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.

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.”

Jeru the Damaja: “It Feels Like the Nineties Again for Me”

Hip-hop survivor Jeru the Damaja arrives at Townlands Carnival this weekend with nearly thirty years of tunes at his disposal. Speaking with Mike McGrath-Bryan, he touches on hip-hop’s golden age, his own experiences, and the challenges that await him in the future.

The sign of a relevant artist is one that refuses to rest on their laurels, always looking forward with the knowledge that you’re only as good as your last idea, especially in an increasingly hectic music industry. Emerging in the early nineties in collaboration with Gang Starr cutman DJ Premier, and running with the legendary duo’s Foundation group at various intervals over the years, New York rapper Jeru the Damaja has his sights set on his future. After a legendary solo career, including 1994 magnum opus The Sun Rises in the East, he’s headed in a new direction with collab funk/hip-hop project The Funky Pandas, alongside longtime consort Psycho Les. In good form and clearly optimistic about it all, Jeru gets into the spontaneity behind the project. “We toured a lot… We’re friends, and have been friends for such a long time. We were in a bar in Berlin, having a few drinks, smoking a little chronic, making a few jokes about getting a group together. Next day we were in studio, we did, like, five songs, and that’s how it began.”

The duo’s debut long-player drops early next year – the result of a relaxed and collaborative creative process, liberated from the constraints of Jeru’s own legacy and either man’s previous stylistic leanings. He’s quick to inform us of what we can expect. “I mean, if you’re expecting Jeru the Damaja, you’re gonna be disappointed. It’s all-new. It’s The Funky Pandas, Black Panda (Jeru) and Dr. Love Panda (Les). But it’s very good quality, very creative, real hip-hop. Just feelgood music. It’s gonna be fresh, it’s gonna be funky. I think it’s gonna be the reinvention of what people our age and our generation, fans of that golden era, early nineties are gonna like, but also new people are gonna like it.”

This being festival season, attendant crowds, including those at Townlands Carnival this weekend, will want to be hearing his classics. It’s a balancing act between entertaining longtime fans and briefing new recruits on his work, and one that he sets out to accomplish, considering his urgency to continue creating. “I’m gonna do all my classics. I love doing the old stuff, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a long career and that’s the reason I’m able to do The Funky Pandas, because of the things I’ve done with Premier, and R.I.P., Guru, and I’m thankful for that.”

Last year also saw Jeru, alongside former stablemates Big Shug and Afu Ra reassume The Gang Starr Foundation mantle, sans live involvement from Premier, to go on tour around the continent. How was it to see audiences around Europe receive that work and the legacy of Gang Starr live? “I mean, it’s great. The fact that something you did twenty years ago, almost thirty years ago now, and still to this day, people love and respect it… it shows that it’s good music, it’s to the point, it stands the test of time. I couldn’t imagine anything else, the way music is today, I didn’t think it’d be like this, so… generational, where ‘we don’t listen to this’, or ‘we only listen to this’. When we grew up, we listened to everything. I grew up listening to my mother’s music, y’know?”

That period of his career is framed within the context of hip-hop’s golden age: from running with innovators like Gang Starr, to testy interactions with performers that became staples of hip-hop mythology, like Biggie Smalls and the Fugees. A lot surely goes through his mind now, when he looks back on that period of his career, in the early 1990s. “It was a great time. You gotta realise that (hip-hop) was super, super-new back then, y’know what I mean? Hip-hop was barely twenty years old, so it was fresh. But for me, as a youth, I was twenty, twenty-one years old, it was the best part of my life at that time, because I was innocent, I was naive. Y’know, I thought the world was the way that it wasn’t. The joy and the wonderment you have when you look at it is there because you’re not jaded yet. I try to keep that point of view nowadays, everything fresh, like a child.”

