Dei Hamo adjusts his shades and sinks into the black leather upholstery in the back seat.

"I love cars," he beams as we speed south in his record label's behemoth of a vehicle, aka the "Golden Holden".

"If you opened the bonnet I couldn't tell you what's inside but I know what I like. I'm a luxury car man."

No kidding. Unless you've studiously avoided mainstream radio or music TV, you won't have missed We Gon' Ride, his tongue-in-cheek ode to Kiwi petrolhead culture and American bling.

The track went to number one, spent five months in the charts and launched Hamo as New Zealand's most ghetto fabulous hip-hop star. Its follow-up, To Tha Floor, debuted at number five.

Today, the idea is to do a re-enactment of the slick, Chris Graham-directed video - cruise around Hamo's patch, see where he hangs out, have a bite to eat. Hamo certainly looks the part, dressed in black from head to toe, wearing a silver chain and a jewel-encrusted ring he picked up in Atlanta.

For insurance purposes, Hamo doesn't get to drive so Justin, the promo guy, is behind the wheel. We have, however, acquired the company credit card and TimeOut secretly hopes we'll be lunching Dei Hamo style, perhaps lobster and caviar at Papatoetoe's finest.

We're in for a rude shock when Hamo instructs Justin to pull into the Manukau Westfield shopping centre carpark. Apparently butter chicken from the foodcourt is more his style. Even the ring is a fake. And that personalised number plate that features in the video?

"It's on my wall at home. It wouldn't look right on the Lexus," he says, almost sheepishly. "Kids are always asking me, 'Where's your big red truck?' If I really had that much money I'd be very modest. Y'know, if people want to spend up like that, good on them. I guess when you're surrounded by 'yes' people whose livelihood depends on you, you can easily get blinded by it."

This weekend, Dei Hamo, which translates as "the Samoan" will perform at the Pasifika festival, "the one show where I can really bond with my peers and my people".

Even so, there's no denying Hamo's music is influenced by American culture. His real name is Sani Sagala but he raps in an American accent, and his beats (care of producer John Chong-Nee and mixed in Atlanta by the guy who did Ludacris' album) echo the club-friendly anthems by the likes of the Neptunes and Dr Dre. Then there's his stylish, New Zealand-made attire, which looks like something he found in Nate Dogg's wardrobe.

Hamo says he's not trying to fool anyone. "Y'all could say whatcha like, I couldn't care less. You wanna battle with me, here's my email address," he raps on the album's third single, This is My Life.

"I'm trying to make music that will travel," he says. "I'm trying to be the David Tua in music. If a girl from G.I. can be nominated for an Oscar, why can't a guy from Papatoetoe get a Grammy?

"It's a Trojan horse strategy. Once you get your foot in the door you fly your own flag. Martin Henderson speaks with an American accent but does that make him any less of a New Zealander? Absolutely not.

"My goal is to have international success as a Samoan. It hasn't been done by a Samoan. If I ever make it on to MTV, I'll wear an All Black jersey."

All eyes are on Hamo as we stroll leisurely into the mall. This is his turf; he likes to take his time. He eats slowly, too, almost delicately, and when fans come up for autographs or to have their picture taken with him, he's more than happy to oblige.

Lunch goes on for some time like this, cellphone cameras snapping away, pretty girls who should probably be in school, giggling, waving and batting their eyelashes.

"The people who are from this area know me and they kind of laugh, like, man, why don't you tell them where you come from?" he says.

So after lunch we visit the spot behind the shops where Hamo entered his first rap competition. In 1988 there were bleachers here and a stage - now it's nothing more than a barren construction site. Hamo looks out at the concrete and gets a dreamy look in his eye.

"We called ourselves Itchibahn because someone told me it meant number one in Japanese," he laughs. "We didn't win. A lot of the people that won the competitions aren't still around. And I never won but I'm still around."

Hamo is the first to admit that statistically, he shouldn't be. Though he doesn't like to say how old is, this should give you an idea - the crew he refers to as the "class of '86" includes Kiwi hip-hop pioneers Upper Hutt Posse, DLT, Dawn Raid's Brotha D (then part of Lost Tribe) and King Kapisi (then Bran Muffin ), most of whom have already done their time in the spotlight. He often ponders his fate with Kaz Futialo- aka Tha Feelstyle - another late bloomer in the local hip-hop scene.

Since the 80s, Hamo has been in several groups that reached middling success. He remembers it as a time when New Zealand hip-hop relied on gigs, rather than album sales.

"Everyone knew no one had money but they'd be flipping through the records, looking at things."

By third form he was gigging at the Powerstation with Enemy Productions, the group he formed with his brother and a friend, and at 15, they recorded his first single. The song, Stop Tagging, received a deluge of media attention because of its anti-graffiti message.

"I was a prolific tagger around the neighbourhood and when they found out it was me they said, 'You better do something good'," he explains. "So our manager Andy Vann [himself a well-known DJ] proposed to the police that instead of community service, we'd do this single. We tagged the studio," he laughs. "It already had graffiti on it, for the record."

The single was one of bFM's most requested but Hamo didn't even know it had been released until he saw it in the record store. Later he featured on Urban Pasifika's forward-thinking debut compilation and helped to get Sisters Underground a foot in the door. But it wasn't enough. In 1999, disillusioned, Hamo quit music and got a job as a baker.

