‘Fragile masculinity is a massive thing. I’ve been there’
The Dublin hip-hop artist fka Lethal Dialect takes a giant leap forward as Paul Alwright
Alwright says he has moved from ‘me using the creative process to serve myself, to me using myself to serve it’. His new album ‘Hungry’ is both a manifestation and reflection of this change
Last year Paul Alwright tweeted about why he was releasing his new album under his own name, as opposed to what everyone had come to know him as, Lethal Dialect.
“Few reasons why, but I think I can condense them into two. The first was the loss of my friend and bandmate Liam Pritchard to suicide. As a young, working-class Dub, the most endearing quality of hip-hop music to me was the parallels it drew with my own experiences and trials and tribulations growing up, but one of its features which I feel amplified an already prevalent Irish mentality in me was the oppressed and toxic idea of what a man is supposed to be in society. A cold and calculated, emotionless human who never shows weakness . . .
“One of the biggest regrets I have is perpetuating a misogynistic, stereotypical, insensitive alpha male mentality in my early songs.”
He ended the online PSA by quoting Damien Dempsey, “You can be a hard man, it’s hard to be a good man.”
Me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘That makes me look terrible and I feel embarrassed.’ Me now, I say this is about the f***ing character I’m trying to portray
Alwright’s change is not just a creative one, but one of a mindset that has evolved over the years. He talks about breaking out of a cynical, negative mindset, moving away from patterns of behaviour that were damaging and unhelpful, and being freed up by the opportunities vulnerability and honesty have afforded him.
The evolution has paid off. Alwright, from Cabra in Dublin, was one of the best things in the 2017 film Cardboard Gangsters, which became the biggest native box office success at cinemas last year. Acting is a new thing for him, but something that allows him to access a different point of creativity.
“I found myself in a short film recently standing in the shower in the Rick Rude with a f***ing camera crew around me in this tiny bathroom in Bray,” he says over a pint of Guinness in Dublin city centre. “I was like ‘Lethal Dialect would have never done this. Me 10 years ago I would have said ‘that makes me look terrible and I feel embarrassed’. Me now, I say this isn’t about me, this is about the f***ing character I’m trying to portray.”
Alwright says he has moved from “me using the creative process to serve myself, to me using myself to serve it”. His new album Hungry is both a manifestation and reflection of this change.
Alwright first performed in 2006, going on to release three fine albums in as many years, LD50, LD50 Part II, and 1988. The philosophical heart of his debut album was Cold and Calculated: “I still see a need for vengeance/ Guess I’m still being egocentric,” he rapped. The second record was underpinned by the track Keep It Real. “I was 15 on me way to penal time,” he announced.
The atmosphere these first two albums created was compelling, but it was also dark, nihilistic, conspiratorial, a sense of foreboding permeating everything. When his third album 1988 came along, there were thankfully chinks in that constructed armour, offering an opportunity for dappled light to filter in. Beast Mode covered some of the same ground, but was probably his best song up to that point. Damien Dempsey appeared on the final tune Brave. Jess Kav’s vocals brought a much-needed musical levity.
It would be easy for Alwright to continue on a similar path, maybe one with a slight incline. He has already proved his verbal dexterity many times over, and an ability to make tunes that lodge in your brain, and capture and create evocative atmospheres.
Instead, Hungry takes a giant leap. The moniker is dropped, his real name in place. There is a certain irony to the fact that toughness and street smarts are viewed as signifiers of authenticity, yet in exposing his vulnerability, and letting down his guard, Alwright’s music feels more authentic than ever. “Having anxiety and depression was a big thing,” he says of accessing creativity from a young age, “I got into writing through that. It’s a way of venting. I never created a character because the stuff I wrote that wasn’t conceptual was true. But it was like I was only showing one side, one facet of the emotional spectrum; cold, logical, tough. With that, it’s hard to explain looking back, but through creating that it almost protected me from the anxiety I was suffering from, a protective mask, a protective layer, this Lethal Dialect stuff. It sort of became a persona. It wasn’t intended to be. When I knew it was a persona was when I went to record a track for this album and was like ‘nah, that’s not a Lethal Dialect thing’. That was when I knew that was getting in the way of the creative process.”
