Ahead of their Cuttin’ Heads Collective show on May 19th, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Shane Leonard, aka Shaaol, of Sligo hip-hop trio This Side Up.
The last twelve months have, for Sligo hip-hop collective This Side Up, surely been a blur. Entering the wider Irish music fray from the ether with debut album Full Fat, self-released to a positive reception from the Irish music press, the trio’s subsequent live appearances have left their mark. The outfit’s growing reputation has led them to a return Cork date on Friday May 19th, headlining the latest live jamboree thrown by Cuttin’ Heads Collective and Dedbeats, a new DJ ensemble. Shane Leonard, a.k.a. rapper Shaaol, divulges on the process that led to the record’s creation. “The process was quitting the jobs and rapping for as long as our loved ones would put up with us (laughs). Trying desperately to fill up notepads and make good recordings. It was stressful, but a wild amount of fun at the same time. Playing it live for the last while has been deadly! It’s sort of strange, the delay between writing and getting things out there, so while the album is going great the mood can drop if we’re not making new tunes.”
The Irish hip-hop scene is fertile ground for collaboration, its community spirit and surplus of talent rendering it ideal for collaborations and crossover. This Side Up have taken fully to this idea, enlisting fellow Sligo man Hamo, Verb T, Moreone, Gaelgóir wordsmith MC Muipéad, and Cork hip-hop stalwart Spekulativ Fiktion. Shaaol gets into the importance of collaboration to the long-player’s creation. “It’s massive. There are loads of amazing MCs out there, and we were delighted to secure the features we did. Having others collaborate with is great, and also testing. It brings fresh ideas to the table. I think hip hop is deadly for that.”
Thematically, it’s all quite heavy, dealing with topics ranging from the realities of life after the bailout and bank guarantee, to calculating its human cost, in attempting to survey the state of mental health and coping mechanisms in Irish society. Yet, the crew’s sense of humour is still there throughout, best seen on Fin del Mundo, as the group muses on how best to emerge from a (literal) apocalyptic scenario. The balance must be a fine one. “It’s sort of normal life here, isn’t it? You can be serious, but never takes things too seriously. Just read that the word ‘avocado’ is Aztec slang for ‘testicles’. Also, first catalogued by an Irishman in Jamaica back in 1696.”
The album seems to have been received really well, with Niall Byrne, the man behind Nialler9, the country’s biggest and most widely-read music website, getting firmly behind the trio, elevating their profile and giving them the chance to capitalise on the exposure. But Irish music press hasn’t traditionally been so welcoming of domestic hip-hop over the years. Shaaol gets into the matter of the Fourth Estate’s arts department and homegrown beats. “I think things are getting healthier by the day. Got a two-out-of-five stars review in the Irish Times singles review there. It’s gas, just to make into the print like that. In fairness Kendrick Lamar got four stars, and Father John Misty got three, so on the scale of stars we did alright (laughs). I think it’s definitely been covered more, and it’s great to see platforms like (Dublin print and online journal) District Magazine pop up.”
Irish hip-hop is growing, and at an exponential pace. The past ten years have seen the genre in Ireland go from a critically-ignored core of dedicated creators and the people around them, to the cusp of a golden age, as young practitioners of the artform emerge with platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp at their fingertips, working with seasoned veterans who themselves, like Limerick noise god Naive Ted, have begun elevating their hard-earned game into performance art. Shaaol provides a laundry-list of his own personal favourites as a reference point for those looking to get into the genre. “Mankyy, Jonen Dekay, Kojaque, GI, Nylon Primate, Naive Ted, Bleak Stack, Same D4ence, Spekulativ Fiktion, Ophelia, Jafaris.”
The last time This Side Up darkened the doors of a Cork venue, they were here was for Cuttin’ Heads Collective’s birthday extravaganza in the Liquid Lounge, one of the final gigs held upstairs in the building before the flash closure of the Clancy’s building earlier this year. “Haha, it was deadly to be back in Cork, and be welcomed back into the Cuttin’ Heads Collective. The gig was savage! The lyrics might not have been the most audible that night, but we tested the construction of the roof in the Liquid Lounge. Place was hopping, atmosphere was class.”
Their Cork return date has a hefty line-up attached to it up and down the billing. The boys are joined by Irish beatboxing champs Amaron and Magic, Spekulativ Fiktion and JusMe are representing the local scene veterans, and Outsiders Entertainment member Rapha is a relatively new property. Shaaol collects his thoughts on the upcoming event. “We can’t wait to get back. Cork is a top spot for music, so we’re delighted to be invited down to play. Haven’t seen any of the beatboxers yet, so really looking forward to that. Seems to be a buzz for this gig, so yes, exciting times!”
It’s been a busy time, but the next few months will be somewhat of a transitional period for This Side Up, as the lads decide on their next creative course of action. “We’ve been gigging loads, which is great. No definite project in sight, but we’re writing away so won’t be long before we have things figured out. We’ll keep you all in the know.”
This Side Up headline a big Cuttin’ Heads Collective gig at the Poor Relation on Parnell Place, on Friday May 19th, in association with Dedbeats. Support from Amaron and Magic, Spekulativ Fiktion, Dedbeats and Outsider Rapha. €7 door tax, kickoff 9pm.