An unusual hip-hop act, in that he performs his vocals live from behind a drum set, Alex Gough is one of the ever-growing array of international-calibre Irish hip-hop acts.
His output has been light but cutting so far. In most recent single ‘Fool’, for example, he builds the track around an almost tropical rhythm, cutting vocally into the beat as it progresses. ‘Step To Me’ has dancier undertones and a mellow edge.
I talked to Alex to explore his music so far, playing live from behind that drum set, and what he makes of the development in Irish hip-hop in recent years…
2019 was a big year for you. Did it feel like a step up?
2019 was definitely a massive step up. I had been working away on my own music alongside playing in other bands and school etc. 2019 was the year I decided I was going to turn this project into something. I had big plans for creating a live show and bringing a band together. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the live show to some of the biggest shows I’ve ever played like Electric Picnic, my first gig in London and Other Voices, 2019. It was a dream come true.
You’re stuck indoors at the moment, but a big part of your reputation is live. How have you developed your live show, and how anxious are you to get back to it?
The live show has gone from my original brainchild of live jazz-infused hip hop and developed through playing gigs and trying new things in the moment. I’ve always wanted the live show to be a different experience to my recorded music.
I’m lucky to have a band that are both amazing musicians and very close friends that allow me to bring that to life. They do a ridiculously good job at every gig. From the start, I’ve left a lot of the live show up to interpretation, meaning it could really go anywhere at any point and I love that. The root of the song always remains the same though. Losing shows as a result of all this has been tough but it’s for our safety and the safety of the gig-goers. I’d play a gig right now if I could, I can’t wait to get back to playing.
Can you tell me the story behind ‘Fool’?
It was towards the end of last summer when it was made. I had driven to cork for a rehearsal and was staying at my guitarist’s house, the day after I was supposed to drive home, but we started messing around on Ableton on his computer.
We were scrolling through a sample pack and found this Afro-Cuban loop with this really cool trumpet line. I was like “Matt, that one let’s chop it” and within like 30 minutes, the beat was done. I wrote and recorded the first verse and hook while we were listening through and tweaking. The words were pretty nonchalant at the time but came to some sort of meaning as it progressed.
Irish hip-hop seems to be on a relentless rise at the moment. How does it feel from within the scene?
It feels great. The music scene in Ireland has always been evident and celebrated as long as I can remember. The only difference now is that hip-hop is stepping into the light. It’s always been there but way more underground, the birth of most scenes. The best thing about being in the scene is the sense of community, for the most part everyone is supporting each other and we’re all trying to shine some light on the talent of our small island. It feels good to be part of something, it’s human nature.
Drums and vocals are still a relatively unusual combo for a frontman. How challenging is it to do?
It’s not so much challenging as it is limiting. I’ve been playing the drums for quite a long time so the drumming part is almost second nature to me now. With rapping, and that style of vocal in general, there’s a heavy reliance on rhythm. The drums and the vocals often line up in some way because of that so it’s easier to slot the vocals into the drums. It does limit my ability to interact a bit but I’m finding new ways to do so. Drums are my passion so I’ll always be behind a drum kit in some shape or form.
You’ve done well out of playlists, how important are they to getting your name out there?
We live in an age now where we can reach millions of people with a click of a few buttons. And I think playlists really lean into that idea, which is why they are and have been so beneficial to me. I’ve been able to reach hundreds of thousands of people with my music through playlists. And reach places that, in the past, you may have had to tour or visit to reach even 100 people, nevermind 100,000. The internet has its perks.
How far off is an album? Do they even matter much anymore in your view?
It’s hard to know in terms of time, an album is something I think will naturally happen for me. I definitely plan on making an album, several really. But I want my first album to mean something and have huge conceptual and contextual value to both me and the listener. We do live in a world of short attention spans but I really enjoy and idolise the idea of an album so it’s definitely something I plan to pursue multiple times. But when that will be I’m not sure.
The concept behind 80% is an interesting one. Do you struggle with negativity?
Yeah, I definitely do. The concept of 80% came from that exact observation. I often find myself thinking the worst or negatively assessing my abilities and comparing myself to others a lot rather than focusing on the good things or the things I can do. I think it’s hugely common to do so but it’s definitely something that I’m subject to in myself.
Do you like the idea of a concept album in general?
10000%. I think it’s one of the most important aspects of an album. For me, an album needs to be a piece that ties together under one umbrella, whether it is vague or very specific. It’s something I enjoy about albums. The concept doesn’t always have to be immediately clear, often it’s even cooler to discover one when you go digging. To Pimp A Butterfly is the perfect example.
Can you tell me a little bit about your production work?
I produce all my own music. I started producing about 3 years ago, making mostly instrumentals until I stepped into putting my voice on my records. Even if I’m working with other people on songs I’ll always be in the production seat in some form. It’s something I really enjoy too, it opens up a whole new world for me as an artist. I can unfold my own ideas immediately, which is often easier than trying to communicate what’s in my head at the best of times. It’s fun.
What are your plans for when this shutdown is all over?
Play gigs, spend time with people that are close to me, just be outside and have a good time.