Speaking to him, you get the sense that Jeru’s wide-eyed wonder is the result of a lot of thought on his own part, especially when he touches back on the matter of what is arguably hip-hop’s first generation gap, emerging in recent years as phenomena like so-called “mumble rap” and its own DIY-inspired sentiment have taken the fore in the genre’s mainstream. When questioned on who gives him that same feeling, he stops to consider it carefully. “I heard someone who’s really good, but they’re older, their record’s out now, a guy called Ransom. I’m all about the lyrical. I like beats, but I like clever wordplay. I like to consider myself a wordsmith, and I haven’t found anyone like that (lately). I listen to some stuff, but I’m on the road so much, it’s hard. I’m in a bubble.”

Jeru’s last solo E.P., The Hammer, came out in 2014. After a period of semi-retirement following his critically acclaimed first pair of LPs, Jeru’s self-released material has taken a back seat, with sporadic extended-plays and albums finding their way to shelves intermittently. Surely an itch is there, then, to be scratched for fresh kill, amid all the current activity? “For sure. I have another record done, pretty much. I’m just prioritising now with the Pandas, ‘cause it’s fun. It’s fun. I’ve been doing Jeru my whole life. It’s fun to deal with another MC and another producer, you guys get in the studio and come up with some crazy ideas. It’s that old feeling: it feels like the nineties again for me. I know what my past is, I know what my successes are, what some people might consider failures and what I might consider a failure. But you only move forward. You only go back if you kinda forgot something and have to go get it (laughs).”

Jeru the Damaja is playing Townlands Carnival this weekend, something of a coup for a fest in its relative infancy, and after twenty-five years of coming here while on tour, is no less enthusiastic about turning up and showing the Rusheen Farm crowd what he’s about. “Oh, man, Ireland is always good! I’m just gonna rock the house, man, I’ve been coming back here since 1992, Gang Starr. It’s always been a good time, it’s never disappointed. I can never say I’ve come to Ireland and been disappointed. I’ma party hard, and the show is always super-good, super-energetic, and fantastic.”

Jeru the Damaja headlines Townlands Carnival this weekend at Rusheen Farm in Macroom, performing on the Main Stage at 6.30pm on Saturday. Last few tickets are left over at townlandscarnival.com.

This Side Up: Everything Under the Sun

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.

SF Co.: All in the Family

Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with streetwear designer and entrepeneur Tomas Mc’Sky, as well as collaborators DJ Jus’Me and Isabela Szczutkowska, about the launch party of his SF label, tomorrow night.

International in origin and distinctly Leeside in its creation, the StreetFamily (SF) line streetwear and accessories launches with a special invite-only event tomorrow, at the recently-opened Village Hall venue on Patrick’s Quay, with a pop-up shop for the label’s first collection, a DJ set from beat curators Cuttin’ Heads Collective, and a photography exhibition featuring the work of analogue snapper Isabela Szczutkowska.

Influenced by designer Tomas Mc’Sky’s lifelong love affair with hip-hop and its subculture, as well as his own upbringing, SF represents the achievement of a long-held dream stemming from the fulfilment of a necessity, according to the man himself. “I think I was around 13 years old. Hip-hop culture brought me to street basketball and graffiti, then it all began… I realised I couldn’t afford imported clothing representing my favourite subcultures, so I decided to make my own for me and friends.”

It was from this decision that Tomas embarked on the over decade-long journey to the creation and establishment of his studio. “I needed to learn graphic design to start with the brand. It’s crazy when I think I bought my first computer when I was eighteen. I also couldn’t afford one earlier on. Asking my mother, raising me and my younger brother on her own was not an option. I was painting a lot but I knew nothing about operating systems not to mention all other necessary software at that time… in college most teachers allowed me to paint graffiti during the classes because I was listening and I could answer their random questions. It was very motivating! Very important part of my life. Two years later I came to Ireland to work and invest every penny in what was necessary to build a studio from scratch. It came together after ten years. During that time I worked and studied design, typography, textiles, screen printing, photography and e-commerce. I am glad to say that the launch is happening this week.”

The layout, planning and process of a fashion label of any sort is something that’s still somewhat alien to those outside of the creative process, and while Cork isn’t short of fashionistas of all stripes to appreciate the work of local designers, Tomas’ breakdown of the work that went into SF’s new collection is staggering. “I break it down to these steps. Inspiration: I find it in music, books – I’m a crazy Taschen collector – film, city spaces and local landscapes. I love west Cork. Usually I start from making notes anywhere, anytime I come up with an idea in my mind. It is the key element.

