“All of the young fellas would be getting into selling drugs and all of that other bullshit, but I was wise enough to know that that would never last.”
Rebel Phoenix toyed around with several names before landing on the moniker that best represented his grind for respect as an artist. With a keen interest in Irish history, his focus in life and art became about rising above adversity. Experiencing a series of bad situations as a young man growing up in Dublin made him more determined to avoid the trappings of a misjudged youth and rap became a way for him to carve out a future.
Since the release of his project ‘R.E.B.E.L.’ in 2014, the artist has been on a slow but purposeful mission, impressing at underground shows and sharing a vast array of EPs, tapes and most recently the album, ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ and his EP ‘How to be a Boss‘. Now based between New York City and Dublin, he’s ready to move out of the shadow of Irish rap and get to where he’s worked so relentlessly to be.
We caught up with him for District Issue 004 last year when he first moved to NYC.
So you’ve relocated to America, is that a career move?
Yeah it is. I’m going over to make as many connections as possible. I’ve already established a few so I’m not fuckin’ shrugging my shoulders thinking, ‘Where will I go?’ Hopefully they’ll lead me to more.
What has the reaction been like to the album? It was such a long time in the making. Do you think it got the ears it deserved?
I think so, yeah. It’s still going, I’m still seeing people posting it on social media and new people listening to it, so it’s still rolling along. I’m happy with the reception. It can always be better, but that’s why I keep working on new projects and pick up new fans from that, then that album will always be there for new fans to go check out. It’s all about building the discography.
I noticed a lot of people who are well-respected, especially in Irish hip hop, posting about it.
Definitely, a few of the OGs who I would have been looking up to, then the new cats even, then just fans in general. I mentioned before, I started gravitating towards the trap beats rather than the boom bap stuff I started off doing, but I still get people who are ‘boom bap heads’ fucking with my music and respecting it.
I noticed that. Your music seems to be opening up trap to people who might have overlooked it before because they respect you as a lyricist as well.
Yeah exactly, that was what it was always about for me, the lyricism. Obviously, you could have the best bars ever but if the beats are shit you’re not going to listen to it, that’s just a fact. But a lot of people used to tell me that they wouldn’t fuck with something because it’s a trap beat, but you can’t just dismiss it.
I think before people wouldn’t fuck with trap beats because they thought the lyrics would be dumbed down. When it started off it was a one dimensional thing, talking about trapping, but if you listen to my stuff, there’s levels of lyricism in there. The concepts and themes get their brains buzzing.
What are the themes and concepts you’re exploring?
Lately I want to be on an inspiring thing, a motivational thing. The whole Rebel thing is about making your own rules and going for it. Be your own boss at whatever it is you do. A lot of people are afraid that they’re into one thing because of the criticism they get for it, but in my music it’s, ‘Fuck it; you’re not living anyone’s life but yours’. A lot of people seem to think they have to do things to impress other people, especially in this generation.
As an independent artist the setbacks can be massive. What have you experienced and how do you get passed them?
I wouldn’t call this a setback, but you’re underestimated as an artist. Like when you’re being booked for a show, and a lot of the promoters are good, but some people are like, ‘This guy doesn’t have a million views so we don’t have to pay him’. But then, you have to respect every- one’s hustle. I’ve never asked someone for a beat and expected it for free, or a feature verse for free. People think because you’re an independent artist that you’re out here as a hobby, as opposed to trying to build a career for yourself.
Just stand your ground, let people know what you’re about, either through your music or through business moves. At the end of the day, if you want to grow as an artist you have to be a good business person to get your name out there. Nowadays it’s a lot about numbers, your image, branding yourself. I’ve always worked on creating a brand as opposed to being just a rapper. The whole Rebel Mafia thing, anyone who listens to my music, they’re a part of that movement.
You’re still relatively young, but a lot of the young rappers starting to come up look at you as something of an OG. Is that a testament to how many rappers have emerged from Ireland in the past couple of years?
There are a load of kids coming up now, doing their thing and I love seeing that. I’ve always said the more the better especially if they’re doing it right and making their own moves. I feel like a young OG to be honest. I was coming up around the Workin’ Class Records era, they were well-established but I came in just after them. It’s been a couple of years but I’ve grown a lot and built a solid fan base in a short amount of time so people think I was there since they began.
But I’ve a long, long way to go. I want to break out of this ‘Irish hip hop’ thing. That will always be my roots, but I don’t want to just be an ‘Irish rapper’. I want to be an artist.
You’re really immersed in the music community in Ireland, tight with artists like Mango. There’s definitely a friendly rivalry between you two. Do you think it’s important to have that healthy competition?
I think that’s all part of the game, especially if you’re trying to motivate whoever you’re coming up with. To have that, ‘Aww wait ‘til you hear this’ or ‘I’ll smoke that’, it’s a bit of fun but you always want to stay ahead of the game because hip hop is a competitive genre anyway. Shouts out to everyone, but I always have to level up.
Was it difficult to get to a point, with your live performances especially, where you can rap in a complete stream of consciousness state? It sometimes seems like you don’t even need oxygen on stage.
Coming up to shows I just constantly rehearse for a week or two straight. I’ll do the set four or five times a day back to back, kind of like training my lungs. I’m off the cigarettes now, but I smoked like a trooper so people are always so surprised saying I’m up on stage with an oxygen tank. It’s just down to practice. You have to dedicate yourself.
Live shows are a huge part of being an artist. You’re actually giving people a sense of who you are when you’re up on that stage. You don’t want to be spitting the first few lines and then letting the fuckin’ rhymes come out of the speaker from the recorded version. You should be going all out.
Rebel Phoenix plays The Workman’s Club alongside Nonzus Magnus and the Burner Records crew on August 23.