rejjie snow on the films (and irish funk songs) that inspire his cross-continental sound
After years of anticipation, the Irish rapper’s debut album ‘Dear Annie’ arrives today.
Photography Jalan and Jibril Durimel
During the summer of 2008, there was no escaping Republic of Loose’s “The Steady Song.” In Ireland, that is. The Dublin-based funk-rock collective dropped the track in late-June, and it spent the next three months on the Irish Singles Chart. Its bouncy grooves, super-catchy hook, and laughably crass lyrics earned it steady radio play all summer long.
I hadn’t thought about “The Steady Song” in the decade since its release. Until I listened to Rejjie Snow’s outstanding debut album Dear Annie, which arrives today via 300 Records & Honeymoon. On the B-side, “The Steady Song” is reincarnated as “Charlie Brown.” In the place of Isabel Reyes-Feeney (who swapped cheeky lines with Mick Pyro on the original track): Anna of the North. Rejjie crafts playful harmonies with the Tyler, the Creator collaborator, and energizes the tribute with some fresh bars of his own.
“It was always a song that I loved and enjoyed as a kid,” Rejjie told me earlier this week in New York. Initially, his flip was just a fun cover. “But then my label heard it, Mick from Republic of Loose heard it, and we decided to put it on the album. People might not get it, but whatever,” he laughs.
It’s a faithfully funky recreation, but Rejjie’s update feels completely in-step with the colorful world he’s created on Dear Annie. Over a whopping 20 tracks, the LP blends boom-bap, wobbly acid rap, deconstructed jazz riffs, and flashes of soul. “Charlie Brown” is a nice nod to his Irish roots on a record that’s taken shape across London, L.A., and Paris.
Born Alexander Anyaegbunam, Rejjie grew up in Drumcondra, north Dublin. His dad is Nigerian, his mom is Irish-Jamaican. “I’ve always felt super-Irish, and I’m proud of where I’m from,” Rejjie explains. He’s spoken with admiration about Irish political figures like Michael Collins and Bobby Sands (who lead a prisoner hunger strike during the Troubles in 1981), and put a uniquely Dublin spin on rap-video joyriding in his excellent “Flexin” visual. But — being among a very small black population in a small country — “I’ve always felt different, too.”
Imagine the culture shock, then, when he moved to Florida at 16, and to Georgia the following year, on a soccer scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design. “I really felt like the black sheep. But what an experience,” he says. “It opened up my mind to so many different cultures.” Rejjie left SCAD after a year and a half, when music he’d uploaded to YouTube began gaining traction, and Elton John’s Rocket Management came calling. “I kind of wish I stayed out there,” he confesses now. “I went to play sports, but throughout the process, I discovered that making films is something I’m so passionate about.”
Films, he tells me, are “probably my main source of inspiration.” Dear Annie’s full-bodied instrumentation (architected by heavy-hitters like Kaytranada, Cam O’bi, and Grammy-winning Kendrick collaborator Rahki) is evocative in the way of a score. After relocating to L.A., he started making music inspired by 70s-era Blaxploitation movies. “Visually, I was taken aback by them. And I tried to make music that would fit into those kinds of movies. That’s where my head was — the imagery.” (These songs form an entirely separate album, one Rejjie says he’ll likely scrap. I hope not. After all, Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for his richly layered funk opus “Theme From Shaft”).
Although Dear Annie’s buoyant beats and trippy melodies feel theatrical, its lyrical content is lifted from Rejjie’s life. “I’ve grown up a lot over the last four, five years, and it’s really got a lot to do with that. Experiencing things — love, death. That threaded itself into the mix organically, so I didn’t have to force shaping the record. Things came naturally,” he explains. “The process is simple: live life and experience things.”
At the same time, though, Rejjie’s been feeling the pressure of popularity. His debut EP, Rejovich, arrived in 2013 (and, for a minute, charted above Kanye West on iTunes’ hip-hop index). An invitation from Madonna to open on the Rebel Heart Tour brought him back into the fold two years later. All the while, anticipation was swelling. Rejjie’s subsequent string of knockout singles, and The Moon & You (a 13-track mixtape released last May), have only made Dear Annie all the more eagerly awaited.
Perhaps that’s why 300 has decided to try a new approach. Over the past month, the label dropped two preview EPs with four Dear Annie tracks apiece. The first opens with laid-back lead single, “Egyptian Luvr”; the second, with “Rainbows” — a loopy, Pharrell-leaning cut. I mention that Aminé feels at home grooving over warm Kaytranada synths on “Egyptian Luvr,” just as Joey Bada$$ and Jesse Boykins III brought their signature sauce to The Moon & You’s standout “Purple Tuesday.”
“It’s funny,” says Rejjie, “because you listen and think there’s a deeper connection, but most of those collabs weren’t done face-to-face in the studio.” (In fact, Rejjie’s 300 labelmate Young Thug was originally slated for “Egyptian Luvr”). Truthfully: “I love to collab with directors and stylists, and bring those different worlds together. But it’s hard for me to throw my emotions out there with other musicians for just an hour or two,” he explains. “I like to build it with someone I know. If not, I’m just good to make music by myself.”
A very solid point. But how about with Archy Marshall, someone he’s known for years, and even shouts out on “Rainbows”? “He’s a lot of fun to make music with, and we have worked on stuff together. But he has all the files!” Rejjie laughs. “Maybe he’ll release them someday.” For now, Rejjie’s going steady steady with it all.