Over lunch at Balmoral Chinese restaurant Spicy House, Henry Oliver asks David Dallas about how growing older, getting married and watching Roger Federer all influenced his new album, Hood Country Club.
This has been the longest gap between albums for you, right?
Everyone’s saying that. It doesn’t seem as long as it is, but when I look at the actual time it’s taken, it’s fucken ages, but it didn’t seem like that while I was doing it.
You mention on the record, wanting to take time, make sure things are right. Did that lead to the gap?
I don’t really have a good excuse or reason, it just took the time. When I put out ‘Don’t Rate That’ at the end of 2015 I thought the album was pretty much going to come out not long after that. I had a good portion of the album then. But it’s just one of those things where it’s like the last 10 percent of the record took 70 percent of the time. It was just polishing things up, adding a couple new songs, fixing things, that was really it.
Are you a perfectionist?
Definitely. A lot of times when you do records you’re kind of waiting for something else to come. You’re like this will be complete once I have this song that feels like this or sounds like this and then I got to a point where I just looked at the record and I realised if I keep waiting like that the records going to be something completely different. Thematically, it all worked as it was. I was like nah, this is the record. What I’m starting to make now is another record.
Do you mean you felt like there are sounds you’re missing or vibes you’re missing?
It’s a balance thing. I need a song that’s more upbeat or a song that’s more serious or something like that. But you’ve just got to look at your record and see if I start getting on this other buzz that’s a completely different album. Records aren’t necessarily supposed to be balanced. They’re supposed to be a snapshot of that time and that’s what it is.
When you feel like you’re waiting for something – and obviously you waited for some things that did come through and made it on the record – what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for producers to send you the right tracks or are you going out to people asking for music?
Sometimes you’re like I want this sound and even the guys working will be like what are you after? I had music I was sitting on where I was like this is the shit, I need to write a cool song to this, and sometimes that song just never comes. Or something that you thought was great when you started out, you’re like I’m not really feeling that sound anymore.
Have you felt your approach change over that time?
Over 2014, I was writing and working on this record. I’ve pretty much been working on it the whole time. But a lot of that stuff will never see the light of day, especially the stuff I worked on over 2014. Not long after the last record came out, my old man passed away, and in early 2015 I got married. There were big life events that happened in that time. Again, that’s not necessarily the excuse because I was still writing the whole time.
Part of the record is about getting older and you mentioned your father passing, that’s in the record, and you mentioned getting married. Growing up seems to be half the record, has that changed your approach to rap music? Rap music has traditionally been young person’s music and deals a lot with issues of youth. Has that been an adjustment?
Not really. The stuff I’ve written about has always just been what I’m on, where I’m at in life. There’s not too much adjustment in that I definitely don’t consciously think about that sort of thing. If you’d asked me five years ago whether I’d write something like ‘Don’t Rate That’ and talk about fucken finance companies and shit, there’s no way. Even two years ago I wouldn’t thought that. That’s just the sort of stuff that came to me. That’s the sort of stuff that was on my mind. I guess the adjustment is just me growing up. It’s definitely not a conscious thing I have to think about at any time. My content just reflects where I’m at.
There’s also a lot of reminiscing on the record. A lot of stuff that sounds, to me, like recollections of youth…
If you look at most of my records, I generally write from my own perspective. I’m not one of those people that can write story songs about other people. So generally all my stuff comes from my own experiences or my own insights. So if it isn’t those two things, I’m kind of a bit lost. You’re not gonna hear some fucken concept song about being an asteroid or some shit. That’s not what I do.
It sounds like you use that recollection, in a way, to have an opposition, like an enemy or a grievance.
That’s probably just a rap thing.
I don’t know how this relates to you, but I feel like as you get older there’s just less of that in your life.
You’re less angsty.
When you’re young, you’re kind of forced or choose to be in situations with lots of people that you don’t necessarily all get along with. You might go to parties more or whatever and have to deal more people. But as you get older, you just branch off and you get a smaller group of friends. But in some of these songs it sounds like you almost need shit you don’t like to fuel them.
I guess that makes for stronger topics to write about. Especially in rap, where growing up it was almost protest music, if you don’t have real things to speak on that are actually issues, what the fuck are your songs about? It doesn’t necessarily make for cool rap music, you know? It might make for cool euphoric house track or some shit, but in terms of hearing someone speak on something, unless you have some issues to speak on, you’d be making pretty fluffy rap music. Probably not the sort of shit that I like. Even ‘Don’t Rate That’ is that. These are my grievances, these are my issues right now, this is what’s fucking me off.
But I always have things that annoy me and piss me off and shit. A lot of the times I write about them. I guess that’s how I get my annoyances out. Through music.
Do you feel like people doubt you?
I’m sure there’s people that doubt me. I’m sure there’s people that don’t doubt me, too. Especially with me and the rap I grew up liking, and the rap I still like, a big part of what makes rap cool is that braggadocio element. That sort of fuck everybody else, I’ll show you what’s up type of thing. Probably that’s most what attracted me to rap, especially as a kid. You need stuff like that. You don’t hear rock songs where the dude’s talking about how he’s the man or what he’s gonna overcome and all this sort of shit.