Over the course of two conversations, Alwright chats about stoicism, men’s rights activism, theories of consciousness, psychology, Nietzsche
When he was in his early 20s, he says seeing his name in print with a decent review went to his head. He says he became egotistical, despite constantly being brought back down to earth by the realities of life, working in a Starbucks in town while his name was on the lips of critics and fans, “you realise it’s all a load of shite. You have to go back to work at the end of it, and no one gives a shit who you are in work. In the coffee shop in town, people are still queuing at six in the morning. They don’t give a shit about LD, they want to get their f***ing coffee, and if I don’t have it ready for them I’m getting snapped at.”
At the heart of Alwright’s music is a blistering intelligence. Over the course of two conversations, Alwright chats about stoicism, men’s rights activism, theories of consciousness, psychology, Nietzsche. Every second sentence is peppered with references to books and thinkers on philosophy, behavioural science, neurology. He talks about the political and economic forces behind homogenous urban planning in Dublin, and Da Vinci’s discontent with Botticelli’s cosy relationship with the Medicis.
A topic which he returns to frequently is masculinity. “The red pill thing [of The Matrix and a meme used by the broad men’s right’s movement] is genius writing, but it’s also about when you start looking out and blaming external things rather than looking in. That’s what’s happening with them. They want to blame everyone else for them feeling a certain way, instead of looking in. That’s where stoicism came in for me,” he says, citing Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as an eye-opening book.
“Fragile masculinity is a massive thing. I’ve been there,” Alwright says, “Especially with anxiety and depression, the LD stuff was a tough character to keep that at bay. You kind of want to scare people off from knowing that you’re vulnerable. That’s a big part of it. I didn’t want anyone to know how anxious I was. I was able to act very well that if I was chatting to people I’d look very cool and calm in demeanour. The only thing that would give me away was if you felt my palms sweating. Palms are sweaty! Mom’s spaghetti! A couple of situations happened. My younger cousin was locked up. I don’t know how much of the fragile masculinity stuff he bought into, I know it was an element, but also out of necessity. Then Liam [Pritchard], through suicide, was a big thing to me. You’ve pent this stuff up and it gets to the stage where a cauldron bubbles up inside you and it feels like you’re going to harm someone else or harm yourself. I am an empathetic person so it would have been me.”
This self-examination and level of emotional maturity has led to an album more colourful, drawing from a more expansive palette. On his first two records especially, Alwright’s flow was clipped, his voice tightly wound, as if the words could only be let out mechanically, one by one. This tension and resistance was effective, but Hungry cracks everything right open, an artist truly making things from the heart.
I think we try to hold on to those fleeting moments that make us happy, and then get depressed that they don’t stay
One Life rails against the regimented predictability of a “normal” life, the rat race, consumerism and the battle of simply staying afloat. Seeds of Doubt slowly details self-doubt and criticism. And there are still blistering stories. The Auld Chinaman is probably Alwright’s best achievement in storytelling to date, a vivid tune based on the pub his uncle Jackie used to run on the corner of Golden Lane.
The song is so evocative that it’s not surprising that Alwright is drawing further from that source material with a play he has written, which is one draft away from completion.
It’s clear that Alwright has found a place that is more real for him right now, more open, more true, and also more risky. Asked what kind of emotional state he would like to be in by the year’s end, the answer is surprising.
“More indifferent would be the best thing I could strive for. I’ve stopped thinking about happiness and stuff like that. I think life is the full spectrum. I think we try to hold on to those fleeting moments that make us happy, and then get depressed that they don’t stay. I think it’s a mix of both. I’m a lot better than I was, but when I get a compliment I feel elated and when I get criticised I feel down. I want to get to a stage where I’m on my own wave regardless of what’s said.”
- Hungry is released on May 18th