When John the DJ met God the rapper
Shannon rapper God Knows Jonas and Clare producer and DJ mynameisjOhn have come up with a cracker of an album – and there’s more to come from their wider musical collective
Aisle communication: mynameisjOhn and God Knows Jonas
John Lillis is sitting on the right-hand side of a sofa upstairs in the Stormy Teacup café in Limerick. A producer and DJ who goes by the name of mynameisjOhn, the Clareman has been making and releasing dynamic EPs for a couple of years. He’s also been involved in a rake of interesting musical happenings over the past decade in the west and southwest, from the Community Skratch collective to Ennis Street Festival.
God Knows Jonas is on the left-hand side of the same sofa, drinking tea and eating a massive slab of cake. Born in Zimbabwe and reared in Shannon, Jonas is the rapper with the all-knowing eye and the flow to turn observations into sharp lines.
Together, Lillis and Jonas have come up with a humdinger of an album in Rusango/Family. Full of energy, vigour, excitement, innovation and lyrical realism, it’s an album with the kind of width and depth rarely experienced in music around these parts. You certainly never get it with such a head-rush of sounds and excitement.
While there may be just two names on the album cover, there are appearances also from Shannon rapper MuRli, guitarist Steve Ryan from Windings and Guide. Indeed, as we’ll discover, Lillis and Jonas are part of a mob of talents.
The God Knows and mynameisjOhn collaboration began through work Lillis was doing as a music project manager with the Clare Youth Service. “I was doing workshops and I booked God Knows for gigs because he was the only act in Clare at that time who was doing anything remotely interesting in hip-hop,” says Lillis.
“I’d been writing for a long time, but when did I get good is the question,” says Jonas about his days as a tyro in the game.
Back then, he listened to stations such as Rinse FM, BBC One Xtra and Hot 97 to build up his knowledge. There was already music in his family background. “My uncle, Lenin Chingaira, was in a group called Slice who were huge in the 1980s in Zimbabwe and I would have seen him on the television. For me, that was inspirational because he was my uncle and came to my house regularly and drank tea with us.
“After I came to Shannon in 1999, when my father got a job here, I was working out how I could make music myself. I was lucky because it was around the time of the technological shift when the technology to do so was being put into our hands.”
Lillis says it began as a friendship. “We were basically feeding each other information on music and life back and forth for a while. I knew for a while that I wanted to work with an MC but I wanted to stay away from the Irish hip-hop scenario because I wasn’t looking for a rapper. I didn’t think that would be reflective of where my head was at or what the live shows would be like.”
What changed Lillis’s mind was an appearance by God Knows on an Ennis street two years ago. “I was involved in a street festival in Ennis in July 2012 and I got God Knows and MuRli (another Shannon rapper) to come and do a performance. I’d never seen Ennis go off at 3.30 in the afternoon like it did then. Two years later to the day, we launched the album in Dolan’s in Limerick.”
Jonas believes the album works because they started out as mates. “We hung out for two years before the album was made and had enjoyed each other’s company before any song was written. Music should work organically. You can tell when the people who’ve worked on a song are in synch and together and we had that before we got to the album. We trusted each other.”
“Everything fell into place immediately”, says Lillis. “He’d call to the house and I’d play him some of the new stuff I was working on and he’d go off and write all the lyrics in a few hours like boom. Live, we’re not a hip-hop band, we’re not an electro band, we’re an energetic band”.
One of the most striking things about the album is the range of lyrical concerns which Jonas addresses. It’s a salient reminder that we rarely get to hear about themes like identity, growing up and fitting in from the viewpoint of a young man born in Zimbabwe and reared in Shannon.
“These are topics we feel people should know about. I still feel some of us have trouble integrating. We’re the second generation of people who’ve come to Ireland and our parents found it hard to integrate, just as Irish people who went abroad found it difficult, as I found out from talking to people here. This is not a problem that only Africans have.
“You grow up confused because you think you don’t fit in at home or outside. When I’m out with the lads, I can’t vibe to the music they’re into because I don’t believe in it. When I’m home, I can’t vibe to my parents’ music the way they vibe to it.”
“I vibe to your parents’ music more than you do,” chips in Lillis to laughter from Jonas.
“A friend of ours, Joseph Loughnane, is half Irish and half Pakistani,” continues Jonas. “He came up to us after a gig the other night to thank us for speaking out for people like him about this thing of not fitting in. I was like ‘wow, he got it’ and he’s not even African. It could be about Irish people in Australia or Canada and Joseph validated that view. People tend to stick to their own clique, but we don’t have a clique because we love everyone.”
Lillis believes things are changing for the better when it comes to acceptance of other cultures. “I think the older generation were threatened by this thought of ‘the other’ when Africans first start arriving here, so they didn’t mix or get to know them. That’s just not there with the younger generation. It would be weird for them not to find out more about someone who is in the same class as them. It’s radically different and that’s for the better.”
For Jonas, the key thing is to be true to what he believes and sees around him. “I’m not trying to be something I’m not. All I have to do is be myself. The way rap has gone now, it’s largely substance-less. My favourite MCs are the ones who are true to themselves and that’s about how people have been raised and I’ve been fortunate in that regard. If you were to solely look at the lyrics, there’s a lot of substance and depth there. It’s not about smoking blunts.”
Lillis and Jonas are keen to point out that there’s a lot more to come – and not just from them. “We’re both youth workers (with Music Generation in Limerick) and we work with young people to show them how to make music so there’s a much wider circle of people around us,” points out Lillis. “We have definite plans to work together again but we also want people to meet the others in the big extended family, like MuRli, because he’s up next.
“It’s a wide collective of people, all of whom should have their time to shine. There’s loads of talent. It’s not just two guys who make music – it’s about 20 people who are trying to have a positive impact on the wider environment. That’s as important to us as playing a main stage at a festival. This is a community.”
Rusango/Family is out now. See godknows-mynameisjohn.bandcamp.com for more