For its February ‘Reality Bites’ series RTE showed a documentary on Ireland’s Rappers that hurled a version of Irish rap into the laps of the licence holders countrywide. Viewing figures for it were good but not as good as a rival station repeat show on gangland Ireland. RTE also focused on the so-called working class side of things. The resulting look at “a highly creative and dedicated subculture’’ was not welcomed outright either inside or outside the portrayed community. Paul Tarpey digs deep.
This TV account of how some Irish youth have alighted on an urban art form to voice post-tiger complaint and pursue some sort of music careers in the process was buried in a bonfire of angry voxpops and docu-dramatic representations of the participants ‘keepin it real’.
Nominal representations of the expressive factors associated with ‘rappin’ such as ‘writing’ ‘battling’ and ‘community’ as outlined by Redzer, The Class Az’s and Finglas rapper Miss Elayneous amongst others, became damaged, internalised and caught up in the programme’s eventual confusion.
Some commentary, particularly on Jim Carroll’s Irish Times blog, mentioned that those who did partake seemed hung out to dry in the edit.
A wider picture emerged as the bulletin boards lit up immediately after broadcast as some of the programme’s ‘stars’ and concerned others sought to create some perspective, historical and otherwise, around a debate on the exotic subject of Irish Rap.
The elephant in the room was the very idea of something called Irish Rap in the first place.
The year zero for many of hiphop’s contemporary Irish followers remains somewhere in the mid 90s as marked by Curtis Hanson’s Eminem starring film 8 Mile. One recent post on this theme actually asks for clarification on ‘old school as beginning in the year 2000?” Although released in 2002, 8 Mile establishes its white boy/black world outsider narrative in the now golden era circa 1995. While the term hip hop threads the contemporary Irish narrative regarding ‘Irish rap’, its current state maintains no significant links with those Irish pioneers who began to verbalise over beats and represent as an Irish chapter of the universal Hip hop agenda.
The contrast to the early Irish hiphop scene with its reverence for the emerging scene worldwide from the early 80s is significant. Once the original art form announced itself any dedicated Irish participant who answered the call was required to invest physical time and effort in paying dues. Peer review was serious, whether in ordering a record, practising with a felt top pen/rhyme book or saving for the right tracksuit before they became known in Dublin as ‘police property clothes’.
This real time authenticity allowed groups like Scary Eire, (Curragh Camp / Tullamore /Dublin) Ghost and J, (Dublin) Ill dependents (Wexford) and AR LA (Cork) to confidently develop their homegrown productions. In their own words, after studying and representing on their own experiences, they would, ‘never talk cheap like a yellow pack brand’ (Scary Eire). Records, tapes and magazines were considered tools for an agenda first and consumer perishables last. An example here from 1983 is the passionate footage of break dancers speaking in Limerick, which is regularly shown, on RTE’s ‘Reeling In the Years’.
Today the history of these pioneers is assessed and processed in a much quieter vein. It is often manifested digitally in private web nooks and crannies and there is a reason for this. One is to distance the hard won ethos of those days from the ‘instant dues’ of today’s new breed. The other reason is to reaffirm the importance of the original hiphop experience amongst themselves and constantly acknowledge the original community. As part of this there is an understated ongoing archival process and it resides in clips such as ‘Sipho & Bionic M.C from the London Posse’.
Here a rare 1986 early performance of the seminal London rappers is captured on RTE’s Megamix youth programme. Before performing, the pair politely explain not only their unique take on their technique but the difference between UK and US hiphop. RTE didn’t put this lesson up on you tube but someone who saw the original transmission took time to get out to Donnybrook and get a copy for those of us who imagined we did.
Contemporary Irish rappers from that era who still represent on stage and on the web include Scary Eire’s RI-RA and the conscience of the Celtic tiger, Captain Moonlight. ‘Dirty Cunts’, Moonlight’s rant on the Ahearn’s teams corrupt management of the country from a few years back is one of the most significant (if not only) 7’’ singles to exist in any era of Irish Hiphop. Dole Q’, Scary Eire’s only 12’’ from the 90s ‘and the ‘Sons of Rosin’ track on the Ill dependents EP equally scratch the same post.
All these are vital artifacts and flag links not only between a similar political agenda of Irish and international hiphop but also between a legacy of traditional verbalisers and musicians such as Luke Kelly. Scary Eire’s ‘lost for words’ quotes the uillean pipes of ‘Moving Hearts in another nod to an under-appreciated contintinum.
The 4 songs quoted here all made it on to actual record by hard work. The idea of ‘dropping another mix tape/album next month’ as befits the post 8 Mile generation is light years away in terms of mp3 distribution versus a ‘slow food’ recording attitude of the above crews but also in the concept of longevity. One producer from the above scene told me recently that the new scene is cursed ‘with music that just isn’t good’.
The gap between the old school attitude and hyper-assimilation is significant. But according to the Ennis hiphop Dj producer and teacher mynameisjOhn this gap stretches, contracts and within this tension offers possibilities.
“Seventeen-year-olds I have worked with are all up on the new Irish acts like Lethal Dialect’ he says, ‘but equally they balance an appreciation of contemporary expression with exposure to classic material from Wu Tang and before. That can only be good. Music gets exhausted quicker these days and people are beginning to see that this is having an effect on its appreciation. My generation might get a rap record in 1994 that would have come out in 1992 and live with it until 1996, but that gestation pays off if you want to pursue any of the hiphop elements”.
In someone like John’s opinion (an old school head / new beats producer), a fluid and relevant practice will arise with an awareness from today’s youth that speed of the almost daily ‘mix tape’ scene is not the sole representation of an appreciation of hiphop culture national or otherwise. We actually don’t need an Irish Rick Ross styled product delivery or Tim Westwood styled hype no matter how the mechanisations of the intense Irish mixtape scene would suggest. We need positioning to offer a balanced perspective and a start would involve more recognition of the Irish Hip hop pioneers in future conversations.
As for the ‘lads’ (sic) tarred by Reality Bites, a YouTube post by someone called Bulltilt31 after a clip of Redzer performing lays it down as such
‘’Yes the boys can put rhymes together but aint none of em look or sound good doin it. Sad to see lads keep on tryin at something they will NEVER make money in. At least the young lads realise there isn’t money in it and they do it coz they love it. You can make it with a guitar or turntables in Ireland, never as a rapper.’’