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Changing the Trajectory With Church & AP

Before closing out their first Australia tour in Sydney, Auckland rap duo Church & AP and producer Dera Meelan, sat down with us to touch on their musical upbringings, political consciousness, and the next era of creative endeavours to come.

Seated opposite me on a crisp afternoon in Sydney are New Zealand rap duo Church & AP. AP, draped in an Outkast ATLien’s tee and crocs, and Church in a flannel and Doc Martens are sitting on a couch with subtle coolness. Having followed the guys since their breakout single Ready Or Not in 2018, and watched their growing success thereafter, the casual mood of the conversation felt familial, reminding me of times spent kicking back with my Maori cousins and uncles. This nonchalant, free-flowing mindstate appears heavily throughout the duo’s music. Without fault, Church & AP have managed to create a brand for themselves that is entirely unique to their creative avenues, their message, and their image. Owning their unapologetically Pasifika identity and proudly carrying their Auckland roots across everything they do, Church & AP are an unmistakable force to be reckoned with. 

After Ready Or Not catapulted them into appearing on BBC Radio 1Xtra, and received acknowledgements from the annual Pacific Music Awards in New Zealand, the duo ventured further into their music by releasing their debut album TEETH in 2019, as well as a double-sided album AT THY FEET, with side A releasing in 2020 and side B in 2021. The duo have  entrusted their creative house, YKK Collective, consisting of themselves, producer Dera Meelan, and fellow artist Deadforest, to delve into the next chapter of their artistry on their forthcoming album, Postal. 

As part of a growing collection of Pasifika creatives emerging from Auckland, Church & AP have solidified an integral position in the culture of New Zealand hip hop today. Entirely self-made and self-funded, with full creative control, the duo have managed to shoot for the stars in more ways than one and are yet to miss. We caught up with the Church & AP in Sydney to talk more about their musical journey, representation, and what’s set in stone for the future.

I know it’s been a long time coming for you to tour here in Australia; how has it been so far?
CHURCH: It’s been sick to be honest. Travelling and seeing a bunch of new artists has mostly been a cool thing. Just kind of seeing everybody that’s doing their own thing in Australia. And kind of seeing the similarities between the two places, it’s not really that different; it’s mostly a population difference. Sydney and Melbourne are massive compared to Auckland, but like, the same type of people, you know. The same cool people that you’ll see in Sydney, you’ll see in Auckland, the same dickheads, you’ll see in Melbourne, you know?

Has there been anything strikingly different about the audiences that you’ve performed for here in comparison to the ones back home?
AP: I reckon they’ve just been way more interactive and just supportive I reckon, like even watching some of the supports before our show, the crowd were going wild for our supports too. So I thought that was mean.

CHURCH: Yeah, I would say that. One striking difference to me is how open the crowds have been. Some of the sounds we experiment with aren’t always I guess palatable to everybody. But yeah, when we played our show in Melbourne, it seemed like everybody was sick and vibing to it, so it was cool.

That’s sick, I saw you guys chopping it with Agung Mango and JAAL while you were down there. It must be refreshing to be in the same space as those guys and create alongside them to a degree.
AP: Just seeing their whole process as well, how they like to create and stuff was mean because it’s just me and Church writing together, so having them, especially artists from a different country, to work with was mean.

I feel like there’s an unspoken shared experience and love for music, specific to Pasifika upbringings. What kind of music were you guys surrounded by when you were growing up?
AP: A lot of Samoan songs that my Nana would be playing on Sunday to wake us all up, some Five Star. And even like being with my Tongan family, they were heavily bumping West Coast stuff. Hearing a lot of Dr Dre, Nate Dogg and all that.

