- 28 Mar 18
Separate yourself from your work, do it yourself and a love/hate relationship with Ireland - some life lessons from the latest emergence in Irish hip-hop.
The bar I’m due to meet Kojaque at, is completely packed out. Between bartering with the bartender to see if we can find somewhere quieter, I’m running through what topic of conversation to jump off with. Kevin Smith, or Kojaque as his artist persona is called, grew up in Cabra and attended the School of Creative Arts in D.I.T. . Talents include being an accomplished visual artist, poet and writer - all in accompaniment to rising to the top of Irish hip-hop, a genre which has rapidly emerged and immersed the music scene.
With hip-hop being so open to experimentation and manipulation, it's brought out incredibly talented artists into the spotlight of the accessible Dublin music scene. Kojaque, a self-declared product of the city has been independently creating his own content for the last number of years. Back in February, he released his first album Deli Daydreams through his record label Soft Boy. It’s a body of work that depicts the week of a deli worker in the run-up to the annual Christmas party.
To juxtapose this seemingly uninteresting tale, Deli Daydreams is this smooth and sexy affair filled with soft jazz instrumentation and flipping over to dirty bass, drum and keyboard beats, that delicately accompany Kojaque’s Dublin accent as he raps through genre clichés and lines such as “Sorry Susan though the offer is appealing / I’ma pass up on a pill I’m seeing babies on the ceiling”.
“I liked the humorous aspect of it - the fact that it isn’t very glamorous. It’s a bit grim and it’s a bit grimy. So I think it more came from writing - I originally started off three of the songs which would have been Politicksis, Bubby’s Cream and Love and Braggadocio. Those tracks go back a long time, like two years ago I’d say. I know that the hairnet reference in Braggedocio was purely because I had long hair. There was no concept around it then. But I realised it’d tie the rest of the tracks together and made them less loose. So it led to writing the rest of the tracks like Eviction Notice and trying to add little things in.”
It was the last song completed too. Calling on friend and fellow-record label owner Kean, they recorded the vocals into a microphone sandwiched between two wardrobe doors with a duvet stuffed in the back of it “- probably a crap way to record audio! And we kinda have this thing - an unwritten rule where we just can’t work together. Criticism doesn’t go down well between the two of us. It’s always been a thing - I’ve never thought to ask him to sing on anything. And he just got off work at five and came round to my house. He recorded it before he went off to his Christmas party… which I suppose is kind of apt in terms of the concept - the fact that the main deli worker has his own Christmas party coming up. We recorded it in an hour and a half or two… And then I recorded my vocals in on top of it, did the harmonies and then mixed it. And it turned out real nice!”
Kojaque is very clear that he favours creating an overarching concept in his work, inspired by Kendrick Lamar and De La Sol, who all create large cohesive projects. Adding in one familiarity - like Susan, a name mentioned numerous times throughout the tracks who stands in the story as the deli worker’s ‘work mam’ will do the job. “[Susan] gets a hard time in fairness. I give her a terrible time - poor old fucking Susan!” Easily carrying this idea through all eight tracks of Deli, it fleshes out the final form into something that’s easy to listen to, that won’t lose you along the way. It’s something that Kojaque thrives on.
“But it also encourages repeat listens - and there is stuff about artistry that is strategic”, he enthuses, returning to his teachings of art school. “One big thing I was taught in well is how to market something without cheapening it. With Deli, you start in the middle of the story, then you track back, then you track forward. And they’re tied in with the interludes. So it’ll make you listen back and hear new things each time - and some things, you’d have to be listening to the album a lot. I do fully believe that there is artist intention, but once you release an artwork to the world it’s not yours anymore. So I don’t think you should ever worry too much about what the artist meant. Figure out your own meaning for art - that’s the fun of it anyway. So much art can just be so fucking elitist. And purposefully jarring. But I’m not too into that, not at the moment anyway,” he ponders. “Maybe further down in my career.”
