Here at Chordblossom, we are committed to covering the latest and best in Northern Irish music. This week, we are dedicating our coverage to the growing grass-roots Hip Hop and Rap movement occurring in NI. From groups such as Mabfield and Nexgen, to solo performers and producers, these underground creatives have quickly established themselves as essential components of NI’s creative lifeblood. Through a series of interviews, reviews and recommendations we hope to tell the story behind some of the artists who are pushing this exciting new scene and shed some light on the NI take on the fastest growing genre in the world.
While its extremely easy to get excited about the buzz from the Southern hip hop acts spreading to the North, it is important to realise where the foundations for such acts came from. As far back as the 1990s (shoutout Scary Éire), there have been performers who cater to the whims of a hungry audience. This appreciation for old school styles and modern attitudes carried on into the North thanks to the efforts of groups such as Elixir. In what initially started as a regular showcase in Voodoo grew to performance curations at Stendhal and a network of event organisers that spread out across the country. The two founders of Elixir, David Gilmore and Andy Hasson, have several decades of musical experience between them, and continue to run their Voodoo showcases for a legion of regular attendees and hopeful performers.
Gilmore, who sat down with Chordblossom, got his start in the mid-2000s when Hasson whose company (Antidote Sound Systems) invited him up to put on a show. The two hit it off and conspired to great a night that catered to hip-hop fans who lacked a conventional night of their own. “Andy and I just got chatting afterwards and decided to combine resources and putting on bigger stuff,” he explained “Our first show was 2017 and we got Shogun over from Glasgow. He had just gone viral with Vulcan, and then we got Shane Dean, Steve Locke and Dexter locally to come down for our first night. We’ve really just been building from there.”
Emphasis on the build. Elixir has now spawned into a quarterly event that brings larger UK names and underground, aspiring artists onto the same stage as well as providing a fertile ground for networking and establishing a relationship within the scene. It’s open mic’s and cyphers have been the first step in many of Belfast’s local MC’s careers. “That’s the whole reason we exist, to give people a platform locally because we’re passionate about giving artists a chance to develop.” With a live performance that features DJ’s (“the backbone of every rap show”) and several artists, Elixir is one of the few nights that provides a space for creatives to get their first show. “We encourage anyone who rhymes locally or from further afield to come down and get involved and if they excel we usually book them for the next show. We usually get the headliner from someone who is doing something really interesting in Ireland.” With nights that can vary from 60 or 70 to selling out the Oh Yeah Centre, it’s clear that Elixir fulfils an unseen but growing demand.
A life long fan of the genre and occasional performer, Gilmore was determined to go where few other promoters dared in the North – “If it wasn’t for Antidote (Portrush hiphop collective) we would have had no where to go. You just don’t get performances at hip hop nights in bars or nightclubs. we want to build on that and help other people grow and give them a chance.” Having booked the likes of Ri Ra and Hazy Haze from the south and names such as Lowkey and Jam Baxter from the UK, Gilmore claims that the scene has never been more vibrant, nor demanding. “The interest is there. People like the open mics, seeing the new talent get up to perform, letting other people perform and see people get their names out, and they like coming down and seeing there’s a whole community going on.”
With a dearth of international acts, many of whom skip Belfast for Dublin, Elixir remains one of the bright spots that are content to create its own scene, fuelled mostly by the dedication and drive of local talent. Despite running into difficulties – Belfast being a “techno/house city” (“those nights sell themselves”), and a lack of local coverage – Gilmore maintained that NI rappers can hang with their contemporaries, mainstream recognition be dammed. “Our artists are every bit as good, if not BETTER, than the artist down south. I have no problem saying that. There are amazing artists in Derry (Northwest Hip Hop), they supported Lowkey at our last show and blew the room away. the DB MC’s, they are one of the best live groups I have ever seen, I’m in a group called Waking Android, we’ve won BOTB at Sea Sessions against five-piec rock bands. So the talent is there.”
“Ireland is supposed to the land of the poets or something, I down know why there is a lack of appreciation of it. Maybe people have a stereotypical view of it, they’re still in that mindset of ‘Oh people are trying to be American’ and not recognising the homegrown talent that we have.”
For Gilmore, a growing respect for MC’s can only come with an equal growth in production: Recording, beats, mixes and masters need to be on the level of international artists. “The music has always been great so hopefully everything else around the music will increase recognition.” With an increase in personal respect for there product and creations, audiences will follow and “listen to everything a bit more, not just their mates.” And the change is coming. In the past few years, Gilmore has seen a shift in appreciation that has been missing since the early 2000s and its started from the ground up. “I think people are starting to jump on earlier and a bit more. Introducing people to new artists, new Irish artists… The future is bright. It’s getting there, definitely.”
You can read the rest of our coverage of the Northern Ireland Hip Hop and Rap scene on our dedicated Momentum page.