The controversial Dublin rappers on headlining 3Arena after facing a social media backlash, Erica-Cody’s harassment claims and the song that was designed to ‘offend everyone’
The journey from Casey Walsh’s family home in Ringsend, Dublin, to the 3Arena takes 10 minutes on foot. You cross the Liffey at the East Link Toll Bridge and you’ve arrived at the 14,000 capacity venue — the largest, by far, on the island.
When Walsh — who goes by the name Casper — and his friends Alex Sheehan and Evan Kennedy started a rap group, they dreamed that one day they would play the 3Arena. Little did they realise how quickly Versatile would get there.
Just a couple of years after forming, they managed to headline the venue in 2019. It was an extraordinary achievement, not least because their songs are almost never played on radio — the expletive-strewn, adult content of the tracks makes it virtually impossible on the commercial airwaves — but they also got comparatively little traditional media support. Instead, buoyed by social media and grassroots word-of-mouth, their uniquely Irish brand of shock rap found a sizeable audience.
“The first time we played the 3Arena was unreal,” Walsh tells Review in his living room, where he is joined by his bandmates and manager Julian O’Brien. “It was huge. Everyone around here was really proud.” As if to reinforce their ‘local lads done good’ status, they filmed themselves walking over the East Link to their own gig. They did the same last month, when they headlined the 3Arena again. But, chances are you didn’t hear about it. Versatile may be one of the most popular musical acts in the country, but they have had to go even further underground than before.
Highly provocative, controversial lyrics and inflammatory public pronouncements helped make their name, but persistent accusations that their songs are racist, misogynistic and homophobic have tarred their reputation.
One song in particular, Dublin City Gs, has come in for trenchant criticism thanks to lines about killing cops, “f***ing black b****es” and glorifying drug-taking. Like many Versatile tracks, it would be impossible for this newspaper to pick out a rhyming couplet that doesn’t require several words to be asterisked. But more of that later.
Controversial as Versatile were in their early years, a turning point arrived in July 2020 when the musician, broadcaster and Dancing with the Stars contestant Erica-Cody Kennedy-Smith posted an emotional video on Instagram.
Accusing Walsh of “harassing and intimidating” her at a supermarket car park, she claimed he had used his car to block her from driving away. She had long been a critic of Versatile, accusing them of cultural appropriation, and now it appeared that the rapper was directly confronting her.
Walsh soon responded with his own video, which featured a short filmed exchange with Kennedy-Smith — “Erica! What’s up?” — as well as CCTV footage from the car park that showed his car stopping in front of hers for a couple of seconds before driving off. But the damage had been done and Versatile found themselves the focus of a concerted cancellation campaign.
Promoters, booking agents, venue operators and any musician or producer who had worked with the band were urged to disown them. “Our name was muck,” says Sheehan, whose stage moniker is Eskimo Supreme.
Walsh says of Erica-Cody: “That video she made didn’t really bother me but my family and friends were very upset about it because of the light I was painted in. That’s not me.”
He adds that his girlfriend, Kasey Carruth, who was in the car with him, was targeted on social media. Some urged her to leave Walsh; others left angry, abusive messages, some of which Carruth reposted on her own platforms.
Review contacted Erica-Cody’s management for her side of the story, but there was no response at the time of going to press.
The genial, soft-spoken O’Brien, who had started working as Versatile’s manager in 2019, soon found himself in the firing line. “Within a few months, all this had kicked off and I had top people in the music business in this country publicly calling me out and saying, ‘Somebody should hold this person accountable’.”
Versatile learned quickly that many of the industry personnel who had been hugely enthusiastic up to the point of controversy were now keen to stress their outrage online. “The hypocrisy of them,” O’Brien says. “They were coming out and saying one thing in public, but something else entirely privately.”
“There were musicians who were rubbishing us online,” Sheehan adds, “but they were the very same people who had been in touch with us in the past to see if we could help them with support slots or whatever.”
Walsh gives the impression of one who doesn’t let anything get to him, but he admits he was shaken by the concerted effort to have the group cancelled. “Julian stood by us,” he says, quietly. “That’s what loyalty is.”
Sheehan points out that while “small-time” musicians and some music critics “despise what we do”, the reaction is very different among the fans. “They get it,” he says, adding that the songs are written from the point of view of cartoonish characters and are not necessarily autobiographical.
While some black Irish musicians have let their contempt for Versatile’s music be known, Sheehan says they have a large black fanbase “who come to the shows and love the music”. Even Dublin City Gs.
“That tune,” Sheehan says, “was designed to offend everybody.”
“It’s a case of throwing everything against the wall,” Kennedy says, “and trying to find where the line is.”
O’Brien pipes up. “I don’t know why [legendary Detroit rap collective] D12 can talk about dismembering people and having sex with dead bodies on their albums [and nothing happens] but the world goes on fire if Alex jokes that he has a small white penis that black women love.”
The group eventually decided to remove the song from the streaming platforms, but Sheehan isn’t happy with the decision. “I didn’t want to take that song down and I don’t think it should have been taken down. What’s next? Every other song that we have? We’re creating art. You don’t have to like the art — nobody is forced to listen to it. But people are choosing to listen to it and are getting offended by it.”
Manager O’Brien also works as a booker for veteran US rapper Coolio. “I really pushed the boys into apologising for [Dublin City Gs] and I called Coolio and explained the whole situation to him and he gave out shit to me for an hour about why I should never have let them apologise and how disappointed he was in me.”
Evan Kennedy rarely features in Versatile’s promotional imagery. While Walsh and Sheehan focus on the lyrics and the vocal delivery, he is the music mastermind behind the show. He says he likes to stay in the background. In fact, for future gigs, he is planning on sporting a Deadmau5-style mask. He is also hoping to launch a solo career this year.
Kennedy stands out for several reasons. “He looks like someone who would have us cancelled!” Sheehan says, but with affection rather than malice. He has a posh southside Dublin accent and was educated at the private St Conleth’s College. Sheehan was in his class and says his own accent changed over the years. Like Walsh, he speaks with what some disparagingly call a “Dub” accent.
Walsh is the hardest member to get a handle on. He sprawls out on the sofa, bursting into laughter on frequent occasions. He’s a fidgety presence and perhaps not as enthused as Sheehan is with the business of doing press interviews.
If he looks as lean and rangy as a boxer, that might be because he is. Walsh spent much of his formative years pounding the punchbags at his local boxing club and on July 2 he is on the undercard at Ricky Hatton’s comeback fight in Manchester’s AO Arena. In recent times, all his energies have been devoted to getting match fit. The music has taken a back seat.
But not for long. They recently spent time in Los Angeles working on new music, and released a new single, Panic Attack, featuring members of D12, this month.
All three are restless to grow Versatile outside Ireland and believe that Dublin-accented rap delivered in lines that make most sense to an Irish audience can travel anywhere.
They will get to showcase their wares in Britain this month when they support Snoop Dogg on his tour, but they feel there’s a lot more to come. “I’m confident we can do really big things,” Sheehan says. “You’d want to see the shows, man. They’re just made for big arenas. They can try to cancel us all they want, but we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. The fanbase is only going to get bigger.”
Versatile play the Higher Vision festival at Navan Racecourse on June 18 and support Snoop Dogg on his UK and Ireland tour in August and September