Regrading any future plans he has, Kojaque doesn’t want to stick solely with music. He’s delved into his true love of video performance before, with his first release Midnight Flower. The accompanying video shows Kojaque holding his breath under water calmly spitting out lyrics and playing with props. From here, his work has led to his graduate piece Love in Technicolour receiving the RHA Student Graduate Award in 2017 and most recently, was accepted into the European Media Art Festival 2018. But his first OG video production for Midnight Flower was a huge hit online and it even bagged him a gig in London right before his career took off in Ireland.
“I got this rouge email from a French couple who had seen it on a French blog. And I think they assumed that I was this big legitimate artist. They started inquiring about fees and I was like “- Shit. They wanna pay me - this is unreal.” They paid for my flights and my friend’s flights who DJ’d for me, gave us accommodation. I got £40 on the day. And my friend had never even DJ’d for me before that.”
There are a lot of names and a lot of people mentioned - friends, siblings, people who’ve helped him out by loaning audio equipment and recording and mixing for Deli. Of course, the other two-thirds of Soft Boy Records as well, who form a well-oiled machine covering all these tasty areas of music production that compose the independent company.
“It’s the three of us who started it - 'Kean' Kavanagh and Steve Byrne. We’ve indoctrinated a lot of different people along the way, but we all have our expertise in different areas - it very much is a collective effort. Everything is passed between the three of us, but we include our “outside” friends too so we don’t get too much tunnel vision, which could result in putting something very questionable out.
“The label itself is starting to gain a lot of traction too out in public. It’s funny seeing people walking around wearing the merchandise. It’s just… odd. Because the idea of it was just something that we had wanted to do for ages. Online, I don’t pay too much attention to social media if I can, in terms of numbers and all that shit. It freaks you out - and it’s not an accurate representation of life. But I don’t think it’s meant to be, you know? But you can also get bigheaded and down on yourself, if you’re pitting too much of your own self-worth on how many likes you get on a video. Anything like that is a recipe to destroy yourself. I kinda forget that the stuff is popular. So to see people walking around and wearing it - that’s odd.”
Does that make for a nerve-wracking moment or add more pressure?
“It’s nice to get reassurance on it! Though, I do think it’s a good idea to separate yourself from any work that you do. It’s just too easy to pit your value as a person on what you make. And if you end up making some stinkers, then you end up thinking you’re shit. It’s an influential kind of thing but in terms of your general mental health, it’s better to separate yourself from that. It’s also great that the Deli tracks have been received well cos I like listening to them myself - it’s been a while since I’ve made some music that I’m really happy to sit down and listen to.
I don’t think we’re ever taught to be proud of what we do - pride is not something that comes as easily to a lot of Irish people. I think collectively to be “proud to be Irish” is something that we understand. But in terms of individual pride, self-esteem is low. It can be tough sometimes in Ireland. People are a bit unforgiving about where you’re from or where you were born or who you grew up with or where you grew up. Ireland can be classist but it’s also can be easy to get bogged down with the negative aspects of working here where then is so much opportunity in art, galleries and courses. In terms of where we’ve come from, it’s good.”
But we both know the Irish state can be harsh and lack understanding for citizens at times. ‘White Noise’, a spoken-word track that deals out some hard perspective on this aspect. Kojaque wrote the track to highlights how topics, including the Eight Amendment do affect men in a way - but the track says so much more than just that.
“Sovereign state; they'd rather see my mother bleed out than build a clinic / You leave abortions to the backstreets / If we need it we’re gonna get it / Fuck the handouts / Give tax breaks to smarmy fuckers in the grey suits / Leave me starving tryn’a find a source of income”
“It does encompass us all - I tried to not just focus on the typical point of people justifying it by bringing up someone’s mother / sister being affected. It’s a male perspective on it. While I don’t think many people picked up on it in the video, it’s there. But I don’t try to focus my music on politics, because politics changes daily. My politics change, yours, everyones. I mean, while I do feel the Eight should be repealed to fuck, I think I have more artistic freedom if I’m not aligned with any one particular ideology. But - it was a track I wanted to make. And I made it and I’m happy with it.”
You can listen to Deli Daydreams available on Spotify, iTunes and Soft Boy Records now