Versatile Dublin rappers: I'd like to thank all the smack heads on Abbey Street
They stormed this year’s Longitude festival and they've announced a gig at the 3 Arena, but not all is as it seems in the rap duo’s world. Or is it?
Versatile: headlining 3Arena in November. Photograph: outburstpal/Instagram
The two pasty-faced young men in busy sports casuals who strode on to the Longitude main stage last weekend didn’t look much like the future of Irish music. Casey Walsh (20) and Alex Sheehan (21) more closely resembled party crashers who’d turned up at a fancy dress as inner-city drug dealers.
But the roars around Marlay Park – cheers mixed with blokey grunts – confirmed something was about to go off; 30 seconds later they were chanting the opening lines to their hit We Sell Brown – “We’re selling brown now yeah/ Look at these t-shirts, look at these chains, look at these runners” – and 40,000 fans were bawling along. It was the best sort of pandemonium.
So it goes wherever Walsh and Sheehan, aka “Casper” and “Eskimo Supreme”, aka Versatile perform nowadays. They packed Cork’s Live at the Marquee in June when, going by eye-witness reports, they prompted a moral panic among local parents. At Electric Picnic 2018 they went on the same night as Kendrick Lamar and blew him off the front pages.
And now comes the crowning moment in their short and unlikely career: the announcement of a November date at 3Arena. The gig will sell out in a finger-snap. It will also make history, as Versatile become the first Irish rap group to headline the country’s largest indoor venue.
Yet most people – and certainly a majority aged 20 or over – may have never heard of Walsh, Sheehan and their semi-invisible third member, producer and DJ Evan Kennedy. Even if they have, they could be forgiven for feeling confused as to who or what Versatile are.
The answer is, at one level, straightforward. They’re a hip-hop group from Ringsend in Dublin who rap about selling drugs, raising a ruckus and being driven slowly, sometimes quickly deranged, by their outlaw lifestyles. The trickier question is whether they’re sincere about their Dublin gangsta patter or are conjuring with Love/Hate stereotypes for purely comedic value.
The obvious solution would be to ask Versatile – but good luck getting hold of the duo (or trio – it’s unclear whether Kennedy is an official member or adjunct). As their profile has grown, so has the veil of mystery around them.
Glimpses behind the curtain serve only to muddle the outlook. If, for instance, you have the time and fancy a toe-curling chuckle, check out a video interview Hot Press conducted with the three-piece at last year’s Electric Picnic.
We say “interview” and “three-piece”. Actually the only one engaging is Kennedy. He comes across as a thoughtful and polite. Beside him, Walsh and Sheehan put on a performance. They sit absolutely still, glaring behind their mirror shades like Dublin hip-hop versions of Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys (it is possible they have never heard of Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys).
“Something had to change around here. Something like these had to come along,” Kennedy tells the interviewer. “There was a gap in the market these two boys seized upon and got it done.”
His argument is that for years Irish hip-hop was perceived, by outsiders, if not those within the scene, as a joke without a punchline. Then along came Versatile to blow the gates off. Purists may agree or disagree. But whatever . . . the point is that one of his bandmates next leans close to Kennedy and whispers something.
He wants to know the name of the interviewer’s pet. Uneasy chuckles break out across the room. Versatile sit back and resume frowning.
Versatile’s music is striking in that it can sound simultaneously compelling, farcical, childish and profound. Image plays a large part in their success; it is telling that they broke through when they started posting videos – more gonzo mini movies, really – on YouTube, where they have clocked up millions of views.
As titles such as Ketamine and the aforementioned We Sell Brown suggest, these are not for the faint-hearted. Especially not faint-hearted parents who’ve just handed over their credit card so that their teens can book tickets to the 3Arena gig.
We Sell Brown, for instance, finds Versatile filling in their (presumably fictional) backstory as drug dealers. They fire off lines such as “I’d like to thank all the smack heads on Abbey Street/ For paying for the fresh Lacoste that are on me feet/ I sold you brown, then you lost all your f**** teeth”.
This is clever – probably hilarious and life changing if you’re a teenager attending your first festival. Surely it is also in jest. And yet, even if it is a skit, some of their bars might give you pause. “We f*** the birds that be dying for the hole,” they declare on Dublin City G’s. “Sell your brown on our turf and you’ll have to pay a toll”. Were a singer-songwriter to come up with a couplet such as that, the internet would burn down around them.