CHURCH: Yeah, you kind of hear a bit of everything. My dad is a big music nerd. So he had always played me a lot of samples. I would play a lot of hip hop songs with him. He would always educate me like, “oh, did you know that this is a whole other song?” And then tell me about whoever these guys are. He’d play me A Tribe Called Quest, and then tell me like, “yo, have you heard of these artists?”, like Minnie Ripperton, these guys are getting their samples from her. From an early age, he kind of told me about the history and the context around music. I think that’s what I enjoy about music today, you know, hearing samples, hearing sounds that are reused. We do that. We do that in our music as well. There’ll be a lot of references to things within our sound as well because it’s the shit that we grew up on.

In contrast to then and now, what has been the biggest lesson so far through your journey of making music?
AP: I think one would be to just not rush the process because a lot of the time you get caught up in trying to rush something and get it out, and then you’re not really happy with how it came out, so yeah, take your time.

CHURCH: Yeah, taking the time to find your sound and the shit that you’ll like, you know, because it’s a reflection of who you are, and if you rush things, it might not be an accurate representation. Definitely taking your time but also making sure you finish things, trying to actually get things done. As artists, you can be real insular and you can get into your own head and you can make something that’s amazing. But then if you’re the only person that’s ever hearing it, after a while you get sick of it. And you’d be like “I’m never gonna release it”. But if you just finished the idea, that should be the only time you judge it. Like when it’s actually done, don’t judge it before. That’s been a big lesson for us.

How have you learned to ground yourself when you’re in that mindstate?
CHURCH: Just don’t overthink it. It is what it is. We’re artists, so we can not continually create, you know what I mean.

AP: We’re fortunate enough to have Dera and our other fourth (YKK) member Deadforest with us in the process to give us more perspective.

CHURCH: Yeah, bounce off ideas and things. So it ends up being good like that.

I read about the community music programs you were involved in from young, and you’ve spoken on owing a portion of your success to those programs that helped kickstart it all. What were some of your fondest memories of working alongside your mentors in that kind of space?
AP: I think it was just actually being in those spaces with our mentors, getting to actually see them in real life. And even some of the artists that were coming up with us—it was a fun time really. Just a bunch of people trying to make music.

CHURCH: A lot of people on different waves. And then for us to just get free game from a lot of people, artists that we respected because there aren’t too many people that are rappers or that made hip hop, out of New Zealand. So the few that there are, we hold them in high regard. Guys like Tom Scott, Rizzy, Melodownz, those guys are all there in the community centres as our mentors, and we were still in high school so to kind of rub shoulders with them, learn what we can and then for them to like, big up us. It gave us a lot of confidence coming into this game.

Those names are essentially pioneers of what rap music sounds like in New Zealand today, so I can imagine would be surreal moment. Have you guys been able to give back the same way that they were able?
CHURCH: Yes, for sure. That same community centre, I work there now doing those same programmes. So that’s like a full-circle moment for me. I’ve gone from mentee to mentor for the generation that’s coming up. And that’s real sick for me.

Do you think the creative scene you came up in has changed much in Auckland?
CHURCH: I would say it’s building for sure. We’re definitely seeing some changes. But Auckland specifically can be quite rigid in their ways. So it takes a couple years for people to get their head around. Especially a lot of things that we’re doing at the moment.

DERA: II think more young people are doing it now. Which is the first time I think ever it’s been majority of young people, as opposed to how it would have been in the game 10-15 years ago.

CHURCH: Yeah, 100%. When we came into the New Zealand music industry, and started making things, we were by far the youngest act. But now the rest of our generation is up with us, so you’re starting to see more younger faces. And from what we’ve seen, they’re majority Pacific Islander kids.

It’s kind of interesting because with the drill hype that exists in Western Sydney, all it took was like seeing a few brown kids on a big music video wearing a bally and rapping, for the youth to be inspired, and I expect that’s adjacent to what you guys are doing for the youth and music in New Zealand too.
AP: Yeah, especially with OneFour blowing up, it gave brown kids from New Zealand as well the chance to see people who look like them doing their thing. That’s one of the big drivers for a lot of these kids who are doing stuff. Just seeing a lot of people who look like them. 

