Jill Staxx: “I Don’t Want to Confine Myself to Any Genres”

Having cut her teeth on Dublin’s community airwaves, selector Jill Staxx is curating a show for RTÉ Pulse. Ahead of appearing at Red Bull Free Gaff, she talks with Mike McGrath-Bryan.

Having been at the cutting edge of Irish hip-hop with the Staxx Lyrical show on Dublin Digital Radio, selector Jill Staxx has been in a unique position to observe the rise and development of the genre from a fringe pursuit to centre-stage in the country’s independent music scene. As moved things forward as a live DJ, however, including an appearance at this weekend’s Red Bull Free Gaff in Dublin city centre, her scope as a producer/presenter has expanded to electronica and into the post-genre mindset. Enter The Jill Staxx Show, her new venture on RTÉ’s digital-exclusive Pulse station, breathing some rarified air as a progressive radio at the forefront of the state broadcaster’s support for Irish artists and producers. “Dublin Digital Radio is an amazing, independent platform which gave me the opportunity to produce and host the Staxx Lyrical show which was dedicated to old-school, independent and underground hip-hop. I was not limited to what I could play at DDR, but when I crossed over to Pulse, I took it as an opportunity to play music which would extend far beyond hip-hop. I am interested in many styles of music and I don’t want to confine myself to genres. My show on Pulse incorporates a wider range of musical styles such as jungle, house, techno and pop among many others. When I started at DDR, I had no previous experience in radio and learned as I went along with the help of some of the incredible people at the studio, in particular Cormac Walsh. Pulse offered me formal training in the weeks leading up to the show which exposed me to many new technical aspects of radio. It has been a great opportunity for me to explore new terrain and develop my sound.”

Whether it’s for a live set, or putting together a show for radio, every DJ has a means of choosing tunes that balance their own listening and creative impulses with empathy for a room, or listenership. Staxx lets us in on her thought process for whittling down her collection for a set like this weekend at Red Bull Free Gaff, and how it changes between live sets and broadcast. “My radio shows can be very different from my live sets. For shows, I’m more interested in showcasing the artists, and playing new releases. It’s a bit more informative, and can easily switch from softer styles into up tempo ones. However, that changes in live shows. I learnt early on that playing laid-back hip-hop at 1am in a sweaty club will leave you with some really confused looking faces so you need to strike a balance between music you love, and keeping the audience moving. Naturally, the music I play out will be dependent on the time, the venue and the event. I’m constantly searching for music to try and keep my sound growing so that I’m not playing the same thing all the time. I think it’s important to constantly challenge yourself, if it feels stale to you it will feel off to your audience. It’s important to take risks, to keep searching for special songs but also not to be afraid to play big anthems when the time is right. Most importantly you need to stay true to your sound and what you genuinely love.

Recent mixes for the show have made clear the aforementioned emphasis on Irish producers and artists, existing within the worlds of hip-hop, bass and electronica that Staxx has been spinning. Much has been made of a new golden age for the genre in Ireland, a continual and ever-shifting narrative trope that changes with times and media, and it’s something that Staxx is passionate about, especially in light of problems with perception that independent music has had in the eyes of casual Irish listeners. “I personally feel the music scene in Ireland is thriving right now, and people are definitely paying more attention to local artists. However, there are times I’m shocked by how often Irish artists get overlooked within their own country. What is particularly interesting about the music scene in Ireland at the moment is its diversity. This is not only apparent in the variety of music styles being produced but also within the range of artists in terms of gender, age, diversity of backgrounds etc. Irish artists I’m enjoying at the moment include Irish rapper and singer Biig Piig. Also, my last show guest LOLZ introduced me to Lee Kelly’s EP ‘Layers of Identity’ which is a really beautiful record I’ve been listening to lately. I would also recommend Dublin’s ‘Wriggle’ collective who all create really interesting bass, hip-hop, trap and some other good stuff I struggle to define!”

