Hip-hop duo Tebi Rex’s new album ‘It’s Gonna Be Okay’ is the culmination of a long and complex road for Kildare natives Matt O’Baoill and Max Zanga, one that started in a deeply buried Irish scene that has transformed in the intervening years.
The pair, a strong part of healthy hip-hop collaboration Word Up Collective, have spent the early parts of this year putting the finishing touches to the record, and then bringing its pointed message to international audiences. Whilst still barred from gigs at home, they’ve starred virtually at Dutch newcomer festival Eurosonic and American industry giant SxSW.
“It’s mad to think how recently things were really underground,” Matt O’Baoill tells us of the early days of the band and the changes that followed. “We used to have to pretend we weren’t a hip-hop group to get a gig. And we’d go to slam poetry sessions with our guitar and say it was a gig.”
“I think there was a view that hip-hop was a US or UK idea, and that the Irish idea of music was a couple of white guys and a guitar, or a pretty girl lamenting something. We didn’t have many rappers, and the ones we did have were like MCs from Dublin talking about poverty, a lot of it quite grim and not very palatable to people outside of their scenario. Fast forward five, six, seven years and there’s hip-hop acts everywhere. It makes things a lot easier, and makes the scene a lot less threatening.”
The new album, out now, is divided into ‘chapters’ as opposed to songs, a nod to the storytelling side of the band.
“We’re kind of storytellers posing as musicians, ” O’Baoill says. “The last album was in ‘acts’, and this time it’s in chapters so we can have a lineage and a storyline going through it. We want people to see it as a story.”
“We’re inspired by what we see around us, and over the last 18 months, it was almost impossible not to comment on the impact and how the world changed. You don’t want to write a lockdown album as it’s a bit cliched at this stage, but we had to speak about how we felt young people were let down, as well as looking into the next stage of our lives. The cards we’ve been dealt are not the same as the cards our parents have been dealt, that’s clear to us. I’m glad we addressed this stuff in our music.”
“There are a few collaborations on the record, particularly with Local Boy, who’s a good friend, and we really connect with him on what we’re trying to do. We got Rebecca Locke in, too, and we’ve become really close to her over the last year, and she’ll be supporting us at our headline show. The collaborations are a great part of it, and I’d definitely expect more collaborations with both of them.”
Tebi Rex’s reputation, though, has always been primarily as a live act.
“We’ve really missed the live stuff,” O’Baoill says. “Not getting to perform means there’s some stuff we’ve never played live. That dampened the spirits a bit, recently it felt like dropping music into the ether for the internet to swallow it up.”
“The new album is so live focused, it’s really about getting the live sound we’ve had for a while over on the record. We had been more polished on record, but we’ve gone a lot more cathartic and shouty on this record, so it should be a lot more similar than previously.” As things return to normal, Tebi Rex are primed to shine.