"I'd given this 11 years and nothing had come of it," he says. "I flushed music out of my system, gave all my CDs away, wouldn't listen to the radio, wouldn't watch TV. That almost killed me. I became a sour person. I became resentful."

One night, after eight months of kneading dough at dawn, he was sitting outside a nightclub pouring his heart out to his brother.

"He said, 'What happened to you? Do you remember that you used to be Dei Hamo?' That's when I thought, I have to do this now, before I lose it again. Three months later I had 30 songs."

In 2002 he met up with Matty J. Ruys (the man who groomed K'Lee and Brooke Fraser for fame). Ruys was putting together his own label, HiRuys, under the umbrella of major label Universal, and offered to put out Hamo's record.

Universal boss Adam Holt says he didn't even take Hamo's commercial success into account when he considered investing in him. The important thing was that he had the character, the confidence and the drive.

"The minute I met Sani, his ability to talk and chat and express himself

impressed me. He's really clear in where he wants to go and what he wants to do."

Despite the enthusiasm, things got off to a shonky start. Holt says the album was rushed, the first music video was a disaster and "mistakes" were made in the marketing process. Add to that the looming threat of Scribe's upcoming album, and the timing wasn't right.

"It was really frustrating," says Hamo. "Doubt started to set in. The best thing to happen was Matty and Adam deciding we should record a few more songs to keep the album fresh and that's how we got We Gon Ride. They wanted two new songs and we came back with four. When we decided to release that as a single, we got [Award-winning director] Chris Graham for the shoot. That's when I knew things were gonna change."

Graham directed the $50,000-plus video for We Gon Ride (his clips for Scribe cost nearer $20,000) and its follow-up To Tha Floor. He says working with Hamo and producer John Chong-Nee was a hoot.

"They had the entire crew rolling with laughter. At one stage I turned and saw them walking around with sliced oranges like it was half-time at a rugby match.

"To me that's very indicative of who they are - their gratitude and their generosity and their thoughtfulness.

"Until Dei Hamo and Misfits of Science came along, hip-hop was taking itself a little too seriously. It was really refreshing to have locally proud humour, such as the gag about Paul Holmes."

OUR next stop is Hamo's old high school, Aorere College. It's here he joined the acclaimed Aorere school choir. It's also where he failed school curriculum music while his brother, the "goody-goody" one, went on to become head boy.

A few students trail behind as Hamo wanders into B Block, the area where he and his mates used to hang out under the stairs, share steak and cheese pies, write rhymes and get into trouble.

"One of my earliest memories of being at school was being sent to the principal's office with two other kids. The principal said 'send Kevin and Michael away and leave Sani'. That's how often I was there."

Now that he's a responsible dad to his 6-year-old son, Kiani, there's little room in Hamo's life for rebellion other than his music. Considering this is Hamo's first LP, he's especially cheeky when he disses other rappers in the intro: "At the rate you sell albums, you can buy your family a new car in the year 3000."

"I grew up in the 80s and early 90s when hip-hop was a rebel music," he says. "I still have that in me."

Swearing though, is not his bag. You'll only hear the "f" word once on the album and the "b" word doesn't even figure on In the Name Of, a fictitious tale reminiscent of Eminem's Stan in which he boasts of pushing his girlfriend down the stairs.

"Polynesian people are very respectful towards women," he says. "I like my music to be sexy but not trashy. And because I'm older, a lot of the younger guys out there haven't had much life experience. I wanted to have an album that had some jewels as it were, for the younger audience to listen to."

Among them are songs such as The Kissing Game, an autobiographical account of a guy who steals another guy's girl, and Home Invasion, co-written and featuring stellar* singer Boh Runga, about the woes he knows: "The hood got P now and 'cross town rich kids is buying points like they're shopping for retail."

The album's most poignant moments are A True Story, about the birth of his son, and Cry Again, a remake of Split Enz' I Hope I Never featuring Tim Finn, about his break-up with Kiani's mother.

"It had been a year and I'd never really addressed the break-up properly. I didn't realise how emotional I was until I went into the booth and I started to voice what I'd written. I had to stop and just let it all out."

Hamo knows he's a big softie. He likes Coldplay and Al Green. His cellphone ring is a song of heartbreak by Lenny Kravitz.

But in Hamo's big, bad world of bling, it's tracks such as Hot Girl and Pillow Talk that sum him up: doin' his thing on the dancefloor, chatting up the ladies, having a laugh. On Do Work he raps about being set up on a blind date with the "gorgeous" Nicky: "So you know I'm in the mirror tryin' to fix ya hair and it's a good thing I'm wearing clean underwear, then I hear 'Oh my gosh I'm you're biggest fan', I turn around and - Nicky's a man?"

"If we were all to take ourselves too seriously there'd be no one left on the planet. We'd all kill ourselves."

As the "Golden Holden" heads back towards the city, Hamo sighs. He knows that when he pulls up at home tonight in his cheap Japanese car, the neighbourhood kids will chant: "To tha roof, man, to tha roof!"

Maybe one day he'll really be driving that big red truck.

LOWDOWN

WHO: Dei Hamo

WHAT: New Zealand's answer to Ludacris, Chingy and Eminem, sorta

RELEASES: Self-titled debut album out March 14

PLAYING: At Pasifika, Western Springs, Contemporary Stage, 2pm Saturday March 12. Edgefest, Mt Smart Supertop, Saturday March 12

TRIVIA: Dei Hamo has supported Black Eyed Peas, Busta Rhymes and D12 and 1200 Techniques