Heels & Picks: Super Groupers’ vinyl dreams
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
If you are a regular reader of this blog — and if you are, high fives! — you may recall my interview with Jonah “Big Mox” Moananu. He talked about how there are a specific set of issues relevant for youth from urban centers in Hawaii, and how rural-to-urban living is different in Hawaii from the rest of the United States. The term he and his University of Hawaii colleagues have coined for this is “oceanic urbanism.”
Picking up on this same theme, hip-hop fans can get ready for a new album from Oahu-based collective Super Groupers. Core members Illis It, Navid Najafi and Scott Ohtoro bring an authenticity to the genre with the backgrounds from which they come – Najafi is an ex-political refugee from Tehran and Illis It acknowledges he used to steal cars in Kalihi.
Turning things around, overcoming struggle and getting beyond the barriers that hold you back are the lynchpins of hip-hop, and there is plenty of that in the history of the Super Groupers. Add in a dash of “oceanic urbanism” and you have an interesting group, right out of the gate.
I’ve known Najafi and Illis It for a few years, and outside of being strong MCs, they are really great guys. I met Najafi through a mutual friend and rapper on Maui, and both of our acts performed live during the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards the same year.
More recently, Illis It made an appearance on the first single from my upcoming album, “American Boy.” The song, “Love Long Distance,” is about exactly that; Illis It knocked it out of the park in the studio with a very well-written verse he recorded at Blue Planet.
But enough about that history. Let’s talk about the history of music delivery, and more specifically, vinyl.
Records have been making a comeback, which is kind of refreshing in the digital age. For those who crave the actual product in your hand, you can’t get more authentic than a record and a needle. There is a certain warmth to the sound of records that is as soothing as the Hawaiian sun.
As I previewed tracks from Super Groupers album, I thought its warmth would shine on vinyl. There are layered instruments in songs and some of them are not typical hip-hop fare. “Under Over” has a Middle Eastern vibe and “The What Ifs” delves in that direction as well, in more of a sleek, pop way.
Super Groupers are looking to press vinyl copies of the their upcoming album, “Learn to Swim,” and are reaching out to fans both new and old to help them achieve the goal. They have an Indiegogo campaign running with one more week to get them over the last hurdle to reach their goal.
I checked in with Najafi and Illis It via email to hear about the album, the bands’ themes, the vinyl pressing and what’s coming up for the band.
HONOLULU STAR ADVERTISER: Tell us about “Learn To Swim.” What are the themes in the writing?
NAVID NAJAFI: “Learn To Swim” represents the struggle to re-discover self. The story of the Super Groupers basically starts with a grouper fish that decides he no longer wants to be a fish. He is over being a fish and feels he would be happier being human. He believes that working on Wall Street and striking it rich would solve all of his problems.
He moves to NYC with determination and quickly adapts to human and city life. He ferociously pursues success and people around him eventually stop questioning why he seems so different. They all know something isn’t right with him, but are too intimidated to bring it up. The wealth and success infests his ego so much, he even forgets he was once a fish.
After many years of living in this external world, a sense of longing for what was lost begins to brew inside him. He realizes he has forgotten his true self and even how to swim, hence the title of our album. Now the Grouper embarks on a journey back to self, learning once again how to swim.
The main themes we address in our writing are personal and spiritual expansion, political and social awareness, self-discovery and empowerment, as well as self-motivation to uplift community. We promote unity through compassion and acceptance of diversity.
SA: What are your backgrounds?
NN: Illis It (is an) ex-car thief from Kalihi turned rapper and community activist. (I’m an) ex-political refugee from Tehran turned rapper and community activist. (And) Scott Ohtoro (is an) ex-high school math teacher from L.A. turned beat producer and chef extraordinaire.
We also have two other powerful MCs, Aksent and Kimmy V, in Super Groupers, although Aksent now lives in L.A. and Kimmy V lives in (New York City). We miss them and want them back.
SA: How long have you known each other?
NN: Scott and I met in 2007. Illis It met Scott and me in 2010. We’ve been together as a group since 2013.
SA: Who produced the album?
NN: Most of the album was produced by Scott Ohtoro, but also features a beat produced by Exile from Dirty Science and another produced by DJ Cheapshot from Styles of Beyond.
All of the recording and mixing was also done by Scott Ohtoro in his Kaimuki studio the Beet Market. The final mastering was done by Wes Osborne at Violet Lantern.
SA: What’s the prevailing message in your music?
SA: What is your favorite song/line on the album and why?
ILLIS IT: “The What Ifs,” because I tend to be very critical of myself and this song is a reminder that I’ll never regret failure as much as I’d regret a missed opportunity to try.
SA: Why is vinyl so important and why do you think it’s remained strong as a music format when everything else has fallen away?
NN:Hip-hop music started with playing music on vinyl records, and to this day it remains an essential part of the culture despite a progressive shift to other means of digital/physical distribution. So it only feels right to continue to put hip-hop music on vinyl records and keep them relevant.
There’s such a rich unique sound worthy of preservation and appreciation. Vinyl is making a come back in all genres not just in hip-hop.
SA: What does “Learn to Swim” mean to you?
NN: Discovering your true roots and building a solid foundation to stand on as you navigate your environment. Examining the building blocks of self and realizing how to “tread water” and hold your position as the ocean around you ebbs and flows. Learning to stay balanced and neutral no matter what may be going on around you.
After you have a firm foundation you can activate and “Learn to Fly,” the name of our next album currently in progress set to be released early 2016.
SA: What’s coming up for the group?
NN: We are currently running an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to press “Learn to Swim” on vinyl. The album will be released digitally in June but due to a national wait of 15-18 weeks on pressing vinyl, we won’t get our records until sometime in the fall of 2015.
We’re also planning to tour on the mainland and in Japan towards the end of the year and release “Learn to Fly” in 2016.
We’ve also developed a music education program with the Honolulu Museum of Art called Soundshop, a series of interactive music education workshops held throughout the year. The workshops offer a safe, healthy, and dynamic learning environment that provides students with opportunities to engage in a multidisciplinary understanding of music through performance, creation, and description. The goal is to motivate students to develop independence and creative thinking, to trust, take risks, and collaborate.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.