By Florrie McCarthy
While this column missed the mark in a big way in the last issue in terms of timing, describing all the great wonders jazz weekend was to bring and getting published the day after jazz weekend(I know folks, I’m as sorry as you are – I’m sure the magnitude of the secondhand embarrassment you felt experiencing the sheer tension I was purveying for events gone by paled in comparison to the real-deal, first-person dawning of regret), everyone reading this no doubt had a ball of a time swinging through those streets whose cobblestones I described as “shaking with the excitement” regardless. Two weeks later, it still seems only yesterday the bands were marching down Patrick Street blaring the classics, yet also it seems to have come and gone in a flash, the big acts breezing through to grant us the rush we’d all been waiting for – the hot air of a crowded, sweaty, sticky concert venue – and gone in the wind swiftly after.
Now, if you happened to read this column in the last issue and saw past the disappointing tardiness to the parts where I mentioned A) that I was going to be wallowing in my misery while working almost all weekend and B) the well-known fact that few of the acts that brought in for jazz weekend really even fit in the general ‘jazz’ namespace these days. Well, while I did miss almost all of the jazz that was on in the surrounding days, I did, thank the heavens, at least get the Saturday off. However, on the flip-side, it wasn’t for jazz; it was to see Irish hip-hop combo Kneecap.
Kneecap wasn’t actually brought in as part of the jazz weekend, though it surely helped them add to the hype to line up the concert with the double-whammy of the festival and the big entertainment reopening. Not that they need much of it; the group have been gaining lots of popularity over the last few years, making them into one of Ireland’s hottest native acts today, so it was no surprise that this concert was sold out.
The rain was belting against the streets as I trekked into town from my student accommodation, my thoughts focused on the experience ahead of me to try and drown out my internal grumbling about the bus I missed, so I was truly soaked to the skin when I got to Oliver Plunkett street. On seeing the queue across from the Old Oak I could barely believe it was destined to move inside to watch a real-life concert and this fantastical, disbelieving state lasted right through being bustled through security screening, in the door and up the stairs to open the black double doors to the venue floor scattered with clumps of people looking towards the stage in anticipation of a real person performing music.
Hailing from Belfast, Kneecap comes as the typical in-your-face, rebellious package, with aggressive beats, the lavish, broad Belfast twang in the accents and all the colourful language you could look for in a song. Indeed, Kneecap bring all the raucous, blood-rushing fire one might feel watching Straight Outta Compton or listening to classic tracks from other Dr Dre/Tupac contemporaries, prompting thoughts of the first young artists with a chip on their shoulder in the shape of the establishment’s neglect, who barrelled generations of frustration into an audible art form. At a certain level of abstraction – through the hardships known to each community are worlds, more than countries, apart – it’s inspiring to think about how the context of Kneecap’s message roughly fits a similar mould. The troubles of Northern Ireland left such a cultural and economic scar on the land that generations would not forget, the air of hurt sticking around for years. The grit and aggression of Kneecap’s sound and image is an artistic manifestation of this and in this way, I believe they deliver the true spirit of hip-hop from a completely Irish core.
Ireland has seen more hip-hop acts come up over the years than one might think, though still not too many. Seeds of where we stand now were planted not too long after the early days of hip-hop globally, with projects like Scary Éire. However, while there is a legacy there that none could deny, in terms of a mainstream scene one might argue that none of these have really stuck. Granted, it’s only really within the last ten to twenty years that the genre has grown from its character of the unruly, unwanted rebel youth into the shiny, commercial crown it wears today as the phenomenon it has become. Thus, we find ourselves in a position for young Irish people who feel that neglect and oppression from the universe – or maybe just the government – to push their message to the world through this megaphone whose mother is frustration, hip-hop. Some players in this game throughout the last four decades have used the tool of humour to easily accelerate their content to centre stage(one could argue Kneecap bring an element of this), for example, TPM, Rubber Bandits and current sensation Versatile. But one notices if one looks in the right places, a subtle surge of new Irish rappers who want to make real, serious music, for young Irish people to listen to and who have the potential to get famous from Ireland outwards, and Kneecap made room for them on the night.
Initially the main concentration of people fell to the back of the hall, with a thick queue to the cloakroom and an even thicker wall of people at the bar. I joined both in that order and subsequently made my way towards the front where the main floor and stage are. The first opening act, Tuath, was not paid a massive amount of attention. An interesting act, the multilingual experimental “trip-hop”/rock group is from Donegal and Mayo. The act before the main show was one I was interested to see, Dyrt, a rapper from Limerick. I knew nothing about him other than the fact that he was on one of Kneecap’s more recent tracks, MAM. It was an excellent performance, and it again made me excited for the future state of hip-hop in the country. Many of these new acts that are coming up are coming out of Limerick, perhaps understandably so; the somewhat stale reputation of “Stab City” hints at more than enough social turmoil for good hip-hop culture. Names to look out for are Denise Chaila, God Knows, Hazey Haze and (especially, I think) Strange Boy.
To deafening roars Kneecap eventually came on, the two lads openly swinging bottles of Buckfast from their hands and DJ Próvaí, the man behind the decks, in his famous tricolour balaclava. The energy was brought to the roof with roars of missing the shows as much as we did, and the songs boomed on throughout the night, right up the walls of the hall and it was clear everyone was thrilled to be back as hoarse voices screamed out the lyrics, even in Irish.
Yes, that’s right – as Gaeilge. This is the X-factor that makes Kneecap so exciting. It’s a centrepiece to their music, going hand-in-hand with their disapproval of the years of fruitless spats between far-out groups on either end of the political compass in Northern Ireland and lip service to Northern Ireland from both Irish and British governments, brashly denouncing and mocking the ridiculousness of a conflict that was taboo all throughout their growing up. With the infallible influence of the main media stage and the ingenious element of youth appreciation via shady, illegal, “antisocial” references and themes, Kneecap is in a very advantageous position to bring the Irish language into mainstream pop culture. Without trying to get my hopes up too much, one wonders, then, at the potential laid here for other upcoming Irish hip-hop acts to do the same, which is why for this music editor, Kneecap is a very, very exciting act.