Review: ‘Dawn Raid,’ starring Andy Murnane and Danny Leaosavai’i

February 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Andy Murnane and Danny Leaosavai’i in “Dawn Raid” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dawn Raid”

Directed by Oscar Kightley

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Zealand and in other parts of the world, the documentary film “Dawn Raid” features a group of Pacific Islander-heritage people and white people discussing Dawn Raid Entertainment, a South Auckland, New Zealand-based company that is best known for its hip-hop and R&B/pop artists.

Culture Clash: Dawn Raid was founded with the idea to represent underprivileged and underrepresented South Auckland communities, but the company was plagued by corruption, mismanagement and cultural barriers for New Zealand artists trying to break into the U.S.-dominated hip-hop industry.

Culture Audience: “Dawn Raid” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in documentaries about the music business from a New Zealand perspective.

An archival photo of Deceptikonz members Devolo, Mareko, Savage and Alphrisk in “Dawn Raid” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The compelling documentary “Dawn Raid” is not only an inspirational story of “against all odds” entrepreneurship but also a cautionary tale about how greed and mismanagement can ruin a business. It’s a movie about Dawn Raid Entertainment, a South Auckland, New Zealand-based company that has had many incarnations, but its original purpose and biggest notoriety came from hip-hop culture. You don’t have to be familiar with Dawn Raid’s artists or even be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy this documentary, because it covers many different issues that go beyond music genres.

Directed by Oscar Kightley, “Dawn Raid” has somewhat of a “Behind the Music” formula in how the documentary chronicles the rise, fall and attempted comebacks of Dawn Raid. However, viewers can still find a lot of insightful commentary and information about how the music business works for people in New Zealand, a country whose entertainment is often overshadowed worldwide by entertainment coming from North America and Europe. Dawn Raid was formed precisely to promote and uplift the culture of New Zealand, especially poverty-plagued South Auckland, where Dawn Raid is based.

Several artists and other people connected to Dawn Raid are interviewed in the documentary, but the “stars” of the movie are Dawn Raid’s charismatic co-founders: Andy Murnane and Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i. They formed what seemed at first to be an unlikely partnership, born from their shared love of hip-hop and their ambition to own the most important music company to come out of New Zealand. Artists on the Dawn Raid label included rap group Deceptikonz, R&B/pop duo Adeaze, rapper Scribe, R&B singer Aaradhna and rapper Savage. New Zealand rappers Che Fu and P-Money briefly appear as interviewees in the documentary, to give their perspectives on the New Zealand hip-hop scene.

On the surface, Murnane and Leosavai’i came from two different worlds when they first met in 1998. At the time, Murnane (who is white) was a teenage rebel from a middle-class family. Leaosavai’i (who’s from a Polynesian immigrant family) was in his early 20s and came from a working-class background. Murnane and Leaosavai’i met at Mankau Institute of Technology, where they were both students in business school.

At the time, Murnane was a self-admitted troublemaker involved in theft and graffiti. He eventually got arrested for stealing from a music store. Leaosavai’i also had an arrest record, but for more serious crimes. In the documentary, Leaosavai’i says that after his father died, he and his brother “did the street thing: gangs, drugs, fights.” Leaosavai’i was working as a security staffer during a barroom brawl that left one man dead and Leaosavai’i’s brother sentenced to life in prison for the death.

By the time Leaosavai’i and Murnane met in business school, Leaosavai’i was trying to turn his life around and was given a chance with an ex-con program that helped him get into the school. While Leaosavai’i was profoundly affected by the loss of his father, Murnane was very close to his own father, Mike Murnane, who encouraged his troubled son to become a business entrepreneur. Andy Murnane says he fell in love with hip-hop culture in his pre-teen years, when hip-hop was still a new and emerging genre.

Knowing from an early age that he wasn’t cut out for a regular “9 to 5” job, Andy Murnane says that reading biographies of Sam Walton and Richard Branson deeply influenced him and confirmed his desire to get rich by starting his own business. Andy says in the documentary: “I got this thing in my head: I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 21.”

The way that Andy and Leaosavai’i tell it, Leaosavai’i didn’t want to befriend Andy when they first met. Slowly but surely, Andy convinced Leaosavai’i that he wasn’t a poseur and that he truly loved hip-hop and wanted in some way to start a successful hip-hop business. After giving Andy the cold shoulder, Leaosavai’i warmed up to Andy, and the two young men became friends. They never did finish business school, but they decided to go into business together.

