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The 20 Most Iconic Aotearoa Music Moments Of All Time

Aotearoa Music

What are the most iconic Aotearoa music moments of all time?

Like a scene from your favourite film, a single song can soundtrack the best (and worst) moments in our lives. It’s these tunes that transport us back in time, often without warning as they appear on playlists or in the background of a TV ad, triggering locked-away memories from years gone by. 

Music also soundtracks some of the greatest, and most iconic, moments in popular culture. As do the remarkable Aotearoa music artists behind the music, who themselves are responsible for many decade-defining moments that appear throughout this Rolling Stone list.

Think about the rise and rise of homegrown stars like Lorde, the cultural impact of upstart record labels like Flying Nun, and the infiltration of music television into popular culture and public consciousness. Iconic music moments are everywhere.

A moment in time married with music can break down barriers, ignite movements, start trends, launch industries, give birth to icons, and change the course of history — for good. Some of the trailblazing people that appear on the Rolling Stone List — including Pixie Williams — have achieved all of the above. It’s the stuff of legend, and the making of legends.

Bob Marley

A Marley Visit

It’s been over forty years since Bob Marley’s only New Zealand concert, and we’re still feeling the effects. Aotearoa’s love of reggae is well known, and its musical DNA informs many of our most popular artists, whether they’re outputting dub, hip hop, drum n bass or even chart-topping hits.

Tigilau Ness of the band Unity was in attendance, and got to briefly meet Marley, as did his five-year-old son Che, who would go on to become a landmark NZ artist under the name Che Fu. By that time Tigi had introduced sound system culture to the country through the Rastafarian church Twelve Tribes of Israel. 

Carl Perkins, Dilworth Karaka and Toni Fonoti from the iconic band Herbs were also there, as was Thompson Hohepa of Katchafire, and people who would go on to work in all tiers of the music and media industries. 

Marley’s visit was particularly resonant with Māori. Members of the Boot Hill community who had been evicted from the Orakei Marae were among those who travelled to his hotel, where he would often appear. The message he imparted has rippled through subsequent generations.


The Sound of Justice

Recognised as Aotearoa’s first rap record, UHP’s “E Tū” mixed te reo Māori with the defiant sentiment of James Brown, producing an anthem for Indigenous youth that has stayed relevant to this day. Vocalist Dean Hapeta, AKA Te Kupu (The Word), promised to speak the truth, and in doing so, set the stage for generations of local hip hop talent.

So minimal that the beat doesn’t even have hi-hats, UHP recorded and produced ‘E Tū’ at Writhe Studios in Wellington, a recording space owned by the cult New Zealand noise-rock band, The Skeptics. Thanks to some D.I.Y ingenuity from DJ DLT, it even featured some early turntablism. As powerful as the music was, where ‘E Tū’ really sang was through songwriting inspired by Dean’s experience working for The Justice Department. During his tenure there, he worked on special projects asking Māori what they thought of the justice system; and the influence of Black American funk and hip hop artists like the aforementioned James Brown, Schoolly D and Brother D, and Collective Efforts. 

When ‘E Tū’ hit the radio and TV waves in 1988, it changed everything. Overnight, a generation of young minds were inspired to pick up the microphone and speak their truths.


An Unofficial Anthem

When Pātea Māori Club released “Poi E” in late 1983, they brought together a te reo Māori waiata penned by the late great Māori linguist Ngoi Pēwhairangi, an infectious electro boogie instrumental, and a video that located the influence of US hip hop culture in a local, Indigenous context. Independently released, it eventually hit Number One on the Top Forty singles chart in 1984. “Poi E” was a triumph for Māori language music that took Dalvanius and Pātea Māori Club around the world. Close to four decades later, it’s the unofficial national anthem.

When Pātea Māori Club’s leader, the late Dalvanius Prime and Ngoi started writing ‘Poi E’ in 1982, Dalvanius had spent a decade performing overseas in the Australian entertainment industry. Returning home with a wealth of knowledge, he established his own label, Maui Records, which he envisioned as a “Māori Motown”. By working “Poi E” on their own terms, Dalvanius and Maui Records took it to the top of the local charts, before releasing a well-loved album of the same name in 1986. In the wake of “Poi E”’s success, Pātea Māori Club toured internationally, performing in the UK, France and America, taking their energy to the world. 


A Most Bizarre Chart Attack

In 1995 an unlikely mix of elements – an acoustic strum, rap, a carnival theme – formed a Pacific pop song that would go on to top the charts in five countries and make Pauly Fuemana a global star. His distinctive delivery, impeccable style and ample charm made him an instant icon, and his legacy still looms large.

It was producer Alan Jansson who supplied the guitar and 808 booms, after working with Fuemana for the compilation Proud: An Urban-Pacific Streetsoul Compilation. That album saw the pairing of Paulie with his older Brother Phil, under the name Otara Millionaires Club – an ironic reference to one of Auckland’s poorest suburbs. 

