- 02 Sep 21
Hot Press sits down with Stillorgan's own hip-hop sensation to discuss his exhilarating new EP - out today - comparing London to his hometown, the influence of Emmet Kirwan on modern masculinity, his unbreakable bond with Matthew Harris and channeling his psyche into a devilish masked alter ego.
Having just performed a captivating Malaki show at the Academy for a Government-funded event, 21-year-old Hugh Mulligan hopped in a taxi and came straight home, where he video calls me from his Dublin living room. Sporting a knit vest that nods to the black and white face make-up worn in ‘The Riddler’ video, the spoken word artist and rapper has palpable energy after his gig, despite the heavy subject matter of his otherworldly catalogue. The frenetic ascension on stage before descending back to the real world of his South Dublin hometown must feel strange, especially having spent time writing and performing across the water over the past year and a half.
“I moved to London last year for a little bit, but then ended up coming back to Dublin when my relationship kind of collapsed,” Mulligan tells me, smiling sheepishly. His words are as honest in interviews as they are in his music, which gains a more diverse listenership by the day, despite the content possessing an unmistakable Dublin edge and subject matter. “I think it's really difficult for anyone to live outside of home at the moment, and not just young people. It was insanely hard before the pandemic, but now it's almost impossible unless you have money. I don't come from a wealthy family background, so I'm staying put right here. I love my dinners, I have to wash the dishes, but I'll do it just to get those meals!” Malaki says, grinning.
The multi-talented poet will return to London to perform at a number of festivals in the coming weeks, including Across the Tracks in Brixton, and Tokyo World north of the capital city.
“I love it there. I feel exhausted, like genuinely drained in Ireland,” the young creative tells me, sighing. “I don't feel like I belong in Dublin as much as I used to, especially as my career starts to get bigger. I was actually very content over in London because everything was open – plus I have friends there, I have opportunities, I have producers, artists, gigs. I have everything I ever wanted, but unfortunately not in my home city. So, I’ve just gotta make do.”
“I was kind of going to the UK with the idea of staying forever,” he adds, frankly. “I fell head over heels for this girl – who’s also an Irish artist – and I just flew over. I'd never been there before, and I ended up just staying with her. I don't jump into things quickly, but that was just me hopping on the next flight, living there, getting some money, staying there...at the back of my mind, I was like, ‘This is a bit erratic. It's too quick and sudden, but I'm loving it’. Then it all fucking blew up in my face! But we're still friends. All’s good.”
Much has changed over the last 15 months for the up-and-comer, who unveiled his electrifying new EP Don’t Forget To Take Your Medicine today. Embracing his intricately curated alter ego Calvero, the fascinating six-track project sees the multi-faced artist showcase multiple sides of Hugh Mulligan and the personified embodiment of his darkest inner emotions. In part inspired by his experiences of mental illness, the lyrics also shine a spotlight on the cultural drainage and societal issues which continue to plague Dublin, as numerous other spoken word artists and rappers have also explored.
“I've always written what I want to write about, and mental health is a recurring theme. In terms of the pressure to keep writing about those dark emotions and the abandonment of Dublin’s most marginalised, I don't feel like I have any role to play in what people want me to say,” Mulligan notes, shrugging. “For a lot of artists, socio-economic issues are the biggest influence for their work, but I think it's dependent on the artist's journey. I went through dark depression, so I wrote about what I witnessed while I was in that mentality. That doesn’t mean I’ll always write about that, though. Who knows, I could lose my house or my family could go bankrupt and then I'd be back talking about the rent crisis again, but I like to keep my eyes and ears open because I think people my age can let it go over their head. It’s so important to have someone in that age bracket you can relate to.”
Malaki first emerged onto the Irish music scene back in 2019 alongside best friend and close collaborator Matthew Harris. Unleashing a slew of effortlessly powerful singles, from 2019’s ‘Call Us By Our Names’, ‘Love Through a Cigarette’, ‘J.A.C.K’, ‘From Grace’, ‘Cuppa Tea’, ‘46a’ and ‘Butterfly Boy’ to 2020’s Chrysalis EP, alongside ‘Fair Play’ (feat. Lucy McWilliams), ‘Baby Bubblegum’, ‘Cavalier’, ‘You Told Me’, ‘Glory Daze’ and Van Morrison tribute ‘Someone Like You 2’. His lyrical dexterity and mature themes opened up the floodgates for male mental health, tackling toxic masculinity and the weight of Dublin’s housing and homelessness crises on younger generations.
Later appearing on The Late Late Show to discuss his own struggles, citing the moment he hit rock bottom as New Year’s Eve 2019, the rising hip-hop sensation continued to peel back the layers by appearing in an RTÉ Series documentary focused on the mental health journeys of four men: I’m Fine.
