Over the past five years, hip-hop has taken huge strides towards becoming the defining genre of youth worldwide. In Ireland especially, hip-hop has gone from becoming an outcasts choice to being played in clubs across the country every night, and to having people rapping along flawlessly to tracks from some of the worlds better-known artist. Over the past year, Byline Editor Cailean Coffey has been attempting to put together a series of interviews describing the rise of hip-hop in Ireland and the possibility of Irish hip-hop artists becoming household names. In the first of a series of interviews, he sat down with the Red FM DJ Steven ‘Stevie G’ Grainger and discussed hip-hop’s history in Ireland and its bright future.
Q: What do you think of the Irish Hip-Hop scene at the moment?
A: It’s pretty good, it’s pretty good. I think it’s actually probably as good as it’s ever been, the infrastructure is in a much better place, people have the wherewithal to go out and record stuff pretty much anywhere so hip-hop has always had that sort of DIY vibe and now you can actually create stuff at home for pretty cheap. You don’t need a big record collection either like you did back in the day, there’s the internet and there’s ways of getting it out there and there’s also people who wouldn’t exactly be best known for their hip-hop knowledge getting involved so it’s also good that the likes of Lethal Dialect and Rusangano Family and even some sort of crossover-y stuff like Hare Squead have people actually taking interest. Now Hot Press’s of the world and even radio and the media are all paying attention and it’s as good as it’s ever been, and a big reason is the… the multicultural thing is definitely helping but I think people are at a stage now where they want to listen to people with a bit of substance, with substance in their music you know? I think hip-hop is the purest form. I believe Chuck D called it black people’s CNN back in the day but not now since it’s a global thing, I think it’s definitely a better thing to see what’s going on than regular media in some ways so I think it’s really good.
Q: How did you learn about music production and that is was possible as a career?
A: I fell into it. I was in college but I was always buying records and someone asked me to come up and play some music in the old bar, to bring some records up. They asked me to DJ and I was like “I’m not a DJ” but I just brought records up and started playing them as the last thing on a Friday and I really enjoyed it but we weren’t like mixing or doing anything like that and I kinda fell into it. There was a kind of novelty DJ competition in a bar in town and I just entered that. We were students as well so we weren’t mixing, and I kinda made a bit of progress, I got through one of the rounds. I brought a lot of friends in, and enjoyed it, and then I got a gig in that bar and I ended up, within a couple of weeks, I was known to be a bit of a music person, but I ended up filling in at a club, Henry’s. Which became like a famous club in Cork, and in the end I just ended up DJing there for the summer when I finished college. Then I went away to America and I kinda came back and did my last year in college but I said “Awh when I finish college I’ll do this for a while” and I was kind of looking around but before I knew it I was sort of doing it and I was actually making a few bob, so I ended up keeping it going and putting off getting a real job. The DJing in clubs led to radio, and I was still doing a bit of writing all the time, and I thought the obvious thing then was to produce your own stuff, and write your own stuff, and it all happened naturally from there. There was no real game plan, it just happened.
Q: How did you learn about the Irish hip-hop scene, what was your first introduction to it?
A: I would have been very aware of what was going on back in the day, so we would have been young in the early 90’s and we would have started doing everything. We would have been teenagers and I would have been aware of people like Scary Eire, they were the benchmark really, older guys than us, and I actually did a gig with them in Sir Henry’s in the 90’s, the first gig they did in Cork. I was the DJ for them, I got to know the lads, and it was a small scene in Ireland so I would have been involved with people like ár lá, who were a Cork hip-hop group featuring an American rapper called Exile and a Cork DJ, Chris, who’s a good friend of mine, so it was always like a big, big handful of people into hip-hop in Cork. And a gang started playing in Dublin around the kid-90’s, and I’d say everyone into hip-hop was at the gig so I kinda would have known all the people involved, the producers, people like Hazo who was based up in Galway and the people down here would have been friends of mine; Metabolix were a group, and then later on there would have been stuff like The Trilogy and Ros Brown and Scooby, I would have given them their first gig in Jam Junior in the Savoy and in the 00’s. All the Cork rappers would have been on my show – I had this Teenage Thursday slot and I would have been showcasing a lot of them at my gigs and workshops and stuff – so I always would have been a part of it. I started producing my own stuff at the end of the 90’s too, but I didn’t work with too many rappers if I’m honest, mostly singers. I’d have always been aware of what’s going on but seeing it always frustrated me in a way that, it took so long to materialize and I think it wasn’t really until the Internet era that it kinda came into proper… but it’s definitely much better these days, even though there was always pretty amazing people back in the day doing it.
