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deadforest is a Southside Soldier

Known for his distinctive cadence and gritty bars, this South Auckland rapper continues to push the boundaries as he chats to us about the journey to his Dera Meelan-produced debut album, ‘Plastic’.

Clendon wordsmith deadforest is arguably one of the most exciting MC’s to come out of New Zealand right now. With fierce roots in his underground origins, deadforest was making waves under his former alias Jinzo, posting music on SoundCloud that was causing a ruckus in the underground Auckland music scene. With hard-hitting, untamable raps and a cadence that is authentically his own, deadforest has built a name for himself as an artist who pushes the boundaries of the hip-hop soundscape, both locally and abroad. This feat, however, was not done entirely alone.

Dera Meelan is deadforest’s in-house producer and fellow Clendon superstar who is a beats connoisseur. The pair met through their older brothers who were mates and had once lived on the same street in their youth. Since linking in 2018, this rapper-producer duo have an undeniable chemistry that translates to the music they make together. The pair released a breakout 5-track EP 75 in late 2018, giving us a real taste of their combined superpower as they showcased their creativity and versatility by fusing hip-hop and EDM with deadforest’s immaculate flows. They then released the deluxe edition and the bonus track ‘Fire Sale’, a hybrid mix of hip-hop and house, completely lit up the streets and shined a light on the talented duo, where they followed up with more hits like ‘Silver Spoon’ and ‘PACK-A-PUNCH’. With ‘Fire Sale’ racking up just under 6 million streams on Spotify, YKK companions Church & AP jumped on the explosive remix as well.

On 75, we see the Samoan/Māori artist start to open up but with his highly-anticipated debut album Plastic, we see a much more personal side and the deep aroha (love) that he has for his hometown. With unconventional production from Dera and a fusion of grime, hip-hop and post-hardcore, Plastic is more than just an album, it’s a voice representing South Auckland and deadforest is paving the way for young Pacific people like him. On the album, deadforest speaks on his experiences growing up in Manurewa, the trials and tribulations of finding his identity and redefining what it means to be proud of where you come from. With deadforest’s clever wordplay over Dera’s unpredictable production, this duo always gives us something out of the box. Also featuring other standout Auckland artists like Adam Tukiri, Church Leon and kerge, Plastic really captures the essence of South Auckland as deadforest goes through the motions of embracing the hardships he’s faced living in a deprived neighbourhood. We sat down with deadforest to have a chat about his journey.

Well first off, congratulations on your debut album! How are you feeling leading up to the release?
Thank you! It’s been a long time coming. I feel pretty calm considering everything going on right now. 3 singles in and the album release is around the corner, I’m just ultra excited for it to be out really.

Is this moment how you imagined it to be?
Not really to be honest. Everything has gone so smoothly and it didn’t take as long as I expected it would so I’m super happy about that. I always imagined this process to be more chaotic and stressful so it’s a pleasant surprise to have everything ready before the end of the year.

So the album is named ‘Plastic’ and in the Pacific community you know that word gets thrown around A LOT. What is the meaning behind this word and why did you decide to make it your debut album name?
Coming up with the album title was one of the last things I ended up getting around to. I really wanted something that was personal to me but also fit the theme sonically. Growing up as a “plastic” Samoan/Māori half-cast in an urban environment, it’s crazy how much not knowing or understanding where you come from can impact your life. For years I struggled with identity issues but it wasn’t until I started being proud of the things that set me apart that I then managed to overcome them and begin to learn more about myself.

So I really loved this album. It is super authentic I feel and you can just hear and feel how much of yourself you put into it. What was it like making this album and bringing it to life?
Thank you so much! It was such a mean experience although I was super nervous to begin with. I was really overcomplicating things in my head before we even started conceptualising ideas for beats but once we got the ball rolling it didn’t really stop. Massive shout out to deadnakedparty and naik2G for translating it all visually as well man they did such a good job capturing the energy of the album. Those two have been supporting me since the Jinzo days and I’m super grateful to have them help with the debut deadforest drop. 

