"export readiness", the Irish Hash Mafia, and the twin futures of the scene

It's a story about the tension between industry and DIY, between going global and putting your friends on, between NEW MUSIC OTW and unexpected zip file. Between major label, indie label, and just hitting upload.

"export readiness", the Irish Hash Mafia, and the twin futures of the scene
keanu the pilot, emby, rory sweeney, tony bontana, yeire13 @ irish hash mafia live in the button factory

In the first few pieces for Fourth Best, I covered how the streaming economy takes music away from its local contexts, and our desire to be the opposite. I talked about why what artists like Curtisy, TCXL and Fynch are doing is pushing the Irish hip-hop landscape to new heights. I talked about iconic gigs, YouTube links, and the need to preserve our community's best work. Over on social media, I tried putting my thoughts into actions and started pointing my new camera at the local gigs I was going to; and without really even trying to, ended up seeing three Curtisy sets in two countries.

All roads, for now, lead to here - the most prolific month any Irish rapper might ever have, and the community around him. He's a bit of a main character in this arc; all throughout the month of May he seemed inescapable. His album, of course, overcame a bit of a shock to land on honest-to-god record store shelves around the country, his music videos were varied yet authentic and professional. On the same day he landed on another debut LP put out by a Belgian label this one by the enigmatic Sloucho, an artist dealing in a seemingly limitless spectrum spanning techno, grime and Latin bass. Two weeks later Curtisy had half an album's worth of verses on Carlos Danger presents Irish Hash Mafia. By the end of the month he'd hopped on a track with Lil Skag (who I'll get to on this website some day, and that's a promise) and with two days to go he was on the Music From Ireland stage in a courtyard in the dead centre of Barcelona, two DJs in tow.

Listen - it's not even going to be the last time I write about the guy. I've been trying to get an interview planned. Unless I can see a lot more Irish gigs for the rest of the summer, I'm not beating the Curtisy fan-site allegations, even as I spend half this article talking about everyone else. It's a story about the tension between industry and DIY, between going global and putting your friends on, between NEW MUSIC OTW and unexpected zip file. Between major label, indie label, and just hitting upload.

somewhere downtown barcelona, may 30th 2024.

I'm a Primavera Sound lifer at this point, having been to the Spanish festival far more often than any Irish equivalent. For that sin, each year I seek penance down at Music From Ireland, running at the festival's parallel track for industry heads, but it's open to the public. For nothing more than the cost of getting absolutely fucking cooked in direct midday sunlight, you'll see a couple of acts that got filtered on the intangible idea of "export readiness", playing to a mix of slowly-reddening Big Irish Heads and an audience that you'd hope consists of a few festival bookers, journalists, etc. Y'know what? I really like it. I don't know how useful it is for the artists, but it feels nice in general! It's good to give some artists a win. I'd love if these opportunities were more accessible, but they're a net good if you ask me. The fact that you get to play your gig and then go to the best festival in the world afterwards is just a nice bonus for any artist.

It's like a little simulator of what the vibe might be like if you picked Forbidden Fruit instead that weekend, and were rewarded with cozy blue skies and drinks under a fiver. The list of names I've seen there over the years isn't half bad. The Curtisy set lands in alongside what felt to me like landmark apparances from Bricknasty, Negro Impacto and Kojaque in previous years. Even when I don't know the names I leave having had fun. LAOISE made the case for pop stardom in 2019, and it was good to get Le Boom before they stopped being fun and instead became something uniquely bad. I saw Fontaines DC play that stage and didn't really get it then. I still don't, but they ended up being a main-stage act at the actual festival a few years later, so what do I know.

dream deep heavy sleeper... Kojaque in the CCCB five years ago.(If you're keeping track of every time I mention the pandemic on Fourth Best, just know it was in the way of this scrapped lineup for 2020: Alex Gough, Erica Cody, Kitt Philippa, Junior Brother and MELTS. I would probably have paragraphs about that here. Give 'em another chance please and thanks.)

