When U2 played the RDS in Dublin in August 1993, they were on the home stretch of their ZooTV tour. The band had packed arenas and stadiums across the world for the previous 18 months. But in Dublin, there was a sense of homecoming.
That feeling, however, been in the air at the RDS long before Bono and company emerged from the wings. Earlier in evening, the esteemed Irish traditional musician Donal Lunny had gone on stage and performed with the raw and angst-fuelled Irish-British rap four piece Marxman. For everyone involved, it was a singular moment.
“Supporting U2 in my home town of Dublin was a massive life highlight, particularly when my dad joined us on stage to play Sad Affair,” recalls Oisín Lunny, son of Donal. Today, Lunny is a marketeer and event MC. Thirty years ago, he was one-quarter of Marxman, a progressive hip-hop outfit which blended socialist politics underdog lyrics and gangster rap grooves.
“U2 were all really cool with us. I’ve seen Bono a few times since and he has always been dead on,” says the group’s MC Hollis, aka Hollis Michael Byrne.
ZooTV was a career-high for U2. That RDS date was similarly a stand-out moment for Marxman, who were touring their gut-punching debut LP, 33 Revolutions per Minute – among the first Irish hip-hop records and one that resonates to this day. Here is the story of the band and the album.
Marxman was founded in London in 1989 by Hollis Michael Byrne (MC Hollis) and Stephen Brown (aka Phrase D, British-born of Jamaican heritage ), who had met at university. Shortly afterwards, they recruited an old DJ friend of Byrne’s from Dublin – Oisín Lunny (MC Hollis’s father, Michael, had played with Dónal in 1960s folk group Emmet Spiceland). Scratch DJ 'K One' completed the line-up.
“We had been making music for a long time, or at least at that age it felt like a long time) before we got a record deal,” recalls Byrne. ”Oisín worked as a tape op at a studio in Fulham. We had recorded something in a studio in Rathmines before that. We had a lot of demo’s considering it wasn’t so easy to record back then. There wasn’t the home studio software and equipment you have now and whatever there was, we couldn’t afford.”
“I had been DJing from old second-hand vinyl in Dublin for many years,” says Lunny. “And also building up a huge library of samples and snippets from old soul and Motown records, library music, soundtracks, spoken word, obscure gospel releases… the works.”
Politics was at the core of what they were about. Sad Affair, their 1992 debut single was inspired by John Gibbs modern folk ballad Irish Ways and Irish Laws and featured the words”tiocfaidh ár lá”– earning an instant ban from the BBC. Meanwhile, with Ship Ahoy, featuring a vocal from Sinead O’Connor, they tackled the legacy of slavery in the United States – decades before it became a mainstream cultural talking point.
“We called ourselves Marxman at a time when a lot of people would say the tide wasn’t conducive to that [ie to leftwing politics]. So fair to say it was extremely important to us,” says Byrne. “We got more flak for what people perceived our stance on the north of Ireland to be I think, and for telling Irish Americans the best way to show support for the struggle was to fight racism in their own country. I remember there were some threats from the far right too but we answered that at the time.”
Hip hop was still an underground genre in the early 1990s. Marxman though quickly built a following and came to the attention of Talkin’ Loud, the bouquet label run by DJ Gilles Peterson.
“Once we got signed we recorded most of the album pretty quickly from memory, apart from the tracks with DJ Premier and SD50 which we recorded in D&D and Chung King in New York,” says Byrne. “Politically there was a lot going on but we tried to stay general- I think we felt like we were making an album that you could pick up at any point in time and it would resonate, rather than being a kind of snapshot on events that were happening in the early 1990s. Hopefully that is what we achieved.”
Around this time they met Sinéad O’Connor who, politically and culturally was coming from the same place.
“Sinéad had been given a copy of our first ever release, a white label 12” of Sad Affair, and incredibly, said that she would be up for working with us,” says Lunny. “When we had a week of demo studio time from Island Records, in The Fallout Shelter studios in London, we took her up on the offer. It was quite a surprise for the receptionist to see one of the most famous singers on the planet rock up and ask for some random band making demos.
“I’m pretty sure the news was relayed to the A&R gods at Island Records, who were subsequently very interested in signing us, before we went to Talkin’ Loud,” he adds. “Sinéad joined us on stage supporting The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in November 1992 and even appeared in the video for Ship Ahoy. She was hugely supportive from day one, and our momentum at the time owes a lot to her soul and her generosity.“
Sad Affair was, as pointed out, at the centre of a media firestorm when it was banned by the BBC for its “Republican” lyrics. “We got a letter I think, on BBC note paper. You are banned! I think it’s a little less up itself now but back in 1992. They were establishment as fuck,” says Byrne.
The BBC aside, 33 Revolutions Per Minute was well reviewed, with critics picking up on the mix of old and the new (piper Davy Spillane had a cameo, as did Gang Starr turntablist DJ Premier).
The record has since been heralded as being quite influential in its era. Alas, Marxman were a few years before their time. In 1993 the idea of musicians outside of the US making hip-hop was still regarded as a novelty. It was a prejudice they were unable to overcome, with 33 Revolutions or with 1996 swansong Time Capsule.
“It was hard, not just for non-US rap groups, but for rap in general. Our record company didn't quite know how to match our ambitions, with their own,” says Brown, aka Phrase D. “We were forging our own path, and could not easily be put into the boxes they were used to using. We were proposing system change, so how do they square that circle?”
Byrne agrees; “We should never have happened; odds were definitely not in our favour. Even American rap didn’t actually sell much and was nowhere near the levels that it’s become. The scene was very young, the record business wasn’t exactly filled with people who got rap, never mind supported it. It wasn’t easy and we definitely didn’t get pushed or marketed like other groups at the time and even if we had, the market wasn’t as mature as now.”
For Lunny it was about creating something provocative but also graceful and haunting – a mission Marxman more than fulfilled with 33 Revolutions per Minute. “The technology of sampling meant that you could merge seemingly disparate musical elements but it could all make beautiful sense,” he says. “I think we just drew on the musical influences which meant the most to us, so of course Irish music was in the mix. “