Solareye can teach Caledonia and Britannia a thing or two about protest, writes Aidan Smith
BANG goes my great headline. I’d really wanted to meet Solareye in Edinburgh’s Morningside – for the hell of it but also for the uniqueness. How many rappers do you suppose pass though the ’hood of Jean Brodie? In the event, this one keeps right on going and we end up chatting over coffee in Bruntsfield, a little bit edgier though still not quite Compton.
By day, 34-year-old Dave Hook – his real name – lectures on the BA course in pop music at Edinburgh Napier University where one of his students has a vested interest in this week’s Scottish Album of the Year Award, having engineered Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air. Refined, stately, impeccable, it’s exactly the kind of record that gets nominated for prizes.
But Hook – by night leader of the hip-hop collective Stanley Odd – is in the running, too. He’s staggered they’ve made the short-list, doesn’t think Rejects has “a hope in hell” of winning, but will enjoy the night regardless. Just being mentioned in despatches is a terrific achievement for Scottish rap. Whoever thought that would take off?
Hook may not reckon much to his chances, but surely the judges won’t fail to be impressed by Rejects’ relevance to the here and now, its striving for a rhyme for “Alex Salmond”, its audacity in including epic tracks about independence, which by the way are the standouts? On Antiheroics, Solareye fires off loads of questions: “How can you support Tory Britain and Scottish Labour?… Are we oil-rich or a subsidised pet?… Rule Britannia, Cool Britannia, Cruel Britannia – do you want to stay the full Britannia?” Along with Salmond, Nick Clegg and UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley get mentions and the stereotyping of “sponging Scots”, the flow is cranked up for a roll-call of St Georges-waving skinheads, TOWIE-types and Tory toffs.
Meanwhile, Marriage Counselling is even better, with Scotland and England as clapped-out lovers trying to break up with each other by letter. “I used to make things, inventions, you curbed my creativity,” writes Caledonia, adding: “I’m a 1,000-year-old country/Surely I’m old enough to look after my own money.” In reply, Britannia apologises for being a bit neglectful and asks: “Weren’t we always good together?” But at the track’s end, Caledonia is being informed: “I’d be doing you a favour keeping you… the truth is you’d be nothing without me.”
In his shorts and T-shirt today, Hook resembles one of his students with not the slightest glint of hip-hop bling. He’s a modest fellow, happy his music is being heard, and shrugs when I compliment him for tackling an unsexy subject like independence and penning protest songs when few others are. “I don’t know why there aren’t more,” he says. “We all seem to be more comfortable now, and therefore apathetic. I thought the bedroom tax might become this era’s poll tax in terms of protest but it’s not really happened. Regarding independence, I’m still hopeful we’ll get some songs soon.”
It sounds, with his references to “my pal Alex”, that he’s pro it. “Well, people in the independence movement have asked me to get involved in the campaign, but really I’m undecided. I don’t like Westminster making decisions that affect Scotland alone and I’m also anti-Faslane, which would be reason to say Yes. But the financial implications I don’t understand. What happens to welfare, health care, pensions? In Marriage Counselling there’s another PS which goes: ‘Half of me doesn’t really want to leave you.’”
Encompassing a few different nationalities including Germany, Norway and Leith, Stanley Odd were founded on the course where Hook now tutors in sound engineering. If the politics gives the impression they might be hard work, you should know there’s a string-driven poppiness to the music, with soulful choruses from Veronika Electronika. And there’s humour too with copious mentions of maddies, bams, wide-os, lassies in trackies and lads in too-short trousers suggesting “yir cat’s deid”.
Rapping in the vernacular is part of keepin’ it real for Stanley Odd. Says Hook: “Even if we were interested in the aggressive posturing that’s in a lot of hip-hop, Scotland isn’t the kind of country where you can get very far pretending to be something you’re not. To me, songwriting is about telling stories and you can only properly tell them about the place you’re from, and in the voice you’ve got.”
Hook admits to being a bit obsessive about this. “I hate hearing people, and especially Scots, singing in a mid-Atlantic accent.” But if the voices travel in the other direction, it’s flattery. “The boys in Frightened Rabbit, who’ve got a good following in the States, told me there are young bands there who’re getting inspired by them and they’re imitating Scottish accents. That’s amazing.”
On Rejects Hook raps of a “triple life of work, band and wife”. That’s Stella who’s expecting their first child, and he’s trying to get the follow-up album written before the baby arrives. See? Keepin’ it real. Mind, you, he wasn’t always such a stickler for veracity. “Growing up in Airdrie I was into grunge. Me and mates would sit in our local park with a bottle of Merrydown and sing along to Nirvana and Pearl Jam in fake American accents and that continued in the first bands I was in. Back then, I was really Yanking it!” «
The winner of the Scottish Album of the Year Award will be announced at Glasgow’s Barrowland on Thursday