In 2019, I recorded a video on my phone of Kojaque doing one of his Deli Daydreams cuts - Bubby's Cream - and I tagged its producer. jarjarjr, a Corkman and lo-fi legend who'd be set for life if SoundCloud plays paid the bills. Bubby's Cream changed everything when it dropped - not the first we'd heard of Kojaque, but the thing that locked in his destiny. By the end of the year they were changing the rules of the Choice Music Prize to give him a fair shot. Sun beaming in Barcelona; cult classic from Cork to Dublin ringing out on the way to the best festival in the world. It felt like we were witnessing Kojaque setting the new standard bringing Gaptoof, Bubby Halz, and the rest of the Soft Boy stable with him on the way up; was easy to hold onto the hope that it was always, and only, going to get better from here. I was still young and trying to make my own record label work; you take the inspiration you can get. Five years and two Kojaque albums after that day in Barcelona, he's been on an interesting path to the top; a label deal inked and lost, artists spinning out their own imprints (Luka Palm's BUG LIFE and jarjarjr's International Beat Machines), two massive and ambitious albums, a lot of international touring, etc. I think he's doing his best work recently. At some point in the middle of this, jarjarjr might have become the best rapper in the country. Not the ending I had in mind. Kojaque was actually an early Curtisy supporter; he offered his voice to the Men On A Mission remix - a song we've already shouted out as essential and which will be name-dropped several times in this article.

Curtisy in the CCCB in 2024 and Kojaque in the CCCB in 2019 is a very obvious comparison, but I'm going to do it. Both approached the stage in the light of independent projects from upstart labels that raised the bar for how an Irish rap record could be brought into the world, getting every bit of life out of beats made by close friends. Dublin to the world.

In the publicly funded music world, the term that gets thrown around the most is Export Readiness. Ireland, the story goes, is a small place. If you're making a career out of music, you're probably going to have to make that money abroad. We fly in the gatekeepers for Ireland Music Week, we fly artists to them at things like Primavera Pro. For artists on the cusp of potential with the right teams behind them, a lot of their first few summers get spent on this circuit.

My thoughts on the concept are fuzzy. On one hand, I love seeing the engine in motion. I love seeing that The Mary Wallopers can put on a show that convinces ten European festivals to book them on its strength. On the other hand, I wish Ireland could be enough. I wish a life could be made from music that's unabashedly local. I wish music wasn't a competitive scramble for limited resources. Most of all I feel very relieved I hesitated instead of filling out those SXSW forms a good while ago, and I feel heartbroken for the bands who stood up to boycott this year. Make sure you give them your support.

Standing back in Barcelona though, I like seeing the likes of Curtisy get that stamp of approval, the sense that with the right eyes on him, he's fit to go global. I mean, I agree. This article is really about a balance. The ability to make absolutely mad shit and have the right people beside you that you get to keep doing that while the stages get bigger. Local labels with the power to break past the borders. Quality over industry; just a bit of industry all the same. Bigger, riskier bets.

I'm no gambling man but bigger stages is a safe bet. Cherish the tiny stages while we can as the rise begins, and hope this is a rising tide that can carry a few more boats as well. Who knows, maybe we'll see Men on a Mission played in the CCCB again next year; Brook Records, who've put together that masterful Curtisy album campaign, just signed Ahmed, with Love. and have him lined up for Ireland Music Week.

making cheddar in the cellar

The Workman's Cellar isn't that bigger stage we're aspiring to, but you can get a pint of Beamish there, so all things considered I rate it as a venue. It has the absolute joy of not really ever feeling empty. You can be one of twenty or two hundred people standing in it and it feels like a good crowd; so it started off feeling like a big one and by the time Curtisy's set wrapped up it felt like actual history. Around the corner in the Button Factory, TraviS & Elzzz were doing their home-town headliner; twin futures for the scene. I missed a bunch of the support slots at that Curtisy gig, but I thankfully made it in the door for Ahmed, With Love.

A,w/L. – who has the full stop at the end of his name and every song he's released – is the most charismatic rapper in Ireland, and he guaranteed himself legend status without putting out a project through a mix of... semi-professional wrestling and the kind of community resilience all artists should strive for. I didn't make it to "Clash at the Quays!" so I just have to deal with the legend as the internet shows it; a gig that transformed the entire Dublin scene around it into a wrestling event complete with an entirely separate gig that also was a press conference, a Four Loko sponsorship, a lot of masks, and getting powerbombed through a table. One of the gigs I did make it to was styled as his birthday party and had goodie bags handed out at the doors; promoted with a baking-themed lyric video guest starring Curtisy, Rory Sweeney and Julia Louise Knifefist. I guess that's a good intro to his whole deal; absolutely floating over a bossa nova beat while getting a bit goofy with it. God bless.

he was in workman's getting real sturdy.

Even without the theatrics and set pieces, he puts on probably one of the best shows in the country - a few more broken tables wouldn't hurt us though. He's got a commanding presence, a deep reservoir of unreleased bangers, and brings Curtisy up for a solid half of his tunes - vice versa for Curtisy's set, who also brought him up in Barcelona.

