After the Scary era had passed, there was barely a bar spat or a record released throughout the late nineties. Hip hop in Ireland had retreated to the box rooms and back garden sheds where the next generation of hip hop would emerge from. Until the turn of the new millennium, Irish rap would exist only in the back of school copy books of the teenagers who would define the sound of the country in boom time.
For better or worse, ‘8 Mile’ changed everything. During the 90s the rap music that the Irish general public embraced were the milestone records that, due to their massive success, had to make their way across the Atlantic such as 2Pac’s ‘Changes’, Biggie’s ‘Juicy’ and some Wu-Tang. Although, even at the time of his debut, Eminem seemed to be treated differently to his peers in Ireland. Eminem, who though his lyrics were sometimes depraved, homophobic and graphically violent (more than his peers at the time by a country mile), he was easier to sell to Irish audiences.
His whiteness seemed more digestible to the media here. His records were even played on Ian Dempsey in the morning, Snoop Dogg’s weren’t. His rise was astronomical and when he released his semi-biopic film ‘8 Mile’, the young people of Ireland hit the cinemas in droves.
Eminem had shown the suburbs rap music beyond big budget videos and MTV Cribs, he had shown the struggle of the artist, the culture and most importantly, the battles. After ‘8 Mile’, scores of young men around Ireland were inspired to rap after seeing this fictional white boy overcome the doubters. Delusions now dressed these kids in baggy hoodies and FUBU baseball caps and battle events were organised to capitalise on the growing interest of rap in Ireland. This is where the real MCs and DJs came out to piggyback off Jimmy Rabitte replicas and get their talent and music in front of real rap fans.
MCs who emerged from this were The Acquisition Records crew founded by G Leech, most notably Rob Kelly who would go down as one of the most legendary rappers in the country. Capitalising on the trend, they would battle and perform at events, and with shows starting to sprout up everywhere, the domestic rap crews came out of the woodwork with their own records. Their hub was irishhiphop.com, a forum site created a few years previous by a mythical figure in the scene named Keyo and it was dedicated to all four elements of hip hop, with rap being the most active naturally.
From here budding MCs and producers would connect and post their new tunes via Soundclick links, a precursor to Soundcloud that Irish rappers found a home in. Gig nights were booked in basement venues throughout the city, with Eamonn Doran’s, The Good Bits and Temple Bar Music Centre becoming some of the venues most frequented by the rap community at the time.
Here crews met, developed relationships and also locked horns.
The Urban Intelligence crew from Ballymun is still revered as one of the most influential groups in Irish hip hop and founded the legendary Workin’ Class Records.
Starting out with four members (Lunitic, 4Real, DJ Moschops and Teknikal) they took influence from the gritty street rap of New York to tell their stories of Ballymun being forgotten in the Celtic Tiger. Their songs were poignant messages on the pervasive social issues that they seen around them. Their parochial view of Irish hip hop and staunch commitment to keeping it real led them to butt heads with other MCs around the city most notably in the biggest beef of Irish rap they held with NuCentz and Rob Kelly.
Diss tracks were exchanged between Urban Intelligence and Rob Kelly and NuCentz. The scene had never experienced in fighting before and people took sides and while others looked on for the sheer sport of it. Scathing tracks from UI’s Lunitic took digs at Kelly and Nuie for their supposed Americanisms, while in response they took shots at Lunitic’s crew and lyrical style. The records stopped but they continued to keep away from each other. Lunitic passed in June of 2009 of a congenital heart condition. He had released groundbreaking records during his career such as the legendary Home Made Bombs mixtape, his solo albums ‘Based On a True Story’, ‘The Ballad Session’ (an album of Irish traditional songs) and posthumously released ‘Products of The Environment’ with Street Literature.
While these battles were happening MCs were emerging from every corner of Dublin, The Elements from Blanchardstown, Hot Property from Tallaght via Mullingar, The Infomatics in Santry, The Gudmen in Kildare, Urban MCs from Finglas, but the area that was bringing out the most hip hop at the time was Coolock with Disfunk, Redzer, Athá Cliath Records and Collie who became the rising star of the time.
With the popularity of rap at the time, record labels in Ireland were looking for the homegrown answer to Eminem and The Streets. They found one buried away in the north Dublin suburbs of Swords, where Collie Collins had moved to from Coolock yet retained his unwavering ‘boy in the local’ demeanor. He was the every-man of the time with hash holes in his Dublin jersey and a can of Dutch in the hand. He released his debut album ‘Is Ainm Dom’ with XCentury and had a distribution deal with Warner Music. For the younger generation he was the first Irish rapper they had heard since the horrendous ‘Jesus In the House’ novelty record by Brendan O’Connor.
