Something has been stirring in the bellies and balconies of North Dublin estates. These suburbs, previously only notable for their lack of amenities and job prospects (as well as a proliferation of the most depressing churches you’ll ever lay eyes on) have witnessed a hip-hop explosion in the last ten years.
This eruption has taken place in some of the most disadvantaged and dismissed areas of Dublin – particularly Ballymun, an area many inner city Dubliners were shunted to in the 60s and 70s. Local government didn’t seem to have the foresight to realise that these new residents might need, y’know, things to occupy themselves with.
The army of high-rises which originally made up Ballymun have mostly been knocked down and replaced with swankier housing estates, as part of the ongoing regeneration project in the area. Despite the complete lack of facilities for local residents, Ballymun does now boast a Hilton Hotel, in convenient proximity to Dublin Airport.
The Irish boom of the 90s and 00s, known to investors as the Celtic Tiger, never set foot here, all it's seen is bust after bust. Despite this, many of the inhabitants have tried to fight against the ravages of economic recession. It’s in this spirit that the label Workin Class Records was born.
The label was set up in 2003 in order to release four piece hip hop crew’s Urban Intelligence’s Homemade Bombs mixtape, which paid off as the collective consequently managed to land a support slot for Snoop Dogg. Snoop was so impressed upon hearing them that he implored Nas to sign them up to his tour too.
Founding Urban Intelligence member Lunitic parted ways with the group after two years and became involved with Hip Nós, a clubnight where hip-hop and spoken word from Dublin would collide and fuse with traditional Irish Sean Nós singing. Lunitic was a pre-eminent trendsetter, being one of the first Dublin MCs to stop emulating American accents and instead deploying his own.
You can hear his hefty Dublin drawl on his debut and sadly only album – Based On A True Story, of which 1000 were made and given away for free in 2009. The record featured a gaggle of other Irish MCs and musicians, including DJ Moschops, RíRá and popular Dublin singer songwriter Damien Dempsey.
Lunitic died the same year, aged 24, from a heart condition he had struggled with since birth. He continues to serve as an inspiration to the many members of the Workin Class crew.
Products of the Environment released in 2011 by Lunitic's friends and contempories is perhaps the most fitting tribute. The record explores the plight of Irish people at home and abroad, encompassing the Troubles, endemic heroin abuse, political corruption and the present day economic depression.
The album’s stand out track is “Gimme A Reason”. It opens with the late Lunitic, a previously unreleased verse which is apparently the last he recorded.
I caught up with Dean Scurry, a Ballymun native who was instrumental in establishing Workin Class Records, and who manages the label and the artists “from my home and in my head” while also working full time in a local youth centre. We chatted at length about the label and where he saw it going.
“I remember Lunitic once asking me, ‘What do you want to get out of this?’ I’d love to, if we ever make any money out of this, open up a college of creativity in Ballymun. We’re ten years into the label now, and I would imagine within the next five years that it could be a reality”.
Though album sales are low, selling in their hundreds, Workin Class Records gained a lot of exposure last year through Broken Song, an award winning documentary about the scene, premiered at the Copenhagen film festival last year to great acclaim and shown in cinemas across Englad and Ireland. The film follows GI, Costello and young protégé Willa Lee.
I also caught up with Costello, who hails from the bleak Well View estate in the sprawling North West Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown. He released his solo album Illosophical in 2012, and Mary Jane the year after.
“I met Gitsy (GI) in 2007 just after me ma died and we started working on a few tracks. He was workin' with Lunitic and 4 Real at the time.” We also discussed the impact Lunitic’s album had on him and the rest of the lads. “We saw the professionalism he brought to Based On A True Story, and it was the first album that made us go ‘Jesus here’s us recording on a fucking little eight track recorder'."
This revelation has paid off on his latest album Cosmos. Costello offers a view of the world centred from life in Dublin. "There are a lot of issues going on in Dublin, but I think that a lot of people still have a very romantic idea of Ireland, when Dublin has one of the highest gun homicide rates in Europe per capita, and of course a massive heroin problem and drug culture. These are things that I want to get across in my music, whilst always trying to incorporate spirituality and philosophy.”
Irish hip-hop still sounds incongrous with its US counterparts and has long been maligned in the mainstream. But things are changing, the group's recently supported Wu-Tang Clan – at a stomper of a gig that I was lucky enough to be at – and most recently Action Bronson.
The Broken Song documentary has propelled their popularity, spawning more gigs and they're hoping to release at least another two albums in the next six months. Ballymun might have had its towerblocks ripped down, but hip-hop is rising in Dublin.
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