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Dawn Raid

"concise, engrossing, enthralling... extraordinarily funny"

★★★★ - STUFF 

- Oscar Kightley perfectly captures the music and the characters - 

The story of Dawn Raid records is a scarcely believable journey through family, community, ambition, hubris, disaster and triumph.

In 1999, two young men met at a Manukau Polytechnic business program.

Danny Leaosavai'i would finish work as a bouncer at a central Auckland strip bar at 5am and make his way back to South Auckland to be in class by 8.30am. There, fellow student Andy Murnane would clock the white shirt and dress pants on his classmate and figure him for a young man who was serious about his appearance and his career. An unlikely, but somehow perfect partnership was born.

Both the men knew how to hustle to make a living, but Andy in particular had the true hype-man's gift of not pausing for breath or a taking a backward step until the other side said yes. While Leaosava'i – Brotha D – had a pair of ears that could recognise true talent even if it was singing in the next room.

Despite being outwardly very different people, D and Andy bonded over a shared love of the golden-age hip-hop that was arriving in Aotearoa from North America's East and West coasts.

By the late 1990s, we became avid consumers of hip-hop, just as this country had become one of the world's biggest buyers of reggae a generation before. Hip-hop addresses inequality, racism, homelessness, dispossession and just general life-on-the-streets-reality with a greater insight and eloquence than any other musical – or literary – genre ever has or maybe will. Small wonder then, that a couple of South Auckland raised kids rang like bells when they heard the very best of what was coming across the Pacific and into our record stores and radio stations.

Picking the name Dawn Raid, at Brotha D's insistence, was no small matter. The legacy of the Muldoon government's policy of raiding the homes of Pacifika families had uprooted bread-winners and community leaders and dispatched them back to their homelands, often without even a chance to pack or properly say goodbye.

An entire generation of workers and their families, brought here when the country's infrastructure needed to be expanded, were suddenly deemed surplus to requirements – and worse – when the work was done and the economic bubble deflated.

The National Party election advertisements from the era are shocking today for the sheer obviousness of the racism and fear they were so nakedly appealing to.

Not that the Labour MP's of the day were exactly marching in the streets to protest at the injustice of what was happening in their own electorates, to the people they were paid to represent.

Brotha D and Andy started small and smart, with a table of tee-shirts and caps at the Ōtara market. Within months, one table had become eight and the newly christened label had enough money to expand into a retail space, a barber shop, a bar and, crucially, a recording studio. With a studio engineer recruited, improbably and hilariously, from Russia, finance secured with guarantees from Andy's Dad and a roster of potential hitmakers who Brotha D had discovered all over Papatoetoe, Mangere, Ōtara and beyond, the label was ready to drop its first compilation – Southside Story.

From those humble, but ambitious beginnings, Dawn Raid lays out a trajectory of success that took the label all the way to New York City, recording with idols – Wu-Tang Clan's Inspectah Deck makes a great cameo – and near-domination of the airwaves and charts at home.

Dawn Raid's line up – Adeaze, Mareko, Savage, Aaradhna (pretty much everyone except Scribe, much to Andy's chagrin) – were prolific, talented enough to take on any international market and ferociously loyal to the label and the kaupapa – community and fanau first – that drove it.

Global success seemed, if not assured, then well within the label's sights. Until a perfect storm of hubris, over-confidence, the new download culture and the IRD brought it all crashing down. Temporarily at least.

Director Oscar Kightley brings a scriptwriter's eye to the events, laying out the narrative in an easy-to-follow way, but with switches and callbacks to remind us that, sometimes, it can be months and maybe years before the true impact of a decision might become obvious.

At times, I wondered what other, less enamoured, voices might have said, and whether some incidents and situations were being more than a little oversimplified. But, that's a complaint that could be levelled at pretty much any interview–based documentary I've seen.

Dawn Raid is a concise, engrossing, enthralling and often extraordinarily funny trip through the broad strokes of the story. The music is terrific, the characters are genuine and unrepeatable and the story is unforgettable. Very recommended.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF.CO.NZ

Dawn Raid is now playing at Light House Cinema!


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