10 breakthrough Irish rap artists in 2021

Words: Dylan Murphy
Artwork: Paul Smith

While the new year provides an opportunity for a fresh start, Havana Club are picking up where they’ve left off by continuing to support the DIY acts making waves across the island. Ahead of 2022 we’ve teamed up to celebrate 10 of the burgeoning acts ready to take Ireland to the world.

Even though we were cooped up indoors for large parts of the last year, it comes as no surprise that rappers across the country still managed to find new ways to innovate and make moves. At this point, that kind of resilience is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the Irish scene. Whether that’s drill acts serving viral hits from their doorstep or hip hop artists collaborating virtually, 2021 birthed a number of breakout acts and memorable moments largely in the absense of in person shows.

Now, as crowds return and we head towards the end of 2021, it feels like the stage is set for a huge year for Irish acts. We thought what better time to cast our eyes and ears over the last 11 months and celebrate the DIY acts that rose to the occasion in no particular order.

Curtisy

In the internet era, even the most underground sounds find themselves on the other side of the globe being twisted and skewed in new and exciting ways. We saw it with drill before it became a staple of the mainstream and we’re witnessing it again in the dreary rap style popularized by Earl Sweatshirt and the now-defunct New York collective sLums.

Taking the approach on a redeye across the Atlantic, Dublin native Curtisy is bringing something fresh to the capital. What’s exciting about the rapper from the capital is he isn’t precious about his music. In an era of market-researched, meticulously planned releases fighting for playlist placements the young artist is sharing new tracks at a moment’s notice on Soundcloud. It’s gripping and every smoke filled loosey brings the same kind of excitement of finding a loose tenner in an old pair of jeans.

Ahmed, With Love.

Listening to Ahmed, With Love. feels like you are eavesdropping on the inner psyche of a sitcom character. Not the annoying type that painstakingly pauses for audience applause with every weak pun, but the self-aware kind that flips the internet on its head and puts the ridiculousness of 2021 into full focus. He’s more Bojack Horseman than Big Bang Theory.

2020’s ‘pebbles.’ primed us for a big year for the rapper and he swiftly followed its sharp social commentary on racism with Napoleon Dynamite inspired humour in ‘As Luck Would Have It’ showing us rappers still needed a little dancing in their lives. Likewise, ‘Full Plate’ with KhakiKid showcased his eye for world building and as the moving parts of his various releases begin to coalesce and the bigger picture becomes clearer Ahmed, With Love. became a permanent fixture in our playlists in 2021.

KhakiKid

Traditionally, hip hop has been a genre that’s always taken itself very seriously and with good reason. It emanated as a response to systematic repression and as a middle finger to authority. Just think the philosophical musings of Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def) or the early punk ethos of NWA for an idea of what we mean. However, as its influence has stretched beyond the established boundaries of the genre and the internet has invited a number of other styles, ethos and sounds to the party we’re seeing a loosening of the rigid rules. While humour beyond witty punch lines was often deemed incompatible with hip hop, acts like Zach Fox, Father, Guapdad4000 and others raised on the internet are making rap that lightens the mood without compromising the artistry.

Following in that same vein is Dublin based rapper KhakiKid. Khaki isn’t exactly a new act, but his fun, freewheeling style really came to fruition during lockdown. In a time where old heads lament the new school’s indifference to the genre’s history, Khaki highlighted his willingness to pay homage to the greats through his reimagining of classic 2000s Neptunes and Timbaland beats on Instagram. Neither curtailed by the past or wholly focused on the future, having one eye on the rearview has worked in his favour. Moreover, tracks like ‘Slumped Up’ and ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ have crazy replay value and worked in tandem as invitations to his increasingly weird and surreal world.

Sello

D22’s SELLÓ was one of lockdown’s break out acts. Despite only releasing a handful of tracks, the rapper from the capital has gone on to forge a distinctive lane for himself in a scene that’s under threat of becoming oversaturated. Coining his own brand of ‘Gaelic drill’, SELLÓ enlisted a mix of Irish and english in his previous two releases ‘Dublin‘ and ‘As Gaeilge‘ before joining forces with Drogheda heavy weight Offica on ‘OGGY’.

