When it comes to street art in Ireland, the North’s politically-charged pieces have always got the headlines, but a recent mural of Stormzy that appeared in Dublin dragged the pop culture discourse down south.
Back in March before Stormzy’s sold-out gig in the Olympia, Smithfield woke up to a three-storey mural of the grime kingpin, sneakily sprayed overnight by graffiti crew Subset. It was selfie central for days, with grime fans, schoolkids and Wicked Skengman himself passing by for a photo op. Stormzy even started using his own selfie at the mural as his phone screensaver.
If this had been a few years ago, it might’ve been painted over in a huff, but the giant Stormzy is still watching over Smithfield Square in his Shut Up red Adidas tracksuit – Dublin’s newest music pilgrimage spot, up there with the Phil Lynott statue off Grafton Street.
For Dublin grime duo Mango & Mathman, it’s just another example of a growing mainstream acceptance of grime and wider hip-hop culture in Ireland, punching up through the underground.
“The culture has changed big time,” says Mango. “For years at house parties I was trying to play grime and people were like, ‘English rappers? Get that shite off’. Now, never mind sticking Stormzy on at a house party, stick him on a big wall in the city. Grime has really helped people get behind Irish accents in hip-hop. It opens people’s ears that you don’t have to be from America.”
Former members of Dublin hip-hop crew The Animators, MC Karl ‘Mango’ Mangan and producer Adam ‘Mathman’ Fogarty are taking a rare time out from the studio to share some thoughts on their new EP Wheel Up, five tracks of ruffneck grime and hardcore through a north Dublin filter. We meet in Wigwam in Dublin city centre and they’re straight into talking about the new release, no small talk.
Mathman says the EP is “for all the ravers who’ve been with us since Forbidden Fruit”, their first high-profile gig as a duo in June. Mango adds: “That was the first gig where we properly road-tested tracks we had for the album, and we picked the ones that were working live and just went with the bangers. After Forbidden Fruit and word of mouth, every single party in a field in the country this year, we were on a stage somewhere playing.”
Mathman says: “We originally wanted to call it Bangers 4 Ca$h, but that eventually became the name of a solo one I put out. Then he showed me this brilliant photo of a young lad doing a wheelie.”
“Alex Sheridan did our first photoshoot years ago when we were in the Animators,” says Mango. “He had this brilliant photo of a lad on the Luas tracks near Sheriff Street, this youngfella with the wheels straight up, not giving a fuck,” says Mango.
Adam: “And he’s ginger…”
Mango: “And he’s in the Air Max, and I thought, ‘That’s the attitude’, I could see it in his eyes, ‘I want this…”
Their track Badman has been bringing the ruckus from day one, but one Wheel Up track, the nosebleed rave bomb Got 2 Have It, blew the soundsystem at Metropolis festival three times last month, and it’s the EP’s biggest call to arms, a gun finger shootout riddled with early Prodigy hardcore synths.
“Ah yeah the Mentasm Hoover! That version we have now is hard as fuck. Sweatin’, strobe lights, the lot,” says Mathman.
Mango says they wanted to tap into that renegade session spirit that Irish crowds summon up at the drop of a hard riff: “We wanna take my voice and my lyrics and put this city’s stamp on it. Dublin has a hard edge, it’s known for hardcore dance music, rave, techno, even going back to the Olympic Ballroom, Columbia Mills. Even when I was growing up, Planet Love and all that, Dublin crowds really resonate with that hardness.”
The pair have that hardness nailed to the ground, with Mathman’s pistol clip percussion and wired-up production tics, and Mango’s gruff Dub slang delivery – I reckon somewhere between Ronnie Drew and grime gut-punch MC Flowdan (“Ah, I’ll fuckin take that, write that down!”)
Mango & Mathman’s word of mouth rise over the last 12 months is part of Irish hip-hop’s wider crossover, covered in great detail in a feature by Dean Van Nguyen in this month’s Totally Dublin. Limerick hip-hop trio Rusangano Family are the current Choice Prize holders; breakout Dublin MC Rejjie Snow has relocated to the US and shares a label with blockbuster artists Migos and Young Thug, and crews like the Word Up Collective are a growing platform for young MCs, producers, poets, soul and R&B singers. Mo K’s weekly RTE Pulse show and his Cypher Series is another outlet for a growing pool of quality MCs in Ireland.
When The Animators launched their debut album in Dublin’s Bernard Shaw in 2013, they had a ‘parental advisory’-style sign sprayed outside: “Warning: Dublin accents.” It was a tongue-in-cheek nod to people’s resistance to Irish rap, but there’s no need for caveats these days.
