Mary Kate Hickey talks with Irish rap artists about Ireland’s hip-hop culture, its strengths and its struggles.
Over forty years have passed since the birth of hip hop in the United States, since then it’s become one of the most popular genres of music among young people. However, across the pond Ireland’s hip hop scene can escape you almost entirely, unless you put in the effort to seek some out. In fact, unless you go searching for Irish rappers, it can be hard to ever hear their material, or know what Irish rap is all about.
“It’s a really self-contained culture, the same people have been at the gigs since I started going, and that’s 13 years ago” explained Gary ‘Nugget’ Nugent.
Rapping since he was 17, Nugget shares how he feels there has been a lull in the last few years and that the Irish hip hop scene has stopped moving forward as rapidly as it had been. While the genre has never been more popular, he thinks the lack of rap battles and better organised gigs are holding Irish hip-hop back from being taken seriously by a wider audience.
“I think the accent puts some people off at first, people think of an American accent when they think of rap music, but the diversity of the Irish accent is a key defining feature of Irish hip hop,” he added.
The comedic storytelling with the unique Irish humour and the variety of tones, accents and backgrounds are other defining features of Irish hip hop, according to Alan Newman. “I suppose it comes from the background of the Irish being good poets. Irish rappers are the poets of this generation, Irish rap is just real, and it deals with real issues and real people” he said.
In 2014 Alan set up Boss Level Series, a group that brought Irish rappers together to collaborate on music projects. The producer and rapper who moved to London when he was a ten year-old credits his time spent living in the UK for his musical interests.
“The music in the places I was living was eclectic. I was hearing reggae and afro beats for the first time. It was a culture of cliques of rap artists collaborating and I was trying to achieve something similar with Boss Level over here when I came back” he said.
While the Irish rap scene is a lot smaller in size than that of the UK and US, the talent is not lacking. Ireland has a long history of famous poets and storytellers, and a generation of Irish hip hop artists are emerging hoping to rival the likes of Joyce and Wilde.
“Some of the most talented and lyrical emcees I have ever heard are from Ireland, there’s a very poetic value to it here. Most of us rap about what we know or what we see, it’s not all about sex, drugs and money like in other countries, but you still get some of that” explained rapper James Costello.
Costello says the inspiration for his raps come from things he sees walking around North Dublin. “I like to tell a story with my raps but I’ve been fortunate to not have many struggles myself” he said. “I write about the things I see walking around places like Finglas and Ballymun, near my home, and what life’s like for my friends, family and other people living there,” he added.
Getting the support of the media and the general population has been an ongoing struggle for Irish hip hop artists. “It’s hard to get over people’s misconceptions about what Irish rap is” explained Nugget. “Some people just think it’s a joke, it’s very hard to get something on TV or radio promoting Irish rap in a serious way.”
However it doesn’t help that Irish rap keeps getting compared to its US and UK counterparts, explains Alan Newman. “I’d love to see Irish hip hop appreciated for what it is, and not constantly compared to things it’s not. Like should be compared with like; you wouldn’t compare Dizzee Rascal to Kendrick Lamar so you shouldn’t compare Irish hip hop to US hip hop” he said.
One of the biggest struggles for rappers and producers making Irish hip hop is financial strain. “Paying for studio time, a producer to make beats if you don’t do it yourself, and someone to do music videos costs a lot” said Costello.
But it’s not all struggles and negativity; some great things come from having such a small contained sub-culture. “Everybody knows everybody really, and there’s a lot of respect among the artists, it’s kind of like a friendly competitiveness,” explains Costello.
While all have differing opinions on what defines Irish hip hop, be it storytelling, the poetry or the Irish humour, one opinion they all shared was that the Irish accent and the purity of the craft is what makes Irish hip hop special.
(Originally published in FILTR magazine http://www.filtrmagazine.com)