I was delighted hear from Guillem Murcia from the Spanish political blog Rotekeil.com, who wanted to chat about my musical past with the band Marxman. I would also highly recommend Guillems mixtape “The Nature Of The Long Depression” featuring an unreleased Marxman cut here.
Interview with Oisin Lunny from the hip-hop group Marxman
We spoke to the producer of one of the most incendiary hip-hop groups in history
The post-Thatcher years weren’t easy years to identify yourself with radical politics, including Irish Republicanism and Marxism. Privatisations running rampant, a complete devotion to the US-UK “special relationship”, a head-to-head conflict against unions and a tough stance on the Irish Question had all been trademarks of the Iron Lady. According to the BBC, Margaret Thatcher managed “to destroy the power of the trade unions for almost a generation”, going so far as to call them the “enemy within” the United Kingdom. The “enemy without” for her was the Argentinian Junta from the Falklands conflict. Thus was the Machiavellian Thatcher strategy: identify your neoliberal paradigm, the one defending the interests of the few, of the elite, with the nation, the interests of the majority, the working majority.
It is in this context where we have to place Marxman, a four-piece hip-hop band whose members came from Dublin, Bristol and London and had lyrics espousing topics and concerns from the Marxist tradition together with social commentary on a number of other issues: domestic violence or drug abuse, for example. Formed in 1989, just a year before Thatcher left office and right when the British economy had entered recession, they lived through the John Major era, including the Gulf War, Black Wednesday and the ex-Yugoslavia war.
The United Kingdom in the 90’s, where class consciousness had been shattered and the Troubles were reigniting again in the North of Ireland, needed their message more than ever. Oisin Lunny was the production mastermind behind the project. Together with MCs Hollis and Phrase (real name, Stephen Brown), and DJ K One, their carefully crafted songs mixed golden era boom bap with traditional Irish music or soul samples, some say forerunning the Bristol underground music explosion in the 90’s.
The band parted ways in 1995, and Oisin Lunny pursued a career in market development, while keeping in touch with his producer and DJ side. He founded the company Lifeblood Productions a one-man-army project producing and licensing music for films and TV channels, and has also DJed at several festivals and events. He maintains a website where you can read about his work and listen to several of his mixtapes. Oisin was really kind to let us flood him with questions regarding his current projects.
GM: Hello Oisin, thank you very much for being so generous with your time and answering our questions. I discovered Marxman almost by accident, when looking for Irish hip-hop, and was blown away by it. I was amazed to find a band that rhymed about political and social issues I think are very relevant, while mixing it with golden era hip-hop beats and an eclectic use samples (including Irish music ones). It is a pleasure to be able to talk with you. You surely aren’t restless. Since Marxman disbanded you have DJed, produced music for films and collaborated with a wealth of other artists, including Bennan Murphy or Roger Goldby. What are you currently up to, musically or else?
OL: Thanks for reaching out, its great to talk with you, this kind of serendipitous connection is one of the joys of a free Internet. These days I am busy working for OpenMarket, a company that, among other things, helps charities and NGOs raise money and awareness by using mobile technology. We have been a part of many of the largest fundraising initiatives in the UK in the past few years; our solutions have processed over £30,000,000 for charities in 2014 alone. It’s a privilege to work with a company that can make a difference in this way. Musically I am still DJing, recently for Change.org, SXSW Eco and the Institute of Fundraising. In 2014 I also composed the score for a great documentary by Daisy Asquith called “After The Dance” which will be shown on the BBC, featuring musical contributions from my father Donal, my sister Cora, and Padraig Rynne. At the moment I am remixing the excellent Diagrams and will soon be working on a project called Duvestar with my partner Marie Glad.
GM: I know your da, Dónal Lunny is a renowed Irish folk musician, so I’m guessing your upbringing was very musically related. How did it influence you in becoming interested in hip-hop and music production?
OL: I remember one year in the 70s returning to school after my summer holidays, and the class was asked to write about what they did in the summer. The other kids were writing about beach holidays and such, but my essay was about touring around Ireland in a red transit van with the Bothy Band. Apparently I developed an early taste for Guinness. Music has always been a big part of my life and I was lucky to grow up in an atmosphere that supported it. My Dad bought me a copy of the Brian Eno and David Byrne masterpiece “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” when it came out, and it’s safe to say it blew my mind. I was always interested in music production so started making music with a double tape deck, adding samples from the radio to live guitar, recording and bouncing until it sounded right. When I had my first real exposure to early hip-hop like Public Enemy (from MC Hollis who was visiting from Bristol) it blew my mind in the same way, so I borrowed his brother Daire’s Amiga home computer with a cheap sampling attachment, and the first Marxman ideas were put together in this way.
