Meet Rejje Snow - the future king of Irish hip-hop
Dubliner Rejjie Snow is one of the most exciting rappers Ireland has ever produced - but for a while it looked like he was destined to be a footballer
If things had worked out differently, Rejjie Snow wouldn't exist. Instead of hip-hop aliases, Alex Anyaegbunam would be a household name in Ireland thanks to his magic touch on the football field.
As a teenager, the Nigerian-Irish Dubliner wound up in the US on a soccer scholarship, and many believed he had the talent to go all the way. But like so many gifted young athletes before him, it didn't quite work out that way.
"It was like a bootcamp, so intense and relentless," he says of life at Montverde Academy, Florida. "There was nothing else to think of but playing and studying."
He started to think he wasn't cut out for such a grind-school, but time spent in Atlanta a little later would refocus his interests on his first love: music.
"I'd been doing music for as long as I remember," he says, recalling how a cousin helped open his mind to hip-hop aged 12 when he shared Wu-Tang Clan and Nas albums with him. And he had been brought up on stage by Pharrell during a Dublin show - he had seen the kid sing back every word. "Eventually, I came to realise that music is what I truly wanted to be doing and when you come to that realisation, everything else has to go out the window."
Anyaegbunam first came to the attention of Irish rap aficionados when he released a handful of smart, accomplished singles under the Lecs Luther moniker when he was just 17, but it was the early compositions as Rejjie Snow where people really sat up and took notice. Here was a homegrown hip-hop artist who was the real deal.
"Even though the football didn't work out, it wasn't a wasted experience," he says, speaking from Sweden, where he played a show in Stockholm the night before. "I approached music in a really dedicated way, where you have to work hard, every day, in order to make your voice heard."
For the past month, the 23-year-old has been playing the highways and byways of Europe, often to sold-out venues, and he says he can feel the excitement surrounding him build the longer he is on the road.
"There's no comparison to the way I'm performing now, versus this time last year," he says. "It's just so much better now. You know what they say? The more you practise something the better you get."
One of the remarkable things about Rejjie Snow is how divorced from the Irish scene his path has been. His most recent years have been spent living in the US, where he has honed his craft and come to the attention of some of the industry's big names. After releasing a handful of singles on the incubator label Honeymoon, he signed to 300 Entertainment last year. That's a big deal: it's the Warner-backed label behind some of the best young hip-hop talent, including Fetty Wap and Young Thug.
"Rejjie is from the new generation of kids who do more than just make music or write songs," Lyor Cohen, 300's CEO told Billboard last year. "They have a message and actually have something to say. It's not just vital to the industry, it's vital to the culture."
And he certainly had something to say on 'Blakkst Skn', a single about race relations and dating, and featuring UK singer-songwriter Rae Morris: "Blackest skin I wish you had the soap/ To cleanse me down and beat me up and take my hope."
His latest release, 'Flexin', demonstrates that Anyaegbunam's knack for delivering crossover tunes with mass appeal is even more obvious, and as a pointer for his forthcoming album, Dear Annie, that will be music to the ears of his record company.
"I've always wanted my music to reach a lot of people," he says. "I've never been ashamed to admit that. All the artists I loved when I was growing up in Dublin were making music that was being heard around the world."
As with 'Flexin', the album has been executive produced by Rahki, the Grammy-winning producer whose CV includes work with Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
"I'm glad Rahki saw something in me," he says with a laugh, "because when I first met him, I did a couple of sessions and they went terribly."
Dear Annie has been completed and everything has been done except for the artwork. It was supposed to have been released by now and Anyaegbunam is irked by the delay. His record company want to wait for the optimum time to bring it out; he just wants to get it out. It's likely to be released "in July or August".
He says it's both autobiographical and satirical and while its sonic template may be far closer to the US east and west coast rap scenes than Dublin, he says his native city has influenced him. "It's only when you go away that you really see how great the place you're from can be, and that's certainly the case with Dublin. There is a directness, a sense of humour that's part of life there and I think that's in me."
He's proud of his Irishness - even if that involves sending the odd provocative tweet such as his response to a fan who wondered if he would like to win a Brit Award in future: "F*** the queen & her awards." And he's not afraid to take a pop at sacred cows. His post, "That 'Galway Girl' by Ed Sheeran makes me wanna cut off my own d***", was retweeted 1,200 times.
In person, he's a much more considered conversationalist, especially when ruing just how out of the loop he is when it comes to Irish music. He's not, aware, for instance, who Choice Music Prize winners Rusangano Family are, and he says he has no sense about how healthy, or otherwise, Dublin's rap scene is.
"I've been in a bubble," he says. "You're so focused on your own music that you can lose touch with other stuff. I've got to put that right."
Rejjie Snow plays Dublin's Academy on April 29