In a small country with a rich history of oral storytellers, it's only recently that young Irish rappers have had much success. Dance music was primarily the youth culture vehicle through which teenagers rebelled against the status quo of guitar rock and hyper-manufactured Eurovision pantomime, but like the country as a whole, things have changed dramatically in recent years.
Rap is now one of Ireland's most free-spirited, sprawling scenes, its artists not yet inhibited by industry rules. There are exciting Irish drill rappers, spoken word-inspired spitters such as Nealo and Denise Chaila, nonconformist loners like NONZUS MAGNUS, doom-shrouded rappers like Invader Slim, boom bap revivalists like Leo Miyagee. There’s something for everyone, and it’s not just Dubliners thriving anymore.
To drifting tourists and ignorant denizens from home and abroad, Limerick might seem to have little to contribute to Irish cultural history. This couldn't be further from the truth: the west coast county lays claims to being the birthplace of the Dolores O'Riordan-fronted 90s alt rock band The Cranberries; apocryphally, it was where the Limerick poem originated; and it's the hometown of actor Ruth Negga and OG Dumbledore Richard Harris. Its most famous gift to British cultural life, however, was late BBC broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose silky, supernaturally calming tones vibrated across British airwaves for decades.
Over the past few years, Limerick has become a hotspot for both mind-expanding experimental music and riotous rap. Not exactly the kind of stuff Wogan would have spun on BBC breakfast radio. It’s a city so overflowing in local DIY talent, in fact, it has assumed an unofficial title: Ireland’s capital of underground culture. Féile na Gréine ("festival of the sun"), the city-wide festival showcasing the country's most vital underground artists, is now a yearly pilgrimage attracting independent music nerds from the island's four corners. Alongside collectives such as The Unscene and DIY LK, PX Music – a hip-hop label and collective formally active since 2018 – is helping lead a subversive local scene unbound by history or conventions.
It was back in 2016, though, when the city's rap scene had its "The South Got Something To Say" moment, after Rusangano Family took home the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize. Made up of Zimbabwean-Irish rapper God Knows, Togolese-Irish poet and rapper MuRli and producer MynameisjOhn, the group’s debut, Let The Dead Bury The Dead, made a national splash in a genre that, up until that point, was widely dismissed as unserious and juvenile by white gatekeepers and rockist tastemakers. Before them, Limerick rap's original breakthrough came via plastic bag-wearing comedy rap duo The Rubberbandits, whose satirical songs in the early 2010s created an audience for the Limerick accent’s piercing trill.
Referred to disdainfully for years as Stab City, Limerick battled against its national reputation as a place where violent knife crime festers. An irreverent spokesperson on social issues in Ireland, Rubberbandits' figurehead Blindboy helped erase the city’s macabre nickname, which had always stunk as classist fear-mongering. And even though Dolores O’Riordan’s soothingly hard "t" enunciations shimmered into the bedrooms of angsty teens across the world in the 1990s, it wasn’t until these supermarket bag-festooned humorists emerged that the city's twang was fully normalised on-record.
Bridging the gap between Blindboy's absurdism and the local hip-hop authenticity of Rusangano Family, the PX Music collective comprises rappers DaVinci, Hazey Haze, Strange Boy, Citrus Fresh, Aswell and Krome, as well as producers Mankyy and AKIA. After spending some time hosting a student radio show called Hip Hop Nation, Sean Murray, AKA DJ Replay, started running rap-oriented gigs in Limerick, in 2017, under the banner of "Prescription".
Replay and his friends hosted some of the country’s hottest rappers, as well as young rappers from the city, some of whom would later join PX Music. In April of the following year, a young MC called GavinDaVinci approached Murray, prepositioning him on releasing his debut album as part of a "Prescription" label. Not long after, DaVinci’s Mr. MAAD the Inventor project signalled the birth of PX Music.
The label's releases bristle with colloquialisms and harsh-seeming brogues that might sound like crows cawing to a foreigner on first listen. Though it helps that the music is fiery and freewheeling, what differentiates PX from Ireland's current class of rappers is their steadfast commitment to re-imagining American rap styles – 90s east coast rap, jazzy backpack rap, art-rap experimentalism – through a working-class Irish lens. Neo-noir dispatches from forgotten estates in modern Ireland, where brawling, drug-fuelled binges, unrequited love, treacherous betrayals and joblessness are an everyday anxiety.