GM: One only has to look at your Twitter account to see you are still involved in raising awareness about a number of social issues (such as opposition to wars and pro-social justice). Have your views evolved very much from your time in Marxman? How did you get in contact with radical, Marxist politics in those days? Do you still think those ideas are relevant? I’m asking because when I listen to “Ship Ahoy” I think it could have been written yesterday, as an anthem for an Occupy movement, you know: “Now they call it free trade, free choice for all. But the real freedom is ten per cent small”.
OL: I think the ideas from Marx are still a fascinating and vital way to make sense of recent history, and the world we find ourselves in. The internet is an incredible tool for finding sociopolitical and spiritual knowledge, connecting with like-minded souls, for sharing what’s important to us, and for speaking out. Anyone with internet access can find out about groundbreaking and diverse commentators such as Chris Hedges, John Taylor Gatto, and Mark Passio, web broadcasters such as Abby Martin, James Corbett & Scott Groves from Tragedy and Hope. Entertainers like Russell Brand and Lee Camp also make very enlightened material that can help us look beyond the matrix of illusion. This year I saw Kumi Naidoo, the International Executive Director of Greenpeace, present a stunning closing speech at the International Fundraising Congress. He spoke about the mental constructs created by the powers that be to keep people in a state of subjugation and seeming powerlessness. As Neil Kramer puts it, fear is the frequency of control. The amazing Scilla Elworthy puts it succinctly in her book Pioneering the Possible: “The Future Belongs to Those Who Can See It. This simple statement made me realize that – amazingly – we have no images for a positive future, no convincing pictures of a world that we’d like our children to inhabit, no pragmatic vision of what life could be like. Instead we have an endless stream of doom movies, in which mega-tech battles leave a devastated, uninhabitable earth. We are systematically numbed by reality shows on television and celebrity culture. We have political leaders who make decisions geared to the next opinion poll or the next election, decisions with such a short-term perspective that they do not serve the interests of the next generation, never mind the planet or the biosphere. You could say we have abandoned hope. Hope, we know well enough, is not a strategy. What’s needed is not just hope, but vision grounded in pragmatism and in a humble receptivity to new ideas.”
TPTB would have us all well adjusted to an insane society, but adhering to the status quo will only benefit the elites in the short term, and our current trajectory is ultimately ecocidal. In terms of the impact on our future options for inhabiting this beautiful planet, time is running out. I’m a great believer that remaining silent on the things that matter to you is a spiritual death of sorts. Silence is consent. Silence is also a highly efficient control mechanism, as is cognitive dissonance. It can be impossible to fathom what is happening, and why, and we are worried about speaking out under the spotlight of the digital panopticon, which has been relentlessly plugged in 2014. But, people are waking up all the time, and people are taking action. I am hopeful for the future.
GM: Irish republicanism also played a big role in Marxman (being the theme after your “Sad Affair” song which was infamously banned by BBC). How did you become involved with it? How do you feel about the peace process and the current situation in the Six Counties?
OL: I grew up in an environment that had awareness of the situation in the North. My Dad was involved in the album “H-Block” with Christy Moore, Matt Molloy, and Declan Sinnott, while the Moving Hearts were never shy of making political statements. But even discussing the “troubles” was taboo for many people in the South, certainly in the mainstream media, and also for many in the UK. With Marxman we wanted to bring this taboo out in the open, “Sad Affair” was our first release and a statement of intent. As the lyrics stated, “Some pretend the problems don’t exist”… “The time has come to discuss this”. How do I feel about it now? Peaceful solutions are always a good thing in my opinion.
GM: In the interview with the French TV channel I mentioned, you guys claimed not to consider yourselves “an Irish hip-hop band” and that the press probably referred to you in that fashion in order to avoid calling you “a communist hip-hop band”. Still, the connection was there, and I seem to recall you played with Scary Éire in the Rock Garden in Dublin, back when Irish hip-hop was probably in its infancy. How do you think you were and are perceived by Irish hip-hop fans and bands?
OL: Marxman were indeed never completely aligned with the “scenes” we were associated with, we did our own thing. Our identity was a reflection of the political and musical influences of the band. We were huge hip-hop fans, so the first thing we asked for when we signed to Universal was a trip to New York to work with Gangstarr and the SD50s. I loved Scary Eire, they nailed it in terms of Irish Hip-Hop. As legendary Hip-Hop photographer Brian Cross said, Scary Éire were from the hood. I still follow the adventures of Ri-Ra and DJ Mek online I am a big fan of the new school Irish Hip-Hop coming out from the likes of Lethal Dialect, ACR and Jambo.