I especially loved the track ‘75’ which is just a curation of sounds which is so specific and so beautiful. It gave me goosebumps. It’s really like a love letter to the hood
Fun fact: I went on like a little camp thing in Rotorua last year with my partner and her extended family, the singing you hear is actually just her family after we had dinner. It was so beautiful, I remember recording it without knowing what I would end up using it for. Then I stumbled across it when we were in the final stages for the album.

The thing I love about it is that for those who have similar background to you, who grew up or live in South Auckland or who are from the Pacific, there’s this heart-touching familiarity that I feel like we haven’t heard on this level for awhile, it’s just so refreshing. What’s the message you want to put out there behind this album?
I really feel like I’ve been blessed with a voice and a platform and I want to use it to help people improve their lives the same way music has helped me improve mine. I want to be a voice for other kids like me that might not fit in anywhere here in Aotearoa. We have the highest rates of suicide amongst our young people and I hope by sharing my story I can help to do my part.

I know you put a lot of your life into this and I feel like for those who can relate, this album will be special for them too. How does it feel knowing that you have or will have that type of impact?
It’s a surreal feeling to be honest but at the same time I acknowledge how much of a blessing it is to even be in this position.

For those that don’t know, how would you describe your hometown in South Auckland?
If I could use five words they would be: Steadfast, Active, Resilient, Proud, and Styla.

One of the things that I feel makes you authentic is that you use like South Auckland slang which we don’t really hear a lot in music honestly. In a time where we’ve been seeing artists on the come up trying to replicate this formula for success by copying how Americans do music or how the UK does music, you are seriously authentic. What do you think sets you apart?
I feel like a lot of people aren’t proud of who they are right now, you know? There’s this sort of shame around it. Like I’m the same guy in the green room, before a show or when you see me getting a feed in Southmall with no shoes on. And I’m proud of that (laughs). I’m not trying to glamourise where I come from or what I’ve been through cause that’s not my reality.

In your album you use a lot of words that have a bit of a negative connotation like plastic, fob, hori. Would you say you’re trying to reclaim these words in a sense?
Definitely, in a way. I think for the most part these days I find solace in them too.

What’s your personal favourite track off the album and why?
I’d have to say track number 10: ‘Plastic’. I’ve always wanted to make a song that’s on some roll the credits type shit and now everytime I hear it I almost have to turn it off cause it’s too emotional (laughs).

Yeah I noticed all the songs are really gritty until the very last one it’s very much celebratory! How would you say this album is different from the rest of the music you’ve put out?
I feel like these songs are far more personal to me and my character arc. Especially in the last two years since the birth of deadforest.

You had your 2018 SoundCloud era where you were posting lots of music, going under the name Jinzo. How come you decided to change it to deadforest?
I felt like Jinzo wasn’t a genuine representation of who I was as a person anymore. The Soundcloud era was ultra fun but I didn’t want to stay there. I knew I wanted more so deadforest marked that change.

I really like the song Marmalade featuring Adam Tukiri where you talk about a lot of things including being half-cast. How important do you think identity is when it comes to music?
Shout out to Adam for blessing the track, that dude is pretty much family to me. I think it’s super important and no one really tells you when you’re young. It’s a tough question to ask yourself in your early 20’s, you know, like “who am I?” But you can’t run from it and you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

Can you tell me a bit about the beginnings of your artistry and what sparked this love that you have for music?
As early as I can remember I’ve always had rhythm, even as a baby. I always used to get in trouble for beatboxing and if I wasn’t doing that I was tapping on any surface I could to make some beats. We got this old WindowsXP PC when I was 12 and I had gotten a copy of FLstudio7 on a USB from a friend at school. I learned 80% of what I know now through just locking myself in the room whenever I could and trying out every single thing on there. I went from trying to make dubstep and DNB to tracking my own guitar and recording vocals by the time I was 16. It wasn’t until the end of high school though, when I started to make hip-hop or trap beats that I really began my journey into other genres. 