A through line in their work is an examination of what it means to be considered a scumbag in narrow-minded Irish towns and cities. Many of their songs are also a reclamation of Limerick as a multidimensional place unto itself; a city not defined by a violent minority in its past or present, but by its moral character and cultural value. "Fuck stab city, fuck stab city," Hazey Haze screams on his debut album, "This is rap city."
"Young lads that would have in the past probably been at war with each other over being from neighbouring hoods are taking to the stage together and putting Limerick on the map," says Podge, from the city’s manic agitpop-rave group Post Punk Podge & the Technohippies. "With the high suicide rates, young people need an outlet, and rap is providing that."
Heavily narcotised and eternally prepared to throw fists, PX’s rappers have a spontaneous spirit. They’re masters of anarchic energy, of blood and guts and MDMA crystals, especially at their much-lauded sweatbox gigs at Pharmacia, a local venue where they’re permitted to go berserk. For all of their music’s nastiness and ecstasy, though, PX’s subversion comes from aesthetic innovation: a recalibration of what Irish rap should sound and feel like.
As a result, they're the country’s most essential rap clique. Expect smartly savage lyricism, beatmaking chops, shards of the Irish language and torqued vowels in songs that make Limerick rap inimitable in the Anglophone world. Their smattering of early-career releases bode well for Irish hip-hop – and for Limerick culture at large. Here are the collective’s main players:
Hazey Haze is the wizard-bearded, larger-than-life figure at the heart of the PX crew. He first made a name for himself in 2015 as part of Same D4Ence, a rap trio who regularly worked with the founding fathers of contemporary Limerick rap production, Naive Ted and mynameisjOhn. Before his impressive 2020 solo debut album, Is Mise, Hazey had released six EPs on his Bandcamp across two years, making him by far the most prolific of PX’s roster.
Is Mise ("I am", translated from Irish) – whose cover shows a bare-chested Hazey straddling a horse, hurley-on-hip – is a drugged-out odyssey through his life and his beloved city, alternately self-loathing and self-adoring. He sneers at past romantic partners and parochial naysayers (“Smirking”), reveals his grandmother was a drug peddling life-inspiration (“N.W.A.D.D Nana”) and celebrates chemical highs while despising their attendant lows.
His specialty, though, is abysmally dark, terrorising fight music. Rib-rattling back-alley brawler anthems, performed with a broad smirk (“What’s That”, “Is Mise”). It helps that he sounds like his vocal chords are some molten cocktail of shattered whiskey bottles and cigarette ash (accent aside, he's regularly compared to Flatbush Zombies’ coal-throated Meechy Darko). Ignoring his bark, he can also come across as cool, conversational, funny, love-struck. But even on more low-key songs (“N.W.A.D.D Nana” ), his voice loses none of its heft and flesh.
Armed with a particularly menacing squawk is Tipperary native GavinDaVinci, PX's most freeformed rapper. Usually self-produced, his breakneck, 808-reliant songs are equal parts unhinged and heartfelt; local trap mutations sit side-by-side with New York rap canon nostalgia. DaVinci's got reams of style and charisma to boot: his cadence is full-throated and his cartoonish ad-libs double as texture, giving his staggered bursts of writing freedom to linger.
Though Mr. Maad The Inventor was a great introduction piece, his excellent 2019 follow-up, Superscumbagmode, was PX’s watershed moment. On it, he manages to sound both uptight and impossibly free, rapping about mental health troubles, bare-knuckle fighting and an organ-incinerating drug habit.
Gnarly album opener “Introducing” sees him rap gleefully, in glorious Irish vernacular, about stalking Limerick's streets as a “vampire bowsie”. Or there’s “Dejavu”, where he plays the role of the far removed southern Republican: “Screaming free Derry when I’ve never seen the place / No balaclava on my face.” A madcap performer who shreds Hiberno-English into bloodstained, zany rap, DaVinci is the group’s ODB, but somehow also its RZA. His refreshingly strange songs show why, and how, the unvarnished rural Irish accent can work in rap.
