, 'F***, these guys are sick. They were just legit. The thing that separated them is that they sounded international calibre - like they could rap with American dudes."

By then, Red Eye Society had solidified their line-up with Tofilau and Lopes joined by new member Roy Prasad, a fiery rapper with street-cred who rapped under the name Tech Swift, or Tek. His dark, twisted lyrical style gave the already lethal group an even harder edge, and not without reason - Prasad had served two sentences in the 90s for aggravated robbery.

"Me and Jay had never been to jail," says Tofilau. "He'd obviously been writing in there. He came out, we hooked up with Tek and started recording and doing gigs - and Dawn Raid offered us a contract."

It seemed like a good label to be on. They had fans in their label mates Deceptikonz, and they started performing regularly, freestyling on P-Money's bFM hip-hop radio show and scoring slots on TV music shows and the Big Day Out. They contributed the song Verbal Abuse to Deceptikonz' 2002 album Elimination in 2002, and released their first single, Triumph, in 2003.

People started taking notice. Duncan Greive, a music journalist at Real Groove magazine at the time, remembers a group that didn't care about playing industry games. "They were dangerous," he says. "The impression I had ... is that they were uncontrollable. Really talented, but they had a true menace about them."

That reputation was solidified by Bad Muthaf***az, their signature song and centrepiece of their bleak, brutal 2004 self-titled debut. "We've been through a lot in our lives," said Prasad at the time. "We wanted to give the listener the real thing, nothing watered down." Produced by Nathan "Nate D" Holmes, it's a rough and raw collection of songs that, in 2017, still has plenty of fans.

Sir-vere's one, saying: "It's reckless music, and I like reckless music." He calls Prasad the best New Zealand rapper he's seen. "He's a brutal human being. He is full on. His life has been crazy. It felt like he was always venting his whole life (through his music). He was really, brutally honest."

Dominic Hoey, who raps under the name Tourettes, agrees. He became friends with the group after a freestyle against Prasad nearly ended in a brawl. "They had their own slang. It was really New Zealand, really Onehunga. The first few times we kicked it, it was like, 'What the hell are they talking about'?" They had "everything - the voices, the technique, the songwriting".

Mareko, part of the Deceptikonz, says "their content was on, their verse structures were on and they had some of best vocal tones locally or internationally".

Peter Lopes and Roy Prasad on the cover of the Good Times Roll single, released in 2008 through Breakin Wreckwordz.
Peter Lopes and Roy Prasad on the cover of the Good Times Roll single, released in 2008 through Breakin Wreckwordz.

Despite their talent, trouble followed the group around. "They weren't troublemakers, but they wouldn't turn trouble down," says Dawn Raid boss Andy Murnane.

"They could have made it all the way, but I guess they didn't give themselves a chance to," says Mareko.

Sir-vere describes them as a "tornado - they were really ruthless". He details "the most chaotic night of my life" that started with a ruckus outside an Auckland bar and ended with him and members of the group behind bars.

Red Eye Society's legacy, and the songs they're remembered for, are based around that first album. What many don't know is that they recorded a second album, one so traumatising it would be their last.

They were called Breakin Wreckwordz, and they were about to go broke.

The Onehunga-based hip-hop label was founded in the early 2000s by Jared Abbott, a wiley rapper called Cyphanetik, with the aim of promoting his friends and favourite rappers, artists like Jay Roacher, Tourettes, Louie Knuxx and the Usual Suspects.

But as CD sales dwindled, the label floundered. Drug use became an issue. "We couldn't conduct ourselves professionally," says Abbott. Through the haze, he was determined to release an album with Red Eye Society, his favourite group and one he says he fought hard to sign after their Dawn Raid deal soured (Murnane says there's no bad blood).

With Onehunga producer Dan Mawby on board providing the kind of hard-edged beats the group loved, things started with a burst of activity. Then things stalled. Tofilau bailed, leaving just Prasad and Lopes. "It took more than two years," says Mawby. "Towards the end they basically weren't keen."

Peter Lopes, aka J-One, and Roy Prasad, aka Tek, from Red Eye Society, an acclaimed but troubled hip-hop group from Onehunga. Photo/Facebook
Peter Lopes, aka J-One, and Roy Prasad, aka Tek, from Red Eye Society, an acclaimed but troubled hip-hop group from Onehunga. Photo/Facebook

Abbott has a clearer picture about the delays. In an Onehunga cafe near where he works, he lowers his voice. "That whole album is essentially about [drugs], and it's reflective of the life we were living."

Burnt out, Prasad and Lopes gave up. Abbott and Mawby "pieced the album together" by calling in favours from Mareko, Nikki Montana and Louie Knuxx to complete half-finished songs, and the album spluttered into shops in 2011.

With no promotional interviews being done and no shows played to support it, Absolute Epoch remains a lost gem, heard only by those in the know. "It's definitely my favourite local hip-hop record," says Supergroove front man Karl Steven, who was such a fan he lowered his fee to mix and master the record then hid the bill from his accountant.

Che Fu is a fan too: "Absolute Epoch is one of my top Kiwi albums ever," he recently wrote on Facebook. Hoey says the same thing: "It's dope - but it's unfinished."

It was one of the last albums Breakin Wreckwordz would release before folding. "I've still got probably 500 Red Eye Society CDs sitting in my cupboard," says Abbott.

Tofilau is the only one of the three who still raps, cutting hair during the day and trading rhymes with a group of Brisbane mates at night. He misses Red Eye Society's early days. "It was just us and the music," he says. "The love was beautiful."

It's not a view shared by Lopes and Prasad, who weren't interested in talking to the Herald on Sunday. They've retired from rap but still work together as sandblasters. "They love to talk about sandblasting," says Mawby.

That, then, is where Red Eye Society's story should end. Only, it doesn't.

In a small office at the front of an Onehunga art gallery, a sparse music studio has been set up. It's the control room for a young rap collective called SWIDT, and today, they're hard at work on a new album.

Three of the group's six members are here today: rappers Amon McGoram (who performs under the name INF) and Daniel Latu (SPYCC), as well as producer Isaiah Libeau (Smokey), who is sitting at a computer surrounded by speakers.

The six member of Onehunga rap crew SWIDT have picked up where Red Eye Society left off.
The six member of Onehunga rap crew SWIDT have picked up where Red Eye Society left off.

They're putting the finishing touches on a joint SPYCC & INF album, one Latu says "shares the same Onehunga vibe" as Red Eye Society. It's almost done - they just need one more thing: a guest verse from Red Eye Society.

They're determined to make it happen. "I've asked [Lopes] heaps of times," says McGoram, who is Lopes' brother and grew up hearing members of Red Eye Society practising next to his bedroom. "It's always a different answer."

Latu is the most animated about the prospect of hearing Red Eye Society again.

"It would sound f***ing dope, especially over modern production," he says.

There's a pause. Latu looks up. With a definite gleam in his eye, he says: "I have a feeling he will.

"That shit would be iconic."