So this album is produced by Dera Meelan who is a long-time collaborator. Together you guys really push the boundaries of hip-hop and you guys just know how to make some great and unpredictable stuff. How did you come to be so tight?
People don’t know that Dera and I go way back. His older brother and my older brother were friends and we lived on the same street for awhile. It wasn’t until we both finished high school that we decided to link up and just have a lazy jam session. That was in 2018. We’re both keen to play the role of the student when we’re in a creative setting so I think that’s why we come up with some buzzy stuff. 

The type of music you’ve been putting out sorta sits within the realm of grime and EDM. What drew you and Dera to make this type of music together?
I think it just made sense given both of our backgrounds in EDM and when it came to grime that’s something I’ve always been inspired by now more than ever. Especially as I’ve grown to learn about the similarities between the urban culture here and in the UK, compared to the USA as well.

Would you say you see similarities between your life and your music and the grime or drill artists that you look up to?
Hmm not necessarily although I do think we experience similar struggles when it comes to many things. However, I’m very much inspired by the way they articulate their struggles through music and poetry.

So on the 75 EP you and Dera put out, you’re really open about the things you went through and I feel on Plastic we really get to know you so much more. How do you think you’ve grown and changed from 75 to Plastic?
I feel a lot more focused. My goals are more clear now too. The 75 EP was the beginning of my journey to find myself and my purpose and I feel like I’m miles ahead from where I once was. My manager has really helped me with my artist journey as well so shout out to him.

So you’re apart of YKK along with Church & AP. For those who don’t know, what is YKK?
If you ask me I’m just making music with my peoples (laughs). I think Church would have a better answer for that one though.

Do you think being in YKK and having this great loyalty amongst your circle has helped shape your artistry and how you do things now?
It’s definitely made a huge positive impact. I’ve made music for and with a lot of different people and mistakenly put my trust in those who I had thought to be loyal. Since my induction into YKK I’ve learned so much more about what role I play in the grand scheme of things.

When you’re recording do you prefer to be alone with just you and Dera or do you prefer to have your friends around you?
I guess it depends on the kind of song we’re doing. I’m not fussed usually though once I get behind the mic I get tunnel vision most of the time (laughs).

What’s your creative process like writing these raps?
It’s nothing too specific honestly. I might think of, or hear a cool phrase or I might be inspired by something visually but it’s different every time. 

Do you think as a young person trying to come up in New Zealand that there’s a lot of barriers trying to pursue music here?
10000%! When I was in high school I knew I wanted to make music and I knew I wanted to perform but I also knew that I had no idea where to start, and when you have to put food on the table that pressure can override your desire to follow your passion. I want to lead by example and show other young Pacific people that it is possible to do this music shit whether it be making beats, making art or interviewing other artists or musicians there’s heaps of possibilities! 

What would you say is one of your most memorable experiences performing on stage?
2018 when I took Kamahumble, spyde and Dera to RnV (Rhythm and Vines) for their first time. We performed to like 30 people and ran out of money on the 2nd day. I’ll never forget that (laughs).

Do you think putting your life into lyrics is quite self-therapeutic?
Yeah definitely! I always thought it would be hard finding the right words to use but hearing it back is definitely therapeutic on a spiritual level for me.

We all saw what happened with Aussie drill blowing up and it was Pacific Islanders at the forefront. Were you a fan when this was all happening I mean what do you think?
It’s always mean seeing our people at the forefront of anything and although I couldn’t relate to what they were saying in their raps I did find their ascension very inspiring. 

Are there any changes that you would like to see within music in New Zealand?
I think things are changing very quickly here anyway and I’m excited to see what’s next for us in NZ. I hope we can learn to be proud of the nuances within the many different cultures and subcultures that exist here currently so we can change the course of history for our youth moving forward.

Follow deadforest here for more and check out the debut album Plastic below.

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