“The world of MCing and beat-making and rapping now holds equal weight in people’s perspective, in the same sense that bands have had over the years,” says Mathman. “Years ago if you were setting up a rock band or a punk band, it was like, go do your thing, but if you said you were a rapper you were laughed at.”
Mango adds: “It used to be, ‘What the hell are you doing, you wanna be a rapper, wha?’ And they’d do the stupid hand signs. It was so foreign to people here. There were radio stations cutting raps out of pop records. They were cutting out Snoop Dogg’s verse on California Gurls, or the raps from Jenny From the Bloc, they’d literally just cut it out. And nobody came here to play for a long time, why would you?
“But after years that me and him and a lot of the people in this city have put in, the standard goes up. And it means younger generations will be coming up with a higher spec at entry level.”
“Four years ago, if The Animators had been booked at Forbidden Fruit or any of the festivals we would have rocked the show but I guarantee 10-20 people would’ve turned up, they’d have just gone to whatever DJ was playing generic deep house” says Mathman. “But there’s an openness now. And growing crowds at live shows and festivals reinforces the legitimacy of it being played on the radio and vice versa, the curiosity is there. Likewise, if someone goes to a show by [Word Up rapper] Jafaris they might say, ‘Oh shit this is happening in our city’. Then they might hear us and think, holy shit, this music isn’t that alien anymore.
“We just need to keep getting better and raising the bar, to the point where radio and media can’t ignore us, like it’s so good that they have to play it. And that’s already started.”
The pair laugh at 27-year-old Mango being described as an “elder statesman” in the Totally Dublin piece, but it’s not far off – he’s put in the years, and a lot of the other rising MCs are in their teens or barely in their 20s.
“I’m only 27, chill out to fuck!” he says. “Seriously though, where that comes from is maybe that I’ve been making records and tunes since 2007, so you can imagine the number of MCs who’ve came and dropped off, but I’ve constantly been there. So now there’s a lot of contemporaries who are 19, 20, 21, who know I’ve been around.”
Mathman butts in: “I’m worse, I’m 34 and I get called the OG! He’s still in his prime. And don’t print my age, I’m telling you now!”
Mango recently wrote a piece on the real Irish hip-hop OGs Scary Eire for District Magazine called ‘Know your history: The origins of Irish hip-hop’, and the pair clearly defer to their hip-hop lineage. They both featured in this year’s big Electric Picnic talking point The Story of Hip-Hop with the RTE Concert Orchestra – Mathman as creative director and Mango rapping 30-odd years of classics in his own accent, along with DJ Mo K, MC Jafaris and singers Jass Kav and Erica Cody. Closer to home, Mathman says Scary Eire was a real year-zero moment for Irish rap.
“If you have a rich love for the art that you make you should want to research your history,” he says. “You want to research the big bang in Ireland and that big bang was Scary Eire, and how did it evolve from that? Scary Eire was early 90s, man that was like 27 years ago.”
Mango adds: “I tried to explain in the piece, these guys came before the internet, there’s no music videos, there’s no media legacy. And because they’re caught up in labels, and people have problems with samples, or people are in bands that are broken up, none of their stuff is streaming.
“For instance with The Animators, none of that stuff is on Spotify or iTunes, because that’s bringing six lads back together to argue over whatever shite you’re going to get off Spotify, so it’s not fuckin worth it. So the shit thing is these guys end up being honorable mentions. It’s the same as there’ll be a load of house DJs now who won’t have a clue who Larry Levan is, you know.”
The duo’s current origin story begins after The Animators split a few years ago. Even within the group, the pair were tight, as Mathman explains: “Here’s what I had with Mango out of anyone else in that group, I had a friendship. I see a lot of myself in Mango. We think very similarly on a lot of things, completely focused, as in I wanna make this a career, I want to be an artist. The other guys in the group, we just never clicked the same way.
“It was a lot harder for me bringing up the conversation with Mango when it all broke up, as in wondering if we were still friends. It was really awkward but one day I just dropped into his job and within 10 seconds we were back to normal, just what’s the story? Happy days. Oh and by the way, I’ve still got all these tunes…”
“One hundred per cent,” says Mango. “When he came into the job that time, like he said, we were grand, perfect. The reason I went so hard with The Animators and was a spearhead for it, was because I really wanted to do something with this, no fucking around, no monkey business. if I wanted to do that I’d be in a covers band every weekend playing in some fuckin hotel.
“And after the soul sample-based stuff with The Animators, we could’ve just made another modern hip-hop record, but we thought, let’s figure out a new darker, ravier kind of sound, more intense. The reason we made that earlier hip-hop was because all our influences had landed in the middle – but me and Mathman had rave influences or grime or UK bass music influences so we thought, why not explore that?”
