Beating the rap

London-based hip-hop star Maverick Sabre has shown sceptics an Irish boy can do urban music, says Ed Power

MICHAEL Stafford, aka Wexford R’n’B performer Maverick Sabre, says of the violence at Swedish House Mafia’s Phoenix Park concert: “After the London riots, everyone was saying ‘let’s blame it on the music, let’s blame it on the kids’. Maybe the people taking that view should step back and try to look at the bigger picture. They might be surprised at what they see.”

Stafford says he’s tired of young people being blamed for society’s ills. Maybe the rest of us have responsibility.

“It’s too easy to turn around and pin it all on the kids,” he says. “Whatever young people have become, they have become because of the rest of us, because of society. They’ve learned from their elders. So, ask yourself, ‘whose fault is that’?”

Stafford sits forward. This is a subject to which he has given thought. “In Ireland, especially, there are a lot of pressing issues more important than young people supposedly being out of control. It’s to easy to turn around and blame the kids. They’re the way they are for a reason,” he says.

On the same weekend trouble flared at Swedish House Mafia, Stafford was ‘burning up’ the stage at London’s Wireless festival, alongside the biggest stars in dance and rap.

Up against Deadmau5 and Drake, he was one of the stars of the event, drawing widespread media praise for his propulsive flow and soulful vocals.

Finally, Stafford’s career seems to be taking off. Six months after the release of his debut album, Lonely Are The Brave, a buzz is building. This has nothing to do with luck, much less talent, he says. It’s all down to old-fashioned slog.

“My writing is progressing all the time and what I’m doing is going out there and showing people who I am developing into as an artist,” he says. “If you come and see me live, you can get a strong sense of that. I throw it all in there — you can see where I’ve come from and where I’m going.”

Born in Hackney and raised in New Ross, Stafford returned to London aged 17, determined to make it as a rapper. Initially, people didn’t know what to think of him. He raps, he sings, he rants, he delivers sweet pop choruses. The music business loves to pigeonhole and Maverick Sabre defied categorisation.

“I’m glad people find me hard to pin down,” he says. “It has given me lots of room to manoeuvre. My voice allows me travel around, try different genres. I was raised in Ireland, listening to folk, and that influences me to this day. At the same time, my older sister was introducing me to all the urban music from London. I’m a mix of influences and I don’t want to settle down to any one sound.”

By the time he got to London, Stafford was an up-and-coming star. Still a teenager, he became a face on the Wexford hip-hop scene (don’t laugh — it’s larger than might be imagined). Soon he was invited to open for international acts. He would take the train to Dublin and play support to stars such as The Game and 50 Cent. Irish hip-hop crowds are notoriously unforgiving and Stafford learned. A successful night meant not getting glassed in the wings.

“I really got into hip-hop aged 14 or 15,” he says. “I became involved in the Irish hip-hop scene. It was a valuable education. Before that, I’d played guitar. My dad was in a folk band and I picked up a lot from that. I was also into my reggae. It all went into the mix.”

In the UK, there’s been much chuckling, smirking even, at the idea of a blue-eyed Irish boy dealing in soul and hip-hop. Stafford understands why the English would be agog at the concept of an urban musician from Ireland. What the sceptics fail to understand is that rap and trad are coming from the same place. Each, in its way, is a kind of folk music, he says.

“Blues and traditional music have similar origins — there’s a very big connection,” he says. “What is hip-hop but a modern version of the blues? It’s folk music that’s more direct. The thing they have in common, including trad, is that they are about human emotion. They give voice to people who have endured a lot of pain.”

Did being Irish count against him in the industry? He shrugs, as if to say it certainly didn’t make things easier.

“You have to work harder to prove yourself,” he says. “People have a stereotypical idea of Ireland. With Irish hip-hop, it made things even more difficult.

“Outside of Ireland, there are no frames of reference. Maybe it was easier for me because I was born in London. I had a connection anyway. ”

Stafford is immensely proud of playing his part in putting Irish urban music on the map internationally. He sees no reason why others shouldn’t follow his example.

“I hope that, maybe, I could help break that stereotype as to what sort of artists we should be producing. We’re such a small country and yet we have given the world so much great music. I don’t understand why we should section ourselves off and say we can’t do this or that type of music. There are plenty of other people out there only too happy to put us down. We can move away from the cliches,” he says.

With his tight haircut and scrawny build, Stafford makes for an unlikely pop star. He looks like he should be hanging with his friends outside a chip-shop in New Ross rather than burning it up at major pop festivals.

It amuses him that people are blindsided by his appearance. “I get stuff like ‘he’s a football hooligan singing soul’. I think that’s great. People expect one thing and they get something else. At the end of the day, the best way of winning audiences over is surprising them. With music, it’s about what you do, not where you are from.”

* Maverick Sabre plays Indiependence, Aug 3- 5, in Mitchelstown, Co Cork and supports Noel Gallagher and Kasabian at Marlay Park, Dublin, Aug 23.

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