Dublin’s Hip Hop Scene: Can We Kick It?

Posted November 21, 2017 in More

A night of live rap music is taking place in the basement of The South William bar and a young guy in the audience is doing what I can accurately describe as a ‘dad dance.’ You know what I’m talking about. You can picture it now. You’ve seen it before, though probably not in an underground DIY venue with a ceiling that hangs so low, if House of Pain walked through the door and ordered the crowd to ‘jump around’ the more vertically gifted might be in danger of a vicious head injury.

It’s early in the night and the floor is sparsely populated. People take photographs of our man’s wild flailing. That is, until Flynn Johnson springs into action. Here comes a rapper of scintillating technical proficiency, capable of ratcheting up the speed of his flow as easily as Lewis Hamilton changes gears. There’s no stage, exactly, so Johnson positions himself in front of the DJ and stands face-to-face with his audience. “I’ve never been ground level with the crowd,” he says. “I want you to mosh with me. Let’s do it!” His song ‘Space Jam’ draws strength from The Prodigy’s ‘Out of Space,’ recasting the oldskool jungle classic into an eerie slice of tweaked-out rap that transforms the subterranean amphitheater into an intergalactic space cruiser manned by a pilot with a Dublin accent. On the ground floor, a DJ booms out hits from Jay Z, The Game and other superstars from coast-to- coast USA. But the funky cellar will keep blazing the homegrown talent late into the night, with appearances from Why Axis, Nonzus Magnus, Steo Skitz and Fynch still to come.

It’s a night put together by District Magazine, a print publication and website run by Eric Davidson and Craig Connolly that operates as Ireland’s most comprehensive hub for credible new rap music and potent fuel in the growth of hip-hop culture. District is documenting a Dublin scene that could be reasonably described as thriving. DJs and emcees have long been at work in the capital, operating in an art form often viewed here as kind of weird and Other. But there’s something happening right now. You can feel it in the air. A fresh generation of artists are percolating over. Put it this way: in an abandoned piece on Dublin rap for this very publication about five years ago, I emailed a then-reasonably visible group hoping for an interview. After a couple of follow-ups on my side, they politely rejected the request with an assertion that they didn’t in any way want to be associated with the city’s hip-hop.

Skip forward half a decade and this is music as quintessentially Dublin as the writings of Joyce, or Instagram snaps of the Liffey. Rappers are crystallising a vision of the The Pale that’s fresh and vibrant, stoned and sinister, straight bangin’ and smoothly bumpin’. It’s music that swings from brightly positive to bitterly noir. And as this town evolves into a more multicultural arena, rap represents the clearest expression of cultural exchange. If you want to know about Dublin in 2017, these records are a key part of the curriculum. Factors like cheaper software available for recording and more professional management structures in place have facilitated the rise, and so has seismic shifts in Irish societal structures. As music producer MathMan expresses to me, artists are “shaking off the shackles of old Catholic Ireland and the chokehold it had on the Irish mindset for so long.”

The talent operates in a close-knit sorority, feeding off each other’s support and energy. Together, they’re forging a movement of recorded music, poetry, performance and journalism. “There’s definitely a community element to it, especially the events that we put on,” District’s Craig Connolly tells me in the firm’s office, just a few days before the South William gig. “With hip-hop, we’re lucky to get one or two big guys over every month. Underneath that, there’s a local scene that’s been bubbling.”

Elder Figures

For veterans who’ve put in the hard miles, this is the moment they’ve been waiting to seize. A one-time member of group The Animators, Mango, a Finglas native, has closely watched developments. Though just 27-years-old, he operates as a kind of elder statesman of Dublin rap. Just about everyone I speak to is quick to pay tribute to the local emcee whose booming voice could turn blood into stone. Mango’s style frequently veers into British grime and drum and bass – but with a larynx that’s unmistakably of the city.

