We catch up with North Dublin rapper and 2020 Plec Pick Nealo on the phone on his second day back at work as a professional dog walker - something which keeps his mind body and soul in perfect harmony.
"Big time," says Nealo, enthusiastically when we enquire whether he's missed being surrounded by animals during lockdown. "A lot of people have jobs that they hate so it was a nice break for them in some ways, but I love my job and it's where I do a lot of my music so I'm glad to get back to it."
The buffer zone created by his time spent with animals from the external pressures of the real world that Nealo experiences whilst walking throughout Dublin creates space in his mind for him to process his emotions, both positive and negative, and turn them into songs.
“The only place I really write is when I'm in work with the dogs. I'll be driving around in my car with an instrumental that somebody has sent me and I'll either have it on my car stereo or my headphones, walking, and usually I'll write a song every day or two. So when lockdown happened, I had to change everything up. 'Ah shit, now my creative zone is gone.' I had to adapt to that, and I didn't really."
"It's a strange way to write" he acknowledges, laughing in his trademark jovial fashion.
Like many of us, Nealo found himself returning to old favourites and he is more than happy to reminisce with us about Metallica and Faith No More and the Tears For Fears rabbit hole your dear narrator went down during lockdown.
Unsurprisingly, for a man with a Masters in Law, Nealo has a curious, thoughtful mind. He is interested in how people sought solace in the safety of comfort watching and listening during lockdown and you can’t help but feel that he is learning as much about you as you are about him throughout the interview.
“I think the way people consumed music changed a little bit. Streaming was down a good 20-30% and podcasts were down as well. Obviously Netflix was up. I think a lot of people listen to music on the move. It's nice to revisit that stuff. I know you can do it at any time but I feel like there was a certain freedom about this period which meant you could watch any series. I'm about to watch The Wire for, like, the fifth time. There's no better time than now to watch it.”
The one bright moment creatively from Nealo’s dog-less song writing segue was recent single Heart Food For Hard Times, the video for which featured internet comedian Darren Conway in the video. Nealo has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to both
“…because of lockdown, I thought that not many people were going to stream it but on the day, it was crazy the amount of people who reached out. I think I replied to 200 people or something like that so it was really nice. There were a lot of kind words”
Naturally the video for Heart Food For Hard Times was going to feature "Dog related content".
The video was filmed by Nealo’s wife Kayleigh Forsythe on a ten-year-old camera and an iPhone before being sent to Dock from The Scratch, who edited it into the final product.
“It's about me, a dog walker, who misses this one dog. It's me in the gaff drinking whisky and staring at framed pictures of this dog, interspersed with nostalgic shots of the dog legging it around a field.”
Only a fool could listen to Nealo’s music and not realise that his self-worth and world-view are tethered to his home. He takes pride in his friends and family’s successes: their failures are his failures and in a wider sense, so are Dublin and Ireland’s. Issues such as homelessness and Direct Provision perturb him greatly. For this reason, Dublin City is central to the personal storytelling and visual impact of his lyrics.
“That's something that I like in other music, even if I don't understand the localised references. I listen to a lot of boom-bappy New York rap that would have a lot of localised references that I'm never gonna understand unless I look them up but that doesn't take away from it. I can get the gist of it and I hope that people can get the gist of it with my music as well. I think they can.”
Up until recently, Irish rap has been much maligned but following the rise of acts such as Rusangano Family, Jafaris, Kojaque and Denise Chaila, the time is upon us when we must ponder the question of bringing Irish rap international and whether it will translate to international audiences or not. Will songs about Blanch hold the same mystique for US kids as Brooklyn and Harlem does for Irish kids?
“I don't know, but I don't know does it have to,” says Nealo, laughing at the juxtaposition of Blanch and Compton, whilst acknowledging the premise of the question. “I think Dublin resonates with the world really well. Look at the amount of tourists and in terms of literature and films as well. 'Normal People' is being watched worldwide.”
“I think if the music is good people will get behind Irish hip-hop and I really think it's getting there at the moment. It just seems to be on a bit of a wave. It has been for a couple of years now but it seems to be on another one now.”
Nealo believes Irish hip-hop is only in its infancy and will only get better going forwards. “I think in the next few years you're gonna see some mad shit coming out of here. It takes a while though, It's not an overnight thing, you know.”
