With the good weather arriving in the past two weeks, and the city’s social life and atmosphere responding in kind, it finally feels, however fleetingly, a bit like the old world.
But for all of the familiarity of seeing people around, and the pick-up in gigs and events in recent times, the changes that have happened in the city-centre over the course of the Covid crisis range can surprise even the most seasoned Corkonians.
Such is the case when your writer pulls up on McCurtain Street, forgetting that the old entrance to the Mill Rooms office spaces have been subsumed by Thompsons’ restaurant, replaced with a side entrance in the lobby of the nearby Thompson House.
It’s in this unassuming floor of offices and spaces that M5 Sound Studio has been quietly establishing itself, with the goal of becoming a one-stop shop for production and recording for an emerging generation of rappers and singers, with a definitive focus on hip-hop.
Amid the panopticon of soundproofing, booths and equipment sits English-born, Cork-based drill rapper JRilla, in his element as he pauses YouTube videos and introduces himself before we get down to the nitty-gritty.
“I guess when I was younger, I've always kind-of been listening to what's popping the most, or what's the most relative to the scene at the moment. Grew up on Eminem, all of that stuff, y'know, and then I saw guys from Ireland just popping up online, (the 'drill' scene, built on heavier, more nihilistic takes on the 'trap' sub-genre) and I was like, what's this?
“Got into the genre, started writing my own stuff on it, and thought it was pretty good at it. So I said, why not give this a try. I recorded my first proper song called Whip Dat, in here, posted a small TikTok, and the whole thing just took off from there. I kind of told myself, alright, I can do this on a larger scale.”
Like any artist getting started, getting to grips with the creative process presents space to experiment, and challenges to self-expression and a widening frame of reference.
J’s relationship with M5 honcho Coco the Producer has been a springboard to gathering ideas and concepts for tunes, and a growing catalogue of accompanying visuals, filmed in Cork.
“What brought me here first was just, when I started writing songs, I was looking for a place to record, and this place... I saw Coco's Instagram posts and it looked like a positive input on making music, so when I came here first, and recorded my first song, I can say Coco definitely recognises the potential, and I almost feel at an early stage of an artist I needed someone to kind of have belief in my own artistic value, and he definitely gave me that, and that's what's brought me back to this studio, again and again. Me and Coco are definitely making stuff happen.”
While it’s not uncommon imagery in certain hip-hop circles at present, and has cropped up intermittently in the broader genre’s history at home and abroad, there’s no doubt that certain readers might raise an eye at one aspect of JRilla’s aesthetic - especially considering the balaclava’s place in Irish history.
He explains his relationship to the piece, and its place in what he’s at.
“It's always been about the music to me, from the start, and my appearance really wasn't that important to me, how I wanted to portray myself, it was more about what people listen to, instead of what they see.
“And at the age of 18, with the numbers I'm doing, I think it will be a bit overwhelming from right the start, seeing my face, but down the line, maybe we'll get a face reveal.”
While the rapper informally released a few tunes early on while feeling things out, debut single proper ‘Intro’ was released in 2020, right as the extent of the pandemic was making itself apparent.
It wasn’t an ideal circumstance, to say the least - but like many other young artists in the city’s broader music scene, Rilla forged ahead, making the best of a captive audience on social and streaming platforms.
“I would definitely say in my case, in my personal case, it was almost a blessing. That, y'know, people had a lot of time to just listen to music, and all that, find new artists, and I was one of those new writers, it was interesting.”
Follow-up ‘Somebody That I Used to Drill’ made an immediate impact online, thanks in part to a sample of Australian artist Gotye’s 2011 ballad ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, racking up millions of listens and views across video and music platforms.
No mean feat in itself, but especially in the absence of live appearances to further promote, Rilla gets into coming across the beat online, and a relatively rough ‘n’ ready creative process.
“The sample originally... I already liked that track. I go through these beats online all day, and this beat pops up, I heard the sample and instantly knew it was a hit, so I just got to writing. We're in here recording and Coco, my guy, my producer, suggested that I do a melody over the original melody, so I just kind-of switched up the words, and that's kind of the reason it popped off. I guess it was a catchy hook.
“It was like, once that ball starts rolling, and the ball doesn't stop rolling, you don't really have time to stop and think about it. I posted one little TikTok thing and it just started, you know, skyrocketing and I don't have time, really, to get overwhelmed by it all, but it's definitely exciting.”
‘Beggin’ U’ and new single ‘Lonely 4 the First Time’ both emerge at more stable, ‘post-Covid’ (for lack of a better term) times for artists, as music scenes begin to pick themselves up and survey their surroundings.
The former has done 300k listens, and there’s a good amount of hype around the new single - but it’s only the start for the young rapper’s ambitions.
“Success for me is when I reach the top. I want to be a household name at the top. I want to be a household name, in most countries you could name. I want to be that big. I don't think I'll stop 'til I get there.
“I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I guess it's working at the moment, but there's definitely projects we have in the pipeline to build up, but it's putting your name out there, and just outside-the-box ideas, and a gig coming up at Indie - but don't want to give away too many secrets (laughs).”
The video for JRilla’s new single, ‘Lonely 4 the First Time’, is on YouTube now.