Three years ago, the voice of Strange Boy surfaced online after a SoundCloud link to his now-deleted “Cold Mornings” song was shared on Twitter by Blindboy. This was my inauguration to post-Rusangano Limerick rap, and I was struck by what I heard: hypnotic flows and knotty, anguished writing about having to wake up every morning and face crushing poverty, all seasoned with a tauntingly boyish Limerick accent. He sounded hungry.
Although the flat-cap-wearing rapper has no full projects under his belt, he may well be the most gifted, no-frills lyricist in the collective. A string of releases on SoundCloud demonstrate the raw candour of his writing, which often has a melancholic and pain-stricken bent. His is a mind at unease. Case in point is “Tales from the Heart Part 1", a short, explosive, hookless loosie from 2019 that saw him open up for the first time about his late grandfather. Heady stuff, but he leavens these moments with spots of playfulness.
On “Pennies Paid,” taken from Mankyy’s Character Development project, as his electrifying flow contorts and pinballs towards both poles, he skewers plastic paddies. “Are you an Irishman or just a souvenir?” Ripping through his songs like he was raised on a diet of early Eminem and Dizzee Rascal, Strange Boy is a proud traditionalist, a morose seanachí whose oral histories remain largely untold. Every intricately syllabic verse he spits sounds like it might be his last.
With two EPs under his belt, Citrus Fresh makes music in the same squalidly claustrophobic vein as Earl Sweatshirt. Coasting through his deceptively casual verses with a slight lisp and a quiet confidence, Citrus’ best songs are existential laments: to modern love, morality, Irish weather patterns, going on the session with friends and strangers until sun beams creep through the curtains.
"DiCaprio", from his _Early Days/Late Night_s EP, one of his best tracks, is a break-up song languishing in a lo-fi hip-hop haze. A twinkling sample recalling the Playstation 1 start-up music casts the rapper as a temporary loner in his room – sullen, heartbroken, dislocated from everyday normality. "I was lovesick, now I’m all better / Flat 7UP and a warm sweater,” he raps, painting a picture of vulnerability post-break up.
On “Teeth,” taken from the even-better Smile EP, Fresh sets up another scene where he is dejected, broke, full to the gills with drugs and regret. The distortion-shredded drones and broken clock-ticking drums lend the song a spiralling weirdness. Landing on the same project, though, is “Brains”, a pleasantly warm, jazz-inflected beat that allows his zonked-out rapping to take centre stage, including one passage where he is sitting in the back of a car splattered with Princess Diana’s brains. Acerbic bars like this are among the reasons PX rappers stand out in an increasingly crowded Irish rap scene.
PX’s resident beatmaker, Mankyy is one of the country's premier producers (save for Cork’s Jar Jar Jr, he’s almost peerless). The Clare native dropped his Character Development EP on New Year’s Day in 2017, adding his name to a fledgling network of Irish hip-hop producers. 2018's The Lonesome Planet Man honed in even more on the fuzzy, obscure jazz samples he favours, ebbing and flowing between the grittiness of America’s east coast tradition and the fogginess of easy listening beat-tape hip-hop.
Painstakingly detailed and a touch trippy, his work on DaVinci's superscumbagmode and rapper Clerk 5’s Popstarr is some of his most vital. It wouldn’t be unimaginable to hear American rappers – post-boom bap artists like Mike, Medhane or Mavi, for instance – riding his odd and billowing strain of beat.
Rapper Aswell emerged from anonymity in 2017, after featuring on Character Development. The following year, he released a solo EP, Ambiguous, produced in its entirety by Mankyy. "hello kitty", the EP’s opening track, was visualised in the group’s "Somewhere in Ireland" collaboration series with SESH FM last year, and it’s a good introduction to the rapper's signature croak. His monotone, unfussy delivery complements his preferred beat, which is jazzy and minimalist.
He’s had some strong features in recent months, showing face on Haze and DaVinci’s albums. His verse on“Dejavu” on the latter’s project – in which he raps erratically, in a stop-start-stop-start flow, about feasting on the carcass of a dead Garda (police officer) – is a certain career highlight.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.