Scottish Album of the Year Award winners Young Fathers talk to Barry Didcock
I'm sitting at a table with three young men and a plate of biscuits and, while nobody has used the word "soulmate" yet, it's clear from the conversation that when Graham Hastings first met Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole 12 years ago, a light went on somewhere that has illuminated the lives of each one of them since. They were all 14 at the time. The venue was the Bongo Club, Edinburgh's much-loved independent art space which back then was still in its original home, a ramshackle old bus depot behind Waverley Station. It was bulldozed long ago, razed to make way for the troubled (and as-yet-unbuilt) Caltongate development.
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Massaquoi and Bankole were pupils at the city's Boroughmuir High School and were already close, drawn together by a taste for the same music and by their shared experience as young Afro-Scots: Massaquoi was born in Liberia and came to Scotland as a four-year-old, Bankole was born in Edinburgh but spent parts of his childhood in Nigeria and in the US, where he lived in Maryland with his mother.
Hastings, from the Drylaw housing scheme in the north of the city, was a little off his patch that night. But a love of rap music and a growing realisation that something inside him needed a creative outlet had taken him and a friend to Lickshot, an under-16s hip-hop night.
"We were dancing when we met," he says. "It was all new to me. Nobody from Drylaw listened to hip-hop so I was the only person at my school, except for a mate who knew Ally and K. So he took me up. We were just dancing and we shook hands. It was pure liberating for me that first night, just experiencing being able to dance to hip-hop music. I remember going back to school on the Monday and everybody just ripping into me for listening to it."
Banging techno music was the order of the day at Hastings's school, Broughton High, and the faster and harder the better. It wasn't for him, though, not when he'd been raised on his father's collection of soul and reggae records.
"When I met these guys, I just thought 'Oh, so people do dance and they do express themselves,'" he says. "I couldn't believe it when I went into that club. It was like something I'd never seen before."
From across the table, Massaquoi takes up the story. "When I think about it now, when we met Graham my only experience of people like him was them wanting to fight you," he says. "For him to just be himself and not be an idiot or ignorant made me think: 'Alright, he's a nice guy and he seems smart. I can relate to that.' He never had anything to prove and I was like 'Cool, I'll jump into that camp then'."
Jump he did. Bankole leapt with him and, in time-honoured fashion, the three new friends had soon formed a band. They first stepped on to a stage aged 16 using the name Freestyle in an open-mic night at The Venue, another much-missed Edinburgh institution, but since 2008 they've been called Young Fathers. And it's as Young Fathers that they're now being feted on the international stage, where they draw comparisons with bands such as Massive Attack.
To date they've released two album-length EPs - Tape One, in 2011, and Tape Two last year - and in February unveiled their debut studio album, Dead, on venerable British label Big Dada, also home to grime pioneer Wiley and dub-loving rapper Roots Manuva. In the US, they're now signed to Anticon, which describes their sound as "pop songs disguised as psychedelic hip-hop disguised as an improvised explosive device".
WE meet in the Leith flat of their manager, Tim Brinkhurst. He also acts as producer, musical helpmate and, on their recent six-week tour of America, as driver. That tour began with an appearance at the prestigious South By Southwest music showcase in Austin, Texas then wound its way up the east coast, into Canada, down to Detroit, back into Canada and down the west coast of the US. It also took in a three-week stay in California, Anticon's home base, where the trio took the opportunity to do some recording. "The sound of it was a bit sunnier," says Hastings with a wry smile. Funny that.
Young Fathers had attended South By Southwest in 2013 but hadn't previously toured America extensively. So how did they find the experience?
"There was a lot of signs about God," says Hastings. "We had an interesting conversation with a girl about how her dad had a gun - she couldn't understand how her dad couldn't have a gun."
"She was only 19," adds Bankole. There's a collective rolling of eyes and shaking of heads at the memory, one of several examples they give of the young Scots not quite seeing eye to eye with their young American counterparts.
Perhaps the bigger question, though, is what young America thought of Young Fathers. Here, after all, was an alternative hip-hop group with Scottish accents, an incendiary live show and lyrics which eschew the usual rap topics in favour of something more meaningful. Sure they mention guns - "AK47 take my bredren straight to heaven," they sing on No Way, the opening track on Dead - but the context is Africa and its wars, and that makes it personal. "Conscious" is a word all three of them use often in reference to the music they like, meaning politically and socially aware, but it's equally applicable to the music they make too.
"A lot of people came out to see us because of the curiosity of it," Bankole admits. "It was something new to them so whatever you could have called it they would have been interested in going out to find out about it."
For Hastings, it's the band's uniqueness as much as its curiosity value which brought the crowds out.
"You'd see people when we were performing literally with their jaws on the floor, thinking: 'How the f*** did this happen? It doesn't make sense'," he says. "We couldn't have occurred anywhere else. We couldn't occur again anyway because the coincidence of three people like us meeting up is never ever going to happen. Why no-one else sounds like us is because of that."
