If the logline of “abrasive, ultra-political, Gaelic language rap” doesn’t ring any bells, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Though there’s a rich history of hip-hop, and of course musicians generally, that hail from Northern Ireland, few are as forthcoming with their native tongue in the way that Kneecap is. Comprised of MCs Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and producer DJ Próvaí, they’re just as unique as they are controversial. They’ve since come back with their first single in two years earlier this year in 2023. Here’s a rundown of the band’s history so far.
Deep Political Themes in All of Kneecap’s Work
Just as some of the first hip-hop tracks in the US were, Kneecap’s initial release came about for decidedly political releases. 2017 saw a very public back-and-forth between Irish citizens and the UK’s government over official recognition of the Gaelic language, something that would eventually result in the passing of the Identity and Language Act last year. After band member Móglaí Bap narrowly avoided arrest for spray painting the word “Caerta” (rights) on a bus stop, his friend, who did end up in custody, refused to speak English. It was a quite literally silent protest of the enforcement of a non-native language as the official tongue.
Inspired by the incident, the band took to the studio to release a track of the same name. Though “C.A.E.R.T.A.” wasn’t originally part of a grander music industry dream, the ensuing warm reception by Irish fans and the outrage from establishment types (the song was briefly banned by a local radio station), the path forward was clear for the trio.
They then got to work on a debut mixtape. 3CAG arrived in 2018, and following suit from “C.A.E.R.T.A,” many of the cuts featured there carried the same in-your-face, uncompromising overtones. “Your Sniffer Dogs Are Sh*te” is a perfect example, a track whose title perfectly foreshadows its message given even a cursory understanding of Irish slang. But their frustrations manifested in more ground-level ways as well, like on the closer “Bouncers,” again a track where you’re getting exactly what’s on the tin. That track, as well as most of 3CAG‘s material, leans retro in its production—boom bap backings that, with minimalist drum sections and choice use of guitars, no doubt call to mind ’80s staples like The Beastie Boys.
The Middle Act of the Belfast Trio So Far
Into 2019, the band remained intent on continuing their momentum, birthing a string of loose singles that followed the mixtape. “Fenian C*nts,” “Gael-Gigolos,” “H.O.O.D.,” “Get Your Brits Out,” “MAM,” “Guilty Conscience” and “Thart agus Thart” were each released a few months apart, stretching into 2021, and each explored a different side of Kneecap than their initial releases had showcased. “H.O.O.D” and “Guilty Conscience” arguably have the most in common out of that slate just named—each creeping into hip-house territory with a consistent string rhythm setting pace for the two MCs. The former worked a lot more English language lyrics into the fold than previously before, especially in its chorus where Bap defiantly spits “I’m a H – Double O – D / Low life scum, that’s what they say about me.”
“MAM,” one of the few official collaborations the group has in their catalogs, saw them link up with fellow North Irish rapper Dyrt. The result is a heartfelt tender tribute to their mothers, particularly Bap’s, who had recently passed before the release of the song. Production-wise, there remains a focus on past eras, this time a 1980s pop spin in the instrumental that brings in sentimental pads and keys.
“It’s Been Ages” and the Future of Kneecap
Finally, this year we saw the return of Kneecap in earnest, with the aptly titled “It’s Been Ages.” UK producer to the stars Toddla T for the comeback effort, the beatmaker making a name for himself behind the boards for the likes of Wiley, Stefflon Don, Headie One and Stormzy. Fittingly, the song is the closest thing to drill that Kneecap has produced—and rest assured, their signature brand of coarse charisma wasn’t lost in the process.
Shortly after that single, they also announced that they’d begun production of a feature film, focused on a fictionalized version of the three band members’ lives, notably featuring Michael Fassbender as part of its cast. While looking at the release history of the band would imply somewhat of a down period in the past few years, it’s only the official drops that have gone quiet.
Kneecap has established itself as one of the absolute best live acts around today in that span, and has taken their talents truly across the globe, with the trio just wrapping up a North American leg a few weeks back. They’re not showing signs of slowing their live performances in general any time soon, especially in their own neck of the woods. Head to their official website to see their upcoming dates, and as always, you can find the music featured here on all streaming platforms.