Ex art student, impassioned cinephile and self-confessed introvert, rapper and label-runner Kojaque is the unlikely force putting Dublin rap on the map
Of all the adjectives you might use to describe Kojaque – the rap alter ego of Dublinite Kevin Smith – shy probably wouldn't be your go-to. On his YouTube channel, you don't have to dig far to find clips of him dancing in shiny peach dresses, doing bodyrolls on city rooftops, or launching himself into the hands of fans on his recent summer tour.
But, had it not been for a streak of introversion, Kev admits he may have never gotten into rap at all. “To be honest, I started producing because I was too shy to tell anybody that I wanted to rap,” he confides. “So if I was producing it, it was fine. I didn't have to go through anybody. And if I decided one day it was too embarrassing to go ahead with, no one had to know.”
Smith admits, with genuine kindness, that he doesn't really like interviews, and the spotlight that's been tracking him of late makes him a little uncomfortable (“Sometimes it feels like there's an incentive to perform, you know that way?”). But he's also palpably grateful for his current position: after releasing Deli Daydreams last year – an EP almost unparalleled in its intricate, open-vein approach to hip hop – the label he co-runs has just been subject of a Boiler Room documentary, and he recently supported SlowThai.
Now mid-tour, and hours away from a show at London’s XOYO, he's having a Bright Lights Big City moment. “Britain is so much different than Ireland,” he smiles. “When we do regional shows, I'm expecting to rock up to a spot and it to look like fucking Laois or what have you. But we went to Newcastle the other day and I swear it looked like New York to me.” What was it that made such an impression? “They have very nice bridges. We just don't have towns and cities outside the big ones, like, infrastructure and architecture as developed as that.” Smith confesses the tour has been “pretty tame” by most people's standards, but that him and his Soft Boy records crew (Kean Kavanagh and Luka Palm, which whom he’s just released a new mixtape) could do with a day off. “We had a cute little girls’ night in the other day though – watched Game of Thrones.” Did they paint toenails? “No, we just got fucked on wine, ” he laughs.
Smith betrays his cinephilia almost immediately in our brief swerve into GoT (I've never seen it; he says he “loves the cinematography but oh my GOD the writing is bad”). I mention the nod to Blue Velvet in his most recent promo for “Flu Shot”, with Smith trussed up as Bobby Vinton-esque nightmarish crooner. “I really really like David Lynch,” he enthuses. “Like Eraserhead and stuff. Blue Velvet's not funny enough to be a comedy, it's not thrilling enough to be a thriller, it's just somewhere in between, this bizarre, beautiful Americana.” I’m unsurprised to to learn that Smith went to art school, specialising in performance and film later in his degree. “In a lot of the stuff I was interested in, performance artists used film as the medium to document their work,” he explains. “But the camera wasn't an active performer in the performance. I don't know why it can't be performance art and also look pretty.”
You can see this scholarly understanding of film-making in many of Smith’s promos, most of which are conceived and directed by him. The dream-like “Date Night”, for example, clocks up a myriad of set pieces in its four minute runtime, from artists’ sittings, hotel bedrooms and getaway cars. “We filmed it over like two months. It look a long time to do,” he says, with an inference of exhaustion. “We were using a lot of references from Scott Pillgrim Versus the World – like, motivated transitions. The basic premise for [our] film was 1) never repeat a location and 2) all the transitions have to be matched or motivated. And then a rough narrative of date night.” With so many locations in the video, I wonder how they managed to pull off, say, the closing golf course shot on the boys’ assumedly stringy budget? “We went late and didn't ask,” Smith grins. “It was grand. It was the summer – it's what everyone does at that golf course. Once it gets to five or six, the guys who run the golf course fuck off home. But it's also in a public park, so all the yuppie dads go out there and practice their drives.”
Despite being into what he describes as his “art bullshit” from a young age, Smith’s early-years introduction to music was a patchy one. “I did piano lessons when I was a kid but then I got out of them ‘cause I was a tyrant as a child,” he laughs. “I just kicked up a fuss with my ma, and she let me stop going. I hated my teacher because she was shit. She was fucking mean as well.” Having later taken lessons on drums and guitar – whose teachers proved a little more palatable – Smith says he came to regret not sticking with keys. “I'm back to learning piano again, now. My brother's a piano teacher so he teaches me, but I don't practice as much as I should. In one sense, I regret not sticking at it. I wanna play now, though, that's the difference. I'm learning stuff I want to play and it's a lot easier because I'm enthusiastic about it.”
As for rap, that came much, much later – Smith notes that, prior to hearing Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers”, he was a proper indie kid, soaking up Foals, Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club. “I was 15 or 16 when someone sent “Yonkers” to me. I was like 'what is this crazy music!’. I got real obsessed with hip hop – maybe exclusively listened to it for about four or five years? And Odd Future have this ‘do it yourself’ mentality too – if you wanna do something go and do it. So yeah, I started writing just then and there. I like that ethos of 'fuck off, fuck everything' response.” That hostile vibe was a big part of what dragged Smith away from his former winkle-picker toting heroes. “Indie rock just didn't appeal to me as much as that did… It was angsty teen shit, you know what I mean? And also, I couldn't find that many people in my school and in my friend group who liked hip hop and that. So, it was something I was just ... almost like, black sheepy.” Sounds a bit hipster to me, I josh. “I went to art college, of course I'm a hipster,” he laughs.
