Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers looked a good bet to take over the world five years ago. So why has it taken them until now to release their remarkable debut album? We find them in the studio
They do funerals differently in New Orleans. Rather than mourn the death, they celebrate the life of the deceased. A brass band leads a procession to and from church, and following behind are the dancing mourners collectively known as the Second Line.
Young Fathers’ Graham ‘G’ Hastings came across Second Lining on YouTube during breaks in recording the Edinburgh trio’s long-awaited debut album, Dead. It struck a chord as he reflected on the years it had taken his group to progress from promising new band to fully-fledged recording artists.
“It’s a glorious occasion, walking through the streets with brass music. It’s fucking beautiful,” he explains. “That’s what the whole record feels like to me now. It has that feeling of something sad has happened, but it’s nothing to be down about; especially as I have arrived at the end. To me, the album sounds like one of those processions – it’s quite a glorious thing.”
Young Fathers might have taken a bass – rather than a brass – direction for their album, but their desire to celebrate in the face of adversity would be fully understood down Bourbon Street. Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Hastings have been friends since the age of 14 when they met at an under-16s hip-hop night at Edinburgh's Bongo Club, back when it was housed in the Scottish capital's Holyrood Road. They began recording their own compositions shortly after and were barely out of their teens when they secured their first management deal.
Media attention quickly followed, thanks to songs like Straight Back On It, which hinted this was a fresh, free-spirited rap group with a pop twist. A 'psychedelic hip-hop boyband’ as they sometimes called themselves, a tag that fitted with the choreographed dance moves they pulled off on stage. TV appearances and festival shows quickly came and went, suggesting that Young Fathers were fast on their way to nationwide exposure and a potentially lucrative career. A debut album was talked about – but never appeared. That was five years ago. So where have they been since?
It’s a question that the trio have been asked regularly, but the short answer is they have never been away; continuing to write and record new material with enviable frequency. “If we hadn’t done all the stuff before, when we first started in the studio, we wouldn’t still be doing it now,” states Massaquoi. “It’s part of the journey, it’s part of the whole Young Fathers story, and that’s fine.”
Don't expect to hear any of their early material performed when Young Fathers begin their UK tour this month. "I find it harder than the boys to listen to that stuff, I get kinda funny about it," Hastings intones. "But, because of what has happened since then, I’m not angry in any sense. I actually enjoy the story now, what happened, and it feels like it’s brought us here. It's hard to be angry, because we’re still here and we’re much happier."
Since quitting their previous management deal in 2011, much of their time has been spent in a small private recording studio in Leith belonging to producer Timothy London. There, Young Fathers rediscovered their focus and started planning a new way forward. The studio is their sanctuary, where they are free to record in their own experimental style – and it makes it the natural place to meet them for an interview. Upon arrival, The Skinny is asked politely to refrain from revealing its precise whereabouts.
"We have no shame in saying that we want to be huge" – Graham Hastings
It was here in this basement room that they recorded Dead, and the two EPs which preceded it. The first, Tape One, signalled a sea change for Young Fathers; the lyrics were darker and the bass much heavier than anything they had attempted before.
“There was a lot of frustration after getting bad advice from other people and listening to the wrong voices,” says Bankole. “Our intentions when we put Tape One out as a free download was just do it, just have something out there. We wanted to get a record out because before that time we never had any.”
Hastings is in no doubt as to the importance of their first EP. “It was a complete fucking release for us. After everything, we decided to release it by the end of the week – no matter what the fuck happened. And we did it, and proved that we could do it on our own. It was so much easier to the way we were thinking before. All that shit about proper recording techniques just went oot the windae.”
“People make out that they have the know-how in the music business,” adds Massaquoi. “They make out that they are the best thing since fucking sliced bread; and because you think you don’t have the know-how, they say your hands are tied and then they’re asking you for X-amount. But then you think: ‘let’s just do it ourselves’ – and you soon realise that you enjoy it that way. There’s no excuse, you’re happier if it doesn’t work out. You sleep better at night."
For Bankole, it was a similarly liberating experience. “The power of having no fear had a very significant part to play. The instantaneous nature of it just made it feel right."
After attracting some impressive reviews, Tape One was heard by Shaun Koplow of LA-based label Anticon. Emails were exchanged, Skype conversations entered into and eventually a meeting was arranged at the 2013 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. The advantages of signing such a deal were obvious to Hastings. “It was like, they’re American, they’re in America and America is big.”
Anticon re-released Tape One in early 2012 on both sides of the pond, and Tape Two followed in June last year. Each attracted almost universally positive reviews. For the second time in their short career, Young Fathers found themselves being talked about as a group with a big future.
It seemed natural that an album would quickly follow, but the trio didn't see it that way. "It wasn't planned," Hastings points out. "The way we work, we always come in and let things happen. We always try to finish a song by the end of the day, but we’ll record for weeks without listening back – and then we’ll come back and listen to everything in a oner. But the thing is just to bang it oot. And with Dead, that’s what it feels like. It was banged oot – it could have been Tape Three."
It was soon apparent to Young Fathers that they had an album on their hands. "When we listened back it sounded like a whole cohesive thing," Massaquoi enthuses. "Like straight away, you could just tell. It’s the first thing that’s really come out [in a physical format] since we started doing music, so in that regard it’s exciting, but at the same time it means everything and nothing – because we have more work and we’re just getting back to business, really."
In the time Young Fathers have been making music, the general perception of hip-hop produced in Scotland has slowly evolved from outright mockery to growing acceptance. When the group met at those under-16s nights at The Bongo, they would return to school the following Monday to be asked if they were 'wannabe gangsters' by other pupils with little comprehension of what rap was or could be.
But the trio have never viewed themselves as a straight hip-hop group or part of any wider Scottish rap scene. "With the world becoming a smaller place, it’s not weird to have hip-hop from Finland or Scotland," explains Hastings.
"Hip-hop is everywhere. It’s the biggest fucking genre. It’s taken over the world, so it’s not a big deal. We've never really been part of the hip-hop scene, because we just dip into things and leave. We’re as much part of the folk scene," he grins.
A global perspective is important to Young Fathers. Massaquoi was born in Liberia, and Bankole's family is Nigerian. Edinburgh might be the city that brought the group together, but they would have no qualms of relocating if the right situation demanded it. "We’re not of anywhere, we’re not from anywhere," Massaquoi states.
"We haven’t taken our blood and signed allegiance to anywhere," continues Bankole. "I’ve travelled, my parents are both Nigerian, English is not my first language, it’s one of those things. The world is such a small place, people are travelling so much and are into different things, that it’s hard to pin things down any more. Why would you want to?"
Hastings sums it up. "We just want everything, we want the world. We have no shame in saying that we want to be huge. We don’t want to hold back. What was it The Jesus and Mary Chain said? ‘We have ambition, we want to be as big as Culture Club.’ It’s like that mentality. That’s what we’ve always been about."