- 09 Aug 19
For some time now, there have been rumblings about the rising young Dublin hip-hop outfit, Versatile, and the lyrics of their songs. Over the past few weeks what had previously been a minority debate exploded into a bigger deal with people like Emma Dabiri and Erica Cody weighing in and attacking them – and with others calling for their gigs to be cancelled. Stuart Clark puts what might yet become a very bruising debate in context.
Last week the guy behind the @IrishMJ blog tweeted me asking, “Given Hot Press’ long history of standing up for women’s rights, fighting against racism and basically being decent folk, where do you stand on this? I’ve noticed a few Hot Press tweets supporting them, but none calling them out over their lyrics.”
Attached was a clip of the video for Versatile’s ‘Dublin City G’s’, more of which anon.
I messaged back: “It’s a good question and the answer, for me personally, is quite nuanced. Which Twitter isn’t. So, I’m going to write a piece for our next issue of Hot Press based on my interactions with Versatile and their fans.”
And so here we are. Before sticking Versatile in the dock, let me say that words and language matter as do intent and context. As you read it, be aware that no article is finished until you get to the end.
“Sell your brown on our turf and you’ll have to pay a toll/ Went and got whacked and we killed the Garda rat,” Versatile rap in ‘We Sell Brown’. When I interviewed Evan Kennedy, Casper Walsh and Eskimo Supreme for the first time before Christmas, it took me about a tenth of a second to work out that they don’t control the heroin trade in Ringsend and have never carried out an execution-style murder.
While Evan couldn’t be more serious about the beats he comes up with – musically they’re rollicking tunes – Casper and Eskimo (there’s a hint in the name) are playing roles in the same way that artists like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Blindboy Boatclub have done before them. These characters are constructs, albeit ones based loosely – very loosely, that is – on their own daily experiences of life in Dublin, rather than being (for example) an omnisexual alien rock star or a self-styled God of Fuck.
The most telling part of the Hot Press interview, I thought at the time, was Casper saying that prior to Versatile he was dead set on becoming an actor. “It was lethal getting into different characters,” he explained. For his part, Eskimo, who studied film at Ballyfermot CFE, reflected that, “I wanted to be a director; still kinda do.”
This predilection for a cinematic way of approaching what they do as artists is evident in the way Versatile have gone about making their videos. They’re elaborate productions that also make another thing clear about the group: that their intention is to be satirical. You are meant to hear the lyrics of the songs in the same way that you would the utterances of a character in a film.
Or to hear them in the way that you might a stand-up, or someone like Ali G – who frequently went very close to the bone in terms of stereotyping and even hate speech – playing someone dumb or unpleasant with deliberately mischievous intent.
Asked later whether himself and Casper are really misogynistic, racist drug dealers prone to outbursts of extreme violence or merely parodying those who are, Eskimo responded: “If you can’t laugh at life you’re fucked, basically. If what the people slating us are saying is legit, half their favourite films wouldn’t exist. At the end of the day, it’s just art.”
On one level then, Versatile’s defence to the various –isms they’ve been accused of both online and in the papers recently is that Robert De Niro isn’t really a cab-driving vigilante serial killer; Uma Thurman doesn’t think it’s okay to go round popping people’s eyes out with a samurai sword; and, contrary to him declaring that, “I’ve got a fat mot who truly loves me/ Always sucks my balls and makes me cups o tea”, this is not an accurate description of any girlfriend in Eskimo Supreme’s life.
This is not to suggest that imagining it as a kind of movie-in-the-making gives them an automatic entitlement to say anything. There is a difference, for example, between a film in which racism is presented in a way that shows how unpleasant and dangerous it is, and one where it is slyly endorsed. But there is nothing in how Versatile present the characters they portray to suggest that they think they are worthy of praise. You are meant to laugh at – not with – them.
It’s also important to consider the Versatile audience, who patently adore them. When the trio tore it up last year in front of 15,000 people at Electric Picnic, it was noticeable that there were as many teenage women in the big top going batshit crazy, as there were young men. As I said in my review on that occasion, it reminded me of when the Beastie Boys first pitched up, all mouths blazing, on this side of the Atlantic with their 20-foot tall hydraulic penis and got the full-on moral outrage treatment from The Daily Mirror.
It has always been a credo around here that just because something is popular it doesn’t mean that it’s good. That remains as true now as ever, which is why Hot Press has been a more-or-less Love Island-free zone over the past month.
But the idea that we should be offended on behalf of Versatile fans, when they’re patently not offended at all themselves, seems a bit strange. Without a doubt, there is a generational thing at work here. I don’t spend huge amounts of time hanging out with schoolkids, but when I’ve been in the company of the children of close friends I’ve seen lots of girls call the boys “cunt” and vice versa in a matter-of-fact way that I certainly didn’t when I was their age, and wouldn’t dream of doing now. It is a word that I will never use as a term of abuse. In contrast – crude or not – a lot of teenagers seem to have got to the stage that they see it as an equal opportunities profanity.
I’ve also heard white kids use the ‘N’-word to refer to themselves and their friends. This is something that I hate hearing. Instinctively, I think it is wrong – which I’ll come to in a minute.
But that it is a direct outgrowth of the wider polarisation of rap and hip-hop culture is absolutely clear. Dublin is not Alabama, and the reasons for using the ‘N’-word are different. If anything, it results from an – admittedly ersatz and possibly innocent – internalisation of the ownership a lot of black artists have taken of the ‘N’-word, from Niggaz With Attitude onwards.
