You’d hardly say New Ross in Co Wexford is a hip-hop hub, but Maverick Sabre reckons that’s just the point – the lyrics and emotions transcend boundaries, writes JIM CARROLL
THE MAVERICK Sabre story begins in New Ross. That’s where Michael Stafford landed as a kid when his family moved from Hackney in London to Co Wexford. It’s where he came of age, got the music bug and started to work out what he wanted to do and say.
You can hear how he got from there to here on his debut album Lonely Are the Brave. You’ll hear the hip-hop which hooked him in the first place, but you’ll also note soul and reggae tones. Most of all, you’ll hear the power of Stafford’s words as he discovers how you can say anything you want to say in a song.
Stafford can remember as clear as a bell how hip-hop came into his life and changed everything. “I was 12 and a friend of mine played me a Tupac tape in a shed in his garden in Kilkenny and it blew me away”, he remembers. “I wasn’t blind to hip-hop, my older sister had always been going on about So Solid Crew and More Fire Crew, but I was more into blues and rock’n’roll.
“When I heard Tupac, he inspired me because he had lyrical content that I hadn’t heard. He was from a totally different background to me, grew up in a totally different world on the other side of the world and was still able to connect with me through certain things he said in the lyrics. He was being real to himself and to his own emotions by talking about love and friendship and loneliness. I was a little kid listening to it in Ireland and he could connect with me. That was so powerful.”
It was the directness of it all which impressed him. “It was so straightforward, which is why I love hip-hop. It’s music which comes from a struggle. Everything about it is bang in your face. If I’m depressed, I’m going to say that right out. I’m not going to sing four lines to express how I’m depressed. It’s direct, it’s like speaking.” It didn’t take long for Stafford to realise he had things to say too.
He started MC-ing on the Irish hip-hop scene, hooking up with the Urban Intelligence crew from Ballymun and playing his first show in Tramore supporting Correkt Minds (now known as Sons Phonetic).
Stafford began to learn his art. “You have to learn the art of winning over an audience. A lot of time, the room is against you and you have people going ‘he’s shit’ or ‘he can’t spit rhymes’ so you have to win them over.
“Then, when you bring the essence of hip-hop into another musical form, you’re battling a whole different pile of judgements and opinions and stereotypes against you. When I first started MC-ing with a guitar in front of indie crowds, I’d to win them over too.”
He headed for London after he finished his Leaving Cert in Good Counsel. “I got 320 points, which was alright. I worked for a few months in a restaurant, saved up my money and decided to move back over. I felt it was the right choice for me to do at the time.
“I did it blind, just booked the flight. I didn’t even know where I was going to be staying until two days before when my aunt rang me up and said ‘Michael, where are you going to live, a cardboard box?’ so she invited me to stay with her.” Moving to London from New Ross was a big change, but his aunt wasn’t the only person looking out for him.
“Through the Irish hip-hop scene, I knew a guy called DJ Snuff who was doing gigs on the underground circuit and nights like Speaker’s Corner and People’s Army. They were positive, political, hip-hop-based nights and had something to say. He took me under his wing and gave me loads of opportunities to play gigs around London. Also at the time, I had met Ben (Drew, AKA Plan B) and he was helping me and giving me advice and letting me use his studio. I wouldn’t have got anywhere without their help.” Stafford’s musical template began to develop.
“I didn’t want to see people switching off at shows. As a writer, I work at home on these songs and I want to see people reacting to them when I play them live. I found that when I played the guitar as well as rapped that people opened up to me. It was like ‘oh, he’s a real musician, he has a guitar’.
“Then, I started to sing the choruses and that’s when the reggae influence came across and I started to get interested in how reggae had the lyrical content hip-hop had but with in a more melodic way. Everyone can listen to it. People started to listen more and hear what I was saying.”
When it came to recording the album, Stafford got even even more ideas. “One of the producers played me D’Angelo and it made me think that I could do something like that and expand my voice a bit more. As that happened, it made the sound I was doing quite universal and helped me mix older sounds and genres that I was into in to one bundle.
“I don’t want people to go ‘oh, that’s a definite soul record’ or ‘that’s a definite reggae album’. I wanted an album which had little parts of every essence of me in it. It’s still hip-hop. Tupac always had catchy choruses and melodies and great singers singing with him.” At just 21, Stafford is aware that he’s still growing in confidence, though he knows that confidence is something many Irish people rarely demonstrate.
“As a country, we’ve put out so much great music for such a small nation,” he says. “Growing up, though, I was always struck by the fact that we didn’t seem to have much confidence in ourselves. It upsets me. When I go back home, you can still see it in young men. When you talk to them about life and what they want to do, the confidence isn’t there and I think that leads to depression in society.
“I remember when I was starting off, people would say to me ‘how can you do that?’ They weren’t belittling me, but they were just thinking that I was from New Ross and I had ideas above my station. But we have to talk more about having belief and bringing that back within Irish society.
“History plays a big part in how we keep ourselves down. It’s got a little better since we started to travel abroad and experience other cultures and realise there are other things to do.
“But when I was growing up, I always felt that there wasn’t that many ways out and that there was a sense of being trapped. We’re not great talkers with ourselves about stuff which makes us feel vulnerable, which is crazy because we’re great with words. Words were an escape for me when I wrote them down. They were how I expressed myself and got out my feelings.”
Maverick Sabre plays Dublin’s Academy on February 29