Red Bull Free Gaff is happening next weekend in Dublin city centre, with a massive lineup of Irish artists, producers and DJs, right at the forefront of the scene that Staxx has been documenting and platforming. She’s DJing across the weekend, including the weekend’s Sunday Brunch, and for her, the lineup’s homegrown feel is validation for her support. “Yeah, it’s really nice that Free Gaff is a lineup of all Irish artists, it just shows that there is sufficient talent here to have an all-Irish lineup, and that we can use the spaces available to us to create a unique experience for music lovers. I sometimes feel there’s this “grass is greener” mentality to the arts in Ireland, and that as a creative you need to move abroad to get the most out of your creative efforts. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge that we’re a small country, and that has its limitations, but I think it’s important to trust in what we can do here to drive things forward. I was also pleased to see the event will incorporate many styles, as I sometimes feel events can be a bit safe and stick too closely to one genre. It gives an opportunity for many different artists to come together and celebrate what is so special about Irish music right now. To be honest, ten years ago I’m not sure if the same event would work. People didn’t respond as well to local scenes like Irish hip-hop the same way they do now. Audiences are becoming a lot more open and interested in local talent. I’m not in anyway against having international acts over here, but casting the spotlight solely on Irish talent sends a really positive message to artists and audiences alike.”

The Jill Staxx Show goes out Sundays 6pm to 8pm on RTÉ Pulse, available at rte.ie, on the Irish RadioPlayer app, on all Saorview devices and on DAB radio.

Denise Chaila: “Every Time I Listen, I Flex”

(This is the full, unedited version of a piece published on RedBull.com on Friday April 12th, in advance of the brand’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender event in Dublin)

Following the release of two-track single ‘Duel Citizenship’ in January, rapper Denise Chaila is poised to change Irish hip-hop, combining a newfound confidence with a burning passion for addressing the big social questions facing the scene. Ahead of her appearances at Red Bull Free Gaff, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the ‘Man Like Me’ wordsmith for a conversation.

We’re approaching the height of exam season, and amid all of the usual stress and strain that students all over the country face, Denise Chaila conveys a quiet, well-spoken confidence down the phone. Fair play to her for keeping a level head: balancing a sociology degree with a burgeoning musical reputation is no small feat. Not that she’s one for small feats: having contributed to the success of Limerick/Clare outfit Rusangano Family as a spoken-word collaborator, Chaila directly addressed some of the major discussions in Irish hip-hop in January with the release of debut extended-player ‘Duel Citizenship’, almost immediately garnering wider attention, and premiering tunes via tastemaker blog Nialler9.com.

The road to ‘Duel Citizenship’ was a long and winding one, taking in her involvement in the ever-vibrant Shannonside music scene, and spoken-word work. Bringing her ideas and vision to Rusangano man MurLi, the process of getting the music out and into the world was the end of another journey. “(Now that it’s out), it puts me into this space where there’s so much more I want to create… the process of working with MurLi probably began in 2012, when I moved to Limerick. I was around when they started the band, a really cool thing to see happen. In some ways, I’ve been working on a body of work for quite a while, and when I decided my emotional and mental health… all these things were in a place where I could commit to music, MurLi was the first person I rang. I went over to the house that night, and MurLi’s always cooking. He was able to compose this stuff, and marry it to my hopes and dreams, really, as fluidly as if he was living in my own head!”

The E.P.’s leadoff, ‘Copper Bullet’, addresses the conversation of what a ‘female rapper’ is, and rightly calls out the idea of gender or identity as a sub-genre, a novelty to be used as a tagline for promoters or music writers. It’s met a hugely positive reaction, and most importantly, has initiated conversations. “I think it takes more than a single statement to effect change, but it’s made people more conscious of how they use the terminology. If that’s happened, I’m really grateful, because we define our world by the words that we use, and if I’m not going to say, ‘she’s a female architect’, or ‘she’s a female doctor’, I really see no reason why we should keep to this idea of ‘femaleness’ as a novelty, not something that you can represent within the canon of musical literature. I think that what it’s done is made people more conscious of that while talking to me about their favourites, which is an interesting byproduct of that. Just the fact that it is being emphasised makes me proud. I want to hear your Foxy Browns and Lil’ Kims next to your Jay-Zs and 2Pacs.”

