The presentation of a homogenised Irish hip-hop scene should have been thrown away sometime around the Easter Rising centenary. When this strand of youth culture began to intensify a few years back, it was often a journalistic necessity to group artists together. Geography gave the music a meaning greater than the sum of its architects. Referring to Irish rap as a single entity remains the norm, and emerging starlets are still defined by the presence of a harp on their passports.
Today, we’re blessed with one of the most multifaceted hip-hop cultures in Europe. Throwing artists together with single catchall expressions just doesn’t do it justice.
I’ve been thinking about the various forms of rap artists that distinguish our local scenes and have broadly – and I mean very broadly – come up with four different factions. You’ve got your driller killers, the very young artists who deal in the punishing sounds of hard-boiled drill music. They get near-zero mainstream coverage because of their youth, penchant for anonymity and minimal interest in releasing music in traditional ways or via established gatekeepers – you dive into YouTube at your own peril.
Then you’ve got the guys who worship the innovators of grime and throwback garage music. What unites the driller killers and the grime heads is the influence they pull from murky London street sounds. Their cadences and even accents wouldn’t sound out of place if bumped in Lewisham Grove.
Shout out to the disciples of Future. There isn’t a figure in rap who has had their style boosted more than the Atlanta star. Some 6,000 kilometers east of Georgia, the likes of 7th Obi and BoyW1DR boast melodic, promethazine-enhanced drawls, dousing their vocals in the same effects as Future to make music that’s creeping and sinister, yet tuneful and compelling.
Finally, we’ve got the b-boys and girls – worshippers of throwback East Coast rap sounds, the clan we will be talking about today. These are the guys less likely to be impressed by Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy threads than Phat Farm jeans, Clarks’ Wallabees, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Coogi sweaters. Don’t expect to see them sipping lean – they’ll probably have weed smoke coming out the nostrils. That is to say, they have less time for modern rap trends, swaddling themselves instead in the ethics of New York’s golden-age hip-hop gods.
A distinctly Irish sound remains something worth striving for. For now, homegrown rap has been mostly built with borrowed materials. That’s okay, some of our most beloved rock bands imported key components to their sound: Phil Lynott is said to have been influenced by his grandfather’s American soul-heavy record collection. But it’s interesting that a quarter century on from the peak of its pop culture presence, a pillar of modern Irish rap music comes in boom-bap beats so popular in days of yore.
Before continuing, it’s important to assert that many rappers don’t simply file into one style easily. Some deal in more than one of the four guises above and some deal in none at all.
Take Tebi Rex: the Dublin-based duo make everything from dancehall-flavoured pop to cutting alternative rap. Released last year, their album The Young Will Eat the Old is an ambitious three-act suite of duelling styles. But sometimes even the most enterprising works have time to pay homage to the past. The slow-tempoed jazz-noir production of “Lotus Eater”, for example, incorporates retro methodology. Echoing a more surly end of the ’90s New York rap canon, it’s a song recorded for dusky evenings, the sound of rain tapping on the windowsill, half-glasses of brown liquor poured to keep out the cold.
For the uninitiated, boom-bap was one of the key building blocks that pushed rap music of the late 1980s and early 1990s to new stratospheres of artistic excellence and cultural impact. Though boom-bap is sometimes called a subgenre, it refers to a production style that typically sees drum breaks mined from old soul and funk records, with the term itself coming from an onomatopoeia of the snappy kick and snare drums. “Boom-tsk, boom-boom-tsk,” goes the sound of the funky beatmakers. Now are you getting it?
There’s more to it than the drums. Classic East Coast rap often features samples of dusty old vocal loops, the basslines are turned way up and there’s usually a keener focus on more trenchant lyricism. Listening to boom-bap can feel like you’re being exposed to some ancient eternal truths, scripture from an ancient civilization that knew better. Prince once said that when hearing someone talk makes you want to dance, that’s funk music. Listening to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets and dozens of other learned sages speak blessed truths over hissing beats is enough to make anyone bop to the rhythm.
Too young to have borne witness, the Irish laureates of boom-bap conduct sonic seances to bring back spirits of the past.
Rejjie Snow’s arrival in the early shots of the 2010s represented something of a watershed moment for Irish rap. There was the quality of the songs released by the man formerly known as Lecs Luther, of course. But Snow gestured towards the future by expertly harnessing the internet and becoming a blog-friendly rapper in the age when Odd Future had redefined how far blog-friendly rappers could go. Yet his music had mostly traditional East Coast elements: jazzy beats, soft hooks, the spirit of MF DOOM on his shoulder (as well as the super-villain emcee’s name quite literally being tattooed on Snow’s leg).
He may have investigated a lot of sonic corners in the years since (Snow is an Irish star of sufficient stature to actually collaborate with Future himself), but it’s those surly old-school beats that remain his most comfortable garments. In the middle of Dear Annie, Snow’s excellent 2018 examination of love, “The Rain” harked back to the languid grooves of his roots. It’s a stylistic cloak that looked as well on him as a well-fitted round-neck tee.
If Snow is a selective worshipper, Neomadic are dedicated acolytes. Their 2017 full-length project The Neomadic Tape and subsequent singles have seen the pair – Dublin emcees Dyramid and NoGood – serve up grubby samples and off-kilter rhythms for all the capital’s bugged-out beatniks, head-shop hippies, and those buzzed on their favorite hard liquor.
Don’t sleep on Belfast’s Leo Miyagee. The slick beats and quick-hand record scratches of his two fine albums Bluebird (2018) and Ffdlic (2019) complement a smooth-as-satin flow that could turn Q-Tip’s head. And I’ve got to mention the NUXSENSE single “PRT-LUV”. Released last year, the Dublin rap collective, usually moved by sci-fi sonics and looping flows, tune their voices to soft whispers to indulge the midnight jazz orchestration. “Bring it back, bring it back n—a, this the boom-bap,” raps Lutorist, spelling it out for anyone who doesn’t know.
It’s never wise to apply rhyme or reason to what a clutch of 20-somethings are going to gravitate towards, but it is tempting to say that golden-age hip-hop remains a staple of these burgeoning young originators’ diets because it’s some of the best music this planet has ever produced. New generations cribbing from records their parents once spun isn’t an unusual phenomenon, but the most talented can do it without collapsing into cliché.
Nothing is pushing these kids towards this retro style, but their dedication to the ways of their forefathers shows that boom-bap is as timeless as Adidas, as important a component to hip-hop as ink to the printing press. Ireland is just keeping the tradition burning.