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Nealo’s the introspective emcee Irish hip hop needs

Words: Katie Gartland
Photography: George Voronov

Following the announcement of this year’s Choice Music Prize nominees, we are revisiting our archives and dusting off some of our favourite features with the selected acts.

For a greater appreciation of Clonsilla rapper Nealo, it’s worth understanding his unique journey until this point. Having ripped up stages across the world with his hardcore band Frustration in early adulthood, Nealo also studied law and had intentions to become a barrister. Deciding to forgo the trodden path he swapped courtrooms and headbanging for walking dogs and introspective jazz rap. Now, the newly anointed best dad in hip hop has channelled heartbreak and loss into a patchwork quilt of his lived experience – All The Leaves are Falling. Ahead of its release, we spoke to him about keeping a sense of self when everything else falls apart.

District & Havana Club have the same mutual love for supporting authentic music cultures and exposing people to new experiences. Together in 2019, we brought four of the most exciting contemporary artists from Ireland to Cuba, the home of Havana Club, with the hope of playing a part in inspiring new creative and collaborative possibilities. One year on, Nealo is releasing his debut album and we spoke to him about how his experience in Havana has inspired him to achieve success and reach new heights.

Nealo, like most people in Ireland, has had to sacrifice many things over the past few months. Primarily, he had to put a pause on his much-loved job of dog-walking for a number of months. However, when I called him he was back out with the pups and he told me I might need to “have a bit of patience”. I could hear the dogs whining in the background, pleading for him to start walking. 

We spoke about his time in Cuba and how he has been getting on since then. Nealo confessed that he was “a little bit innocent when I went on that trip and I came back to a different world.” 

Continuing he noted the trip granted him a much-needed dose of inspiration and “a bit of get up and go” to plug on with his music. He arrived home to Clonsilla re-energised and motivated to put the finishing touches on the album.

Though his new album cover is currently scattered on billboards throughout the capital, when we spoke he was only beginning to reveal the album’s details for the first time.

During that conversation, he announced the release date but was inevitably interrupted by poor signal as he got to the big reveal. He subsequently repeated himself with the news before marching on with his conceptual reasoning for the project.

Working through a myriad of emotions experienced in his teenage years and early twenties he explained that he had emigrated when he was 21 then returned to Ireland in 2008 when the recession hit. During that time, some of his friends had passed away and others moved on. Rather than exploring his past in a linear fashion throughout the album, he’s taken a more freewheeling approach to themes of “love, relationships and friendship.” 

“It takes you on a journey from start to finish, not cohesive pure storytelling, but all the songs sound like they’re on the same album.”

Following the trip to Cuba Nealo felt stifled with the restrictive nature of the global pandemic taking its toll. Usually, he excels in the fast pace of normal life and admitted slowing down “took me out of my stride creatively… I write stuff when I’m out and about when I’m moving”.

Normally creating music would be a cathartic experience for the veteran spitter.

“I just kind of go introspective with it and see what’s bothering me and what do I want to get out of my system and put in a song”, he confessed.

In the lead up to the album’s release, Nealo has well and truly been in his stride, dropping a number of singles and featuring on the East Coast all-stars remix of God Knows’ ‘Who’s Asking’ in August. He said the remix was long “overdue” with close friends Mango and Rebel Phoenix, trading bars on one of the tracks of the year. He pointed out the natural comradery between the artists contributed to the quality of the cut.

“Since I started doing the music, they’ve just been really kind to me. But we haven’t been able to get a song together, so it was like really perfect for me.” 

Nealo spoke about the respect that he has for God Knows, who has worked hard to uplift fellow rappers and bring Irish acts together. “The chap just keeps working and making opportunities for people which is just amazing.” 

Nealo said that there’s huge talent in Ireland, the music scene is healthy and growing but he’d like to see more gender diversity in the rap scene.  He also said that the infrastructure in Ireland for producing and releasing music isn’t strong enough. 

The problem with Ireland… is that we have all these amazing artists but there’s no music industry here. There’s no big labels that are willing to put money into Irish artists. There’s no infrastructure available to fund music because if people aren’t making music it’s just gonna die out.

Nealo

“The problem with Ireland… is that we have like all these amazing artists but there’s no music industry here. There’s no big labels that are willing to put money into Irish artists. There’s no infrastructure available to fund music because if people aren’t making music it’s just gonna die out.”

Previously in his music, Nealo has rapped about the changing of Dublin City Centre. In the single ‘Heart Food for Hard Times’, which was released earlier this year, Nealo raps about newly built hotels in Dublin: 

“They knocked down all my favourite venues, put in hotels with the windows but the whole town feels diminished…”

Over the last few years, Dublin’s nightclubs and social spots have been removed and replaced by hotels and new student accommodation. Venues like The Bernard Shaw, Hangar and Tivoli Theatre have been demolished and replaced with hotels. Dublin is at a turning point and with venues already in danger before the pandemic it is a concerning development for the artistic community.

“Dublin I think in general is going through a transitional period and it’s quite worrying for me. I was walking around town the other day… they’re really taking the heart out of this place not just with hotels but with big office complexes.”

Comparing Dublin to San Francisco, where he lived for a few months in his early 20s, he remembers when larger tech companies began to move into the North Californian city. “The average person gets forced out of the City Centre and further and further into commuter towns which is what’s happening now in Ireland.”

When I asked Nealo how he thinks Dublin’s problem might be solved, he laughed at the difficult question. He said that the government relies on tourists to come to the City and spend money, however, tourists won’t want to visit “if it’s no fun, if there’s no culture”.

He admitted that he doesn’t know the solution to the gentrification of Dublin but warned that the government will have to do something quickly before it becomes a “plastic” city.

A veteran in a no-holds-barred approach to music through his days in hardcore band ‘Frustration’, the politically charged nature of his earlier days informs his current output. “Everything that you’ve done over your whole life is going to influence what you write”, he said. 

Everything that you’ve done over your whole life is going to influence what you write

Nealo

Social activism is a part of who he is because of his time in the punk scene. “I spent so many years in that hardcore scene. You just soak everything in, and you look at the world in a different light…I have no problem voicing that”.

He also acknowledged that it’s not an artist’s duty to share their view, and it’s important “to make art for art’s sake… nobody should feel obligated to speak up on anything, except for maybe the most grievous injustices”.

Music is a crucial currency in the battle against cultural erosion and whilst Nealo continues to wear his heart on his sleeve Dublin’s artistic spirit will live to fight another day.

Nealo’s debut album ‘All The Leaves are Falling’ is out now.