Graphic design. A pencil and a sheet of paper. I usually do not turn on my computer if I do not know what I am doing. Besides the creative process there is the formal side too. Tags, design, and fabric care information are also necessary, and I’ll consult om that with the fabric manufacturer later on. A small selection of tailorings and colour variations are picked up from the whole bunch, a look book is put together for consultation and reference. Then there’s the final production preparation and documentation. Decoration types, swatches and graphic files are put together in detailed and comprehensive documentation. A collection is huge investment and the last thing you want to do is any sort of discrepancy. With the bigger orders, I manage the production line. It takes a few months before you see the final product and waiting is not my favourite part.”

While the label’s creation and establishment is firmly rooted in Cork, it’s clear Tomas is taking the wider view of its appeal, with ambitious expansion plans already on the way. “Big steps ahead. I’m very excited about 2017, the next collection is being finalised now. Expect something much different from the first one. This year also I am launching branches in Germany and Poland, and in 2018, I’m setting up branches in New York and Long Beach. Later, brick and mortar shops in Ireland and other countries. I hope SF Co. will represent proudly Ireland’s first official streetwear brand across Europe and the globe.”

While working away on the label’s naissance in the city, Tomas settled into the graphic design and identity aspects of Leeside hip-hop auteurs Cuttin’ Heads Collective, alongside co-founder and organiser Justin O’Donnell, a.k.a. DJ Jus’ Me. The CHC lads have every reason to be pleased with themselves at present, having topped off their first year in business with a big shindig at the Liquid Lounge. “The birthday is one I’ll remember for a long time. Everything from the performances, the crowd and overall vibe was above and beyond what we had hoped for. There was a lot of love in the room!

There’s already a busy 2017 in it, working with collective member Tomas on his label. Jus takes the time to reflect on the collective’s creation and how Tomas’ work formed an important part of it. “There will always be a strong connection between Cuttin’ Heads and SF. Tomas was with us from day one. He came up with our logo and branding, He does most of our posters and photography, and he’s a killer DJ. The SF influence is all over Cuttin’ Heads. As far as future collaborations, I’m sure there will be plenty.”

Aside from curating the playlist at the launch, the lads are looking after the afterparty downtown at CUBE, the former M-NUS space on Hanover St. There’s something a little special in the works. “We knew we’d need an after party for the launch. We’re DJing at the exhibition but it will be a laid back gallery vibe. The focus is the artwork, we’re just there to compliment it. We thought it would be nice to have somewhere to go after to continue drinking and celebrate a job well done. CHC resident Gary Fitz’s new venture CUBE seemed like an obvious choice. The crowd that go there typically expect to hear house and techno, so we had to find a way to appeal to their regulars while keeping our usual hip hop vibe. We decided to do an 80’s Electro special. These early hip hop records were the foundation for what would eventually become House and Techno so it seemed like a good middle ground. It’s been years since I’ve played a straight electro set, so I’m looking forward to it. Expect plenty of 808s, synths, vocoders and over indulgent scratching!”

Isabela Szczutkowska has been around Cork for a long time now, specifically around the Cork music scene as a photographer and documentarian. Her work has been an important part of the identity of the Cork scene in recent years, specifically its synonymity with the rise of psych-rock five-piece The Altered Hours. Her approach comes from a hands-on, DIY attitude from the outset. “As a teenager, I was part of an art collective called Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych in my hometown, Wrocław, and that is where I got introduced to photography and processed my first roll. I liked it a lot but didn’t completely fall into it just yet, writing was my thing.. and music. Went to study journalism – to be a music journalist – and photography, when I realised it was the language of the world. Went back to study photography in St John’s Central Collage, here in Cork; that’s where it really started to shape – thanks to the best tutors on the planet. To me, photography is very close to the way we see what’s around us, its documentary nature, factual, mirroring but almost always diluted through our personal experience. Just like reality. And I love my twelve-hour printing sessions in the darkroom.”

