Some say hip-hop is dead but on Dublin’s Northside it’s giving a voice to disaffected youth in a way guitar strumming can’t match. James Redmond talks to Costello of Street Literature.
A gritty, urban poetry shines through Products of the Environment, a compilation album on Working Class Records. Track after track documents growing up with little in the way of options and realities dominated by drug abuse, crime and paranoia. Accompanying videos capture blighted estates full of hooded youth, pushed to the margins by the city’s economic apartheid. The sort of places the rest of us just cycle through.
As Costello tells me: “We want to give the youth positive shit to get into. We have that track on the record ‘Music And Crime’ that breaks it down. When we were growing up there was two things to do. We chose the music side over crime. We’re putting out albums instead of being locked up. My stand point is that hip hop music is all about putting out a positive message. We all go through struggles, but I wouldn’t be telling people to go out and sell crack or shoot people, it’s not right to do that.”
Chatting over the phone he tells me how Working Class Records was set up as a label to release Urban Intelligence’s Homemade Bombs mixtape around the end of 2004. At the time Urban Intelligence was opening up for Snoop Dog and Nas, and through the work of Lunatic they sketched their own sound. “Another major release would have been Lunatic’s Based On A True Story, that was his solo album in February 2009. A thousand copies were made and whacked out for free.”
“It’s the place of high rises, where hoods are disguises and crime hypnotises young teens til their blinded.” – MC Lunitic RIP.
Lunatic was a major trendsetter in the movement, one of the first MC’s to use a Dublin flow. Rapping and rhyming on the mic in verse, peppered with local slang and dialect. Tragically Lunatic died in 2009 from natural causes; he was born with a heart condition. There’s a track on the Street Literature album dedicated to him and Costello explains the heavy influence he still bears.
“I was rapping with an American accent til I was about fifteen or sixteen and someone turned around and went ‘here you’re not from the Bronx. You’re from the Blanch – you should rap like it.’ It was the same for Lunatic. He was the one that came out strong with the Dublin accent and started rocking it out heavy. Maybe around 2004 or that, with the Urban Intelligence stuff – pure grimey Dublin accent and lyricism.”
Working Class Records are firmly DIY. An earlier track recorded with Damo Dempsey attacks a music industry only interested in ‘holding back real music’ with ‘figures and dance routines.’ On Products of the Environment they sample jazz and Portishead, use street scape recordings and the voices of young lads chronicling cops calling them scumbags with zero reason. The latest release by Lethal Dialect carries a Creative Commons license, and like all their music, is being given away to build a scene. Costello told me how Lethal Dialect is getting his new album LD50 out.
“At first Lethal sold a few just to break even, because he put a lot into it – studio time and stuff but now that he broke even, he’s giving the rest out for free but not just to anybody, certain fans and not just anybody. He wants to be more careful who he gives them out to and make sure the right people get them.”
While the UK has an MC culture going back several generations – this group of Northside MC’s and producers are finding their voice in what’s almost a vacuum. They are definitely not helped by a general attitude that rappers in an Irish accent automatically equate with shit, while other Dublin rappers like Lecs Luther blow up all over the blogosphere with their Odd Future mimicry. How do they feel about this?
“It’s about being ourselves as well. If you sound like an American there are going to be people laughing at it thinking it’s corny and ‘what the fuck are you on about?’. Yer man Lecs Luther, he’s slick and all – but we’re traditional Dublin MC’s even though we’re not established yet. It’s ten years after we started and as far as we are concerned, me and the lads I do music with, we have the quality sussed, how we want to sound and the way we can put our rhymes together. We’ve studied it a long time and feel we have our own style. So it’s our own thing now. It’s a Dublin thing. Like you say London has its own style but we feel Dublin has its own style now.”
One of the most interesting things you find when talking to Costello is just how self-aware this crew are, how they have studied their craft and are blending wider influences into a distinct sound. “The style of hip hop we’re trying to bring out is similar to what you would have heard in the 90’s in New York. That’s how we feel. Not saying that’s how we want to sound – but that’s how we feel hip hop should be best represented. But then Dublin is its own place, it has its own slang that’s different to anywhere else. And our own accent of course – that’s very different to anywhere in the world.”
It’s not just a litany of street tales, they are also hugely political with harsh lyrics that capture a city defined by an economic apartheid overseen by suits, bureaucrats and politicians that sell out their communities. Costello explained how their logo represents this.
“If you look at the logo for it, it’s a stick man carrying the mic over his shoulder and it’s a heavy load on him. Where we’re coming from we’re representing all the shit, it’s a heavy load for us and its not an easy road or thing to do.”
Glitchy instrumental hip hop might dominate the taste maker’s playlist, but this take on classic hip-hop might see exactly the sort of voices that were silenced during the boom, finally break through.
You can check out the label’s output at www.workinclassrecords.com