One of Irish hip-hop’s most authoritative voices is back. Corkman Seán Murphy, aka Spekulativ Fiktion, talks about his new EP, the scene in Cork, and even improvises a short tale for Mike McGrath-Bryan.
2017 has been a year of profound change and development for Seán Murphy, a Cork wordsmith, rapper and beatmaker plying his craft under the pseudonym of Spekulativ Fiktion. Having emerged at the start of the decade with a seemingly ready-made knack for intelligent yet defiantly-accented wordplay, and an equal grasp of matters both social and emotional, Spek followed a quiet few years with a full-blown return to live and recorded activity, gigging intensely around the country. His efforts have borne fruit: his next EP ‘Effigies’, a long-mooted collaboration with Clare beatmaker Mankyy, is about to be released this month via Limerick-based outlet The Unscene. “Mankyy is a workhorse, and would send me beats all the time. If a beat clicked, I’d move forward with an idea that I felt suited. Lyrically, every song was approached differently. I definitely invested the most time into ‘Epilogue’. At points I would have completely filled the front and back of an A4 page only to end up using four lines out of the whole thing. Then I’d move onto another page and repeat. There was lots of drafting and scrapping before completion. I intentionally put the outro section of the song to the wayside until the recording stage, where it came together quickly with a large input from Mankyy. There are flows and schemes in there I wouldn’t have experimented with, had it not been for the collaborative effort.”
But the process isn’t always a matter of carefully-laid building blocks coming together. “Other tracks were written completely on the spot during the final recordings. You can put months of preparation and have material ready to go in advance of studio time, but you can’t replicate that spontaneous energy of banging something out in a few focused moments. My favourite material on there came about that way. It’s good to surprise yourself. I think of it almost like freestyling but you’re giving yourself an extra few minutes to cut away the excess and polish everything. Both the vocals and the beat for ‘G’luck’, the EP’s final track, came out of nowhere when we were just sitting around. State of flow they call it, right?” The dalliance with Mankyy has already borne fruit, with a special live performance of the record at IndieCork’s music programme winning the festival’s music laurels and leading to a premiere for EP leadoff ‘Epilogue’ via tastemaker blog Nialler9. It seems as though the pair have happened across something special. “There are certain aesthetics in art that we both delight in. Things that are dark but goofy, sarcastic but stirring, bleak but tireless. And I think we explore this world quite effectively together. We also don’t hate each other.”
The Unscene is the right place at the right time for Spekulativ Fiktion. The Shannonside not-quite-a-label has positively been on the tear throughout 2017, acting as a documentation post for a wide variety of Irish beats ‘n’ pieces. At its forefront: skratchologist Naive Ted, a lucky charm for the outlet whose last five EPs, a series called ‘The Minute Particulars’, were released in the space of a few months. “Talk about work ethic. The guy is a mad scientist. He once showed me a “draft 47” of a tune that would go on to appear on ‘The Minute Particulars’. I want to know how he keeps his skull from exploding! Mankyy’s ‘Character Development’ set the bar on January first of last year. There’s nothing like it. It’s Blade Runner 2049 if Ted’s ‘Send in the Hounds’ was Ridley Scott’s original. And when you get through that there’s another twenty something fresh EPs and albums in the Unscene catalogue, none of which try to hop on the sound of now… or the sound of any time for that matter. If I’m being honest, I reckon all these tunes came from an alternate reality.”
Ted and the Unscene are at the vanguard of a wider hip-hop uprising in Limerick that springs from an investment in music education in the city. Ted, among others, is involved with MusicGeneration Limerick, and in Spek’s estimation, it’s not long until similar effort pays off Leeside. “All you need is a quick glance at MusicGeneration Limerick’s gurus, disciples, and affiliates to understand huge things are happening there: Naive Ted, Rusangano Family, Same D4ence, Jonen Dekay… However, I sense a storm building in our own neck of the woods in the MusicGeneration department. There is a serious calibre of young talent on the rise, under the guidance of Garry McCarthy who is definitely ‘not’ GMC/Kalabanx. I have a feeling 2018 is Cork rap’s renaissance year.”
