- 29 Jun 22
As he gets ready to storm Longitude with Denise Chaila and God Knows, Narolane production guru MuRli talks to Stuart Clark about friendship, faith, racism, Ed Sheeran, his Togolese upbringing, pinch-me moments and putting Limerick on the hip-hop map. Plus, he picks the acts he can’t wait to see in Marlay Park. Photography: Miguel Ruiz
It might be Denise Chaila’s name on the poster, but when she plays the Saturday at Longitude it’ll be another landmark moment for not only her, but also her Narolane brothers-in-arms MuRli and God Knows who’ll be on the Marlay Park main stage with her.
The gig is an intimate one compared to the 80,000 people Denise and the lads recently played to in Croke Park as support to Ed Sheeran who was so blown away by their performance that he FedExed over a master of = album standout, ‘2step’, for remix purposes.
When I suggest to MuRli, AKA Mawuli Boevi, that getting to collaborate with the biggest pop star on the planet is the stuff of fairy-tales, he nods vigorously and says: “My goodness, it is! Our whole thing is that we’re dreamers. You have to have some wild ideas and be like, ‘This is gonna happen.’ We don’t do ‘realistic’. If it’s realistic, it’s not good enough or big enough. We knew that at some point we’d get to play stadiums – we just didn’t know who it would be with. Before the stars align perfectly though, as they did with us getting those Ed Sheeran supports, you have to put in the hard work and no one’s worked harder these past couple of years than Denise Chaila. It was smooth, man, just watching her elevate her level at those shows. She made it look easy, which of course it isn’t.”
The giant stage and vast expanse of pitch in front of it has overwhelmed many a Croke Park support act, but Denise and the chaps looked right at home with Hill 16 looming large behind them.
MuRli and God Knows had previously met Ed at his cousin Laura Sheeran’s 2014 wedding near Spiddal where they ended up having a bop and a rap together at the festival-style reception.
“The minute he saw us in Croke Park he called out,” says MuRli flashing me one of his trademark megawatt smiles. “Before the Thomond Park gig, he did an interview on Limerick’s Live 95 and was talking about that wedding and how he met us. He remembered every tiny little detail, so that relationship is still there. That’s the great thing about this man – he’s a real human-being who, despite being under a lot of pressure, treats everybody around him with kindness and respect. We learned a lot from Ed and his team”
If we’d been a fly on the Croke Park dressing-room wall, what would we have seen the Narolane trio doing five minutes before showtime?
“We were praying,” MuRli reveals. “We got the whole team together, holding hands, and prayed for everyone in the stadium. After all the country and the world’s been through the past couple of years, we felt really grateful to be where we were and to be presented with this amazing opportunity.”
Outside of my 2021 interview with Denise Chaila, I can’t think of the last – or, indeed, the first – time a musician spoke to me about God being the most important presence in their life.
“Believing in God shapes how I behave and generally lead my life,” MuRli explains. “We always say it’s not religion, it’s faith and I happen to be in a team of people who share the same faith as me. Everything that comes, comes because of that faith in God. Some people when they hear that will say, ‘This guy is losing his mind!’ but so many of the things we’ve prayed for have unfolded one after another. Part of what we enjoy doing is spreading love and great energy. As a performer, you get to dissipate that into the audience everywhere you go.”
Does his faith better equip MuRli to deal with the pitfalls that every artist encounters on their way up – and even more forcefully on their way down?
“It does, it really does. Our church isn’t Catholic or Protestant, it’s just Christians. If Jesus is a thing for you, that’s our church. It’s in Shannon near the airport so it’s very multicultural with a lot of different people passing through. No matter how big the gig, you’ve got to come back from it. The Sunday after we played Croke Park I was hanging around with my friends at church. On the Monday night I was at my bible study, just discussing life and praying about it. It puts everything back into perspective.”
Hitting the Croke Park stage, did they feel fear or elation?
“It was a mixture of both,” he admits. “Being early on a weekday and not our own gig, we thought we might just be playing to the stadium staff. All of that fear switched off when we saw there was a crowd and that they were reacting really well to Denise.”
While Ms. Chaila supplied the supremely soulful vocal, it was down to MuRli as Narolane’s in-house producer to shape the sound of their ‘2step’ remix and ensure that the world’s radio stations play it off the air.
