- Words Colin Gannon
- Illustration Nadia Akingbule
Meet the vanguard of homespun Irish rappers and creatives ushering in a new era for Ireland’s homespun hip hop scene.
The proudly multicultural Irish hip-hop scene pulses with youthful ambition and talent, boasting a vastly improved infrastructure compared with previous years. Scores of rappers, producers, open-minded bookers and thousands of ravenous fans are contributing to a wholly transformative milieu, with meaningful, invariably entrenched, links with Ireland’s recent social upheaval—notably the referendums to legalise same sex marriage and abortion, as well as the continued fight for affordable housing, nightlife culture and against a dehumanising system for processing asylum seekers.
In its most primal moments, scruff-of-the-neck Irish rebel music shares many of the same genes as rap music. Stitched to Ireland’s national fabric through folk troubadours like Luke Kelly, are covers of pugilistic local anthems: almost sung-rap anti-establishment, lustful, quixotic tracks full of musings on self-medication, all delivered rhythmically in powerfully pure dialects. The lore of hip-hop music, albeit light-years apart aesthetically and culturally, tells a similar story.
Ireland claims a skinny, bespectacled, red-haired 28-year-old as its grime saviour. Mango who performs hyperkinetic, raucous UK-inspired rap alongside producer Mathman to giant crowds at Irish festivals, doesn’t mince his words when he insists that Irish rappers are of a world-class standard.
“There’s less of a post-colonial mind state where Irish people never believed we could be as good as the rest of the world,” Mangan says. “The attitude is all Roy Keane now. Hard work and fuck any obstacles.”
Rejjie Snow, Irish rap’s luminary name and previous Notion cover star, has arguably had to pursue his craft in America to level up. Those times have since changed. Last year, in a truly postmodern mark of success, an official Spotify playlist called The New Eire was unveiled, curating some of the best of Irish rap and R&B. In Snow’s wake, he has left behind him a glut of artists not restricted to Ireland’s capital, Dublin, and unbound to genre, style or attitude.
One of the more singular rappers from this sprawling, unruly scene is NONZUS MAGNUS. Inspired, he says, in equal measure by pop punk, glitch-hop, grime and metal, MAGNUS has shown himself to be a slyly sharp lyricist and a smart hook writer who is as highly-attuned to sugary melody as he to manically-cyber abrasiveness.
A self-professed recluse and outcast, Dublin-based MAGNUS explains that he became more withdrawn after a period of “rebellious behaviour”, leading him down a creative rabbit hole into drawing, b-boying, video editing and photography. “Subconsciously I began to create a whole new world within my music,” MAGNUS says, adding that he isn’t surprised that people struggle to define his sound. “When I try to draw a relation between me and how other Irish artists sound, I just can’t.”
It’s a given that the power of the internet is in part to thank for the proliferation of many Irish rappers, but the current pool of artists can also be traced back around a decade ago to the days of groups like Cork’s GMC, or Dublin’s Class A’s—a gritty collective whose members included, at various times, early rap stalwarts like Terawrizt, Redzer, Nucentz, Rawsoul and Collie—or their associates, Rob Kelly and Siyo, among others. Many remember the minor heyday of this boom bap-reliant old guard, others are too young, or were too in thrall of American rap to pass heed. Still, they made a mark, carving a space out for unadulterated Irish rap to exist, never mind flourish. Now, with these doors blown open, many of today’s fledgling artists are daring to elevate themselves beyond hyperlocal status.
Less than a decade ago, trend-averse Irish gatekeepers—bookers, promoters, radio DJs, media outlets—were mostly reticent to rap, especially if it wasn’t Billboard-topping behemoths like Kanye West. Slowly, they have become more receptive to local artists. Even music festival lineups in Ireland—controversially, with public aghast from indie heads—have been dominated by hip-hop in recent years.
"Eviction Notice" by KOJAQUE
One of the most impressive voices to make an indelible early dent on Irish music is KOJAQUE. The 23-year-old rapper and visual artist is expected to win Ireland’s equivalent to the Mercury Music Prize, The Choice Music Prize, later this year for his 2018 project, Deli Daydreams. It is, without doubt, Ireland’s most ambitious and thoughtful rap release yet, a quasi-concept album that, through brilliant songcraft, details the granular mundanity of life, dragging it out into the panoramic in the process: An honest, unblinkered snapshot of modern Ireland.