Dawn Raid Entertainment was formed in 1998. Leaosavai’i explains in the documentary that the company’s name was inspired by the dawn raids of immigrant households in New Zealand. During these raids, which were prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, illegal immigrants (usually Pacific Islanders/Asian) were detained and deported, mostly because of overstaying their work visas they obtained when they were recruited for low-paying jobs. Leaosavai’i says that dawn raids were a way of life for many immigrant families in New Zealand. The words “dawn raid” had “such a negative connotation in the past,” Leaosavai’i comments. “We wanted to take the name Dawn Raid and make it a beautiful thing we’re proud to represent.”

Before co-founding Dawn Raid, Leaosavai’i tried to reach hip-hop stardom as a member of a rap group called Lost Tribe, but those efforts didn’t work out, and Lost Tribe disbanded. However, because Leaosavai’i had experience as an artist, he was more comfortable than Andy was in dealing with the artistic/creative aspects of Dawn Raid. In Dawn Raid Entertainment’s heyday, Leaosavai’i is credited with being the main creative force, when it came to artist relations, also known as artists and repertoire (A&R), which includes signing artists and finding producers and songwriters to work with these artists.

Andy’s role for Dawn Raid was being more of a business wheeler dealer than Leaosavai’i. And the first investor whom Andy recruited was his father Mike, who put the family house up as collateral, in order to give seed money to Dawn Raid. In the documentary, Mike describes himself as an enthusiastic mentor to Andy and Leaosavai’i in the years when Dawn Raid was on the rise and on the top of its game. “Slowly, I got pulled into the web of it all,” remembers Mike.

Andy comments with a mixture of pride and regret: “The family bond made Dawn Raid was it was. But if I could do it again, I would separate business from family.” As soon as Andy makes that statement, you just know there’s going to be a “crash and burn” part of this story, if you don’t already know what this downfall is before seeing this documentary.

Having a hit artist on a new independent label is extremely difficult in an industry dominated by music released by corporate-owned companies. It’s even more difficult when the artists are based in a nation that is mostly ignored by the music-buying public worldwide. That’s why the co-founders of Dawn Raid had to figure out other ways to make money for the business to pay for their music endeavors until the music became profitable. And they made this extra money by selling Dawn Raid T-shirts and other merchandise, first at flea markets and then by opening their own retail stores.

Eventually, Dawn Raid grew to include a music company, a recording studio, retail stores, a barbershop, a pub/bar, a non-profit foundation for underprivileged children, and a factory that made and sold phone cards. Instead of relocating to a part of New Zealand that was more upscale, Dawn Raid remained true to its roots and stayed in South Auckland. The co-founders of Dawn Raid say that it was non-negotiable to relocate to another part of New Zealand because they wanted to give job opportunities to people in the South Auckland area and give back to the South Auckland community.

All of this ambition for Dawn Raid wasn’t necessarily at the same high level of business acumen needed to keep the company thriving. Andy admits that in the early years of Dawn Raid, he didn’t understand the differences between mechanical royalties and song publishing royalties, but he pretended that he did. He fully acknowledges that Dawn Raid was founded on a “fake it ’til you make it” mentality.

It’s probably why the Dawn Raid co-founders didn’t hesitate to take chances on people who didn’t have a lot of music business experience either. All of Dawn Raid’s earliest signings were young artists who’d never released music before but found hitmaking success at Dawn Raid. Although hip-hop/rap was the intended foundation of the Dawn Raid music label, the company’s first breakout artist was Adeaze (pronounced “add-eez”), a brother duo that performed sweet-melodied R&B-inspired pop music. Adeaze members Feagaigafou “Nainz” Tupai and Logovi’i “Viiz” Typa’i are interviewed in the documentary and mention that their mother was their biggest motivator in their music career.

Dawn Raid’s first big hit album was the compilation “Southside Story,” released in 2000. Next came the success of Deceptikonz, whose early hit songs included 2001’s “Elimination” and 2002’s “Broken Home.” Deceptikonz members Savage, Alphrisk, Devolo and Mareko (who met doing rap battles in high school) are all interviewed in the documentary. All of them have released solo albums. Savage’s real name is Demetrius Savelio. Alphrisk’s real name is Daniel Maoate. Devolo’s real name is David Puniani. Mareko’s real name is Mark Sagapolutele.

