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Hip-hop trio Young Fathers share their upcoming musical strategy

After a surprise Mercury Prize win for their debut album, Dead, Scottish music group tell how hungry they are for more recognition and success.
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers won the Mercury Prize 2014. Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers won the Mercury Prize 2014. Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images

Young Fathers have a plan. The eclectic rap trio from Edinburgh, Scotland, are fresh from a shock win at one of Europe’s most prestigious awards ceremonies, but their smash’n’grab raid is just the beginning.

Golden-voiced Alloysious Massaquoi, now in his mid-20s like the rest of Young Fathers, wants more plaudits, more gongs – but most of all he wants greater recognition for a band who have paid their dues and then some.

“We’re trying to do something that’s not been done before. We have created our own sound and have never really fitted into any scene. Nor have we wanted to. We’re ambitious and ready for whatever success brings. If that happens, at the very least I’ll be able to pay the bills.”

Given the praise that’s been heaped on their debut album Dead, and on their intense live shows, Young Fathers won’t have that long to wait.

Young Fathers were born amid the sweat, throbbing bass and tireless aspiration of a teenage disco in their Scottish hometown of Edinburgh, brought together by a shared love of hip-hop, R&B and dancehall. Liberian-born Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, whose parents are Nigerian, and Scottish-born Graham “G” Hastings began making music on a beat-up karaoke machine.

The bond grew strong and after several formative years, their creative powers were forged in a small basement studio. There they perfected the sound that sets them apart from their contemporaries. Skeletal beats and streetwise wordplay collide with life-affirming melodies to make a uniquely sculpted vibe. Out of those sessions came two warmly received EPs, Tape One and Tape Two. And earlier this year came the all-conquering Dead, their first album proper. Young Fathers, who once described themselves as a “psychedelic hip-hop boy band”, have come of age.

Massaquoi says: “Growing up, we didn’t want to be a little fish in a big pond or anything like that. We wanted to be the biggest fish going.”

The band drew inspiration from their parents’ record collections growing up too. Classic soul, funk, reggae, pop and country music have informed their approach to music. And, although signed to hip-hop label Anticon in the US, rap was the furthest thing from Massaquoi’s palate.

“I never even liked hip-hop to begin with,” he admits. “When we were young we were trying to find a voice and we had so many sources of inspiration. Everyone thinks of us as a rap group but I wouldn’t mind if Young Fathers were found in the rock/pop section. What it comes down to is that we’re three different guys with hugely different opinions and tastes.”

Now, having won the Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize in the United Kingdom last month, they are working on their new album at a studio in Berlin, ­Germany.

Massaquoi says: “We’ve set up shop in Berlin right now. It’s really taken us out of our comfort zone. This album is gonna be something different again. A new setting should have a good effect. A bit of discomfort, a bit of abrasion. Abrasion, yeah, that’s a good word. That’s what Young Fathers is all about ­definitely.”

The future bodes well, but did the Mercury win surprise them as much as it did the music world? They were, after all, up against heavyweights such as Damon Albarn and Bombay Bicycle Club.

“To be honest, on the night, I was more focused on our performance than winning the award. It was great just to get a nomination, of course. And overall it’s been a positive thing. It’ll help build our profile, help us move up the rungs and many more people will get to hear about us at the end of the day.”

He adds: “It wasn’t something we’ve obsessed about. I’ve never even watched the awards show in previous years if I’m being honest. But music is what we do and I don’t think it’s wrong to say that awards don’t mean that much to us as a group.”

Massaquoi’s dismissal of so prestigious a gong hints at the laconic power that’s so evident on Dead. Opener No Way is a stick of hipster dynamite. A wheezy organ compliments what sounds like a tribal squawk. Earth-shattering bass meets thundering drums and it’s all tied together by a beautiful choral refrain. Difficult to describe and impossible to forget, Young Fathers have indeed created a sound all of their own.

Second track Low, which was played on radio stations across Europe and beyond, sees the love of melody come to the fore once more. Left-field ideas are matched to pop sensibilities throughout. Massaquoi gives some idea of the process at work: “In the studio we mess around with sounds and beats, just vibing and ad-libbing on top, finding something that sounds good. We do vocal grunts and squeals. It’s like a ritual. On Rumbling, from Tape One, that’s how we put it together. On some tracks you can hear a few mistakes, but we left them on there. Our manager calls it ‘Mistakeology’.”

If modern music is overrun by artists bolstered by laser-guided production techniques, layered vocals and obvious samples, the Young Fathers’ sound couldn’t be more different. It’s music as it should be, something that’s worthwhile, raw and fallible.

It’s this inspiring take on the music-making process, the sort of techniques usually found in bebop jazz or post-rock, that’s seen so much praise heaped on Dead. And it’s arguably led to Young Fathers being compared to the likes of Portishead, Tricky-era Massive Attack and TV on the Radio among others. It shouldn’t be a surprise though, especially as Massaquoi enjoys a wide spectrum of music, from African tribal music to System of a Down.

“The people we get compared to,” he says, “it’s nice that our music triggers so many different responses in people, it’s really nice. But sometimes I have no idea who it is they’re talking about. Of course, we’ve got heroes in music, the likes of Bowie and James Brown to name two. But we do our own thing. I find it hard to define what we do. Make up your own mind about the Young Fathers sound.”

Similarly, many Young Fathers lyrics could be interpreted in a variety of ways. But Massaquoi adds to the confusion by denying any real political intent. “People got opinions on everything going on these days,” he insists. “We got opinions too, but we’re not too obvious about it in our lyrics. We’re more into just making music. If people want to read it a certain way, there’s not much I can do about that.”

Although hip-hop groups are not known for their longevity, Massaquoi is supremely confident that Young Fathers can last as long as rap legends the Wu-Tang Clan, who recently marked 20 years in the music business.

“They’ve had a good run haven’t they?” Massaquoi says. “We’ve been together 13 years, so seven more and we’ll have made it to 20. I think we’re gonna keep doing it until we’re sick of doing it, simple as that. As long as the fire keeps burning and we are still enjoying the ride, then Young Fathers will still have a place and a voice, you can be sure of that.

“Success doesn’t scare us, we’ll keep knocking on the door and the gatekeepers will have to notice us, won’t they? They’ll have to let us in. That’s the plan ­anyway.”

Paul Dorrian is a UK-based freelance journalist.

Updated: November 13, 2014 04:00 AM