Even a cursory listen to Smith's music will tell you he has a lot of feelings: from “White Noise”, an almost-acapella that touches on the fraught socio/political context of his home city, to the bare-bones break-up ballad “Bubby's Cream” (“So where did I mess up? / Did I come on too strong? / Was that an x too many? / Did we make love too long?”). Smith admits that some of his first bars were about falling out of love. “I think I went through a bad break up when I was like 18...19, and that really fucked me,” he sighs. “And, just from feeling kinda hopeless about that whole situation, I got into a very bad rut. I dunno. In Ireland they don't really teach you to keep looking after your mental health. So that whole situation, doing the same thing every day... I just got really badly depressed.”
Music ended up being a panacea of sorts, says Smith. “Figuring out that I could express myself through writing... almost figuring out how I was feeling by just writing shit down, was real helpful.” He admits that rap didn't exactly smoke out his depression – “counselling was a lot better for that stuff” – but that it helped him get his thoughts in some kind of coherent order. “A lot of the time you're writing stuff, you don't really understand a given situation until you put it down on a page,” he says. “It might not even strike you until a few months later that that's how you;re feeling.”
I mention that I was recently talking to another rapper who found his recovery from depression threatened by the myth that emotional turmoil was essential for true creativity. Had a similar panic ever afflicted Smith? “Like... keep myself in perpetual pain in order to express myself about a certain situation? Yeah... no,” he quips. “The tortured artist is a very bad business plan. And inspiration comes from all sorts of places. I don't think good art is necessarily to do with pain and suffering. Yeah... I dunno. Art from me is more about truth. It's how you truly feel about something in the moment, rather than trying to fit this kind of Vincent Van Gough, cutting your ear off kinda shit.”
Despite having dug himself out from under depression, there are other kinds of tumult that permeate Smith’s world – most notably his love/hate relationship with his home country. It’s a subject that often filters through his lyrics: “White Noise” centres the experiences of Ireland’s most impoverished and disenfranchised residents, addressing abortion rights, drug laws and corruption. “Ireland’s a very frustrating place to live,” Smith says, tiredly. “I think if I can articulate something enough, if I can say something kinda succinctly that somebody else can't express, then that's a job for me.” He shakes his head. “The state of Dublin though, man, it's so fucking shit. Even travelling around here, seeing all the cocol venues and shit. We went to Leeds, to Hit the North recently. So many tight, small venues that we don't have in Dublin – the amount of stuff that's getting shut down. We had The Hanger, which was used to put on a lot of raves on... that got torn down and turned into a hotel. The Tivoli Theatre, that's getting turned into a hotel. Vicar Street, one of the most historic venues in Dublin, that's becoming a hotel. Everything shuts in Dublin at 2am – I mean, you can get [a license for] 4am but you have to pay something weekly and it kills places. The main retort is 'Well it's bringing economy to the city'. But who is going to be able to live in the city? Fucking hell.”
Though contained, you can feel Smith’s frustration simmer. I ask him whether he’s interested in centralising this discourse in his art, so potent are his feelings. “I just want to make art and sustain myself in the city I grew up in,” he says. “But living in Dublin is like being in a shitty relationship sometimes, y’know that way? I'm in love with this person but they fuck me, all the time, and they lie and they take my money.” All this said and done, Smith melts a little when asked whether he misses home. “The Irish are just different,” he smiles. “You don't really realise that until you leave.” He then uses that ever-evasive colloquialism – “just, the craic!” – to explain the difference between the Irish and everyone else. “We're just a bizarre fucking people. Just walking around the streets in Dublin, there's always people shouting out in the street for whatever reason. Here, people are a bit more reserved. Dublin's like the biggest village in the world.”
Smith’s new mixtape Green Diesel - which features the lol-worthy ode to holiday accommodation, “Airbnb” - is co-written and performed with longtime collaborator and fellow golf course tresspasser Luka Palm, also signed to Smith’s Soft Boy imprint. I posit that - what with his predilection for crossdressing and the hyper emotional content of Deli Daydreams - the label’s name might be betraying some noble desire to tear down the hypermasculinity which remains rap’s dominant mode of expression. He shrugs. “To be honest, it's just something funny we call each other. The Boiler Room…” who featured Smith and the other Soft Boys in a recent documentary…”they had a whole angle they wanted to go for, and that's fine. And in terms of expressing myself, and the label, obviously there is a traditional notion of masculinity, with a stiff upper lip and stoicism. And I don't think that's a very healthy way to live your life. But there was no agenda for us. I think we're just trying to make music with a bunch of guys we get on with – and hopefully some girls very soon!” On that front, Smith is on a bit of crusade to get the label’s admittedly lop-sided gender split balanced out. “We're an all-male outfit , We've had maybe two submissions from women in the four yearsw e’ve been running. And they just didn't fit the label. I'm not in the camp of tokenism. But we're trying to find women. The last publication we did, we basically put a call out and we've maybe had one submission since.”
Taking his label runner hat off for our last few moments, we touch on the new mixtape and what’s on the horizon. Kojaque's Autumn is saturated with live dates – a tour with Luka in September, supporting Slowthai in October and headlining shows throughout December – but he's hype to return to the live room. “I’m actually just keen to get back in the studio again and finesse things, write new stuff… as much as I love touring.” Of course, with each new release comes the possibility that Smith’s relative anonymity will evaporate completely. But, despite his tendency towards introversion, he sounds ready to embrace it. “It's grand, really,” he says. “And if you shoulder into it as opposed to lean away from it, it can be a lot easier. For the most part, it’s just bizarre.”