Success means different things to different people, but with excitement within the scene swelling with each subsequent release, Selló’s next video could be the one to blow the lid off rap in Ireland.

Aby Coulibaly

With music it’s often best to not overthink things. Trying to dissect what makes an artist so impressive or what exact sound they are making often takes away from the intuitive magic. I mean, what’s a genre nowadays anyway? Who cares if it doesn’t fit into neat boxes, if it sounds good go with it. Likewise, some artists just have It – that special and often indescribable star quality that has you rooting for an artist from day one and has you convinced they’ll be shelling main stages all over the shop very shortly.

Aby Coulibaly made 2021 her own with a carefree stream of tracks taking as much from soul as they did hip hop and RnB. Having made our Future Of Irish Music 2021 list, she made good on the promise of her debut releases and went on to blow the roof off AVA Festival in Belfast with Monjola and the Flourish Series in the Button Factory in Autumn of this year.

Yet to drop a full project, it feels like her debut EP will launch her from one to watch to serious contender.

Emby

In terms of music Belfast is often better known for its basement filling electronic music than rappers. However, London-born, Belfast based artist Emby is bridging the gap between the two with his grime-adjacent, club friendly live sets. Having provided high energy performances at packed out crowds at AVA and on support slots for Riz La Teef and Lord Apex he’s showing he’s as comfortable riding 140 bpm rhythms as he is dusty hip hop beats.

Not just excelling in the live arena, Emby has earned radio play on BBC 1xtra and a host of other nods from tastemakers following collaborations with Rory Sweeney and Becky McNiece.

Sosa Sensei

Anonymity in drill music is nothing new, likewise anime-inspired disguises aren’t even a fresh idea in Ireland let alone the wider genre. However, what is Sosa Sensei is doing in terms of tone is pushing the sound into new territory. Pulling indie melodies into the world of sliding 808s and running hi hats, the Portlaoise crooner is cracking the harder outer shell of a space that’s often more concerned with building up walls than tearing them down.

In February’s ‘Just Fine’, he announced himself as a fresh and original voice and in ‘Difficult Times’ he showed his willingness to extend a relatable arm round the shoulder and put his chips on the table so others don’t fold.

TraviS

It’s no secret the Irish drill scene has been poppin’ and with all the music coming out there’s always the risk of complacency creeping in. One way to battle it is to take the path less travelled, whether that’s with visuals, production or whatever else you can to stand out amongst the seemingly endless amount of rappers.

For TraviS, he’s working with close knit collaborators to cut through the noise. The chemistry on tracks with fellow Glider Elzzz accentuates their disparate deliveries and has the pair exchanging bars with the fluidity of championship-winning strike partnership. Joining forces with Sam Fallover to create a universe for his music to live in and Liam Harris on the beats, it’s proving a tidy match day squad.

Malaki

Dublin poet and rapper Malaki has been in our rotation for a while now, but it was the last year that really solidified his spot as one of the country’s breakout acts. His penchant for smokey jazz production and delivery that often tilts into the world of spoken word shares DNA with the likes of Kojaque and Loyle Carner, however, through his frequent collaboration with Matthew Harris and Lucy McWilliams he’s put his own stamp on the sound.

Strange Boy

For years there’s been timeline mumblings and smoking area conversations about a definitive “Irish hip hop sound”. Something that would be distinctively its own and draw from the country’s rich heritage of storytellers whilst making an impression in the era of extremely online music. Even with the current boom, there’s an avalanche of tracks focusing on life in Ireland lyrically, but little in the way of music that is trying to forge a wholly original sound. Strange Boy made significant moves to that end with the release of his debut album ‘Holy/Unholy’, an album that draws from trad music and enlists a myriad of flows in order to ride beats that few could rap over.

Despite his young age, the Limerick spitter has long been a key player in the South West, a hotbed of often experimental hip hop talent that has bred artists like Hazey Haze, God Knows and Citrus Fresh. What’s more is, his working relationship with Enda Gallery has resulted in some of the most innovative hip hop sounds the country has seen this side of the 2010s. Couple that with his dark sense of humour and ability to wrestle with difficult emotions in a lighthearted way and it makes for an artist that nudged the genre into little explored territory.

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