Another of their hits, Scorching Again starts with “Sick of all these young fellas, acting like birds / bunch of f***ing lick arses/ now it’s absurd” Later, they beseech the listener to “stop being f***ots and cause a nuisance . . . I’m out of here/ time to rob a Spanish student”. At Longitude last week Versatile asked the audience, “who’s sucking d*** tonight?”.
There are parallels with Soundcloud rap: the parent-frightening music of choice of Generation Z. Musically, Versatile’s hands down their track-pants braggadocio couldn’t be further removed from this lo-fi genre. Soundcloud rappers do embrace notoriety, however. Generalisations are always dangerous. Nonetheless, the theory is that Soundcloud rap is one way by which Gen Zers are distinguishing themselves from preachy millennials. That they are drawn to performers who say the unsayable. A similar dynamic may be at work with Versatile.
What sort of lifestyle are they glamorising, though? There is a tradition of American rappers lionising their past on the fringes of society. Pusha T has spent his career banging on about his days as a cocaine dealer; Jay Z has stated hustling skills acquired moving dope in Brooklyn were instrumental in his rise as a rap mogul. But whatever about Jay Z risking a stretch at Rikers Island, surely nobody aspires to selling smack on Abbey Street?
Irish hip-hop more widely is having a moment, with artists such as Kojaque, Jafaris and Rejjie Snow winning international kudos. Last year the New York Times, which tends to defer to the UK media when taking the temperature on Irish culture, ran a piece headlined “Hip-hop with an Irish Lilt” (they obviously gave the assignment to a British rather than Irish writer).
“I used to cringe when I heard Irish rap,” Walsh told the interviewer. “Stuff about how the government’s robbing us and our lives are so bad.”
Versatile aren’t quite ploughing a solitary furrow. Belfast’s Kneecap are similarly outrageous (thought their most transgressive decision may be to rap in Irish) . Last year, their song Cearta was removed from an RTÉ playlist due to its “drug references and cursing”.
The degree to which they and Versatile are plugged into the wider rap community is harder to judge. Rejjie Snow invited Versatile on stage for his Olympia gig in March 2018. Others however have expressed misgivings. Drimnagh rapper Sean “Fynch” Meehan, signed to modish District Recordings, weighed in last year on Twitter.
“I’m well-aware they’re a comedy act,” he wrote of Versatile. “But lazy passages of lyrics which can be construed as racist/homophobic isn’t comedic . . . This could all be easily dealt with if they didn’t constantly play up to their personas. So much so, that it makes you doubt if they’re really playing personas at all, and it’s rather an extension of themselves.”
Dublin rappers Payton and Marcus Woods were were among those to “like” his comments. So not everyone is cheering Versatile’s rise. I emailed a number of figures in the scene to canvass their opinion. Just one responded, saying they didn’t “really follow Versatile” and so “weren’t the person to ask”.
Otherwise the silence was howling. It is also worth considering their Dublin gig is promoted by MCD, which, subject to regulatory approval, is in the process of being partly acquired by mega-monolith Live Nation. Hardly the sound of the underground.
“‘Novelty act’ is an industry or media created category,” says Dean Scurry a hip-hop promoter, manager and youth worker based in Dublin. “The three lads are obviously self aware and intelligent, as were Rubberbandits before them. They know who they are and what message they want to put out.
“They fulfil a need for their fans to help them deal with a world where a man who was a TV star [i.e. Donald Trump] is now running the entire show. Anything is possible and these lads did the impossible. Fair play. 'The kids’ love them. And I’m sure in the short term MCD etc will too. Is there a long term strategy for perennial success? Who cares? That’s their business.
“They are fearless and are holding a much-needed mirror up to Ireland in relation drugs, vices, crime and trauma. And the posh kids and poor kids are mixing. That's great too see. It was like the rave scene in my youth. Except now cocaine is the No one vice, not yokes [ecstasy]. That’s not good. We need more love not violence. But at least the lads are honest. For some too honest. It’s refreshing.”
One comparison that comes up is Limerick comedy-rap duo Rubber Bandits. Or at least Rubber Bandits back when they were making videos with checkered figures such as Russell Brand rather than positioning themselves as godfathers of woke podcasting.
Versatile and Rubber Bandits share a scatological humour and a passion for Irish vernacular. So if you’re old and cold to the fuss over these newcomers maybe that’s where you should start. But don’t be frustrated if, despite all your earnest efforts, you still don’t understand Versatile. Unless you are 14 and think drug dealers are cool you probably never will.