Words: Dylan Murphy
Resilience is stitched in the very fabric of hip hop’s DNA and throughout 2021 artists across the country responded to the highs and lows of an unpredictable year in the only way they knew how. Havana Club and District share the same affinity for the very same DIY music culture and with that in mind, we’ve teamed up to explore 10 of the tracks that defined the ever expanding and evolving Irish rap scene in 2021.
It’s damn near impossible to distill the mish-mash of experiences, mishaps, relief and disbelief of the last year into one concise article. Often, music does a better job of condensing those intangibles and rap music in particular has been on the cutting edge of documenting moments in time. Whether that’s the identity politics at play in real time in the Irish drill scene, hip hop’s punk-tinged rage at the housing crisis or the execution of collaborations that reflect technological innovations in music. 2021 was a huge year for releases of a timeless nature and we’re seeing a pattern artists drawing from the county’s past in samples, inspiration and artwork when designing its musical future.
We’ve put our heads together to draw together ten rap tracks, in no particular order that embody those developments.
For most other country’s leaving lockdown, heading into the cloudy purgatory of that time between Christmas and January is going to taste sweeter than the nectar of the gods. However, as Kojaque notes, for young people in Ireland, it’s another reminder they’ll likely not own a home in the near future. The Dublin rapper’s debut album, Town’s Dead finds its conceptual home in the story of a few friends trying to find somewhere to have a party on New Year’s eve when none of them have a gaff of their own.
Despite the conditions being ripe for a city wide collective comedown, the album’s title track stands lands like a jolt to the system and a call to arms in the face of corporate greed and a government no one wanted.
“The town’s not dead it’s just dormant”.
Alicia Raye gathered the troops for an Avengers assemble moment on the remix of Nobody. Staffing the track with the new vanguard of rap in Ireland it brushes aside any notion of the lone wolf mentality feeling like an optimistic nod towards the future of the genre.
Becoming the first hip hop act to win the RTÉ Choice Prize, MuRli made history with Rusangano Family. Likewise, Kobina has been an ever present force in Irish music for the better part of a decade. Continuing to make music that resonates over a long period of time is one thing, but switching it up completely and following the unbeaten path to resounding results is another. When you’ve carved out a space for yourself, it’s understandable to hold onto your niche, however, never ones to rest on their laurels, MuRli and Kobina joined forces over lockdown for an inspired electronic rap project in Ra Gerra.
The stand out track ‘Pressure’ from their album Vessels captures the swelling tension of the past year in a way that only a combination of anxious, heady rap and paranoid electronic production could.
Even in time where melodies and sound are often prioritised over lyrical technique, Lethal Dialect maintains his status as one of the island’s most captivating acts. ‘Vintage‘ does exactly what it says on the tin. An appreciation for timeless classics, it’s the Dublin spitter at his uncompromising best.
Imposter syndrome and the uncertainty that comes with releasing music into the world can shake even the most talented artists. That sense of inner conflict is heightened even more living in Ireland. With little to no “industry” on the island often some of the most talented artists can slip through the cracks. What’s more is, in a world where streaming figures are often conflated with success, a single’s impact is often reduced to numbers on a screen. One day you write your strongest song to date and are on top of the world, then an underwhelming release day comes by and crushes your previous optimism. Likewise, being the biggest rapper in your area is an honour that can quickly become a culdesac for artists looking to extend their reach beyond home shores and Fynch captures this push and pull through hyper local imagery in ‘Canal Straddle‘.
We’ve heard so much about remote collaboration in the past year and the “power of the internet” and every other way of saying “working together online”. You’d forgive rappers for having verses that sound so phoned in when they couldn’t be in the same room as the producer, hell even some of our favourite rappers were guilty in the past 18 months of creating frankinsteined monsters that sounded devoid of any natural chemistry. That’s why it’s so impressive that ‘hwlcky‘ (and the whole of Avenoir) sounds like the brainchild of one creative mind, rather than two isolated entities. A little nugget that adds to the lore of the story of this very 2021 project is the pair met for the first time for press shots before the release. In almost complete contrast to the loud social media heavy presence of rappers this decade, one of Irish hip hop’s best tracks came from the shadows.
It’s been nearly 10 years since a fresh faced Lecs Luther burst on the scene. Since then he’s changed name, signed to the label behind Migos, dropped two studio albums, collaborated with the late MF DOOM, experimented with jazz and played all over the world. Having cut his teeth on Soundcloud and Tumblr, in a culture where acts were less precious with their tracks, Rejjie Snow was raised as internet culture took hold and DIY became the new normal.
Despite all the accolades and experimentation, off the back of his latest jazz and disco-infused album Bah Bah Black Sheep, he took the opportunity to return to his rap roots on ‘Arigato’. With releases prior to the album few and far between he revived the approach of dropping loosies, just because he can. Going over three beats and what could’ve potentially been queued for three different songs, the Dublin artist sounds like an artist that’s been starved of releases as he reminds us he can still go toe to toe with anyone.
I don’t even know if I feel better listening to ‘Maybe We’ll Be Okay’, but the way it moves between a cold and uncertain reality and misplaced optimism feels fitting right now. Pulled from 40Hurtz’ debut album Wake A Sleeping Giant, it’s poignant example of the unflinching honesty that courses through the veins of the south west music scene.
Thankfully, producers are increasingly getting their flowers online nowadays. Sal Dulu was one of a few producers to crack music Twitter’s cynical streak, with Xompulse rightfully creating an organic buzz that stretched beyond his home turf in early 2021. A project concerned primarily with feeling and texture, it distilled the floaty purgatory of the past couple of years into 10 spacey tracks.
Without being too forensic, it’s clear all the features were carefully considered inclusions. An alchemist at work, Dulu’s album was concocted with surgeon-like precision. Any out of touch bar, janky flow or nasally cadence could easily throw the Xompluse spacecraft off course, but conversely, a measured take, perfectly sequenced flow or pulsing delivery could prove the elevating condiment for his astral piece.
This world building and concise orchestration comes into full focus on ‘Zumo’, a track that invites one of the underground’s finest in Fly Anakin for a Trans Atlantic link up and one that highlights the pedigree and pull of Irish artists making music on their own terms at the moment.
While acts like KNEECAP have used the Irish language in hip hop, Selló’s use of local slang and clever hopscotching between rapping in English and as gaeilge is an exciting proposition for a sound that’s slowly finding its feet. The self-proclaimed new national anthem, ‘Dublin’ is a no-nonsense track that samples The Chieftains’ version ‘Foggy Dew’ to draw from Irish history to push rap into new territory.