- 20 Dec 18
From the dominating major festivals this summer to producing seminal era-defining albums, Irish hip-hop came into its own in 2018. Peter McGoran talks to some of the key players who made this happen.
This summer’s Longitude line-up may not have been the first indication that hip-hop and R&B are now at the centre of Ireland’s musical culture (yes, here as much as anywhere else), but it was certainly a watershed moment. It put things in plain perspective: J. Cole, Travis Scott, Solange, SZA, Migos, Post Malone – these are your new headliners.
And despite the inevitable grumbles that this wasn’t real music, or the pleas for a return to the good old days of four-piece pop-rock bands and nothing but - the three-day festival sold out in record time. It was obvious where Irish audiences’ loyalties lay.
Look down the Longitude bill and you would’ve seen a number of Ireland’s rising stars. Closest to the top was Drumcondra lad Alexander Anyaegbunam, aka Rejjie Snow.
“That was a great festival,” says Snow, speaking from London. “There were so many massive American and English acts, but it was great to know that, even with the Irish acts, people were turning out for their shows. That line-up needs to be a tradition. I think this year might be a catalyst for that. It gives artists something to work for as well. Up until recently, you might’ve made music and pushed it out to 100 people max. But now you can play festivals at home, you’ve got shows, you can get booked.”
The first true international hip-hop artist to emerge from Ireland, Rejjie’s 20-track debut album, Dear Annie, was a vivid snapshot of love and loss, deep in colour and raw honesty. Released in February, it was voted Hot Press’ No. 1 debut album release of 2018.
“I had the whole idea about a year ago,” Rejjie told me at the start of this year. “The hard thing for me was getting into the headspace to some of these songs.”
Eschewing the venom of some of his earlier releases, many of the songs in Dear Annie became ‘love letters’ to people around him.
“That’s where I was writing it from,” he said. “It was just me confessing like, all these things to all these people. To me, to friends, to loved ones, to experiences. All that tied up in one piece. Different stories from the same world.”
The confessional element to Dear Annie was essential. Though Rejjie’s album had a more international outlook, it drew upon something which become a common theme for Irish hip-hop artists this year. It was honest, it was vulnerable, and it refused to utilise stereotypical rap themes like toxic masculinity and misogyny.
Also on the Longitude line-up you’d have found Kevin Smith, aka Kojaque. Born in Cabra, the Irish visual artist, poet, writer and rapper also released his concept album Deli Daydreams at the start of this year. An eight-track project, it followed the mindset of a dissatisfied deli worker in the lead up to his work Christmas party.
It was Dublin city to its bare bones. It was a record about the small victories, the subtle declarations of affection, the dialogue and debates that take place in the city. The jazz-infused instrumentation gave space for Kojaque’s voice to pack its considerable punch.
“In terms of narrative, and story-telling, I wanted to have a pivotal moment – or a crux – that a story moves around. So, some of the songs are about the mundanity that comes with working life in Dublin, then some of them are more reflective love songs, or unrequited love songs. I felt like, Christmas parties and work parties – going in and out of a job every day that you don’t really like and all the people you meet – the album is the protagonist looking forward to this thing. That was about having the listener interested. You have the Christmas party, then it’s like, ‘Right, how’s this going to play out.’”
On track three, Kojaque raps that he’s “the Emerald Isle’s answer to The Chronic”. Braggadocio it may be, but he does share certain similarities with Dr. Dre – namely, that he’s propped up a community of like-minded artists with his own record label. Soft Boy Records was formed with Kevin’s pals, Kean Kavanagh and Steve Byrne, and now has several talents artists under its wing, including electronic artist Wastefellow and Luka Palm, who Kojaque cites as one of the best lyricists in the country.
“Soft Boy was very vague when we started off,” Kojaque admits. “We were just really passionate about music. We didn’t know anyone else who had a label, so there wasn’t a blueprint there. We just started it as a way to book venues and contact people, ‘cause it just looked better to do that than use a college email address. We’re still learning. There’s still teething issues, but we just keep music at the forefront, people will gravitate towards it.”
“SHAKING OFF THE SHACKLES OF OLD IRELAND”
Going back to the album, several of the tracks drew wider attention because of their social commentary. ‘White Noise’ featured the instantly iconic lines: “Pissing up on the steps of the cathedral / 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.” Not only were Irish rappers confronting issues to do with the self, they were taking on problems in Irish society and Irish identity.
“I kind of feel that, with the music, or at least with lyrics, it’s about reaching some kind of truth,” he says. “Whether or not you think something’s right or wrong, you give it a different perspective. You write something that feels honest. Whether or not that’s a right thing to say or not is irrelevant. You write it, then figure out what it means afterwards. That’s how I approach it.”
In the year when hip-hop was coming into its own, Ireland was repealing archaic amendments, protesting the residual influence of the Catholic Church and the horrors of the housing crisis, and re-electing a socially conscious poet-President by a landslide. In the years to come, we may well look at the Irish history of this period through the prism of socially conscious artists like Kojaque.
Two men who’ve been doing it from even further back are Karl Mangan and Adam Fogarty, AKA Mango X Mathman.
“We were cutting our teeth when it wasn’t ready,” Mango told me during a public interview at Forbidden Fruit this summer. “Now, I think it’s great that Irish people are getting behind Irish music, because for a long time it was looking out rather than in. Looking to other places.”