Q: What was your first major musical Project?
A: Soon after I went from someone just buying records, because it was records at the time and that was the format of choice, to Djing in Henrys, which was like the Holy Grail because we used to go there, I used to go down to the back room where the guys played Hip-Hop and reggae and I used to be bugging them like “awh will you play Public Enemy” and within a few months I was that guy that was able to develop the sound of the place. I developed it more from hip-hop, Reggae and Dancehall to a bit less Reggae and probably more RnB and soul, because I loved that stuff and I always looked at what the RnB in the 90’s was doing. Some of the hip-hop was becoming really… the golden age [for hip-hop] was between ‘87 and ‘94 for some people, and by 95 it was all becoming more macho, people were more about gold teeth and grills and people grabbing their crotches, and I was getting a bit bored by some of it, and at that time I was getting a real buzz off some of the young people like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu and people like that; Mary J. Blige was always there as well, seeing that and I thought that that was giving a bit more dynamics to a set. Djing for three hours playing hip-hop could get a bit boring, so I was always playing everything, Rock, Reggae, Hip-hop, and I just found that RnB and soul, because it was the same beats, were a perfect match, and I was also playing old stuff like Disco as well so I think that we developed something there in Sir Henry’s. I took the baton from the guy before me, and we developed a sound there, and I think that’s the biggest thing we did really because I got gigs all over the country because of it, and I became known all over the country from it, and I started producing and doing radio, but I think the biggest thing we did was Sir Henry’s in the 90’s. We finished it in 2001, but that was the thing that I was known for, and I don’t talk about it now to young people because it’s like talking to different generations but it was, anyone that was there would know it was really important and it was at a time where there wasn’t hip-hop on the radio or radio in Ireland, bar maybe 2FM because MTV had been on for a while, but it was gone and it was pre-internet so it became the only place to hear that sort of music and when they came everyone knew they were at a special thing and it was cool in that regard.
Q: In your live performances, do you use visuals or do you view them as important when watching other live shows?
A: I hadn’t done much like, over the years what I’ve done, even with singers, has usually been Djing. For example, what I do now, my production is with a guy called Ian Ring. We’re called aboveDat, and we own our own label and we produce our own music, so what I was doing for the last couple of years before I joined Ian , even though he was always involved in my production, before we set up aboveDat I was just Djing for singers, rappers and just playing the music or whatever. Now, however, we’re doing it as an audio/visual show, we’ve got a young artist here in Cork called ZootGhost, who animated and drew our last video, and a girl called Louise, who did the aboveDat logo for designs and covers, did a lyric video for our previous track with a Cork singer called Christiana, so what we’ve done is we’ve only done one gig so far, but we’re Djing and we’ve got visuals in the background. Donal Thompson is programming the visuals and ZootGhost has done some specials things for it, so it’s an audio/visual thing, but I see the visuals especially as Djing is grand, but I’m not a turntablist or a scratcher or whatever, so if you’re a scratcher it’s all really visual and grand but other than that I’m just a DJ, and I’ve been doing it for twenty years, I’m not just jumping around you know? It’s good to have the visuals, they’re important.
Q: Do you think in hip-hop that the Irish accent has in anyway prevented artists being taken seriously?
A: Well a lot of the problem is to do with ourselves. I’ve been looking at this very deeply for a very long time, I have articles at home that I wrote when I was in college twenty years ago that say that Scary Eire were rapping in their own language and people liked it, like people like Jamaican music. The lineage for me was people like Christy Moore, there was a lot of rap cadences in his voice in the same way that if you look at hip hop, and look at James Brown and even Mohamed Ali, who wasn’t a rapper but he had the type of speech. If you look back at Jazz and Blues there was people in media, mostly black people but not only them, in music, doing this spoken kinda jive-talk and that’s where hip-hop came from. And in Ireland we’ve had it, we’re Irish so we’ve got like poets, comedians and all sorts of people who’ve had that so I see no reason why, say, take James Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the greatest works of art to come out of this country, why have people got such a problem with their own accent. I remember, and I’ve always thought it was a bit odd, but I’ve always had a problem with the Americanization of accents, because I grew up in an era when people just thought because we were into rap that we were ‘wiggers’ and just wanted to be black, and even when I started radio there was a very… We had pirate radio from about 1996, and even when I got out on air in the early 2000’s even then people were like “Ohh I don’t like the Irish accent”. On the radio, your voice is obviously very projected or whatever, but it’s not like when we grew up when all of radio were American songs, but in Ireland people have this sort of self-loathing of their own voice and some of it’s really strong; people would listen to Lethal Dialect and go “What the hell? He sounds so Dublin knacker-ish” but he’s just talking how he talks. Now people in Cork, we were always encouraging people to be themselves, and in fairness they all were, but then there was a wave of people exaggerating and it’s like a young thing but it was cool because they were finally proud of where they were from, but sometimes it was getting too much but that probably happens with everything, even in New York and Compton. But I always say stay yourself, we’re all individuals no matter where we’re from, and that’s why all the biggest artists are very individual. They may come from a certain area but they certainly sound different from everyone else in that area. So yes, it’s certainly held back some people from liking Irish rap, and some things have become watered down because of that, even look at Maverick Sabre and Plan B, it’s only when they started singing that people took them seriously, but that’s how it goes. So it’s certainly held things back, but when you hear the voices of African-Irish hip-hop, it’s also given it a new dynamic angle to it, but I definitely think people should just be who they are.
