Scottish hip-hop is on the rise, with recent acclaim for the likes of Stanley Odd and Hector Bizerk, plus a new wave of artists flooding the scene. The perfect time, then, for its de facto leader to re-emerge – meet Darren 'Loki' McGarvey
A few years ago, to all but the close-knit, dedicated community of fans within Scotland, Scottish hip-hop was often treated as a joke. The accent was seen as a barrier to both comprehension and enjoyment, and the scene was dismissed with the customary, dismissive tag attached to pretty much all hip-hop communities outside the borders of London – it was 'regional,' and therefore not much of a contender. Slowly, those attitudes have begun to change – Hector Bizerk have gigged all around the country, with a big festival presence this summer; meanwhile Stanley Odd beat all comers to win a support slot with The View as part of NYC's Scotland Week. Their show in the hip-hop heartland was a roaring success, and earlier this year, the band were nominated for the prestigious Scottish Album of the Year Award.
And so the stage is set for the return of one of Scottish hip-hop's most admired and imitated voices - Darren 'Loki' McGarvey, in many ways Scottish hip-hop's Chairman of the Board. After years of battling with alcohol dependency, the often controversial rapper returns this month with a new album, a new attitude, and a new-found currency in the media as a regularly-featured pundit on TV political debate shows. Through his writing, his public speaking, and his work with motivational youth organisation Volition, he has come to be seen as a champion of working class values, emphasising community, social responsibility, and self-actualisation.
When we meet with Loki, the Great Beast of British politics and enemy of the working class Margaret Thatcher has just been buried. But Loki is not convinced she has really shuffled off this mortal coil: “Thatcher will never die,” he tells us. He's not in the “let's drink in the streets and celebrate” camp, he says, but he can relate to the joyous outpouring of emotion. “It isn't about activism – it's about these behaviours that we now have in society, especially among the working class, or the 'precariat' as it's been re-termed,” he says. “The public never got the chance to boot her out, because it was a coup d'etat within the party. I think this is the expression of that now. The two's up.”
We speak about Tommy Sheridan, a political figure who Loki sees as emblematic of the cult of 'personality politicians' – his charisma is the problem. “It's a personality whirlwind, around him,” he says. “To get something like socialism moving, you could argue that's required.” Nonetheless, he warns, “the end result of that is often totalitarianism.” Does he see anyone on the left in Scotland who could fill the shoes of our disgraced and departed political figures? “I don't know who could fill the vacuum,” he replies. “It's hard to tell what this society wants from it's elected officials, or if they even care.”
Loki is an outspoken, fearlessly revolutionary person in his lyrics, his beliefs and his actions, but he is also thoughtful, picking his words carefully. On the topic of independence, he is firmly a 'Yes' man, as what he calls “a means to an end.” He sees independence as a route to more positive cultural expression: “I've always believed in autonomy for communities – and for individuals, within a community spirit of course. I would like, personally, to take responsibility. Everything I do in my life is aimed towards that, on a personal level as well,” he explains. “A lot of the academic arguments can be flipped on their heads depending on perspective.”
“I feel like I can make a better contribution to Scottish hip-hop by not being drowned in it” – Loki
It's about the Scottish people: “It's about being Scottish and being in control of things. There are a lot of different identities being expressed, so for me it's not about a kind of rampant Scottishness. It's that I would be proud to be in any country like Scotland that expressed itself in an independent manner. There are a lot of radical forces in Scotland – not radical in an extreme sense; I just mean that there are many groups out there who are radical with their generosity, and who are able to operate very effectively with limited resources,” he says. Under independence, “a lot of these forces would be unlocked.” Our country's size is an advantage: “In the context of a population of just about five million, nothing seems as insurmountable,” he says. “Things seem possible, it's very easy to get communication going. And there's a big part of me which just feels it would be an adventure.”
What about the naysayers? “People say: 'What if the economic conditions are harder?' Well, that's the price that you might pay for a bit more autonomy and control.” Loki shrugs. “It's like me going to the doctor, and the doctor saying: 'You shouldn't try to stop drinking, because the withdrawal is going to be terrible, and there's no guarantee that you're going to stay sober. So take these Valium and go back into your life.'”
Sobriety is on Loki's mind a lot these days. As he says candidly: “My insane reputation precedes me.” For a long time, Loki showing up at an open mic, or even at his own gigs, was unpredictable – he nearly always pulled off his shows, but could be prone to explosions of temper, heckling the crowd from the stage. Part of that, he says, comes from the prevalent attitudes to drink and drugs in the Scottish hip-hop scene. “When I don't perform to a hip-hop audience, it's a different response. There's something about the hip-hop crowd in this country – they're conditioned to respond to certain types of things. I just find that dead limiting. If I'm drunk, I take that as a challenge. And it's just a roll of the dice how I'm going to behave.”
Now four months without a drink (six when this feature is published), his whole attitude is changing. “I'm like, 'What am I interested in? What do I want to write about now?' I feel like my life is... you know when you walk into a room, and you don't remember why you went in? That's what my life feels like just now,” he explains. “Things are in flux. But I am definitely looking to make that transition, not just in hip-hop, but as a writer, you know?” For a long time, he was “chasing highs and living in a fantasy,” and the scene he was a part of enabled him to keep doing that. “I don't know anyone else in the community who's come out and said, 'I'm not happy, I can't stop drinking, I hate all of you.' What you get is, and you get this in my music as well, is celebratory music about drink and drugs. And you get the self-pity and anger, the negative emotions. You never get the clear-cut, 'As soon as this drink touches my lips, I don't know what's going to happen, I am fucking terrified.'”
