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Don’t sweat the technique…” – Eric B. and Rakim 

In the early ’90s, hip-hop in Honolulu had atrophied. The mainland emphasis on marketable musical acts had permeated the islands and resulted in a surplus of artists jockeying for attention from a limited audience. The “OG” class of b-boys and graffiti artists fell into a period of relative dormancy.

During that time, the music scene developed simultaneously along two similar, yet separate paths. On the one hand, there existed “Hawaiian” hip-hop: music that incorporated elements of classic 20th century Hawaiiana culture and, sometimes, more traditional, indigenous culture aimed at local audiences. On the other hand, there existed “Hawaiʻi” hip-hop: hip-hop music made in the islands that often had a broader appeal with mainland audiences.

Hawaiian hip-hop started with “Radical” Rob Onekea. A DJ and producer, he was among the first to mix Hawaiian reggae and hip-hop music into a distinct style. After working in the studio with R&B acts like Boyz II Men and Bell Biv DeVoe, Onekea was approached by a trio of rappers from Hilo. They called themselves Sudden Rush.

“People were either doing Jawaiian reggae or straight hip-hop,” Onekea says. “We were able to reach both audiences.”

Equally influenced by slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui as he was by Public Enemy, Onekea’s signature urban-island sound was a perfect fit for the group of rappers, whose lyrics—often delivered in both Hawaiian and English—were deeply rooted in Native Hawaiian issues. In a post-Apology Resolution world where the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement was experiencing newfound fervor, Sudden Rush provided a revolutionary voice in a medium that suited the urgency and aggression of the message. The convergence of hip-hop and Hawaiian cultures was beautiful and brilliant, but also limiting.

“We used to do autograph signings in Hawaiʻi, and there would be choke people,” says Onekea. “Then we’d go to L.A. and there was nobody. It was pretty obvious that we were just a Hawaiʻi band.”

Mainland opportunities continued to present themselves to Sudden Rush, but the group passed.

“How would you market that in New York City? ʻHere’s some Hawaiian guys from Hawaiʻi rapping in Hawaiian.’ It just wouldn’t fit,” Onekea says. “Our core audience is people who are proud to be Hawaiian, represent Hawaiʻi, put stickers on their cars, wear Hawaiian flag t-shirts. If other people like it, cool, but we have to stay true to what we started doing.

“Our music is made for Hawaiʻi. Bottom line,” he continues. “Our music is the culture of Hawaiʻi. White people don’t wanna hear about the struggle of Hawaiians. We stuck to what we knew and what we saw: corruption in politics, budget cuts to Hawaiian language schools and Hawaiian lands—all the garbage that Hawaiian people faced, and they had no voice except these politicians who only had their own agendas.”

Despite their geographic limitations, Sudden Rush achieved unprecedented success for hip-hop artists in Hawaiʻi. Between 1995 and 2002, they released three albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and played sold-out shows across the islands. They pushed the limits of what people thought hip-hop could accomplish in Hawaiʻi, all while keeping it real to themselves and the culture they represented. Ironically, for a group that set out to be more hip-hop than Jawaiian, they never got much traction on urban radio stations. Most of their success came from the massive support they found through island and reggae channels.

(Taken from an article from Summitzine, written by Eric Stinton)