Saturday, January 17, 2009

Having a coffee and interview with Messiah J

They've just been nominated for The Choice Music Prize, Irish Album Of The Year, for the second record in a row. In the video interview we've done, Messiah J describes the group as "a two piece music making machine, influenced by hip hop, psychedelia, reggae and classical sources; hip hop but not as we know it. Left of centre and then left of centre again. Accessible music that people can dance to, can think to - people who are as flawed, confused and ordinary as us." They're successful, they're Irish and they love what they do.

Photos from MJEX

I hadn't heard of MJEX until I got their latest album, From the Word Go. Actually, that's not entirely accurate - I'd heard of them but never listened to their music, wouldn't have considered going to a gig, didn't know what they were about and, to be honest, didn't try to find out. Hip Hop for me was that dancy stuff; gangsta rap, Beyonce, Eminem and Nelly all lumped together in my mental file. I think the term became too broad and multi-discipline encompassing to understand so I just left it. To hear of a Dublin group doing it seemed a bit Commitment-esque - I mean, it's just Irish guys trying to be black, right?

But I stuck the CD on. Pretty quickly my foot tapping turned into dancing. As part of the research before this interview, I went to check out the reviews online - RTÉ called it "an assured and catchy release... the album overall has an uplifting effect as it is mostly fast-paced and melodic." Hotpress called it a 'classic' while Sputnik Music said it was "every bit the record it threatened to be: challenging yet accessible; diverse yet coherent; serious yet playful; pop but not pop."

State consider it their "finest album to date" while Jim Carroll called it the sweetest thing they've ever done going on to name their new single, Turn the Magic On, with lead vocals by Leda Egri as "a tune which every DJ at every music station in the land should be playing off the air."

I read the reviews, read some interviews, saw this video for their first single from the album, Megaphone Man and wondered just who I'd end up meeting. What was evident from the interviews I've read is that they're passionate in their beliefs about what music can do and the responsibility they feel they have. Their CD "questions the state of the world we live in today. The songs are about every day things, good and bad, all set against the backdrop of a pretty confused world and its people."

"The stance we're taking is that we don't know it all or even pretend to know it all, but we're trying to make people aware that this is stuff they should get to know about. We're as confused as everyone else." they said in a brilliant Irish Times interview:

"I think there has to be more talk about political issues from people our own age, not some fiftysomething career politician coming out with loads of jargon. Bands, though, are afraid to speak about political issues because they feel they have to have all the answers or be on a podium, but that's not the case. You can take an interest and be flawed. You can't be a hypocrite, but you can be flawed."

The first thing to note about John Fitzgerald - Messiah J - is that he's remarkably polite. When we meet at the Central Hotel, he greets Darren and me with effusive thanks for the opportunity, thanks for the time, thanks for the nice words. There's no "call me Messiah" or any of that. Darren's here to take photos but more than that - his familiarity with MJEX through the Choice Music Prize is a welcome addition to the conversation.

We bounce through topics at a rate of knots - conversation flows easily because John is a comfortable guy to be around - he knows his stuff without making that part of any persona. As I scribble what becomes a 9 A5 page interview, I start building a real picture of who Messiah J is.

How would Messiah J change Dublin, his home town?
"Well, I wish... Hmmm. I wish people were nicer. More polite. More civil to each other. That's important. I also wish everything wasn't so drink based.

Dublin is for me a strange one - it's sometimes a hiding place and sometimes a thing to hide behind. We have some under the carpet racism that I'd love to see gone. I despise the word foreigners. Foreigners is an exclusionary term, a way of dividing people, so yes, I wish the phrase "the foreigners" wasn't used so much, particularly towards Polish people.

I also with there were less promises that can't be kept - services, metro lines, infrastructure all promised and then not happening. The things that really matter - healthcare, welfare, people - that's what matters. Focus on that."
How he became Messiah J:
"I was about 15. I was always listening to hip hop and thinking "I like this and I don't care about anything else." I think to get your identity you have to say "I'm into this" and mean it. So, I listened to the music, wore the gear and obsessed about the subculture.

Writing it then, well that started quietly. It was all very hush hush - writing was like masturbating in my bedroom, a guilty secret. I kept it to myself so I wouldn't get laughed at.

I never tried the whole mimicking America thing. I never felt that I had to be anyone else or do it in any style but my own. I was expressing myself and that was it.

I started wondering then, Is anyone else doing this? This is the mid to late 90's and Hip Hop was kind of coming into a phase of its own. If you followed it people asked you which style, which person you were - Ice T, Ice Cube or Snoop. I didn't identify with that.