By the time the name had been abbreviated, OMC was a partnership between Paulie and Jansson, and when they needed a hook (and eventual title) for their debut single, the former suggested the phrase he kept hearing the latter say. 

Sina Saipaia was enlisted to add vocals to the chorus, and NZ music history was made, the track going on to hit #1 in charts around the world, including America and the UK. Eventually the Australasian Performing Right Association would name it one of the greatest New Zealand songs of all time. 


Flying Outside the System

Much has been written about the birth of Flying Nun in the early 1980s and the effect of its busy first decade, with acts like The Clean, Chris Knox, and The Bats resonating far outside NZ. In the years that followed, other independents followed suit, as Pagan Records emerged in the mid-Eighties, and Southside Records near the end of the decade. More followed, each introducing crucial artists to an expanding, multicultural scene.

The turn of the decade saw a growing interest in post-punk, led in part by Propeller Records, home to The Screaming Meemees and Blam Blam Blam. When Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun and signed bands from Dunedin, it created a whole new style of indie pop, dubbed ‘the Dunedin sound’, which influences bands around the world to this day. 

Trevor Reekie’s Pagan meanwhile was a hotbed of talent, pioneering work by Shona Laing, Prince Tui Teka, Ardijah, and Bic Runga. Murray Cammick and Simon Lynch’s Southside was similarly diverse, including Moana and the Moa Hunters, Upper Hutt Posse, and Head Like a Hole among their roster. 

The template was set to think outside genre and focus on talent, setting the stage for a vibrant and growing number of local indies. 

David White


For the World to Hear

In 1999 millions of people watched around the world as Hinewehi Mohi (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe), sang the New Zealand National Anthem in te reo Māori at the opening game of the Rugby World Cup, shocking fans and officials, and highlighting the lack of focus on the language within Aotearoa. 

Already a Platinum-selling artist, Mohi had grown up surrounded by te reo, and studied at Waikato University’s Māori department, under Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Dr Hirini Melbourne. She’d asked to perform bilingually and was told to stick to one language, with the assumption it would be English. 

When she chose to sing ‘E Ihowā Atua’, she was unprepared for the backlash. She told the NZ Herald in 2021, “I found it enormously difficult to reconcile the degree of anger over it and it has kind of haunted me for two decades”.  

Subsequent years have seen a huge resurgence in the use of te reo, and hearing the anthem sung in Māori is now commonplace. Mohi’s choice that day played a big part in that change. She’s gone on to co-found Waiata / Anthems, an album and documentary series that sees popular artists translate and re-record their songs in te reo. 

Marti Friedlander courtesy of BMG


Brothership at its Best

Founded in 1972 by Tim Finn and Phil Judd, Split Enz had already achieved some success by the time Tim’s brother Neil joined the band in 1977 (replacing Judd). Their first two albums Mental Notes and Seconds Thoughts charted in NZ and Australia, and their penchant for theatricality was established.

The first album to feature Neil, 1977’s Dizrythmia, marked the start of their turn from art-rock to a more pop sound, continuing on ‘79’s Frenzy, which saw Neil starting to contribute songwriting. The change was cemented on 1980’s True Colours, their first major commercial success. Its single “I Got You” (written by Neil), hit Number One in NZ and Australia.    

Tim Finn’s solo career kicked off in 1983 with his Number One album Escapade, and he departed the band, leaving Neil to front Split Enz’ final effort, See Ya ‘Round

In the decades since, Tim’s solo career has continued, as has Neil’s. The brothers have also collaborated as a duo, and Tim has spent time in Neil’s outfit Crowded House. That band has sold over fifteen million albums worldwide, and has been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. In 1993 the Finns received an OBE for their contributions to New Zealand music.


Hip Hop Makes History

In the early 2000s, New Zealand experienced a golden run of local hip hop releases from genuine stars like Che Fu, King Kapisi, Nesian Mystik, The Deceptikonz, P-Money, Scribe, Savage, and Dei Hamo. The rise of Aotearoa hip hop was a long, slow burn, and when it finally exploded, it captivated the country like nothing else. Between 2001-2005, the energy and audience built at a feverish rate. The record sales and show attendance rates were unreal.

Although the era is often remembered for hit singles such as “Stand Up” and “Not Many – The Remix!” by Scribe, “Stop, Drop and Roll” by Mareko and Deceptikonz, and “We Gon Ride” by Dei Hamo, it’s well worth reminiscing over what else was going on at the time. Some of the most crucial albums from this period included Navigator by Che Fu, Savage Thoughts by King Kapisi, Polysaturated by Nesian Mystik, and The Crusader by Scribe. 