CHURCH: Yeah, before that it wasn’t really tangible. But then to see dudes that look like they could be your uncles or cousins, it’s like oh shit, this can be real for us as well. And I will say that extends even to us being driven by seeing guys like OneFour. I was just saying the other day, we were in JD Sports and I saw OneFour on a Nike ad. That’s crazy. Those dudes got the same last name as my Nana. We’re probably cousins. [laughs]

And on the topic of Onefour, I remember seeing you post in the studio with a few of the members from Brockhampton, watching the Spot the Difference music video. That too sounds crazy.
CHURCH: We’ve built a relationship with some of the dudes, specifically Dom from BH and he’s always been a good guy that supports our music and things like that. But he asked us “What’s cool around here?” and I was like “These guys.” They thought it was lit. 

I want to touch on Ready Or Not, which was your breakthrough single in 2018. I remember hearing it for the first time and then finding out it was two Pasifika kids from Auckland was sick because from that track, I felt your music already existed in a lane of its own. I hadn’t heard anything quite like it from other Pasifika/NZ artists at the time. Tell me a little bit about life after the release of that track, and how it changed things for you.
CHURCH: I guess it put us on the trajectory to get where we are right now, to be able to talk, to be able to do music. 

AP: To organise it more and plan it more.

CHURCH: To have a career. It’s a blessing that song, for sure. And like you say, it is completely in its own lane for us. So I’m quite proud of that. Just, you know, we’re doing our own thing. I think it’s sick.

And that was just the second single you guys had to your name. How did it feel to garner that type of reception whilst only having one other single out?
AP: I think it was crazy. With our KPIs, we wanted to reach 30k max. in probably two weeks, and then we ended up doing 60k in a day. It was insane. I think I was in the Gold Coast at the time and watching the Spotify analytics and was like, what the fuck, this is crazy.

Fast forward a few years, you guys released a double-sided album AT THY FEET, which you used to voice very candidly the issues that you face being a Pacific Islander growing up in Auckland, with the ramifications of gentrification and racial profiling. Tell me a little bit about the thought process going into making the first side of that album.
CHURCH: That came around during COVID times, and you just have heaps of time to think about the world and the wrong shit that’s going on in life. And that’s what was a big driving force for me. Especially being 19 at the time and politically activated. I was just thinking about life, and like, just deeping it, smoking a lot of weed. And that was the result.

AP: And I think it was kind of, like, easy for us to write on topics like that as well, coming from the community centre that we started recording in. Because a lot of the topics and issues in that album, we’d touch on within those spaces.

CHURCH: Yeah, they encouraged us to write consciously about those things. So that was a cool outlet for us. I would say that the first side is probably the most we’ve ever gotten to using music for therapy. You can kind of get a lot off your chest and that album talks about growing up in religion, existentialism; it’s a whole other can of worms.

Those same sentiments are reflected in the music video you did for that side A. How did you gather the imagery you wanted to tell the story of side A through that video?
CHURCH: We worked with director Oscar Keys, we just played the music and went through references. I watch a lot of films. So I just really got into that. And then we wanted to shoot it on film to kind of give it that authentic feel. And to really tell the story from an artistic perspective.

And then how can you describe the difference in sound and story on side A to side B?
AP: It was more like free flowing, I think. Especially the process. We had just finished the first part, and were just like finally, because we actually deeped it a lot. So now we just need to calm it down.

CHURCH: Originally, we thought to do the second half in that same vein, very deep thinking. But it’s tiring. It’s tiring to continually be socially conscious. And even if you want to be, it’s tough to be that because it’s like part of our generation’s persona, the way we look at how we cancel people and how we have to be these perfect upstanding citizens, that’s just not really real. Sometimes you just have to let go and be like, I just wanna rap now. I feel like we spent the better part of 2020 really looking inwards and looking at ourselves.

