At the end of 2006, Nas dropped a bomb on the hip-hop industry by releasing his eighth album, controversially titled, “Hip-hop is Dead.” Nas’ plan was to incite the community to save hip-hop culture, which he felt was collapsing. With America on the edge of a recession, Nas believed hip-hop could help rebuild the country once hip-hoppers owned it. However, Nas said, “We as artists no longer have the power.”
Years later, the age of social media leveled the playing field for everyday people, celebrities, and artists alike to be viewed as influencers. Whether you are an expert, trendsetter, or connector, people realize their voice has power and can inspire action. With this power comes responsibility, and the smartest creators know real power lies in their ability to control their own narratives.
We recently sat down with one of these creators, DJ Snuff, a West Belfast-born, London-based DJ, promoter, and all-around musical disruptor. Little did he know, a chance encounter with hip-hop at 14 would change his life forever. Raised in the midst of a 30-year territorial conflict between Irish republicans and British loyalists, known as The Troubles, DJ Snuff discusses how hip-hop saved his life, and how he’s paying it forward to inspire youth in East Africa.
The Troubles was a very dark time in modern history– what was it like growing up in this environment?
I was raised just off The Falls Road, not far from Shankill Road, and living on the border meant dealing with constant battles between republicans, loyalists, and the British army. There was a “peace wall” that divided us, and army patrols, helicopter surveillance, and curfews were a normal part of everyday life. My house was burnt down twice by the age of 14. I was beaten up by British soldiers, and I lost people close to me to the conflict. It’s very bleak when you’re living in an environment full of hostility, and no prospects. This can oftentimes feel hopeless. As a child, you’re born into it, not fully understanding why you’re under attack.
I heard even after the Peace Agreement in 98’, Belfast still had one of the highest suicide rates from trauma caused by The Troubles. How did you manage to remain optimistic?
When I was 14, I saw a B-boy crew called the Belfast City Breakers throwing down in central Belfast, and instantly fell in love with hip-hop. The crew had members from different sides of the community, and it was as if hip-hop was helping us all rise above The Troubles. As individuals, we recognised the division and sectarianism between us, but hip-hop washed everything away. My eyes were opened to a counter-culture, and I immersed myself in it. This was proof to me that hip-hop succeeds where politics fail.
At 21, you relocated to London and were part of iconic hip-hop scenes such as Deal Real Records. What were your initial impressions of the London scene?
When I first arrived, I was DJing in the underground squat party scene, which exposed me to several counter cultures. There was so much bubbling under the surface of it all; a very rich Jazz scene, Reggae, nightclub, and a lot of crossover in hip-hop.
On the flip side, as much as I would spin classic gangsta rap records, it was the first time I’d been around a culture that was using rap to promote sectarian ‘post-code’ beef and reinforce that life. Coming out of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, I’d experienced hip-hop as a route to rise above conflict, rather than a tool to perpetuate it.
(DJ Snuff, St. Nelly Sade EOW Uganda)
How did you connect to End of The Weak in NYC? And, how on earth did that lead you to the Ugandan hip-hop scene?
End of The Weak (EOW) was looking for a partner in London to host events and their MC Challenge. I was running a popular night in Brixton called Speakers Corner, and a girlfriend in NYC hooked it up for me to rock a DJ set at EOW when I was in Manhattan. I really connected with EOW’s spirit, energy and passion, and I wanted to show them that hip-hop existed in London.
I starting hosting the EOW MC Challenge at our Brixton events around 2006, and London won three consecutive world finals in a row.The grassroots organisation has now collectively grown into 15+ chapters spread across five continents.
In 2009, NY-based EOW photographer, Amy Hume, moved to Uganda, and started networking with Ugandan hip-hop pioneers Babaluku and Bana Mutibwa. An Ugandan EOW chapter was later formed, and they started holding open-mic nights in Kampala, Jinja, Entebbe, and other places around the country.
We’d been watching the Uganda chapter’s development for a long time, and we’d been frustrated by our lack of success in securing visas for our Ugandan MC champion to attend a world final. We collectively decided we needed to host the next season’s world finals in Kampala, and in 2014, the US, Germany, Quebec, South Africa, Belgium and French chapters all joined us on the trip.
Mutibwa, Babakuku, and Hume did an excellent job organising our stay, and also invited artists from Kenya, Rwanda, and locally, giving it an international hip-hop festival feel. The radio stations really embraced what we were doing, and helped promote the events, which in turn helped the brand flourish.
End of The Weak was a global brand before moving to Uganda, what differences did you notice in the Uganda scene?
Uganda was the first time I’d seen a youth-focused End of The Weak chapter. When we saw the video footage and photography of the work they were doing, it felt so purposeful and inspiring. You’d see youth who didn’t have much, expressing themselves through hip-hop and driven to improve their lives. This took me back to my days growing up in Belfast.
(From L to R: Abramz Tekya, DJ Snuff, Sylvester)
Nas executive produced a documentary about hip-hop’s global influence called, Shake The Dust, and Uganda was one of the countries highlighted. Who are some of the other individuals/groups helping promote the culture?
There’s so many heads to mention. Abramz Tekya and the Breakdance Project Uganda (BPU) family are some of the most inspiring people I’ve met. And, Mark, Oscar, Jora and everyone at Break Fast Jam are the same. B-girl Key and all the people at Batalo East create amazing works of hip-hop dance theatre, and are always encouraging fusions with traditional dance. St. Nelly Sade and the EOW Uganda family truly represent, and Babaluku has always been a cornerstone in ensuring the lugaflo language was kept alive in rap. And, all the great photographers such as Kibuuka Oscar and Gilbert Frank Daniels are playing an essential role in documenting their accomplishments and inspiring more works.
What do you say to people who think African youth should be doing something more productive with their time than listening to hip-hop and breakdancing?
BPU is so much more than just dance classes. What I love about BPU is that during the final hour of class, they hold an assembly. Imagine all these three and four-year-old children raising their hands to share their thoughts and ideas in front of the class. Sometimes, the elders don’t even facilitate the assemblies–the youth do it on their own. BPU isn’t just teaching the youth–they’re also teaching the youth to teach, to become leaders. Classes provide self-confidence, public speaking, and other vital skills.
What projects are you looking forward to in 2017?
I’m really looking forward to bringing more people with me to the East Africa breaking championships in late November. Break-Fast Jam and BPU are so appreciative of people who come and visit, and it’s always great to share positive images of the continent. I may also be back out in Palestine for a similar dance project.
I tend to travel a lot with touring artists as a DJ. Recently I’ve been touring with Shadia Mansour, and M1 (Dead Prez), and I enjoy playing as part of Congo Natty’s live ‘Jungle Revolution’ band show.
I also support a lot of hip-hop acts passing through London, and you can find me supporting Jedi Mind Tricks April 11 at Islington Academy, and I’ll also be touring with Busta Rhymes May 5th-11.
I also organise a monthly live music event called Expansions at Hootananny in Brixton. The night highlights exciting emerging live acts, alongside established headliners. We’ll be relaunching the London End Of The Weak events at the Brixton Ritzy on the 4th Thursday of every month starting from this April. We’ll also be hosting the Breakin Convention Park Jam in Angel Spa Fields Park May 1st, which is always a highlight.
Interview Done By: Jonah Batambuze