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It was the little hip-hop business that could - and it did it all thanks to $25 T-shirts. Those oversized T-shirts - emblazoned with giant white lettering and sold for $25 a pop at Otara markets - helped kick-start South Auckland's Dawn Raid Entertainment, an independent music business that celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. It's been a rollercoaster ride over those years - from rapper Savage selling nearly two million copies of his re- released hit Swing in America, to briefly going into liquidation after suffering some "financial wobbles" in 2007. Yes, there's a reason co-founder Danny "Brotha D" Leaosavai'i - who formed the label with his business school buddy Andy Murnane in 1999 - laughs when he calls the last 15 years a "long and happy journey". But he admits there would be no Dawn Raid if it wasn't for all those T-shirts. "(It's) mostly (because of) the T-shirts. Andy started selling our slogan T-shirts at Otara markets. That became our funding and supplied resources to get things done," says Leaosavai'i. "On Andy's first weekend he turned over $700 - that's on $25 T-shirts. You do the math. We put the money back into the T-shirts and let it go from there. Whenever we needed money for the studio we'd (use those funds)." That money helped fund Dawn Raid's first release, 2000's SouthSide Story, which, while the production "wasn't great, featured the heart and soul of the people who put the music together". Things started small: Leaosavai'i laughs while remembering buying a minivan on hire purchase to transport artists from South Auckland to a Grey Lynn studio hired at "mates rates". But things snowballed for them with Deceptikonz' landmark 2002 album Elimination, a record that stands as one of New Zealand hip-hop's finest moments. Some of Dawn Raid's best releases quickly followed: Mareko's White Sunday, Ill Semantics' Theory Of Meaning and Red Eye Society's self-titled debut, albums that played an integral part in the explosion of hip-hop talent in New Zealand in the early 2000s. Despite trying out several guises - including graphic design and fashion - Dawn Raid's main focus has always been music and the label now has 50 albums under its belt, with many of their artists becoming household names. They also found success with award-winning R&B acts like Aaradhna and Adeaze, as well as providing the soundtrack from hit film Sione's Wedding and releasing popular reggae compilations like the Pacific Reggae series. Nurturing new talent and remaining positive have always been Dawn Raid's mottos, says Leaosavai'i. "It's awesome to develop young talent and see them become awesome people. You have to remember where these kids are coming from. We've never tried to highlight the staunchness, or the bad side, or the ugly side of South Auckland. "We know where we are. We know where we grew up. We don't have to portray that to our people," he says. "We want people to see the other side of life." These days, things are on the right track for Dawn Raid. Leaosavai'i says they're seeing success in America, where Murnane is based and artists like Aaradhna have been selling out 1000-seat venues. America is a big focus for the future, he says. "We have a growing Polynesian population over there, so our strength in the market place becomes a bit more viable than our place here in New Zealand and Australia. "We've always viewed that as our marketplace, our triangle: New Zealand, Australia to the Pacific Islands and the west coast of America. "We forget how small we are, just to try and get our voice out there is very hard (but) you have to do it internationally." And how will Dawn Raid's crew be celebrating their 15th anniversary? "Releasing music of course," laughs Leaosavai'i. "There's no real big celebration (because) there are so many things going on."

Brotha D's top five Dawn Raid releases

Album cover for Mareko's White Sunday. Southside Story - Various Artists (2000) Our first attempt into pushing the vision that was Dawn Raid. It was also a trying time personally with the death of my brother John Leaoasavai'i in jail. Elimination - Deceptikonz (2002) Elimination was a game changer. But their greatest accomplishment was that they didn't end up with patches or spend years in jail, but became awesome fathers and great role models. White Sunday - Mareko (2003) We put Mareko in the middle of New York City, and this Samoan kid from Manurewa collaborated with some of the best MCs in the world, and held his own. If he was afraid, he never showed it. Always and for Real - Adeaze (2004) I remember taking the Adeaze single A Life With You to Universal and they weren't interested - they believed it was under-produced and it wouldn't sell. Luckily, we didn't listen. I Love You - Aaradhna (2006) When I received the demo cassette tape from Aaradhna, you could barely hear the songs. She said she produced it herself. I asked So which instruments or samples did you use? She said, "None, I beatboxed it all." OK, musical freak, must sign. - TimeOut