Nowhere is Chaila’s resurgent swagger more evident also than in her contribution to Sim Simma Soundsystem’s track ‘Man Like Me’ alongside God Knows, taking direct aim at some of the insecurity inherent to male-dominated cultural spaces. It’s a big tune, tackling a big inequality, borne from collaboration and mutual support among friends. “It was fun, and it’s a song that came from such a place of joy, that every time I listen to it, I flex (laughs). God Knows’ little sister, Geraldine, that song is hers. It belongs to her, and my little sister, and so many others… my family has taken that song and ran with it. I thought that was really interesting, because I’m also finessing pronouns. I’m frustrated by the way people speak about me on that song, like ‘do you need to have a conversation on gender?’, but at the end of the day, it was incredible to see so many people across an age spectrum really adopt (that attitude). In the studio, Ben (Bix) did a tonne of ad-libs that made us shook, we were vibing and dancing to it, it was just… joy, and by the end of the track, I’d imagined this angry song, I was just giggling, I lost the plot in studio.”

Studying sociology at the University of Limerick has informed Chaila’s ballsy approach to the conversations of gender, sub-genre and identity in Irish hip-hop, but that love in turn was sparked by music to begin with, something that’s evident when she talks about how she implements those ideas. “For me, music is a process of trying to create the world around me. There’s a writer, Anais Nin, and she has a quote, ‘one writes, because one has to create a world to which one relates’, and sometimes you look at the world that your parents or school have made for you, the way people have taught you to define yourself in relation to other people, and it just doesn’t work. I went into academia as a child of grime, hip-hop, dancehall, someone who has learned to remix my reality, to make it fit me before I understood what it was, because culture wasn’t made for me, I didn’t fit in the boxes my friends did growing up, and it gave me a real sensitivity to language.”

Red Bull’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender, happening in Dublin city centre from April 19th to the 21st, will be her first major live outing since the extended-player’s release, and she finds herself sharing the billing with some of the country’s most vital artists, producers and DJs, across three stages. It’s the kind of challenge she’s been waiting to take. “I’m excited. I’m more nervous about the fact that I want to see people play, and want to be part of this space as a punter. I’m also really excited to see my name on that line-up, with Jill Staxx and Daithí, all those people that are just… I’m nervous (laughs). I’m really excited about the idea of being onstage again, after all this time, having been a rapper, intermittently, it’s the exception, rather than the rule. Having a space where I can look around, and just vibe. I feel like there really wouldn’t be a better place.”

With her year off to a huge start, and Free Gaff serving as an essential port of call in the run-up to the summer festival season, there seems to be no stopping Denise Chaila at the moment, a state of affairs that’s being backed up with more music and projects in the pipeline. “More music. More music this summer, actually. I’m still in studio with MurLi, and we’ve been really cooking. I think that’s what startled us a lot about the reception to ‘Duel Citizenship’: when we put it out, I just wanted to say ‘hi, world’, and the world said hello back, and it was like, ‘oh, hey’ (laughs). I thought I would just slide through, and go back into hibernation, and no-one would notice, but now it’s really amazing. I’ve been playing, making things, reading and writing, and learning, getting to know my artistic personality. Now that I’m settled, the next thing is a mixtape, then getting ready to tour and gig more consistently than I am now!”

Craic Boi Mental: Ireland’s Greatest

AUTHOR’S NOTES: The following article is that rarity of all things – a feature-length piece on Irish music news site nialler9.com. Having ceded interest in reviews and the larger breaking-news cycle in favour of a balance of new Irish music and international pop/electronic news stories, it took the subject of this article disrespecting the site on numerous occasions to allow a response.

Having taken the verbal savaging in good humour, editor Niall Byrne gave the all-clear to the below piece after the rapper’s slowly-building cult online presence garnered a head of steam after numerous Twitter mentions by Rubberbandit/podcaster Blindboy Boatclub. It ended up being one of the most-read stories on the site all year, so far.

It was going to happen eventually. It had to. Everyone’s been talking about this. Shots have been fired in all directions since beef kicked off a few weeks back between this parish (bar its Southern Correspondent, hopefully) and one Craic Boi Mental, a rapper, producer and online agent provocateur from Cork City, with a knack for lo-fi production, and an innate ear for an inescapable hook.

This morning early, those in the know were eagerly standing by for the release of latest mixtape Cork City Anthems, by far his most polished work to date. Online feuds with this organ and District Magazine (since squashed) aside, Craic Boi Mental’s relentless work ethic and deeply idiosyncratic style have won him many admirers from Irish hip-hop’s inner circle, drawn equally in recent times for his DIY production prowess, as for the heroic feats of online tomfoolery that brought him to wider notice.

