Could this be a breakthrough year for Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers?

Hip-hop band Young Fathers
Hip-hop band Young Fathers
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TO FOLLOWERS of the music scene in Edinburgh, Young Fathers won’t be unfamiliar. As Scottish rappers they’re certainly not alone in representing an unlikely but dedicated subculture of hip-hop artists north of the Border, although they do have the distinction of being the most publicly successful in recent years.

Various near-misses during that time have seen them receive praise from the NME, play European festivals including T in the Park, Creamfields and Sonar, and – perhaps most memorably – appear on Big Brother’s Big Mouth back in 2009.

After a period of radio silence, however, the trio are now back in even less likely circumstances, but certainly the most respectable yet. Last year’s limited release EP Tape One saw a major shift in direction from their formerly pop-driven style towards a more eclectic combination of grinding beats married with immediate, memorable lyricism, and its forthcoming re-release on the seminal, Los Angeles-based alternative hip-hop label Anticon is a huge deal for the group.

The group’s Alloysious Massaquoi says it all happened by accident when respected video blogger Anthony Fantano picked up on Tape One for his YouTube review channel The Needle Drop early last year, and Anticon’s Shaun Koplow was in contact quickly. “I didn’t know much about Anticon,” he says. “I don’t think many of us did, but you look up the history and find out who they are and what they try to do, the whole anti-establishment thing, being for the artists and the individual, and about greater creativity in music. For them to love our stuff and for us to be associated with that is great, because we care about good music too.”

The same might not always have been said of Young Fathers, now in their mid-twenties, but their story’s an endearing one, a tale of perseverance, hard work and focus. Their background is also a good advert for the multicultural side of Edinburgh which is often underrepresented. Massaquoi was born in Liberia and came to Scotland when he was four and a half, Graham “G” Hastings was brought up in Edinburgh housing scheme Drylaw and Kayus Bankole was born in Edinburgh but part-raised in America and Nigeria. “So he has that transatlantic thing going on,” laughs Massaquoi.

Massaquoi and Bankole met as 14-year-olds at Boroughmuir High School and then encountered Hastings not long after at the Bongo Club’s under-16s hip-hip night Lickshot, run by the Yard Emcees. “Graham said to us, ‘I have a music program and I make beats and stuff, so you guys could come round and make songs?’” says Massaquoi. “We’d record off a karaoke machine in his bedroom.”

He’s reminded of their early incarnation as R’n’B boy band 3-Style and a note of embarrassment creeps in. “3-Style… that was then, eh?” he laughs. “Yeah, it was more poppy. I guess it was us trying to find our feet, imitating what we listened to at the time. It was just three lads having a laugh really, just having fun. You’re a kid, you’re impressionable…” It was meeting London that helped set them on the right path as Young Fathers. “You put in your years being shite, then you get better and more confident in your abilities as a person. He got involved when we were 3-Style and he was critical about it, he helped us fuse what we really are with the music.”

Massaquoi says that the trio are restlessly creative when they’re together, and that even between periods of a few months they notice big steps being taken within their own sound. This was a help and a hindrance since Young Fathers formed in 2008 – in the intervening years they recorded two full albums worth of music, but when interest started to pick up they would feel they were 
“past it”.

“What’s changed is the maturity in ourselves,” he says. “Then we were impressionable and we’d try and emulate what we heard, whereas now we’re more grounded, we know ourselves better. We take our influences and add to them. You have to get to the stage where you know what you like, but be able to discard it to come up with something that’s a bit more you.”

In the end, frustration got the better of them. “We just decided to go and record for a week. Tim said, ‘At the end of every night make sure you have a rough mix of a song.’ Some nights we’d manage two, so we ended up with 11, 12 songs at the end. We picked the best ones and that was Tape One. Of course, if you say you’re going to do something 
no-one else has done, that doesn’t happen, you know? So you go in with an open mind and you decide you’re going to have at least some tracks at the end of the week.”

To many who have witnessed their career trajectory it might seem as though Young Fathers have been on a stop-start journey, but in a broader context they’ve been building steadily to this point. Massaquoi says that even if it doesn’t get released, completing an album is an important step: “Just to get it finished and to feel proud of it is a good feeling. The lesson you learn from all that… I say it in my lyrics actually, ‘Patiently living with an impatient nature.’ I think that’s one of the main things I learned, to be patient. Things will come. Even though you still feel frustrated, I guess it’s a case of learn to keep learning. The independent level we’ve been at has been good for us really, because on a major you wouldn’t get that chance to develop.”

Very shortly, the next stage of the journey begins. Creative Scotland is funding the group to travel to international industry showcase South By Southwest, in Texas this spring. The follow-up EP Tape Two is out in March and an album is in the pipeline. “I don’t think being from Edinburgh or Scotland should scare people with ambition away from what they want to do,” says Massaquoi. “I think a lot of people get scared, they think because you’re from Scotland you’re not meant to rap. Graham had problems with that when he was younger. It must be a small city thing, ‘Leave that for the Americans.’ But it’s just music. Be fearless and do what you want to do.”

• Young Fathers’ Tape One EP is released on 14 January on Anticon, with Tape Two to follow in March. It will be launched at Broadcast, Glasgow, on 19 January.