Pretty soon, he brought the crowd of loyal supporters and fans to the boil, blowing us away with his own repertoire, while whipping up the crowd with classics, each fan knowing most off by heart.
As always, the loudest rendition was the chorus of “Patience”, from Damien Dempsey – fitting for a record label more than ten years in existence, continually learning and improving with barely a nod from the dominant culture.
And that was with audio problems, no backing tracks or beats, every track performed a capella with the crowd rapping along. He opened the set with his recent release “A Page of History“, a passionate retelling of Irish history within the context of imperialism. The main act was slightly overwhelmed.
A strong cohort of hard-core fans, myself included, had just rocked through with pride. Not the drunken, green-jersey variety, but deep and tribal. It was the knowledge that Costello, and his talent, is part of us, a leading light in the Dublin hip-hop scene, which has been more or less ignored by the mainstream for more than ten years.
That’s not just my opinion. At an open-mic night recently, Rebel Phoenix was waxing lyrical about it being akin to a tribal experience, where we come together to tell and celebrate our stories. Before taking the mic to rock the crowd with his latest from a batch of gems, “Take Flight“.
Continuing an aural heritage is a common theme, it pops up in lyrics and interviews. But it comes with a responsibility — it’s not just about you. The ultimate goal: creating gems as pure as our flawed humanity allows. Ego is impossible to avoid, but the best tracks, as with most art, come from a place of shared experience.
Describing surroundings familiar to any “residents in council settlements”, like GI’s blistering “The Daily“: “The fields which were once scorched by the fires are now just memories cemented over by the corporate empires. Every estate got a pair of kicks hangin’ offa the wires . . . For the strugglin’ government tryna half your cheques, you’re worth more than that blue-blood bastard’s Lex.”
“Stay true to yourself and your experience,” is what the older MCs are saying to the younger generation coming up. “The Romans captured the Greeks, but the Greeks captured the imagination of the Romans.”
Suppressed cultures find a way to be heard, to communicate, educate ourselves and each other; the recession is pushing people like myself to start getting creative. Motivators come in all shapes and sizes, existential terror and frustration were mine. Hip-hop gave me the tools to analyse and articulate my surroundings.
At the very least, artists offered legitimacy to feelings and experiences which at best are not reflected anywhere in the dominant culture, and at worst are demonised and excluded. In a way, music, and hip-hop in particular, filled the void, the lack of a socialist history and lexicon to understand concepts like equality, classism, even the notion of workin’ class pride and a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, people asking the same questions as you.
From “Proletarian Restitution” by Elayne Harrington aka Temper-Mental MissElayneous to the smokey world of GI’s “French Connections”: “Musta missed us, too raw to list us in your flawed statistics now watch us bust this system, yo where’s ur water pistol?” And 4Real: “Met God then remembered I’m an atheist so he pissed off coz reality is what ya make of it.” Or Jambo describing “The Habitats” and “The Human Condition”.
Something which was instilled in the artists of Workin’ Class Records by their manager: that a working-class background is a privilege to have. This is reflected in the lyrical output and pride with the kind of confidence that only more than 10 years perfecting your craft can bring.
At a recent Lethal Dialect gig in Whelans, while I was busy having my soul refuelled, listening to a live rendition of the track which made me shake the pen, “New Dublin Saunter“, the same bars made the ears of Ed Murphy of Hot Press prick up, although we each took a vastly different message from it. He writes: “The line, ’cause I can’t fathom why our own people hate to hear our own accent,’ was spit with such bile and venom, it was hard not to take notice.”
Well, it’s time to take notice Ed. That line is followed by an understanding of post-colonial and post-theocracy – lots of conversations to have, Ireland – mentality:
He told me they call it different names Inferiority complex or malignant shame For things to change you mustn’t Shy away from the challenge Coz you’ve the same voice as James Joyce A W.B. Yeats on beat breaks A fuckin’ problem child Oscar Wilde.
And with those words, I finally picked up my pen.
Over two years, I had been educating myself about all types of things. Hip-hop gave me the confidence, when the confidence wasn’t there, it gave me a persona to play, a mask and strut to throw on as I strolled to the top table of the Kilkenomics Brunch table. Not because I’m particularly smart or capable but because I knew people would appreciate the actions.
After conducting my first professional interview with a former Fianna Fail financial adviser, who explained our economic policy in terms of hotel stars, the handy thing about power for a journalist is that it doesn’t bother with a mask around the proles. At the sharp edge, we understand the game just as well as the political class.
And thanks to people like Jambo, Rebel Phoenix, Costello, GI, 4Real, MissElayneous, Lethal Dialect, Ophelia McCabe, Mic P, Ger and Ryan, and of course Lunitic (rest in peace), a whole new generation is being inspired and developing the tools with which to understand and articulate their experience.
This is a powerful thing, as Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language represent the limits of my mind, all I know is what I have words for.”
At the open-mic hosted by Costello last Saturday night, in Ned’s of Townsend Street, a circle of fans surrounded the performers as I was chatting to a fan at the bar. His friend was on the mic.
They all write and perform. GI and Costello had performed at their community centre, “An that was that, just live it now,” as his friend spit some impressive lyrics. There was a delegation headed by Pourtr8s that had come from Wexford.
The future is looking bright for Dublin hip-hop, with the Workin’ Class Records and Ath Cliath Records lads hopefully getting the attention they deserve in this new Ireland with a conscience.
The quantity and quality of material about to be or recently dropped by both labels, and the energy in the air just waiting to be tapped: there’ll be plenty to take notice of in 2016.
Since the water protests began, I’ve been arguing that the real revolution is one of working-class legitimacy. When you isolate large sections of society, they start to form their own societies.
In this way, we receive legitimacy from each other instead of the dominant culture. This makes us dangerous to the status quo, but the creative scene in Ireland could use this fresh air.
I’ve also been saying people should have paid more attention to one of the most popular Street Literature tracks: “We Don’t Need You Anymore“. Suppressed cultures find a way to get the message out.
As Costello says it, “Realise your dreams are no different than ours“.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 10 March at 7pm. An earlier version said that Costello was the warm-up act at Sin É, when, in fact, he was the main act. We apologise for the error.