“Friendship, tragedy, emigration, drug use. Not just lyrical themes but all also catalysts on the path to Nealo becoming a hip hop artist’ reads the bio under ‘October Year’, a project the Dublin rapper released at the tail end of last year.
Originally a key part of Dublin’s hardcore and punk scene, when Nealo split up with his band in 2015 he had an artistic void he was looking to fill. He says that Dublin changed, and bandmates emigrated, leaving him “creatively stifled”, but hip hop buoyed him. His migration to the genre was one that a lot of contemporary artists have made, from Beastie Boys to Ho99o9, but for Irish artists, it was a relatively new move.
Off the back of ‘October Year’ Nealo sold out The Underground, but 120 people wasn’t enough. He’s now set to take the Whelan’s main stage with his band [including Molly Sterling and ARBU among others] for his biggest headline show to-date.
Ahead of the sold out show on March 30, we had a lengthy conversation with the Dubliner where he discusses how one dark February changed his life.
Congratulations, on the imminent arrival of your child. You must be over the moon?
I am delighted, but to be honest it’s very hard to know how to feel. It’s my first kid so I think there’s always going to be this apprehension there as to whether I’m going to be a good dad or not. I think I will be. My wife will definitely be a great mam. It’s hard to be really excited when you can’t see your kid either. I’ve been talking to a lot of my friends who have kids and they said that as soon as they saw and held their first child, then it was like a switch turned on in them. I’m looking forward to that feeling, and just meeting my son for the first time. Oh yeah, it’s a boy!
Has the news affected you creatively yet? Kids often switch the vision for artists…
It hasn’t really affected me creatively much yet. I only found out about six weeks ago. It has slipped its way into a few bars here and there on the new project, but there’s been no crazy switch of vision as of yet. I do expect that to happen though.
A lot has changed for you recently. Take me through the recent journey to becoming a hip hop artist that’s selling out venues and supporting big artists like YG?
I guess it started off with me and ARBU [Adam Buckley]. Usually when you meet someone new it can be a bit awkward for a while, but with him we hit it off big style straight away and ended up chatting for hours. We were going to a gig in the 3Arena, and on the way there, he said, ‘You should rap man’. I brushed it off at first, but it did resonate with me. I think it had always been flying around in my mind, and it just needed the validation of someone who had an idea of both hip hop and hardcore to ignite it.
Honestly, I was talking about a switch clicking when you see your first child a minute ago, but that was like a light turning on within me. When I made that first track, and I knew that this idea of being a hip hop artist that I always had was within my grasp, then there was literally no stopping me. From then on, it was just hours and hours of writing songs at home, then I moved into a studio with Loah, Senu and Royal Yellow, which was very encouraging. It was a place where I could spend the nights writing and my cats wouldn’t be jumping on the laptop. From there, all the gigs that me and ARBU did together were just me cutting my teeth and learning how to do it live. And every time I wrote a good song or got offered another gig, or a podcast, or an article or something, it was just validation for me that this is the path I am supposed to be on.
What’s been the most significant change in your life of late?
A couple of years back I was doing these really difficult law exams. The FE1’s. They’re basically the Irish equivalent of the bar, but they are renowned as one of the hardest sets of exams in the world. I did them twice and busted my arse studying for them both times, but I just couldn’t get them. I felt like a bit of a failure at that point. I had come back from living in Vancouver, been on and off the dole, working different jobs here and there, but I really wanted to do something better with myself. After I couldn’t get them, I went to Maynooth and did a law degree, and in the third year of that I decided to try my hand at them again. One day I just decided that I was going to pass them this time around and I somehow managed to do it at the same time as starting third year of a law degree.
That was a huge mental shift for me. It was the realisation that achieving the things you want in life versus falling short is just a personal decision within your own head. A lot of the time we self-sabotage ourselves without ever even knowing it. I see it so much in young people around me. You might be working towards some goal, but in reality you’re never going to get there because you haven’t made the decision to get there.
I went from being on the scratcher to getting a 1:1 in a law master’s and passing some of the hardest exams in the world. So, when I transferred that same work ethic over to making music, it made it so much easier to go forward leaps and bounds within a short space of time. The main difference being that with this music I feel a sense of purpose and direction that is really powerful. I am in love with everything about it.
Moving from hardcore and punk to hip hop isn’t all that unusual, Ho99o9, Cities Aviv, Lil Ugly Mane, Beastie Boys and more all made the jump. Why do you feel there’s potential for crossover?
It’s a strange one. I’m not sure why there is so much potential for crossover between the two genres. I feel like there has always been collaboration between hardcore and hip hop artists. All the ones you mentioned above, and even Trash Talk / Odd Future, Biohazard / Onyx, Sean Price / Cold World, Body Count with Ice T singing and the list could go on. Even Thundercat played bass in Suicidal Tendencies for a while, which I always think is madness. Then there are people like Lil Ugly Mane, who are actively still part of the hardcore punk scene.
Both genres also arguably originated in New York which is maybe why we see so much crossover. There are major similarities in the way people dress as well. There were times in the hardcore scene where if you looked around and couldn’t hear the music, you would just think you were at a hip hop show or vice versa. Also, there’s a huge DIY ethic in both scenes. A lot of people in the underground hip hop world like to put on their own gigs, run their own zines and publications, and generally do things for them- selves and that’s the same in the hardcore scene. I ran gigs in Dublin for years so when it came to putting on my first show, I was well used to the process.
What did you bring over, artistically, from that world?