GM: It’s very interesting to see two Englishmen of Jamaican heritage and two Irish lads joining efforts through hip-hop. How did people react to that back then? Did the fact that you all came from a working-class background make it easier to identify with each other and link different struggles and issues (like colonialism with the Six Counties, or slavery with modern capitalist exploitation)?
OL: Good question. The political direction of the band came from the MCs Hollis and Phrase. Hollis had been very politically active as a teen, while Phrase grew up near the “front line” in St Pauls, Bristol. Both and had seen a lot of social injustice first hand and were determined to make music that had a social impact. My Dublin upbringing was a bit more sheltered than theirs, but I remember marching against apartheid and against Reagan’s visit in the 80s, I still have a badge from one of the miners who came over to Dublin fundraising in 1984 during the UK Miners Strike.
GM: You are known to have a very eclectic musical taste. I could assume you liked hip-hop, electronic and Irish music, of course. But in an interview at Represent magazine Hollis talked about how in time ago (before 1995, which is the date of that interview), you could go to jams and listen to “Tears for Fears” being played. You also recently referenced Crass and Bauhaus on your Twitter account, considered the godfathers of anarcho-punk and goth rock. How did all those influences shape Marxman and your later musical projects? You sometimes have been named as a precursor to the “Bristol sound”, which was itself a very eclectic scene. How much do you agree with that or think the scene in that city influenced your sound?
OL: Bristol was a huge influence on all of us musically, Hollis and Phrase used to go to the Wild Bunch parties, where they knew DJ K-One (who recorded and toured with Marxman). I was obsessed with all kinds of music, but I remember Hollis visiting Dublin one year bringing some HipHop, two-step and “street soul” on vinyl, early Def Jam, that kind of thing. Hearing Public Enemy and the productions of Hank Shocklee was like the sonic genius of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts on a whole new level, this was the eclectic kind of music I wanted to make. My first visit to Bristol was in the late 80s I think, Hollis and myself saw the Jungle Brothers play the Theckla, with support form Queen Latifah, GoldTop, possibly the Skinny Boys. Some of the best music nights of my life have been in Bristol, the sound systems have a unique flavor, a lot of proper old-school funk, reggae and soul alongside really groundbreaking progressive sounds.
GM: Proof of that open-mindedness is the fact that back in the day, Marxman toured with U2 and Depeche Mode and collaborated with Sinead O’Connor and DJ Premier, probably among the biggest names in Irish music and hip-hop. How did that happen? Were any of those bands they interested in your political message? And as a producer yourself, how was collaborating with DJ Premier?
OL: Sinead liked our first white label release of Sad Affair, and offered to help sometime. True to her word she turned up at our demo sessions for Island Records before we had a deal, and laid down the vocals for our demo of Ship Ahoy. She completely rocked it. Her studio visit also helped us get a load of new attention from the labels that were toying with the idea of signing us, and suddenly there was a bidding war. Sinead later joined us on stage in London when we supported the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and appeared in the video shoot for Ship Ahoy. She was generous with her time and her talent, she sang from the heart.
The U2 tour came about as Adam Clayton liked “33 Revolutions Per Minute” and reached out, it was an awesome experience to support them, particularly in Dublin, and to hang out with Adam. The Depeche Mode tour came about as Martin Gore liked our “inventive blend of musical genres and perceptive social commentary.” DM really showed us a good time touring. The band and their entourage were consummate hosts, and party animals. Both bands really helped us out, our label were kind of amazed and it seemed to take their press department by surprise!
Working with DJ Premier was a blast. We had all been out the night before our studio session in New York with Paul Hill, which was truly an epic experience. The problem was we drank so much with Paul that the next morning one of our band members (who shall remain nameless) wanted us to call the police as he thought he had actually been poisoned! I remember turning up at the studio early, but still a little worst for wear. Premo was sampling in phat beats from vinyl into his MPC60, cutting them up, then programming the track at full studio volume. When the beats were tight he started improvising on the decks and dropping loops into the S900. I got a sense of the immense artistry and musical knowledge that goes into his productions, not to mention his scratching genius. It sounded incredible. Blunts might have been involved. We met some very cool people on that visit, Leaders Of The New School, Busta Rhymes, Vin Diesel…
GM: Outside Britain and Ireland, politically and socially aware music has sometimes been exclusively associated with songwriters, protest music, etc. not the kind of music to party to. In contrast, there is a tradition of Irish rebel music and also of English dance music (in its broadest sense, ie. music to dance to, from indie to northern soul) with intensely political lyrics, somehow acting as the voice of the working class. We’re thinking stuff like McCarthy, the Housemartins, the Smiths, Gang of Four, Primal Scream, Redskins and of course your old band, and that’s without counting the whole punk explosion. All of these bands made music that you could listen to at a party and at the same time, relate to at a political and social level. This seems a bit gone as of late, at least on the English side. How do you see the current musical scene in Britain with regards to this? Are there any bands in this style that have recently caught your eye with an overtly anti-capitalist message, or that are at least politically aware?