I met The Expert (Cian Galvin) who was a pirate DJ doing a show on DLR called Hip Hop Saturday. Then a friend called Dylan Collins introduced a lot of us and we'd get together at the City Arts Centre and just jam. That then became the Stonecutters and then we had Creative Controle for three years. It was good fun."

Getting on with The Expert:
"Well we know each other for what - ten years now? So at this stage we almost have a telepathy between us. We just keep on trying to get better at what we do. When we're in the studio together working on stuff, we can almost spontaneously sing the same melody line as we both create it.

We don't fight. We argue for the greater good and we reject each other's work far more than we accept it, but it makes us better.

I remember Friday nights before we'd meet to record stuff. I'd be in my dressing gown - it's my writing robe - pacing, feeling it was like the night before an exam, wondering if he'd like it. From the very start I could tell that this guy knows his shit. I respect him. The Expert is a genius. We maintain a healthy competition between us. It's a good song writing partnership.

We record in our own studio called Labbey Road. It's pretty basic but it works for us. Since we decided to release on our own label, Inaudible records, it's given us a freedom to have our own style, to do it the way we want. As I say, we don't have to be anyone but ourselves I don't pretend to be American when I rap, I rap in my own accent. We support each other on that - it's the way we've always been."
Playing live:
"Playing live is warts and all. You fuck up and everyone sees. There's no hiding place. When something's written we'll get it while it's raw. It's very exciting and tiring, it's like you're fighting for perfectionism.

I mean, videos are fun, yeah? There's a theatrical element to them, you're on a set, there's a different environment, it's a different discipline. You shoot, you have ideas, you try them out and when you're happy with it, it's done.

Live though, well, in some ways when we go on stage it's a kind of a release. We can take over the place. To put it one way, it's the exact opposite of someone at a party having a think. Everything releases. For me, it's a amplified version of everything I am. I'm completely different off stage then."

Critics and feedback:
"Yes, I listen to critics, be they bloggers, journalists or fans. Ultimately critics will help you sell records. There's a perception sometimes that music critics are all dickheads - they're certainly not. A bad review can point you in a good direction, a good review does no harm at all.

We're making independent music, so people writing about us and talking about us is massively important and really complimentary.

We don't get as much mainstream radio play as we like. Rick O Shea and Colm and Jim Jim are two presenters who have been great to us. I suppose it's to do with the music too. I mean, when I first heard Megaphone Man fully, I thought it might be too edgy, a bit too bizarre. But it's out there and it works.

Messiah J and the Expert are hip hop. It's not a definable sound, it's not that we feel the need to justify the type of hip hop we are, but we are more than loops and stupid rhyming lyrics. Genres can case you in - we like to think the new album is more than a Hip Hop album, it's something for people who like everything."

On their song topics:
"Am I trying to make a difference as a songwriter? Yes. It's an enviable position to be in. I don't do it as a "it's for the kids, man" but people should be talking about the issues around them. It's not just politicians - it's people that are listened to, whether they're teachers, entertainers or writers, bloggers - people should take responsibility. I'm not saying I have any answers or my way is the right way, but I'll ask the questions and I'll look around me and I'll talk about things.

Songwriters have changed my life with some of the things I've heard and listened to. We've seen it with people like Dylan and Lennon where you can have a massive influence, once it's not contrived, it's not fake or for the sake of it. Too much music is bland and without substance. It doesn't have to be. It's quite a powerful thing to be able to talk about the world around you and not be seen to be on a lofty pedestal. it's as I said earlier, it's for people as flawed, confused and ordinary as us.

Discussion is what it's about - it's part of what music is. Opera was political music. What we do is political, but only in the people sense. There's a time and place for escapist music, but there's also a place where people can ask questions and think about things too."

On the future:
"We're just going to keep doing what we love, pushing ourselves to get better, making it great. We want to be a great band, not just in Irish Hip Hop but by any standards. I mean, if we wanted to leave a legacy it would be that we made a difference, that we tried to musically and lyrically chart new territory. We made people dance."
Messiah J and the Expert are playing support to The Streets on Jan 25 in Dublin's Olympia Theatre. They'll then be in Vicar Street for the Choice Music Prize on March 4. You'll find their blog here, their website here and MySpace here.

Big thanks to John for taking the time out to talk to me, Darren for the photos and Emma for helping to arrange the interview.

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview.

    I've been following the lads since their Creative Control days and have always admired their dedication. It's not easy to keep chipping-away in this odd, little city where hip-hop means "black" and "foreign" and specifically not Irish. MJ's an excellent lyricist and MC and The Expert is a really cracking DJ. They deserve every success they've achieved to-date and I hope they go far.