An already eventful 2014 could become even more memorable on Thursday when the winner of the Scottish Album of the Year is announced. Young Fathers have been shortlisted for Tape Two and are up against such august names as Biffy Clyro, Mogwai, Edwyn Collins and Boards Of Canada. [Young Fathers subsequently went on to win the Award]. Hastings's response to the band's nomination is refreshingly unhumble.
"It's about time," he says simply. "We've had a struggle being in Edinburgh and not really having many people to go and play to or to understand us growing up. So it's good to finally have a bit of acceptance."
Acceptance for you as a band or for the type of music you're making?
"Both," says Massaquoi. "We're really ambitious … if we don't win it's no surprise, but it's expected for us to be on it [the shortlist], that's how we see it."
"The important thing is that bands like us are recognised," adds Bankole.
But if you think "bands like us" means Scottish hip-hop acts then think again. Talk of them being that or even being part of a nascent Scottish hip-hop scene is quickly scotched.
Hastings: "It's just us. We don't really care about Scottish hip-hop or hip-hop in general."
Bankole: "The word 'scene' doesn't have a nice taste in your mouth. Why does it matter? Why can't it be more open?"
Massaquoi: "As Graham says, we don't see ourselves as a hip-hop group."
So what do you see yourselves as being?
Hastings: "We don't bother ourselves with it."
Massaquoi: "Since we were kids, we just do whatever. There's no limitations, there's no rules. We just go in and everybody wants to rap, everyone wants to sing, everyone wants to just be productive and do something that pushes each other. A lot of people come together from a love of certain genres. We do to a certain extent, but at the same time we know that what we listen to and what we make are two completely different things. You're trying to make something that you haven't heard before and that excites you."
The day after the Scottish Album Of The Year Awards there's also the small matter of a gig for the Scottish Refugee Council to mark World Refugee Day. The band's support for the cause is reflexive and political in the broadest sense,but for For Massaquoi it's also personal. Born in the Liberian capital Monrovia at the time of the brutal civil war which killed over 200,000 people, it was through the intervention of the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross that he and his family were able to come to Edinburgh. Not all his relatives were so lucky: an uncle went out to buy food one day and never came back, presumably murdered. AK47 take my bredren straight to heaven.
"My father was already staying here because he was studying and he was trying to get us over," Massaquoi says. "We had some relatives in Ghana so during the war my mum jumped on a boat and went there for a bit because we were in the camps and terrible things were happening. We stayed there for a bit and then we came over here."
He was four at the time but already traumatised, he thinks. "I remember when we first came we went to this church which was helping refugees and they were playing music or there was loud noises or something, and I was underneath the table holding my head and shaking. People were asking what was wrong and my mum said 'I think it's the war'."
He also has a dreamlike impression of events from Liberia based partly on things his mother has told him but partly, he thinks, on his own memories.
"We were in a church. I must have been about two or something, and I remember us hiding in a corner because there were soldiers outside. I remember us being in this little cupboard because soldiers came in shooting people. I just remember being huddled up in the corner and people screaming."
With the issue of immigration never far from the headlines, particularly since UKIP's victory in the European elections and their capture of a Scottish seat, I ask him how welcoming he found Edinburgh, capital of a country which generally prides itself on its "mongrel nation" status.
"What I will say is that it's given me and my family a lot of opportunities that we wouldn't have had in Liberia," he says. "But at the same time, when we first moved here we were in Niddrie. Our neighborhood was good but there was a guy who was a racist. I was out playing on my bike and he came out with a gun and put it to my father's head and said 'You black b******, you n*****, you shouldn't be here.' So the police were called and he ran up to his house and the SWAT team or whatever came because there was a gun and we had to move.
"Not entirely welcoming, then. But there's a***holes everywhere," he says, "and being of a minority you're going to experience a lot of stuff. It's a shame, but that's the way of the world."
And the way of the world, its good and its bad, is what drives Young Fathers. In part it explains their rejection of a Scottish hip-hop scene and, in truth, it does seem pointless to chain them to a place just because they live there, especially given their internationalist make-up and outlook. But that doesn't mean they have any plans to swap Edinburgh for New York or LA. In fact, says Hastings, it's the capital's place on the periphery of the music world that makes it so appealing.
"It's outside of the big music cities where I feel you can get caught in a bubble and you're not thinking about the world, you're thinking about being in that city and being cool in that city. It can trap you. Whereas when you're outside it looking in, like we are in Edinburgh, it's good for you. It means you can soak up everything you can from the outside and at the same time be absolutely alone."
Absolutely alone? Not quite. Not when you have your friends.
The Scottish Album of the Year Award ceremony is at Glasgow Barrowland on Thursday, www.sayaward.com. Young Fathers perform at the Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs, Glasgow on Friday as part of World Refugee Day, the culmination of Refugee Week Scotland, www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk