Dean: God Knows and the Art of Crew Rap

Some of the greatest rap videos of all time have been low budget and low stakes. Director Hype Williams is extremely cool if you want to see Busta Rhymes, dressed in shining armor, transforming into water droplets to rain down on Janet Jackson (and I always do), but Chief Keef, Waka Flocka Flame and Bobby Shmurda teach us that all you need is your crew and a camera to create a consequential classic.

Nobody has the kind of filmmaking budgets that were thrown around during the halcyon days of 1990s and 2000s bling-bling rap anyway, least of all the creators operating in the Irish music scene. But money and ingenuity are not parallel lines. For proof, examine the new video for God Knows’ “Who’s Asking (East Coast Remix)”. Featuring honoured guests Skripteh, Nealo, Mango and Rebel Phoenix, it’s a clip forged in the grand tradition of classic crew rap. You can assume that when God Knows texts someone to request their presence on a project, the reply is swift and positive.

You might know God Knows as a member of Rusangano Family. It’s been four years since God, MuRli and MynameisjOhn put out their classic album Let The Dead Bury The Dead. That’s a generation in rap terms. Yet God has been deliberate about making his next move. There’s been a single here and a guest spot there as he’s investigated life outside the African-influenced rhythms and dusty soul samples that powered Rusangano’s music.

I was particularly taken by his 2018 appearance on a remix of Loah’s “Keep Your Heart”, a rich depiction of old friendship and casual racism over an urbane electronic beat. When God, one of Irish rap’s most trenchant writers, says he’s penned his “most personal song to date”, you listen.

God’s latest iteration is caked in grime. Released in February, his EP Who’s Asking? features his solo version of the title track, as well as the “South West Allstars” remix (originally from Zimbabwe, God himself represents Limerick). Over the swamping, womp-womp beat, Denise Chaila, Hazey Haze, Citrus Fresh, Gavin DaVinci and Strange Boy pass the mic like a hot potato. The found footage-style video is a wild spasm of decaying VHS clips. Chaila, for me, stands out, but the point isn’t to achieve perfection or even cohesion. High energy covers the cracks.

Now we have the follow-up. Directed by Dave Tynan (best known for his movie Dublin Oldschool), the video for “Who’s Asking (East Coast Remix)” captures a distinct strand of the capital’s urban culture – as well as the corroding effect of Covid-19 on the city.

There’s something of a cold opening to the video as strange, veiled figures creep into an unspecified house. (I’m going to go out on a limb and call this an allegory for the pandemic.) From there, the editing is fast and kinetic. We see the words “East Coast Allstars” embroidered onto cloth face masks; “Black Lives Matter” is seen scribed on walls. The cast of rappers stunt to camera. Dancer Tatiana Dos Santos is among those invited to pull shapes. This is something distinctly Dublin, something that can’t easily be copied or caricatured.

As is the nature of these tracks, the chemistry is all over the place. God Knows’ hook remains insanely catchy. Skripteh – the one misnomer as he’s from Wexford, not Dublin, and his portion of the video is shot in New Ross – showcases his heavily accented style. Nealo, better known for rapping over more jazzy beats, stretches outside of his comfort zone. Rebel Phoenix? If there’s a rapper who deserves more energy off the back of “Who’s Asking”, it’s him. Phoenix (billed here as Rebel P) has one of the lengthiest discographies in Dublin rap and here he displays that low, growling flow that distinguishes that body of work.

As for Mango, he is obviously an artist of substance in his own right – grab Casual Work, his joint album with producer Mathman, if you require confirmation – but he’s also one of the great Irish guest spot rappers. Think Rick Ross or Ludacris — guys who can sledgehammer their way onto a track and set fire to the scenery with a single verse.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the “Who’s Asking” remixes is that they assert the idea of sub-scenes within the Irish rap lexicon. People paying close attention will have spotted geographical trends – Athlone’s position as an Irish drill kingdom, for example – but here, we’re invited to consider which region has the best rappers right now: the South West or East Coast. Everyone wins when there’s a little healthy competition.

Then there’s God Knows, the great statesman, the line through the circle. It takes a respected figure to bring so many artists together under a single banner. You could launch a presidential campaign on God’s message of Stronger Together.

“Who’s Asking (East Coast Remix)” appears on God Knows’ Who’s Asking? EP Vol. II, due out 28 August via Fly High Society.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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