Around four or five years ago a sonic wave crashed on Ireland’s music scene. Hip hop was about to go through a renaissance after over a decade or so of relative stagnation. As soon as one Irish rapper or producer stuck their neck out and released music, it gave five more the confidence to do the same.
The country became a breeding ground for voices in ‘urban’ genres. One artist that was atop that new swell was Damola. In his first couple of years he performed at Electric Picnic, Other Voices and played a raft of headline slots. Then in 2017, after being named as a ‘future-maker’ by the Irish Independent, things went quiet for the Dubliner. He needed time to reassess his situation and step back from the scene that he’d been so involved in cultivating from a grassroots level.
“I went to London last year to do research. I went around to different management companies, trying to see what the story was. In Ireland, the main resources are Diffusion Lab and Word Up Collective. Aside from those two, I don’t know anyone who does the management side of things. I went to the UK and there were loads.
“I’ll keep it 100 with you. I was going about things in the wrong way in the beginning. I was trying to get more gigs by hollering at promoters, but I should have been focusing on the material. That played a huge part in it all.”
The hip hop landscape in Ireland has changed since Damola started out. It’s now saturated with artists, Soundcloud spilling over with tracks recorded in bedrooms from Donegal to Drimnagh. He sees the benefits in this swelling community.
“I had a conversation with Adam Fogarty (MathMan) a couple of weeks ago about this. I bumped into him and I was talking about how I hadn’t released stuff in a while and that it does bother me sometimes. You’re thinking about what the reception will be when you release music. But the scene is getting better here all the time, it’s getting better here every year so any new cat can pop up and utilise the new resources that are in place.
“Getting gigs was a big thing at the start. At one stage back when I started that looked impossible. Word Up definitely broke a lot of barriers, they connected with a lot of people. A lot of artists’ first festival experience was through them.”
Damola learnt a lot from his time with spoken word and music crew Word Up Collective, but it was the healthy rivalries between the members of his now defunct group Backshed Inc which pushed him to his limits. And not just creatively. Sam Ojo, Ama, Ange MC and he were brutally honest with each other and never settled for anything less than 100 per cent.
However, the wheels of Backshed started to come off and now they’ve gone their separate ways.
“First of all, the structure wasn’t working,” Damola explains discussing the events which led to the breakup of the group. “You had four really good artists, but you didn’t have a system in place that made everything flow properly. We were trying to be a group and a management company at the same time. We just didn’t have the resources. From the outside people liked the way it looked, but internally it just wasn’t really working. There were also some personal differences in the group, outside of music, so I think they finalised the break up.”
Damola went on to collaborate with artists as diverse as Jake Hurley (Local Boy) and Katie Laffan. He admits he finds it easier to dip his toes into collaboration rather than constantly working with the same people, the one exception being his relationship with his live band.
“Whenever it’s just me on a track, a track that I own, I’m extremely conscious of all the details. I’m so careful that it takes too long, going back, re-recordings, scrapping material, re-writing again… But whenever it’s someone else’s track I’m chill and I think that’s the better way to approach it.
“I’m an artist first, but I’m also an MC, so I have to make sure the band doesn’t take over completely. But it’s still important. My first ever gig was in The Grand Social in 2015 and it was with the band. The band gave me more confidence. I felt the need to go with more people. After the second gig my confidence rose though. Sonically, the band stuff is so different to the DJ set. Personally, I like both for different reasons. Whenever I’m performing with a band I feel like I’m creating. It gives me a similar feeling to when I’m in a studio. With the DJ stuff, my main focus is the energy and crowd interaction.”
Damola will next play live at Hard Working Class Heroes and he cites the festival’s decision to “embrace the hip hop scene” as an important indicator of where the genre is going in Ireland. Damola was a staple when the 2010s rap revolution kicked off on this island, now he’s ready to get back to the front line and this gig could just be the spark that reignites his career.
Damola plays Hard Working Class Heroes, Friday September 28 in TRAMLINE.