“We are really finding our voice as a collective scene,” KOJAQUE, the recording name of Kevin Smith, 23, tells me. “People have spoken on issues before, of course, but the sound and message is evolving.”
Whether its on Twitter, contained within his lyricism, or manifested through his delivery, Smith’s disdain for how the Irish political class treats artists—and its most vulnerable members of society— is abundantly clear.
“It’s difficult to be a fucking person in Dublin, let alone an artist or someone creating. When you’re putting your entire effort into your artistic output, and you can’t pay for a house to live in, that’s going to be reflected in the art that you make,” he says, with all of the righteous, well-articulated anger of an effective activist.
In fact, Mango saw many people associated with the Irish hip-hop scene at recent political demonstrations and, he argues, this “bleeds into the art”.
“Maybe it’s the rebel in me but I want to make a living ethically,” he says. “That’s why we’ve thrown [events in Dublin] and what they stand for is not backing down to hate, negativity, classism, racism, sexism, housing crises or whatever… That attitude has permeated to most artists now.”
There is solace to be found, KOJAQUE feels, in how young people are driving Irish hip-hop on through beat sessions that producer Mathman holds in a venue in Dublin city, rap-specific events like Prescription in Limerick and The Somewhere in Ireland series.
“There was nothing like that when I was starting out—there was nowhere to showcase your beats or learn how to sample or rap,” KOJAQUE says. “Things have been slotting nicely into place.”
Young artists venturing into rap in Ireland are often trying to repurpose current trends with their own Irishness. One such case, Pat Lagoon, 19, clearly owes a lot of musical debt to autotune warblers like Travis Scott. Yet, in an overall sense, considering the stodgy, dust-laden sounds heard in previous decades, it is entirely refreshing to hear such uncompromising modern musicality and pop intellect in Ireland.
It’s also vital, most people in the scene agree, that rappers from outside of Dublin are celebrated. Lagoon, who hails from the city of Waterford, a modestly-sized city on Ireland’s south coastline, began rapping in 2016 over trap instrumentals. Later he realised that he was masking his Irish accent; so he began peeling back the Americanisms, revealing more of himself.
In Waterford, like most Irish towns or cities, Lagoon says, the youth have tended to flock towards either rave culture’s MDMA-friendly electronics or bright chart music. But, he observes, “in the last couple of years people are demanding hip hop nights and rap events.”
Freed from expectations, another artist unwilling to kowtow to tradition is Sean Cronin, a 20-year-old rapper from Arklow, a pristine commuter town on Ireland’s east coast. Part of a collective known as Glacier Gang, Cronin records as Invader Slim, exuding the same ice-cool aloofness of his cloud-rap forebears like Bones and Xavier Wulf. His sound is foreboding, his voice despondent and dead-eyed and droning, yet, somehow, his raps brim with life.
“If you don’t give people something to feel when they listen to your music your words are just speed bumps over a banging beat, the feeling could even be wanting to show off your new watch,” he explains. “It definitely doesn’t have to be mad poetic or anything either.”
It’s profoundly difficult to talk about the earnest young successes of Irish rap without considering the importance of immigration to Ireland, particularly from Africa, with huge numbers arriving after the turn of the last century. The 27-year-old rapper Huva, who arrived when he was seven from Nigeria, is one of many immigrants who came to the island and evidently enriched the music scene. His brother is a successful afrobeats artist back in Nigeria and he was introduced to early Irish rappers like Redzer and Rob Kelly while young, he says of his early motivations, so he has teeth in the music game.
Ireland, held aloft by many as a 21st century guidebook on how to achieve swift social progress, still has deep-seated issues with racism and intolerance. The country has the second highest levels of racial violence towards black people in the EU, a recent human rights study showed. Max Zanga, the rapping-half of the surging pop-rap duo Tebi Rex from the Dublin-bordering county of Kildare, is one of the more outspoken and articulate rappers on the scene.