This camaraderie has resulted in appearances on the new mixtape from drone-tone wordsmith Invader Slim, Dublin rapper Fynch, and producer Fomorian Vein, among others; while recent online accolades have come from none other than Blindboy Boatclub, an early influence, grime figurehead Mango along with a Kojaque diss track. Meanwhile, a video for leadoff single ‘Ná Caitheamh Tobac’ is nearing completion, directed by Humans of the Sesh/Somewhere in Ireland man Brown Sauce.

As unrelentingly odd as he is, though, he’s not been without love all along: hip-hop veteran Rob Kelly (a one-time collaborator) and trailblazing skratchologist Naive Ted have publicly been accounted for among his fanbase.

The first question that comes to mind for those just introduced to the manifold wonders of Craic Boy Mental and his many aliases, is usually ‘is this lad for real?’. And it’s within this uncertainty that he’s put down roots in Cork hip-hop, not so much debuting, as simply manifesting himself online, in the middle of 2015. Under the moniker of Dudewithswag, he inexplicably dropped an EP with vocals recorded entirely in a reedy, accented falsetto, and shooting Movie-Maker-calibre videos from his family home.

Infusing the emergent ‘lo-fi hip-hop’ phenomenon so prevalent in online circles at the time with a recognisably Corkonian sense of scut-acting that has closer mirrors in the likes of Nun Attax and Sultans of Ping than anything in current Irish hip-hop, TAFKA Dudewithswag proceeded to relentlessly troll online listeners with increasingly belligerent, hyper-real takes on hip-hop tropes across countless online releases and arbitrary (and almost always unprovoked) acapella diss videos.

From there, a multitude of seemingly-baffling personae have emerged from the young lad’s frame, populating a comic-book-esque universe, referred to interchangeably as #PreciousPosse, #RoyalBoyzGang, #8HourBoyz, etc.: bragadocious King Flora, barely-verbal rapper Sulk Boi, lofi popstar Oscar Benso (below), and truculent banterLAD Yung Gowl are among but a few of his creations.

The differences musically are subtle, but a gift for zero-resource performance art has emerged and made itself apparent over the years, honed by a consistent and very real work ethic that’s seen Irish rappers and memelords alike take him to heart. This has perhaps best been seen in recent times with the cult Leeside success of ‘Polos is Life’, a heartfelt tribute to his favourite impulse consumable.

It’s mad to look at all of this happening in a four-year span, though it’s oddly fitting, with a production style that takes the accelerationist aspect of vaporwave and other online microgenres. into heavy consideration when taking a mirror to certain elements of Irish hip-hop.

And his journey has brought him together with his wife, known Leeside as singer and choreographer Kalikah, who together comprise lo-fi pop duo WhipMental. The duo have even documented their honeymoon around the cities of Europe, for a series of music videos to go with their debut collaborative tape.

Theirs is an odd but engaging story: one that flourishes in the lines between performance/conceptual art, on-the-button Irish humour, and a very real love of hip-hop and its cultural tapestry.

Craic Boi Mental’s “debut” mixtape ‘Cork City Anthems’ is streaming at the top of this article, and available for download exclusively from Datpiff.

An interview in District today is required reading, and Dublanders can catch him in all his glory at Yamamori Tengu, for Good Name, on March 28th.

Already know what it is, lads.

Outsiders Festival: “We Want It to Be Much Bigger Than Local”

March 2nd at Cyprus Avenue sees the Outsiders Ent. collective of rappers, musicians and visual artists take their vision to the next level, after years of work and learning, when the all-night Outsiders Festival puts a spotlight on themselves and their collaborators. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Outsiders Y.P., Kestine and Sai Wing Ho about the process.

A great amount of column-inches and bandwidth have been spent in recent years singing the praises of the rapid development of Irish hip-hop and its related culture, with a vast amount of videos, music and documentary content of various kinds providing the genre with a massive bottom line on which to continue its growth. As the broad fragmenting of listenership continues within the music industry, and younger musical palates are nourished by access to an unprecedented array of artists and styles via streaming services, Irish hip-hop’s rise is tied not only to demographic phenomena, but social change in Ireland. A new generation of multicultural artists whose lives, experiences and creativity centre around Ireland and its society, have vested the genre with their hard work, vision and ambition.