The process of sobering up has informed his new album, Edging God Out. Originally conceived as two albums, he decided to condense the best material down into one package, but originally, the two albums were “two sides of the same coin,” one dealing with the “more jovial” elements of his journey to sobriety, and one with the inevitable paranoia and darkness. It's a bold, honest statement from an artist who knows his own worth: “It'll sound arrogant, but even my bad releases still stand up to a lot of the stuff that's out there,” he says. The new album is “unfinished business. What I'm going to evolve into comes after this.” But this isn't the king of Scottish hip-hop reclaiming his crown – he'd rather exist off to one side, doing his own thing. “I feel like I can make a better contribution to Scottish hip-hop by not being drowned in it,” he says. The album release has been preceded by a wealth of new and deleted material being re-released via his Bandcamp page.
Loki is full of admiration for Hector Bizerk and Stanley Odd. “A live show is what hip-hop's always been about,” he says, praising both bands for their “completely separate, dynamic sounds” and stage shows. But he warns that getting a live band together isn't the only way for hip-hop artists to succeed: “There are other elements of hip-hop which are conducive to a great live show – there are elements of dance in hip-hop, of course; there are visual elements; there's the DJ.” He praises Mister Bohze & NC Epik for their four-deck live show, and namechecks Madhat McGore as one of Scotland's hardest-working emcees, even if the music he makes isn't to his taste. “What they have all shown is that you need to adopt a professional, hardcore work ethic, as well as having hardcore music,” he explains. “There has to be somebody flying the flag for the raw elements of it. When you cut through the dither, and you get to the real class acts in Scotland, you could go across the world and look at other reflections of hip-hop culture – we have the highest calibre.”
Loki's own journey as a hip-hop artist started at sixteen – he was taken under the wing of the first-wave artists, “guys like Big Div, Sace, Defy from 2-Tone Committee.” The biggest change since those early days of open mics and club nights is the technological upheval, which has allowed artists to instantly release music online. “Even if the technology had existed back then, I didn't have access to it,” he recalls. “I didn't have a computer, or a mobile phone, none of that stuff. I was all about getting in about it, man – getting on the mic. I was very gregarious.” He still believes there is “no substitute for practice. No substitute for live performance, no substitute for recording yourself and listening back critically.” His advice to aspiring emcees? “Do it!”
Having recently deleted his Facebook profile for an extended period, one gets the sense that Loki is tired of technology. “Look – Facebook is an ego-trip, right?” he says. “It's for instant validation and a false sense of social control. I need to limit my exposure to any kind of disturbance of my well-being. I could go mental about something that happens on Facebook, I could go into a real downer. So y'know what? Fuck it. I'll put my music out whenever, and I won't have to worry about seeing if people like it. There is a kind of release from that, because it's stupid – it's Facebook, I've only got like 1500 friends on it. They're not even friends! You've got your life, and then you've got this Facebook-brain... 'Oh, I can't wait to get back and put this on Facebook!'” His artist page is run by Mark McGee of fellow Glasweigian hip-hop fusion band The Girobabies.
From a first listen to the new album Loki's lyrics have lost none of their sting, full of hilarious, messed up, controversial imagery. “I can see the elements in my writing that are deliberately provocative – and sometimes that's because it's important to provoke, but also sometimes because I'm just venting,” he says. “There is a balance, but at the end of the day, it's freedom of speech – people can talk about it later. It's a lot better than that fucking Rick Ross lyric everyone was talking about!” Loki gets animated: “That guy should be taken to task for the fact that that's just a shit lyric! The rape issue is a side thing. The fact is, that lyric is shit and that guy can't rap. He's entertaining, for some reason, but it's not because of his lyrical quality, man.” He laughs sardonically. “It's ridiculous. I mean, Reebok pussied out and fired him, even though he's been advocating guns, drugs and violence for years!”
His work with Volition, which gives young people access to resources, knowledge and facilities to help start them out on the road to careers in the creative industries, came from a feeling that “too many youth organisations are led by middle-aged people. They have a top-down structure, and people are getting paid to decide what services young people have access to. Young people can't get jobs doing what they like – why can't we do something about this? Why can't young people learn how to provide the kinds of services they want to access?” For Loki, answering these questions meant “putting my money where my mouth is and saying: 'I believe in you.'”
He doesn't manage the young artists involved with Volition, nor does he teach or guide them. “It's as much about personal development, and what they call 'capacity building' – which is a term I hate,” he explains. “I've seen all of them go on a journey, in terms of becoming more self-aware about the validity of the skills they have, which aren't acknowledged by mainstream education, effectively. In fact, the opposite is true.”
Does he see his influence in the new wave of young Scottish rappers? “Stylistically, everyone kind of borrows from each other a wee bit,” he says generously. “I give everyone the credit they deserve for developing their own styles. It's always nice when someone acknowledges that you were an influence, but I would never go around saying, 'He sounds like me.' I don't want trouble! I don't look kindly on blatant biters, but that's all part of the flattery I guess.”
With plans in the offing for a screenplay and a documentary strand themed around independence, and further appearances on TV likely, Loki is embracing his role as a cultural ambassador and spokesman. Creatively, he is fascinated by the changes sobriety has wrought on his writing. It feels like a fresh start for Darren McGarvey, and for Loki – one that will be fascinating to watch. You may not find Loki on Discogs, you may not hear his songs on commercial radio – but his voice, his steadfast political passion, and his magnanimous activism are increasingly hard to ignore.
As Scottish hip-hop emerges from the sidelines in 2013, he is perhaps its most fascinating and intelligent practitioner. Talking about the battle scene, where he is a major draw, he is enthusiastic about the possibilities for development of the form as an art, and a sport. “There's another level to be achieved, at least for me,” he says, and he could be talking about his music career too. “People might read this and say, well, fuck him.” He pauses and smiles. “But fuck them.”