However, he does have high hopes for one specific act in Ireland’s current crop of hip hop stars. “Denise's 'Courage' show was insane. I think she'll probably be the biggest artist in hip hop to come out of Ireland in the next 10 years. She just has everything.”
Nealo cites Kojaque and Lethal Dialect as being catalysts behind his move from hardcore punk into rap. “They do what they do so well that it just spoke to me on a human level and I thought shit maybe I can do that as well”
So what exactly was it that tempted Nealo away from the general safety of the Hardcore scene - where he was well-known as the singer in Frustration - and into the burgeoning world of Irish hip-hop?
“It was a perfect storm of different things: the band had gone by the wayside ‘cause some of the lads had emigrated. It just seemed like the right time to break it up, rather than spend years and years trying to follow the dream of being a touring band.” Nealo notes that the group was still in demand “We were getting good tour offers but we said 'fuck it, lets just cut it now while we're on top and go out with a bang'. So we did that.”
Following a three-year hiatus from performing, Nealo ventured into hip-hop. “As soon as I made one song that I thought was good, I didn't really look back - it seems like two different lives. Once I realised it was possible for me to make this type of music, that was a change of life for me. It's just been amazing.”
When we inquire after that initial song which provided this moment of clarity, Nealo is typically frank in his response.
"It's actually shite, when I listen to it now. It was a really heavy Dublin accent and me trying to be something I'm not but it was on the beat and it was catchy enough to give me some encouragement."
Nealo sent the song out to some of The Scratch and some other musicians in the Dublin scene and once he had been reassured that "this was decent," as Nealo reflects, "that was it, it was go time from here."
"Lyrically, it's always been similar," says Nealo, considering the difference between his hip-hop and hardcore output. “Now, it's a bit softer because I feel like I’ve shaken off that insecurity,” he says adding. “I feel like when you're a teenager and in your early twenties you have this insecurity that manifests itself in this macho attitude - you're trying to prove to yourself that you're hard - so in a lot of the hardcore lyrics I was trying to do that but in hip-hop I feel like I can be myself. I don't feel the need to reinforce that within myself any more so now I can be as soft and as emo as I want, which is why you hear romantic tunes coming out of me.”
Nealo’s transition into the world of Irish hip-hop was helped by the fact that he was supported from the off by the likes of Mathman who welcomed him with open arms.
“I made friends at the first gig I went to with my friend Arbu (Burner Records). He would've been in the hardcore scene a little bit. He was one of the guys that said ‘you should rap’ - he was probably the only person outside of my close circle that said that to me. That was one of the catalysts to me rapping.”
Nealo made his live bow as a rapper at a hip-hop night run by Mathman was running in Dublin’s Hangar, which proved to be a baptism of fire.
"I was absolutely shitting myself," says Nealo, of his first live appearance as a fledgling MC. "I was first up but I had to wait for the gig beforehand to finish so I was leathering the pints in just to calm the nerves."
“I went up grabbed the mic and absolutely shat my pants, I think I got two words out on the first verse, but I did it again and put a good 16 down and we did another song after that and it was good. That was another one of those moments of encouragement when I went 'actually, this could be something.'”
Since then, Nealo has developed into one of Dublin’s favourite rappers. However, he isn’t entirely comfortable at being used as a yardstick against which other up-and-coming Dublin rappers are often held. It’s certainly a position he doesn’t court.
“People are always gonna compare people to other people but as cliched as it sounds everybody is on their own journey” says Nealo, who credits his musical background for his quick rise through the ranks.
“You have to remember that I have ten years on a lot of these guys. A lot of lads should be hanging up the mic at my age and I'm only starting so the comparison isn’t really fair because I sang in a band for 8 years and wrote lyrics for 15 years. So to transfer to hip-hop is a bit easier for me - especially confidence wise - because I was able to find that quicker, because I'd already succeeded in another genre.”
Nealo notes that his experience on mic, breathing skills and experience as a frontman made the transition easier.
“Once you find a way in one thing, you can see it in all things,” he says. “Timing is so important but even how to express yourself without holding back. You want to be free to say what you want and a lot of guys when they start off are held back by themselves a little bit. If you wanna find the best art, you have to go as close to you as possible and how you want to evoke yourself and I think that takes time and repetition really.”
Nealo welcomes the pressure which such forces outside his control bring. “It makes me get the finger out and make better art.” However, he knows that his brand of Dublin-centric rap has a certain niche quality.
