Clare musician John Lillis has been nominated for the prestigious RTÉ Choice Music Award with his hip-hop group Rusangano Family. Here, he tells Stuart Holly about his pride in representing the West Of Ireland on a national stage.
“DO I need to wear a tie?” That’s the conundrum facing Ireland’s foremost hip-hop group at this moment in time, the Clare-based Rusangano Family. Ennis man John Lillis, aka mynameisj0hn, Shannon man MuRli and Limerick man God Knows have built a large cult following and their stunning 2016 effort Let The Dead Bury The Dead has led to a nomination on the 10-act shortlist for the RTÉ Choice Music Award. Not bad for three lads from the West of Ireland.
Let The Dead Bury The Dead is an album full of addictively deep beats, grime, soulful melodies and refreshingly honest, catchy rhymes which explore issues such as immigration in Ireland.
One such line which will strike a chord with the older generation comes in their track Heathrow — ‘Our history binds us… No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.’
Award-winning music journalist Niall Byrne (aka Nialler9) loved the album so much he declared it Irish album of the year (Martin Hayes’ The Gloaming 2 came fifth on the list). If you haven’t got the message by now, Rusangano Family are kind of a big deal.
Former St Flannan’s student, DJ John Lillis says that this recognition from RTÉ is something they are revelling in, and that he takes particular pride in the fact that they can inspire other young musicians from the Midwest.
“We’re delighted over it, it’s a great achievement for ourselves.
“A lot of those other acts are more established and have bigger teams behind them and we’re just three fellas from Clare and Limerick,” says John, however adding “I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t have our eyes on getting nominated in the first place because we did but it’s a great tip of the hat.
“The only other person who’s coming to mind who was nominate for a Choice Music Award from a Clare background before I think was Martin Hayes with The Gloaming so that’s not bad company to have.
“It’s the first one [awards ceremony] where you have to sit back and go, ‘do I need to wear a tie?’,” quips John, who also works in music education with young people.
“We’re very excited, it’s a great opportunity and we definitely feel like a certain scene we’re involved in, in Limerick and Clare, that’s kind of why we’re going to do it in the first place.
“We know and work with a lot of rappers, we work with a lot of DJs and producers in the Clare area and we kind of feel like, ‘hey, d’you know what, if we can do this there’s no reason that you can’t’.”
“There’s an 18-year-old kid from Quilty, and his name is Mankky (aka Daithi Curtin), he produces music as well.
“This guy is phenomenal! It’s very much trying to represent a certain time and certain place. The place that we’re representing is the West Of Ireland — we’re very proud of where we come from and the music that we make is very much informed by the fact that two of us live in Clare and one of us live in Limerick.”
Acts that Rusangano Family are up against for the award include household names like James Vincent McMorrow, Lisa Hannigan, All Tvvins, The Divine Comedy, We Cut Corners.
In terms of radio play, there’s no comparison as Rusangano Family are kept in the hip-hop cubby hole at radio studios, ready to be pulled out for late night listening. But that’s part of what makes the group so appealing.
John explains, “It’s probably the strongest line-up I’ve seen in the Choice Award for a good couple of years.
“We would know a lot of the other acts that are on it and we’d be massive fans of a lot of the other acts on it, so for us it’s fantastic. We know Bantum really well — we’re big fans of what he does. I think the Katie Kim album (Salt) was hands down my favourite album this year from any country from any artist, I thought it was absolutely fantastic so even to just be in the same category as people like that — Lisa Hannigan’s album was fantastic as well.
“Radio play is not something we actively go out to seek, maybe not what the band is about in the first place, and you’re not getting pushed in the same kind of way by radio and television appearances [as other acts].
“If we did, it may dilute the kind of music we’re making in some kind of way as well .. [we’re not] trying to be a mainstream act and occasionally that actually hits with the general public as well where they seem to respect the background that you’re coming from.”
Speaking about the group’s addictive sound, John explains that while initially he would spend hours watching documentaries and listening to old records to find the right sample — which would then be chopped up and repitched — John has now taken to composing melodies and having them recorded by live musicians — who John says are part of the bigger collective of the Rusangano Family.
While John grew up in Ennis, his colleagues both moved to Ireland from Togo and Zimbabwe as 12-year-olds.
This, in a big way, has shaped the themes of their music. Migration, but also pride of place in the West of Ireland.
John adds, “Togo was colonised, Zimbabwe was colonised, but Ireland was colonised too so there are times when you can focus on the fact that sometimes people from outside the community can feel quite ostracised or different, but this is a feeling that is everywhere, it’s all across the world.
“Like any singer songwriter, the two lads are exploring what’s going on in their lives.
“It’s two huge cultural changes, moving from Togo or Zimbabwe over to Ireland so that becomes part of the story as well.”
Rusangano Family are up for the RTÉ Choice Music Prize, with the awards ceremony taking place on March 9.