The Best Irish Rap of 2019

Colin Gannon breaks down the best 2019 rap from the Emerald Isle
By    December 24, 2019

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when picturing Irish rap music? It could be the languid flows of Rejjie Snow, if you even knew the 26-year-old smooth-talker was born and raised in Drumcondra, a suburb on the outer edges of Ireland’s capital. For most, it might well be a caricature of Eminem-raised, freckled white boys cosplaying as American hood rappers—which, unfortunately, has existed and continues to plague the genre. 

But in a country with a rich history of oral storytellers and singular literary stylists, of pop giants and genuine genre iconoclasts, it is only in recent years that young artists have paired words and music, in the form of rap music, to much collective success. Up until quite recently, club music was primarily the youth culture vehicle through which teenagers rebelled against the status quo of guitar-slingers and hyper-manufactured Eurovision Song Contest pantomime. But like the country as a whole, things have changed dramatically. 

Around the time Rejjie Snow signed to 300 Entertainment in 2016, joining the Lyor Cohen-founded label’s ranks alongside the likes of Young Thug, Irish rap languished in obscurity, searching for both an audience and an identity. These days, its steadily building the former and with each passing month and year, forming the latter. It’s exciting as hell. 

A scene is blossoming in a predominantly rural country with a population roughly equivalent to LA. Homegrown rap shows are becoming the norm. Those tinkering with these sounds for years are beginning to carve out their own lanes, and the music is getting much better. What’s missing is surely expected from a fledgling scene made up of amateur musicians and school-attending teenagers: regular releases, full-length projects, unbridled confidence in one’s art. 

Best-case scenario, these artists punch through the local ceiling. For now, a cross-country DIY movement is connecting the dots between generations and disparate cultures. Most significantly of all, it’s creating some of Ireland’s most vital music. 

Expect in this list a smorgasbord of rap sub-genres, bars about Irish republicanism and the IRA, shards of the Irish language, some American accents and London patois, and torqued vowels in songs that, at times, make Irish rap inimitable in the Anglophone world. These songs speak to rap’s ability to transcend borders, to build community hubs and forge a sense of belonging for sometimes alienated youths in a country (and world writ large) that tends to disregard any culture that isn’t theatre, orchestra, or literature. Hopefully, Irish rap is only getting started. 

Chuks – “More Profit”

You really believe when Dublin drill rapper Chuks professes his love for his weapon-of-choice on ‘More Profit’ (”Always got love for my flick knife, like, I love you 3000”). His supremely confident voice portends doom as eerily as any rapper this side of the Atlantic. Released on British rap YouTube channel Mixtape Madness, the song is unremittingly cold-blooded, undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest make-your-enemy-dig-their-own-grave tune since Irish peasants sat around last century fantasizing about toppling the British empire. Fiction or not, Chuks, who first made his name last year with his AV9 crew, knows how to wring menace from every last syllable, something he picked up for free in elocution lessons from drill peers across the Irish sea in London. 

Courtesy of UK producer Ghosty (Dave, Unknown T, Headie One, Digga D), the beat foregrounds Chuks’ object lesson in how to rob, finagle, stack bundles of cash, flip pounds of class-A drugs, and wipe out enemies. The song sets off military-grade explosives in a peat bog, pouring blood into the Chicago River instead of green dye. It’s the grisliest Irish performance since an incandescently and righteously furious Liam Neeson crudely electrocuted his hostage to death using lightbulbs. 

Sim Simma Soundsystem featuring Breezy Ideygoke – “Yamma Yamma”

Without immigration from Africa, particularly in the early ‘00s as Ireland experienced economic growth like no other period in its recent history, rap music in Ireland might still be languishing in boom-bap purgatory. 

Led by Breezy Ideygoke, Yamma Yamma, a song from DJ and producer collective Sim Simma Soundsystem’s debut EP, is music only second generation Afro-Irish kids could make: shot through vibrancy and anxiety about growing up in a country still grappling with racial diversity. 

He fears being hounded by Ireland’s hegemonically white police force, the Gardaí, for simply existing as a “black boy in the suburbs”, before spitting with pain in his cracking voice: “I’m from where July feel like December / The sky weeps for my lost ancestors.” Affecting an acrobatic flow on top of a fun, bright beat that recalls dancehall as much as it does rap, Breezy’s voice and message are emphatically hopeful. This is new dance music for a new Ireland. 

Nonzus Magnus – “Look Both Ways”

Self-described outkast, Nonzus Magnus is Ireland’s most exciting rap prospect. “Look Both Ways” is an amalgam of everything that makes him special: caustic humor, an ear for melody, and a fascinating and twisted persona. 

