On Saturday night, Auckland rapper and MC Tom Scott brought his stunning jazz-infused Taite Music Prize-winning project Avantdale Bowling Club, to the Opera House headlining Wellington's 2020 Jazz Festival. The highly articulate Scott proved he is hardly a spent force. Two years ago (and ten since the notorious hip-hop band Home Brew's debut EP), he formed Avantdale Bowling Club, full of freewheeling rhymes about his struggles growing into adulthood and becoming a father. As the NZ Herald put it, “The album, a hugely ambitious and largely autobiographical work of jazz and hip-hop, arrived after many people thought Scott had had his turn.”
Supported by a line-up of some of Aoteaora's top musicians, including Tonga Vaea, Guy Harrison, JY Lee, Ben Turua, and Julien Dyne, Scott’s “turn-on-a-pin rhythmic cadence” (Metromag) and his brutally raw and honest lyrics brought the audience to their feet - “I know Wellington is our country’s bastion for the genre so I hope we can do something that adds to, or at least interrupts, the legacy of the art form. We’ll be playing extended improvised versions of the first record as well as experimenting with new material from our second album out next year.”
The eight-track album came about after a stint of living in Melbourne and was clearly the result of conscientious planning. It was conceptually daring and highly ambitious, featured some of Aotearoa’s finest musicians, and debuted at number one on the NZ albums chart, only losing the top spot on the international chart to Ariana Grande. It was created with some sweat and tears - “It was a nightmare bruv, honestly” Scott admitted to Tony Stamp in a recent RNZ interview. “I’m so happy I’m out the other end, but making it was psychological warfare. I had to become a better director, a better orchestrator. I had to tell my heroes what to do, and it was really fucking hard. But learning that was what it took to make this record.” Influenced by such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis and Pharaoh Sanders, as well as John and Alice Coltrane, Scott described it as “a self-help book addressed to myself” that was “made to be played live.”
Tracks were started by creating loops in Scott's home studio before bringing them to some “monster musicians” to be musically fleshed out - “It’s very much a jazz album. Traditional song structures are left behind for the most part so that Tom can lyrically take flight, spilling out his thoughts in a way it would be tempting to call stream of conscious, if that didn’t undersell its eloquence. Only one track comes in under five minutes. It’s a different approach, a different attention span. That’s how I like to write, and I think that’s the only way I can write. I can’t structure my thoughts into sixteen bars. I just like to let my consciousness free, and jazz seemed like the perfect canvas for that. It was just hard to say ‘produced by’ because it was so much more than just one guy.”
"It [started with] me and Dicky, he was messing with some stuff in the little studio at my house. He’s a welder. He’s been in a tunnel building the Auckland motorway for twelve hours a day, and then he comes over to my house and I’m like ‘bro, make me a beat, make me something! And he loops up a beat and adds some stuff, and then there’s a skeleton, and it turned out to be that song.
"I had some words to it, and a similar flow pattern, and then I was driving in my car one day, and I just had the thought ‘I should do a song where it’s one year at a time’. I was like ‘damn I need to rewrite that whole song’. So I had to go back and rewrite it. So I took that skeleton from Dicky into the studio, and brought in Julien [Dyne, drums], Tom [Dennison, bass] and Guy [Harrison, piano], and they did what they did with it … That’s what I mean by ‘conceptualised’, ‘cause so many people had their hands in it.
"Also, Ben [Lawson] from Red Bull sat with me through all these takes and helped me stick everything together, so he deserves to be shouted out on it. Everyone who played any kind of instrument on it deserves to be shouted out. So it’s so hard to just go ‘produced by’.”
Scott spends most of his days laying down tracks in his home in what sounds more like a form of intense therapy, rather than songwriting sessions. “I spend eight hours a day working on my problems and then I’m still anxious by Friday,” he told Hussein Moses. Spanning topics as personal as they are political, from his history with substance abuse to his struggles with mental health, Scott’s entire life is in his songs. “If it’s something significant,” he says, “people will hold onto it.”
In 2007, Scott formed Home Brew with two friends (Haz Beats and Lui Silk) to produce utterly fearless and frankly political tunes and lyrics. In an increasingly bland and homogeneous local music scene, no other group or artist has come close to rivalling the confrontational spirit that Scott and his collaborators brought to the mainstream music scene. Alongside a larger-than-life reputation for even wilder antics off-stage than on, Home Brew cursed on live TV, vehemently derided John Key, and in 2010 raised $15,000 from dedicated fans to make a music video with Chris Graham, after being repeatedly rebuffed by NZ On Air for funding.