Being exhibited at the label’s launch is her work with the SF label, a raw and gritty exposition around the city centre that sees familiar places through an unfamiliar filter. “It’s a collaboration for SF. Raw take on fashion and lifestyle photography, where the atmosphere is more important than clothes itself. Grainy, grungy, sometimes bold, blurred, dreamy and colorful. Tom is very brave and open to go with it, although, the final selection of images for the launch may be more balanced too. I don’t want to give away too much, come down and have a look.”

Having been a music photographer the last few years, Izzy has a defined idea of where she sees herself going with her work in the medium next. “As I’m working closely with The Altered Hours, we tour together sometimes. Lifestyle, magazine, intimate picture story – that’s what interests me here, and I would be keen to create more of this kind of work with different bands in the future, like Deerhunter. Also, music videos are a step that I’m slowly taking. There are several personal projects I have been busy with that aren’t connected to music at all. Portraits, and together with filmmaker Christopher O’Neill, we’ve been working on a short film shot on 35mm black and white film, fully made from still photographs.”

The SF label launches tomorrow night at 8pm in a special, invite-only event, featuring the Cuttin’ Heads Collective on decks and the fashion photography of Isabela Szczutkowska. To request an invite, private-message the SF Co. page on Facebook. The party moves onto CUBE on Hanover Street at 11 for Cuttin’ Heads’ ’80s special.

Find SF Streetwear online at streetwearsf.com, and check out more of Izzy’s imagery at http://izyandthesunshines.blogspot.ie/

Naive Ted: “I Don’t Know How Else You’d Do It”

Taking to the Roundy on Saturday night, hip-hop experimentalist Naive Ted sets out a sonic stall of new and unheard tunes, ahead of their release this year. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Andy Connolly, the man behind the mask.

On stage, he’s Naive Ted, a mute, lucha-mask-clad skratchologist with a penchant for levelling venues with his wildly experimental strain of noisy hip-hop and electronica. Off it, he’s Andy Connolly, musician, social music tutor, festival organiser, and the brains behind DIY hip-hop label The Unscene, proving to be a lifeline for those on the genre’s fringes, throughout the country. In 2015, Connolly released under the Ted pseudonym The Inevitable Heel Turn, his debut under the name and first release since splitting up the “one-man duo” of Deviant and Naive Ted. It’s a certified headwrecker, taking in noise, jazz, some heavy-duty beats, and an eclectic array of samples. Connolly’s satisfied with his work. “People did like Heel Turn. I was surprised really. Still am. Suckers for punishment? Heel Turn was the first time I really got to grips with composing digitally, via Ableton Live. With Heel Turn, and in general, I was just trying to make “my” music, free of scene associations or contrivances. Did I succeed? That’s up to the listener. But I’m my own biggest fan, no one loves my records like I do”, he laughs.

Connolly’s new body of work has been bubbling under for a while as well, effectively since the release of the last one, and is ready to be premiered at Quarter Block Party on Saturday. What can we expect to hear blaring out of the Roundy? ”The sound of the new record is…. everything is f*cked and you’re to blame so you might as well have a dance? Which in fairness is very similar to Heel Turn. It’s probably a fair bit faster. Yeah, ’tis certainly a fair bit faster. And has more of Ted playing the synth and guitar pedals. We had a few friends round too. So it’s the same, but quite different.”

2016 was a busy year for Connolly away from the decks, with his release project (rather than any formal label arrangement) The Unscene becoming a real hub, not just for Irish hip-hop, but releases like unearthed tapes from Limerick noise project Agro Phobia. It’s arguably one of the best labels in the country at present, but Connolly is quick to cut out any lofty talk and explain the label’s DIY ethic. “The only reason Unscene exists is to provide space for the music I like, by people that I know. I haven’t the time, nor the inclination to make it anything but a repository for stuff I like that mightn’t otherwise see the light of day. I can write something resembling a press release, we’ve a mailing list, I’ve a few contacts in the media and I know a load of DJs so it’s better than letting it rot on your hard drive. I do tend to keep it lowkey, rather than shout it from the rooftops, call it an aversion to commercialism, maybe, but I also have a day-job so it’s certainly not a real label in any sense of the word.”

