- 25 Nov 20
Dublin rapper Nealo opens up about influences, stigma, doubt, the Irish hip-hop community and his acclaimed debut album, All The Leaves Are Falling.
With unabashedly earnest lyrics and roots in hardcore punk, former law-student-turned dog-walker Nealo has emerged as an unlikely hero of Irish hip-hop. But if the remarkable success of the genre on these shores has taught us anything, it’s that Irish rappers triumph in their unique ability to shrug off predictability – from West Belfast gaeilgeoir rappers selling out UK and US shows, to Drogheda drill artists switching seamlessly between Yoruba, Irish slang, and anime references.
While many other successful Irish rappers have leaned heavily into humour as a lyrical tool – perhaps a reflection of our own historic discomfort with taking ourselves too seriously, in fear of being branded with ‘notions’ – Nealo’s debut album All The Leaves Are Falling is notable for the sheer fact that it is unapologetically sincere. Embracing a central message of love and positivity, the project finds Nealo breaking down the social stigmas that have long pervaded Irish culture.
“There’s a stigma attached to talking about loss and grief – as an Irish male especially,” he says. “As Irish people, we tend not to really discuss those things as much. That’s why I think we have such a high suicide rate here, and such a high level of emigration. We tend to shy away from speaking about the things that are inevitable in life – like death.”
Does he reckon that’s changing?
“It’s definitely changing, but it’s quite slow, especially compared to other countries,” Nealo reasons. “Things like going to therapy – even though that’s been destigmatised here a little bit, I still don’t catch my mates talking about it at all, even though I know half of them go.”
In many ways, All The Leaves Are Falling could be framed as an Irish answer to Saba’s CARE FOR ME – delving into loss in a similarly introspective and vulnerable vein, while also making jazz-flavoured musical references to the Chicago rapper’s grief-stricken masterpiece. The two worlds collided when Nealo opened for Saba in The Academy last year.
“Although I didn’t set out wanting it to sound like Saba, he was definitely an influence, subconsciously,” Nealo acknowledges. “We’re similar artists in a lot of ways, and we write about similar stuff. Stylistically, I’d hope to be close to that whole Chicago scene of Saba, Noname, Mick Jenkins and Chance the Rapper.”
“When you’re listening to a grime rapper, they’re very much on the hi-hats, and they’re very linear,” he continues. “But when you listen to Saba or Mick Jenkins, they go in and out of the beat, and it’s very free-flowing. It’s not all that aggressive, either – just sitting back on some jazz instrumentals. I naturally started going towards that style, with the instrumentation from INNRSPACE, Fiachra, Adam and Uly.”
The laidback style is a sharp contrast to the hardcore bands Nealo initially cut his teeth in. However, as the rapper argues, there are some surprising similarities between both the Irish hip-hop and hardcore scenes.
“They’re both very communal,” he reveals. “And they’re both on the cutting edge of social justice issues – especially Irish hip-hop these days. Maybe it’s because of the position that Ireland is in right now, in terms of it changing so much, but the hip-hop scene tends to hop onto whatever the big social issues are – which is great to see. The hardcore punk scene would be very similar in that way.
“But there’s differences too – in how mainstream hip-hop has become, and how underground hardcore is, and probably always will be. I never got any kind of coverage in my old band, even though we were touring America and Europe. Hip-hop has become so mainstream now that it is pop music, basically.”
Like the regional hip-hop styles dotted throughout the US, Nealo is hopeful that the homegrown rappers on these shores will one day cultivate a distinctive Irish hip-hop sound of their own.
“We haven’t found it yet, that’s for sure,” he admits. “The beauty of our scene right now is how diverse it is – you have all different sounds, from Hazey Haze, God Knows and Denise Chaila in Limerick; to Mango; to the drill stuff that’s going on – and everything in between. I think that’s amazing. But I’m confident that we will find a sound, eventually. And Jesus – the world better be ready when we do!”
As well as touching on personal issues in his music, Nealo has used his platform to discuss the major issues facing Irish society and the wider world, including Black Lives Matter. As a white artist in hip-hop, does he feel there’s a responsibility to speak out?
“It depends on who you are,” he muses. “Personally, I do feel a responsibility as a hip-hop artist, and especially as a white one, to talk about Black Lives Matter – and to talk about racism in Ireland in general. We do have a major issue in Ireland with racism. As someone who makes music with black people, and as someone who makes what is culturally black music, I feel a personal responsibility to speak on that, and be an ally when I need to be. At times it can be uncomfortable, because the history of white people is quite uncomfortable – not especially in Ireland, but we still have a responsibility to do the right thing, and educate ourselves.”
Of course, aside from providing a new arena for activism, social media is too often used as a platform for mindless hate. Nealo has been refreshingly open about his own experiences being on the receiving end of this kind of online toxicity.
“It’s hard, I’m not going to lie,” he reveals. “I don’t know if it’s because my profile has gotten bigger over the last while, but even in these last few weeks, I seem to be getting a load of negative messages. The first year I was doing this, nobody ever said anything bad to me. So maybe it’s a sign of good things?
“There was one stage where I thought, ‘I’m getting way better at this – reading these messages and laughing at them’. But then they could arrive on the wrong day, when I’m really stressed, and they really get to me. It’s hard – it gets right at your ego.”
And with his young son Jacob to think of, Nealo admits that there are days when the struggle of being an artist in Ireland becomes hard to bear – particularly after sacrificing a career in law to focus on his music.
“There are definitely days where I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, I could be comfortable right now’,” he says. “Especially with a baba, because I’m thinking, ‘Shit – am I taking away from him financially, by chasing this?’ But at the same time, as my wife always says to me, ‘All he ever wants from you is your time. He doesn’t want money, or stuff like that – he wants for you to be around’. If I was chasing the legal profession, I’d probably be gone a lot more than I am now.”
Although it took plenty of courage to walk away from a steady career in order to prioritise his music, Nealo argues that he had no viable alternative.
“I think I struggle with messed up moods a bit – where I get really low, or else I get really high,” he explains. “If I worked a 9-to-5 job, in an office, in a suit-and-tie, I don’t think I could survive. So the choice was already made for me. I knew what would happen if I went down the wrong road. It had already started manifesting in partying too much from Friday to Monday, because I was trying to escape my Monday to Friday. That’s a sign that you’re probably not in the place you want to be. That’s not going to get better through the years. It’s only going to get worse.
“So on those days when I think, ‘Shit, did I make the right decision here?’, I find something good will happen with my music, or I’ll just realise that, ‘Hey, I don’t have to go to an office today’. That in itself is lovely – to just be out in the forest walking dogs, and writing songs. That’s the payoff.”
• All The Leaves Are Falling is out now.