What is Irish Hip Hop Telling Us?

Hip hop artist Denise Chaila who features in the documentary ‘Origins: The Story of Irish Hip Hop’ (Photo: Shane Serrano).

What is Irish Hip Hop Telling Us?

A new documentary on the history of Irish hip hop explores the views of current artists such as Denise Chaila, Costello, Ophelia, Kojaque and Mango X Mathman. Is the genre becoming an agent of change in Ireland? Andrea Cleary reviews.

There’s a lot of talk, these days, about Irish hip hop’s current ‘moment’. To many, the scene still feels raw, new, like it’s finding its feet, despite its four-decades-long history – a history that is examined in a new documentary from Collective Films, Origins: The Story of Irish Hip Hop. 

Much of Irish hip hop’s history is a battle against the notion that we Irish somehow don’t belong on stages spitting bars over beats or rapping lyrical about hardship. We are, after all, the nation of Joyce, of Beckett, of Sally Rooney, of Yeats. Our most beloved stories, and their history – most of which is at pains to use our common tongue, the vernacular of the working class, and indeed the Irish language – has been co-opted by the high towers of academia, elevated to statuses beyond the common folk, and removed from the very communities they once served to represent. When it comes to reclaiming Irish poetry, hip hop was surely the next logical step for our nation of lyricists. 

But the road to today’s diverse scene of hip-hoppers was paved with adversity, and growing pains. One of the most interesting talking points in Origins is the focus on the Irish accent; how its presence or absence indicates authenticity. Scary Éire, the documentary’s starting point for the scene’s history, drew influence from the dub scene in the UK in the 1980s, as well as the anti-establishment sensibility of punk rock. Archive footage of live performances from the group – including the now infamous instance in which a member stage-dived into the crowd while supporting U2 in the RDS, hospitalising two teenage girls, and resulting in the band being dropped by their label, Island records – is interspersed with stories of just how shocking this new sound was for the Island. Irish people rapping in Irish accents about Irish problems. 

But when American rap took its hold on Ireland in the 1990s, our gliding vowels and phonological eccentricities were swapped out, by some, for a more American style. Dublin rapper Costello, speaking in one of the city’s side-streets, notes the suspicion of many when it comes to Irish people rapping in American accents. ‘What are you trying to be black for?’, he recalls being asked at an early stage of his career. ‘Do you think you’re Tupac?’

Collie, who raps in a North Dublin accent, retains this suspicion for those who bend to the great American influence; ‘If you’re from fuckin’ Cork, rap in a Cork accent.’ 

But the influence of American hip hop can’t be up and ignored. American culture, across the board, took particular hold of Irish youth in the 80s, 90s and 00s. It was, it appears from these accounts, a period of growing pains, in which today’s confidence in the Irish experience, and its place in wider hip hop culture, was still finding its feet. Irish rap needed to try on what it wasn’t, before it knew what it was. 

The Irish experience
‘I don’t know many people who don’t sing or rap in an American accent in the beginning,’ notes Ophelia. ‘That’s what we heard. That’s what we were mostly influenced by’. It was this era of Irish hip hop that started to take what was working in America – the universal touchpoint for hip hop scenes around the world – and translate it to the Irish experience. One of the major ways that this was translated was through humour, through Ireland’s predilection for a gag at the gallows, and a turn of phrase that teases and authenticates at once. The Rubberbandits’ particular style of colloquial vernacular and self-proclaimed ‘gas cuntism’ style brought this to Irish popular music in the early 2010s.

‘We grew up in a time when our parents were telling us to tone it down,’ says spoken-word poet Emmet Kirwan. ‘Don’t be as working class.’ The rawness, honesty and grit of Scary Éire are retained, as we move into the next stage, but the language of empathy becomes a vital characteristic of Irish hip hop. Solidarity with social causes – marriage equality, the eighth amendment referendum, homelessness, the housing crisis, the abolition of direct provision – are cultural markers of modern Irish hip hop, where class struggles, race, opportunity and deficit are examined with nuance, with an eye towards empathy and inclusion. ‘The two defining characteristics of the past five years in Ireland have been a referendum on marriage equality and a referendum on abortion,’ says journalist Una Mullally. ‘Are you really going to be canvassing for repeal and two years later making a record dissing women?’

Certain touchpoints are retained from the era of Scary Éire, who – as noted in the film by Mullally – emerged when Ireland prepared to emerge from a recession. The hyper-masculine, violent chaos of Scary Éire is a stretch removed from the Soft Boy aesthetic of Irish men in hip hop today (Kean Kavanagh, Kojaque, Luka Palm among others), for whom depression, economic despair, anxiety, and loss are common touchpoints. Kojaque, Nealo, Mango X Mathman and Lethal Dialect, are among those contributing to a conversation that is wider than hip hop, wider still than music, around men’s mental health, and the social barriers that contribute to high rates of suicide and depression in young men. 

When we arrive, in Origins, at the discussion of the current ‘moment’, it is Denise Chaila who sums up the beating heart of the scene today. ‘When you look at the genesis of hip hop, it is about people saying – I’m not represented. I’m not represented accurately when I am represented. And I deserve to be. I deserve to have my voice heard.’ 

While there is room for a broader discussion of women in hip hop, as well as a need for more time on discussions around race, identity, and ‘Irishness’, Origins is otherwise a thorough and nuanced document of an important cultural moment in Irish history as it happens. As the scene grows, and as more artists reap the rewards of its pioneers, hip hop is becoming an increasingly mobilised and unified agent of change in Ireland. Those with even a passing interest in the scene will find something to be excited about here, and anyone who doubts the validity of Irish rap can not deny its place in our historical, artistic consciousness. Origins is essential viewing not only for those lovers of rap, of poetry and humour but for anyone with a stake in embracing the new.

Origins: The Story of Irish Hip Hop is available to watch on the RTÉ  playerIt will also stream on Red Bull’s website from 11 September.

Published on 10 September 2020

Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.

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