“As a whole, the records coming out are fantastic,” he tells me in The Grand Central bar on O’Connell Street, a Guinness in hand, his trademark Adidas gear on his back. “People are really doing well on their live shows, they’re getting a lot of support because Irish people are now willing to support [them].

“This year, I did pretty much every fucking festival there was. Every time I played a festival, I’d see a couple of Irish hip-hop acts there. That wasn’t happening two or three years ago at all.” Having blazed the live circuit and with some singles to his name, Mango’s next move is to harness recent momentum into the release of his forthcoming album. It’ll be a distinctly Dublin-centric piece – a time stamp that captures his personal development (“It’s about two or three years I had in my life after my band broke up, my bird fucked off, my job went down the tubes, family deaths and I was losing touch with the lads”) and a unique era in this city’s history.

“I was in my early teens, ma and da were doing alright, and then the country was fucked,” he says. “And the Troika were here because a couple of lads gave themselves bank loans and nobody did time for it. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ As much as I’m trying to make good records, there’s also records on the album me being like, I am royally pissed off.”

Over three years and three different incarnations of the album, MathMan, an ex-Animator himself and Mango’s man behind the music, claims to have handed his collaborator around 600 or 700 potential songs. This deep into the project’s development, the pair’s ultimate ambitions are in sync.

MathMan says, “We are really proud of the city that we come from and we want to make an album that reflects the new generation of young people of this city, the changing attitudes of people in this city, and to really put this city on the map both musically and lyrically.”

Funky fusion

Read from any hip-hop holy book and it’ll bestow upon you this very important lesson: never bet on the lone wolf. Comradeship and collaboration are almost as important to the culture as the two turntables and microphone. It’s a rule that extends to Dublin and is most clearly displayed by Word Up Collective.

The funky fusion came together under the tutelage of experienced music heads Annette and Phil Udell, who early on recognised the potential of the sound in the city. Operating both as a singular entity and cluster of hot individual artists, Word Up’s roster feed off each other’s creative energy.

“It’s really just a system of musicians, artists, creative and spoken word talent helping each other to build something and build upon that talent they all ready have and take it further,” explains Max Zanga, one-half of the group Tebi Rex and the collective’s Head of Music.

“At the start it was supposed to be a stepping-stone for artists – you were supposed to come and get that advice you needed, get the help you needed, and after a year, maybe two years, when you were ready to make the next stage of your career, you’d leave and go onto bigger and better things. [Now,] even if you keep on growing, even if you keep improving, even if you sign to a label or a management deal, you’ll still be on the collective.”

Word Up covers a lot of stylistic hues. Take Sequence, who works in everything from pulsating Nigerian afrobeat to Drake-esque bars. Katie Laffan cuts smooth, cosmic funk orchestration with offbeat vocals, while the work of thoughtful spoken word artist Felispeaks draws from her own experiences of love, life and youth. That’s just a taster –I’d be here all day breaking down the entire breadth of the roster.

For Zanga, the cross-pollination of artists in the capital city is unavoidable: “I don’t think we have a choice. Dublin is so small. Almost every hip-hop artist you know in Dublin, the ones coming up right now have met Rejjie Snow, have drank with Hare Squead. It’s a small-ass place.

“When you see this interconnection between artists, we’re all so close together, we don’t really have an option.”

Bugged-Out Bohemians

If you’re looking for the most blissful rap in the city right now, go straight to our most bugged-out bohemians. Hazy duo Neomadic make wooly, nebulous music that plays like a tribute to cheap beer and potent narcotics. The jazzy influence of 1990s New York can be heard on their debut full-length The Neomadic Tape, which dropped in August. A plush blanket of smoke hangs over Dyramid and NoGood’s languid voices. I’ve no idea where these guys get their weed, but it’s probably the most potent this island has to offer.

“We like to blaze,” smiles Dyramid. “[The mixtape is] very hazy, right? I don’t even remember writing half the stuff and recording it.”

