It’s rare to get a Kiwi hip-hop group with as much history embedded in their roots as Deceptikonz.
Casting their minds back to the night they shot their “Fallen Angels” music video back in 2001, the group erupts into laughter.
“That’s why Sav (Savage) looks so aggressive in the video,” Mareko tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ. “He just had his car broken into.” Savage rebuffs: “All my sneakers in there were stolen. Can’t forget the shiny shorts too. There’s a lot of memories about that night. ”
They light up remembering wearing the oversized white tees with matching headwear in front of the historic St John’s Church in Auckland’s East Tamaki, laying rhymes about the meaning of life.
Looking at the four members of the group sitting in tiny squares during a Zoom call, it’s hard not to think about their huge impact on Aotearoa’s music industry. Savage, Mareko, Alphrisk, and Devolo emerged from the underground of South Auckland as a no-nonsense quartet just intent on trying to prove who they were and why their sound mattered.
“We were trying to aggressively kick down doors and beg for the industry’s approval,” is how Mareko puts it. “It wasn’t about business, it wasn’t about making catchy hooks or the best songs, it was about the love of piecing words together, making words rhyme in a smart way, it was a love for the art of MCing.”
With their hearts in the right place, Deceptikonz hit the big time shortly after their inception which had came about from a rap battle on their high school field during a fire drill in 1996. As young men, they then found commercial success with radio plays, charting hits, and corporate deals worth hundreds of thousands.
Anyone who owned a TV in the early ’00s in New Zealand will recall Savage’s deep voice bellowing “HOOK IT UP”. He marched onto the stage through a side door to an eager crowd, sending a powerful message heard around the country – Deceptikonz were ready to make their mark on the music industry.
The run of Boost Mobile adverts which ran as part of a tour deal and the commercial commanded attention during program breaks, projecting New Zealand hip-hop onto the national stage. With the backing of major brands and a string of songs rapidly becoming favourites, the group appeared to be unstoppable from the outside looking in, and they felt it too.
“It really felt at that time that we could do no wrong,” Savage insists. “Even the Boost Mobile song was made really quickly and it made the top 20. It was, not effortless, but you could feel the support from the people. When we took that tour on the road, it was a surreal moment to see events like that sell out and the crowds going crazy.”
Mareko adds: “We were watching footage just last week of Sav’s camcorder footage of the tour and it was really the moment where New Zealand artists were looked at by the New Zealand public as on the same level as international artists.
“Kids would run behind the bus as we were leaving the venue. It was the peak of New Zealand hip-hop where the corporations really got involved and pumped money into it, where we were given the opportunity to put together a tour where we could comfortably eat off our music.”
The group had gained a slick image for producing hit after hit following their breakout 2002 album Elimination, which was followed four years later by Heavy Rotation.
At the same time, their individual talents were becoming evident and their Dawn Raid label managers, Andy Murnane and Brotha D, decided to see if they had what it takes to break out on their own. Mareko’s name was thrust forward first after being awarded Best MC in New Zealand at the National Battle for Supremacy contest.
“Andy and D always thought ‘we’ll give this guy a solo shot, because he seems to be getting the most attention at the moment.’ And then it snowballed from there,” he remembers.
Savage got his shot after his popularity grew from Scribe’s “Not Many” remix, and his deep voice boomed the chorus to “Stop, Drop & Roll”, which had been released under Mareko’s name featuring his group after it was leaked early.
But even when they were dropping tracks with just one name on the release, the Deceptikonz crew were still working with each other. “When I did my album, “Swing” was a beat that I skipped,” Savage says. “It wasn’t until Mareko said ‘bro, you should write something to that.’
“Those small little factors just show that we were backing each other all the way. We always supported each other in our solo efforts, we were always behind the scenes helping each other get it all done.”
As they were pulled toward their own projects with families now in the mix, they gave their group a final send-off with their third album Evolution in 2010. There was never a fallout, just a decision to move on.
As fathers, their kids only know each other as first cousins, Savage notes. “I think the most important part of our group was there was no egos in the group. It’s really important, especially in the industry, that you have people around you that put you in your place, or keep you in check.”
Over the 12 years since Evolution, their relationship has continued despite hitting pause on releasing music as a group. In their absence, the music industry has evolved, for better or worse, around them.
When Deceptikonz were first coming up, their managers used an old school approach: Andy recalled in the Dawn Raid film, which dug deep into the record label’s ecstatic rise and agonising fall, how he once stormed into Universal Music’s office to demand a meeting to give his artists a fair shot. It was a bold management move that mirrored the straight-shooting confidence of Deceptikonz’s members.
As Mareko concedes, it’s a different landscape now. “Even the whole process of filming has changed. Back then we used to have big cranes with dollys, a catering crew, a make-up crew, a full-on film set, but now recording videos is just us and the cameraman. It was a whole different era in music back then.” Those big budget shoots resulted in some hard times for Dawn Raid, who eventually lost control of their finances.
It may be different on a number of levels, but musically there’s nothing to prove. Deceptikonz’s reputation alone always makes audiences take notice, with their combined individual success helping act as a launch pad to grab the attention of fans new and old.
After the Dawn Raid film saw Deceptikonz tell the story of their whirlwind rise in their own words, they decided to push out a new project as a thank you to the supporters who’d stuck with them over the years. They started out with a couple of songs, and soon found themselves flowing with the help of old habits.
Savage says: “It was like riding a bike, as soon as we started the process, everything started to fall into place. We all know each other’s weaknesses and strengths.’
Devolo continues: “The boys have all grown up, with a few kids under the belt and few more KGs around the waist, it does a lot to the writing style.”
“Few more grey hairs on the beard,” Mareko adds, prompting giggles from across Zoom. “This one was us creatively having the freedom to make the music that we want to make, so it was good to have that same energy and be in the same space as the brothers again. This is a snapshot of where we are now in life and showing the tales of how life has treated us.”
Having shaken free of the expectations others once placed upon them, the group are moving forward with the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Even their new album’s name is a nod to some of what they’ve taken on.
“In Perpetuity was a phrase that a lawyer of mine pointed out in the early phases of my career, and explained to me that when you see those two words together in a contract, that’s the ball and chain. He broke it down to what it really meant so it became a red flag whenever I was doing deals,” Savage says.
“The important part of this album is to pass on lessons that we’ve learned as artists, as fathers, and as young men growing up in the industry, but at the same time, it’s about passing on the torch to the younger generation.”
Alphrisk explains: “This time around we’re a little bit more mature so I think the messages, being a little bit older, you want to utilise the platform to say something.”
“I was just a young kid straight out of high school, when our album dropped I was in high school, so from my perspective, I was just living life, I was just living the dream. I didn’t really look too deep into the business side of things, which could have helped me. There could have been other things that I could have benefited from financially and things like that.
“In saying that, being able to do the music with my boys, I wouldn’t change that. I will always hold that dear to my heart.”
Deceptikonz’s In Perpetuity is out now.