“…rap has its limitations. Whereas you can go to new places with spoken word.”
It’s a freezing November morning when Damien Dempsey, or Damo as he insists, pops into the office for a chat. The Dubliner is in good spirits and we get straight down to talking about his latest record ‘Soulsun’ which came out in May this year.
Unfortunately, he was forced to postpone a number of UK dates on the album tour due to an operation he was having on his septum. “Me septum was over here from getting bet for years, so that was a bit of a nightmare because I never cancel shows, you know? About three quarters of the way through a gig I’d be killed, I wasn’t getting the oxygen in.
“I really realised how much I love singing when I couldn’t sing for three weeks. It was like a nightmare. I realised how much it was an integral part of me. It’s very important to me. It’s like praying for a holy person, that’s the way singing is for me.”
‘Soft Rain’, the last track on ‘Soulsun’, is predominately a spoken word piece. Emmet Kirwan’s ‘Heartbreak’ saw widespread acclaim at the start of the year and with more and more Irish poets and artists following in his wake, I asked Damo what he thinks about this new dawn for poetry in Ireland.
“It’s amazing. I think maybe rap started it off, rap got it going, but then rap has its limitations. Whereas you can go to new places with spoken word.
“It’s like a new wave of poetry… It’s in our blood, it’s flowing through our veins. I think we have more published poets here per capita than anywhere in the world.
“There are some great lads I know like God Creative and Paul Alwright (formerly Lethal Dialect) doing amazing stuff. And Emmet Kirwan is as well. I done a show with him in Vicar Street that was amazing.”
Damo has previously cited Elvis Presley and Bob Marley as influences, along with fellow Irish musicians Sinead O’Connor, Christy Moore and Luke Kelly to name a few. With some of his songs verging on rap he must have acts from the genre that inspire him?
“Big time. I was a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest. I saw them in New York actually, and De La Soul. I was in LA, a long time ago as well, and I picked up an album, it was only out called ‘The Predator’ by Ice Cube. It was all about the riots.
“I was very influenced by rap, absolutely. You can hear it in songs like ‘The Colony’, ’Patience’ and ’I’ve No Alibi’. That was a bit of a tirade against the boy band culture that was really big when I was starting out. It was like a nightmare. Rap gave me a vehicle to vent my frustration against the Louis Walsh years.”
There’s a feeling of excitement around the Irish hip hop and urban scene at the moment. Look no further than 2FM’s The Story Of Irish Hip Hop gig for proof; 14,000 Electric Picnic revelers rammed into the Rankin’s Wood tent to watch Erica Cody, Jafaris, Jess Kav and Mango perform, or the current success of acts like Kojaque, Rebel Phoenix and many, many more. With that, we’re hearing an encouraging number of artists rapping and singing in their native accents, a development which Damo is undoubtedly a forefather to.
“I always remember there would be rap bands coming out and they’d be singing in an American accent but singing about things where they’re from and it doesn’t work. You have to sing in your accent, in your own voice.
“I wouldn’t call meself a rapper, but I think I was the first one to try and rap in a Dublin accent. And I remember there was a great rapper called Lunitic in Ballymun, he’s passed now god rest him, but he was a great rapper. He was using an American accent but then a youth worker up there, Dean Scurry, a great friend of mine, he played him I think my songs ‘Colony’ and ‘Patience’ and he started to use his own accent and he took off then.”
A couple of months ago Paul Alwright chatted to District’s Eric Davidson for an episode of our Conversations podcast.
On that episode Paul brought up the topic of toxic masculinity, saying, “I was depressed. I had the carapace of this alpha male bravado bullshit. On the exterior you’re angry and you’re unapproachable but on the interior you’re essentially soft…”
Paul also name checked a couple of homegrown heroes in that interview.
“Blindboy (of the Rubberbandits), what he does is, he holds up a mirror and lets you know that that’s what’s going on and lets you know that it’s ok to talk as a man and to do things because we are brought up a certain way. We’re taught not to cry, and a massive influence to that was Damien Dempsey as well. You can’t go to Vicar Street and not fucking cry. You can’t go and listen to ‘Chris and Stevie’ in Vicar Street after a few pints and not shed a good tear and you feel better after it. That’s why people go back constantly, they literally call it the Church of Damo.”
Damo’s fans are almost like followers, making the annual pilgrimage to the Thomas Street venue every Christmas and it’s hard to miss the religious similarities in his lyrics, most notably in the chorus of ‘Negative Vibes’, but it’s spirituality that Damo turns to rather than a specific dogma.