AP: COVID finished as well, so we were just going out and stuff.

CHURCH: Yeah, so then you’re back in the real world. So we switched it up for side B and just made music with the energy that we were feeling at that time.

That just speaks to the level of your artistry, I think that’s sick. I think it’s only right to give props to some of the creatives in the scene in Auckland because it’s a very special, blossoming scene. There’s so many underground creatives there that I was able to discover through you guys, Deadforest, Naik2G, Nganeko.
Why do you think the scene over in Auckland is authentic or special?
CHURCH: For me, I would say it’s because you’re seeing a lot of young islanders that don’t give a fuck, you know, that’s very refreshing. Because a lot of us, especially in previous generations, we’re bound by how people perceive us. And so all the time, we’re having a constant battle with perception, like, should I be this type of person? Should I be this type of person? Am I sure I’d be the person on Sunday that I am on Monday? And then now we’re getting this generation of people that’s like, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I’m just gonna do what I feel intuitively. And that’s the sickest thing to me. So you’re seeing just no rules. Everybody’s just creating, and that’s a really gratifying thing to see.

AP: A lot of hidden gems, 100%.

Who is someone in the scene you think is madly underrated that you wanna give props to?
CHURCH: Deadforest for sure. Brandon Shiraz is dope.

AP: Kamahumble for sure.

CHURCH: But I also rate the people out here that we’ve met, Agung, PANIA is sick, JAAL.

AP: We met a couple of their homies as well, one of his friends Deja. JAAL’s whole collective, they’re sick.

And speaking of collectives, I’d love to talk about YKK Collective. What is YKK Collective?
AP: A lot of the time I think people think it’s like an actual acronym for something.

CHURCH: It’s more so just a representation; it’s just the banner. Like a flag to wave. It’s Dera, Church and AP, Deadforest. And it’s mostly just like the creative house that all of these ideas come out of. So all the music that you’ll hear from Dera, all the music you’ll hear from Church and AP or even our solo stuff. YKK is just the house that it comes out of.

You’re currently sitting on the work of your second album, Postal. What can we expect from this era of Church and AP?
CHURCH: Bangers. It’s way more intuitive. We’re not really deeping it as much, we’re kind of showing off the type of shit that we want to listen to. And I feel like that takes a while for any artist like, there are the people that you’re inspired by, and then there’s your output, what you actually do. And it takes a while to meet those two together. Because even when we were doing our first mixtape Thorough Bread, there were a whole bunch of soundscapes that I wanted to explore and I didn’t know how. But with Postal, I think we’ve kind of got into a sweet spot where we kind of know what we want to do. We’ve found the people that can make that happen. Postal is a full YKK album, we’ve got Deadforest all over it. 

AP: And fully produced by Dera.

CHURCH: It’s a full team experience.

AP: We went away on a camping trip and just fleshed it all out in seven days.

Church: Even that was a dope experience, to lock in and take yourself out of the hustle and bustle of the world. We saw no people.

AP: Just sheep. [laughs]

CHURCH: That puts you into a different type of flow state, to be able to make the sickest shit that you can. And I feel like we did that. So, coming soon.

And for my final question, once Postal is out, what are your plans for after then?
CHURCH: We have a lot of music that we’re trying to figure out how to release. We got solo tapes that we want to do as well so that’s definitely on the table. Probably need to do another Church and AP album as well. [laughs].

AP: Yeah. Kind of just exploring different avenues, things that we can branch off from the music, even going towards fashion or Church directing and stuff.

CHURCH: I reckon just full creative control over whatever we choose. That’s the reason why we’re independent, so that we can do whatever we want. Yeah, it might take longer because we have to self-fund everything but I prefer that you know.

Definitely, it pays off.
CHURCH: Hard out. And we’re young, so we have the time to find those resources and just be free like that. So, yeah, I feel like in the coming 18 months, you’re just gonna see the blossoming creativity.

Follow Church & AP here for more.

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