- 29 Jun 21
A rising star of Irish hip hop, Cabra’s Kojaque delivers a devastating critique of Dublin’s establishment on his extraordinary new album. He weighs in on the controversy over Portobello Plaza, the demonising of young people and the impact of gentrification. And he explains why he, Fontaines D.C. and David Balfe’s For Those I Love are fellow travellers.
The new album from rapper Kojaque is pointedly called Town’s Dead. Kojaque, aka 26-year-old Kevin Smith, has been based in London for most of the past year. But it’s perfectly obvious to which “town” the Cabra-raised artist is referring with lines such as “You could try the house share, try rentin’ / Bit of money for the landlord’s pension”. Hint: it’s the one with the snaggle-toothed skyline and the low-density sprawl all the way to Westmeath. The one where young people daring to congregate in public are demonised as a clear-and-present threat to the social order.
“In London I managed to find somewhere cheaper than anywhere I could find in Dublin,” he says. “A lot of the record comes from that frustration of living in a place that doesn’t provide for the needs of people. And from watching friends and family having to emigrate or move back in with their parents. Some of my friends in salaried jobs are still living at home.”
Town’s Dead is officially Kojaque’s debut long-player (his two previous releases are billed as mix-tapes). With stream-of-consciousness wordplay framed by languid, jazz-splashed grooves, it is sure to reaffirm his status as among the most exciting talents in Irish hip hop. Somehow it manages to be both a deeply lyrical call-to-arms and an irresistible chill-out LP.
It is also just one of a number of remarkable recent projects to wrestle with Dublin’s identity crisis. There was Fontaines D.C.’s Dogrel. And this year’s reissue of For Those I Love’s debut – a meditation on depression and suicide but also a valentine to musician David Balfe’s upbringing in Coolock.
“They’re both amazing records,” says Smith. “For Those I Love is unbelievable. I was a massive fan of Burnt Out [Balfe’s band with his late friend Paul Curran, whose suicide instigated For Those I Love]. They had that great post-punk sound. Paul sounded like King Krule or someone – with how gravelly his voice was. His lyrics would hit you in the chest. I was devastated when he passed away.”
Town’s Dead was written last year and is proving depressingly prescient. It finds Kojaque chronicling a New Year’s Eve around town, as he lurches from party to party, meets former romantic partners and reflects on the pit of despair into which Dublin has plunged.
Yet it also speaks to the wider experience of being young in the city today. Smith was forcefully reminded of that as he read of the City Council’s decision to shutter Portobello Plaza and the ongoing reluctance, at the start of our big, fat ‘Outdoor Summer’, to install new bins and toilets. The logic being that if you build it they will come. And who would want that?
“Often young people are seen as a nuisance,” he says. “Wanting to go and socialise is anti-social somehow. I’ve watched friends being arrested for going and meeting up outside and having a drink. It’s just not like that in any other European city. There’s a real sense we can’t have nice things here. Simultaneously there’s a weird sense that we deserve that. Often I see living in Ireland as a penance – as an answer to our sins.”
Kojaque’s big breakthrough was 2018’s Deli Daydreams. That LP was put out on Soft Boy Records, the label he started with friend Kean Kavanagh. Town’s Dead is co-released with Different Records, operating out of his new home of London.
The move to the UK came about largely by accident. Smith started recording Town’s Dead in early 2020. Several weeks into the process he went to London to work with a producer. Then the producer caught Covid and they had to take a break. Meanwhile, as lockdown followed lockdown it was increasingly difficult to get home.
“Britain definitely has its problems,” says Smith. “And it has provided us with a great deal of problems as well. The fact there are no meeting places in Dublin is a direct result of British occupation. There are no public squares in Dublin, you’ll notice. The idea was to disincentivise rebellions. If you don’t have to somewhere to meet…”.
This brings him back around to the pearl-clutching over recent mass gatherings at Portobello and South William Street.
“That [the lack of meeting places] is exactly the reason we see everyone in Portobello drinking at weekends. If there were proper facilities, toilets so that people weren’t pissing against shop fronts – and proper bins. The idea that there aren’t enough places for people to go… so we’ll fence off the remaining areas is absolutely perplexing. You are almost incentivising people to have gaff parties, which is obviously far worse.”
Growing up in Cabra, he was acutely aware of the invisible lines of class and privilege criss-crossing Ireland.
“The stereotyping is something that would have come up a lot when I was a kid. Particularly when I was coming into teenage years and going over to the southside. I remember getting rejected from [a well known rugby disco] one night because we were from Cabra, which was bizarre. Leaving four 14-year-olds outside with no mobile phone between them because you were from the wrong place.”
Cabra has gentrified to an extent since his childhood. Smith address the subject on the new record: “Now the corpos knockin’ down the flats,” he raps on the title-track. “Just to build a few gaffs / Just to fill ‘em with some triple barrel surnames.”
“Stoneybatter has become one big pizza oven,” he says. “Sourdough pizza, of course. It used to not be like that. Even within the past 10 years there were times it wasn’t the nicest to walk down. That’s it: cheaper places get sold to the young up-and-coming. It’s quite hard to legislate against. It’s difficult seeing older generations pushed out and [Stoneybatter and other neighbourhoods] turned into Instagram happy places.”
Kojaque talks frankly about his mental health – along with Dublin’s existential crisis, it’s the major theme of Town’s Dead. Naturally shy, early on live performance was a bit of an ordeal. He’s grown into it now. And speaking to him it is clear he is determined to step up to the next level as an artist – both creatively and commercially.
“There’s loads of sick people doing amazing stuff around the city,” he says. “All trying to be the biggest and best. That’s the attitude of a lot of people in this game. That’s what you’ve got to believe. And it’s taken me a long time to have that confidence. I’m delighted with the music I’m making. I’m very proud of it.”
• Town’s Dead is out now on Different Records
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