The pair’s debut album Casual Work has been in progress since they rejoined last year. Mathman describes it as a “concept album”, saying, “It’s getting so finessed as we grow in terms of our collaborative relationship and our mutual understanding of each other”. They had been rushing to finish it to use as a ticket to play a few festivals, but they ended up playing every single one in the summer, on the back of that initial banging Forbidden Fruit show. So with no pressure, they’re letting it evolve.
“With the Wheel Up EP, for sure that’s a buzz, the rave, the dancefloor stuff. There’s serious messages in it but it’s hard as fuck and it’s just something to turn up in the system,” says Mango.
“With the album I’ve thought about the story arc and that time period of what it’s about. The album is about a three-year period of my life, starting from when The Animators shut down. I had a really shocking year, loads of mad shit happened in my life.
“And also it’s what it was like in Ireland at that time, half my friends in Australia and half working three-hour contract jobs and shit. It’s putting a finger in the air and testing the atmosphere. Like if someone had come back from Sydney in the last four years and said, ‘So what was it like’, I could hand him the album and say, ‘There you go, it was like that’.
Look, my da’s generation had to go through it, and there’ll be another generation after me, young Irish people being exported, our governments failing us. But there’s a lot of hope on the album too…
Mathman agrees: “Yeah, there’s a lot of pride on the album, about being proud of the city that made you, and representing that in the realest way you can. That over-arching story may be very literal, as in this period in Mango’s life that was quite tough, and all the socioeconomic factors that play into that, but the subtext is, ‘I’m still here, I love this city, this city is me, I am this city’. You might have left but we hung in here, and came out the other side better people, and here’s a piece of art.”
“I remember I was still trying to go back to college in 2015, but I was just hanging around, trying to get a grant, up to my neck in it with fuck all money,” says Mango. “In the end I just thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I couldn’t get a grant and I thought, that’s a sign, c’mon I’m fuckin gettin this. I barrelled in, started making tunes left left, right and centre. They were like, ‘Are you coming back next next semester?’ and I thought, ‘Am I bollox, I’m gonna be a rapper, seeya later’. Ha, like I’m walking out with Don’t You Forget About Me blaring in the background.
“You only get your first album once. Here’s the thing, you can’t get worse at rapping. Even all these rappers who are 50-odd, the only reason they can’t make pop records is because they don’t know what’s hot right now, but they’re the best. If it’s the only album I make it’ll be the best album I’ll ever make. I know we’re taking our time, but it’s not gonna be some fuckin D’Angelo thing where you’re gonna get one every 20 years…”
Mathman: “It fuckin might be!”
The pair wrack their brains to think what they were doing this exact time last year, before all the turnt-up live reviews, high-profile support slots and the surreal spectacle of seeing people sing Mango’s bars and rocking their merch at festivals.
“I’m not even sure we’d played a gig this time last year,” says Mathman. “Actually you know what we were doing, we were finishing off What Are U Saying? the second single. We were shooting a video in a car park on Trinity Street. It was a freezing cold fuckin November Sunday, I was hangin’. That’s where we were, finishing that off, trying to get some buzz going.”
That buzz has ended up with them at the end of the year playing Other Voices in Dingle at the start of next month, and supporting hip-hop and UK garage pioneer Mike Skinner of The Streets on December 28.
Mathman says that Other Voices is “hands down the biggest one”, in terms of the pair crossing over, out of the basement raves. He adds: “The reason we got so excited when that was announced was that it completely legitimises what we do as artists, gives us parity with the incredible folks singers and bands and artists that are at these events every single year. But they will never have heard anything what they’re about to hear when we go down there. Poor old Dingle! Dingle is about to get mashed up, I’m telling you right now! Open fires, some grime in the background…
Mango: “Some ginger lad rappin’, sweatin’.”
The Mike Skinner gig has a deeper personal resonance, as Mathman explains: “A lot of him has manifested in us I think, sonically, lyrically, attitude-wise. Mike Skinner is probably the artist who has influenced us more than anyone else. It’s literally the end of the year, and to finish the year we’ve had opening for him is the best Christmas present of all fuckin time. We are delighted… so he better not cancel!”
“As always, both of us are super appreciative and humbled by all the opportunities and the support we’re all getting,” says Mango. “Because to be honest, we just wanna make deadly tunes and the response we’ve got is mind-blowing. But my sights are further set. This year was deadly, but next year is gonna be fuckin mental. Because I fuckin want it… I want it. Ha there’s that montage music again…”
- Wheel Up is out December 7, with a launch on December 7 at The Complex in Smithfield in Dublin (FREE). Mango & Mathman play Other Voices, which runs from December 1-3 in Dingle (see othervoices.ie).