His record was filled with Dublin wit and lad-mag humour such as ringing up the Adrian Kennedy phone show to complain about buses just so he could rip the audio for a skit to introduce his song ‘Bus Rage’ about the 42 into town. He made songs about all the female celebrities he wanted to ride and the apprehension of running out of drugs.
He also touched on the idea of being a rapper from Dublin and how he avoided the rap clichés of guns and gang life that the uneducated expected from their hip hop in songs like ‘Green Blood’.
The album became a corner stone for Irish hip hop, from here on in it could see the success (or a least moderate respect) rap music that sounded Irish got. For the most part out went the gigantic Phat Farm Jeans and LA Lakers jerseys and in came the shell suits and TN’s.
The graft of trying to legitimise Irish rap was still very much an up hill battle. The formula was still trying to get a record deal with demos of poorly made records by kids who had no idea what they were doing. There was little to no social media at the time with the H2Éire forum being the small and insular site to find the records.
The albums of this time would not sell out venues for these artists, or even secure them major label deals, but serve as a base and an inspiration for the generation to come and learning curves of those who stuck with it. There was no YouTube and therefore no music videos, no Facebook or Twitter for viral marketing. This music was the raw uncut slice of Irish life. There was a tonne of bad rap music being made surrounding the lower rungs of the scene, like barnacles on a ship, and unfortunately this was the music that, out of the Irish public’s love for ripping the piss out of something, became the music people shared to their mates. Therefore, this tainted the reputation Irish hip hop had on the outside world.
Small victories were achieved in these mid to late 00s with DJ Flip becoming the ITF World Scratch Champion in 2003, Rob Kelly beating Rhymefest in a rap battle and Messiah J & The Expert being the first Irish hip hop act nominated for a Choice Music Prize in 2007 for their classic album titled ‘Now This I Have to Hear’.
Messiah J & The Expert started out as Creative Controle with DJ Mayhem and released two records ‘Bloodrush’ and ‘Check The Vision’ in 2000 and 2002, long before the fitted caps and Air Force brigade came to town. Eventually Creative Controle evolved to Messiah J & The Expert and they hooked up with Leagues O’Toole and Dec Ford who appreciated the native hip hop sound and supported the burgeoning scene when they were booking hip hop acts for Dublin shows.
With MJEX creating an indie record avant-garde student bubble around them which saw their records being nominated for multiple awards, they were mostly on support for the big gigs as Dec was looking after them. The scene grew exponentially with crews such as Choice Cuts getting in on the action of bringing over cult classic rap acts from the US and UK.
The obnoxiousness of the Celtic Tiger that seeped through the media and middle classes looked on at working class youngfellas trying to create music in an art form they held dearly. They peeked over their property section of The Times and told us how (because they bought a Beastie Boys tape once and read something about Public Enemy in Hotpress) know that rap is about struggle and failed to see that anyone in Ireland had a right to complain of struggling while things were looking up for the economy.
Yet, the music made here was far from 50 Cent and Ice Cube, it expressed the intricacies of Irish youth through rap, whether it was about smoking soap bar on the big field, rising suicide rates or falling in love, this had never been explored through this medium and mistakes would inevitably become par for the course but these created the charm for those that truly loved the genre, the USP of Paddy rap. There was an anger at the public from the scene for tarring them with the same brush as amateur MCs while hardly comparing Carl Cox to the DJ who plays your cousin’s 21st.
Through this struggle with public acceptance and the expense of making music in the dying ecosystem of the music business, dozens of rappers fell to the wayside. Fed up and disillusioned to see the billions of money made on rap around the world and hardly making 100 quid for a show or breaking even on their CD the microphones were plugged out, years spent chasing the dream now meant the top MCs of the country were back focusing on their 9 to 5, having a kid and settling down.
While others, like a dog with a bone didn’t give up, fearless and unfazed by the lack of success, they would march on to what would be called the second golden era of Irish rap.
A global economic meltdown on the horizon, and the invention of internet 2.0 and all of its social medias meant Ireland would get not only the best hip hop it has heard but also the most needed.
NuCentz summed up much of the goings on of the time in his DFI freestyle ‘Win or Lose’, an ode to those that were there in the basements, on the forums and even on the mic. A history lesson to some, a trip down memory lane for others
Photo: Hazel Fitzpatrick