Hip-Hop has inspired generations of self-made artists and executives worldwide. A rousing new film, Dawn Raid, takes fans all the way to Aotearoa (the indigenous Māori name for New Zealand) and documents the island-nation’s most triumphant rap and R&B record label. Dawn Raid delves deep into the backstory of friends and business partners, founders Andy Murnane and Tanielu ‘Brotha D’ Leaosavai’i. The former is a music-loving businessman and the latter is a musician who understands business (think Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, or Strange Music’s Travis O’Guin and Tech N9ne).
Following in the footsteps of independent record companies like Houston’s Rap-A-Lot and New Orleans’ No Limit, in a handful of years the charismatic duo went from selling unlicensed merchandise at outdoor markets to building Dawn Raid Entertainment. By the early to mid-2000s, the brand would boast an elite roster with a number of artists signed to major label deals, plus a recording studio, touring company, barbershops, official apparel and more.
Through Dawn Raid, Murnane and Leaosavai’i’s mission was clear: shine a light on the raw talent in their South Auckland neighborhood, and raise awareness of Pacific Island history. Murnane tells VIBE, “We wanted the name Dawn Raid to be a constant reminder to the people of our country, especially those in government, and what they did to Polynesians.” The ‘Dawn Raids’ were a harsh crackdown from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s on Pacific Islanders who overstayed New Zealand work visas—even though the majority of overstayers at the time were British, South African or American. Police would enter properties without warrants in early morning hours, deporting thousands of workers originally brought over to boost the economy. In August last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologized for the Dawn Raids.
In addition to their cultural pride, through the movement Murnane and Leaosavai’i were committed to making a name for themselves in the birthplace of the music they revered. “Making a splash in the United States was a pilgrimage for us,” Murnane says. “Paying our respect to the forefathers of Hip-Hop from the Bronx, New York City—the people that gave us ghetto kids from around the world something to believe in—was crucial.”
That ‘splash’ came in different waves. Through their closest U.S. industry connect, South Auckland-born Kirk Harding (who was Executive VP of SRC Records at the time), Dawn Raid was able to feature a relatively unknown crooner named Akon on their marquee act Savage’s 2005 debut album, Moonshine. The pair’s single of the same name spent seven weeks at the top of New Zealand’s charts, resulting in Akon’s first number one hit. Two years later, director Judd Apatow (who is featured in the documentary) included Savage’s “Swing” in his romantic comedy, Knocked Up, leading to significant Stateside (and international) success.
“Paying our respect to the forefathers of Hip-Hop from the Bronx, New York City—the people
that gave us ghetto kids from around the world something to believe in—was crucial.”
The film recounts how Dawn Raid’s fairytale run, including other acts like The Deceptikonz, Mareko, Adeaze and Aaradhna, was ultimately cut short due to bad business decisions and inner strife. Recently, some of the label’s former artists have been vocal on social media regarding their portrayal in the Oscar Kightley-directed project.
Nainz Tupai from Adeaze, whose 2004 song “A Life With You” was sampled a year later by producer Scram Jones for Mariah Carey’s “Your Girl”, wrote in a recent Instagram post: “I am left feeling so frustrated [and] angry…to have everyone share what a great movie it is and thank us for sharing our story – [it] is still NOT OUR WHOLE TRUTH.” Murnane readily acknowledges, “it hasn’t been all roses, all the time,” with the label’s artists. “The responsibility to lead a ship is a hard task. Some of the decisions that Brotha D and I made may not have always been the right ones for everybody.”
“We taught our artists how to make money, we made sure they owned their publishing and half their masters,” he says. “Long term, their families will benefit from their hard work. I can only speak for our character. When others speak from their view, I can’t control that. I know what we did, what our legacy is, and how as a people, as a label, we stood up to be counted.”
Dawn Raid is available for audiences to view digitally on demand in the U.S. on Apple
TV+ and other platforms via the film’s website from today.