- 13 Feb 20
As they get ready to co-star in the Hot Press curated Carnival Spirit by Southern Comfort night of Mardi Gras, Tebi Rex’s Matt O Baoill and Max Zanga talk about their debut album The Young Will Eat The Old, the dangers of fame and what makes Irish hip-hop so special.
Relaxing over a cup of mint tea in Matt O Baoill’s living-room, you’d have no idea that he and Max Zanga are rapidly climbing to the top of the Irish hip-hop scene. Even less so that international stardom beckons.
The musicians who make up Tebi Rex are ultra-relaxed, bantering like childhood friends. In fact, they met first at a talent show in Maynooth University, and later reconnected when Zanga asked on social media if anyone wanted to make music, citing Childish Gambino and Kate Bush as inspirations. O Baoill auditioned and the two clicked.
They’ve spent the past few years crafting a unique sound that blends hip-hop with pop, indie rock – and whatever else a particular song calls for. While their roots are in rap, but they let the songs define the genre organically. Currently, they live – and write – in separate towns, collaborating via Facebook messages and audio clips.
“It’s a lot easier to give notes about things you don’t like when it’s over Facebook,” Zanga reflects with a grin. “You’re not seeing the person’s face when you tell them, ‘Nah!’”
Tebi Rex’s debut album, The Young Will Eat The Old, was released last year. The project blurs genre lines with light, poppy tracks and heavier alt-rap ones. The whole thing revolves around a concept: the rise and fall of the celebrity. It’s partially rooted in Greek mythology, inspired by the great 18th Century Spanish artist, Francisco Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son. Zanga describes the painting, which tells the story of Saturn eating his son to remain in power, as “really gnarly”. Like Saturn, the theory goes, celebrities’ egos are over-inflated by all that fan worship.
“We have such a weird relationship with fame,” Zanga reflects. “We wanted the album to be like the process of becoming God. Maybe the closer we get to being God, the shittier we are as people.”
The result, he says, is an obsession that turns unhealthy quickly.
“If Kanye West murdered my parent, I might still like the music,” Zanga admits. “It’s a really unhealthy relationship with this complete stranger.”
The divide between artist and fan is sometimes hard to negotiate.
“It happens in these weird, small moments,” O Baoill says, “where maybe someone who’s really into your music meets you in person and you can tell they’re acting a bit strange, You’re like, ‘Oh, that’s weird’. You don’t want them to feel that way, and you nearly feel guilty. It’s a very strange feeling.”
“I think being famous is maybe fucked up,” Zanga reflects. “But I also want to be famous so I can live off this. It’s a weird kind of loophole.”
Either way, Tebi Rex believe that what they say in a song lyric is important. Zanga remembers the moment he finally understood a lyric in a song.
“I used to love Odd Future and Earl Sweatshirt,” he recalls. “I would listen to a song for a year, then one day I’d hear a lyric and I’m like, ‘Oh… oh!’ and then the whole song becomes new and you can re-listen to it. I love that kind of thing where you’re not spoon-fed in the lyrics.”
The duo want their fans to have those kind of “a-ha!” moments when they hear the lyrics – even if it means confusing each other during the writing process.
“The whole album I’m trying to embody the god Poseidon,” Zanga smiles. “‘Robbin Szn’ is a stupid one, but I really like it. It goes ‘I see seashells on the sea floor.’ And Matt’s like, ‘Why are you saying that?’ And I’m like, ‘Why am I on the sea floor? I’m Poseidon… God of water! God of the sea!’”
O Baoill gets similarly excited explaining the little references he’s hidden, ranging from mythology to poetry, even Gossip Girl. Before Irish hip-hop reached its current, burgeoning cult status, that poetry was crucial to Tebi Rex’s rise. They couldn’t find gig opportunities. Then they twigged a connection: rap and poetry aren’t that different.
“We really wanted to play gigs so we were hijacking spoken word shows, slam poetry sessions, being like, ‘Hey, here’s us on the guitar! We’re going to do one poem, and the rest is songs. We’re rapping now’. We have really fond memories of that,” O Baoill laughs.
Now, great Irish hip-hop artists are popping up left, right and centre. The Tebi Rex boys think there’s something special about Ireland’s take on the genre.
“There’s a flavour to Irish hip-hop that’s not there in other countries,” O Baoill insists. “I think it’s because Ireland has shot out so many poets and has had so much poetry. Even when you listen to Junior Brother or Lankum, that poetry is still really instilled. That’s really shining through in Irish hip-hop.”
Zanga has another take on it.
“A lot of Irish hip-hop lacks ego in the best way possible,” he says. This is coming from a man who wrote his M.A. thesis about the genre. “It’s more self-deprecating, a little bit more funny,” he explains. “The big Irish rappers are not perceived to be hard, or even particularly cool. It’s like nerdy rap. It doesn’t have the veneer of coolness – they’re just people.”
It seems now that international music industry is starting to catch on to Irish rap. Hot on the heels of a full-length album, a showcase at Irish Music Week and a sold-out Dublin headliner, Tebi Rex got a call from South by Southwest, the influential showcase in Texas. They’re heading out to Austin in March.
“We weren’t expecting it,” O Baoill beams. “We got the call and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fucking wild!’”
It’s all part of the plan to break out of the Irish scene and see if their sound travels.
“I’m hoping, I’m praying, that we do SXSW and we get some international festivals from it,” Zanga says. “Go to America, go to Germany, go to France. It’d be grand.”
“I just want to be walking around warm campsites,” O Baoill adds with a laugh. “I’m really excited to go over and be my most Irish self.”
They’re in Texas for St. Paddy’s Day. But first there’s an Hot Press and Southern Comfort’s upcoming Carnival Spirit Mardi Gras night in Dublin’s brilliant Lost Lane venue, which also features Booka Brass, Jess “Soul” Kavanagh, DJ Tara “Star Time” Stewart, DJ Marcus “Voodoo” O’Laoire – and a host of other musicians, magicians, jugglers, stilt walkers and more!
“I love the line-up, the venue and the event,” O Baoill concludes. “We’re gonna absolutely go for it!” And all the rest of us too!
Tebi Rex appear as part of the Southern Comfort “Carnival Spirit”, presented by Hot Press on Mardi Gras night, February 25 in Lost Lane. Apply for complimentary tickets here.
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