‘People are vibing off each other’s cultures’: Hare Squead and the rise of Irish rap

Dublin’s once-insular music scene is being transformed by a global-facing DIY hip-hop scene. It’s a long way from the hackneyed Irish music stereotypes of Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl

Down a dingy industrial backstreet, a queue assembles outside Hangar, a former shirt factory in the heart of the creative quarter of Dublin. Guests, unperturbed by the rain drenching their outfits, are gathered for a regular rap, trap and R&B club night. Inside, there is a welcome lack of posturing and posing; instead, dance-offs and school-disco snogging are scored by Big Sean, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky and Fetty Wap. Three men in particular – one holding court on the dancefloor with his top off, the other two behind the decks – are orchestrating the mood of the club. Jessy Rose, Tony Konstone and Lilo Blues, otherwise known as Hare Squead, are a local group who are about to go global.

Squead are pioneers of a creative boom taking place in Dublin. Their music is a very contemporary fusion of trap, rap, R&B, pop, jazz and electronics; their song Zoo of the New was inspired by a Sylvia Plath poem, while Christian music is a big influence on their chords and harmonies. They have Ed Sheeran’s business savvy, compositional expertise , plus chiselled jaws and puppyish enthusiasm. So much so that, when we meet Rose, he tries to insist we go trampolining rather than do the interview.

Before the club, we meet in a slot machine-filled, dimly lit pub in Tallaght, the suburb where Konstone and Blues grew up. Their childhoods weren’t always easy. “I could have easily sold drugs. I won’t even lie,” Konstone says. “That would have been quick money for me, especially where I’m living.”

Rose first met his two childhood friends in Temple Bar Square in the centre of the city. He was drawn to them immediately, surprised to see two black kids with skateboards. He thought he was the only one.

“There were a couple of black people around me [growing up], but they were different to the way I am because I was into Fall Out Boy and skating. I was comfortable being around white people, but they always saw me as goofy and different. I never really fitted into one group.”

Forming in 2014, they put their song If I Ask – a bright, booming Tinie Tempah-like creation – on SoundCloud, and soon there was a lot of interest. They supported Nas and Joey Bada$$ and played with a six-piece band, appearing at a lot of indie festivals to ensure they weren’t restricted to rap events. They eventually signed to Columbia and have since seen their fanbase change from mostly men to “85%” women, perhaps due to 2016’s breakout hit Herside Story, a sugary, soulful love song that turned them into teen heartthrobs. During their tour supporting Dua Lipa last year, Rose would frequently forget that the first row of the audience were now very young girls who weren’t expecting a well-built 20-year-old man to crowdsurf. “I keep forgetting that our crowds aren’t what they used to be,” he says.

Jafaris: ‘I was kind of exposed to a lot of robbing, a lot of shooting.’
Jafaris: ‘I was kind of exposed to a lot of robbing, a lot of shooting.’ Photograph: Record Company Handout

The band’s burgeoning popularity has been instrumental in nudging the industry gaze towards the Irish capital. Driven by an independent, DIY spirit, artists such as Erica Cody, Simi Crowns, Jafaris, Charlotte Headon and the Neomadic crew, among others, are reconfiguring what it means to make Irish music – a term formerly associated with indie, folk, rock and bodhrán-thrumming ceilidhs. Dublin rapper Rejjie Snow has made a significant dent in the US in the past few years, and recent documentaries Broken Song and Irish Rappers Revealed have explored the northside of Dublin and its mostly white, working-class rap scene. But it’s Hare Squead’s accessible charm that has put Dublin – primarily multicultural Dublin – at the centre of future-facing mainstream music.

Fachtna O Ceallaigh, Sinéad O’Connor’s former manager who now looks after Hare Squead, believes this new generation of musicians are a sign of Ireland’s evolving society. Not long ago, it was insular, “agricultural, rural and contentedly Catholic” – now it’s a bustling, “outward-looking” place.