For a lot of people, that’s why they don’t like rap, but for me as a kid, that’s exactly why I did like it. I didn’t wanna listen to depressing, teen angsty shit when I was a kid. I wanted to listen to Tupac because he was the man. I listened to Jay-Z because he’s the man. That’s tight, that’s what I like about it. I find that with artists today. The majority of artists today I like, they have to at least have that ability to do that, even though it’s not necessarily the only thing that they do.
I really like Drake. I like ‘Hotline Bling’. But if he only made songs like ‘Hotline Bling’, I probably wouldn’t like Drake that much. He still needs to have those harder songs.
Is it less a part of rap now? There’s that competitive element which is skill-based, and rapping is interesting in that it has that history of skill-based competition and one-upmanship, both in terms of battles and records. But for whatever reason, that seems to be less popular now than like weird, expressive voices, or weird sounds?
You reckon? Even if you look at the whole kerfuffle around Kendrick’s latest record. People are excited because it’s Kendrick being like You guys sit down, I’m the man.
I wonder if we were more excited about that because there are less people doing it?
Maybe. But all those guys like Drake, Big Sean, they’re talking about how they’re the best on the majority of their records. But the majority of the time the stuff you hear on the radio isn’t that.
One thing you talk about is not wanting to take part in all the shiny new sounds that show up. I guess that’s part of being slightly older and having a base – you’ve got a discography where you’ve established this sound that you wouldn’t necessarily wanna change too quickly. But at the same time I’m assuming you want to grow sonically as well, right? Do you find when you finish a project that it’s your chance to do something different now? Or are there things that you want to explore?
Definitely. Every record we look at what sort sounds we haven’t done and the things that could be changed. You always want to try and do different stuff. The thing you gotta try do stuff that’s different for you without just doing the same shit that everyone else does. The majority of the time, by the time you get it released, it’s fucking already played out. It’s just never as good, it’s just some inferior version of the sounds.
At the same time, you’re always walking that fine line of staying true to what it is that you do. I think even with sounds, the older you get you’ve got more history and sounds to mine from to try and bring. So something like ‘Fit In’, the sound of it is like UK garage two-step stuff from like 2001. Because the same way that people listen to all that Artful Dodger, Craig David stuff of that era, I super liked that because that was the sort of stuff I heard on the radio at the time. So I always wanted to bring that sound back and combine it with rapping instead of Craig David style singing. So even though something like that is completely different to something like ‘Running’, it’s still, in terms of the framework that I have for myself, very much within it because it’s what I grew up on. It’s things like that. You’re trying to come up with new sounds that are true to yourself as opposed to a new sound for you that sounds like what everyone is doing at the time.
Is there something that ties this record together for you, thematically?
That Hood Country Club thing, like everything ties together with that. The title of the record actually came about super late in the piece. One of my best friends was talking about starting a clothing label, cos he’s like fuck, clothing labels suck, all the streetwear shit’s whack. He was just talking about what he’d do if he did a clothing label. And of course, most kids from where we were, we grew up liking street stuff like hoodies and Timbs and Chucks and Nikes and all that sort of stuff. But we also liked Polo and Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger and all that sort of cleaner stuff. And so I was like oh, so you want it to be hood but country club.
I was kinda like that would be a cool song title. So I wrote the song not long after that. Then when I played it to my wife, she was like that should be the title of your record cos that’s what your record sounds like. Somewhere between those things. I thought about it and I guess everyone’s somewhere between those things. Everyone wants to stay true to themselves or their roots but they have these aspirational things that they want to get and make their own. So everyone’s like fuck I want a beamer. But if I did get a beamer I wouldn’t turn into one of those Ponsonby wankers, you know what I mean?
When the single came out and you were rapping about drinking white wine and tennis and stuff, then with the album title Hood Country Club and it’s an interesting proposition. What do you rap about if that’s part of your life now, drinking white wine at restaurants?
White wine, fuck I don’t drink that, that’s my wife’s thing, but it’s more to illustrate a point. When I talk about things like tennis and shit. I’m super into tennis. Tennis is my favourite sport. But the amount of times people follow me on Twitter and they’ll see me live-tweeting about a Federer game or something, they’re like woah I never expected you to be into tennis. That sort of thing is real strange to them. But it shouldn’t be.
So what do you like about tennis?
It’s just a dope spectator sport. It’s a fucking real good game to watch. If you don’t watch tennis, you should watch tennis. It’s fucking really good. My mother and my older brother are super into it. I think that’s a thing that would surprise heaps of people; lots of Samoans like watching tennis. It’s really a thing.
Is Federer your favourite?
Yeah, totally. Federer’s like my favourite athlete, period. Federer’s like Michael Jordan. I just like people like that. It’s the same thing with skateboarding and shit. I like guys that are super good, that make things look super easy. I guess it’s the same in music. I’ve always like smooth guys, you know what I mean? Growing up, I liked Snoop. Snoop was my favourite rapper. I liked Snoop and I liked Warren G and I liked Jay Z. People who do the difficult and make it look easy. If you look at the tennis players I like, Federer’s like that. Same thing with the skateboarders I grew up liking, like [Tom] Penny, [Eric] Koston, and Mark Apppleyard, it’s the same sort of thing. All guys that are really good that make it look easy.