The stratospheric upsurge in spoken word rap was in part inspired by the work of actor, playwright and screenwriter Emmet Kirwan. For the likes of Irish hip-hop talent For Those I Love, Kojaque, Paul Alwright, Nealo, Kean Kavanagh, Monjola, Gaptoof and now Malaki; the poetic DNA was forged by this much-needed example of revolutionised, modernised masculinity.
“For me, I think it was seeing that role model that we weren't given when we were younger,” Mulligan says, passionately. “I didn't really have anyone positive near me to idolise growing up. A lot of men embody a certain way of being, in the sense that you keep your feelings, emotions, problems and insecurities to yourself. When we see a male role model coming to the forefront and speaking about these things in an incredibly vulnerable way, it really sits with you. When I saw Emmet Kirwan on YouTube doing 'Just Saying' and 'Heartbreak,' it resonated with me deeply. They were both just so brutally honest. That he could go out and say those words on camera while walking around Dublin City, surrounded by isolated people on the streets; it was incredible. As a kid, I always was very sensitive but I never showed that side of me until I was a bit older.”
“We don't really see it from a lot of musicians, but when a man opens himself up candidly to the whole world, people love it,” the performer adds, referencing the momentous success of For Those I Love’s critically acclaimed debut album, dedicated to his late best friend and poet Paul Curran.
On Don’t Forget To Take Your Medicine, Malaki’s ‘Interlude’ references the “four brave souls” who found the teenager when he was having an episode in NYE 2019. As the rain pours and ambulance sirens alarm, the artist thanks them for helping him rise from the ashes. For many, including myself, our loved ones have suffered similar experiences, undergoing memory loss as a result. The inability to capture their episodes through language can lead to even further isolation, yet through the character of Calvero, outsiders catch a glimpse of what happened within the depth of Malaki’s mind that night - with space allowed for creative license. Calvero can make impassioned, often-startling statements as a masked figure moulded from an exaggerated psyche.
“I found a stronger bond between female companionship rather than male for a long time, and three of the four people who found me that night were women. They were my close friends at the time, yet I kind of excommunicated them, which is a strong word to say. In my mind, I was deluded and I pushed them out of my life so that I never wanted to see them again – until that breaking point came. I didn’t want to live my life that way, because those people were there for me at my lowest point. It showed the strong bond that was there and forever will be. I still see them every now and then – not all the time, but when I do, it's amazing.”
“One of those people was Matthew Harris, who saved me that night in my eyes. That's a person who has brought me from the lowest point in my life to the highest; now we get to perform at festivals and play gigs together. I'm getting emotional!” Malaki laughs, sentimental when speaking about his close confidante. “It’s amazing. A lot of people say that Matthew finding me was fate. I don't know if I believe in fate, but I believe in those four people.”
With his work often lingering on little details that only add to his music’s sense of intimacy, it’s unsurprising that raw honesty attracts others to him. Learning to unveil the reality of depression, clinics and antidepressants eased the burden of intense stigma that pressed down on his peers.
“When I’d explain my struggle to anyone, it just made them open their arms to me rather than close off and walk away,” Mulligan remarks. “If you go and share your story with someone, they'll be able to find solace within that, and then they'll be able to share theirs. That happened so many times. After a while, some people found a bit of a reliance on me and then I got a little bit overwhelmed, so it’s about finding a balance. But I can't stress enough that just allowing yourself to open up only brings the right people closer to you.”
Inspired by the 1952 Charlie Chaplin film Limelight, Malaki’s Calvero character on DFTTYM communicates through a powerful medium. Melding negative thoughts procured by anxiety into compelling hip-hop, the hard-hitting EP confronts the artist’s darkest struggles as his alter ego wrestles with the devil on his shoulder.
Emphasising his deteriorating sense of identity throughout the project (“Will I ever know the real me?”), what words could Malaki say as Calvero that he couldn’t utter as Hugh Mulligan?
“Great question. ‘I fucking hate myself, but I love living’ - that was on the second verse of 'The Riddler’,” the performer says, smiling while scratching his chin. “I'm a very optimistic, outgoing person and I love experiencing fans and everything around my music, but Calvero just wants to watch the world burn. He’s this absolute manic person, and chaotic energy comes from that. Each track is trying to kind of give you an insight into a different personality trait within him. 'Head Highs' is the kind of sexual, more laidback side whereas 'The Riddler' is a totally erratic character. I think people can relate to that line though, ‘I fucking hate myself, but I love living’. You might contemplate suicide, but you can never come to that place because you just love living too much, and that's the difficult thing. I think that's what people really struggle with. We're not fans of ourselves or the world around us sometimes, but we stay here just the same because we love it so much. It's hard to say goodbye to some people – friends and family.”