Although clearly besotted by Pi’erre Bourne’s multiverse and the more playful elements of Soundcloud rap, Magnus’ obsession with melody and lurid atmospherics contribute to him being the island’s most forward-thinking rap act. On the woozy “Look Both Ways,”  he wryly namechecks the Black and Tans (a branch of the British army that infamously terrorized Irish civilians early last century) and speeds away in a Batmobile in the same breath, while flitting between a trendy warble and a sinewy, Dublin-accented vocal. Full of video game bloops and blanketing synths, the beat is artful in and of itself. It doesn’t matter. The heavy-metal and pop-punk-obsessed rapper always remains the focal point. 

Reggie – “Chat to Me”

One of the most commanding rappers to emerge from Ireland in the past year is the humbly named Reggie, who first came to prominence in 2018 as part of pioneering Irish drill collective 090. Don’t let the name fool you: he’s anything but self-effacing. Originally from Dundalk, which sits at the Northern Ireland border, Reggie’s dark timbre and satin flow belie his young age (20). He’s typically unhurried and laissez-faire in his delivery on “Chat To Me, peppering his verses with non sequiturs about making money and womanizing. With an addictive xylophone melody, the track is less drill and more like something UK hip-hop acts might rap over. Despite the heft of his voice, Reggie’s phrasing always feels fleet and dainty. Just don’t chat fucking shit in his vicinity. 

Invader Slim – “Shine or Die”

Sometimes, the internet is good. Invader Slim, Ireland’s answer to Bones or Xavier Wulf, is sufficient proof. Seán Cronin, a lanky 20-year-old from Arklow on Ireland’s east coast, records short, insular rap songs under that alias, exuding some of the same icy aloofness as his forebears. 

One of a handful of singles he dropped in 2019, “Shine or Die” is characteristic of his output: soul-dead hedonism mixed with gallows humor, a lazy flow and a cadence not too dissimilar from Awful Record’s debauchee-in-chief, Father. The production is foreboding, and Invader Slim finds the pocket so casually you would think he had been rapping for more than two years. Unapproachable and abject as he can sound, he can be bitingly funny too, mixing local slang with absurdist imagery. (“Drop the vodka in a cold cup of tea,” “Your boy’s a goofy, he’s a creep, he’s a melt”). 

It’s a daringly simple formula that he is beginning to master: catchy songs, characterized by sinister production and a droning rap style, that stick their landing every time. “Shine or Die” is one of those 3-minute dopamine hits that you wish would never end. 

Nealo featuring God Knows & INNRSPACE – “Questions”

Despite the many hollow proclamations from the country’s center-right governing party about a shared prosperity, Ireland has a heartbreaking abundance of problems. It’s an unapologetic tax haven for rapacious tech giants and vulture funds while a housing crisis rages on and homelessness figures soar. It’s reputation as an international beacon of progressive social politics is surely torn to shreds by its inhumane system of essentially imprisoning asylum seekers, Direct Provision

Whether it’s in the form of didacticism or something less explicit, politics plays a significant role in the worlds these Irish rappers came from, as well as the physical places they now exist. 

Nealo is one such example of an artist using his platform to highlight hypocrisies at the heart of modern Irishness, as well as his own battles with mental health. He used to be a hardcore punk frontman, with experience touring the world, so he knows a thing or two about performance. But now, instead of a blood-curdling scream, he synthesizes his rage into a slow determined flow on easy-going rap songs. 

His narrativized raps might help to explain where Nealo is coming from—geographically, spiritually, romantically—but it still doesn’t tell us much about where his sound offers to take us. Riding a kinetic live jazz instrumental on “Questions,” his best track yet, the rapper capitalized on some well-deserved local buzz. 

“But this life can steal your soul / My wife and kid, they give me hope,” the north Dublin rapper raps. “A young nipper fresh off the dole, I was broke and unpredictable.”

Even away from the social critiques, his music would be worth paying attention to: his tender gruff saunters across warm, stipped-back instrumentals with an uncanny directness. When you hear that he’s supported Chicago spitter Saba, it all kind of makes sense. 

Gavin DaVinci featuring Strange Boy – “Shimmy”

By their very nature, retaliations are bloody and vicious affairs. Rap has uncountable verses, songs, and entire albums dedicated to retribution. Trafficking in pugilistic bars suggesting broken ribs, fractured skulls, and purpled knuckles, Gavin DaVinci and Strange Boy live up to the Fighting Irish stereotype on ‘Shimmy.’

Tipperary-raised rapper DaVinci has sprouted from a Limerick collective known loosely as PX Music, which includes Strange Boy, Citrus Fresh, Hazey Haze, Aswell, and producer Mankyy among others. DaVinci and Strange both possess menacing squawks, pinched voices that fit neatly onto nocturnal beats, with the strangely smooth ‘Shimmy’ being no exception. 

