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In Search of AC-130

Words: Dean Van Nguyen

Dublin rapper AC-130 is another in a long line of drill artists shrouded in mystery. While his contemporaries reveal their faces as they gravitate towards the limelight, AC is resolute in his desire to hide his identity. Dean Van Nguyen put the available pieces together in an attempt to understand one of Ireland’s most elusive talents.

If Irish drill rappers adopted the practice of wearing masks from their UK brethren, it has become much more important to their being than just paying homage. Plenty of performers have obscured their faces before, of course – MF DOOM, Daft Punk, Buckethead, pick your own favourites. Rarely, though, have they done so to hide their government names.

For drill rappers, fitting on a balaclava is more than wool-deep. By disappearing behind their masks, these young stars are free to operate without pushback or consequence. Who can blame them for feeling the need to do so? In the UK, drill whipped up a moral panic in the Tory press and caught the attention of authorities. In January there were new reports of The Metropolitan Police Service targeting rappers whose lyrics it says incites violence. When the first Irish drill artists started honing their craft a few years back, it must have been instinctive for them to fear that kind of backlash. To go incognito was self-preservation.

The anonymous nature of drill also reflects its success in bypassing the traditional wardens of Irish music. These rappers have little interest in old fashioned record labels or the establishment music press; they seemingly don’t get invited on Other Voices and their records don’t get nominated for the Choice Price. Everything is self contained – and you don’t need to present ID when you’re thriving outside of the mainstream.

Rap music that exists in its own orbit is no new thing. A decade ago, Odd Future built a fan base on Tumblr, while Lil B ruled over what felt like an entire internet kingdom. The difference is that Irish drill rappers don’t feel like they are extremely online. They may be massively successful on platforms like YouTube – where visual production hubs like New Eire TV and Dearfxch TV have granted them a sizeable audience of kids who don’t care about their faves getting RTÉ’s approval – but they still cultivate a mystique missing from the days of gonzo internet activity, when the web could still feel cultish and weird.

Hang on though, there’s been slow movement towards the light. Reggie, aka Reggie B, undeniably one of Ireland’s finest drill rappers, removed his mask in 2019. If you missed it, the image of Reggie as a tricolour-waving hip-hop behemoth in last year’s video for the brilliant single ‘My Accent‘ was the kind of imagery you can launch a star with. In November, A92 crew member Offica dropped the solo track ‘Face Reveal‘ with a video that made good on the promise of the title. More and more I’m getting press releases about drill rappers from old fashioned PR professionals as they seek to annex more rap real estate outside of their current fanbases. And that’s cool – Ireland needs these diplomats to let the world know.

Yet one of my favourite Irish drill rappers is still swaddled in mystery. While his peers have started allowing more biographical details to filter through, AC-130 is as dedicated to keeping secrets as a stage illusionist. He does wear a mask in his videos (though not always) and, by accident or design, has yet to settle on the styling of his name, using AC-130 and Ac-130 interchangeably, so it’s fair to assume that marketability isn’t the first thing he thinks about in the morning. Most unusually, in a genre that rewards the recording of mass swells of music, AC rarely records. His Spotify page currently features four songs, plus five more guest spots. To find more you have to take to YouTube, where the gods of New Eire TV have given him a platform.

AC encapsulates the evolution of drill music from the battering fire and iron sounds forged in South Side Chicago to the murkier stylings now popular in New York and London. That he is ostensibly named after a military aircraft seems ill-suited. AC is attracted to muted, minor-key production. His flows are mellow and there’s even a touch of whimsy to his voice.

It was all there in his first single ‘Exotic Finish‘, released in 2019. Galway producer Luke Fly uses shuffling drums and silky chords to form a beat that evokes images of empty rain-streaked streets under dim light. You can imagine hearing AC’s voice in the cold air late at night, particularly on the gently sung but very catchy chorus: “Exotic driven, AC up in a lethal position/Crosser, header, score for the mission/How many times do we dish and whip it?” Football imagery being a go-to trope for many an Irish drill rapper.

Unexpected‘ features the more behemoth-voiced Swift9. It’s a team-up to behold: Swift9’s heavy flows matched up with AC’s more fluid touch, and the pair accentuate their chemistry by constantly passing the mic back and forth, taking turns in the booth like it’s a twist on the game The Floor is Lava.

So what do we know about AC-130? According to a post on the Facebook page Black and Irish, his real name is Alex Tavengwa and he is from Knocklyon. Dublin certainly seems to be his hometown. He starred on the crew joint ‘Dublin City‘ alongside Cal, Pepper and Smilez and the accent is detectable. See how AC  leans into a Dublin cadence on the fantastic ‘Reality Check‘, released last year, a song that I interpret as a slap down accusations that his (and many Irish driller rappers’) rap voice is London-centric: “What’s with the accent? You’re not from London,” AC raps, appearing to inhabit the skin of an antagonist claiming his voice is illegitimate. “Better check my bro, it’s Dublin,” he fires.

“Why don’t you just ask him these questions yourself,” I hear you shout out. Let me tell you, I wanted to write the first major full-length interview feature on AC, so I went in search of him. Elusive as I imagined, AC is not majorly active on Twitter – his account at time of writing is less than a year old and he’s sitting on less than 100 followers – and I couldn’t find any contact information or named representatives to get in touch with.

I did, though, manage to make contact through the portal of Instagram direct messages. And, initially, AC seemed eager to do the interview. We even set a time. Then he went silent. After a few attempts to reconnect were stonewalled, I changed tact and simply text him a question. Something simple, I figured: his top three rap influences. Still, there was no response from the rapper and I assumed he simply slipped back into the margins of drill nation. That was, until 15 days later, when he finally responded.

“My music is very different and no one in the rap scene raps with my accent so I don’t think it sounds influenced,” AC wrote, “but my influences would be SL Millionz, Unknown T and Digga D.” In that period of silence, AC posted a photo of artwork to announce an upcoming “10 song EP” titled DM1 Beats Volume 1 with the caption “Drops sooner than you think.” True mystery is not announcing your release date. The origin story of AC-130 may remain clouded, but who cares? What’s important is that this new EP, likely the most rounded depiction of his artistry yet, is sitting in the chamber, waiting for this enigma to pull the trigger.

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