“Bro, I couldn’t sleep at night when it was confirmed that it was happening,” he confides. “I mean, this is a moment that changes everything for us in terms of Narolane being on the world stage for the first time. Before we went into the studio, I was like, ‘Yo, can we totally flip this?’ and they said, ‘We want to maintain that kind of through line in the middle because there’ll be a couple of other remixes from different countries and there needs to be a degree of cohesion between them.’ Which was cool.
“I had a pinch-me moment when I got the Ed Sheeran stems because this is an artist who’s sold tens of millions of albums. I played them to Denise and pretty much straight away she came up with the ideas that are on the finished remix.”
A native French speaker, MuRli was born in Togo – it’s the thin strip of north African land bordering Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso – where his earliest memories are of his grandfather singing.
“Music is a part of life in Togo like GAA is in Ireland – you’re just born into it. My parents moved to the city before I was born, but when I went back to their village I heard my grandfather sing and tell stories in a musical way at ceremonies, especially funerals. It’s an oral tradition that gets passed down through generations, much like Irish traditional music was before you had records and radio.
“MC Solaar, who’s from Senegal, was a popular figure in Togo when I was growing up and there was a local rapper with a great singing voice, King Mensah, whose wordplay fascinated me. I loved how he approached storytelling – none of it was preachy.”
Suddenly upping sticks and travelling three thousand miles to a city and country you know virtually nothing about can’t have been easy for the 12-year-old MuRli.
“A month before I left, my parents sent me to the American school in Togo to do English lessons and they had a magazine with Sinéad O’Connor in it,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is someone from the country I’m going to!’ Prior to that, I knew Westlife and their songs but I didn’t know they were from Ireland. So, Sinéad O’Connor was the only thing I knew about this place we were going to go and live in.
“I was thrilled at first because it was a new adventure, but pretty soon after arriving I was like, ‘Why is it always wet? Where’s the sun gone?’ There was a period where I felt like the adventure was over – ‘This place is home but I don’t speak the language.’ So I felt isolated and went into my own little box at school where I’d have my headphones on and listen to music.”
What eventually brought him out of his box?
“Being a black kid a lot of people thought I’d be good at basketball, but I’d never touched a basketball before and was terrible at it,” he laughs. “The sport I’ve always played is football – I’m an Arsenal fan. Music is eventually where I found my people. My best friend in school was a guy who had all the big hip-hop records. We got into Limewire culture – he had good internet so we’d download songs from artists we didn’t know anything about and broaden our knowledge.”
MuRli’s first time rapping in public was aged fourteen at a house party in Cork.
“I thought I was doing so well, but then this lady in her 40s who’d been in the room looking at me started rapping and she was way better,” he admits. “When I started writing I used to rap lyrics over instrumentals online, so they were covers but then over time I realised I wanted to make my own songs. My friend Peggy went and borrowed software that looked more like a video game. It had samples in it and you could build your own beats, which I loved. I thought all my early raps had been lost when a hard-drive broke on me, but I was at a wedding in April and my friend was like, ‘I’ve got those!’ I’m really curious to hear them again.”
Having learned the basics that way, MuRli got a scholarship to study Music Technology at the University of Limerick, which introduced him to Logic and the endless possibilities that come with it.
“I built my confidence by making mixtapes and then in 2018, I was like, ‘I’m gonna have a go at this production thing’ and bought all the equipment so I could start making beats with God Knows and then Denise.”
The rest, as they, is Limerick hip-hop history. One of the Narolane crew’s more memorable 2021 days out was going to Áras an Uachtaráin to meet President Michael D. Higgins who was being interviewed by Denise for a Hot Press cover feature.
“I look at him and think, ‘He’s a dude. He really cares about people. I wish this man had more power!’ In Africa, you want presidents to have less power. To see Michael D. and the conversations he’s had with Denise is incredible. We’re very blessed to have a president like that.”
Shortly before that, Denise had performed and been interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show, the significance of which she was acutely aware of.
“I didn’t grow up in an Ireland where I saw black people on the Late Late Show or television in general unless it was a charity commercial or a cry for help,” she told me afterwards. “Rarely did I see empowered or content, confident people who were able to show their personalities before they showed their suffering or their pain.