The fiery song—taken from DaVinci’s extremely enjoyable debut album, Superscumbagmode—bristles with colloquialisms and harsh-seeming brogues that might sound like crows cawing to an American. Here, on one of more down-tempo highlights from the mixtape, DaVinci warms up Strange Boy, whose verse is terse but pitiless as he calls out a nemesis: “You don’t even know me, I’m not your bro / You don’t got heart, no grit, no stone.”

Ehat differentiates DaVinci and his crew from this current class of rappers is their steadfast commitment to re-imagining ‘90’s street rap through a contemporary working-class Irish lens. It’s like Griselda Records minus the gangster realism and the black American perspective—neo-noir dispatches from forgotten parts of modern Ireland where brawling, drug-fueled binges, unrequited love, and treacherous betrayals are an everyday thing. Just don’t ask them how to cook crack. 

Celaviedmai – “Confessions”

After some years plugging away as one of the few women rapping seriously in Ireland, Celaviedmai came into her own this year as a hard-nosed bulldozer MC with a knack for tuneful singing. Her best song yet,  “Confessions” finds her spitting with newfound vigor, attacking the beat like a starving rottweiler after a ghostly church choir intro. The Galway native spits proudly about wearing designer knock-offs as her flow hopscotches across the minimalist beat. The loud drums and bass have traces of the drill template, but it’s the choral sample that gives the song a haunting quality. With only one minute of rapping, it’s only a snapshot of Celaviedmai’s abilities. But it’s certainly enough. 

Citrus Fresh – “Teeth”

One of the most unflaggingly eccentric rappers in Ireland, Citrus Fresh (another member of Limerick-based PX Music), released two solid EPs in 2019. The second, Smile, contains some of his most lucid rapping, as he burrows into his wounded psyche deeper than ever before. The unsettling, distortion-shredded beat on ‘Teeth’ sets up a scene where Citrus is crestfallen, dejected, broke, full to the gills with drugs and regret. 

The song reminds you of Earl Sweatshirt’s recent work in its claustrophobia — though it’s definitely blunter and more literal in its anguish. This is  nightmarish experimental rap on a project whose other songs are over largely light and carefree jazz beats. The production here lends the song a spiraling weirdness, as drones grate and drums tick like a broken clock. The only glimmer of hope creeps through when the industrial clanging and lamentations end.

Across a series of increasingly focused short releases, Citrus Fresh’s grip on reality has been strained and tested. ‘Teeth’ suggests a young man finished, a tormented soul. Yet his career is anything but over. 

Murlii – “Naufrage”

In 2016, Irish rap had its ‘The South Got Something To Say’ moment. 

Rusangano Family are a rap group from Limerick, a city renowned more for its glories in rugby than in rap music. Three years ago, they won the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to the UK’s Mercury Music Prize. Made up of Zimbabwean-Irish rapper God Knows, Togolese-Irish poet and rapper MuRli and Irish producer and DJ MynameisjOhn, the group announced themselves to the wider public with their debut, Let The Dead Bury The Dead, in a genre that, up until this point, was widely dismissed as unserious and juvenile by white gatekeepers. Three years later, MuRli has self-released his debut solo mixtape, The Intangibles, one of Ireland’s best rap releases this decade. 

The thing about MuRli is that he possesses a wonderfully peculiar accent (check the way he says “more” 1:20 into “Naufrage”), but what makes his music work is what he’s learned: the writing and rapping, the alternately delicate and angry flows, pretty melodies, slightly off-center production. 

On highlight “Naufrage,”  (the French word for shipwreck) MuRli exalts the powers of self-reflection. Over a brittle, synth beat, he surveys the wreckage of the past few years of his life. He’s “frustrated, dedicated, elevated, violated, exhausted, degraded and celebrated.” There are treasures to be found in the wreckage, but also some spiritual destruction. His is likely the best, and most meditative, Irish rap verse produced in 2019. 

Rikshaw featuring 7th Obi – “Games”

I’m sympathetic to the odd Travis Scott derivative, maybe irrationally so. But it must be a song that terraforms ScottoTune into something vaguely resembling originality. 

Accompanied by an on-topic 7th Obi feature, Dublin native Rikshaw probably made one of Ireland’s most insanely catchy songs this year in “Games.” His singing is earnest and sweetly untutored, as he begs for clear commitment in the face of ongoing fuckery. “She don’t say my name no more,” he sings mournfully, trying to hide his inner-horniness. “She still wanna fuck of course.”

This R&B/rap song is not world-building. Nor is it expectation-smashing. It’s uncomplicated, catchy pop music. In parlance that has managed to seep into parts of Ireland where there are more livestock than people, it slaps. 

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