Paul Alwright remembers the first time he stepped on a stage as Lethal Dialect. It was 2006 with Urban Intelligence in Eamonn Doran's in Dublin's Temple Bar and he was raw.
How raw? “Well, I was onstage rapping in an American accent with the Dipset beat behind me”. At least, he says, he didn’t tog out in loud pink fur a la Alwright hero and Dipset leader Cam’ron.
That was then. Eight years on, Alwright is still standing, but the accent is his own, the beats are no longer second-hand and the confidence is something to behold. Three albums in four years have seen him do a great deal of finessing about what he’s about and what he has to say.
When you hear his new album 1988 (the year he was born), you'll hear the Cabra rapper stepping boldly up to the plate and throwing his shoulders back. The previous two albums, LD50 and LD50 Part 2, were "more concepts" he says, because "you're a little bit afraid to be yourself at first".
Not so with the new album. “There’s stuff here that I wouldn’t have had the balls to do with the first two. I wasn’t being totally personal before. Now, I am, which has a lot to do with growing up and becoming comfortable in my own skin.”
He points to songs such as Headstrong and Brave, where he talks about family, illness and death. "It's hard to be that personal because sometimes people overdo it and it comes across as cheesy when you do it the wrong way. It can almost be too depressing. Just because some of the stuff is personal that doesn't mean it has to melancholic.
"School Days Are Over" is personal, but that's funny too. Energy is personal and it's a true story. The whole album is honest, right down to me having arguments with my mother on it. She's always on about me knuckling down and getting a proper job."
Those earlier releases packed a massive punch on arrival, as it seemed that Alwright had come of nowhere. “I’d been writing for years, so it might have seemed that my first album was that articulate and fully formed. But it took an awful lot of development and I kept that hidden. After the first album comes out, you can see ways you can improve on it for the next one, and you also see things with the second release that you can change and work on.”
Route into rap
His route into rap began with mainstream stuff like Jay-Z, Tupac and the Roc-A-Fella crew and he slowly worked his way back to the source.
"As I grew up, my taste in hip-hop grew too and I got more into the more purer stuff. I bought I Am… by Nas and put on New York State Of Mind, Part Two and the sound of the beat and his lyrics and that story just grabbed my attention. With the other stuff, it was about the attitude and the beat behind it; with Nas, it was like he was a poet."
With 1988, Alwright wanted to combine the two sides. "I go back to stuff I was listening to when I was 15 or 16 and taking an influence from Dipset and Cam'ron. You can have a bit fun about it. The purest stuff can be very serious, dark and gritty, so it's good to get out of that mindset for a while."
Alwright is not the only one who shines on 1988. There's also John Behan, aka JackKnifeJ, the album's producer.
“Johnny’s main role before now was to mix and master – he’s a great ear for polished sound. He was always experimenting with his beats, bringing in live elements. When I heard his more recent beats, I’d realised he’d come up with his own style so I said ‘let’s do a collab album’.
“It was a challenge because we brought musicians into the studio and I wanted to get into that process as opposed to just using beats. I’d done a few gigs with a band so I wanted to write tracks that would work well live. It was a really refreshing thing for me to do, a different experience.”
Two of those new arrivals were guest vocalists. Alwright found Jessica Kavanagh on Facebook – "I saw a video of her doing Lauryn Hill covers and she was just brilliant" – and he had become friendly with Damien Dempsey so the singer came onboard for Brave.
Rapping, though, isn’t the only thing on Alwright’s mind at present. While he’s busy with the album and live shows, including a tour with Dempsey, he’s gone back to college a few days a week to study bioprocessing.
Intelligent designs “I used to do science before I dropped out of college and I wouldn’t have talked about this on the previous albums because it puts across a different persona. But the way it is now, I’m proud to be intelligent. A lot of hip-hop in the mainstream promotes ignorance. You get 20 dudes in a video and they’re all holding AK47s and they’re getting millions and millions of views. That’s crazy.
"I want to promote some intelligence instead. I was listening to GZA from the Wu-Tang, and he's rapping about the origins of the universe – so this is who I am. I'm a little bit of a geek underneath. It's like my friend Dean Sherry says: I have a street education and a formal education."
1988 is out now. Lethal Dialect plays Dublin's Opium Rooms on October 24th