Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo), co-written by Niall Macaulay (Twitter @niallmacaulay)
Down an alley in Glasgow city centre, in one of the famous architect’s Charles Rene Mackintosh lesser known buildings, is Stereo. The restaurant and concert venue serves up great vegan food and is a classic ‘scenester’ hangout. It has one of those great little basement venues where you come to discover the next big thing in the music scene, or something so whacky it will always be on the fringes, from Scotland or beyond. Bands like California’s Haim and post-rock icons Mogwai did their warm up gigs for their UK tours here. On a recent Saturday night, The Young Fathers, one of the UK’s most interesting hip-hop, pop groups performed. The lighting was so dim the band remained mysterious figures, with choreographed moves the trio demanded attention, while the venue shook to their curious music of massive detuned synth pads and deconstructed beats. “We all met when we were dancing (at the Edinburgh Bongo Club’s under 16’s Hip Hop nights).” reminisces Graham Hastings, who goes simply by ‘G.’ “I was just amazed, but I was trying to be cool. “You know I was the kind of kid that was, like, listening to hip-hop in my room that no one else was listening to at the time, or at school or anything like that. When I went there, I always wanted to listen to hip-hop and dance. When I met the guys and they were dancing in a circle, I just joined in,” G continues. “That was the first time I ever danced in public. I would dance in my bedroom and listen to hip-hop music. I just felt that as soon as we met, it was one of those moments, I just felt it was liberating for me because where we grew up, you couldn’t express yourself in any way. It was great to meet people in your own town that you thought didn’t exist.” Hastings was meeting Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole and, more than a decade later, their new release is in heavy rotation on UK radio – the strange yet catchy hip-hop song, “Get Up.” It’s all about the personal journeys of the Young Fathers, with emotional, sophisticated lyrics, and unconventional production.
All named after their fathers, it was serendipity that these juniors found each other. “It is a coincidence that we all have our father’s names. We are all from very different backgrounds as well – it was meant to be,” G says. From the age of 14, Alloysious Massaquoi from Libera, Kayus Bankole from Nigeria, G is from Drylaw, a housing estate in north Edinburgh, have been rapping, crafting and experimenting with their sound ever since. Alloysious came to Scotland in 1992 when he was four, his family fleeing political, economic instability and years of bloodshed from two consecutive civil wars in Liberia. “It was a new life, a new beginning, when we came to Scotland,” says Alloysious. “Relatives died during the war, went missing and never to be seen again, some fled to neighboring countries and others to different parts of the world.” The memories were so tormenting, even talking in their native tongue was too painful for Alloysious’ family. “My mother found it difficult. I remember her telling me a story of her destroying a tape recording of me and my sisters speaking the traditional language because it was just too much for her. I’ve never been back to Liberia but would love to at some point.” Alloysious reveals this turmoil in “Am I Not Your Boy:” Being good ain’t enough lately / I ain’t got the strength to save me / Can’t figure what got me here / I don’t want to preach alone / It’s easy to disappear / But mother I’m good as gold / Am I not your boy / Your child / The kid that I once was / Is dead.
Kayus’ family made the journey from Nigeria to Scotland to work. “With me in her belly, there was nothing but good intentions. Over the border and across the water there is always hope.” Kayus shows a real artist’s mind as he explains his childhood in a vivid few sentences. “The black bricks, the permanent shadow in the sky, the sea of white faces, made up the land of bright dreams,” he says. Even though he may not have directly heard the music of Nigeria as an infant, it was something Kayus new instinctually. “Even if I tried I would not be able to escape the naija boy (slang for “Nigerian”) in me. It surrounds me and the mirror constantly reminds me. My mother’s father was a chief of a village, we are cut from the same traditional cloth. Distance means nothing. The sound that resonates is the voice of my mother. Yoruba was the language. There was screaming crying and singing. There was a Yoruba song for every occasion, my mother’s voice became the composer to the soundtrack of my life.”
Talk of this village chief and other references to Africa come out in songs such as “Just Another Bullet”:
Flawed by me daemons / S-s-searching for penance / The blood in my veins / Turning Dorian Grey / I behave in this way / For a couple of days / In this animal rage / Tear me another page / Hard to gage stubble / Seeing double / Blasphemy was sent for me / Glass for her glass for him / Down down the liquid courage / Baggage full of knowledge/ If you open up the briefcase/ It’s thief safe / I’m too smart to be stupid / I just want to do it / I’m the chief of my village / But I can’t stop the spillage / She’s sitting on my face / But I forgot to say grace / Show me the way / Show me the way …
Growing up in Scotland, though, they were spared the horrors of war and, instead, explored their gift of rhyme. G reflects on how the three always sang, any excuse to throw out a line, whether on the way to the bus, or into a mic, no matter how basic or rudimentary. “Alloysious used to carry his dictaphone around because he is always singing,” G reminisces, remembering how things got really serious when the three started recording. “What we set up at my mom’s was basically in a bedroom that I shared with my older brother, so he would get annoyed sometimes, we hung a cheap microphone that we bought from Argos in a cupboard and make some beats on the computer and burn it to a CD and then put it in the karaoke machine and press record on the tape. Basically, the beat would play for five minutes so we could all get in. We would have to do it one take so you would have to push the other person aside to get to the mic. So, whoever was at the mic, you’d have to push their face out of the way so you could be heard.” It was a system that stuck with the Young Fathers when they went into Timothy London’s studio in Edinburgh to produce their first album, Inconceivable Child, in 2008. After three years of touring, their much acclaimed mixtape, Tape One saw them sign with L.A.’s Anticon Records in 2012. Getting a lot of spins on U.K. radio helped with the build up, along with Time Out London dubbing them “the band to watch.” With their dark, surreal, deeply lyrically layered album Dead, out now, they are delivering to expectations.
The often strange, warped tones heard in their music comes from a vintage addition to the ensemble – an 1971 EMS keyboard – famously used by Pink Floyd and Roxy Music on classic tracks. “Basically the EMS is one of our producer, Tim London’s, toys. I’ve got it on loan. I love it. You can never ever get the same thing out twice. Each night I will set up for a gig and never be able to do the same thing the night before. Sometimes it is frustrating but most of the time I enjoy it. You just have to go with it. If it sounds too crazy, there is an off button and you just turn it off. It is probably the main attraction when we go somewhere,” explains G (incredibly, the EMS synth is still manufactured by Robin Wood in Cornwall, England to it’s original design). Their stand-up drummer, Steve Morrison, was also their original DJ from their youth, and joined the band on tour two years ago. “The live looseness of a drum right next to you, instead of speakers, it feels more alive on stage,” says ‘G.’ “You move and sing differently with live percussion.”
The Young Fathers are often categorized or compared, but their sound is hard to fathom. Pop, hip-hop, psychedelic – none of these truly fit. They have always been wary of being part of any scene. Even going back to their hip-hop nights at the Bongo Club, they would surprise the audience by showing up with a minidisc player while others were battling – they were never concerned with ‘looking hard or gangster.’ Alloysious describes those nights as “Exciting! Something to look forward to every two weeks, new outfits, sweaty walls, trembling bass, dance dance dance and more dancing, socializing with girls, (ooouu!) making new friends/acquaintances, expressing your self on open mic nights with well crafted pop songs. Leaving a crowd full of “real hip-hop” purists with the WTF! expression on their faces.” They still want you to leave their shows surprised, but as long as it gets you dancing, it’s mission accomplished.