Home Brew then fundraised to pay off about $40,000 in expenses that they incurred while signed to Frequency Media Group who distributed their debut album. How such a successful group found themselves in this situation is something Scott is still trying to figure out - “I don’t know how we were number one, sold all those records, sold all those tickets and sold all that merch.” Scott’s now got a lawyer involved to help him determine his options but, after an exhausting few months trying to get it sorted, he finally managed to move on - “I got nothing to be bitter about,” he says. “I’m pretty happy where I am.”
Avantdale Bowling Club was a masterful account of the last four years of Scott's life as he struggled to come to grips with who he was in his early thirties. “I’ve made a rap album for people that hate rap,” he joked, “and it’s wrapped in enough pretension to hopefully win a Silver Scroll. If I had a million dollars … I think Paul Henry could make a good album with a million dollars.”
Scott's dryly dark sense of humour is an essential part of his ability to cut to the core of topics that remain troubling, even taboo, to many artists. - “I feel like technically I’m a better musician than I’ve ever been. I think that we need to tell ourselves that as older people. We glamourise youth in this genre and in this fucking world. In pop culture, the most valuable commodity is youth. We’re so quick to tell ourselves we’re washed, we’re done, our best days are behind us.”
Now that he is older, he has also been able to go back and explore some of the themes he tackled before, but with more subtlety and dexterity than before. Avantdale Bowling Club was an adult version of Home Brew and debuted at number one on the NZ Top Forty, an achievement not been duplicated since by a local hip-hop act since Scribe in 2003. Receiving a rare combination of critical and commercial success, it not only established him as one of New Zealand's most brazen and politically-aware story-tellers. At that year's New Zealand Music Awards, the trio showed up in costume and walked the red carpet with a goat on a leash for a mockumentary that never got released. They won the award for Best Hip-Hop Album and during their acceptance speech, Scott thanked “God, for not existing” before taking aim at John Key. Most of his diatribe was cut from the broadcast.
When Scott returned to the Music Awards in 2014 it was with @Peace, a group he started with rapper Lui Tuiasau. They had been nominated for Best Group after releasing their surprisingly underrated @Peace and the Plutonian Noise Symphony, a psychedelic-rap album steeped in existentialism. When the list of nominees came up on-screen at the awards, the album name was spelt wrong and the song playing was from one of their old records, not the one nominated. It was, says Scott, “the ultimate kick in the balls.”
@Peace had recorded close to sixty songs for that album. One day, frustrated again with the National government of the day, Scott released one of the leftover tracks called "Kill The PM" and found himself on the receiving end of death threats himself thanks to one distasteful line about having sex with John Key’s daughter. Scott was investigated by the police and after being challenged on air by RNZ's Kim Hill, Scott walked out of the interview. The song still plagues him - “I was wrong. I could’ve definitely done that better.” He eventually emerged believing he has a responsibility as an artist to speak out - “You can do it better than I did it, but if you’re worried about pissing people off, your career’s done. Go on a winery tour, motherfucker.”
The fallout from the controversy prompted him to move to Melbourne, where he and Tuiasu put @Peace to bed and began working on new music together as Average Rap Band. Scott craved anonymity after the backlash, something which the band name hinted at. “I didn’t want to make any noise. I just wanted to create shit.” El Sol, the group’s 2016 debut album, saw Scott turn away from the darkness of his older records with a vibrant and much more uplifting sound, heavier on synths than subject matter.
It was also in Melbourne, in a little woodshed at the bottom of his house, where Scott wrote Avantdale Bowling Club’s "Pocket Lint". Musically, he wanted to pivot again, but this time dived deep into jazz. Horns sang out over blasts of lyrics, with Scott rapping about the struggle to stay afloat in New Zealand’s biggest city - “It’s hard when you’re born in Auckland / Gotta pawn an organ to afford the fucking mortgage.”
Part of him has always wanted to make music like this. His father Peter Scott is a jazz musician and Scott used to watch him rehearse in their living room when he was growing up. He finds it hard to listen to rap without imitating its sound, so instead he would cruise Melbourne record stores every weekend to get his jazz fix. The results can be heard throughout Avantdale Bowling Club, which was not so much a departure from his earlier work, as a form of graduation.