“I think that is what we’re beginning to experience here now, as manifested by Hare Squead, is music that mixes hip-hop and R&B, an African feel and diverse influences like Nirvana, Panic at the Disco and Feist,” he says. “The end result is the beginnings of a style that’s not overly American and not dominated by whatever is current, but is beginning to forge an identity of its own.”

Konstone, whose parents moved from Egypt to Dublin when he was two, also recognises the ways in which the merging communities of Dublin have impacted on the music. “We were the first generation of black kids going to school,” he explains. “It was different for the white kids and it was different for us as well – we hadn’t seen that many white kids before! It was a weird thing but we were growing into it, and as the years went on, cultures evolved and mixed together. You get creative. And people are vibing off each other’s [cultures]. It’s like Toronto in a sense in that people are friendly and accepting.”

A key launchpad for this new creative energy – in addition to publications such as District magazine and the blog Nialler9 – is Diffusion Lab, a “collaborative hub” that functions as a label and studio, and enlists writers, musicians and in-house producers. Jafaris is one of its core acts: his song If You Love Me is a cavernous blast of emotion that Beyoncé might fall for. He was born in Zimbabwe but, like Blue and Konstone, now lives in Tallaght, a place he describes as “a mixture of the hood and the suburbs. I was kind of exposed to a lot of robbing, a lot of shooting, but I stayed away from all of that.”

Soulé: ‘We are Irish to the core.’
Soulé: ‘We are Irish to the core.’ Photograph: Maansi Jain

He says that, while indie acts have historically been dominant in most live venues, the climate is changing and nights are being overtaken by hip-hop. “There’s a lot of promoters shining light on underground artists; there’s this Straight Outta Dublin event that happens every month. It’s a movement.”

Unlike fellow Irish exports who wear their heritage overtly – from the politically charged songs of U2, Boomtown Rats, Sinéad O’Connor or the region-specific rhymes of northside rappers such as Costello and Lethal Dialect – this new wave of artists are outward-looking and global-sounding. Comments on Hare Squead’s YouTube videos often raise the absence of their Irish accents in their vocals. This is something experimental pop songwriter Soulé, one of Diffusion Lab’s other excellent offerings, thinks is a narrow-minded criticism.

“A lot of us, for example myself and Hare Squead, we are Irish to the core,” she says. “We went to an Irish school, but a lot of us are growing up in multicultural homes, with different accents in the home. Sometimes our parents will have an English-French accent, or an English-American accent because we watch American TV. I am an Irish singer-songwriter. Hare Squead are an Irish rap band. I don’t know what else we can say for people to accept that, even if we don’t use Irish slang in our songs.”

It probably doesn’t help that often the Irish figures at the forefront of the mainstream media are still pub-dwelling, wisecracking cartoon figures, from Mrs Brown’s Boys to Sheeran’s Galway Girl.

“I love Ed Sheeran’s music and I love the ideas and stuff, but it’s just painting a stereotype of Ireland. I don’t know any girls who play a fiddle in an Irish band. There probably are some, but I haven’t met one,” Blue says. “I’ll take you to Grafton Street – you won’t see one girl playing the fiddle,” adds Rose.

“There’s not a Grafton Street in Galway! I don’t think that song helped,” Blue says. He leans in close to the voice recorder: “But I love your music, Ed, please don’t hate me.”

Hopefully, such one-dimensional caricatures will soon be a thing of the past. There’s a change taking place that is writing a new chapter in Dublin’s musical history. Hare Squead are keen to explore the US – Rose says they want to be “bigger than the Beatles” and they are itching to take up offers from producers in LA – but they will leave behind a thriving scene and city.

“People need to come to Dublin and see it’s multicultural and a melting pot of different nationalities,” says Soulé. “They need to educate themselves and come and have some fun with us. We love a good time.” If the raging crowds at 1am on Monday night at Hangar are anything to go by – extravagantly body-popping in a febrile, friendly riot – it’s impossible to disagree


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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