Young Fathers - Dead
As a Scot, I am all too aware of the comedic possibilities that lie behind the phrase "Scottish hip-hop". No laughing at the back, alright? What you might not know, however, is that we've got a fairly decent and slowly burgeoning hip-hop community. Hector Bizerk and Madhat McGore have done much to create a close-knit scene which has defied the sniggering, but the act that's the most exciting and forward-thinking seem to work as loners outside of that circle. Edinburgh trio Young Fathers might have had extremely ropey beginnings as a "psychedelic hip-hop boyband" but slowly, meticulously they've become a real force to be reckoned with.
Composed of Alloysious Massaquoi, born in Liberia but moving to Edinburgh before the age of four, Kayus Bankole, born to Nigerian parents in the Scottish capital, and Graham 'G' Hastings from the city's Drylaw estate - the trio meeting at an "unders" hip-hop night, bonding over a love of music and dancing - Young Fathers left the dodgy start as a distant memory thanks to a couple of mixtapes Tape One and Tape Two dropped in the past couple of years, signalling a darker and bassier direction for the group, and that's very much the Young Fathers we hear on debut album Dead.
As jagged and dark as Dead might appear, there's a real celebratory feel to this album and that's down to some fantastic influences. All three are excellent MCs, but Massaquoi, Bankole and Hastings are blindingly good singers and harmonisers, and once you throw in reggae, bare-bones electronic beats which recall early synth music, the hip-hop scene of Nigeria and the scattergun sound of new wave South African shangaan then what you have is a group that knows these might be bad times but they're going to party right through it.
The melodica wheeze of 'No Way' kicks things off, with Massaquoi taking us back to a Liberian wedding, rapping in the accent of his birth country: "sitting in the parlour / offering me some flour / milk, plantain, rice / for the bridal shower," before musing on war and love take over. When the three members chorus together, Young Fathers sound most like TV On the Radio's best doo-wop moments. That happens on the opener, and again on the politicized blast of 'Low'; here - and quite frankly all across the record - there's dark and provocative lyrics matched against electronic sounds that sound almost happy, psychedelically delighted. It's a juxtaposition that somehow doesn't make sense when you break it apart - juddering beats and Hastings' angry breathless rapping meets music box chimes and sweet electronic burbles - but the whole is significantly greater than the individual parts.
Tracks like 'Just Another Bullet' and 'Get Up' marks Young Fathers as the true heirs to the legacy of avant-hoppers like Antipop Consortium and cLOUDDEAD (it's no coincidence that YF are signed to the genius Anticon in the US) through brilliant and inventive use of beats and electronics, while 'War' and 'Paying' have more in common with Massive Attack in their dark soulfulness... yet this three have that unique something which means comparing them to others (and yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of writing that) just doesn't do Dead enough justice. It is one of the most compelling British, never mind Scottish, hip-hop records in recent memory; a celebration, a melting pot of culture and a call to keep going even though, and we all feel it sometimes, it's really bloody hard to. As the boys themselves say "Come in, do the right thing / Get Up, and have a party."
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Ken Grand-Pierre made his way to the beautiful Music Hall of Williamsburg to catch Young Fathers. [read more]
Serge Levin spent an evening with Young Fathers in Philadelphia. [read more]