“That was one of my most brutally honest lyrics, I think,” the rapper tells me. “I had to sit my parents down as a 19-year-old speaking about drugs and stuff and explain that the words aren’t always told from my perspective. That was kind of just to make my mam’s heart feel a bit better because sometimes it's a little tough to hear from a teenager.”
His most recent single ‘Head Highs’ was penned during one of London’s 2020 lockdowns, and takes on a more strikingly sexual tone. Did he feel apprehensive about putting that side of himself on show?
“I wrote that song because the whole EP was so heavy-hitting and I felt like I needed to tone it down. I mean, I love love, but it's fucked me over so many times. I think my Mam was aware of that, and I've had great chats with her in the past. She's aware of my relationships. I was thinking more of the darker stuff when I was warning her, but actually some of the words in ‘Head Highs’ are so explicit. I've shown it to radio pluggers and stuff, and they're just like, ‘Jesus, man. You're going to have to give us the non-explicit version or just strip the whole thing back’,” he laughs. “But I'm 21 years of age, I want to speak about stuff openly. I mean I've heard far worse stuff from Tyler, the Creator and Eminem. They say some pretty gruesome, explicit stuff, but it always comes from a good place, and I've never tried to disrespect anyone.”
“As a 21-year-old now, I'm older and more mature. There was one line in 'Dublin's Burning': ‘Everything is changing, but nothing's changed within the end / and I ain't felt the same since a brother heard my music in the pen’. Last year one of my good friends from school was incarcerated in Mountjoy, and he let me know that he heard my music on the radio while he was sitting in his cell. It was an incredible moment in my life because it showed that nothing's actually progressing. My friends are still going to prison, people are still getting in trouble, drugs and stuff are still going around, and depression is still alive and well. I have this career, but nothing around me is moving. I had to ask his permission to write that line because obviously a lot of people in my circle knew him and his situation, but it was really tough. He came out recently, and I gave him a hug. He loved the track, which was great.”
Part of Malaki’s recent image has involved black-and-white face make-up, nodding to the likes of theatrical rockers and silent film actors of the past.
“I've always had a massive interest in artists that use an alter ego. I grew up after David Bowie, Eminem and KISS - they cover themselves in makeup. It brings a whole new element to the overall drama that happens on stage,” Malaki emphasises. “I've always loved musicals and plays, but I've rarely seen that whole theatrical element within hip-hop. Calvero could split my show in two, where Malaki would play one part and go off stage and come back in my alter ego's makeup. The character may take a nap, but he could wake up again at any time for a new project. Tyler, the Creator creates a new character every time he puts out an album, and I think more rappers should be open to that. With this EP, I can say things that I never was able to say as Hugh, and I could wear things I was never able to do as Malaki. It's amazing.”
Influenced by the likes of spoken word artists and rappers such as Loyle Carner, A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie Smalls, Wu-Tang Clan, Maverick Sabre, Nas, Mac Miller and King Krule, Malaki began writing poetry at age 15 before segueing into the intoxicating world of hip-hop, bringing his trademark flow.
“I'm never going to change my Dublin slang for anyone,” Mulligan says, vehemently. His colloquialisms and dialect are part of what makes him stand out from the crowd, and capture his home city at its most flawed.
“New York hip-hop acts have their own way of speaking, and they basically came from the birthplace of rap. They never changed the way they did it. Same with grime. I don't understand half the time what some of those rappers are saying, but if they did a show in Uganda or Berlin, they're never going to change it because it's their identity. So keeping that Dublin sound is really important to me. Now that hip-hop is starting to be taken seriously in Ireland, it's really important that we maintain that language. That's why I'm not a big fan when Irish people use an English accent when they rap. Do whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you have to be yourself.”
Next on the breakout star’s radar is a full-length debut album, after he celebrates the release of hypnotic hip-hop offering DFTTYM.
“When people listen to this EP, they're going to wonder if I’m okay, and I think it’s important to note that I am,” Malaki says, smiling widely. “This was written in the past, and I'm doing a lot better. So luckily I can say my mental health has improved dramatically, I'm keeping myself in check. I'd like to focus on an album, because I spent a lot of time writing in London and tried to learn some production and a few new instruments. I don't know what the album will be about yet, I've been making so many notes about concepts, so we'll wait and see. Every artist wants their debut album to be something really special, don’t they?”
Don’t Forget To Take Your Medicine is out now. Malaki is set to embark on a 6-date tour, playing Galway, Limerick, Cork, Belfast, Dublin’s Academy, Donegal’s Sea Sessions festival and London’s Camden Assembly.
Photo credit: Nicholas O’Donnell