- 03 Feb 20
Irish hip-hop is on an upward trajectory and now Malaki is storming the barricades with ace new EP Butterfly Boy
“It’s so weird to be here,” Hugh O’Byrne remarks with an appropriate level of incredulity. He doesn’t mean the Hot Press offices, where we’re sitting. He’s referring to his journey. A year ago, O’Byrne and his production partner Matthew Harris were working menial jobs, spending spare time fiddling with the early stages of what would become O’Byrne’s astonishing debut EP, Butterfly Boy. Under the Malaki moniker, O’Byrne released a string of singles – all of which garnered attention – before unleashing Butterfly Boy late last year. Today, the two artists are riding the considerable wave of acclaim it’s garnered.
Despite their obvious closeness, Harris and O’Byrne have only known each other since just before Malaki’s inception. They met through one of O’Byrne’s ex-girlfriends. “Basically, she fucked off and we got really close,” O’Byrne quips.
“I still have that video of the very first time you were freestyling,” adds Harris. “I saw that you loved hip-hop, and that was important to me.” O’Byrne and Harris are like opposite sides of the same coin, their equilibrium based on an intense creative bond. O’Byrne is the wordsmith, providing smart, spitfire verses for Harris’ man-behind-the-curtain. Harris is responsible for the genre-blending music – at times experimenting with funk, jazz, alternative, and even trap. In another’s hands, it might muddle the ethos of the whole operation, but Harris manages to keep his melodies piercingly on message.
Malaki is “an Irish name, meaning ‘messenger,’” O’Byrne tells me, wearing it with solemn pride. He is part of a growing group of Irish hip-hop artists who feel a responsibility to be socially conscious, and with that comes the necessary discussion of toxic masculinity, and its effect on Irish youth in particular.
Hip-hop has long been criticised for its contribution to the culture of toxic masculinity, rather than its dismantling. “With some songs, you’re rapping just for the fun of it. You’re talking about clothes, money, or women. But I always wanted to show an awareness of certain things people don’t like to talk about openly – like mental health, homelessness, drug abuse or feeling isolated as a young boy,” O’Byrne says. “At some stage people reach this climax where they go ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I wanted to write about the limits you reach. Long story short, rapping about mental health has given me a newfound confidence to speak to people about my pain. Something I feel everyone should try.”
Coming from the alternative scene, where showing your sensitive side is more accepted, doesn’t make Harris immune to pressure. “There’s always an unspoken set of standards for boys in secondary schools that I’ve never felt comfortable with,” he reflects. “I was never very sporty and tended to enjoy more creative outlets. It was definitely hard to put out my first song in sixth year and show a more vulnerable side to myself, with the possibility of being ridiculed. With hip-hop, you can’t help but listen to the words. I think it’s crucial to be responsible for what you’re saying.”
Butterfly Boy tackles transformation and heartbreak through the lens of growing up in an ever-changing Dublin, on the cusp of its recent hip-hop renaissance. “It’s great that people no longer think of Dublin rap as a joke,” O’Byrne says.
“Dublin’s a weird place to try to find identity,” Harris notes. “There’s a space where you feel you don’t have anything to build on. I think writing and speaking about – or drawing attention to – issues which are unique to Dublin sets this sort of music apart. Irish humour, satire and witticism is very strong in Dublin hip-hop.”
He’s not wrong. Butterfly Boy is often serious, so its moments of levity are welcome. The swaggering ‘Spreadsheets And Love Notes’ pulls cheeky references from nursery rhymes while Malaki raps earnestly about young love. The EP’s sincere conclusion begins at the interlude, in an unplanned conversation between O’Byrne and his mother. Appropriately titled ‘I’m Grand’, the two have a heart-to-heart about how easily problems are explained away with that all-encompassing phrase.
“What she said was the best she could have said. Everything was so perfectly referring to the EP and myself,” O’Byrne muses. “Butterfly Boy is really just a transformation from one point to another and how we are now pursuing this passion for music together. ‘Boy’ is a personification of myself.”
Does he still feel like a boy, then? “I’m a boy,” he laughs. “I think we all are. You have to think of yourself with a boy’s heart – or a girl’s heart. Growing up is good, but there’s a lot of responsibility. It’s nice to have that childish…” he trails off, and Harris picks up the thought where O’Byrne left it: “wonder.”
“Obviously we’re mature and respectful,” O’Byrne finishes, “but I’m still going to take the piss and have a good time. It’s nice to be that Peter Pan way. Keep that boyish way about you.”
Butterfly Boy is out now. Malaki plays Whelan’s, Dublin on March 21.