It was another publication that sent your favourite music columnist to interview Saba before his show at The Academy in March. As things turned out, the visiting Chicago kid’s schedule was more packed than the Luas at rush hour. Or maybe he just flaked. Either way, his people moved our tête-à-tête to later that night and thank the stars they did. Because the undercards of rap gigs are an absolute cradle for local talent and the rearranged timetable gave me the chance to catch the opening set from a rising artist I’ve been keen on for a while now.
I’m talking, of course, about Blanchardstown’s favourite son Nealo, who blessed us with a performance full of heart and energy. A celebration of his artistic odyssey to date, the rapper attacked his small but diverse discography, even deploying a talented group of friends and collaborators to add extra meat to the show’s bones.
There was singer Molly Sterling, DJ/producer ARBU, trumpet player Uly, plus God Knows, one-third of Rusangano Family and one of the best rappers on this island. Each added their own brilliant ripple to Nealo’s setlist.
This collaborative dynamism isn’t limited to live shows. Uly (né Rafino Murphy) is also one-third of INNRSPACE, the alt-jazz trio behind some of Nealo’s tracks. The story of this fruitful partnership starts with Uly, Adam Garrett (sometimes known as Adam Byrne) and their plans to record a lo-fi hip-hop mixtape. As Murphy tells me over email, the pair sent a couple of their instrumentals over to Nealo, a veteran of the hardcore punk scene, reborn as an expressive hip-hop virtuoso.
Nealo’s interest was piqued. So much so, in fact, that he laid rough vocals onto Uly and Garrett’s tracks within hours of receiving them. These demos would later become the singles “Just My Luck” and “Questions”. An instrumental version of “Questions” can be actually found online as INNRSPACE’s own tune, simply titled “i”.
Preparing for last November’s headline show at The Underground, Nealo was eager to unleash these songs. So he recruited the musicians who initially forged the orchestration to back him up. Drummer Fiachra Kinder was brought into the fold – a sample of his composition had been used by Uly and Garrett on one of the cuts, so who better to flesh out the group? Jazz virtuosity dilated during rehearsals. INNRSPACE was born.
Still, Uly’s most prominent recordings have come under his own moniker. This half-Irish, half-Filipino astrophysics graduate-turned multi-instrumentalist, often spied in dark threads, with a triumphant ponytail, is one of the coolest cats you’re ever likely to come across. Of course the handful of recordings he’s released to date are satin-smooth slices of neo soul. He makes music as fresh as light rain on a 30 degrees Celsius day.
Uly combines hip-hop drums, fat bass riffs, soft-filtered samples and soulful brass sections with a strong instinct for melody. Then there’s his singing voice, a mellow, high-pitched falsetto that could curse Maxwell or Miguel with feelings of imposter syndrome.
Take “Burnin’ Up”, a gorgeous R&B number that takes a boom-bap beat straight out of classic East Coast rap and matches it with dreamy guitar chords and brass work reminiscent of an old Willie Hutch production. On the more sensual “Redlight”, Uly cleverly buries his vocals in the mix, adding to the track’s intimate, dimly lit feel.
Showing other sides, “Trapper By a Thing Called Love” evokes the flavour of classic 1970s AM radio rock, while “Mama (T6 ver)” is a quaking acoustic soul song. Whatever stylistic cape Uly wraps himself in, his style and swagger is indistinguishable. This is music that’s suave, intoxicating and infinitely listenable.
In some ways, Uly and Nealo are unlikely collaborators. Uly’s light, fluttering falsetto is so delicate, you just want to protect his voice box in both palms in case it blows away in the breeze. Nealo’s flow, in contrast, is weighty and full of resolve – a booming, heavily accented instrument to channel his deep-thinking book of rhymes.
Now, there’s a lot of Irish rappers out there who love to say their work is the continuation of this island’s great poetic tradition. But Nealo’s writing does boast an elegance, intellectual weight, sharp turn of phrase and clever references to local living that elevate him out of the pack. He’ll forgive me for saying that he’s a little older than most rappers at the start of their careers but that extra life experience individualises his song-writing.
Nealo is upfront about his demons. “I’m haunted by the ghosts of nights out,” he says on stoned jazz rap number “Substance”, from his excellent 2018 EP October Year, which sees him pondering both the corrosive and enlightening sides of drug use. The title track finds Nealo exposing the scars on his soul over some midnight-blue piano chords, his husky voice carrying the burden of a vulnerable spirit.
This year has seen Nealo daringly attempt to mirror the happy-go-lucky side of Pharrell Williams on “Just My Luck”, while “Questions”, featuring an assist from God Knows, finds him airing thoughts about becoming a father. Helping the two rappers out, a peppy little horn riff courtesy of INNRSPACE fills in as the hook.
The collective chemistry is on point; everyone seems chilled in each other’s presence. As a starting point for making great music, this helps. The final result: a coherent synthesis of distinct talents. Everybody wins, especially us.
Nealo performs at The Grand Social on 27 September.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 15 May 2019 at 18:22 to reflect that Uly is half-Irish, half-Filipino. This was misstated in the original. We apologise for the error.