Central to this development among a new generation of Corkonians have Outsiders Ent., a group of creators brought together by common artistic goals, in the manner that’s been happening all over Cork music in the post-recession environment. Threading together music, visual art, photography, conceptual art installations, fashion and publication over the past number of years, the Outsiders’ gutsy take on keeping all of these things up in the air is, as is usually the case nowadays, a matter of necessity, according to co-founder Y.P. “When I was still in Uni, (co-member) Olympìo and I thought of creating a collective. Like, a place to include any person that we vibed with. But it wasn’t until, like, late 2016, that we really started doing anything. We were both kind of busy with life, and still trying to figure ourselves out. To be honest, we still are. But now we are more focused than ever before. We’ve decided to fully commit and put one hundred percent into the year, and hopefully, we get something in return, and help boost the hip-hop and music scene in general.”

When it came time to put names and a mission statement to the group, the process of arriving on common goals, an aesthetic, design, and other aspects of the operation among everyone involved was a natural one, as interests converged and people came into their element as creators. Getting all that together was a matter of coming up with a common workflow to the various things that come with creating and releasing music, which didn’t exactly unfold across a number of meetings, according to Y.P. “I’m in charge of editing, mixing, and mastering. Sai (Wing Ho, visual artist) usually deals with the visual aspects, whether it’s album covers, the logo, overall image, and more recently music videos. The rest of the guys focused on the music really. I suppose now everyone is getting a bit more involved with different aspects of the brand. It’s great to see that. I’m more confident that we can go really far because everyone has their head down and is really pushing themselves. I suppose the mission statement came about when we all agreed on what we felt the main goal for Outsiders Ent was, and is. We want Outsiders to be much bigger than local. I guess that would be our goal this year.”

The various members of the Outsiders have been steadily releasing singles and EPs online over the course of the past few years, almost entirely off their own steam in the absence of any established infrastructure outside of the community. The learning curve involved has led to the lads looking at their own goals as individuals, and as DIY musicians, as opposed to industry-centric heads. “We’re not really like that to be honest”, says Y.P. “Like, we really just want to leave a big impact in the world, more than anything else. We don’t function like a business yet. Although we are working on that this year. I think maybe it’s necessary to think of ourselves as more of a business to maximise our chances of success. We are trying to get more organised, and more precise, and just better at doing things for each other.”

Fellow Outsider Kestine is circumspect about his time in the group so far, the mutual support it offers, and having watched its accomplishments to date unfold. “It’s been quite an experience. Especially seeing Y.P. push through and do his thing. For me, I think, it was the last year where I’ve been really able to put focus on the music. ‘Cause I recently graduated from university, and after my graduation period, it was time to put my focus onto music. But definitely seeing him put in the work, has been inspiring… I don’t want to gas him too much, but he… he is a quote-unquote genius, in his own right.”

Visual artist and video editor Sai Wing Ho’s cinematic visual work for various singles’ promotional videos, like Y.P. and Pharaii’s ‘The Bag’, has done wonders for the group in terms of garnering wider attention online. Now, more so than ever, the idea of garnering traction as an independent artist means going where your people are, and for Sai Wing, capturing sets of eyeballs on social media is part of the process, but design and print are of equal importance to the mission. “To be honest, I only started making videos because we believe that is what people like to see. Releasing music alone is not enough to draw people’s attention nowadays, people like to see more, especially with the internet and social media. Artists have to be able to showcase their persona through different outlets, let it be music videos, social media or whatever… If you look at artists like A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator, I love their visual aesthetic and music videos and that’s how I actually become a fan of their music. What I’m saying is that artists nowadays have many ways to become successful, they just need to get creative with it. This year, Outsiders will definitely release a lot more music videos and content, to garner as much attention as we can and hopefully we will see the result by the end of this year. We’ve actually also already worked on and finished our ‘Solitude’ magazine. We hope to release it later this year. It’s like really a representation of what connects us all together, and we hope that everyone that reads it can relate and understand us a little bit more.”