Which is kind of interesting because when mainstream New Zealand became aware of you, which was with the ‘Not Many’ remix, that wasn’t you at all. That was you doing something really difficult and making seem really difficult.
Did it seem difficult? That’s just what I was on. On a track like that, P [Money] was like just flex, just go for it.
So it’s surprising to hear that Snoop Dogg’s your favourite because he’s totally like that. Makes it seem easy, like anyone could do that, but of course they can’t. This might be a stretch but…Nadal, that dude looks like he’s playing hard and it looks really difficult, what he’s doing. And he’s super athletic, he’s crazy fast, he’s crazy strong, he’s got that hyperactivity.
He’s the super, like, grinding sort of dude.
Then you see Federer and there’s an ease to it.
It’s just easy. When you watch someone like that, it’s easy for him but actually what he’s doing is more difficult. He’s the one that’s hitting the winners, hitting the lines, but it just didn’t look like it.
I would’ve guessed that your favourite rappers would’ve been really technical …
I did like technical rappers. At that point, I was super into that stuff. Like Eminem in his prime, he was super technical and he was super good around that era. I liked stuff like that. Growing up I like Black Thought from The Roots. Take Twista, for example, Twista raps super fast and super technical, but it doesn’t seem hard for him. I like that. Not that I’m a big fan of Twista or anything but when it comes to that sort of shit, he does super hard shit and it doesn’t seem that hard for him.
To have ‘Don’t Rate That’ back in the world, are you conscious of it being an election year and that people will hear it in a certain way?
Nah I haven’t thought about that at all to be honest. The reason ‘Don’t Rate That’ came out when it came out was because I was like this is relevant now. That particular housing issue was relevant then and I was like I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but this needs to come out now. In terms of putting it with the record, it has to go with the record because it was made with the rest of the record and it’s kind of quintessential to it. I haven’t actually thought about what it is in this current time but I feel like it still works. Might be more apt, to be honest.
That song was received super well and has, in some circles, become this instant classic.
It’s funny, I definitely didn’t anticipate that. I thought people were just going to be like, weird, why’s he talking about finance companies and the housing crisis?
Did that song’s positive reception put additional pressure on you?
Nah, not at all. Each song is each song. Something like ‘Don’t Rate That’, not that I necessarily knew it would be received the way it did, I knew the sort of people that it would be popular with. Something like ‘Don’t Rate That’ gives something for people to write about or speak about. There’s topics in it that someone can do an editorial on. Other songs, that’s not the purpose of them. They’re not for editorial, it’s not really the thing. So in that sense I’m like cool, that song’s cool for that purpose.
But do you know that it’s gonna find a slightly different audience because of that editorialising?
Yep, totally. I definitely don’t aim for it or anything like that. When you’ve made a song you know the sort of people that it’s going to be popular with.
Who are those sort of people?
People like yourself. People who write for websites, who analyse that sort of topical matter. The same way that you know a song just coming out is fucking bars where you’re just flexing, you know it’s going to be popular with…the stuff I do with Red Bull, the 64 Bars stuff, I know exactly who that’s going to be popular with. It’s gonna be popular with kids who are just into bars. The sort of kids who might like my 64 Bars, they’ll be like yo that was a cool punchline, this was a cool bar, they might not even necessarily like something like ‘Don’t Rate That’. Because they’re just like fuck all that topical shit. This ain’t bars. I’m not flexing on this.” Whereas to other people, something like ‘Don’t Rate That’ is like ah lyrically this is incredible. It just is what it is. I definitely don’t go in to target either way. I just happen to like both sorts of songs.
Is the plan to go overseas and try make an international record?
I’m always trying to make stuff that’s good enough that people overseas will like it. And of course you want it to reach as far as it can reach. Someone was asking me earlier, as someone who’s had international attention with songs, how do you do it? I was like I don’t fucking know. You just do the music that you like and things like the song, the story, the visual, all those sort of things help. But at the end of the day you’re still just putting a song out there and hoping someone might like it.
So you’re not going to move to New York for six months or whatever?
I’m just not in a position to do that at the moment. Obviously because I have family things back home. When I came back, with my father passing away and my step father passing away, getting married, it’s just different. My life is in a different place. Obviously I want to tour overseas. I’m touring Australia over June and July. Also I just don’t feel like I need to base myself in New York for people in New York to pay attention to me.
Do you think as you get older there’s not this idea that you’re just going to do everything that you could possibly do? I talked to Savage recently and he was like yeah I just make singles. It took me ages to realise but I’ve realised that I’m just good at making these singles and they’re good at the club and they’re good in movies. He’s gotten to where he’s not gonna try do everything.
You figure out what it is that you actually like to do as well. Living in a box in New York, I don’t really like that. Making albums, making records, I do like.
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