Now a solo project, Coco Solid first began as a duo, with Hansell recording and performing alongside fellow rapper and visual artist Benjamin Buchanan, who works under the stage name Erik Ultimate. Hansel and Buchanan recorded regularly with deceased punk producer ALC5 and often performed with DJ Han Baby.
Hansell was born in Auckland, of Maori (Ngāpuhi) and German Samoan descent. Since first emerging in the Auckland music scene aged 19, she has enjoyed a wide variety of musical collaborations throughout her career: she is one half of Parallel Dance Ensemble with Denmark producer Robin Hannibal, plays regularly with Badd Energy and recorded with Lorenz Rhode.
Hansell was first nicknamed 'Coco' by a bandmate of her girl group The Pussies - her first musical venutre as a teenager. The rap persona of Coco Solid grew from there, and her collaboration with Buchanan played a major role in solidifying the distinct brand.
Coco Solid’s unique, often irreverent style of hip-hop was developed through Hansell and Buchanan’s dynamic live act and a number of quick fire independent releases. In the space of two years, Coco Solid produced Rap N Roll (2004), Denim & Leather (2004), Erik Ultimate presents Denim & Leisure (2005) and Gentlemen Prefer Bombz (2006).
Nick Bollinger perfectly captured the duo’s distinct sound and appeal for the NZ Listener in 2007: “musically, Coco and Erik are functional and funky, using primitive drum-machine rhythms, woofer-warping basslines and simple keyboard figures that might be cellphone ringtones … At home, Kiwi rappers have frequently taken flak for trying to sound American. For Coco and Erik, it’s a non-issue. They gleefully mix ghetto slang with kiwiana, and the friction between the cultures creates the humour.”
Coco Solid found that success abroad helped earn them respect back home.
When speaking to RNZ in 2008, the duo elaborated on the push and pull of humour and sincerity in their work. As Buchanan put it, “it’s good to draw on your alter-ego, but you can also draw upon your inner soul as well you know, and have a deep moment.” For Hansell, “I like it when we have touching sincere moments. People get a bit – the media especially – get a bit lost in the game thinking we’re kind of just sexual pranksters 24/7, you know. That comes into it, for fun, sure ...” – Buchanan finishes her train of thought – “... but you can feel it for real, if you want.”
Another album release in 2008, The Radical Bad Attack – and a whole lot of touring – established Coco Solid both locally and on the international stage. The duo found that success abroad helped earn them respect back home: a common experience for New Zealand musicians. Hansell told RNZ upon the album release, “I think we are always producing stuff that goes a bit beyond the local level. This project in particular, because it’s so broad and eclectic and ambitious, it will have an international appeal. But all our stuff is well received overseas and has always been treated with some kind of doubt and cynicism here, before people get with it.”
Between 2006 and 2009, Coco Solid toured extensively throughout New Zealand, Australia, America, Europe and Asia. A 2006 guest performance with Flight of the Conchords at SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, proved particularly fruitful, with the duo featuring in accompanying documentary The Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey, and Hansell picking up the title of “Lyricist of the Festival” in the Austin Chronicle.
Shortly after the release of The Radial Bad Attack, Hansell and Buchanan parted ways, with Hansell releasing the Graffiti Girls 4 Life 12-inch EP – Coco Solid’s first venture as a solo act.
However, as a highly collaborative artist, Hansell soon found herself in new creative partnerships, most notably Parallel Dance Ensemble with Robin Hannibal. Since 2009, Parallel Dance Ensemble has released four records: The Pizza Turtle Cadillac EP, the ‘Run’ 7", the Possessions and Obsessions 12-inch single and the Possessions and Obsessions remix 12-inch EP, which were recorded for ISM records, Hansell’s 2008 residency at the Red Bull Music Academy, and Permanent Vacation (respectively).
Outside of Erik Ultimate and Parallel Dance Ensemble, Hansell is known to join a plethora of artists onstage for live collaborations: Girl Talk, Avenue D, The 18.104.22.168’s, King Brothers, Sway, TTC, O’mas Keith (Sa-Ra Creative Partners), Onra, Spank Rock and The Rodgers Sisters, to name a handful.
The creative harmony was matched with critical harmony.
Speaking of her inherent drive for collaboration to Under the Radar, she mused, “I think you know it’s my chosen way to communicate with the outside world in a weird way and I find working and creating with other people is one of the easiest way to communicate and it’s my favourite way to form bonds with people; you go on a real functional journey with them in order to make something that a whole new set of people can enjoy, an audience. I’m kind of different to the way people might perceive me. I’m low key generally but I find that the music and creating is just such a good way to try different ways of thinking out and it’s a great way to meet people. That’s basically how me and all my best friends met; we have creative harmony as well as personal.”
The creative harmony was matched with critical harmony as Hansell enjoyed records in the NZ Listener’s Top 10 albums of the year list in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as well as The Sunday Star-Times’ Top 10 New Zealand albums of the decade in 2009. In addition, Coco Solid was awarded best hip-hop artist at the bNet Awards in Auckland, while Parallel Dance Ensemble ‘Weight Watchers’ was awarded best video, best concept and people’s choice at Radio Active 88.6 FM’s music video awards in 2009. Topping off a huge year, Hansell received the APRA Professional Development Award for songwriting.