The road to the group’s endgoals goes through The Outsiders Festival at Cyprus Avenue, an all-night gathering of like minds that happens on Saturday March 2nd from 9pm, co-produced by Dublin-based outfit WordUp Collective, of whom Y.P. is a working affiliate. Alongside collaborative and solo performances from the Outsiders themselves, firm festival faves like Tebi Rex and JYellowL are joined by emergent voices like Belfast’s Jordan Adetunji, and hosting proceedings is this parish’s own Stevie G. For Y.P., the gravity of this event is heightened by circumstance, as he, like others, is weighing up his options in Ireland. But in the now, it’s about getting the event over the line. “In terms of organising, it hasn’t been easy. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to organise events like this. But we are lucky. Just because of the venue and the Word Up family, even though we actually recently had to cancel the daytime part of the event because we were worried about the overall costs. But Ger, who is the owner of Cyprus Avenue, and Eoin who runs the show there, have been super in helping us make this happen. Ger has been one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met. So they’ve made it as easy as it could possibly be for us. I suppose the hard part was really getting all the artists, figuring out fees, and trying to promote the event. These are the parts that can be very hard. The Word Up collective was pivotal for that. They helped us get in touch with the artists, and contacted some of their connections to get the word out about the show as well. We’ve had help along the way. You’d be surprised by how helpful people are sometimes.”

The event’s stated goal is to represent a celebration of Irish hip-hop and urban culture in its current form, and what it’s come to, as well as where it’s come from in the form of host Stevie G’s involvement (see panel). It’s a combination of time, place and talent that deserves to be celebrated at this point, as the genre’s mainstream presence in Ireland continues to grow. “It’s looking like it’s gonna go pretty far,” opines Y.P. “The talent, at least for me, is at its peak. I don’t think there’s been this much buzz and quality in terms of urban music at least in my time. I also feel the artists are more internationally-friendly in terms of their sound. Better production, and everything. Even the music videos look way more interesting and creative than before. So we think the potential is huge, and hopefully, it becomes huge, and we play even a small role in making that happen.”

The Outsiders Festival happens on Saturday March 2nd at Cyprus Avenue, with kickoff at 9pm. Tickets €12.50 available now from the Old Oak and cyprusavenue.ie.

Spekulativ Fiktion: “I Sense a Storm Building”

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.

Cuttin’ Heads Collective: “We’re Still Experimenting”

Cork’s community hip-hop outfit, Cuttin’ Heads Collective, celebrates its 2nd anniversary this weekend with a double-dose of live beats and pieces, including a big blow-out in the Poor Relation. Mike McGrath-Bryan checks in with Justin O’Donnell and Ross Herlihy on their journey so far and on whose head the blade falls next.

In the summer of 2015, a group of local hip-hop heads, promoters, DJs and other personalities were brought together for something of a summit after a run of recent hip-hop events went well: the plan was to bring those responsible together to join forces and concentrate on building hip-hop in Cork city on a community basis. The Cuttin’ Heads Collective was born, assembling local veterans like JusMe, formerly of the Impressionists and Ross Herlihy from the dearly-departed LiveStyles Fest, as well as promoters/bloggers like Shiv Skirmish, producers like Mikey B-Side of Run the Jukes, and rappers like Spekulativ Fiktion. Herlihy ruminates on the first year of the collective, and what experiences & lessons year two has yielded. “The first year saw us try lots of different things, in lots of different venues. We had a lot of fun, and were finding our feet. I think in the past twelve months we’ve really struck our stride, and have been putting on some great parties that our crowd want to see happening in Cork. We’re still experimenting with new ideas and working on some stuff, but we’ve a much better sense of what we’re all about.”

The Poor Relation has been home for a great many of the group’s recent excursions, helping establish it as a viable alternative venue in the city-centre at a time when venue closures have been the norm. O’Donnell discusses what makes it work. “The main thing it has going for it, is that they’re willing to put on the stuff other venues won’t. Metal bands, bass music nights like Undercurrent, reggae nights, (“slow dance music” night) Dim The Lights etc. After the closing of some venues around town they filled the gap, and gave nights like ours a new home. They’ve been a pleasure to deal with over the last year.”