As a solo artist, Savage is probably the best internationally known Dawn Raid artist. His hit songs include 2005’s “Moonshine” (featuring Akon) and 2004’s “Swing,” which was revived and became a global sensation when it was featured in director Judd Apatow’s 2007 comedy film “Knocked Up.” Apatow briefly appears in the documentary with interview comments on why he chose the song for the movie and his reaction when it became an international hit.

Aaradhna was the first female artist on the Dawn Raid label. In a documentary interview, she says that as a beginner artist, she used to be so shy, she didn’t like people looking at her when she sang. “I kind of blocked out the shyness because I was so eager,” Aaradhna comments on how she overcame her bashfulness as an entertainer.

The documentary mentions Aaradhna’s “They Don’t Know” hit song featuring Savage, which was included in the 2006 romantic comedy film “Sione’s Wedding.” John Barnett, one of the movie’s producers, is interviewed. What isn’t mentioned is that “Dawn Raid” director Kightley was a co-star and co-writer of “Sione’s Wedding.” Also interviewed in the “Dawn Raid” documentary is rapper Scribe (real name: Malo Luafutu), who talks about the rivalry that he had with Dawn Raid label mate Mareko.

Because Dawn Raid was the only significant hip-hop company in New Zealand at the time, Dawn Raid artists were often the opening acts for major international hip-hop stars when they toured in New Zealand. Snoop Dogg, Naughty By Nature and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are some of the rappers mentioned who had Dawn Raid artists as opening acts in New Zealand. These opening-act gigs led to more connections, more exposure, more opportunities and more money flowing into the business.

Dawn Raid began having hits on the New Zealand charts, which caught the attention of major music corporations that wanted to do business with Dawn Raid. Universal Music New Zealand courted Dawn Raid into a distribution deal. With this corporate investment from Universal, the cash flow for Dawn Raid increased significantly.

Universal Music New Zealand chairman Adam Holt comments in the documentary about the state of hip-hop at that time: “Something was happening in the early 2000s, where it was coming from an underground on the streets, and it was starting to move into a more commercial mode. Dawn Raid was a critically important part of that.”

Eventually, Dawn Raid secured a major deal with Boost Mobile to sponsor Dawn Raid tours, in exchange for Dawn Raid artists endorsing Boost Mobile in ads and other marketing. New York City-based ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi handled that campaign. And there was talk of Dawn Raid opening up an office in the United States, most likely in New York City, where Dawn Raid artists visited several times for artist collaborations and business meetings. South Auckland native Kirk Harding of New York City-based Bad Habit Music worked for Loud Records at the time, and he says that he tried to get Loud to do a U.S. distribution deal with Dawn Raid, but the deal never happened.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Dawn Raid story is how the company hired a somewhat unlikely person as Dawn Raid’s first studio engineer: Vitaly Zolotarev, a Russian immigrant who didn’t speak English at the time and who had never worked before in hip-hop. However, the Dawn Raid owners were impressed with Zolotarev’s sound engineer experience, and he ended up staying with Dawn Raid for several years.

In the documentary, Zolotarev remembers why he relocated from Russia to New Zealand and why he took this sound engineer job at a then-unproven new hip-hop company: “I was looking for a safe place for me and my mother to move to … I was the happiest man in New Zealand. They taught me about hip-hop. I taught them about music production.”

Even at the height of Dawn Raid’s success, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Partly because of Leaosavai’i’s past membership in a gang and partly because Dawn Raid headquarters were in a rough neighborhood, Dawn Raid attracted a criminal element to its business. Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane don’t really go into details on any dirty dealings they did behind the scenes, but they do admit that gang members and other criminals were part of the Dawn Raid entourage and clientele.

The Dawn Raid co-founders also talk about how Dawn Raid experienced several thefts and break-ins in those early years. Leaosavai’i somewhat bitterly says that because of Dawn Raid’s reputation/image of being a hip-hop company that catered to disenfranchised people, “The police didn’t care,” when it came to investigating these crimes against Dawn Raid.

