In the year 2034, the Scottish Parliament will be demolished, the ruins turned into a tourist attraction as part of the London Olympics. Glasgow’s skyline will be dominated by a giant tower for the most privileged, built to “help preserve culture from the dangers of the slum population”.
This is the dystopia vividly described in Government Issue Music Protest (GIMP), a science-fiction concept album by Scottish rapper Loki, with significant contributions from singer-songwriter Becci Wallace. It’s an album bristling with ambition, ideas, anger, defiance and black humour, the sound of a politically engaged artist finding his voice. And the circumstances of its release are fascinating. GIMP was recorded before Scotland’s independence referendum, for release just weeks afterwards – by a prominent Yes supporter.
“We thought it was going to be a No, and that was the momentum behind it,” explains Loki. “I knew the album was going to mean something different after the vote, and in a selfish kind of way it can now form a wee part of how we move forward.”
I meet Loki – Darren McGarvey to his friends – in a not especially dystopian café at Clyde College’s Cardonald campus, where he is studying journalism. It is close to where he grew up. “I’ve been making jokes at my own expense regarding social mobility as a concept. I left Pollok after a family breakdown, became homeless and alcoholic, still quite active and productive, but am now knuckling back down… in a college overlooking a graveyard in Pollok. It’s quite funny really.”
This is the short version of a life story that, when you hear more, helps explain where the anger comes from. McGarvey’s mum was an alcoholic who died at 36 from cirrhosis of the liver, having walked away from her children a few years earlier. Afterwards, he recalls, “she phoned up now and again and I would refuse to speak to her”. He was 11. When she died, he says, “the family was just kind of broken”. McGarvey slept on couches before moving into supported accommodation. “I was supposed to become stabilised and move into my own accommodation, but I actually became an alcoholic.”
Sober for two years now, McGarvey is clear-headed and matter of fact about all this. He admits to “dodgy attitudes towards women” rooted in rage at his mum. He thinks it was probably inevitable he’d become an alcoholic himself. “I take umbrage with people who have never experienced addiction directly who say it’s a choice. What is all the thinking before you make the choice? Social mobility, again. Job opportunities, I was unable to grasp them. Someone my age, maybe of lesser ability, coming from a different background, would have a sense of calm and self-esteem; all they need to do is keep on track and things will work out at least OK.”
It’s tempting to make the simplistic suggestion that hip-hop saved McGarvey, except that he was rapping for years before he was sober. What finally turned him around, he says, was a disastrous Christmas when he lost two jobs and his girlfriend walked out. “That’s when I realised I was losing my mind a bit. There was a morning in January where I was on my own for the first time and it was quiet. Usually at that time there’s a voice from within you that comes through which is your conscience, and if you listen to that it does guide you.”
There’s a happy ending to all this, even if it’s in the form of a dystopian science-fiction album. The girlfriend – then and now – was and is Becci Wallace. They’ve been a couple for four years, but GIMP is the first time they’ve made music together. McGarvey describes it as a distillation of all the ideas on his first 14 – yes, 14 – albums. Wallace compares it to a novel. “Darren writes like he’s writing a book all the time. The whole house is an ideas factory. GIMP’s been written about six times: handwritten, books everywhere, papers everywhere.”
Between them they reel off a list of GIMP’s influences. They include Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Doctor Who, Sin City, Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, Frankie Boyle, but not – conspicuously – other rappers.
We talk about art. “I feel like I need to respond to how my culture’s been ignored,” says McGarvey, who has faced a double prejudice since he began rapping – the idea that rappers are “vulgar, because they don’t talk in the language of the establishment” and the idea that rapping in a Scottish accent is ridiculous.
“I thought it’d never work when I started doing it, then I realised I felt more comfortable in my own skin. It’s interesting that the first time I went to rap I automatically renounced almost the most definitive aspect of my own identity. It raises the question: what else do we do when it comes to being ourselves in a culture, in a society, without thinking?”
Loki’s decision made him a pioneer, one of the first Scottish rappers to perform in their own accent. It’s more common now, but his frustration at the level of snobbery towards Scottish hip-hop remains. “The idea at the root of GIMP is to create something that’s compelling enough that it can’t be dismissed on the grounds of taste. It can’t be disputed that it’s a work of art.”
Adding Wallace’s voice and guitar seems to have helped. “It makes people listen to the lyrics,” she says. “Because of the cultural level you’re speaking at, when people hear it with beats they associate the noise with menacing youth culture so they don’t listen, but when you put a guitar with it, it becomes a totally different thing. It’s beautiful to see it happen in rooms where people call themselves academics and suddenly they’re transfixed and engaging with it for the first time.”
The referendum debate helped too, establishing Loki as a charismatic and articulate commentator on politics, culture and the media. I am among the many people who first came across him not as a rapper but as a compelling public speaker. Hip-hop, he thinks, “has been given a bit of space to exist because it was beneficial to Yes. And I think hip-hop kicked everybody’s arse in this debate. A lot of young people who live on housing schemes were directly engaged in the independence debate as a result of the hip-hop artists who chose to speak about it.”
It’s interesting to wonder how GIMP would sound had Scotland voted the other way. Much the same, probably. Despite his involvement in the Yes campaign, McGarvey is no cheerleader for any cause. “I’m a trouble-maker,” he says – or, as he puts it on GIMP, an “honest prick” who “left university with a degree of uncertainty”. “My political views are not necessarily always present on the album. Whereas with most hip-hop albums there’s this one voice that prevails all the way through, it’s hard to pin down what I’m really saying. That’s deliberate. The way to establish the truth of something is to take a contentious position.”
This is partly a reluctance to preach. “A lot of musicians who speak out on political issues absolve themselves from the problem,” he says. “GIMP is saying the world’s f***ed and I’m part of the problem.” But I wonder if there’s wilful contrariness at work here too. “I’m one of those people who, if you say I can’t do it, I’m gonna do it, not out of stubbornness but because that’s what a great artist is supposed to do, isn’t it?” he tells me at one point. “You’re supposed to say, is that the convention? Is that the line? Well I’m over here then.”
As keen as he clearly is that this arts journalist thinks of him as an artist, I suspect that if he thought he’d been accepted by the mostly middle-class arts establishment I represent, the first thing he’d do is kick against it.
As I leave Cardonald, I find myself wondering what his journalism tutors make of him. “Sometimes in college it’s a bit of a struggle because it’s all about funnelling me into the industry,” he tells me, “whereas I’m keen to talk about challenging the conventions of the industry and there’s not always a lot of room for that. It’s a good observation to make of education.”
•Government Issue Music Protest is released on 5 November on Black Lantern