Interview: Young Fathers, ‘They dinnae ken what to call us…’
Rejecting media-friendly labels, Young Fathers are on a mission to deliver fresh, original music
‘Scottish hip hop trio'. Convenient shorthand, maybe, but Young Fathers prefer to challenge that reductive label. 'It's frustrating people keep calling us “hip hop”,' explains Graham ‘G’ Hastings. ‘When you listen to our records, particularly the new album [White Men Are Black Men Too], it's not hip hop. It's a genre placed on us based more on how we look than how we sound. You can take it as a compliment because they dinnae ken what to call us, because at least you've done something original, and we're proud of that.'
'We're not patriotic,' adds Alloysious Massaquoi. 'Scotland's just a bit of land where we happened to, by chance, meet. It's frustrating, for me anyway, when we're labelled. Why can't we just be what we are?'
They have a point. We meet up in Edinburgh’s City Art Centre before their tour whisks them off again to America. The winners of both the 2014 Mercury Prize and Scottish Album of the Year Award are huddled around a table in the café. Hastings is Edinburgh born and bred, Massaquoi has roots in Liberia and Ghana while Kayus Bankole grew up across Scotland, Nigeria and America. Clearly reaching for an easy soundbite, the press have quaintly settled on 'Scottish hip hop'.
There's a relaxed, comfortable dynamic between them, as you'd expect from three people who've been mates since they were teenagers. Bankole seems happy to take a backseat and let Hastings and Massaquoi do most of the talking. Within minutes you can tell how much music means to them. Fiercely intelligent, passionately laying down their point of view, they’re intrigued by how others receive and perceive their output.
Much has been made of how they met at an under-16s hip hop night at the old Bongo Club, when it was still located on New Street. Hastings is more pragmatic: 'The only alternative was a foam party at Revolution and that was shit. The only time I went there I got fucking jumped and I didn't want to go back, so the hip hop club was the only place to go.'
It gave them somewhere to hone their skills even if they were at odds with the pervading culture. 'They started doing open mics,’ continues Hastings. ‘People would battle rap and we'd go up and do three-minute pop songs with choreographed dance moves. It was just a space to utilise and play to people rather than "we fuckin' love hip hop". Actually the fact that we dinnae love hip hop is why we've stuck together.' Bankole interjects: 'Or we care about it just as much as every other genre.'
Their first sessions were at Hastings' house, recording tracks into a Dictaphone. Mixing rap, hip hop, indie, soul, funk, reggae, electronica and pop melodies, they developed their own vibrant home brew. After releasing a handful of singles, they became increasingly frustrated as several albums were recorded but went unreleased.
Massaquoi: 'Tape One  was definitive. We took control of our own destiny and said to ourselves "whatever we do from now until the end of the week, we're going to put it out whether it's finished or not". It literally felt like we were starting again.'
Hastings: 'It gave us a new perspective on how to make music.'
Massaquoi: 'It's fearless, it's like, do what the fuck you want.'
Bankole: 'That doesn't mean we're not afraid, it's just being honest with yourself and being brave enough to admit you're afraid and channelling those emotions.'
Tape Two followed in 2013, receiving even greater acclaim and Young Fathers were signed to Big Dada in the UK and avant-garde hip-hop label Anticon in the US, before picking up the 2014 SAY Award. This was swiftly followed by Dead which garnered further praise and the Mercury Music Prize. ‘Dead was a curveball,' admits Massaquoi. ‘We were in uncharted territory. I don't know what the fuck it is but I like it.'
On hearing White Men Are Black Men Too, Hastings' initial plea to stop trying to cram Young Fathers into a pigeonhole makes total sense. It's even more expansive than Dead. There's less rap and more singing, while their palette has broadened to encompass dark bass rumblings, twinkling tropical rhythms and the Leith Congregational Choir, as heard on recent single, ‘Shame’.
Hastings: 'The main ethos behind the album was to simplify: less is more, minimal is maximal.'
Massaquoi: 'It's in the pop format, it's driven and to the point. You try to say as much as you can in four lines and that's a challenge in itself.'
This ethos carried over into the album title. They were fully aware of its provocative nature and bounced it back and forth for weeks. A straw poll during recent live shows in South Africa convinced the band it was the right move. 'It's saying that the world isn't a simple place, you cannot divide it up into black and white,' says Hastings. 'It's using the album title to start a conversation.'