Ireland’s connection to music is a globally recognised fact. It’s stronger than Italy’s connection to pizza and pasta or Russia’s connection to vodka and chess. Think Ireland, and you think of the origins of folk, the modernisation of rock, a man in a pub playing fiddle to a crowd of locals; you think of U2, of Enya, of Sinead O’Connor’s head floating on an all black background as she sings “Nothing Compares to You”. But try to think of Irish hip-hop and there has never been much to conjure. For most of the 2010s, the biggest rap act in Ireland has been two comedians with plastic bags on their heads known as Rubberbandits.
Recently, things have changed. In 2015, Dublin rapper Rejjie Snow came out with his first official single, and there followed a steady and refreshing flow of groundbreaking artists, many of whom were first or second generation African or Caribbean immigrants. There’s eclectic rapper Simi Crowns, grime and dancehall-tinged Rusangano Family, and then there’s Hare Squead – the young and pioneering Dublin rap act consisting of Lilo Blues, Jessy Rose and Tony Konstone.
Hare Squead came out of the fog, quite literally, with their smoky debut video for “If I Ask” last summer: a thunderous club banger that made sitting at your desk and staring at your laptop feel like swinging off a podium at Amnesia. As more tracks dropped – like the summery hip-hop of breakout single “Herside Story” – the trio went from being one of Ireland’s best live shows to one of the most exciting rap acts in Europe. This was followed with an international tour with Dua Lipa, and live shows with US rapper Goldlink in London.
They arrive in the New Era offices the morning after a performance, clutching KFC bags in hand. “New Era’s dope as shit,” says Konstone, looking at the caps lining the wall. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio this year, in London and Dublin, applying the finishing touches to their now released second EP, ‘Season 2’. “The studio is vibes,” says Konstone, “we would just chill out and make whatever we were feeling.” Jessy interjects laughing, “We’d all stare into eachother’s eyes.”
The first track to drop from the new EP was “Pure”; a rich and subtle slow jam about unreturned love, with the kind of subtle and cooing production that really speaks to the human brain in the lonely hours of a late late night, or in the taxi on the way home from the club. “I can see there's something in your mind and I don't like it,” sings Lilo Blues in pitched up vocals, creating a lyrical atmosphere that veers between heartbreak and pillow talk with ease, and makes the song feel like an Irish r&b counterpart to Drake’s “Marvin’s Room”. “We’re starting this EP off slow,” explains Lilo, “it’s mellow but I think people will like it.”
All three members were infants when their families moved to Dublin. As kids, they were into football and skating, and mostly hated school. “My older sister’s generation were some of the first black kids in the school,” says Konstone. “But it was better for us. You can tell society is changing.” Tony and Lilo met when they moved to the same housing estate, aged 12, and they were musical from a young age. Lilo’s dad forced him to learn piano because there was nobody to play it in their local church – he would record videos of himself and upload them to Facebook. Jessy came into the equation later: “I bumped into them in town through skating,” he tells me. “They were telling me about this thing they started and I asked if I could be the Frank Ocean of the crew. It was instant.”
Despite being a fairly young and contemporary outfit, Hare Squead’s rise to fame has been distinctly old school. They made their name in Ireland through a relentless spell of notorious live shows, way before putting any music online. At the various mid-sized venues they played, they were usually the first rap act to ever perform there. “We had an 8 piece live band and people just fucked with us,” says Konstone. The crowds gathering at their shows was reflective of something wider: youth culture in Dublin was stirring and diversifying. “It’s really happening in that city now,” says Konstone, gesturing towards a top he’s wearing made by a local Dublin fashion designer. “People are realising school is not the only way to succeed in life. You can have ideas outside the box.”
One of the defining characteristics of Hare Squead’s music is a commitment to being cross-genre. Or, as they label their philosophy: “genrelessness”. While talking, they tell me in the studio they’ve been listening to everything from folk duo First Aid Kit to Feist to Philadelphia trap rapper Lil Uzi Vert. It’s evident in their EP. After the aforementioned mellow R&B vibes of “Pure” comes “Flowers”: a classic hip-hop sounding track with funky piano and bass. And that is soon followed by “Petty” which is just straight up dancehall if ever you’ve heard it. “People think moving genres is the wrong thing to do and everything needs to be cohesive,” says Lilo. “But we’re taking risks and people seem to be accepting that we make music of all kinds.”
In this sense, Hare Squead know exactly what they are doing. Like many new young artists, they realise that to maintain an audience in an evermore digital and impatient world, you don’t just need to impress your fans… You need to keep them guessing.