The label’s activity is fueled by this desire to document the current body of sound emerging from areas of Irish hip-hop, but stems from necessity and earnestness of endeavour. “I help where I can, some projects come fully formed, in the case of (Waterford beatmaker) Nylon Primate or (Cork/Galway duo) Run the Jukes, I literally just help with any costs incurred, host it and do the PR. In other cases I might help out with the the recording or mixing too. And then there’s the Ted stuff. But it’s all just an extension of ‘doing the art’. For the most part these are skills I’ve picked up from being an artist, e.g. I never set out to learn Photoshop, we just needed a poster for a gig and no one we knew could do it so I downloaded the trial and figured it out. I’m not a mixing engineer but I did MMPT in college and I’ve been mixing music to make music for years and hanging around with people doing cool shit for over half my life, you just absorb it naturally, or pick things up out of necessity.”

Irish hip-hop is in something of a golden age at present, thanks entirely to the co-ordinated efforts of people looking to make things happen on their own. Connolly isn’t alone in his efforts, with Cork playing host to the likes of Cuttin’ Heads, Young Phantom’s Outsiders group and others. He’s effusive about the buzz of the aforementioned. “Cork is great. Always has been, as long as I’ve been going. Being from Killarney, it was the closest city to us, so it definitely has a special place in my heart. So many of my formative musical experiences happened there – it was where I first saw in real life all the shit I had only listened to, and read about. And in that sense Cork continues to be an inspiration. It’s been a real pleasure witnessing the transition of the Cork hip-hop scene from when I entered the fray, from Elementary, into the LiveStyles festival, and now what’s happening with the Cuttin’ Heads collective. I’ve been looking for an excuse to say it and this seems like the place… Jus’Me! How lucky is Cork to have that dude? Hip-hop MVP of the country for years now. Obviously he does so much sterling gruntwork setting up gigs and keeping things ticking over like the underground trooper he is, but his artistry is so damn high level. DJ-wise, on a modern hip-hop tip, there’s not many out there better, it’s a world class standard he’s at. And if you live in Cork he’s probably playing in a pub near you right now. Lucky b*stards.”

A few years ago, longtime pro wrestling nerd Connolly created and composed the ring entrance music for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Bullet Club faction of villains, thanks to an acquaintance with Fergal Devitt, now known as WWE headliner Finn Balor. The theme boosted Connolly’s international presence, as the onscreen rise of the brash baddies coincided with growing interest in the product in the West. They’ve been in contact since, with Devitt even sharing the music of Ted protege Mankyy recently on Twitter. Connolly reflects on the impact the Bullet Club connection has had. “Seeing Bullet Club win the belts in Tokyo Dome with my song playing was pretty damn cool. It was also somewhat of a validation of my own professionalism. I made a song in my bedroom that’s good enough to get played in stadiums and on TV. That was pretty satisfying.”

Another, not so frequently mentioned aspect of Connolly’s work is youth work, as part of Limerick’s MusicGeneration programme. Via this project, he’s reached out to and worked with some fantastic young talent, including rapper Jonen Dekay, beatmaker Mankyy and others. Connolly explores the relationship between the art and its social benefits. “I’d put the label, the youth work and the music as being different sides of the same practice, that they are all indeed one and the same, or at least borne out of the same idea, i.e. that workshops with groups of teenagers, releasing independent music and performing are just ‘doing the art’. I don’t know how else you’d do it. As far as ‘social good’ of youth work goes, you can read about that elsewhere, written by people with far more expertise than I. Suffice to say, I really enjoy and value the work, the young people are continually inspiring and it provides me with a living. Result.”

