Darren McGarvey: Am I a ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’ rapper?

The Sugar Hill Gang, seen performing in 2004, were one of rap's earliest exponents (Picture: Scott Gries/Getty Images)
The Sugar Hill Gang, seen performing in 2004, were one of rap's earliest exponents (Picture: Scott Gries/Getty Images)
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Last week, a small, dark corner of Scottish Twitter had something to say. Shocking, I know. It’s been ages since I’ve gotten any abuse from Scottish nationalists.

Even longer since I dished it out. It’s been nice not waking up and immediately plunging into a state of panic if I have more than 20 notifications on Twitter.

But I was given a brief reminder of what some of my comrades continue to face last week, when former Commonspace trailblazer-turned-Sunday Herald news editor Angela Haggerty made the mistake of tweeting a New York Times profile in which I was, for the first time in my nearly 20 years in music, described as a “British” rapper.

The second I saw it, I immediately retweeted it, adding “I’ve never been called a ‘British’ rapper before”. Because it’s been so long since I’ve been in a scrape with anyone of an ultra-Scottish nationalist persuasion, I thought nothing of it. Then followed the inevitable misinterpretation that my tweet, about being referred to as “British”, was also attributing that reference to Haggerty – as opposed to the automatically generated New York Times headline. Confirming, at least in the minds of a few Scottish nationalists, something they had long suspected: Angela Haggerty is, in fact, a mole, working for the British State. Comedy ensued.

There are a few layers to this that I must carefully unpack. The first is the fact I am, at least in part, British. I have a British passport, a British provisional driving licence and am guaranteed security by a British military. I live in a city where many of my fellows regard themselves as British. The UK dash in my Scottishness is not something that either bothers me or that I would dispute. Nor is it something I feel a need to either revoke or performatively purge myself of.

If England pillaged the world during the years of the British Empire, then Scotland was looking on, holding her jacket. As I snapped out of a nationalist dwam, mid-2014, in which we valiant Scots were a uniquely oppressed class of maverick renegades, incapable of racism, it struck me that we may have entered our historically fiendish union with England in 1707 because we were too pished to carve out an empire of our own. Rather than some caged lion, we were more like the Richard Hammond end of a poorly balanced Top Gear equation.

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Having spent the last few months travelling the UK, I’m positive there are no significant cultural differences to speak of between Scotland and most of England or Wales. My commitment to Scottish independence is based solely on gaining proximity to the decision-making processes that impact my community and family. London has proven time and time again that it’s incapable of taking incoming calls. Interestingly, this cultural lop-sidedness, where London is concerned, also finds expression in the arts and why suddenly being referred to as a “British” rapper was strange. Understanding why requires a brief history of Hip Hop culture itself.

Hip Hop culture originated in The Bronx, New York, in the early 1970s. Comprising four pillars of DJ, Breakdancing, Graffiti and Emceeing, it emerged out of African American poverty and political exclusion. DJs would connect two turntables and, using identical records, create drum loops from the funk and soul hits of the day. These records often had sections where the song would “break down”; singing ceased, guitars pulled out and focus would turn to percussion and horns, usually for around eight bars.

This section was referred to as the “break”. By spinning concurrent records backwards, consecutively, DJs created “beats” for break-dancers to perform or do battle. These beats soon became audio-canvases to which emcees would rhyme or face off in tense, often hilarious and exhilarating verbal jousts. Hip Hop, at its core, was – and remains – about community, artistic expression and creativity and, ultimately, violence reduction; creating a space for anger, conflict and aggression to exist without spilling over into something more serious.

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After the release of Wild Style and later Beat Street – cult films documenting Hip Hop as it swept the States – it wasn’t long before Hip Hop arrived here; electrifying kids in lower-class communities, who identified strongly with its irreverent aesthetics, all-inclusive participatory ethic and pulsating sociocultural resonance. By the mid-80s, there were hundreds of ‘breaking’ crews operating in Glasgow housing-schemes alone.

After a brief pioneering period, when regional UK acts were more closely aligned – in part because so many imitated the Americans and there was no money involved – the UK Hip Hop community largely shunned its Scottish iteration. Which is why “Scottish Hip Hop” – specifically rap – became a separate genre. Not because it wanted to annexe itself from the UK (the opposite in fact) but because it was widely rejected by it.

The idea of people rapping in a Scottish dialect was more laughable the further south you went. The idea Scotland could “do” Hip Hop was preposterous, despite being home to some of the best Hip Hop artists the UK has ever produced.

In the context of music, I regard myself as Scottish because I’ve been conditioned to. And not by nationalists either – many of whom, ironically, berate me for being a “rapper” – but by an all-encompassing London-centric culture that subsumes not only the Celtic nations, but also many English regions, from which countless stunning contributions to Hip Hop have emerged – consistently dismissed or ignored for over 20 years. Hip Hop is about representing not only yourself, but also your “hood”. Which is why so many regional artists retain impenetrable dialects and obscure slang, despite commercial and cultural pressure to conceal or renounce them. I’m a “Scottish” rapper, not because I want to deny Britishness, but because I live in Scotland and perform in a thick, Glaswegian accent. It would be unthinkable to suddenly rebrand, throwing the very community that gave me a voice under the bus, simply because I’m enjoying some mainstream recognition.

I’m a British citizen, tax-payer and feel a strong sense of connection to British culture, but I’m Scottish – something British Hip Hop won’t let people like me forget. And, as well as my dual national identity, I also identify strongly with Hip Hop culture; a young, global movement which has its own unique and ever-shifting norms and values. Central to which is the thorough, fearless authentic expression of where you come from. Being called “British” isn’t anything to make a song or dance about. I’m at ease with it and understand why international media would refer to an unknown like me as such. But, when it comes to Hip Hop, I’ve always been (and always will be) a “Scottish” rapper.