OL: I think the internet has in a way opened up channels of political expression for voices which maybe would have been channeled through music in previous decades. Music is always a powerful medium for protest, my local grocery shop in Brighton is selling an anti-Fracking CD put together by bands who care about our drinking water! The most exciting band I’ve heard in a long time is Sleaford Mods.
GM: Rant ahead: my favourite Marxman quote isn’t actually in any of your songs. There is an interview with you guys on a French TV channel on Youtube, where, when being asked about the spirit of your band, you yourself said “some people would say `how much Marx have you read´ as if that was some kind of yardstick by which to judge our credibility but we answer by `how much Marx have we lived´”, which I think is spot on, as many activists seem to lose contact with ordinary people and end up secluded in an activist ivory tower, unable to connect with the ordinary people who they were supposed to be addressing in the first place. This ties with another interview from 1994 where Hollis talked about how many of your songs were very universal “written in a humanistic language” and how you were “ordinary Joe´s from working-class communities”. Of course, theory and ideas are important, and we devote a great deal of our website to disseminating radical thought and analysis. But at the same time, one of the objectives of Rotekeil is both counter the neoliberal discourse that politics is a neutral, objective field which is best left to “the experts” and to urge leftist activists to connect with ordinary, working people, because those people are the ones that can form the political majority for social and economic change. Do you feel that in your time in Marxman and in your solo career, you have contributed to this whole idea of connecting with ordinary working people to make a change, through your music?
OL: I think communities of interest can be accessed so easily using the internet, despite the lack of privacy it’s still a unique hive of brilliant thought and illuminating knowledge. The idea that important things are left to “experts” can support an educational caste system. John Taylor Gatto writes about this in his exceptional and essential book “The Underground History Of America Education”. Popular ideas which can help people realize personal freedom and inner peace can get sucked into some sort of a new formal framework that can sometimes be exploited as a new kind of control matrix, be that intellectual or religious. Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges recently spoke about how a vast amount of resources have been dedicated to controlling individual consciousness, opinions and attitudes for many years.
Change starts with us as individuals, and radiates from there. The best thing we can do is to work for inner change on a personal level, and have an open mind to the possibilities of new societal models. These days I’m fascinated with alternative movements such as permaculture. What has been happening in Bhutan is incredible, their education system has been set up to make “citizens who see clearly the interconnected nature of reality, and who understand the full benefits and costs of their actions, and care deeply for others and the natural world.” One of my greatest heroes Vandana Shiva is advising Bhutan on a sustainable, 100% organic agriculture. What we think of as “developed” societies seem insane by comparison to sustainable models such as this.
I think a personal decision such as not supporting the planet-busting meat industry, for reasons of enlightened health awareness and/or greater compassion for living beings, will absolutely have a massive positive impact on our grandchildren’s future, if enough individuals take part.
GM: We researched a bit about the rest of Marxman members but didn’t find anything about them. Have you kept in touch with them? If so, what are they up to?
OL: I managed to stay in touch with MC Hollis & Phrase. Hollis was making great music with a band called Offside for a while with DJ Bunjy, and Phrase was working with Massive Attack vocalist Shara Nelson. All of us ended up paying the rent by working in various aspects of tech.
GM: What are your plans for the future, music-wise? Are there any dates we should be aware of, or any hopes of seeing you DJ in Spain in the near future? Is there anything short of a world-revolution that could spark a Marxman reunion?
OL: Ah cheers, I’ve DJ’ed in Barcelona a few times in the past few years, but at private parties, I’ll let you know when the next one is on, and let me know if you are running a club night sometime! I post mixtapes online at www.mixcloud.com/oisinlunny. No plans for a reunion but it would be great to see the message reaching new people and hopefully inspiring some positive change!
GM: Thank you very much Oisin, we wish you the best. Sláinte!
OL: Its been my pleasure Guillem, thanks for reaching out.