Posted: by The Editor
At a certain point in life, you can enjoy the music you already like and be content to not seek out any new tunes. But then you might miss out on, say, a couple of guys who rap about the history and political climate of Ireland, almost exclusively in Irish, over booming rave-up beats from a DJ in a tricolor Irish flag balaclava. And wouldn’t that be too bad?
Sarcastic and occasionally frenetic tunes about Irish reunification and getting hassled by the cops while partying hard: this is the musical promise of Belfast-based hip-hop trio Kneecap, and boy did they deliver at their sold-out show in Los Angeles at the Echo on Monday. I went partially out of curiosity (what is it like to listen to Gaelic rapping?) and partially out of cultural pride (my last name is O’Brien…). I was expecting to attend as an impartial music journalist, furtively tapping notes into my phone and maybe stroking an imaginary critical goatee. I was not expecting to end up jumping up and down and screaming the words “YOUR SNIFFER DOGS ARE SHITE” at the ragged edge of a mosh pit amid a towel-spinning, water bottle-spraying crowd, but I guess that’s just the power of Kneecap.
Belaganas, a punk-rap band from Phoenix who recently moved to Los Angeles, opened the show with an enormous burst of energy. Joey J (wearing a black tank top) and Shanker (wearing no shirt at all) traded off verses, switching seamlessly from rapping to singing and using some wild voice effects that pitched their vocals all over the place, as Nick Wille drummed live and their DJ headbanged in the background. In a short period of time, Belaganas channeled everyone from the Beastie Boys to Lil Peep, displayed visuals that involved a black-and-white hypnotizing spiral and the words BUY OUR MERCH, and jumped around like they were House of Pain. Highlights of their set were “U GOT ME,” whose call-and-response chorus reminded me of Eminem and Dr. Dre collabs of yore, and the head-bopping “Ford Vs Ferrari.” If a cheerfully chaotic mix of hip-hop and emo-ish sensibility is your thing, definitely keep an eye on Belaganas.
Then Kneecap took the stage with their latest single, “Its Been Ages,” whose chorus proclaims “Sin deireadh linn ar hiatus” (“That’s the end of us on hiatus”). DJ Próvaí held down the back of the stage, balaclava in place. Mo Chara, in a swirly dark green technical jacket and baseball cap, strategically whipped up the crowd’s enthusiasm. Móglaí Bap stalked the stage, peering out into the audience with eyes shaded by a bucket hat; when he turned upstage, it revealed a Tito’s vodka logo on the back of his jacket. If you watch the video for Kneecap’s first single “C.E.A.R.T.A” (a 2017 song about an incident with some Irish-language graffiti and the police), both Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap appear rather fresh-faced and a bit smiley. Onstage at the Echo, they were intense and locked in, looking older, wiser, and frankly cool as hell. Do you know how hard it is to actually pull off a bucket hat?
Between tunes like the old-school jam “Incognito” and “Fenian Cunts,” whose lyrics detail a Catholic-Protestant hookup gone awry, the duo treated the audience to some jokes (“This is the first time we’ve ever played that song [pausing for wild applause] in Los Angeles”), asked about the show’s ticket price (“$18? That’s a fuckin’ bargain”) and handed out water bottles (“We didn’t pay for these”). True to their recorded music, audacious political energy was a part of the show, from their shout-a-long performance of “Get Your Brits Out,” to some stray castigation of the concept of landlords, to the Free Palestine chant they led near the end of the set. And the handful of new tunes sandwiched in the middle of the set were by far my favorite: high BPM, rave-worthy beats complemented their lyrical attack, the crowd went nuts for it, and Kneecap seemed pleased by the reception.
After one sweaty hour, capped off by Móglaí Bap smoking a celebratory joint onstage (recreational cannabis is still illegal in Ireland), the show was over and the audience filed out, their Irish sports jerseys and Cro-Mags t-shirts soaked. At one point in the night, Kneecap had asked the crowd who was American and who was Irish, and the responding cheers sounded almost equal. That means there were a fair amount of people there who probably don’t understand everything the rappers are saying, but have caught the vibe regardless.
Can MCs rapping in Irish — a language historically suppressed via British rule that has required extensive revitalization efforts — become popular in America? I don’t see why not. Pop music has never been more international or less in English. The rise of K-pop, the continued popularity of reggaeton, and the current ascendance of regional Mexican music in America (to name just a few examples) prove that music transcends language, and as long as the energy is there, people will come to meet artists where they are. Judging from their Echo show, Kneecap certainly don’t need people to understand Irish to understand their mindset: that it’s easier to rage against the machine if you have some fun while doing it.