Review by Jason Godbey
It’s the late 90s in South Auckland, “the scariest place in New Zealand” when two would-be entrepreneurs meet in business school, a chance meeting that would change their lives and the world of hip-hop forever. That was the beginning of Dawn Raid, a record label that would give rise to a new wave of hip-hop artists from down under.
Dawn Raid is also the title of the new documentary from director Oscar Knightley that tells the story of Andy Murnane and Danny “Brotha D” Leaoasavai’i (pictured above), the co-founders of New Zealand’s only hip-hop record label, and the only label to come out of South Auckland at that time. The duo met after Andy had dropped out of high school, and Brotha D’s brother was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
Their unlikely success story began with a t-shirt business and grew into a hip-hop label that featured local Polynesian artists. The name Dawn Raid refers to the early morning raids the police would conduct in the 1970s to eject pacific islanders who had overstayed their visas as part of New Zealand’s draconian immigration policy. Brotha D’s childhood memory of his uncle being carried off by police stuck with him, and he vowed to change the narrative, to flip the negative into positive.
Andy and Brotha D parlayed the profits from their t-shirt business to finance their label. After selling shirts at the local flea market, they were able to lease a storefront and eventually their own studio. They were fixtures of the community and even started a community outreach program to educate area kids. They were local heroes, a South Auckland Cinderella story.
After discovering acts like Savage, Mareko, and Aaradhna, the small company rocketed to success, taking their artists to record in America alongside hip-hop legends like Wu Tang Clan, a far cry from Manukau Polytechnic school, but of course the ride couldn’t last forever. Dawn Raid is as much a cautionary tale as it is an inspirational one.
Now we’ve all seen rockumentaries, the story of a group of artists, their rise from humble beginnings to fame and fortune, and the hubris and naivety that ultimately lead to their demise followed by their reunion and redemption, but we’ve never seen this kind of story about these people. That’s what makes Dawn Raid unique.
It’s a classic underdog story about people rarely represented in movies. It’s also a cross-cultural story of Polynesian artists in New Zealand and their take on an American art form. It’s a coming-of-age story about two young men who achieve success and how they deal with it, the spoils and the pitfalls. All of these elements make this a compelling film. Just like Dawn Raid the company was a new take on hip-hop, Dawn Raid the movie is a new take on the rockumentary.
Director Knightley uses a combination of interviews and archive footage, along with a clever use of animation to craft the film. All of the interviews are incredibly candid. Although largely told from Brotha D and Andy’s point of view, we also hear from the artists and their business partners. It’s an honest look at the young moguls, their faults as well as their triumphs.
If you’re a fan of rockumentaries or stories about game-changing entrepreneurs, this film is a must-see. If you’re a hip-hop fan, you’ll dig the soundtrack, and even if hip-hop isn’t your thing, you’ll still be inspired. Dawn Raid will be available to rent or own on all major platforms starting January 11th.