Memories might be patchy, but the pair are confident enough to assert that The Neomadic Tape was recorded in NoGood’s home over a couple of months this year. “We spent a lot of time writing it and spent a lot of time editing,” says NoGood, who also mixed and mastered the project. “We just really wanted to release something really polished and that sounds like it was done really professionally in the studio.”

Dyramid grew up in Maynooth bumping 50 Cent records. A key catalyst in the now 23-year-old’s development came when he first absorbed the early shots of Rejjie Snow, the Drumcondra kid jumped a continent and now calls the likes of Future and Rich The Kid collaborators. Before a lot of these younger guys picked up a mic there was Rejjie (née Lecs Luther), who mustered a lot of online hype with spotless flow and taste for jazzy beats.

I saw him, I just thought, whoa this is pretty sick,” says Dyramid. A lot of the younger artists I speak to echo these sentiments. In this burgeoning new movement, the importance of having respected stars to light the path can’t be ignored.

Neomadic’s origin story occurred about four years ago. Dyramid’s passion for music led him to a two-year course in Dun Laoghaire College of Further Education to learn production. There he met NoGood, a skilled rap artist and studio whiz who’d spent much of his childhood living in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

With the mixtape still fresh and with more live shows added to their CV, Neomadic are already planning their next move, which may involve an evolution away from the laid-back grooves. “I like slower, heavier, more bassy stuff – slightly more modern sound,” says NoGood. “I did a solo EP Admired From A Far… Some of the stuff on that would be more what I’d like. We’re thinking already about the next project, whatever it’s going to be, evolving the sound.”

Final product

At Electric Picnic this year, Amshwa made a beeline for the Main Stage. A Tribe Called Quest were playing one of their final shows ever and the young poet wasn’t going to be denied a goodbye. Elbowing her way right to the front, she managed to grasp Q-Tip’s hand as he descended into the crowd. Sitting in Temple Bar’s Indigo & Cloth, she recants the story. We both agree that we can be Ireland’s two greatest ever writers while citing Tribe as a key influence.

“These are guys that really couldn’t care less about what was in style back then, they were very true to themselves and what they believed in,” says Amshwa of the group who emerged from Queens, New York in hip-hop’s golden age to make some of the greatest music ever committed to wax. “That’s something I wish would come through in my work.”

Hip-hop owes a debt to poetry. But not all modern poetry, of course, is hip-hop. Amshwa, though, grew up in Firhouse with Tribe, Mos Def and Eminem in her headphones. She cites the culture as one of the main reasons she picked up a pen. “Rap really influences how I think about my pieces, she says. “A lot of my pieces tend to rhyme, I think that rap has a lot to do with that.” Amshwa has always written. Keeping a journal was a way of expressing herself – a therapy from the doomed and desperate condition we call adolescence. This evolved into poetry at around age 16. Today, her work promotes self-appreciation and being comfortable in one’s own skin. She cites deep-thinking American soul singer Jill Scott as another important forebear.

Still, Amshwa never particularly envisioned herself as a performer. She has recently gotten a taste for it, though, most notably on Represent, a project run by RTÉ’s Pulse that gathered various writers with the objective of making poetry accessible to new audiences (Mango and Felispeaks were also on the bill). Amshwa’s piece ‘Anxious Failure’ was a cutting depiction of apprehension and self-doubt. She now hopes to make live performance a key pillar of her artistry.

Amshwa’s good friend Jafaris is a natural entertainer – one of the city’s potential rising stars. The charismatic virtuoso came up as a dancer and now cultivates a vocal style that veers between rapping, singing and something in between.

Jafaris’ four-song debut EP Velvet Cake is an accomplished effort of bright arrangements that, to my ear, draws from conscious Chicago stars like Lupe Fiasco and Mick Jenkins, while a non-EP track like ‘Love Dies’ leans more into gentle neo soul. It’s incredible, then, that Jafaris claims he only started taking music seriously about a year ago when he hooked up with Diffusion Lab, a music production refuge on Wellington Quay that’s seen a whole bunch of Dublin’s groovy talent come through.