Q: Do you think the success of the likes of Rejjie Snow and Rusangano Family will open the door for more acts?
A: Absolutely, it’s happening already. The Rejjie Snow thing is incredible, because you could probably talk to people in radio who are in the mainstream music media in Ireland and I’d say 90% of people haven’t even heard of him. I’d say this thing is going up to another level and it’s just this whole cult thing. I remember it was an eye-opener for me when I was up in Oxyegen working for RedFM five years ago, and we said we’d pop along to see Odd Future thinking there’d be 200 people there, and it was like 5,000 people and they were all kids and they all knew every word. I remember I put up a video on YouTube and I think I tagged the name of the song wrong, because I wasn’t a massive fan of Odd Future, but I remember it was like “Awh that’s not the name of the song” and people going crazy, they were so obsessed and I was like “this is incredible.” I found the energy up there, even though I didn’t like some of the stuff they were doing, well I found that the energy was exactly like it was when I was into hip-hop twenty years ago, and the whole punk element as well, and I loved that energy. I think Rejjie Snow has a bit of that energy in him too. Sometimes it was a bit cloning of, some would say, of whoever in Odd Future, but I think he’ll find his own – he’s developing as an artist and will only grow and grow. Rusangano Family is a really interesting project to me, because I would have given God Knows his first gig around here, inadvertently at the time because I didn’t really know who he was, and MynameisjOhn I’ve known for a good few years, so I just think what they’ve done with their album made me prouder than anything I’ve heard in hip-hop since Scary Eire twenty years previously, probably even more so in a way. I definitely think it’ll open doors and it’s already happening.
Q: What opportunities has music production given you that you otherwise would not have had?
A: Well, I’ve been lucky enough to meet all the people involved and gotten to know all the music, and the one thing I love about hip-hop is it’s a bastardised form of music that takes from everything and it taught me to learn stuff that I wasn’t into at first when I was 13 and 14, Jazz included. So I got to learn about all these amazing artists, DJ with loads of the hip-hop and soul people, and the jazz people, and I got to interview and actually put on shows with them. Generally, meeting different artists, whether they’re kids or whatever – the really big thing for me is that Ian, who I work with on the label, and we produce music and stuff, he’s come up here on work experience when he was 12 or 13, and he’s come to my workshops and I got him Djing at my teenage discos, and now he’s the guy who’s taking the lead in the studio. He’s more of the engineer, and he’s the guy who taught me a little bit about producing, so it’s great sharing musical knowledge. Music is an amazing thing to be involved in, so when music is going well you feel like it’s working as well, which is cool.
Q: Where does Irish hip-hop and Irish production go from here?
A: I do think people are becoming more… well, we were talking earlier about Nxstalgic, and people like that, people are just doing stuff in their bedroom, you don’t need the expensive setup anymore, so people I think are going to become… there’ll obviously be people who are going to be good at getting stuff out there but I think people will develop new sounds, there’ll be more rappers, more collaborations and more stuff getting out to the people. I remember when we developed a lot of the rappers here in Cork, a lot of them did sound the same a little bit, but I think they’re starting to become more individual, and I do think a big thing is getting stuff done. I think if more people made albums and actually crafted them a little bit better, and put a bit into the sonics and mastering of it, that we could be onto something. There’s a big tendency in hip-hop, half-finishing songs and putting them onto SoundCloud straight away, and I think if they worked a bit more on the sonics, it takes a long time in the studio but all the ideas are there straight away but to actually get the stuff to a good level, actually mastered and mixed, it would change a lot. I think the future is bright. I’m an optimist, so I always say that, but I definitely thinks there’s more tools available, more talent and most importantly people actually listening, which wasn’t always there before.