Lyrics. I’ve always been a lyricist first and a vocalist second. So, all I had to change was the way things are said, but not what I am saying, if you get me? I just had to transfer my cadence from screaming and roaring into a mic to rapping and singing. Now that I’ve managed to do that, I feel like I’m better at this type of music than I ever was at hardcore. Also screaming into a mic for 25 days in a row on tour is so damaging to your throat. My voice has taken years to recover.
I think that world also taught me to be comfortable on stage. Over the years I’ve played some of the most awkward gigs you could imagine to some of the rowdiest crowds. A lot of those hardcore tours were nuts, one night you could be playing to five people in the basement of a squat in Stockholm, with no jacks except for a hole in the floor, and the next night you could be playing to 1500 people at a festival in Germany with full catering and a hotel. It taught me to be comfortable in all kinds of situations, and always try to give it the full whack on stage no matter what was going on around me.
Hardcore, punk, hip hop, these are all genres known for having close-knit ‘scenes’ in every city they exist in. What are the differences between Dublin’s hard- core and hip hop scenes?
One difference that I love about the hip hop scene is that there’s more women involved. The hardcore scene, I think because of the abrasive nature of the music and the violence of the gigs, can be seriously male-dominated. That’s one big regret that I have looking back. We built this very positive DIY scene in Dublin where there would be 200 people at a local show, but there were very few women involved. They were at the shows. They were our friends, and they did actively contribute, but they should have been made to feel more welcome. That’s my one big regret about my time in the hardcore scene, I should have tried to make the environment safer and more open to women.
The other difference I suppose is the spectrum for growth. In hip hop the amount you can grow as both an artist and in popularity is infinite. Hardcore can be quite limited in terms of sound and growth. There are pros and cons to both. They are both incredible subcultures in my view.
What is one part of the hardcore scene that you’d like to see more of in Irish hip hop?
Community is a big part of both scenes. But in the hip hop scene I’d love to see more artists going to each other’s shows. To me that’s how you build a really strong scene. It’s different creative people just going to see each other’s gigs and generally having a laugh together. Becoming friends, collaborating, throwing ideas around, putting on gigs and all that. You guys are great for that, and also Shane [McAuley] from Soul Doubt. I also have to say that one guy who embodies that for me is MathMan. The chap goes above and beyond to help younger artists.
It’s absolutely insane the amount he’s done for me already and I haven’t even had to ask him, and there are 10 other hip hop artists I’ve talked to who say the same thing about him.
Another thing I’d love to see is a bit more lyricism in Irish hip hop. The trap style is hot at the moment, and I do like some artists in that genre, but the lyrical content is fairly one dimensional. I don’t want to hear some chap who still lives in his ma’s gaff talking about how much they’re spending on a chain. That’s a fairy-tale world they’re creating for themselves. It’s their art and they can do what they want with it, but on the other hand it doesn’t appeal to me personally. Paul Alwright, Costello, GodKnows, Denise Chaila, GI, Jafaris, Kojaque, those are all people with something to say.
‘October Year’ was well-received, not only by media, but hip hop heads in general. Did you expect that reaction? Have you been welcomed into Irish hip hop with open arms?
I remember putting it up and thinking, ‘This project isn’t amazing, if it gets a couple of hundred plays, it’s a good starting point and I’ll move onto the next thing’. I looked at it as a demo of sorts. I never imagined that it would get the reaction it has. I mean we’re not talking huge numbers, but it’s more a feeling that everyone is on board with me and waiting for the next thing to drop.
Another surprising thing is how open and sound everyone in Irish hip hop has been to me. That says a lot about the people involved. All the Burner Records lads, Rebel P, Mango, MathMan… It’s turning into a family vibe.
“Friendship, tragedy, emigration, drug use. Not just lyrical themes but all also catalysts on the path to Nealo becoming a hip hop artist”, can you give me a little background on what that press release means?
Well I emigrated to Vancouver in 2007, came back to a strange mid-recession Ireland in 2009, saw friends die through both suicide and drug use, and done a lot of partying myself, to put it mildly. I had a really dark period last February where I was walking a huge, friendly dog in work and he ended up dying in front of me because he got a tennis ball stuck in his throat. I fought with him for around 15 minutes with my friend Sam [Senu] to try and get the ball out, but I ended up fracturing my hand in 2 places and getting 57 stitches. I was in an overcrowded Blanchardstown hospital for two weeks on oxy and they were telling me I might lose my fingers or that my hand might not work the same again. It was a rough time.
That was just two weeks after Paul Curran died. We weren’t best mates or anything, but I had known him for years and he had also sang in a hardcore band and been involved in our scene. He died on my birthday which was just such a head fuck for some reason, I don’t even know why. So, it was a really dark February, but that dark period for me was a major catalyst in really getting the hip hop thing going.
It was almost a case of, nothing can possibly get worse than this, so maybe let’s actually have a shot at moulding reality into a version that suits me better, and funnily enough it seems to be working. As we speak, that accident happened a year ago tomorrow and the amount of positive things that have happened to me since is actually bizarre. I thank my wife Kayleigh for that because without her, honestly I don’t know where I would be.
One thing Paul talked about in a Burnt Out song was “the art that never gets made”. For me that meant people going out on a session doing a load of patsy and yokes and talking shite about making music, but never actually getting around to it. I’ve seen it a hundred times and I’ve been there. Between work, the depression of life, and the endless sessions, there is so much beautiful art that has been lost around Dublin. I just didn’t want to go out that way.
Nealo plays Upstairs in Whelan’s on March 30.