Young Fathers on conquering their demons

Hip-hop trio Young Fathers. Picture: Contributed
Hip-hop trio Young Fathers. Picture: Contributed
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Edinburgh-based trio Young Fathers are finally living up to their billing as the next big thing in hip-hop

SITTING with Young Fathers in their basement studio in Leith, it is clear there is nothing wrong with their equipment. Many musical ideas have been spawned in this space. We are on fertile breeding ground. And yet...

Since we first spoke to the talented trio five years ago – and hailed them as “the next big thing in hip-hop” – they have sired two long-playing offspring which have failed to make it out into the big, bad world. With cruel irony, one of these albums was called Inconceivable Child... Conceived. The other was called The Guide. But it turns out that there was no manual for Young Fatherhood, so the group had to make up their own.

Finally, in 2012, they got to show off the baby photos, when they self-released their Tape One EP, and swiftly followed up with sibling Tape Two. US hip-hop label Anticon liked what they heard and Young Fathers are now in the midst of a fresh push to reach the masses. With their irresistible new single Get Up already out and debut album Dead to be released tomorrow, it is time to get reacquainted with Young Fathers.

Kayus Bankole, the band’s ball of onstage energy, was born in Edinburgh of Nigerian parents – “strict parents,” he says a couple of times – and spent some years as a child in the US before returning to Scotland, where he attended the same school as his future bandmate Alloysious Massaquoi. Supplier of soulful vocals, Massaquoi was born in Liberia, arriving in Scotland, via Ghana, at the age of four, while Graham “G” Hastings is a native of the “properly tribal” Drylaw area of Edinburgh and had already begun recording at home when the trio first met at an under-16s hip-hop night in the city.

“I remember listening to music when I was younger and not understanding what was what and how it was put together,” says Hastings. “I thought music just happened.” A friend at school told him about a software programme for making loops and Hastings set to work in his room, using headphones to hide the beats from his family.

For Hastings, in particular, attending the club and meeting his fellow Young Fathers for the first time was a revelation. “I couldn’t believe that people were dancing to music and it was fine,” he says. “It just wasn’t where I grew up – it was almost as if expressing yourself was weak. But it just felt right dancing with the guys. We never spoke – it was too loud anyway. The comfort we had with each other wasn’t what I had experienced growing up. If you did anything, it was like ‘who do you think you are?’ This was the complete opposite of that and it made sense because I had never understood why people would always put you down if you tried to do something.”

Inspired to create together, they began recording together at Hastings’ house. Crowding round a karaoke microphone from Argos, they would each take turns to lean in and rhyme their piece. “Meeting the guys, I wasn’t scared to shout out, or to have a pen and paper and just say what was on my mind at that point,” says Bankole.

“We’d get chucked out by my mum at ten o’clock every night,” says Hastings, “and go to the bus stop singing a song and talking about how ‘that’s a hit, boys’. It was never ‘that’s a cool song, I’ll play it to my mates’, it was always ‘that’s a hit record and I want everybody to hear it’.”

The budding trio found themselves at odds with other rap acts when they began performing regularly at a hip-hop open mic night. While their peers went in for 8 Mile-style rap battles, Young Fathers would turn up with a mini-disc player and fully arranged poppy songs with choreographed moves. “It was a stage and people would watch us, so we used it to do what we wanted.”

The group were picked up for promotion the moment they released some music but the early promise of their funk-soul single Straight Back On It was followed by… nothing. The trio don’t go into detail about their slip from the public eye but two unreleased albums and mention of listening to “the wrong voices” gives a flavour of the contrary advice they followed. The group were as productive as ever, but the music they were making wasn’t being heard.

The tipping point came in 2012 when, sick of the procrastination, the trio decided they would release the next thing they recorded, whatever it was. Tape One was the product of one week’s intensive recording.

“There was a lot of frustration brewing in our bellies,” says Bankole. “So there was raw emotion and it just came out organically. It was liberating.”

“It was a really turbulent time and it made it good,” says Hastings. “We just thought you made a song and put it out, so that’s why it meant so much when we got to the point where we decided you can just make music and put it out and no one can tell you you can’t. It was only supposed to be a rough thing that we gave out and it ended up being the best thing we’d ever done.”

The EP was picked up by hip-hop label Anticon and followed within the year by Tape Two. Now Young Fathers are hoping they will be third time lucky with a debut album to shout about.

“If Tape One was fighting with our demons and Tape Two was realising our demons, if I should say anything about Dead it’s us not being afraid to speak about all demons,” says Bankole. “Or killing the demons,” ventures Hastings.

Certainly, there is dark, disorientating matter at the core of Dead but, although Young Fathers are no longer the finger-popping hip-hop boy band who first grabbed the attention, their long-held love of melody still shines through in their intriguing hooklines. “We’re still pop boys,” says Hastings, “but now we pin it against something harder. Because a lot of hip-hop has become pretty conservative and samey, we do find that we take people by surprise.”

The august likes of David Byrne and DJ/producer Diplo are finding that they enjoy the surprise. After all the false starts, Young Fathers are just glad that others finally get to hear what the group have known all along.

“In the UK, you’re not supposed to say ‘I’m good at what I do’,” says Massaquoi. “We’ve put in the time and effort to get where we are, so if we say we’re good at it, what’s wrong with that?” n

• Dead is released tomorrow on Big Dada/Anticon