Yo! Northside raps – Broken Song’s tale of hip-hop redemption

Urban rhymes, beats and truth are not just a US west coast vs east coast thing – hip-hop is changing lives in north Dublin too, say the stars of a new documentary, Broken Song, about the scene

Willa Lee, James Costello and Eric Dowling

Willa Lee, James Costello and Eric Dowling

Fri, Nov 8, 2013, 00:00

At the start of the year, a concise, beautifully made documentary on an underreported musical subculture became the undisputed boss of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Winning both the Audience Prize and the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award, Claire Dix’s Broken Song cheered punters and critics in equal measure.

Shot in gorgeous, glassy monochrome, the picture goes among a group of street poets, hip-hop artists and songwriters in tougher corners of north Dublin. The picture is never sentimental, but it does admit hints of redemption. We watch as William “Willa” Lee, a sharp-featured Ballymun native, narrowly evades a custodial sentence for theft. Devisor of his own school of urban soul, Willa acknowledges that music diverts him from what he calls “the bad stuff”.

“They see their music as a way to reach the next generation and save them from going down the wrong path in life,” Dix has said. “They are brave enough to put their beliefs into action, to spread their message to kids in the area and weave it into every lyric. I hope this film can be a force as powerful and positive as that.”

The film could easily have ended up as worthy and patronising. That it avoids such traps is down to Dix’s eye for a telling image and the contributors’ musical and linguistic gifts.

Ten days before Broken Song makes it into cinemas, Willa joins James Costello, searing emcee and everyday word-machine, for a conversation in a Dublin café. The two men are exactly as they appear in the film. Willa is frank, but just a little reticent. Costello, who performs under his surname, more loquacious, comes across as an evangelical hip hop encyclopaedia in human form. Both are associated with Workin’ Class Records – which also releases music by GI and the late Lunitic – the guys offer fleshy proof that street music still thrives in the urban arena.

“It’s not about the money,” Costello explains. “It’s about saying what needs to be said. It’s about getting youth focusing on the good things. It’s very, very easy to get caught up in the bad stuff.”

Happily, for all the noble intentions on display, the music and rhymes featured in Broken Song are never short of edge or excitement. One gets a sense of how it must have felt to experience the early days of hip hop, before the music went mainstream and the money started cascading. The admirable Dean Scurry, one of the impresarios behind Workin’ Class Records, has long toiled as a youth worker and manages the impressive task of keeping the beats real while ensuring the artists don’t slide off the rails.

“I was six when I first heard Tupac,” Costello says. “I related to what those guys were rapping about. Then later I met up with people like Lunitic and they set up Workin’ Class. For the time it was, they discovered a lot of Irish hip hop. It really was an underground thing. People didn’t know about it.”

One gets the impression that Costello was always going to take care of himself. At the beginning of Broken Song, we meet him (very long rolled-up, ahem, cigarette in hand) mentoring some of the younger talents coming up behind him. Willa comes across as a trickier piece of work. Accompanied by Scurry, he attends court to answer that charge and counts himself lucky to evade a jail sentence. It would be stretching it to suggest that music saved his life. But the tunes do seem to have given him purpose. A visit to the Axis arts and community centre in Ballymun alerted him to his latent talents and a new career developed.

“I was in a bad bit of my life and met Dean and he brought me in,” he says. “I met Costello and we hit it off immediately. We had the same interests. It changed my life. I liked all that because I wasn’t doing things that were illegal. It was more to do with making something productive and enjoying doing that. It’s a whole different side to life.”

Nicely put. Of course, hip hop has always had an equivocal relationship with illegality. Whole genres of the form are devoted to celebrations of theft, murder and sexual transgression. Costello sees no such contradiction here. A keen student of the form, he looks back to pioneers in New York City for inspiration.

“All that’s going on at the commercial end,” he says. “When it started in the south Bronx it was heavily influenced by the Five Percent Nation, which was a spin-off from the Nation of Islam. Clarence 13X from Five Percent went to the youth and talked to them about regaining self-respect. That’s what it was about.”

It is fascinating to note the conspicuous parallels between rap’s origins in that northern part of New York City and its current, largely undocumented incarnation in Dublin’s own Northside. Willa’s formidable mother – seen to forceful advantage in Broken Song – comes across as the sort of strong woman who holds all such communities together. And Willa himself seems to have found himself in familiar sorts of bother. Maybe, he doesn’t want to explain why he was in court.

“I got a three-year suspended sentence. I am still dealing with that,” he says. “It was for a street robbery. There were no blades or anything like that. That was basically it. I got arrested and that was about the time I was starting to sing more. When I got to be 17 or 19 I asked myself what I was doing.”

It was brave of him to allow these incidents to appear in the film. I wonder if there are any sequences he now wishes hadn’t turned up in the final cut.

“I don’t mind that really,” he says. “What I mind is hearing some of the things I said myself. I cringe at that. I didn’t say that, did I? I was bragging about how I broke somebody’s face. That was bad. I think I was just happy because I’d got that suspended sentence.”

Willa’s music takes you unawares. There are no obvious models for the school of hard-edged soul that he sings. One can hear something of Damien Dempsey in there. But he has an angular style that is very much his own. It comes as no surprise to learn that it all came to him naturally. There is no sense that any teacher could have constructed this sound.

“I just put the pieces together,” he says. “For me the music comes first. And then the words come along. I get a topic first and then work on that. I am self taught.”

He goes on to explain that he did get a scholarship to the Dublin branch of the Brighton Institute of Music but that he was “too lazy” to turn up. He says this a lot. Does Costello think his friend is being fair to himself?

“Ah, not really. Look, we are late-night people,” he says. “It’s not laziness. Maybe, you work a bit harder when there’s somebody else there.”

The boys make a sound that could be coaxed into a mainstream arena. But Costello and Willa seem impressively uninterested in chasing the majors. They do really see self-expression as the main (and, perhaps, only) aim. Nonetheless, they have had their brushes with stardom. The guys have for example, had the chance to support various bits of the incorrigible, irresistible Wu Tang Crew. What a blast that must have been.

“That was amazing. It was unbelievable. It was a real thumbs up from the universe,” Costello says with a characteristic verbal flourish. “The opening tack on my first solo album, Young Apprentice, took a chorus from a Wu Tang song. The three people that were on that song – GZA, Raekwon and Ghostface – were the three I was supporting in 2012. Me and Willa were backstage singing the songs and it dawned on us that it was those three we were with.”

When the call came through he remembers phoning up everybody he knew and screaming down the receiver.

“Yeah, I was yelling. Hold on. I’ve got to show you this.” Costello stands up and peels his shirt up to reveal a Wu Tang tattoo in the centre of his chest.

Young Apprentice for ever! I will show it to them next time I’m around.”

Maybe, the guys will be properly famous by then. Can they really care so little for success?

“As soon as you sign that deal you are paying agents managers, all that stuff,” Costello says. “We like it being a close knit-family.”

Despite its moments of casual lyricism, Broken Song does not seem in any way naïve about the challenges that still face young people in Ballymun, Finglas and neighbouring suburbs. There is no sense that the talented street poet and troubadours are about to escape to a life of fur-lined limousines. Indeed, the movie stands as a proud celebration of those areas. New recordings are being planned. Broken Song is helping publicise the movement. There are worse lives.

“The best feeling in the world is gigging,” Willa confirms. “If you get a bit of money that’s a bonus. But the good atmosphere you get on stage is all you care about. What we do is good. It’s a permanent thing. Friendship is permanent.”

No bling here.


yyy Broken Song opens at the Irish Film Institute on November 15th and plays at Axis, Ballymun on November 27th

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