INSIDE THE WORLD OF DUBLIN HIP-HOP

Chatting conspiracy over tea and spliffs with the stars of the Dublin hip-hop scene.

Thousands of people flock to Dublin every year to commemorate the city’s cultural past: taking selfies in front of the statues of James Joyce on North Earl Street or Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square is a pre-requisite for any literary-minded tourist. Traditional music is a huge part of everyday life here too. Take a stroll through the streets and you’ll hear it echoing out of most pubs – not to mention the bronze statue of Dublin’s favourite glam-rocker, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott.

But Joyce, Wilde, Yeats, Behan et. al are all safely within the cultural canon. Their works are studied and passed across generations, and focusing on them comes at the expense of the listening to the people chronicling the contemporary city. It’s the voices of today’s young that are keeping the literary tradition alive, and they’ve settled on their own weapon of choice: hip-hop.

Collectively these voices are known as Street Literature. The album Products of the Environment, released in 2011, featured Costello, 4Real, GI, Lunitic, Teknical, Mos Chops and John Doe. Individually they’ve written, produced and performed a bunch of albums encompassing a broad spectrum of ideas – from spirituality, drugs and crime to the oppression of the human race by an indestructible and shadowy elite.

I recently caught up with two Street Literature stalwarts, Costello and 4Real. Both artists are Dublin natives, Costello from the North Dublin suburb of Wellview and 4Real from Ballymun – both areas characterised by a lack of funding and social amenities, aggravated by the economic crash of 2008. The lads have since moved to a small rural town called Athboy, in County Meath, roughly an hour-and-a-half bus from Dublin city centre. That’s where I met them, and over countless cups of tea, spliffs, and the odd cake (it was 4Real’s birthday) we discussed their numerous albums, their inspirations and what plans they have for the future.  

“I WAS HAPPY ENOUGH WITH THAT SONG. A HISTORY TEACHER EVEN EMAILED ME TO SEE IF SHE COULD USE THE TUNE IN HER CLASS.”

 
Costello greeted me at the bus stop and we made the short walk to the home he shares with friend and collaborator Andy Farrell, aka 4Real. As we entered the house, which doubles as a make-shift studio, the smoke hung thick in the air and the speakers were blasting out hip-hop. Both members of Street Literature, Costello and 4Real regularly feature on each other’s albums. It’s a symbiotic relationship that challenges both of them to think about and write tunes in different, experimental ways.

The first tune we listened to was Ben Ami, the second track from 4Reals’ Armageddon album. The track begins in 1939 and follows 23-year-old protagonist Amalek Ben Ami from the moment his door is kicked in by SS Troops. It chronicles how the Germans forced him and his family to flee, their eventual capture, the death of his father and mother, and his transport to Auschwitz where he spends “days on a moving cage”; it details the conditions and horrors he faces there, and his eventual escape and rescue by American troops.
 
As I sat and listened to the track it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The lyrics are historically accurate and powerful. How did it compare to 4Reals’ other tracks? “I was happy enough with that one. A history teacher even emailed me to see if she could use the tune in her class.”

"I THINK SOME OF THE STRONGEST SONGS ARE THE REVOLUTIONARY TUNES...ONE THING WE ALL AGREE ON IS THAT THE WORLD IS RULED BY AN ELITE."

4Real and Costello both feature heavily on fellow rapper Cal’s album, Equilibrium. 4Real explains the difference between that and Armageddon: “It’s a bit more open-minded in terms of spirituality, good vs evil, the duality of man. It’s more metaphorical.

The conversation went on as the tea and tunes continued to flow. Costello explained how Ben Ami had inspired him to write some of his tracks differently. As he played ‘Persian Legacy’, a song about the Muslim struggle with the West throughout history, he explained: “Ben Ami inspired this one. We took three stories through the ages. The first one is set in Jerusalem around 1100 AD; Calvin has one around the 1500s in the Ottoman empire. Andy then continues through to the present day.” The song plays out with a sample from Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder video, nicely rounding off the tune while encouraging the listener to draw connections between past and present-day struggles against oppression.

Costello continues: “I think some of the strongest songs on this album are the kind of revolutionary tunes like ‘Nightmares and Subtitles’ and ‘Corrosive’. Myself, Andy and Calvin all worked on the album. Individually we’re all strong minds, we agree on some things but we don’t on others. Calvin can play the Devil’s advocate sometimes, and he might have a different opinion to the two of us but the one thing we can all agree on, as we see it, is the world is ruled by an elite.”
 
None of this would be possible without the influence of one man: Daniel McDonnell, aka Lunitic. His 2009 album Based On A True Story, released by Workin Class Records, was his first and sadly last album before he passed away in June that same year, from a heart condition he had suffered since birth. To celebrate his life and accomplishments the lads put together an event in the same city centre that Lunitic so accurately portrayed in his work.

“We all got together – me, Andy and the family. We had a little surprise for people; we got a few CD’s made up (1000 to be exact) and handed them out to people in town,” replicating the album release in Feb 2009. A video of the event was also produced for one of the album’s standout track ‘Long Ago’. There are also plans to make more videos and release new tracks featuring Lunitic, using some of his never-before-heard material. As Costello aptly puts it: “It’s good to know that he’s still floating around inspiring people left right and centre.”

Following the release of the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary Broken Song, which gave an insight into the lives of Street Literature and Workin Class Records members, hip-hop in Ireland was beamed into cinemas and film festivals the world over. This unprecedented international exposure has allowed Costello to take his music to a variety of cities across Europe, including Bern, Moscow and Vienna. In Vienna especially he went down well, managing to shift a few albums and “hustle the music” in the process.

This year has already seen the release of four new videos, with The Page of History charting the Irish struggle with colonialism across the centuries. It’s the first one to be released but more from Costello’s forthcoming album Overnight Legends are set to follow. Romantic Ireland may be dead and gone but through artists like Costello, 4Real and the variety of other hip-hop heroes in the city and the wider country, perhaps, hopefully, it can be resurrected.

@davidfleming68