- 24 Jun 21
Ahead of the release of Strange Boy’s debut album, HOLY/UNHOLY, the Limerick rapper discusses blending trad with hip-hop, album pressures and how parts of Limerick have been neglected.
In 2020, Strange Boy announced himself as one of the most exciting prospects emerging from the Irish rap scene with ‘The Pope.’ Strange hopped on the Enda Gallery produced trad-rap beat to talk about his dreams of being the main in Vatican City. In a phone call, he opens up on why he wants to be the bearer of the two crossed keys. “Fucking money to be honest. Me man has fucking lots of money, obviously. And gold chains and shit like that so I definitely wanted that part,” he says laughing.
Strange Boy, whose real name is Jordan Kelly, doesn't seem interested in any day-to-day papal duties. It’s just as well as he has spent the last few months crafting one of the most intriguing albums of 2021, HOLY/UNHOLY. The Limerick rapper’s debut album is a bold infusion of trad and rap, a combination that could have trad purists raising their eyebrows but Strange Boy manages to marry the two beautifully.
“The only hip-hop in it is me rapping. I just wanted to see if it could be done. When I got the first few beats I was a bit shook ‘cause it’s very hard to rap over. The rhythm’s different, there’s not as many pockets you can jump on. Everything’s different towards a normal hip-hop beat,” he says.
Strange Boy’s career in hip-hop started away from the rhymes and bars as a beat boxer for his childhood friend Aaron McCarthy. Aaron played a significant role in Strange picking up the mic. “At the time I thought I was a fucking class beatboxer but I was obviously dog shit like. I went away then and started practicing beat boxing but in my head I was like fuck it I’ll write a rap just for the craic,” he says.
Aaron, “was the only person I was rapping my shit to, he was the only feedback I had. He’s definitely one of the main reasons I’m rapping,” he says. His first releases on Soundcloud featured boom bap and grime beats, far away from any banjo, fiddle or bodhran. But the idea of doing a trad album had been on his mind for years after an encounter with fellow Limerick rapper, Dyrt Davis.
“He showed me a few things he was working on. It was trad mixed with rap and it was fucking unbelievable. I was like that’s the shit you want to be doing because everything else then seemed like it was trying to appeal to the Yanks and Brits,” he says.
For Strange, trad strikes a chord within him in a way that few other genres can. “Any Irish person that hears trad I think it connects with them automatically because it’s an ancestral thing,” he says.
Enda Gallery helped him pursue this vision by crafting the album along with Strange in Kilfenora, Co. Clare. “I actually wouldn’t have been able to do the album without him and all his support and encouragement,” says Strange Boy.
Strange bleeds his anger, angst and poetic lyricism into the 10 track album, which was written at a time of tremendous personal turmoil for the 22 year old.
“When I was writing the album I was depressed off my fucking head because there was just shit going on in my family, like suicide attempts and all that shit. I was on edge the whole time and I knew I could wake up and find a loved one dead in front of me,” he says, “that’s why the whole album is just depressed fucking talk.”
Strange’s label, Welcome To The New World, didn't pressure him to write the album, he says. However, he felt obliged to honour his contract, which he did despite the circumstances.
Thankfully, Strange Boy and his family have recovered from their struggles. “I feel way better now man everything’s good in my family now. They got their mental health back together and everything's all good,” he says. And family plays a part on the new record, with Strange’s brother, Seán McNally Kelly featuring on ‘Forgotten,’ a new track recently premiered on Hot Press.
“Having him on it is gas out. The way that song came about, it was Paddy’s Day last year and I was playing the beats that Enda had sent me. We were all drinking and then he started singing to some of the beats. That was one of the things he sang. So we just said fuck it, we have to get him on that,” says Strange.
Part of Strange Boy’s identity centres around his home of Limerick, with his undiluted accent and numerous references to the city in his lyrics and music videos. He has a tight knit group around him encouraging him to keep going. “All the best people I know are here,” he says.
“When you’re growing up you’re in a gang of people and you’re doing stupid fucking shit because you’re a kid. You don’t know any better. But in general people are great, they’re all sound out “
Strange recognises the issues in his community and believes more could be done in disadvantaged areas in Limerick, but nobody is listening.
“A lot of shit could be done better for Limerick,” he says, “Like Moyross and Southhill and all those places. They’re gone to the dogs. There’s fucking nothing there. Just put money in there and give people something to fucking do instead of drinking and getting up to no good. There wouldn’t be nothing bad going on then. But sure fuck it, that’s the way things are.”
Strange seemed somewhat resigned to the state of affairs but remained hopeful for the future of Limerick. Although he did say that this has been an ongoing issue for years and nothing has yet been done about it.
“I don’t want to be a pessimist. There are good people in those communities trying to do shit for them anyway. I’m sure there’ll be a few things done. You have to fucking hassle the politicians to do these things because they don’t really give a fuck.”
As for Strange’s future, he plans to take a break before recording again. “I just want to get my head screwed on. I really want to know what I want to do in life because I don’t fully know if it’s music yet, so I’m gonna focus on that,” he says.
“To be honest I don’t even think I’ve taken it seriously yet. After this album is out I don’t think I’ll be making music for a while again, because the whole process was very fucking stressful.”
For an artist who hasn’t taken it seriously, he spits each syllable with pronounced sophistication, racking up punchline after punchline, similar to one of his idols, Big L. Strange reckons taking it seriously will come with time anyway.
“I’m a very impatient young fella. I just want shit in the short-term I don’t really see shit down the line which is a bit stupid. I suppose taking it seriously will just come naturally to me eventually.
Frightfully, he claims we haven’t even seen his best yet. “I definitely would like to write another really good album. I don’t think I showed people how good I am at rapping on my new album.” he says.