During these years, a generation of hard-working artists carved out a South Pacific hip hop sound and brought underground concerns into the very heart of the mainstream in Aotearoa. It didn’t stop there either, Scribe’s success in Australia was a remarkable thing to witness.

Paul Taylor


A Radio Rebellion

Founded in 1969 as a Capping Week stunt, Auckland university-based station 95bFM went on to produce many of NZ’s best broadcasters, and champion countless local musicians who would have otherwise been passed over. In the 1970s, Radio Active in Wellington and RDU in Christchurch were born, and the 1980s saw Dunedin’s Radio One come to be. Eventually, the SRN was formed, flying a unified flag for counterculture around the country.

In a countercultural sense, student radio in Aotearoa occupies a similar social space to community radio in Australia or college radio in America. In the Eighties and Nineties, student radio around the country was inextricably intertwined with the rise of hip hop, dance music and alternative rock in Aotearoa. 

As we entered the 2000s, it helped support the rise of a generation of nationally loved local soul, dub, and drum and bass acts like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shapeshifter, Ladi6, The Black Seeds, and Trinity Roots. Later that decade, it was ground zero for a new wave of indie rock and electro acts including The Mint Chicks, Connan Mockasin, Ladyhawke, Shocking Pinks, and The Naked and Famous. In the 2020s, it continues to provide a crucial launchpad for new talent.

Murray Cammick


Writing Rock’s Future

Launched in 1977 by the legendary New Zealand music journalist, photographer and record label founder Murray Cammick, and Alastair Dougal, Rip It Up set the tone for several decades of music journalism in New Zealand. By the time the magazine had ceased publishing in 2015, it had provided crucial local support to the rise of punk rock, new wave, the Dunedin sound, and a multitude of local scenes that followed.

Ophelia Mikkelson Jones


A Royal Arrival

In 2012 word began to spread about an EP called The Love Club, released by an unknown musician and represented by one slightly fantastical illustration. It turned out to be the work of a teen from Auckland’s North Shore, and when her single “Royals” was released as a single the following year, the world met its newest pop juggernaut.

David Roper


All About That Bass

In 2022, drum and bass remains one of the key sounds of New Zealand. Big songs enter the Top Forty, fans pack arenas and festivals to see their favourite DJs and producers from overseas, and we’re sitting on several generations of globally respected local talent. The fire really started burning in the late Nineties when promoter groups like Subtronix, Bass Frontiers and Scientific built the scene a rock-solid foundation. There can’t be many places in the world with a drum and bass scene quite like New Zealand.


Small Screen, Big Sound

Launched in the late Seventies, TV2’s Ready To Roll pop music chart TV show introduced generations of New Zealanders to several waves of music: late Seventies pop rock and disco funk, the Dunedin sound, synth-pop, electro, early hip hop and beyond. As local as it was international, Ready To Roll provided priceless memories to many.


The Independent Ones

In the late Noughties, a new generation of NZ indie rock and synth-pop bands bubbled up from the underground and made their way into the heart of the mainstream, before striking out overseas. Some of the biggest successes included The Mint Chicks (whose second album Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! went Gold in New Zealand), The Naked & Famous, and Ladyhawke, all of whom went on to have substantial international successes.

Fat Freddy's Drop

Daniel Boud


Fat Freddy’s Phenomenon

When Wellington supergroup Fat Freddy’s Drop released their debut album Based on a True Story in 2005, it represented the culmination of an intersection of live soul, dub, house, techno, and DJ culture that had been bubbling up in the capital for close to a decade. BOATS went Gold on its day of release and was eventually certified nine times Platinum in New Zealand. It marked a seachange within the local musical landscape, and Freddy’s went on to become slow-burning international stars.



Not Just for Laughs

Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Brett McKenzie began performing live musical comedy in the late Nineties, going on to produce a radio series for the BBC, and in 2007, an HBO TV show. It was the launching pad for their respective careers in acting and music, and a somewhat unlikely insertion of the Kiwi sense of humour into the global consciousness

Monica Parsotam


Mud, Music & Memories

NZ has seen its fair share of music festivals, but you could argue The Gathering was the most important. Running from 1996 to 2022 (reaching a high point at the turn of the century when fifteen thousand attendees were treated to three days of rain and mud), the alcohol-free event took place outside Nelson in the South Island, and saw fans of electronic music attend from around the country, lighting creative fires in each that would nurture multiple scenes and subgenres in the years to come.


A British Invasion

In the early Nineties, the late British music producer and DJ Andrew Weatherall visited New Zealand for a series of shows that helped kickstart New Zealand’s Nineties rave and warehouse party scene. Over the years that followed, the local audience for house, techno, jungle drum & bass grew into a phenomenon.


A Night for the History Books

In 2018, the New Zealand band Six60 made national history by selling out Auckland’s Western Springs Stadium, previously only filled in the past by international stars such as Eminem, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. The following year, they repeated the same feat.