In any realistic “behind the scenes” documentary about the entertainment industry, there’s usually discussion about the abuse of drugs and alcohol. “Dawn Raid” doesn’t seem very candid about this subject. Andy says in the documentary that drugs were banned in Dawn Raid’s recording studio. It very hard to believe, considering that in other parts of the documentary, the Dawn Raid co-founders talk about their love of drug-fueled partying in their Dawn Raid heyday, and being willing to accommodate any artists who had similar lifestyles.

Racism and sexism in the music industry are briefly discussed in the documentary, but not fully explored. At different points in the documentary, it’s mentioned that certain people advised Dawn Raid not to put Adeaze and Aaradhna on the covers of their singles or albums, because they are Pacific Islander/Asian artists performing music that are traditionally performed by black people. The Dawn Raid co-founders are quick to brag that they ignored those racist suggestions, and they let Dawn Raid artists have the images that the artists wanted.

What the Dawn Raid co-founders don’t really talk about (or they weren’t asked about) is why Aardhna was the only female artist who was signed to the label for quite some time. They call Aardhna the “first lady” artist of Dawn Raid, but she was really the only lady of Dawn Raid’s artist roster, during Dawn Raid’s heyday. And she’s the only woman interviewed in this documentary.

It’s pretty obvious that the Dawn Raid owners chose not to have any women in business leadership roles for Dawn Raid, because there are no women mentioned when they talk about the chief decision makers for the company. It’s why all their talk about looking out for “oppressed” and “disenfranchised” groups really means that they gave preference to men in those “oppressed” and “disenfranchised” groups, when it came to giving people the best and most job opportunities at Dawn Raid. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of this documentary did not bother to point out this obvious sexism.

The Dawn Raid co-founders also deny accusations that they cheated their artists out of money. In the documentary, the artists all claim that they never made any big money for their hits and actually ended up in debt to Dawn Raid, because of recoupable expenses that an artist has to pay back to a record company. The former Dawn Raid artists also say in the documentary that their complaints and concerns about their lack of payment were ignored by Dawn Raid’s leadership at the time

Instead, the Dawn Raid co-founders blame any money mismanagement primarily on unnamed accountants whom they describe as unscrupulous. It’s all very hard to believe that Andy Murnane, who wants to take most of the credit for being the business mastermind of Dawn Raid, now claims that he had no idea that Dawn Raid’s artists weren’t being paid well. Meanwhile, he and Dawn Raid co-founder Leaosavai’i brag elsewhere in the documentary about the millions in revenue that Dawn Raid made and how they were able to go on lavish spending sprees, including their own high-priced weddings.

The flow of money didn’t last forever, of course. Andy Murnane seems most remorseful in how the downfall hurt himself and his family. He attempts to put a spin on the downward spiral of Dawn Raid that seems to say, “I was just an ignorant kid,” in order to absolve himself of blame. He would have come across as more sincere and believable if he admitted that he couldn’t have been spending all of that money without knowing who wasn’t getting paid. And by that point, he was old enough to know better. He does admit to being arrogant and greedy, but that’s as far as he will go in accepting responsibility for Dawn Raid’s collapse.

Leaosavai’i shows more humility and shame for his role in Dawn Raid’s demise, but he’s not very forthcoming either in explaining how much he really knew about the company’s financial corruption. Because Leaosavai’i was the partner in charge of the creative aspects of the company, and Andy Murnane was in charge of the business aspects, Andy is the one who comes out of the documentary looking worse, in terms of which partner ran the company into the ground. If Andy Murnane wanted this documentary to repair his image and make him look like a trustworthy person to get millions in investment money to start a new venture, then that plan backfired.

Ultimately, this documentary shouldn’t be viewed a shallow public-relations piece for the Dawn Raid co-founders, who certainly had good intentions when they started the company. The Dawn Raid co-founders should be proud of all of Dawn Raid’s admirable accomplishments, but viewers will get the sense that the most scandalous information was probably left out of the documentary. Andy Murnane shows some wisdom in hindsight when he comments: “We’re different men today. We have a dark part of our heart for what happened.” If anything, the “Dawn Raid” documentary succeeds in showing the good, bad and ugly sides of the entertainment industry, and can be considered a valuable lesson for anyone who’s interested in what showbiz has to offer beyond the glitz and glamour.

Universal Pictures released “Dawn Raid” on digital and VOD on January 11, 2022. The movie was released in New Zealand cinemas on January 21, 2021.

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