“If anything, to me, Irish racism feels lazy,” he says, before flippantly quipping that “an Irish racist may hate black people but they don’t seem to have that same level of American passion about it where they’re ready to donate their own money towards a wall”.
Artistically, there’s something for everyone in Ireland: the genre-splicing pop sensibilities of Jafaris and Hare Squad; the sentimental R&B-rap fusion of Bobby Basil; the icy lyrical finesse of Luka Palm and Dublin collective Nuxsense (in particular Luthorist); the increasingly popular socially conscious raps of jYellowL and Denise Chaila; the glowing, autotune-soaked music of Paye Fox, 7th Obi and Dena Anuk$a; lo-fi, brusque, Limerick-accented rap with GavinDaVinci and Jonen Dekay, soundtracked by the near-peerless producer Mankky; and the boom-bap torchbearers of FYNCH and Sick Nanley.
Irish rap is still in its infancy, rapper Huva admits, with artists, including himself, still exploring sounds. Personally, he wants to find the perfect sound, one that is, he surmises, “Irish and mine.”
“Some sounds will be beautiful, some will be funny, some will be ugly; but it’s all gotta be different,” he adds. “It can’t all be the same thing, it would be boring then.”
As of 2019, despite some fresh faces entering the rap scene recently, Celaviedmai, from Galway on Ireland’s west coast, spent years being one of the only female rappers on the Irish circuit. She feels that, like all music in Ireland, there are barriers for women to enter. She suggests that the gender imbalance may be due to “women who doubt themselves and are afraid to to release music for fear of judgement”.
“There are a few girls coming to the forefront now, which is great to see, especially at a time where female representation matters,” she offers. The entrance of Denise Chaila, a former spoken-word artist, the neo-soul of London-based Biig Piig and the sing-rapping sheen of Belfast artist Dena Anuk$a are definite signs of a breakthrough.
For Irish rappers to flourish, they require beats and producers; luckily, a new crop of self-learned, internet-raised producers from across the island are busily honing their craft. Jar Jar Jnr, the producer name for 23-year-old Corkman Rob O’Halloran, a jazz sample fanatic who became enthralled by loops after receiving the loan of a primitive PC video game (which he describes as being “Fisher Price” software), is at the forefront of a growing network of producers in Ireland.
"Tired" by Celaviedmaihttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dn2aLgREB8
“Irish production and hip-hop in general has become more tasteful. I feel like it’s less enamoured with American hip hop culture,” O’Halloran, best known for his YouTube instrumentals and KOJAQUE productions, tells me of the strides Irish beat makers have made in recent years.
“Previously Irish hip hop wasn’t fully comfortable discussing the Irish existence. We’re nearing a point where we’re content with being Irish and talking about that in our music.”
The scene has spawned many excellent cross-country producers: Odeezy Beats, Jazzfeen, LHK, Gaptoof, Shortcut, Ill Diam and WHSPR are among those continuing to push the envelope. Accessible studio-quality technologies, whose prices are free-falling every year, are readily available to budding producers—all they have to do is look online and escape into a YouTube tutorial.
When it comes to the sound the producers are making, Marcus Woods (the moniker for rising 18-year-old producer Ryan Cullen), from Dublin, contends that, as a collective force, artists should not feel compelled to ascribe to any one particular sound, or style, and instead should let it come naturally. “I don’t even necessarily feel we have to create a distinctive ‘Irish sound’,” Cullen says, “but even a signature sound for each producer would help to shape an Irish producer scene with some variety.”
Rejjie Snow has reached a certain plateau, while artists like Jafaris seem destined for wider fame, but all of the rappers I spoke to have no qualms about discussing global domination and the toppling of a traditional order. Only time will tell whether this period proves to be epoch-defining or not. The dawn of a new musical age, or a splash in the pond?
In Huva’s estimation, there is no reason why an Irish artist can’t become a true household name. “If you have lads like Barry Keoghan from inner-city Dublin—who are making Hollywood movies with people like Fassbender—then why can’t we do it as well?” he asks, his voice intonating with genuine, palpable intrigue. “Any limitations are in the mind.”