Both Curtisy and Ahmed, with Love. did Men On A Mission in their sets: I recorded both. The sound isn't the greatest in the world but I think it captures the vibe.

Curtisy gets a lot of comparisons to one of his biggest stated influences, Earl Sweatshirt, but he's not the first Irish rapper to get the label. It means something totally different these days, both both versions make it high praise. The first time I ever heard someone throw the phrase "Irish Earl Sweatshirt" around, Lecs Luther in 2011 had the dense flow and the Odd Future edge feeling surprisingly nautral. His come-up had a bunch of weird twists and turns: Blindboy handed him a beat that we should be calling a national treasure. Earl followed him on Twitter in the days right after Samoa. He had to change his name as the hype built up, and before long he was known as Rejjie Snow. He trolled too close to the sun; Pigeons & Plans asked if he was the much-hyped anonymous rapper Captain Murphy, later revealed to be Flying Lotus. Rejjie decided to go with it. Earl hit unfollow, Rejjie went stateside to play football, and as his style developed into something of its own, the Earl comparisons dropped off a bit. The road was longer than expected, but it would be impossible to call Rejjie anything but Ireland's biggest rap export at this point. By 2016, he told Dean Van Nguyen that he found the early stuff a bit cringey, and in the same interview he said he spent some time showing Irish rap YouTube videos to Kendrick Lamar. Has Kendrick Lamar seen Midnight Flower? Sorry, what was I talking about? Let me try that again. Lecs did Earl for the chronically online in 2011. Curtisy's more Voir Dire.

Last time I wrote about him I zeroed in on the way he floats on a beat while making it seem effortless. He can find a flow in almost anything and make it a joy to listen to, he loves those soft lo-fi, sample driven beats that you could see Alc putting out, all that. In some ways I think the comparisons miss some things though; Curtisy's playfulness and versatility is the big selling point. We're far removed from ancient talk about whether or not local accents work on hip-hop - Curtisy is making certified Jobstown classics. He'll lock down a soul sample but the aforementioned Sloucho collab absolutely layers on the bass, bouncing against Belfast artist EMBY (another who's been praised for sheer versatility, and one we'll be seeing a lot more of later in this piece).

Seeing as I've seen the Curtisy show three times in a month I might as well talk about it; he's locked in as a live performer, well capable of working the crowd and getting love back, playing up every back and forth with his DJ and the quickly rotating guest MCs. Seeing the crowd know the words to new songs clearly has an impact on him, and it definitely feels like a step to something bigger. There's a real cute moment in the middle of Wok to Blackrock with A,w/L. and Lonely Chap on stage as phone flashes start flying and it's clear that getting this work into the world means everything to them. During the month, I called the Irish hip-hop underground a scene that celebrates itself, to borrow a term from the shoegazers.

12 track album

What Was The Question? is the meticulously crafted Curtisy - it's him in his comfort zone with full support. There's absolute cohesion here on par with any of his producer-specific collabs, which makes it all the more surprising to see the extent of the cast on it - D*mp, Hikii, Owin and Walshy join executive producer Rory Sweeney at the helm. "Executive producer" isn't a common title here, but for Rory it makes sense - he's behind the boards on some of the record's key moments, but also seems to be the one who's helped get the project to something concise and cohesive. You get the sense that left to his own devices, a Curtisy album could run a lot longer than 30 minutes.

How can you balance dropping a meticulously crafted album while moving at the speed of DIY? A couple months back, as you'd assume this album was coming together, Curtisy, Karim, Rory Sweeney and EMBY record a song over a Japanese jazz sample, agree to put it out "as soon as possible", and shoot a quick video in the car while dropping Curtisy home. It's on YouTube like five days later. This is Sweeney's MO. Get your friends together and just make shit. Doesn't matter what, or even where. 

Sweeney's probably the least industry-focused person in Irish music, climbing ever upward by pure impulse and momentum. Walk into a home studio with a folder marked NEWBEATPACK4EMBY. Get the verses. Drop it the next day. "Please take in this very unserious DIY project made yesterday. Gettin a bit fed up of sayin NEW MUSIC OTW so have some new music today. This is not meant to have syngery. We’re chaotic and so is this."