Outside of her music and stage name, Hansell has worked in a myriad of mediums – including animation, zines, comic strips and screenplays – with success in each avenue. Her work in comics includes her collaboration with artist Pritika Lal This Is Not A Comic, editing the political paper Fight The Fight and featuring in The Comics Show, a documentary covering the history of comic artists in New Zealand. In 2010, after living in South Korea, she released two issues of her first solo zine-book Philosoflygirl, before becoming the resident comic-strip writer for Volume with her cartoon ‘Hook Ups’ the following year.
Somehow, she also found time within 2011 to release a 12-track mixtape, Pacific Rims. Featuring numerous musical guests, Coco Solid describes the album as a “turbo 28-minute mix, which incorporates elements of hip-hop/electronica/new wave and dance”, that is still rooted in her “trademark rap style”.
Pacific Rims was released digitally and – quite remarkably – on a cassette tape: “I like to experiment with every part of music making and that includes the medium that I work in,” she told Under the Radar. “I really get into the music video, how tracks are released, and I get into the different places I can tour and travel and you know being an independent artist you have a bigger picture vision and control.
“I just thought it was a really good chance to put out music on a medium that I love. No one believes me, they think I’m joking, but I really do respect the cassette tape. When I was walking along during an organic rubbish collection and I saw people putting out their cassette tapes and VHS tapes and felt really sad, and I didn’t want to take part in cassette genocide, I wanted to be part of the survival.”
Following its release and tour, Hansell once again jumped into new ventures, completing her Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2011 and attending the PAF art residency in St Erme, France in 2012. In 2013 her comic strip ‘Hook Ups’ was developed into the hugely popular animated series Aroha Bridge with Piki Films – a Māori Pasifika film collective that Hansell is an active member of. Hansell writes, directs and voice acts for the show, as well as creating the music for it as Coco Solid. The semi-autobiographical series, based on a Māori hip-hop duo, has gone from strength to strength, with three seasons in 2013, 2016 and 2019, funded by NZ On Air. Just like her music, the web-series is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and always original.
Reflecting on her unconventional creative life in 2011, Hansell commented, “I think all it is, is I’m always trying to find outlets to communicate something very specific and that’s why I feel I’m multi-disciplinary and I love the collaborative process. I like to find as many ways to communicate and learn different things as possible. I can’t channel all my energy into just one thing, it’s just really not my nature. I’ve tried and it makes me miserable.”
Her varied career inspired the ‘Can I Live’ crowdfunding campaign in 2016 – asking for support from the general public not for a specific project, but simply for time to work across her many disciplines. Writing on the campaign’s website, Hansell explained, “I like telling stories on my terms, the alchemy of art, empowering my people, moving culture and conversations where I can”. Hansell, who is of Māori, German and Samoan descent, added, “my jam is offering 21st century Māori & Pacific people, women, our young people, our queer people and those with very little access to resources, education and money a new way of seeing themselves.”
Hansell’s drive to give voice to the underrepresented motivated her to create the “Equalise My Vocals” event in 2017 with Trixie Darko: a summit on gender equality in New Zealand music, including panels discussions, live showcases and plenty of networking.
In late 2019 Hansell was named the New Zealand 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate.
In 2018, Hansell returned as Coco Solid with new funk album Cokes. The release was characteristically brimming with collaborators, with critic Frank Eggerton noting in his positive NZ Musician review, “There are shades of the Gorillaz, ’70s disco, ’90s video game soundtracks, 1990s and 2000s techno. It all comes from the rotation of producers, which helps the album stay fresh and vibrant with each track, the varied influence of the producers washing over the whole sound of the album.”
That year, Hansell also took up a residency in Hawaii as the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer, where she researched gentrification in the Pacific Islands. Throughout the year, Hansell squeezed in screenwriting for television comedy Wellington Paranormal, her web-series Aroha Bridge and a currently unreleased project with Piki Films.
In late 2019 Hansell was named a New Zealand 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate. She was awarded for “Mixed Media” – a reflection of the skill, nerve and raw talent she has displayed pursuing such a variety of mediums over the past decade.
“Moving through the world, I try and give the best side of myself,” Hansell told The Arts Foundation upon her win. “I want to make a contribution and offer new ways of seeing. I had to work out where I find myself thriving and inspiring others the most, where my sense of self is strongest and most potent and I just work in those areas, which just so happens to be in the creative medium. I feel I'm in my element, doing what I was put here to do.”
Coco Solid is set to play Rhythm and Alps in December, 2020, at Cardrona Valley in Wanaka.
Updated by Rosie Howells, 2020
Hansell and Erik Ultimate rapped with Flight Of The Conchords at SXSW in 2006.
Hansell's song Denim & Leather was sampled by Princess Superstar in her song Monday Morning.
Red Bull Music Academy