The scene overall has been in very good health in the last year. CHC’s successes aside, this parish’s Stevie G has been doing well weekly with student night Good Music, platforming young DJs like NumberTheory, rappers like Jay Ronic and singers like Minnie Marley in the process. Meanwhile, Outsider YP’s new album ‘Alone.Insane.Alive’ was an understated but powerful platter, Spekulativ Fiktion’s return to action with beatmaker Mankyy is on the horizon, and even oddball rapper/cringe content specialist Oscar Benso finally went viral. O’Donnell is quick to add his take on the year in review. “I’m pretty hopeful about the scene in Cork. Beatmakers like Gaptoof (formerly Nxstalgic_) and Jar Jar Jr. are absolutely killing it. I’m excited about the new Switch X stuff. He’s always been an incredible rapper, but he’s finding his sound with the beats now. CHC resident Plonky finally has some stuff on the way. Ophelia is getting back to work on some new projects. She’s put together a very talented bunch of musicians. Proud to say I’ll be doing some work with them. There’s also a lot of young talent coming out of local youth workshops run by Garry and the crew at the Kabin in Knocknaheeny.”

The collective also contributed to this year’s IndieCork festival, premiering the long-awaited “The Truth about Irish Hip-Hop” documentary, as well as providing a stage for Spekulativ Fiktion and Mankyy to win the festival’s Music award. O’Donnell speaks about the doc’s reception. “I liked the documentary. To say previous attempts haven’t gone particularly well would be a massive understatement. They did a pretty good job of showcasing the current crop of rappers in the very limited time frame they had. As is usually the case with these things, it focuses completely on the rapping element of the scene. The couple of DJs and producers who feature are really only there to give their opinion on the rappers. I’d make the argument that rappers probably aren’t the most interesting thing about the Irish Hip Hop scene, but I suppose not everyone would agree.”

Furthermore to that effort, O’Donnell laid genuine claim to custodianship of history in the show-closing act of the group’s Indie effort: a history of Irish hip-hop, told in an all-vinyl DJ set. “There are so few Irish hip-hop things that have made it on to vinyl. It was really all about presenting what’s there in a way that worked. There’s all the old All City stuff which obviously featured heavily. They really defined the sound of Irish Hip-Hop in the early 2000s. While making it, I noticed how many of these artists are consistently left out of the Irish hip-hop conversation. Colm K might be the best hip-hop producer the country has ever had, and he’s never mentioned. He probably prefers it that way, but it annoys me. If you’re not hanging out in Irish hip-hop forums or working with Irish rappers, you’re written out of the history. Ghost and Jay, Hazo, Exile Eye, Captain Moonlight, G Frequency, Relevance… these artists never get the love they deserve. Being limited to the vinyl releases offers an alternative history I suppose, and it weeds out a lot of the rubbish.”

The group’s second birthday bash is incoming, with night 1 alone featuring Lakerama, Naive Ted and more. Being a dab hand with assembling festivals and other big excursions, assembling and pacing it comes logically to Herlihy. “The birthday is always an interesting line-up to put together. When we start throwing around names it can often become top heavy on 1 style of music. Its very easy to look at all the DJs we know doing amazing things, and trying to book them all, or conversely all the rap acts doing the same. It takes us a while to narrow down the list, and get a nicely balanced line-up together. The gig is around 6 hours long, so from a crowd perspective you need to keep things changing up, and try to schedule things to keep people engaged.”

The event is being hosted by broadcaster, kids’ TV enthusiast and general bon vivant Ray “Wingnut” Cuddihy and This Side Up rapper Shaool. Herlihy is effusive when discussing what each brings to the table. “Ray has been the undisputed king of event hosting in Ireland since he first hosted a Community Skratch Games. Not only is he hilarious, but he’s one of the most knowledgeable people with regards to Irish music, and especially the type of music we deal with. Shaool on the other hand is like an honorary Headcutter at this stage. We’ve always had a close link with This Side Up. It was after TSU played Cork that CHC started to come together, they’ve done a lot of work with Spekulativ Fiktion, were our first big gig in the Poor Relation and they absolutely rocked our birthday last year. It’d be weird for us not to have him at our birthday. Like Ray he brings a lot of fun to the stage when he’s up there, and we think the two of them will work really well together.”

With a solid two years behind them and a rep built up for their collective endeavours, the Headcutters are going from strength to strength. “We’re starting to fire on all cylinders at the moment. Our monthly gigs are a lot of fun and we’ll be keeping them up. It took a good bit of work to get that right, but now that we have it’s time to start some new stuff. We’re going to be starting an event for producers before the new year that will be much more of a social event than a gig. We used to run production workshops before, so it’ll be nice to do something with that community again.”

