Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

David Dallas: No need to shout

With the release of his new album, David Dallas confirms his position as the reigning champ of New Zealand hip-hop. He talks to Lydia Jenkin

Despite international success, David Dallas is proud to call Auckland home.
Despite international success, David Dallas is proud to call Auckland home.

David Dallas definitely knows his way around the myriad food offerings in Balmoral. The Spicy Hut is his favourite joint, and the suggested spot for a lunchtime interview with TimeOut, but sadly, when we pull up on a rainy Wednesday, it's shut. Fortunately, Dallas has another easy suggestion - Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle across the road.

You can tell that Dallas, who is arguably now New Zealand's biggest name in hip-hop, is proud to call Auckland home. Despite having spent a year living in New York (where his record label Duck Down is based), being on first-name terms with Freddie Gibbs, regularly touring the US, and having a growing international profile with endorsement deals from brands like G-Shock, he is still plenty enthusiastic about our cultural melting pot (and the excellent cheap and cheerful food it provides, of course).

If you listen to Southside, a track from his soon-to-be-released album, Falling Into Place, you can hear his continued interest in the issues of his home stomping ground, South Auckland.

"The whole concept for that song was actually brought to me by Jordan Iusitini from Fire & Ice [who works together with brother Aaron as Dallas' beatmakers and producers]."

"He said, 'what about if you did a non-corny South Auckland song? A song that has pride in our neighbourhood but isn't just glorifying everything bad about it, you know, avoiding the usual cliches. Making something nice for our neighbourhood instead of a song that's sulking.'

"So we got Sid Diamond and Mareko in, 'cos Mareko is from Manurewa, I'm from Papatoetoe, Sid's from Otara, so we cover the different neighbourhoods, and we did it."

Dallas is not a conscious rapper though - he doesn't have an agenda or a message. And in spite of rising expectations, given the success of his previous solo releases Something Awesome and The Rose Tint (which has had more than 50,000 downloads), pretty much all he had going into the studio in January was the album title, Falling Into Place.

"That was all I had, there wasn't really anything on my chest I had to get out. If anything, I guess I had certain sonic goals, and certain feelings I wanted to capture, but it's all really ethereal, it's not like I had a clear theme."

It was a sort of phrase of hope then, that things would indeed, all fall into place, which they did in the five months between January and May.

"It's probably the most current body of work I've ever released. In the past, I'd write a song, go away, come back and write another one two months later, but this time it's been very condensed, and it's a cool feeling, releasing these tracks so soon after they've been finished."

Ruby Frost features on two of the tracks - the first time Dallas has worked with a female singer other than Aaradhna, and Frost's first outing since her judging stint on The X Factor NZ.

"I saw her on X Factor and thought, 'this is mad, I need to jump on this little wave'," Dallas laughs. "Nah, I feel like that's what people are going to say, but we actually worked on those two songs last year. They're actually the oldest songs on the project."

The collaboration came about when a friend of Dallas' suggested she might be a good fit, after meeting Frost's manager at the gym, and the pair agreed to link up. "The first idea she sent me was a song called The Wire, a track of her singing over some piano which she'd programmed, kind of a skeleton, real simple. I thought it was really captivating, but the style didn't fit with what we were doing, so I asked if she could send me the separate parts, and if she'd mind if I got Fire & Ice to take what she'd done and shape it into something that would fit with the album."

"And I sent her The Gate, which I'd demo'ed and recorded the chorus, and said, 'maybe you could sing or harmonise over it', and she just killed it."

The two songs open and close the album with considerable punch, but it's Runnin' - the first single - which has proven to be the monster track so far.

"We just wanted to make a song that felt like real hype, something that when people heard it, they'd go 'oh shit!"'

It has been synched with two massive international sports video games by EA - Madden NFL 25, which is the new 25th anniversary edition of the Godfather of all American football games, and FIFA 14, which has just dethroned Grand Theft Auto V as the No1 game in the UK.

It's a big deal, in both a business sense, and on a personal level for Dallas. "Those EA sports games, they're stuff that I grew up playing, so to be in them is brilliant."

Interestingly, the track was one of the last to be written, and came about mostly through procrastination.

"We were kind of stuck on a track, procrastinating, and I didn't feel like we'd written the first single yet, you know, a really banging song, so I said to Aaron, 'have you got anything else, bro?' and he was like, 'funny you should ask, I've got this one new thing ...' It was this bluesy sample of a woman singing - she's a Catholic nun, who apparently thought she was the Bride of Christ. I think he'd heard the sample in a movie soundtrack or something, and he just made this really cool beat."

"So I was thinking, 'this is trippy, this is interesting, what were you thinking about when you wrote that?' And he was just like, 'I was thinking about being a runaway slave', I guess because it was right around the time Django Unchained came out, but that gave me some really strong images in my head."

Even then, the lyrics didn't come straight away. Dallas was actually procrastinating again, working on some verses for a different collaboration, and realised that one verse he'd written might actually fit Runnin'.

"We laid it down, and the rhythm of the verse just fit perfectly in the pocket of the beat, you know, that 'they ain't got no hustle, no muscle, no backbone ...' It was just one of those meant to be moments."

Being "in the pocket" is one of those mysterious secrets to a great hip-hop track that rappers often talk about. It's hard to define, all to do with whether or not the flow fits the beats, but it's something Dallas seems to continually nail, though he's also keen to give credit to his producers who have worked so closely with him since day one.

"It's something about the way Fire & Ice program the percussion that is really standout, they're really driving, and have a great energy."

It's that energy combined with a smooth delivery that has made Dallas so popular. "Snoop and Warren G were always my favourite rappers, they just sound like they're chillin' all the time, so I've always gravitated to that style as opposed to the harder-voiced, more shouty-type rappers I guess."

But it's also his relationships with the rest of the local hip-hop community which has led him to the top. He laughs at the suggestion that he's become a hero for the next generation of Kiwi rappers. "It's weird, huh, I'm like some elder statesman now. It trips me out the way some of the younger acts are all like 'Oh shit. Dave. Bro!' It's like 'all good, bro, I'm from the same street as you'. It's very flattering, but still bizarre."

Who: David Dallas
What: New album Falling Into Place, out October 18
Where and when: Performing with his band The Daylight Robbery at the Powerstation in Auckland on Saturday

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