From creeping into the mainstream through the likes of Rubberbandits, Super Extra Bonus Party and featuring in Love/Hate, to the Rusangano Family’s debut album taking home the Choice Music Prize earlier this month: the rise of Irish hip-hop has been as dramatic as it has been unlikely.
It helped, of course, that the scene’s quick progression fell alongside a massive recession instigated in part through regulatory failure, repressively rising urban rents and mass social protests. Angry, pointed voices sat naturally with their new audience.
As Dublin-based hip-hop star Temper-Mental MissElayneous tells it: “It’s hunger that’s causing hip-hop’s boom. It’s also identification with the social dynamics of the birthplace and creators of hip-hop, and a willingness to learn and lead. But we value cultural identity and the lyrical Irish roots: saints and scholars. Poverty, loss and grievance.”
While on the poppier end of the spectrum, Temper-Mental embodies much of what’s strong about the budding Irish scene: a distinctly locally-accented sound, quick wit, cultural references and original beats. In ‘Create the Pain to Alleviate It’, she shows her depth, with the imagery of rotting apple cores set against a world of social and gender politics: “questioning, self loathing, dissatisfaction, doubt… We refuse to believe we’re animals yet… Poets once honoured are now in McDonalds, a dozen a dime.”
Temper-Mental identifies many of the topics of Irish political discourse as her themes, singling out misogyny, heterosexism, God, transformation and pain as her core elements.
“It’s a cultural revolutionary movement,” she explains. “It’s on the concrete, on the corner, it’s in classrooms, yards, youth clubs, community art centres, it’s in prison, in the bedroom studio, on the stairwell, down the lane and held privately in a heart’s rhythm waiting to be translated to words.”
A distinctly accented, smart-quipping artist who rose alongside Temper-Mental MissElayneous at the height of the recession in 2011/2012, Lethal Dialect has a harsher dynamic to his sound and also cites local cultural figures as key influences in his lyrics, nodding in particular Irish folk star Damien Dempsey.
Despite being three albums into his career, the rapper admits “I’m only really finding my own sound now. There’s some old stuff where you could nearly tell what I was listening to at the time.” His north Dublin lilt and conceptual approach to albums, however, have often stood out.
As a lyricist, he’s distinctly observational, picking out local characters mid flow, like in ‘New Dublin Saunter’: “I can’t fathom why your own people hate to hear their own accents, they call by different names, inferiority complex, malignant shame… A problem child Oscar Wilde… Watch what this generation does, and remember I said that…”
For him, despite the growth of live shows recently, the scene lives mainly online, a more boisterous and magnified version of the bedroom recordings he started out with. “There’s a good online following that can be converted into a real world following with more gigs,” he explains. “There are class acts putting out quality releases constantly.”
There’s a recurring theme in Irish releases, and while the accents can be wonderfully distinct, it runs deeper. It’s more in the intellectual angles; the artistic references, the experiential depth of the carefully shaped words. Bling it’s not; it relates more to the urban jungles of Dublin and Limerick, the poverty trap, the crumbling corners tourists never see.
Perhaps the most successful act of 2016 gathered, slowly, a wider following before exploding on the release of their album ‘Let The Dead Bury The Dead’. Rusangano Family are a band built – unusually for the scene – on an intensely vibrant live show, also chucking in those unique personal perspectives. Regardless, they agree with Lethal Dialect’s labeling of hip-hop’s Irish heartland: “The easier answer would be Irish hip-hop lives on the internet,” they explain. “But it’s more multifaceted and more mature than ever.”
Based in Limerick the trio trace their roots to Togo, Zimbabwe and down the road in rural County Clare. Lyrically, they vigorously cut to the heart of what it is to be one of Ireland’s growing number of African immigrants.
“This is where history finds us: no black, no dogs, no Irish” they quip in hit single ‘Heathrow,’, a stunningly moving and emotional diatribe on race politics that brilliantly documents the senses and everyday dimensions of an immigrant’s journey. It roles off in abrasive first person, opening with “I don’t care where you come from, I don’t want any of your kind around here anymore.”
“I think people are more adventurous musically, and realise they need a plan of action, better tracks, sharper production, tighter stage shows,” they argue. “These things take time to mature, but it feels like it’s going in a really creative direction. More power to us, it’s really inspiring.”
Another act pouring his heart into his music is Emzee A, though he prefers to turn his observations inwards. The Dublin-based up-and-comer simply defines his music as “a combination of what I’ve been through, and what I’m going through, all the relationships in my life.”
His slightly foggy style of beats layer with deeply personal moments, like in Sober Thoughts, in which he spits “my life is going nowhere, I’m lost, I don’t need your love.”
“It’s about the people in my life and how I have either helped them or disappointed them, or the books I’m reading at the moment, that’s where the messages come,” he tells us. “Stuff like lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, insomnia, love, my flaws and how I’m willing to become a better person everyday.” He’s another voice emerging into what was once all but a void.
Building on a budding a scene
An organisation operating right at the very roots of Irish hip-hop, putting on backroom shows and promoting burgeoning artists, is fast-growing Dublin promoters Word Up Collective.
“The vibrancy and the energy of those involved really attracted us,” Word Up co-founder Phil Udell explains, “as well as the supportive nature of those involved.”
“It just feels like there’s something really important happening. Everywhere you look there’s some incredible music being made. Since we started in April, we’ve had a huge number of artists get in touch. Our monthly live gigs in Dublin have expanded to feature acts who aren’t directly part of the collective, we’ve had a good few make their live debut with us.”
“It’s very varied as well, even in Word Up we have R&B, pop, alternative rap and spoken word. I hope that it’ll develop it’s own identity, just like the grime scene in the UK has done. Rusangano Family and others are pushing their own unique sound. It can only get bigger”
What Irish hip-hop lacks is a physical heartland. In the greatest of Irish traditions, as well as typical music venues, events take place in pub back rooms and are only slowly emerging into the more established venues, yet festival slots and support roles alongside touring artists like Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips are quickly expanding audiences. Rusangano Family’s album launch show – a boisterous, sold-out triumph – took place in Dublin’s Sugar Club, a sloping, seated venue given a theatrical feel by its velvet and tables. It’s better suited to its regular burlesque nights, but the trio triumphantly made it work.
Yet the signs of mainstream acceptance of the scene are coming thick and fast. Rusangano Family’s debut was recognised as Ireland’s best of 2016. TemperMental MissElayneous’ unusual career highlight came through substantial cultural recognition: having her work formally preserved in the James Joyce library at University College Dublin. Their intent? “That generations to come will see my work as part of urban contemporary poetry, music and art in Ireland.”
What’s reassuring is the scene’s collective ambition: despite their successes, almost every artist speaks about improving. They talk about their progress, but also about how far there is to travel. Hip-hop as a local musical force still feels like a baby in Ireland, but it’s lent credibility by history: Irish storytelling traditions adapt nicely to urban poetry. But the scene is new to substantial acclaim, new to having a following, and new to the shining spotlight of any notable media attention.
“Confidence and cowardice has caused this hip-hop boom in equal measure,” Temper-Mental concludes. Both when it’s confident and when it’s not, Irish hip-hop lives today in a way it never has before.