Soulé: What Do You Know?

After a busy debut year, Dublin singer-songwriter Soulé is ready to take on the world, and it starts with a headline slot at the Jazz. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

It’s been just over a year since the debut show of singer-songwriter Samantha Kay, under the nom-de-plume of Soulé and, propelled forth by a wide range of soul, hip-hop and R&B influences, already HAS quite a number of achievements and milestones under her belt: national radio play, features in national print & online music media, and a nomination for the Choice Music Prize for debut single ‘Love No More’. On the eve of her debut Cork headline show – as a festival headliner for the Jazz, no less – it’s little wonder that Kay’s head is spinning at the minute. “The last twelve months have been crazy and quite overwhelming, in a good way. I haven’t had much time to sit and take it all in, because a lot has happened. But I’m so grateful for the love and support that I’ve received. It honestly means so much and it’s very motivating.”

‘Love No More’ became somewhat of a sleeper hit last year, appealing to both more discerning musical sensibilities and a wider audience on the way to the aforementioned Choice nomination. Its dichotomy of personal lyrical material and big production turned heads, and Kay explains the end result came on a creative whim. “’Love No More’ started off as a ballad that I wrote on my keyboard. That explains why the lyrics of the song are quite emotional. When it was time to record it, we decided to turn it into something fun and uptempo. I thought that it would be cool to turn a sad ballad into a dance track.”

Follow-up single ‘Troublemaker’ passed a million plays on Spotify this past summer, a rare occurrence even in a supposedly-democratised environment of on-demand audio still under scrutiny for the prevalence of playlisting for casual listeners. Kay outlines the importance of the medium to her as a listener, and defends it as a necessity for new artists. “As a listener, digital streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music & SoundCloud help me discover new artists that aren’t as well-known as the big names. It gives new artists like myself a fair chance to get their music heard.”

‘What Do You Know’, her most recent effort, has also gone down a treat, including single-of-the-week laurels from the Irish Times. It’s also shown that Kay’s wave of initial momentum may add up to more than the usual cycle of hype that surrounds some artists’ very early work when breaking down industry doors. “I’m very humbled by all the positive feedback I’ve received for ‘What Do You Know’. I was so excited for the world to finally get to hear it because I was so proud of it. I wrote that song as a conclusion to the ‘Troublemaker’ story, and it came together so well.”

Even at this early stage, Kay’s success has seen her begin to be feted as being at the forefront of the new wave of soul, electronica, hip-hop and R’n’B in independent Irish music, a wide spread of sub-genres that are collectively entering something of a golden age, along Loah, Jafaris and others. Kay has her thoughts on her place in this moment for Irish music. “The Irish music scene has always been booming in terms of rock and indie music. We are just adding to what is already there. It’s a great time for music in Ireland right now, and it’s great to see so many more new artists come out with quality music. We work so hard to be heard, and it’s finally happening. I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.”

The team behind Soulé’s success has been Dublin production trio Diffusion Lab, an active trio of producers and performers based in Dublin, boasting a fingerprint all over Irish hip-hop/R&B via collaborations with Soulé, Jafaris and many others. A far cry from creatively dictatorial studio producers and big-talking Svengalis, DFL function as a collaborative one-stop shop for artists, offering everything from production and co-writing to consultancy and graphic design. “Diffusion Lab has been my family way before I ever considered releasing music. We’ve been family since 2014, ’15. I’ve learned so much working with them, and we have so much fun together. The main motto we have is to always have a positive mindset and to always put in the work in order to succeed. Working with Diffusion lab has been awesome and I can’t wait to see all the great things they achieve.”

Soulé is playing Cyprus Avenue on Thursday October 26th, the eve of the Jazz Festival’s kickoff proper, having being formally announced as a headliner for the event. Collecting her thoughts heading into the event, she says: “I’m very nervous and excited all at the same time. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I love the energy that a Cork crowd gives. So, I’m excited to sing for them.” She then goes on to play her biggest headliner to date, next month at Dublin’s Button Factory, just over a year after supporting fellow Irish hip-hop breakouts Hare Squead there. Smiling, when asked to sum up how the time inbetween has been, she simply says: “The last year has been: unexpected, fun, crazy and exciting.”