Una Mullally: It took a nation of immigrants to bring Irish hip hop to life

Hip hop is the dominant youth culture in Ireland, and we’re a better country for it

Rusangano Family: Straight into the mainstream. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Rusangano Family: Straight into the mainstream. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

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A while back, the MC God Knows announced on Rusangano Family’s track Lights On: “I landed in Ireland in 2001/ About the same time that Dre dropped 2001/ Thirteen years later the album’s done/ Rusangano presents Non-National with an Attitude Volume One.”

Let the Dead Bury the Dead, which won the Choice Music Prize for 2016’s best album, can now be seen with a couple of years’ perspective as a tipping point, rooted in its brilliantly honest articulations of finding one’s artistic identity and voice: “Thought I had to be American, thought I had to be English, everything else but Irish/ Before it’s the black boy from Caimin’s school surrounded by white like my iris/ I just wanted to be Harlem, I just wanted to be London, I just wanted to be Trench Town, now it’s time to be Shannon/ Now it’s time to be Limerick, get used to my surroundings.”

On December 28th in the 3Arena, Ireland’s biggest indoor concert venue will be the setting for a crowning moment of the popularity of rap and hip hop in the country. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra and MCs and singers will play the Story of Hip Hop Part 2, a production that became a hit at the Electric Picnic and Longitude music festivals.

Hip hop has been the dominant youth culture in Ireland for some time, but we’re only really seeing now how big it might become.

The energy and rawness of the night gleefully holds on to an underground of a generational moment that has become mainstream

I thought about this at the Black Jam party on Saturday night in the basement of Fibber Magees on Parnell Street. Black Jam is run by Fried Plantains Collective, led by Osaro/Yemi, “one Dublin-based ex-asylum seeker African woman doing community development work by creating deadly social events.”

The location in itself is significant. Still a stronghold of rockers, Fibbers now also hosts parties such as Black Jam and Club Comfort. The energy and rawness of the night gleefully holds on to an underground of a generational moment that has become mainstream.

Collective celebration

The scenius that has emerged in Irish hip hop, where mutual appreciation thrives along with a collective celebration and ownership of success every time someone does something decent, has also enjoyed both a bubble of isolation away from the industry, and a global interconnectedness where genre has fractured.

There is Kojaque’s eight-track release Deli Dreams, one of the finest albums of the year, traversing rap, jazz and spoken word, with brilliantly wry observations: “I came from the land where everything from the common cold straight to cancer can be treated with a flat 7Up as the answer.”

‘I started writing, trying to produce, and you quickly learn that it’s really not that easy at all and these people are very talented.’ Photograph: George Voronov
There is Kojaque’s eight-track release Deli Dreams, one of the finest albums of the year, traversing rap, jazz and spoken word, with brilliantly wry observations. File photograph: George Voronov

Kojaque’s label name, Soft Boy, defies the cartoonish machismo that often withholds vulnerability from artistic expression. There is Mango x Mathman’s end-of-year gig at Wigwam in Dublin on December 27th, titled No Surrender. “I’m grand, I’m grand, with a pint of black and a mic in my hand,” Mango raps on Rapih. There is Rejjie Snow’s skittish approach to genre and Soulé’s R&B and Hare Squead and Jafaris’s pop sensibilities.

The Irish summer of 2018 will also be remembered for the landmark moment in festival booking that was Longitude, which largely dispensed with bands in the traditional sense, instead featuring wall-to-wall hip hop, echoing what has occurred in the UK, with grime and British hip hop becoming the default popular culture.

We can also talk about how pride in multifaceted identities has taken hold in Ireland’s music scene elsewhere too

While the tools and platforms the internet provides for music to be created, visualised and disseminated has assisted hugely, outlets such as District Magazine deserve credit for consistently positioning the spotlight again and again on hip hop. At their last magazine launch in the Sugar Club in Dublin, the lineup featured a conversation with Kojaque and his friend, collaborator and label partner Kean Kavanagh (who also played later that night), and the excellent Dublin artist Gemma Dunleavy, whose output often defies categorisation, alongside two activists from Take Back the City, finishing off with the neo-soul of Biig Piig.

Fireside chats

Hip hop is rooted in storytelling, and perhaps nowhere is its compatibility with Irish fireside chats more expertly displayed than on one of the finest tracks of the year, Paul Alwright’s The Auld Chinaman, a stunning piece of storytelling about the legendary Dublin pub in the title. “These are real stories, real places and real people,” the song declares.

We can talk about how scenes thrive away from radio play and industry interest, or how immigration contributes invaluably to a nation’s creative and cultural output. We can also talk about how pride in multifaceted identities has taken hold in Ireland’s music scene elsewhere too. Electronic music and rock music is thriving, and emerging bands, including Pillow Queens and Fontaines DC, reject mid-Atlanticisms, even overemphasising their Irish accents, the distorted rounding of vowels becoming a declaration of place.

I recently came across a photo posted online by the clothing label DBLNR, who co-opted the Palace streetwear logo for a T-shirt declaring “The Auld Triangle”.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a bit cocky”, declares one of their images, text overlaid on a black-and-white photo of Phil Lynott. No there is not. How brilliant it is to see – and hear – a generation walking forward with such endearing swagger and excellence.

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