He’s a face of Cork music that’s intricately tied with beats, bars and community: over the past two decades-plus, Stevie Grainger (full disclosure - a weekly Echo Downtown parishioner of many years) has worn every conceivable hat: a producer, a DJ, a promoter, a youth worker specialising in helping Cork’s migrant communities, and a long-running host on radio both pirate and commercial.
In all of his roles, whether it was dropping new music as part of his setlist in the clubs over the years, to sharing the mic on his long-running Black on Red show on Cork’s RedFM, there’s been one thing to the fore of his work - championing new Irish music from the nascent hip-hop, soul and R&B genres, long before the recent boom, dating back to the genres’ local roots in some cases.While lockdown has impacted live work for every genre of music, soul and R&B artists have in particular made great strides on a national basis in 2020 - The X Collective in Dublin has provided common ground for a wide range of singers, producers and musicians, while Leeside artists like Minnie Marley and Meghan Murray have been making inroads on their own terms.Documenting all of this for a once-off mixtape-style show on streaming platform Mixcloud, Soul Ireland 2020, was also a matter of a lockdown project for Grainger, but by way of showcasing the new, he reached into his past.
“I made my name back in the day from doing mixtapes, mixing hip-hop and soul, two genres which became commercially popular in the 90s, and I lived through that period. Some things come and go, and it’s been a longer journey for hip-hop in Ireland - that Origins documentary recently showed a little bit of that, but it’s been a long journey to acceptance.
“People from my era now are saying ‘look at this, now, it’s getting on a wave with all this coverage’, and for me, it’s like ‘this is what I was fighting for’, so I’m delighted that the media, the radio and the Late Late… we’re at the stage where Irish hip-hop is getting the recognition.
“Parallel to that, there’s always been the R&B side to the hip-hop side, and there was a couple of tracks I was listening to, people I’ve been talking to and interviewing, and I was always amazed by the way they all knew the scene I grew up on in the nineties, playing those records when they came out. I was listening to tracks of theirs that mirrored that sound. Some of them have their recognition, but as I went digging, there was tonnes more on a lower profile that I wanted to put a little bit more shine on.”
Tapping into the aforementioned decades of experience as a selector, as well as editing on the likes of documentaries, mixes for his radio shows, etc, Grainger has put in the effort from a production aspect, re-editing, beat-matching and inserting classic samples for a frame of context for more experienced or lapsed genre fans. The process was involved, but rewarding, he says.
“I was bored during lockdown, like everyone, and started experimenting with stuff that went back and forth. I started producing music again on different software, combined with an MPC that I used, the traditional hip-hop machine. I used a Serato Studio thing, which was very good for messing around with edits, and I started editing a couple of tracks by Denise Chaila, Zali and Tomike, and then I was just editing for my own show, and thought ‘I’d love to do a mix of this sound.’
“I heard a track that (Cork producer) Bantum did with (Dublin singer) Loah, it came out a few weeks ago, and it was the sound I wanted to get across. A couple of the tracks had to be re-edited, the technical stuff, to make it flow like a mixtape. It was quite time-consuming, but I really enjoyed, and ‘twas good for the aul’ head, to be creating.”
As mentioned earlier, it’s a busy time for soul, R&B and hip-hop in Ireland: the hard work of so many people over the years is coming to fruition, as flagship albums and mixtapes from some of the artists in the mix look set to make 2020 a banner genre year. Grainger shares his thoughts on how 2020 has been for the genre, especially against the backdrop of Prevailing Circumstances.
“The way I look at R&B and soul, it’s very accessible, first of all, even more so than certain hip-hop, which might be too abrasive for some people. But this is pop music, so as someone who’s had the frustrations, that there’s not enough women on the radio, not enough Black voices… it’s changed a lot over the summer, after Linda Coogan Byrne released a report on gender inequality and urged people to sit up about it. I wrote an article in support of it (which some people didn’t like).
“I would have had these situations back in the day, when I was seen as a back-room DJ, and it went from there to the main room, and these things happen in waves, like it is now. I tell these artists, we don’t have the perfect music infrastructure in Ireland, but I do think we need to give this music a bigger chance. That genre is strong, and I want to put it out there more. This weekend, Erica Cody was in the top ten, Loah was on the Late Late Show, Denise Chaila has had lots of big spreads lately and she delves into this kind of genre as well, and Tolu Makay is getting good review for her EP. It’s radio-friendly stuff, so put it on radio, put it on festivals and gigs, keep supporting it from there, y’know?”
Grainger has worked extensively with the county’s youth on education and social projects over the years, including lessons in music, dance and street art, most recently seen in a pair of collage installations in the city for Culture Night on September 18th. Two of his young collaborators have their fingerprints all over this - co-host Aaliyah confidently presides over proceedings, while designer Elton Sibanda provides artwork. After all this time, influence is still a two-way street for Grainger.
“There’s a famous Aaliyah I was playing over the years, an R&B singer, and when I first heard her records in America in 1994 or whatever, she was just a kid, and for me, that was the first time there was a whole younger bunch of kids than mine, and she went on to change the face of R&B and soul. Her biggest impact happened long after she died in 2002.“Different cycles happen. Young Aaliyah is one of the people in the group we work with at Cork Migrant Centre, she was part of the first group three years ago. She can rap, she can dance, and she brings an energy and exuberance, the youthful energy, so I brought her on as my hypewoman!“Anything I can do to amplify the voices of the youth, which I’m excited about. I’ve had to lay this out too - it’s not a charity thing, these people in Direct Provision, they’re enriching our society, and I get back musical knowledge, creative expression, like in our recent project with The Glucksman Gallery you can see in town. It might give them some extra confidence, and they’ve done more, as teens, than I ever would have as a teenager. They’re all pretty cool.”
Inasmuch as any one of us can make predictions in 2020 - the sport of the eternally optimistic or tremendously foolhardy - Grainger is kept busy throughout the rest of the year with his weekly column, weekend broadcasts with RedFM, and the return of his Twitch-streaming DJ sets. It’s a matter of getting the head down and keeping on with it, he reckons.
“I was doing a load of online stuff at the start of lockdown, but didn’t want to be doing it in the better weather. Now that we’re in it for a good bit longer, I’m trying to get a better online setup at home for DJing and stuff, more production, and doing something podcast-wise, I’ll hopefully have news of that in the coming weeks. My role at the Migrant Centre has increased, and we have the ‘hip-hop’ group, lots of them are singing, and rapping, dancing, writing, producing art. For me, it’s been extra time to spend nurturing them directly, online.
“I haven’t got much hope for the clubs in the short-term, but I’m a DJ, so that’s what I will be, whether it’s on radio, or online, I’ll still be pushing that hard, keeping up on all the new music. I don’t exactly know where everything is going, but that’s part of the fun of it!”
Soul Ireland 2020 is available for free download and streaming now at Stevie G’s Mixcloud: https://www.mixcloud.com/steviegcork/. Follow Stevie on Twitter: @steviegcork.