Tuesday March 14, 2007

Just In The Knick Of Rhymes

Dublin Duo Messiah J & The Expert

By Joe Kavanagh

Aside from a few reasonably notable exceptions there are few styles of music that have eluded the skills of Irish musicians and songwriters so comprehensively as hip hop. For some reason Irish hip hop - like the UK scene until the advent of garage and grime - has always been caught between striving to create its own variant of the genre or simply aping their US counterparts, right down to ridiculous cultivated American accents that utterly undermine their efforts, irrespective of how good their beats and rhymes might be. Yes, there have been some near misses, most notably Marxman and Scary Eire in the early 90s but they were over a decade ago and the fact that they never broke out beyond their native shores probably says much about where they stood in comparison to the hip hop being created in the US or even countries like France. Others would also point to the early naughties band, Third Eye Surfers, where collaborators Lisa Dee and Glen Brady briefly offered hope with their critically lauded Filthy Folklore album before deciding to call it a day, although both of them are due for a return to the fray later this year. The sad truth of the matter has been that whether it's been the lack of a genuine world class hip hop producer, the fact that the Irish accent sounds somewhat lost in the genre or the matter of rhymes about a weekend out on the mean streets of Castlebar sounding a little contrived; Irish hip hop has always been looked at as a little more than a joke. Until now.

Thanks to the emergence of a highly talented coterie of Irish rappers dedicated to their craft, it appears that Irish hip hop might finally have stepped out from the shadows. Examples such as Wexford's Rob Kelly, whose superb rapping has seen him collaborate with some of the biggest names in the business - including Jay-Z - offers a shining beacon of hope to those pasty faced Irish youngsters determined to follow in the steps of their idols. The scene has also been invigorated by the influx of immigrants into Ireland in recent times, opening up the native hip hop fraternity to a host of new styles that are slowly but surely fusing into a technique that has a distinctly Irish slant on it, offering genuine hope for the future. At the moment however, there is no bigger or more talented act in the world of Irish hip hop than Dublin duo Messiah J and The Expert (MJTEX) and although they did not win it; their album's nomination for the Irish Choice Music Award last month is genuine proof that Irish hip hop has finally been welcomed into the fold in the national music scene.

For the group's origins, one has to travel back to 1999 when three rap fanatics, enigmatically named Messiah J, The Expert and Mayhem, met at an in-store gig by UK hip hop/ big beat collective, Scratch Perverts. Instantly hitting it off with each other, the trio agreed to work together on a musical project, with Messiah J taking the rapping duties, The Expert assuming production responsibilities and Mayhem using his turntable skills as the band's DJ. Initially called Creative Controle, they used early 90s American hip hop as their main influence because they viewed it as the music's golden age, before it was almost entirely hijacked by the gangsta rap strain that virtually rules the genre today. Looking beyond their immediate contemporaries, they also listened to artists like the Bjork, Bowie and even the Kinks, in order to add distinctiveness and texture to their sonic palate, as they attempted to create something that was not simply another cheap variant of what had come before.

It is testament to their work ethic and commitment that they were being hailed as one of the most exciting live acts in the country within months.

Creative Console made their presence known in 2002 with a pair of EPs titled, Bloodrush and Check The Vision, which drew an overwhelmingly positive response from critics in Ireland and even managed to make a ripple in the UK. Despite such success, Mayhem and the band parted ways in circumstances that remain somewhat of a mystery, leading the remaining pair to assume the moniker by which they are known today. The parting of ways did not appear to affect the band's trajectory as their debut album, What's Confusing You? appeared in 2003 to much anticipation on the Irish music scene. Although the lush orchestration, crafty rhymes and positive vibrations did offer glimpses of genuine promise, it failed to deliver on the expectations created by the two EPs and showed a certain naiveté, which gave it an amateurish feel when held up to its cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. Still, the record sold out its first pressing within weeks and secured the band a Best Dance Act Award from readers of Ireland's Hot Press Magazine. It was also good enough to not only cross the desk of BBC DJ, Steve Lamacq, but even compelled him to invite the band in to do a live session for his show, giving them invaluable exposure and credibility in the UK. By now they had also become a band in the truest sense of the term, with the addition of guitarist G Bone and The Twiddler on bass, giving them an extra dimension live. It is testament to their work ethic and commitment that they were being hailed as one of the most exciting live acts in the country within months.

The band also vowed to expand their sound further and spent much of the next year rooting through every kind of music they could find, spending literally thousands of hours listening to hundreds of new influences in their search for the perfect formula.

By October of last year they were ready to unleash their second effort, Now This I Have To Hear, which was immediately hailed by those in the Irish media as a triumph and held up as an Irish hip hop album that the nation could truly be proud of. Imaginative, mature and confident, the collection of 13 tracks deals with epic themes of love, loss, regret and hope, with the street smarts that typifies the better work in the genre. As one critic succinctly put it MJEX are a band that 'treat their audience as intelligent beings who want more than clichés and stereotypes', while NME declared simply: 'Now this you have to hear.' With guests such as US rapper C Rayz Walz, jazz musician, Leda Egri and Irish indie-folk singer, Nina Hynes, the record has depth and scope in spades and has brought the bands name far beyond the shores of Ireland as well as securing them opening slots with some of the biggest names in the genre, including Public Enemy, The Streets, Jurassic 5, Xzibit and Gangstarr. Interest has been such that the album is slated for a UK release next month and a US release cannot be too far behind given the fact that they were chosen as one of the handful of Irish acts to participate at Texas's South By Southwest Festival a couple of weeks back, which offered them the opportunity to showcase their wares in front of representative from all over the US music industry.

They may be disappointed not to have won the Choice Music Prize on February 28 but Messiah J and The Expert have finally proven beyond any doubt that Irish hip hop music can be a success in the right talented hands, which is no small feat in itself given almost a decade of near misses, hopelessness and ersatz ineptitude.

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