Make a dubstep tune with Sloucho, put it out for one week on CloudCore, top the Bandcamp charts. Sloucho becomes a playable character by the time all's said and done. Make footwork out of R Kitt and jungle out of Samantha Mumba, start a digital hardcore label, make pop music, fuck up Jamiroquai, play Amhrán na bhFiann out of air horn samples at a protest rave outside the Dáil. There isn't really a limit. I wasn't surprised when I bumped into Rory, asked him what the plans were and he said he had a Memphis rap album coming for the summer.

cyphers in front of the angelus
Irish Hash Mafia, by Carlos Danger
13 track album

Carlos Danger presents Irish Hash Mafia is the truest expression of Sweeney's ethos. It cements the contemporary Irish hip-hop world as the scene that celebrates itself. The project is a manic fusion of a thousand stylistic threads; Memphis cassette culture meets UK grime yet keeps an undeniable Celtic core, cyphers in front of footage of the Angelus, Jobstown and the 0121 on the same stage. It's a nexus.

The Memphis cassette scene of deep south trap music is clearly in the record's DNA. On early 2023 single Bismillah, Sweeney leaves a bed of totally saturated 808s and ouroboric samples for E THE ARTIST to soar over - considering the amount of terrible phonk in the world, something that shows legitimate love for the Memphis sound is a standout, and it's no wonder the track makes a return here. There's a run of these songs on the album - E makes another standout appearance on Beastmode Normalstate, but those influences run deep over tracks with EMBY, Karim, Curtisy and others. But the tracks often mix in other influences - Rap Heritage has a phenomenal jazz sample, Chakras draws from a drained-out sound.

And there's a lot of new names to discuss here beyond the cast we've already been orbiting - yeire13, Cool Hand Luke, Keanu The Pilot, Tony Bontana. And Curtisy's all over it, dropping new heat with his friends; there's even Smokey's first track in four years; stepping back in from his role as Curtisy's manager to go toe-to-toe with him. That one – Roma Chipper Loughlinstown – ends up being the best track on the album, largely down to the utterly ridiculous beat that Rory puts down for them, taking a recognisable Doom sample and turning it into a frenetic shuffle. The music video is just some goofy shit.

Top comment: "mythic youtube recommended pull".

On the Bandcamp notes, he makes the case for the project clear:

"Myself and a lot of the artists here are starting to get caught up in the cogs of the music industry and I think its important to put out this mixtape as an archive of the free spirited sounds we’ve been exploring together over the past 2-3 years. No career stuff in mind, just us hanging out, having fun and sharing our passion for music. These are moments I will always cherish and I love yiz to bits."

All of the energy of the album absolutely hit in the room. In the stage-ready controlled chaos of the launch show at the Button Factory, you could imagine it being a festival stage all of its own, if any booker would give it the chance. But even if they don't, Carlos Danger will ride again. The album acts as a challenge: commit yourself completely to your weirdest ideas if you can build a community and do it for the craic. The live show celebrates that fact; half the rappers in the country united on stage to run through the album and leading a cypher afterward. This is the scene that celebrates itself; there's something ecstatic about seeing artists completely locked in with appreciation for each other's work.

We can call it "art for art's sake". As artists continue to lose hope in the streaming economy, projects like Irish Hash Mafia serve as beacons of community resilience. Make something big, stick up some QR codes, make the world come to you and your friends. If they don't, it's their loss. It helps that the community assembled is some of the best to ever do it in the country. I saw Rory do an interview where he said that ultimately, he kept working on this until it was too late to do playlist submissions. There's actually a brief tell of this on the album, a quick clip of legendary Dublin radio host John Barker laughing while reading the group's name "Irish Hash Mafia" that can't have happened more than a few days before the planned release date.

detail from the cover of Carlos Danger presents Irish Hash Mafia

I'm selfish: I want both futures. Videos made in 30 minutes with a Handycam and videos made over months of effort. Throwaway edits and full PR campaigns. Barcelona and the cellar. Wax and MP3; maybe closer to Datpiff and iTunes.

I've spent a fair amount of time working with artists stressing over playlist submissions and release dates and all that. Even when the stakes are low. I want the world where we could just skip all the strategy over career moves when it comes to getting music in front of people. I want the world where experimenting in public doesn't get in the way of visibility. Algorithms out of the way, industry out of the way. Can you still get the crowds to show up? Yes, of course.

Curtisy and Rory's prolific May run shows the option for both.

the gig photos in this article were taken by me :)

if Ahmed, with Love. can get a Four Loko sponsorship, why not Fourth Best? we'll make the logo say "fourth loko" for a bit. failing that though, we're at least looking for space to film interviews. giz a buzz if you have any leads.

if you're in Ireland and you have music coming out - email it to music@fourth.best. literally only one other person has done this at time of writing.

I said I might be done writing about Irish hip-hop and someone immediately afterwards reminded me Hazey Haze and Mankyy have something coming out right after I post this