When they won the 2014 Mercury Prize, Young Fathers were pigeonholed as a publicity-shy Scottish hip-hop group. Now ready to unleash a genre-bending follow-up fuelled by politics, class debate and dark satire, Kevin EG Perry finds it couldn’t be further from the truth…
Last October, Young Fathers upset the bookies by winning the Mercury Prize with their debut LP ‘Dead’. The trio were quickly sketched in the tabloid press as a publicity-shy Scottish hip-hop group making difficult, experimental music, not least because they refused to speak to any right-leaning newspapers – like The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Star, The Times and The Telegraph. For the Edinburgh trio, it wasn’t a case of shunning the limelight, but a clear and conscious political decision. “We’ve had that rule for years,” explains producer and vocalist Graham ‘G’ Hastings. “There are certain publications that are cross-the-line evil to us because of their Islamophobia and homophobia.”
Two Sun journalists discussed their refusal to speak to the paper on Twitter. “Young Fathers sound, er, pretentious utter cocks. Fuck ’em and eat ’em,” one wrote. The other replied: “Absolute pricks… Never getting in The Sun again.”
“That’s the kind of cunts you’re dealing with,” says G. “We thought there were other bands around who wouldn’t talk to them, but that whole way of thinking has been deleted. If you cause a fuss about something, like talking about Palestine, people say: ‘Oh what are you starting that for?’ That’s why we want as many people as possible to know we exist. Even if they hate us, it still changes their perception of what’s real in the world. We’re not saying that they should take all the shite songs off the radio. We’re just asking for a bit of contrast.”
Young Fathers’ cosmic, gorgeously arranged new album, ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’, is purpose-built to provoke that kind of debate. “We’re asking: ‘What is a white man?’ ‘What is a black man?’ ‘What is a Muslim man?’ ‘Are women sexualised?’” says G. “The title is a multifaceted, metaphorical statement. We live in a world that’s not equal. We all know that. The question is how do we start a conversation where people will feel that they can be open enough to express themselves?”
The question comes back to the essence of the band, too, who bristle at being pigeonholed as a Scottish hip-hop group. The truth is that Young Fathers are a global pop band. To call them Scottish makes as little sense as calling your iPhone Chinese – the parts may have been assembled there, but the ideas, design and components come from all over the planet. Young Fathers’ bearded singer Alloysious Massaquoi was born in Liberia. Dreadlocked co-vocalist Kayus Bankole’s parents are Nigerian and raised him partly in the USA. G was born and raised in Edinburgh, and it’s G who’s chiefly responsible for the beats, which blend everything from Afropop to soul to gospel to blues to indie. There are stickers on vinyl copies of ‘White Men…’ which direct shops to ‘File under Rock and Pop’.
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“We keep having to tell people that we’re pop,” says G. He’s sat with his bandmates between piles of instruments and books in their manager Tim Brinkhurst’s tiny basement studio in Leith, in the north of Edinburgh. “We didn’t want to be considered a leftfield, strange group, and if you say that the album’s hip-hop you’re just fucking lying. It’s just not fucking true. That’s just a tag that we’re stuck with because of how we look. It’s borderline racist. Unfortunately eye always beats ear. People go on what they see first.”
Alloysious, who goes by Ally, nods: “If we were all white and making the kind of music we do I don’t think we’d get these comparisons.”
Young Fathers see themselves as the antidote to the lazy media pigeonholing that says all black musicians must be rappers and all white musicians play guitar. Kayus, the quietest of the three, explains it in more personal terms. “I have a little nephew and he’s really into music,” he says, “but if people are constantly portrayed as belonging to a certain bracket of music then he’s going to think that’s how things should be. It’s easy for the media to put things into narrow categories, but that confines people. That’s what we’re getting at with the title of this album.”
Young Fathers have been making music together since the age of 14, since meeting at a club night at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club that played hip-hop, bashment and dancehall. It’s there that Kayus was introduced to British rappers like Roots Manuva and Blak Twang, while Alloysious remembers discovering Sean Paul and “amazing pop songs”.
G just remembers having his mind blown. “It was the sort of place I couldn’t go to with my mates who I grew up with,” he says. He was given a dead arm by his old friends when they found out he’d visited it. Their idea of a night out was drinking hooch and having a fight at a youth centre disco. No dancing allowed.
“When I got into The Bongo Club and saw these guys and everybody else dancing I thought: ‘Fucking hell! People are dancing in public!’” says G. “I joined in, like it was nothing, but inside I was thinking: ‘THIS IS FUCKING AMAZING!’ It was so liberating to be able to express yourself. Nobody was pointing at you and going: ‘Who do you think you are? You think you’re special?’ It was something that had been missing from my life.”
After the music had finished and they could hear each other speak, G invited Ally and Kayus to come and visit his mum and dad’s house. “They’d come round and I’d make a beat on this software that I bought for £10,” he explains. “I put it onto a CD, then you’d press record on the karaoke machine. We’d put the mic up in the cupboard, and then crowd round it. We’d try and do it in an arrangement. We were literally pushing each other, because you only had one take. I think that ethos has stuck with us.”
The band are all now 27, and in the intervening years have held down all manner of jobs to support their musical ambition. That makes them a rare working class success story in 2015. “Middle class bands are the most content, tasteless cunts around,” says G. “They’re so comfy that understanding anything with a bit of bite or grit about it seems like rocking the boat. They’re taking up space. They don’t realise they have a duty to show society a broad spectrum of stuff. Instead all their mates, who should have sold fucking insurance, start a band. Working class bands have been eradicated.”
‘Young Men Are Black Men Too’ was recorded mainly in Berlin, although even with their Mercury Prize winnings (£20,000) Young Fathers had no intention of hiring a flash studio. Instead they just drove their usual gear over to Germany and set up in a similar basement to the one where they made ‘Dead’.
The record draws together the issues of race, power and class that pervade the band’s conversation today. Take ‘Sirens’, which deals with police violence over a driving rhythm. “We say “the police are on cocaine” because when you see videos online of policemen shooting unarmed men, it’s like they’re on coke,” says G. “They can do whatever they want and get away with it.”
Perhaps the strangest song on the record is ‘Nest’, which was commissioned for a Nestlé advert. Nestlé have been the subject of a long-running boycott due to their aggressive marketing of baby milk powder in the developing world, which has been linked to the spread of disease and increased malnutrition. When the band were approached their first reaction was to tell the multinational to, in G’s words, “go fuck themselves.” Instead, the band decided to accept the commission and planned to spend their fee on a high-profile anti-Nestlé billboard campaign. Even the song they wrote was trolling: “We made them a song which says ‘baby’ about 100 times in it. All the lyrics are about ‘Feed me mama’ and ‘Food for the village’,” explains G. “We sent it to them and they said they fucking loved it!” In the end it fell through, but Young Fathers kept the song.
Undoubtedly, satirising multinationals and asking difficult questions about race places Young Fathers outside of what’s currently considered mainstream pop music – but that’s pop music’s problem, not theirs. They’re on a mission to make pop a more interesting place. That means having to put up with being misunderstood.
“It’s too much work for the media to say that people are complicated,” says Ally. “It’s simpler to just pass judgement and place people in a box. The people in charge don’t want new ideas or change because they don’t know what it spells. It could be the end of their reign. That means TV and radio doesn’t want change. If they were putting out interesting ideas, it would make people realise that change is possible. That’s what we’ve got to do.”