“Tom’s music has changed a lot over the years, but he’s always stayed true to who he was at that particular time,” commented Ben Lawson, a producer for Red Bull Studios who worked on Avantdale Bowling Club. “He never wants to stay in one spot for too long or do the same thing twice, musically.” Scott is also unafraid to scrap a song if he is not feeling it anymore. Lawson estimates there’s another ten tracks, all about 90% complete, that failed to make the cut.
Scott volunteers regularly at Feed The Streets, a programme that puts on a free fortnightly meal for rough sleepers, lodge residents, ex-cons, pensioners, beneficiaries, and recovering addicts. Scott washes dishes and breaks bread with the locals. There used to be a regular crew of young people who would show up to eat and hang out. Some nights there would be up to thirteen of them crammed into a three bedroom house, with drugs and alcohol all readily available. They were all into rhyming and one night they started a cypher, with another volunteer on the guitar backing them up. “They look up to and admire him a lot,” said Dayne Smith, one of the Feed The Streets organisers. “I think he saw a past version of himself in them, just some young guys trying to navigate life, appreciating the genuine love and attention they were receiving.”
The angst and ennui of everyday urban life lies at the heart of Avantdale Bowling Club. Over three mesmerising verses on "Home", the slow-burning seven-and-a-half minute centrepiece of the album, Scott captured in chilling detail a dark reality under the modern sheen - “Sitting in a long white smoke cloud / Hometown or ghost town / Don’t know how to tell the difference anymore", he raps over a moody beat. "Suicide rates higher than the rent.”
Scott has told stories about Avondale his whole career and feels a responsibility to be the voice of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. Every day he walks past kids hooked on synthetic cannabis and people begging for spare change. “I think it’s got worse,” he says of Avondale, “and gentrification is to blame for damn sure.” He could never have made this album if he had stayed in Australia. Part of the process involved moving back home and watching what was going on around him - “You go back to the studio, and it’s bleeding out of you.”
The loss of one of his closest friends to suicide lay behind the album’s most confronting song, "F(r)iends" and is something that still haunts him twelve years later. He first met Adam Fletcher when they both used to break dance at Youthtown. “He was the coolest dude in our crew,” remembered Scott. “He just had that wild nature. He got wild into stealing cars, wild into all the drugs we weren’t doing and then into meth. Then he crashed his car one day and that was the straw that broke his back.” Scott swore to do everything he could to prevent more deaths - “I don’t really think it’s that hard. Just tell people you’ll listen to them. It’s actually quite liberating talking to people that have been to the bottom that you’ve been to.”
The problem of addiction is central to Scott's work, from the grim portrayals of his own struggles with drug dependency right through to those of his mum and dad. “I was conceived by two users / I was supposed to be a loser / I had to see my old man cooped up in an orange jumpsuit trying to shoot up,” he rhymes on "F(r)iends"and on "Quincy’s March" - a song that sees him reckon with being a dad himself - he lays out his darkest fear - making the same mistakes that his parents did. “Some people rap about their greatest traits. That’s cathartic for them in building their self-esteem, but it’s more cathartic for me to cleanse myself of insecurities or fears or anxieties.”
Without the birth of his son Quincy (whom he calls his “magnum opus”), Scott could easily have remained trapped in a dark place. “Children teach you how to be a better version of yourself. It’s realigned my compass, to some degree.” He never used to understand people who didn’t want to have kids until recently. “I was like ‘OK, I can see why you wouldn’t do this because this is the hardest shit of all time,' but it’s still the best thing I’ve ever done.”
In the video for "Years Gone By", the first single from the album, Quincy was seen smiling on his dad’s shoulders. Tom’s own father is playing bass to their right. The video was filmed in what was left of Auckland’s famed St James Theatre and instead of a stage, there’s just rubble. Scott pulled the video the day before it was due to be released. When it re-emerged a week later, it had a new ending with the camera gradually zoomed out to reveal the St James performance being played on an old TV burning outside Avondale Racecourse, while Scott posed in front of the rundown building, mimicking the Avantdale Bowling Club album cover.
“I don’t need the movie to end just when everything’s perfect,” he wrote at the time. “I’m suspicious of silence. Peace makes me paranoid. I can smell smoke. Even in paradise. I know that there’s another moment coming to kick this one off it’s podium. I like the fires. I like the break-ups. The fist fights. The car crashes. The screaming arguments. Dinner plates you bought on special at Farmers with baby shower money flying through mouldy gib board. That’s what it’s about. No moment is better than the other. No moment is static. It’s all just happening. Shit goes right. Shit goes wrong. Years go by.”
Radio 13 thanks and credits Stephen A Court for all the images in this review.