Versatile’s debasement of hip-hop should have firebombed the project a long time ago. Their writing is preposterous – a Gatling gun delivery of god-awful one-liners punctuated by moments of extreme racism and misogyny. These attempted jokes are served to us with the explanation that the group’s personas are satirical. But if you’re simply parroting despicable attitudes without a clear point, claiming parody is about as useful as handing a Get Out of Jail Free card to a real prison warden.
In all my days writing album reviews I’ve never handed out a minimum score. Such public shaming should be reserved for work that’s either completely incompetent or morally bankrupt. Versatile – Casey Walsh aka Casper and Alex Sheehan aka Eskimo Supreme – make music that doesn’t meet the first criteria. Moving from light electronica (“Ketamine”) to London-influenced street sounds (“Scorching Again”) to East Coast hip- hop (“Dublin City Gs”), DJ Evan Kennedy’s beats do sometimes kick hard, and though Walsh and Sheehan can’t really rap, what they can do is write earworm choruses. Delivered in heavily accented Dublin cadences, these hooks have proved nectar to a large base of young fans.
It’s the content that disgraces Versatile. Sliding into the fictional personas of two hyperreality inner-city drug dealers, the duo revel in their nefarious, hateful rhetoric. “Dublin City Gs” is perhaps the gravest offender. The song’s lyrics were well-circulated on social media last month and are easy to find without me repeating. In short, Versatile engage in the most intense misogyny towards black women while throwing in a number of derogatory racial stereotypes for good measure.
Here we have two privileged white men degrading Ireland’s black community, spreading hurtful tropes, normalising racist typecasting, and all for their own cheap gains. Their reward? In November the group will become the first homegrown hip-hop act to headline the 3Arena.
To casual observers, Versatile’s product will be seen as indicative of all Irish rap. And so their sins feel particularly grievous as rap music currently offers the clearest iteration of our increasingly multicultural Ireland. To abuse the art form in this way is an affront to hip-hop.
Because hip-hop is black culture. It’s not white culture, it’s black culture. That doesn’t mean white people can’t participate or even add new styles and flavours. But it does mean they have to be respectful when they’re in someone else’s house.
Facilitating their lyrics is Versatile’s careless depiction of what they presumably envision the inner city to be like. Rappers often slide into different personas in their music and that’s cool. But writing about the scourge of poverty in a fetishtic way, ostensibly because you find it funny or believe it gives you extra cultural cache, does nothing to help us understand or empathize with those problems, let alone alleviate them.
Walsh and Sheehan are, it’s worth pointing out, barely into their twenties and should be given every chance to grow up as artists and as people. Still, the recent backlash does not seem to be giving either pause for reflection.
I’ve yet to see Versatile break character and they rarely give interviews. What personalities lurk beneath their personas, I don’t know, but it was damning that among the mountain of criticism the group received last month, they chose to acknowledge singer Erica-Cody by posting on Instagram a clip of her appearance in a sportswear ad they co-starred in. The message seems clear to me: “We’ll take the criticism about our treatment of black women but we’ll be damned if we’re going to take it from a black woman!”
Versatile aren’t the first rappers to recite misogynistic lyrics. The genre has historically been made up of very young men and all very young men are exposed to sexist attitudes that corrupt. Misogyny is pervasive across all forms of media – change society and we’ll get better art.
But there’s something particularly cold and brutal to Versatile’s methodology. They ramp up their insults in the pursuit of cheap laughs. This apparently a marketable skill now. The thought of some 13,000 young people going wild in the 3Arena come November, the joke being on communities in Ireland who already face the biggest challenges, chills the soul.
To those fans I say this: I’m often drawn into conversations on whether or not Ireland is a racist country. Any suggestions that it is upsets a lot of (white) people. As long as this kind of diatribe is tossed into the world with glee and excused away as humour, then Versatile’s supporters have no business battling this claim. They have abandoned the moral high ground. And for this?