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Molokai's MTV Star
Darrell Labrado

By Catherine E. Toth

It may not seem monumental to many, but to Darrell Labrado, living on his own signifies the culmination of years of struggle, setbacks and success.

Sure, it’s a small one-bedroom apartment in Kaunakakai, Molokai. But at least he’s got running water and electricity - something he didn’t have growing up in nearby Halawa Valley.

“It’s cool, I like it,” he says. “No rules, no curfew, it’s fun.”

Labrado, the Molokai crooner best known for his upbeat and youthful Shaka the Moon album released five years ago, has grown up.

Now 18, he boasts two complete albums, three singles, an MTV video and Billboard recognition. He has performed all over the world, from Japan to New York, wooing audiences with his smooth voice and charming smile. He’s already working on his third album, titled Darrell Labrado, which is scheduled for a February or March release by AEG Records.

He’s even got his own car - a 1998 Dodge Stratus - that he bought outright.

“I didn’t think I’d be doing this,” Labrado says. “Not this, or anything.”

Labrado was born in Honolulu on March 8, 1985. A turbulent family life forced him to move around, from Nanakuli to Puna on the Big Island, before finally landing on Molokai. His life has been marred by death - his father died when Labrado was just 2 - and disappointment, abuse and drugs.

“The abuse was kind of an everyday thing in our house,” Labrado says quietly.

Living in Halawa on welfare was a humbling experience. Labrado, his mother and older brother, Julio, shared a small, rundown house in the valley. Their water came from the nearby waterfall and, with no refrigerator, they had to keep all their food in ice-filled coolers. There were no stores, gas stations or shopping malls. Just a church and the beach.

“I like being by myself, but not that much,” Labrado jokes.

The roof leaked so much they had to keep moving the bed so it wouldn’t get wet.

And the only way the brothers could get around was hitchhiking rides into town.

But despite a tumultuous childhood, Labrado kept moving forward, never letting it bring him down.

Last May Labrado graduated from Molokai High School with plans to attend the University of Hawaii-Manoa as soon as his third CD is done. He wants to be a personal trainer.

“I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but then again, everybody sees hard times,” he says. “But I guess I came out OK.”

So how does a kid go from poverty to recording contract? In the early ’90s, L.A. musician-producer Brad Thayne moved to Molokai seeking a “real life,” started Monkey Pod Records and opened the studio to local kids with talent. He also met Bobby Pileggi, a New Yorker with similar background.

“Darrell was 10 when Brad called me and said I had to hear this kid,” recalls Pileggi. “He had talent and was part of a compilation album we did together, Molokai Now, and it just grew from there.”

Labrado hasn’t stopped working since age 11, when his first CD single, Rhythm of the Falling Rain, debuted. The following year, Labrado recorded two more songs that appeared on the compilation CD Molokai Now. In 1999, he released his first music video, Where They Stay, which won the Best Music Video award at the Hawaiian Music Awards. The video aired on the Hawaiian Airlines inflight entertainment for more than four years.

That same year, Labrado’s first full-length CD, Shaka the Moon, hit stores and airwaves. Da Kine was the first big hit for Labrado. He won Best Male Vocalist and Best Children’s Album at the Hawaiian Music Awards and was nominated for Most Promising Artist at the prestigious Na Hoku Hanohano awards. Labrado was just 14.

Shaka the Moon was a great teen record and everyone could relate to Da Kine,” says Lanai, radio/TV host who first put the song into rotation at 98.5 FM, where it landed at No. 1. “Of course, Darrell also had the looks.”

His smile and strong features have been Labrado’s best marketing tool - and something, his manager hopes, that will propel him onto the national music scene.

“He’s got the whole package,” says manager Bobby Pileggi, former veteran New York disc jockey. “He’s got the looks, the commitment, the voice. He’s like the perfect artist. He never complains about anything. He doesn’t skip a verse or make a mistake. He’s incredible.”

Last May he released his second dance single, I Want My Island Girl, written by Chris Pati and Pileggi. The upbeat, dance-floor favorite charted on Billboard, debuting at No. 6 on the dance singles chart and No. 22 on the Hot 100 singles sales chart. The song was also added to Promo Only’s Radio Rhythm Series, which services more than 1,000 retail outlets, such as Macy’s, nationwide.

In September 2003, Labrado was invited to New York to perform his feel-good tune for Billboard executives. The two-month trip proved successful for Labrado, who also performed at a concert in Long Island and did a radio interview with MTV.

But it wasn’t the first Billboard hit for Labrado.

In November 2000, his first dance single Master Blaster (Jammin’) reached No. 8 on the dance single chart and No. 71 on the Hot 100. He was reviewed by Billboard twice and mentioned in Chuck Taylor’s “New and Noteworthy” column.

Even Sid Bernstein, the man credited for bringing the Beatles to America, has expressed interest in helping Labrado.

“He has matured a whole lot,” Lanai says. “This is good for the industry … If he can go far, it would open up the doors for local artists.”

What has changed in the music is what has changed in Labrado: He got older. The influence of R&B, Labrado’s favorite genre of music, is obvious in his latest recordings.

Labrado’s second CD, Someday, released in 2001, showcased this transition. The album offers a range of music from R&B to pop to country.

But while his music reflects a maturing Labrado, he remains rooted in the island rhythms he grew up listening to.

“I’d say it’s R&B with a twist of Jawaiian,” Labrado says about his new sound. “I like the riffs in R&B, but I didn’t want to stray from the music I grew up with.”

Labrado’s maturity, even at a young age, has made his an ideal vehicle for positive messages to kids and teens. For years he has participated in statewide youth empowerment programs such as D.A.R.E., the American Cancer Society, MADD and the YMCA.

“He’s a good singer, but a good role model at the same time,” says Allan Silva, director of Positive Connections and resource teacher with the state Department of Education. “The kids know him and like his music. He doesn’t smoke or drink. He walks the talk.”

Labrado has been working with Positive Connections for more than five years, performing at schools and assemblies around the state. The program reaches more than 60,000 students a year, teaching them about drugs and alcohol, positive attitudes, being good citizens and setting goals. Labrado participates in the program at least twice a month - always on a volunteer basis.

What helps, Silva says, is that Labrado is a laid-back, friendly guy. Girls love him, but guys respect him, too.

“It’s tremendous,” Silva says. “They can all relate to him. They see him on TV or hear his music on the radio. It’s such a complement to the program. He enhances the message … It works out so good.”

Labrado is an example of overcoming the odds. Instead of succumbing to drugs and alcohol, he found healthy ways to deal: He surfed, boxed and sang. He stayed focused on his schoolwork and music, taking success and setbacks in stride.

“He’s truly inspirational,” Pileggi says. “It’s what keeps me in the game. He’s got more potential than anyone in Hawaii. I really believe this kid can make it.”

Last year Labrado got a tattoo on his back, a tribal design topped with a kanji character that symbolizes truth and sincerity. It was a design his hanai Auntie Ruthie Misaki chose. She wanted him to remember to always be true to himself, to stay grounded.

And he thinks about that all the time. He wants to win a Grammy, but he realizes the challenges.

He wants to be a professional singer, but he knows the odds are against him.

But he won’t give up.

“I’m not fixated on it,” he says. “I gotta think reality. I know it’s rare to break into the mainstream. I’d be really content with a regular job. But you gotta keep at it.”

01.12.04


Posted: January 12, 2004 @ 9:41 AM HST


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