That was and is a really formative experience for any child to have growing up. I’m not here to beg for empathy or humanity. I’m here on a very level playing field, really grateful as an artist to have made it this far and to have had the opportunity to share something.”
Echoing those sentiments, MuRli says, “Seeing Denise have these real conversations on the Late Late made me look at the young me when I came to Ireland. How much more confident would I have been if I’d seen people like me on the telly? There was a time when I wasn’t so sure about making TV appearances. What you’re going to get is either praise or a backlash – there’s rarely ever a middle-ground. But things are never going to improve if you hide. You have to talk about the things you believe to be right.”
The danger being that you become a lightning-rod for the online bigot brigade who may be small in numbers but make a lot of noise. How do they deal with racist abuse when it’s hurled at them?
“How do we get through it?” MuRli responds. “By taking it one at a time. You might want to run away sometimes, but if you do they win – and certain ideologies mustn’t be allowed to win. It makes what we do worth it even more.
“They’re not only going at you personally, they’re going at what you represent. With Denise, especially, that’s hope. When people go against that it hurts every single time. If you ignore them, they don’t go anywhere. The scary bit is they might be next-door to you. You just don’t know.”
The Narolane work ethic is encapsulated by their frantic summer release schedule, which includes God Knows’ We Move The Needle EP on June 24; a collective Narolane single, ‘Run Free’ on July 8 followed by its parent The Walk EP in September; and Denise’s Energy short film, also in September.
MuRli got in early with the March release of the Sky Has Windows EP, a glorious amalgam of jazz, funk, retro soul and modern beats, which includes the ‘Rocks’ collaboration with Jafaris that’s just dropped as a single.
“We were invited to perform at a hip-hop event in Galway and one of the people there was Jafaris who was about sixteen at the time. We were like, ‘Wow, this dude is impressive!’ I’ve been a fan since. He had the dreams we all had and when he released his first EP the production and everything else was on point.”
Another of the five-tracker’s standouts, ‘Odyssey’, features Up The Flats woman Gemma Dunleavy.
“We met Gemma in 2015 in Liverpool, which was our first gig outside of Ireland. She was studying there at the time and I was like, ‘This girl is sick!’ We did a remix with her of Fetty Wap’s ‘My Way’ and then in 2020 we invited Gemma to one of the writing sessions we were doing in Dublin and ‘Odyssey’ came out of it. It’s only a matter of time before the world realises that Gemma Dunleavy is it!”
Those writing sessions also conjured up ‘Chikondi’, a track from The Walk EP which might just be Narolane’s finest 3mins 45secs yet and features another woman who’s totally it, Ailbhe Reddy.
“We’ve always wanted to work with people from outside of hip-hop as well as those from within it, but it’s only recently as things have started to happen for Narolane that we’ve found ourselves in rooms with people like Ailbhe who if she were from the UK or the US you’d know all about by now.”
MuRli, God Knows and Denise’s biggest collaboration to date is the ‘Out The Gaff’ one with James Vincent McMorrow, Sorcha Richardson, Conor Adams from All Tvvins and Kodaline’s Mark Prendergast, which soundtracked many a lockdown jump around the living-room.
“James played us a snippet and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s a hit right there!’” he enthuses. “Hearing yourself on the radio makes it feel real. We’ve never forced ourselves to make a ‘radio record’, but the odd time you hit that sweet spot where you know it’s going to connect with people in a major way. The response when you play something like ‘Out The Gaff’ live pushes you to write bigger and better songs.”
While no right-minded person would criticise the Irish government’s fast-tracking of Ukrainian refugees, it does beg the question: why are other people fleeing conflict stuck in Direct Provision for years unable to work?
“The response to the Ukrainian refugees is great,” MuRli agrees before adding an important caveat. “Let’s keep that energy going and use it as a blueprint for how we treat everybody because, sadly, this type of thing isn’t going to go away. So, yeah, let’s build on that positivity.”
Amen to that! Looking forward to this summer’s hectic schedule and other future adventures – the trio were in LA last week ‘on business’ so don’t be surprised if a major deal is struck – MuRli exudes the quiet confidence of a man who knows that whatever the glass ceiling for a Limerick hip-hop collective is, Narolane can shatter it.
“I just want more of those pinch-me moments!” he says knowing that remixing Ed Sheeran is just the beginning.
Read the full Longitude special in our new issue, out now.
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