“I could never detach myself from that element of community. It’s always been part of everything I’ve done since I started making music.”
When reminiscing, it’s largely life’s major moments that stand out among the indistinguishable blur of the day to day. Some of our other formative experiences are personal in nature and their importance is often difficult to express. Then there are the achievements that while monumental for the recipient, are bigger for a community and they evolve into a shared experience or moment in the collective consciousness.
For Rusangano Family’s MuRli one of those key moments was winning the RTÉ Choice Prize. Scooping the coveted award with his close friends God Knows and mynameisjOhn was a game changer not just for them, but for hip hop in Ireland as a whole.
Sat opposite the rapper in a bustling bar in Ballina at Other Voices, just a few months after another big release, ‘The Intangibles’, MuRli appeared content. Despite the three year gap in releasing music and the awareness of potential pressures he faces, the energetic MC seems assured in this very instant.
“Life is good. It’s strange in a way because I’m at a weird place right now, I’m very happy as far as music goes, but at the same time there is still that question of what do I do next? Do you go and get a job now? Because the music is there, you have to keep doing that, but how do you survive, how do you pay your rent, how do you move on from here? It’s a funny place, but at the same time I’m very confident. Yeah man I’ve got this.”
For MuRli these lingering questions are now part of the ebb and flow of life, but before he tussled with uncertainties and it hindered his creative process. ‘The Intangibles’ was a way of confronting imperfections, testing the limits of his comfort zone and projecting the various sides of his personality.
“I do want to give people something that is me right now because since Rusangano Family ‘Let The Dead Bury The Dead’, I haven’t really put anything out myself.”
“I don’t want to give off the vibe that I’m this guy who is very serious, who only tackles these serious subjects and stuff because there’s another side to me that I don’t really show on record”, he says.
His commitment to authentic story-telling often reflected a real moment in time. However, it often left huge parts of his journey untold as he struggled to rationalise using more abstract forms of artistic expression.
“The deal with keeping it real has always been something very important to me growing up, anything that people have put on a rap record growing up I thought that was real. I just took it forward, that’s what those people are living, so that’s why they’re talking about it”, he tells me.
“Then when I started making my own stuff I followed in the same vein.”
Later as he started to experiment more with characters and loose conceptual ideas he began to reveal sides of his journey that were previously hidden.
“Before I was like if you are recording it and selling it as you it has to be you… Now I’m old enough to realise once you can actually explain it it’s fine”, he says.
“It was very liberating because one thing I always stayed away from was love songs because I felt people write so many love songs, but how could you manage to do that if you’re in love with one person, how can that just be one love story?”
“But then I realised that you don’t have to be in the moment all the time you can revisit your past stories and then when I look back on my life if there’s so much stuff that I believed and that I’ve been through, people don’t even know quarter of it.”
While his approach to story-telling has evolved over time, one thing that has stayed consistent is his collaborative approach.
“I think since I was 16/17, when I met God knows, we were both in crews at the time. I was in a trio since I was 14 and we just rapped. When we met everything we did was always collaborative”, he tells me.
“Even though I can work on my own that collaborative element gives you something you don’t experience on your own.”
Much like his revamped approach to story-telling, MuRli’s collaborative spirit has many sides and is not limited to his work on the Rusangano Family records.
“So then we started working with John and Rusangano Family and there was another side to us, we were educators in a way, teenagers and stuff locally. You feed off the energy they’re bringing.”
“We stay away from the word teacher as we’re not really teaching anything, just facilitating a space where we can all put our energy into and you can see what that gives you just having cypher sessions with these 16-17 year olds while we were in our early 20s.”
Many of these young, aspiring rappers have come to the forefront in Ireland in recent years. Under the guidance of more experienced artists such as MuRli, the likes of Strange Boy, Hazey Haze and Outsider YP have become mainstays in Ireland’s hip hop revolution and part of the conveyor belt of talent coming out of the south west.
“That always gives us something so I could never detach myself from that element of community. It’s always been part of everything I’ve done since I started making music. Now it’s a bit more important because I’ve always believed in this idea that for a scene to thrive you can’t have a mentality of like ‘I’m going to be the star, I’m going to be the stand out or a lone wolf”.
“I just opened myself to the idea of not being the best rapper in the room. Because having someone better in the room is actually good for me because it challenges me to up my game…”
This selfless, collaborative approach to helping develop the hip hop scene reaches beyond not only age groups but different communities and cultures.
“I remember me and God Knows having this conversation, we must have been like 18/19. At the time we played a lot of community events like a church event or an African party. One day we were like we are actually going to pause these for a minute because we are in Limerick and we want to be relevant in Limerick and not just among certain communities and also hopefully bring those communities with us”, he explains.
“I remember there were typical groups of people we expected at shows and then with Rusangano Family there was something uniting about it. We would see our family members and their friends suddenly coming to Dolans. These guys don’t usually go to shows in Dolans, but now they are actually coming to rap shows in Dolans. This is strange, this isn’t Lucky Dube from South Africa playing, this is very much a thing that happened here. I think sometimes you have to take the risk and come out of your comfort zone and risk not being relevant, but then watching the other side of it and if it does work out it is absolutely worth it.”
The risks they took and the guidance they’ve provided to the next generation has resulted in a thriving scene of hip hop artists coming out of the South West of Ireland. One sitting on the shoulders of a tight knit community.
“All together we feel like when we get into any room now we have nothing to prove because we have one another. We are all here. It makes life so much easier, so much more enjoyable because you can go to a show in front of 5 people and you are still going to have an amazing show because you have all the elements it takes there in front of you anyway.”
“If I have it that way for the rest of my life, I’m totally happy.”
Photography: George Voronov