“The mindset of Irish people has changed significantly since we started,” added Mathman. “They’re saying, ‘Nah I absolutely will make that music. I’m gonna give this everything I can.’ We’ve seen with the Repeal referendum, with the marriage referendum as well – we’ve shaken off the shackles of old Ireland and saying to ourselves, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t achieve this, us poor Irish people.’ Now it’s like, ‘Fuck that man! Let me go get this, I don’t give a bollocks!’”
THE STORY OF HIP-HOP
At Electric Picnic 2017, Mango and Mathman were involved in another watershed moment which exemplified how far Irish hip-hop had come along. The Story of Hip-Hop – a mash-up of some of the defining hits from the genre – saw the RTÉ Concert Orchestra team up with DJ Mo K to showcase some of Ireland’s brightest emerging urban artists, including Mango, Barq’s Jess Kavanagh, Jafaris and Erica Coady. The show was significant in a number of ways; it set up an unlikely, but fruitful, relationship between Irish orchestral music and Irish hip-hop; it introduced these artists to a wider audience; and, with a crowd of over 14,000 people present, it demonstrated that the appetite was there for this sort of music.
Ahead of the release of her debut EP in the New Year, I asked Erica Coady about her work on the Story of Hip-Hop.
“I remember Mathman brought us together and we worked with the Orchestra about four weeks before the actual event,” she explains. “We had literally hundreds of hip-hop songs we were working with. We had to narrow that down to a few dozen.
“Then I remember peaking out from backstage about half an hour before we were due to go on and seeing literally thousands of people waiting for us. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to Mango and was like, ‘Mango, are you seeing this? Are they here for us??’”
HIP-HOP FINDING ITS FEET
As well as original music, videography have been central to Irish hip-hop’s development. Rejjie Snow, who studied film while briefly undertaking a scholarship in America, stresses the importance of the visual elements of his music during interviews. He’s produced a number of memorable clips, and has plans to make a horror movie set in Dublin.
Kojaque, meanwhile, is also a noted auteur. While studying creative arts at DIT, he won an RHA Student Graduate Award for his piece Love In Technicolour. His music videos have also been huge online hits and showcased his multi-media abilities.
“I think, especially with how people consume music these days, the visual aspect is incredibly important,” he notes. “So much of media now is just visual. It’s very difficult to tell someone that something is just strictly musical content. I think of the project almost like, ‘If this was a film, what would it look like? What would make it interesting? How would it look? How would the story progress?’ It’s almost treated as a script.”
The visual side of things is also important for Dublin-based artist Bobby Basil. Formerly a member of the alternative hip-hop duo Dah Jevu, Bobby emphasises that he always writes lyrics with the video in mind. His track ‘G Train’, a dark, bass-heavy affair, is as stylish as it is sinister. Now, buoyed by the success of other Irish hip-hop artists this year (he points to Kojaque and Paul Alwright as people he admires), Basil is getting set to release his debut album next year. His next release, a track called ‘Make Up’, has all of Irish rap’s current trademarks – innovative visuals, and an upending of masculine hip-hop stereotypes.
“I had a few breakthrough moments in my life recently where I talked to certain family members, openly,” he reflects. “I had a conversation with my mum where I was basically confessing things to her and crying for about two hours after. The day after that happened, I put up a very honest post completely contradicting my whole image. I felt like this aggressive guy that I’d made an image out of – I didn’t have to be that. And I felt cleansed.
“So then I wrote this song, basically me telling my girl that I loved how she looked even without her make-up. I had this idea for a music video to go with it. It’s a one-shot video of me doing a full face of make-up on myself with my girl in the background. I got a set designer in to basically make a fake make-up station, so it looks like I’m doing it to the mirror, but I’m actually doing it to the camera.”
The video works remarkably well. It’ll rank up alongside the likes the recent visual work of Rejjie Snow and Kojaque.
All of which isn’t to forget aforementioned Dublin MC Jafaris, whose latest music video involved him literally jumping out of a plane with a camera strapped to his jumpsuit. Its title, ‘Found My Feet’, also reflects what’s been going on in Irish hip-hop this year quite well…
One of the most obvious benefits of the growing scene has been that hip-hop artists are now actually getting booked for gigs they want to play. With this, there’s an expanding infrastructure of producers, mixers, and other music industry types working throughout Ireland. Erica Coady stresses this as well, emphasising that the likes of Clondalkin producer Marcus Woods, amongst others, have helped the scene grow. She also describes Diffusion Lab – a DIY production group responsible for taking artists like Soulé and Jafaris into the mainstream – as a “music powerhouse”.
That’s barely scratching the surface, of course. This is all before even mentioning the growing Limerick scene (rap trio Rusangano Family won the Choice Prize Award in 2017 for their album Let The Dead Bury The Dead); and the success of Word Up Collective, who’ve had a hand in bringing through the likes of R&B/soul group Super Silly, duo Tebi Rex, spoken word artist Felispeaks, and a legion of others.
Meanwhile, Irish rap mainstay Lethal Dialect has reinvented himself as Paul Alwright. On his 2018 album Hungry, he fused socially conscious rap with the Irish folk storytelling tradition, in a way that felt sincere and important. Elsewhere, Irish language duo Kneecap have shown that it’s possible to rap as Gaeilge in a Belfast accent and for it to actually sound pretty fucking amazing. Then you have Ringsend satirical act Versatile. They’ve captivated a generation of young fans, and created tracks with unbelievable production quality and searing videos to boot.
Hate it or love it, this the future of Irish music.