Rap duo Hector Bizerk on Scottish hip-hop’s rise

John Lowis, aka Louis, and Audrey Tait of Hector Bizerk
John Lowis, aka Louis, and Audrey Tait of Hector Bizerk
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Scotland isn’t known for its hip-hop cred, but Hector Bizerk believe they have something to say in the genre, discovers David Pollock

In the popular consciousness rappers come with a lazy American drawl or a tough East London sneer, and anyone trying to upset that balance with their own accent is guilty of a provincial affectation. That’s why, although Scottish hip-hop has seen a groundswell of underground support in recent years, it’s only in the last year or so that wider recognition has come.

Two groups in particular are lighting the way forward through a combination of original musicianship, socially conscious lyricism and the sense that they have something to say and a uniquely skilful way of saying it. One is 2013 Scottish Album of the Year nominee Stanley Odd, profiled recently in these pages; the other is Glasgow’s Hector Bizerk, a duo comprising rapper Louie (real name John Lowis) and drummer Audrey Tait, whose hard-working touring schedule this summer includes some of Scotland’s most notable festivals.

“With ourselves and Stanley Odd I think having a live element makes it more accessible to people who, let’s face it, might turn their nose up at the thought of Scottish hip-hop to begin with,” says Louie, a 25-year-old raised in the north Glasgow estates of Blackhill and Robroyston.

Louie remembers when the mainstream small venues in Glasgow wouldn’t be so keen to book a Scottish hip-hop artist, and that’s part of the reason this band are together. He started his own club night called Resonance in 2007, first at Maggie May’s in the Merchant City and then at the larger Stereo near Central Station, with a wide remit that focussed on rap but reached out to other genres. One of the bands booked was all-female acoustic group The Miss’s, for whom Tait still plays guitar.

“Joining a hip-hop group came out of the blue,” says Tait, also 25, a multi-instrumentalist raised in Rutherglen. “We were both just looking to do something different. I wasn’t aware of there being a hip-hop scene in Glasgow, and Resonance opened my eyes to that.” Louie and Audrey’s collaboration started while they were leading an Impact Arts summer music workshop in Drumchapel and they would use their lunch hours to play together, developing a distinctive drums-and-voice style that combines a strong beat with Louie’s often lightning-fast vocals.

“In many creative collaborations it just doesn’t work,” says Louie. “You can be two great players or great in your own particular field, but for whatever reason your personalities clash or you’re aiming for different things or whatever. But with Audrey and I it clicked right away.”

Louie remembers his formative rap-listening years at school and says they were inspired as much by the cultural changes going on around him as the international sense of the music. “There was an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers into the Sighthill area of the city, so over summer our school had a multi-lingual unit and there were 40 nationalities there, guys from Kenya, Ghana, Eastern Europe, Serbia. So you make friends with people through football first, then they’d join our boys clubs and we’d hit it off through music, all the clichéd gangster rap like Tupac and Biggie Smalls that I was listening to at the time.”

Louie now expresses mild embarrassment at his youthful obsession with such macho staples of the genre. Instead it was hearing rapper Nas’ seminal 1994 debut album Illmatic, a classic of rap as social commentary, which inspired him to write his own rhymes. “He was talking about the area he was brought up in Queensbridge, New York,” says Louie, “but a lot of what he was saying was relevant to where I lived in Blackhill. I drew inspiration from that right away, socially conscious rap about people taking drugs at an early age, gangsters running whole communities, the corrupt establishment. It all sounds quite morbid but that kind of thing really spoke to me at the time.”

Louie speaks proudly of the pair’s independence as artists (they have no management or label) and of the strong following they’ve managed to pick up across Scotland regardless. Last year’s debut album Drums. Rap. Yes. sold out its original 250-copy print run and an equal number of represses, a wild word-of-mouth success amidst today’s industry, with a follow-up due this September.

“We don’t just jump about to Eminem,” says Tait. “First and foremost we want to push ourselves to do something different. It’s a common misconception about the hip-hop crowd, that they’re just neds or whatever, but when you meet them, the rappers, they’re so nice and really appreciative of music.”

“I don’t think you could adopt a different persona for hip-hop,” affirms Louie. “You need to discuss what you know, and we can touch on issues that are relevant to us here in Glasgow or in Scotland as a nation or Britain as a wider nation. I think it’s important to really nail your colours to the mast of who you actually are. For me the writing’s always been exploring myself as much as anything else.”

• Hector Bizerk play Kelburn Garden Party near Largs, Sunday 7 July; T in the Park, Friday 12 July; Doune the Rabbit Hole, Cardross Estate, Friday 23 August. hectorbizerk.com