“It was a rocky start because I didn’t know where to start or whom to go to,” Jafaris tells me on a Diffusion Lab sofa as he prepares another round of writing and recording. “And I didn’t know what my sound was. I still kind of don’t but I’m working on it. It’s getting closer to the final product.”

Rather than recorded with the intention of being a cohesive release, Velvet Cake was four songs cut separately and packaged together. Still, it’s bound by its themes of positivity, relationships and, the most classic of all inspirations, love.

“I wanted to talk about love, hope, not just relationship love but love in general between people. The Velvet Cake was layers of love and how love can turn into this beautiful cake.”

“This is for Ireland”

When Irish historians pen the history of music for future cultural scholars to study, Electric Picnic’s ‘The Story of Hip Hop’ might have its own dedicated chapter. Jafaris was one of the squad members on-stage for the ambitious performance that united 2FM’s DJ Mo K with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Mango and soul singers Jess Kav, of the band Barq, and Erica Cody also took part; the stitched together crew performed classics from the rap canon with full orchestral backing. I watched from beyond the outer reaches of the jammed tent. There was no hope of getting any closer.

The stars weren’t doing their own songs, but it still showed that homegrown hotshots could draw crowds. They need not be solely condemned to the city’s small and basement venues (typically the scene’s pulse centers) or on the undercard of big name international acts. Some of the show went out as part of RTÉ’s coverage of the weekend.

‘The Story of Hip-Hop’ wasn’t just rollicking – it had symbolism. An Irish classical music institution fused with streetwise beats; seasoned rap performers alongside new talent; and a racially diverse set of stars that encapsulated the diversity that punctuates Irish hip-hop. As Mango says, “It’s fantastic that I can share the stage with people who are all as Irish as me but don’t look like me. At the end of the night we’re holding up the tricolor and saying, ‘This is for Ireland’.”

Dublin becoming a multicultural sphere is an undeniable factor in its recent surge of musical inventiveness. The children of immigrants are coming of age – proud Irishwomen and Irishmen whose music represents the many ripples of their distinct identities and offers an outlet to their unique experiences.

“The African society has mixed in with the Irish society to make this Afro-Irish hip-hop sound. It’s weird and cool at the same time,” says Jafaris. “The cultures clashed so well that the music is just beautiful. It definitely works for what we’re trying to do. It gives us a certain identity because we’re all here together. There’s a good melting pot, there’s a good mixture of cultures.”

“It’s like what happened with grime, we’re probably about 10 or 15 years behind London in that sense,” says District’s Eric Davidson. “But those culture clashes is what makes a music scene its own, as opposed to just a derivative of American hip-hop or a derivative of grime. It’s starting to get really good now but in the next five years there will be an Irish sound. I don’t know what that’ll be but it’ll be an Irish sound.”

On whether Dublin will develop its own distinct sound, Mango isn’t so sure. He sees the internet as being the single most influential entity when it comes to inspiring artists these days, so it’s increasingly difficult for any city or region to maintain an entirely self-contained style. Neomadic, for example, picked up most of their beats online and describe themselves as “Soundcloud rappers.” But that doesn’t mean Dublin artists won’t put the city’s seal on all their work. “If we find something, we can fine-tune, but we’re not there yet,” says Mango.

So how far can this thing go? Will the next national anthem be underpinned by a boom-bap beat and funky record scratches? Dublin rap is still in its development phase and there’s still plenty of room for artistic growth. But the seeds have been sewn into the soil and doused in creative Miracle-Gro. All that’s certain is that some of these guys won’t stop until there’s a hip-hop wall of fame splashed across a building in Temple Bar.

“I have no doubt [that] within three years we will have bonafide superstars in the urban music genre coming from this country,” says MathMan confidently. “Not just nationally, but internationally.”

Words: Dean Van Nguyen

Portraits: Ellius Grace


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