- 18 Oct 23
The Belfast rap trio received an unruly welcome on Monday night from Los Angeles, leaving their unique mark on The Echo for the last stop of the group’s North American tour run.
The attention Kneecap have boldly asked for – and rightly received – over the past few years has taken the rap trio out of the ‘underground’ rap scene and thrown them into aboveground territory for some time now.
Still, it’s a far jump from their native West Belfast to Los Angeles, where Mo Chara, Móglai Bap and DJ Próvaí found themselves Monday night.
Challenges face any international artist trying to build a fanbase outside of their own country, yet those challenges are even more niche for Kneecap, a band that has built most of their music off the history of their oppressed state and a terse relationship with the English government. How could a group like Kneecap expect Angelanos to relate to something most of us didn’t even learn in history class?
Having seen the rebellious Belfast rappers perform on stages in Ireland, that was the curious question in the back of my head on Monday night as the Kneecap boys made their final North American tour stop in Los Angeles – my hometown, but 5,000 miles from their own.
Opening act Belaganas brought their turbulent hip-hop/bedroom pop blend to the stage, proving to be the perfect calamity before the storm of the night ahead. Frontmen Joey J and Shanker riled up the crowd as they stomped across the platform, with Nick Wille getting hearts pumping with some heavy-hitting drumming.
When the trio finally made their entrance, the crowd morphed into a tidal wave toward the stage, immediately jumping along to the loaded beat of ‘ITS BEEN AGES.’ Matching their energy from the jump, the audience cheered on the Kneecap guys with equal parts excitement and admiration; the latter of which comes naturally with an act that manages to rhyme ‘mural’ with ‘epidural.’
Taking a pause before their second track, DJ Próvaí placed a party hat on birthday boy Mo Chara as Móglai Bap held a single lit candle. The crowd sang ‘Happy Birthday,' and Mo Chara told us, “That’s the nicest thing that’s happened in this whole town."
Swapping their usual Buckfast for beer – the tonic wine is illegal in the States because apparently we don’t know how to have fun – the boys launched into ‘Amach Anocht.’ The crowd showed no sign of not understanding a single word they rapped, a fact the Kneecap guys picked up on. “This is shaping up nicely,” Mo Chara grinned, “and we're only getting fucking started.”
Kneecap surveyed the population of the room, receiving a surprisingly loud response when they asked if there were any Irish in the crowd. Then a moment of silence when the same question was flipped to the English in the room.
“Just kidding!” they joked, “We don’t hate the English, we hate the English government.” A line that served as the perfect segway into ‘Fenian Cunts.’
The track might be brash by American standards, but Kneecap’s only real weapon is satire. And it was one they wielded with expertise onstage, singing a song which ends in the frontmen going to bed with a protestant. Over DJ Próvaí’s sleek production, the crowd recited the hooky lines right back at the rappers with abandon. Kneecap held out the mic to their audience and looked, to put it mildly, quite pleased.
‘Thart agus Thart’ proved another unexpected hit. Mo Chara demanded even more as he instructed the crowd to rush into the pit, evidently inciting a mini riot – which is against concert policy in the U.S., but who’s telling?
“Sometimes people have a hard time understanding us, not just here but in Ireland, too,” they said. “If you just took some mushrooms and are having a hard time understanding, don’t worry. Some of these lyrics are in Irish and English.”
The language barrier fell to the side on ‘Incognito,’ though, as the crowd passionately echoed the impromptu lines, “Fuck BBC,” and added a few of their own: “Fuck CNN, Fuck CPS!”
Kneecap also teased a few unreleased tracks throughout the night. If there’s a benefit to rapping in a language most of your audience can’t understand, it would be this: the unreleased tracks were received with as much chaotic energy as Kneecap’s classics.
Introducing ‘Sick In The Head’ as a track on the new album – “coming out soon,” confirmed Móglai Bap – the boys declared, “A lot of the tracks so far have been a little chill. Let’s take things up.” Though I’m not sure how true that is after they had an entire room of Americans shouting “Fenian cunts,” everyone willingly obliged.
The unreleased track pulsed with an old-school beat, leading into a big chorus that nearly brought the poster-strewn walls of the Echo down. As if the energy couldn’t get more chaotic, ‘Your Sniffer Dogs Are Shite’ was downright lethal, though Móglai Bap and the crowd showed no sign of slowing down as Mo Chara rapped with his brand of rapid-fire flow.
The room rattled with the strong house intro of another new one, ‘I Bhfiacha Linne’ (dug myself into an internet black hole figuring out how to spell that one). Robotic verse vocals and a driving bassline made the unreleased track a standout of the night. Their crowd glowed with pride as the boys confirmed, “This is probably the best gig of the tour,” adding, “Youse are fucking legends and we appreciate the energy.”
Another unreleased track, ‘Fine Art,’ received a grand response, with the kind of hard-knock syncopation you could feel in your throat and a rhythmic heartbeat. Kneecap returned to their classic hits, but not before inquiring about the ticket prices for the night.
“How much was the ticket?” they asked. “$35? That’s a fucking bargain!”
Throwing it back to the group's first bedroom-produced tune, the boys joked as they introduced the next track. “We stopped wanking for five minutes and wrote this tune!”
Seamlessly blending rave energy with hip-hop flow, ‘C.E.A.R.T.A.’ showcased the dynamic aspect of the duo that is Mo Chara and Móglai Bap. They appeared soulfully tied as they moved across the small stage with synchronised style.
‘Guilty Conscience’ came next, a song the guys introduced by saying, “We have a big problem with landlords in Ireland.” A problem Los Angeles residents, finally, could relate to.
They offered waters to the crowd – “These are free, we didn’t pay for them,” they laughed – before getting a bit serious and addressing the current crisis in Palestine. As the room erupted into chants of “Free Palestine,” the Kneecap guys shared, “We’ve also got an occupational force where we live in the North of Ireland. The British government still control six counties where we live.”
“Get them out!” interrupted a voice from the sea of the crowd.
“Funny you say that,” Móglai Bap responded, slyly eyeing his right hand partner, “this is ‘Get Your Brits Out.’
The crowd seemed to echo the message of Kneecap’s entire movement, chanting with a wanton recklessness that only bolstered the boys onstage. The crowd jumped up and down as one entity right into the final song of the set, ‘H.O.O.D.’
As the room caught its breath, Kneecap left one last mark on the Echo. “The security guard encouraged me to smoke a joint onstage,” said Móglai Bap, as he lit up before the crowd, a cloud of smoke enveloping him. “Can’t do that shit in Ireland, I’ll tell you that!”
Their audience stuck around long after the Kneecap boys departed, basking in the fiery glow of their electric performance – and returning their heart rates to a steady pace – and the answer to the question I walked into the night with was staring right at me, in the shape of a breathless, packed Los Angeles venue.
How would a group like Kneecap expect Americans to relate? Answer: they don’t – that’s their winning hand.
Kneecap made it clear they didn’t expect their Echo Park audience to understand them; they didn’t expect their rage to be reflected in the faces of their crowd. But they did expect energy. And energy is exactly what they got.