Tom Dunphy talks to Chris Byrne of Unity Squad.
Chris Byrne is an unrepentant Fenian bastard.
That’s not a smear by this writer, mind you: the Brooklyn-born uillean piper, who recently departed the Irish agit-rock band Black 47 after a decade in that group, will freely tell you that – and rap you that – himself.
That’s clear on “Fenians,” a track from Seanchai and the Unity Squad’s 1997 debut release, There Will Be Another Day. Over a low rider beat – not to mention a sample from unionist Rev. Ian Paisley scolding Americans for getting involved in Northern Ireland politics – Byrne defiantly chants, “Say it loud, say it proud, I remain an unrepentant Fenian bastard…/Respect to all who refuse to be mastered.”
(“Fenian bastard” is a slur British troops used to describe nationalists and republicans.)
Byrne, who uses the stage name Seanchai (Irish for “storyteller”) sought to turn the slur around, the way many African-Americans rappers have reclaimed the `n’ word. “I wanted to take an expression that meant nothing but pain, and turn it into something positive,” he says.
How did Byrne, who had played in folk and trad groups before founding Black 47, get interested in rap and hip-hop? “When I first heard `Rapper’s Delight’ when I was eighteen, I thought it was just another disco song,” Byrne says. “But when I heard Melle Mel do `The Message,’ I realized there was something much more there.”
There may have been much more there, but Byrne has mixed feelings about a lot of today’s rap music. “I really like Big Pun, it’s a shame that he died. I like Q-Tip. And I think Chuck D (of Public Enemy) still has much to say,” Byrne says.
“But what I’m not too keen on is this new rock-rap hybrid, like Limp Bizkit, Blink 182,” he says. “I think it combines the worst elements of both. Somewhere along the way, hip-hop lost the plot – a rock star mentality took over,” he says.
Byrne worked his dual passions for Irish politics and rap into Black 47 songs like “It’s Time to Go,” and formed a side project called Paddy-A-Go-Go in the early nineties with fiddler Eileen Ivers and singer Patrick McGuire. That band, with songs like “Walk All the Days,” a reggae-flavored tale of the cop’s life, and the political “Bloody Sunday” and “Wake Up Irishman,” drew fervent crowds into Paddy Reilly’s East Side pub in the early to mid-nineties.
But Seanchai and the Unity Squad is the culmination of Byrne’s Irish hip-hop musical vision. The group, which features vocalist Rachel Fitzgerald, guitarist Jason Goodrow, mandolinist David “Monty” Monaghan, saxophonist Geoff Blythe and turntablist “DJ Flo” McDonald, serves up a percolating mix of rap and trad — but there are strands of funk, jazz, and reggae, too.
The group’s latest album, A Sunday at the Turn of the Century, is a thematic romp through a typical Sunday in Byrne’s life, culminating in a Sunday night gig. “Some say Saturday’s a phatta day/Ixnay, Sunday’s a hummin’ day,” Byrne raps on the title track.
Why an album about a seemingly mundane topic? After all, Sundays are usually pretty laid-back. “I wanted to put an album out about the life I’m living, which was the point of hip-hop in the first place,” he says.
Was it difficult leaving Black 47? After all, Byrne founded the group with guitarist/songwriter Larry Kirwan, and gave up a career as a police officer to devote his full-time attention to the band. “I needed to give [Seanchai and the Unity Squad] a fair shake,” Byrne says. “I couldn’t get it to the next level without doing it full-time.”
Seanchai and the Unity Squad just returned to New York after a short tour of Ireland and Scotland in late August. They played an outdoor gig on Belfast’s Garvaghy Road, a site of contentious Orange sectarian parades in recent years. “It went great,” says Byrne. “We got a teriffic response. I think people are really starting to get it.”
Indeed, the folks in West Belfast were the first ones to “get it.” In a now legendary incident, a DJ at a local radio station left “Fenians” in an automatic repeat loop after he had closed the station for the night. The song played over 200 times in a row before the morning DJ arrived to change it. “They say it was some technical glitch – I’d say it was technical know-how,” says Byrne, with a laugh.
He may be laughing about the radio station loop, but Chris Byrne is dead serious about events in Northern Ireland.
“I think the Orange order is in serious crisis,” Byrne says of the current situation.
“It’s difficult to have a movement that’s not for anything, but against everything.
“It’s good to see that there hasn’t been the violence that there’s been in previous years, but they still haven’t reached a solution,” Byrne continues. “But I believe that the solution must be a British withdrawal, not just [getting] troops off the streets.”
In May, Byrne brought a $5 million lawsuit against the BBC. He contends that the broadcaster used a portion of his song “Fenians” without his permission in a “Spotlight” documentary about a Florida case of alleged IRA gun-running. The case is pending, and the BBC is petitioning the court to move the case to the United Kingdom.
“I was astounded that they would use my work,” Byrne says. “I would have never granted them permission, never in a million years.
“I was certainly not going to supply the soundtrack for the British propaganda machine,” Byrne continues. “As far as I’m concerned, the BBC has lied about the North forever, and I don’t think they’re going to change now.”
It’s a Friday night at Rocky Sullivan’s, the midtown Manhattan pub that Byrne co-owns with journalist Patrick Farrelly, and people are four deep at the bar.
College coeds in leopard-and-leather Britney gear mix with Irish construction worker types; after-work suits with ties loosened rub elbows with neighborhood oldtimers, rastas, and punks. Posters of Bobby Kennedy, Shane MacGowan, and Wolfe Tone look down at the crowd, seemingly pleased.
Byrne/Seanchai, decked out in a green-striped Celtic jersey and tear-away track pants, is every bit the ringmaster. “C’ mon folks, let me see ya on the dance floor, shake what ya got,” he implores.
When the crowd disappoints in a call-and-response, Byrne lets them know about it. “That was pathetic,” he says disdainfully.
But the band breaks into “The Fields of Athenry,” and everybody’s down with it. Rachel Fitzgerald’s clear, haunting voice soars high above the din; hers is the only voice in key, but no matter. “Lowwwwww, lieeeeeeeeeee, the fields of Athenryeeeee,” everybody crows, pints of Guinness raised high.
By now the groove is pumping: DJ Flo is scratching like mad, guitarist Jason Goodrow, with his vast repertoire of seventies-ish guitar licks, proves he’s got the funk, and Monty Monaghan reinforces the melodies on his mandolin like clockwork.
The Unity Squad tears into “Fenians.” “Pump ya fist if you love freedom, pump ya fist if you love Culture,” Byrne growls, and the crowd answers back each time, fists high. It’s clear that Seanchai and the Unity Squad have smashed down the wall between performer and audience. At a Unity Squad performance, the party is nothing without the band: the band is nothing without the crowd. And that’s exactly what Chris Byrne is striving to accomplish. “The audience is every bit as important as the performers, especially in a small venue,” Byrne says. “We’re looking to bring back the spirit of hip-hop.” ♦