It’s been five years now since the release of Spek’s debut full-length, ‘Deathly Words’ – the tone and tenor of which was an uncomprising analysis of Irish society in the depths of deranged, misplaced austerity measures and their social consquences, but also the source of much praise from Irish music press of the time. Beats from Naive Ted and Cork veteran JusMe provided the backdrop for lyrical explorations of both internal and external issues, and Spek outlines where he was mentally when creating a record that would go on to be a portent for the development of Irish hip-hop in the years to follow. “I had a broken heart, was struggling to find direction in life, and saw corruption everywhere. I’m glad I had an outlet to combat the pain, and I worry about those who never find one. That therapeutic thing is one of the biggest reasons I’m still at this. I was completely sincere in everything I put to paper for ‘Deathly Words’, and I’m still proud of it. ‘Effigies’ probably has thematic parallels with it in a lot of ways. Half a decade has passed, and I have accomplished things in my life, but there are always challenges, and the world is just as crazy. I’m just telling my ongoing story and that of the world around me as I see it.”
The following years were spent collaborating with Naive Ted on their ’48’ extended-player, as well as making guest appearances for Sligo troop This Side Up, among others. As if possessed by the spirit of creation in the moment, Murphy treats us to a piece of O’Brienesque narrative, a chronicle-verse of his time in the wilderness. “With Ted, it was plenty of cups of tea, and homemade veggie curries. Not at the same time. But never say never… emerging from the spectral woods I find myself atop a behemoth of hulking rock. The breeze is enlivening. The view is transcendent. How did I get here? I glance to the side. It’s Clerk 5 and Shaool from This Side Up. We played a blinder in Sligo town last night, and are currently struggling through a hip-hop hangover up Benbulben like a pack of sick dogs. What would a glorified mosher such as myself be doing in a place like this, with a scut from Ennis who looks like he robs car radios and a viking/teddy-bear cross sporting a windswept afro? What could we possibly have in common? Oh yeah! We’re all grown men, who rhyme words loudly into other peoples’ faces as a pastime.”
Murphy balances life as a poet, beatmaker and rapper with the grind of a workin’ session musician – functions, corporate gigs, sessioning for theatre, etc. They’re seemingly at odds with the work and message of Spekulativ Fiktion, but Murphy makes it work. “The more I think about this stuff, the less gets done! But from a performance point of view, one is always informing the other. Whether I’m singing that bloody Wham! song again at a Women’s Little Christmas party in a country hotel, or spitting post-apocalyptic raps at tripping art students up in Dolan’s, there’s always a trick I’ll learn in one situation that can be be utilised in the other. The covers and entertainment side of things usually entails giving the people what they want. Environments and circumstances might change a little here and there, but more often than not, I just turn up and do pretty much the same thing I did last time. I like to think I do it well, mind you, and it’s what people like. Job done. Spekulativ Fiktion is a different animal, however. He’s my outlet. It’s more than ‘learn setlist, perform setlist and repeat’. Spek is in a constant state of flux. There is always new material in the works and new plans being made. That can fry my head sometimes. Maybe, what I’m trying to say though, is that these two sides of the coin balance each other out.”
Spek and Mankyy launch ‘Effigies’ on the 26th, with a whole host of phenomenal Irish rappers on the undercard, including Limerick rappers Jonen Dekay and Aswell, and an open-mic contest on the night. Murphy is amped for the line-up and to see other rappers in action. “A while back I heard Jonen Dekay described as the best rapper you’ve never heard of. These days, he’s a lot closer to being the best rapper you have heard of. Aswell is the rap version of that voice in your head that picks apart your confidence and calls you on your flaws, while doing so with such self-assurance and swagger that you’ll be nodding along believing it’s a good thing! SwitchX provides some Cork representation on the night and between you and me, he is sitting on the best rap song to come out of this city. Ever.”
That open-mic is the latest in a series at Cuttin’ Heads Collective (of whom Murphy is an affliate) events, and a proving ground for the next wave of MCs, poets and orators. For him, this is the highlight of the night. “I am excited for the open mic. There are a lot of hidden gems around these parts. At one of the bigger shows of the summer, I threw the mic to the crowd at the end of the night. The rest of the audience were left in shock. Myself included. Who the hell are these people?! Poets, freestylers and spoken wordsmiths are crawling out of the woodwork, along with your more typical rappers and coming to these events. That’s what’s needed for that Cork rap renaissance I mentioned earlier!”
Spekulativ Fiktion and Mankyy launch ‘Effigies’ with a special gig on the 26th of January at the Poor Relation on Parnell Place. Support from Aswell, Jonen Dekay and SwitchX, as well as a solo set from Mankyy and an open-mic contest. Kickoff at 8.30pm, €7 at the door.