Connolly is returning to Quarter Block Party this year, after headlining in 2015. What are his memories of this instalment of the event, and what’s he looking forward to seeing in this year’s programme? “First QBP was a fine time. ‘Twas probably the first ‘proper’ Naive Ted show after the previous experiments at Community Skratch events and LiveStyles. Excellently disconcerting and made me think that maybe we were onto something (laughs)… I’m mad to catch Crevice since I saw the vid on YouTube a while back. And last time I saw Arthur Itis, he was onstage smashing a printer with (rapper) Spekulativ Fiktion and (sound artist) First Blood Part Two so I’m keen to see what he’s bringing to the table…”

A big year awaits Connolly and his masked creation after the dust settles on Block Party. “Ted’s gonna be bleeding music for a while this year. There’s an EP with (Unscene artist) Post-Punk Podge in the bag, should be with ye before the end of the month. And then there’s The Minute Particulars. It’s a series of music by Naive Ted with some appearances from friends, neighbours and musical acquaintances. I wouldn’t call it an album. Just keep an eye out.”

Naive Ted plays The Roundy on Saturday night as part of Quarter Block Party. Kickoff at 10.45, tickets €10, or admission with a weekend/day pass.

Cuttin’ Heads Collective: At the Cutting Edge

Ahead of their first anniversary shows, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Cuttin’ Heads Collective members and DJs JusMe, Ross Herlihy and Six-Foot Apprentice.

In a little over a year, the Cuttin’ Heads Collective of rappers, beatmakers, promoters and DJs have changed Cork hip-hop utterly, unifying some of its main players under one banner for the common good and advancement of beats in the city. On the 19th, the crew will be celebrating that anniversary with a big night at the Liquid Lounge, followed by a winding-down session on the 20th at the Brú.

Co-founder DJ JusMe explains how it all came together. “I guess it started with a couple of gigs a few of us put together last summer; This Side Up, Naive Ted. We were kinda shocked by the success of those nights. That was the motivation to go further with it and put together a team of people to help promote more hip-hop related stuff in Cork. I sent out a facebook message to some people I wanted to work with and it grew pretty fast from there.”

After some initial deliberations, the business of choosing a name led to the team’s distinct moniker, according to Jus. “The name Cuttin’ Heads comes from a blues term.. It’s like a battle between musicians. If you were killing a guy with your performance you would be head cutting. We thought that applied to what we do.”

Assembling a team that included rapper Spekulativ Fiktion, promoter/DJ Shiv and LiveStyles festival head Ross Herlihy, the Cuttin’ Heads folks quickly got to business with a weekly night downstairs at UrbanJungle. Says Ross, “UrbanJungle was a great learning experience for us. Starting off as a weekly night really allowed us to test out different things and grow closer as a collective. After a few months we realised that a weekly night was probably not for us at the time so we moved our focus to putting on gigs here and there and upping the quality overall. We won’t say a weekly night is definitely off the cards for our future, but at the moment we’re very happy running semi-regular nights in a few different venues.”

Jus agrees, having gone through the rigours and helped plan out the next steps. “I definitely think we’re in a better situation now. Instead of the weekly gig in one place, we have a few regular gigs in different bars where we can explore different vibes. We’ve been doing Gulp’d every 6 weeks or so where we focus on more laid back, left field instrumental stuff. We’re going to be doing more gigs in Bru which will be about classic hip hop. Fredz is where we usually put on the more bass heavy stuff. We’ve also done a bunch of one off events in places like the Friary, Amp, the Vicarstown and Pigalle.”

There’s been some big events, too, seeing luminaries of the Irish and American hip-hop scenes pass through Cork. Ross gets into the details. “We’ve been lucky to put on a number of big shows so far, including mynameisjOhn vs. Naive Ted, Illa J, Jon1st, & more. Illa J came from a relationship CHC member Chris Power has with him from working on tracks in the past. The rest of the acts we’ve put on have been crew decisions to book the types of acts we want to see more of in Cork. The workload varies from gig to gig as we try to distribute the tasks around”

There’s been once-offs since, as well as a tour of clubs and festivals around the country. Ross reckons there’s more in the offing. “We’ve nothing confirmed at the moment, but we’ll definitely be looking to tour some more next year. In a short few weeks, CHC played in Galway, Tralee, Limerick & two festivals in Cork. It was a lot of fun getting out there and playing for crowds that don’t get the chance to come to our nights in Cork. We’ll certainly be chatting to promoters around the country and looking at getting a tour going again next year.”