“Everything is so subjective with music and especially with mine. A lot of people are not gonna like it if they are looking for something that's upbeat and hard. You can go to PX and Hazey and God Knows if you want more upbeat and energetic stuff. If you're coming towards my album, you'll have to be in a certain mood.”
“It's just really me" says Nealo, when we ask what we can expect of his debut album. “It's kind of a concept album about moving away from Ireland and moving away from a relationship. On a macro level you're breaking your relationship with a country and on the micro level you're breaking a relationship with a person or people.”
“There's also a theme of autumn that weaves in and out of the whole album so it's seasonal as well because autumn is the end of craic, the end of the summer. I knew I wanted to write something conceptual, something with a loose concept, it just came together over the course of the songs and by the end it was, 'yes, this is perfect.'”
“If people connect with it,” says Nealo, plainly, when we ask what success for the album looks like in his eyes. “I think that's the main thing I look for out of my music - you can have loads of people sharing it and numbers on Spotify, but I think it means more if people connect with the lyrics and message you asking questions: what did you mean here or I got this out of this song, I felt like this when I listened to your song.”
You’ll be able to hear the world’s first autumnal hip-hop concept album later this year when it’s released via Diffusion Lab. While Nealo was able to plough ahead with the album, his other passion project, his Hip Hop for Homelessness show in The Sugar Club was not so lucky and had to be rescheduled until Christmas 2020.
“It was a big disappointment when that was cancelled. We'd spent 6 months getting 20 acts on the line-up and sponsors,” says Nealo, audibly subdued for the first time in our time together. “Luckily enough most people were sound and kept their tickets, we only did a couple of refunds. It's definitely gonna go ahead.”
The subject of homelessness is something which Nealo is palpably passionate about and he is scathing in his view of the government’s performance in this regard.
“It's such a basic need, everybody has to have a gaff,” says Nealo. “I think we've all felt the pinch of the housing crisis, whether you're forced to live at home with your parents or you're stuck in a one bedroom apartment paying €1,600 a month or you're stuck in a house with seven other people or you can't buy a house because you can't afford a mortgage."
“We're all in a lot of those positions and then you walk through the park and see people in tents or on the streets, and the government just doesn't seem like they want to do anything about it. They pay lip-service towards it but they never go out of their way to help. There's so many amazing charities like Inner City Helping Homeless that are so good but get no support from the government.”
“They do such an amazing job so I said 'fuck it, why not try and help them?' I want to make it an annual thing. There's a lot of charity stuff I'd like to do but that just seemed like the right one at the right time.”
The conversation naturally turns to Direct Provision and Nealo is equally scathing of his assessment of the Government’s performance or lack thereof.
“Direct Provision is a system that we are gonna look back at in in 20-30 years and say ‘This is horrendous. How did we let this happen?' So that's something that has to be looked at now. I'd like to see it as one of the major issues of the next few years.”
"I feel we owe it to the people that have been living in those conditions for years and years, that aren't allowed to buy their own dinners and have to survive on no money a week. As far as I'm concerned, those people are homeless as well.”
"It's really sad that we've allowed this to be swept under the carpet and then on the side of that you have all these businesses making a fortune running these Direct Provision centres for profit. It's awful.”
Another issue which Nealo is highly passionate about is the legalisation of Cannabis, something which he is an authority on having written his law thesis for his masters on the subject.
“That was four years ago and I thought then that it looked like it was on the way. Gino had sent his legislation to the Dáil and then they just kicked it down the road.”
Nealo believes that legalising cannabis will save time for the Gardaí and free up the courts considerably, giving them time to pursue white-collar crime and other, more deserving issues.
“It takes the power and money away from a lot of these drug gangs that are killing each other. Weed is a huge revenue for them, it's almost as big as cocaine if not bigger. The bonuses are so many and the negative aspect of legalising it are so little”
From an economic standpoint, Nealo notes the positives and cites Colorado for the socially conscious use of funds generated by legalisation.
“If you open up a free market the amount of money generated, not just for individual businesses dispensaries or grow operations, for the government in terms of tax take it's huge. In Colorado they took the money and they invested it in drug education and rehabilitation.”
Nealo’s debut album is out this autumn via Diffusion Lab. New single 'You Can Go Home Again' featuring Uly is out now on all digital providers. For more info on Nealo visit Nealo.ie