What’s obvious too is that part of what Versatile are parodying is the way in which those kids act out their adolescent XXXTentacion wannabe fantasies. You could call it a profane Dublin 4 take on The Offspring’s ‘Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)’.
And then there’s the trying to annoy the grown-ups aspect of it. Ever since Elvis outraged America by gyrating his pelvis, it’s been the job of young rock ‘n’ rollers – and now hip hoppers – to in some way scandalise the generation that’s come before them.
Imagine how disappointed you’d have been if your dad had come in and said, “What’s that Eminem fella singing? ‘There’s a four-year-old boy lyin’ dead in your living room, ha-ha?’ Lovely, I must get a lend of that off you.”
Taking the piss out of what is essentially you and your mates is one thing, but where Versatile stray into more difficult – maybe even treacherous – territory is when, as on the aforementioned ‘Dublin City G’s’, they start rapping stuff like: “All my side bitches are dark skinned and kissing and licking my dick/ They prefer it to chicken/ Listen, it’s hard to please a black woman especially when they think your white dick’s the size of nothin’/ Compared to black flutes that they are usually suckin’.”
Are Versatile trying to be ironic and funny again? I think so. Does it work? It is a moment that makes me flinch. There are times when the comedian has to know – no matter what the intention – that the joke isn’t worth the candle.
Among the people who have attacked Versatile, via-social media are Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair and Erica Cody, the 22-year-old Dublin singer of immensely powerful R&B songs who is very clear what those lyrics mean to her as a young black woman.
“This is not hip hop – most certainly not the face of the hip hop scene in Ireland,” she says in a series of posts. “This is not ‘ah, it’s only a joke’. This is the normalisation of classist, racist, homophobic and sexist lyrics that have now managed to become a part of mainstream Irish media.
“This shit makes me so fucking angry,” she continues. “Our scene is finally thriving and the quality of music is incredible in the urban hip hop scene full of artists who encourage and respect the culture and don’t get half the recognition that these lot do.
“I love seeing Ireland and its creatives succeed and strive for greatness. I just won’t sit back and say nothing when the success is at the expense of minorities and glamorises and portrays pure ugliness. “One last thing,” she concludes. “To anyone who says I’m ‘jealous’ or ‘not supporting Irish music’... I am not jealous of the horrific lyricism aka homophobia, casual racism and sexism. That is not an art form, hun.”
There was a response to Erica’s post from Nealo, a white Dublin rapper who’s recently stormed Longitude, KnockanStockan and Sea Sessions. “If black Irish people say they are hurt by the lyrics in that Versatile song, then they are completely valid,” he says. “White people don’t get to decide what does and what doesn’t count as racism. We don’t experience what they go through on a regular basis. This is factual.”
It still comes back to the question, however: is writing foul-mouthed-ness into a character automatically racist or misogynistic? And where does that leave the history of rap and hip-hop? When the first Niggaz With Attitude album, Straight Outta Compton was released, it was widely attacked for its explicit lyrics and for promoting violence. The track ‘Fuck Tha Police’ was censored on versions of the record. The follow-up Niggaz4Life was even more obviously misogynistic in its lyrical content.
@IrishMJ is right. Hot Press has always campaigned for equality and for women’s rights and will continue to do so energetically. It has also campaigned fiercely against racism, which is far more common in Ireland than is currently acknowledged. That campaign will continue too. But we have also fought against censorship, and for freedom of speech. Black and white positions are easy to adopt, but things are often not as simple as they might seem at first glance.
The PMRC, a conservative group of self-appointed moral police tried to get Niggaz4Life removed from the shelves, and their campaign extended to Ireland when the tabloids here took it up. In Hot Press at the time, Bill Graham argued strongly against any such move. The view he took was that censoring the album was wrong; and that there were elements of racism in the campaign to stop its distribution. But we also pointed out the deeply misogynistic nature of the lyrics.
Niggaz With Attitude were the original gangsta rap group and set the tone for much of what followed. Looked at from the perspective of a bunch of white critics – blokes and women – in Ireland, their lyrics, on songs like ‘One Less Bitch’, were truly appalling. But they – and their alumni – are still revered as some of the most important black artists of the past 30 years.
The truth is that much of hip-hop, including the work of acts as diverse as Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, Azealia Banks, Tyler The Creator, Ice Cube, Eminem, Dirty Dike, Kanye and 6ix9ine, veers into confrontational unpleasantness that can variously be seen as horribly misogynistic, an incitement to violence or just plain nasty.
Has everyone who is criticising Versatile listened exhaustively to the biggest names in hip-hop? Where do they stand on all of the accumulated songs that depict women as mere vessels for men to use and abuse? What do they feel every time they hear the words ‘bitch’ or ‘ho’? And might it not be the case that this is one of the tropes that Versatile have been actively trying to satirise?
It is a good thing to see the lyrics of any Irish band being debated. And anyone who takes offence is perfectly entitled to. They might even be right in their interpretation. In Hot Press, where we see misogyny and racism, we will oppose it, in every way that we can.
But the discussion has to be framed in the wider context of the nature of artifice; the differences between writers and the characters they create; the ease with which people now take offence at comedians – and so on. As I said in response to @IrishMJ there are nuances involved. And as Versatile have discovered, it is a thorny subject.
That much we can say for certain.