Jus is similarly receptive to the idea of putting the collective on the road. “The touring stuff was a lot of fun. Later in the summer we went did a couple shows in Dublin warming up for the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Levelz, working Choice Cuts and Front/Left. We collected a lot of good memories over the last year. That’s what its about. There will definitely be more road trips next year!”

The Cuttin’ Heads have also moved into the roles traditionally occupied by record labels – two mixtapes from resident DJ and beatmaker Chris Power have made their ways out on a free/donation basis via digital indie outlet Bandcamp. Declan Carey, a.k.a. Six Foot Apprentice, is measured in his approach. “Yeah, the CHC Bandcamp has been a cool platform for the mixtapes. No plans for any physical releases. The ‘free / name your price’ Bandcamp buzz suits us just fine for now. (Andrew) Gunkel has something in the works, and possibly another from Chris Power, and possibly something from ManMaid, a project of Chris Power & Gunkel. Beyond that, we’ll see.”

Jus chimes in on the topic, regards the reaction Power’s work has received, and how it informed the releasing arm of the collective. “Yeah, we wouldn’t really consider Cuttin’ Heads a label. After we put up the first tape we were getting a lot of messages from people wanting us to put out their projects, but putting out other people’s music isn’t really what we want to be spending our time on. Cuttin’ Heads is about putting on quality hip-hop nights in Cork. The Bandcamp is really just a platform for our members’ releases. Maybe that will change in the future, but for now our focus is on other things.”

The one-year anniversary approaches, and the question comes up of whether or not the events of the last while, and all the activity, has had a chance to properly sink in on the collective. Ross gets down to brass tacks on the question, getting into motivation and questions. “When we started we didn’t really know what the next 12 months would look like, and honestly, it’s hard to say what the next 12 months will look like at this point too. A big motivation at the beginning of it all, was our friends outside Cork & Ireland, and seeing what they were accomplishing, the types of gigs that were working in their cities but not our own. I was constantly picking people’s brains when at gigs in Limerick or Galway or other places, trying to figure out what they are doing right that we maybe weren’t. It really sinks in for me that we’re on the right track when now those people are equally picking our brains about what we’re doing. To know that the people that inspire us on a regular basis are also getting inspired by us is amazing, and really pushes us on forward.”

Ross goes on to discuss the collective’s anniversary night in more detail, detailing how the bill came together. “Over the past year, we’ve been trying to make sure we put on big gigs every few months so our first birthday was always going to be a biggie. We talked about a lot of different acts we could get involved, and timing was on our side. This Side Up & Nylon Primate were both releasing new projects around the time of our birthday, and Bleak Stack has just started to announce themselves to the world. All of them are acts that we really wanted to put on around this time of the year anyway, so putting them on one bill was a no-brainer. Skratch Lords have been on our list for a long time now, so when it came to making sure a top turntablism act was on the cards, they were the first choice. The party is really going to have everything we represent presented at it. Its got two brilliant rap acts, a producer at the top of his game, three of the best turntablists on the scene at the moment, and thats just the headline acts! Throw in more local talent like Nxstalgic, Mankyy, the VINYL BELOW crew running shop in the club downstairs, and it’s going to be a night to remember.”

Jus hops in, making with details of a second night to follow all that up, happening at the Brú bar on McCurtain St. on the 20th. “After the Saturday is done and dusted, I’m just as excited about the Sunday wind down session in the Brú. At that stage the hard work will be over, and we can just relax with a few beers. Free finger food from the White Rabbit next door, and there will be some slices of birthday cake flying around.”

While all this is going on, Declan reveals the next step for the Cuttin’ Heads and their ever-expanding merchandise empire. “Chris Power weed grinders, a Spekulativ Fiktion vegetarian cookbook, and JusMe running for Lord Mayor.”

Cuttin’ Heads Collective’s 1st anniversary bash happens on Friday the 19th at the Liquid Lounge, and Saturday 20th at The Brú.