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As I first sit with Young Fathers backstage at the Electrowerkz in Islington, there’s an atmosphere of lethargy lingering, bound to be familiar to a band making that crucial stop in London town. It’s barely early evening, but the trio are fresh from soundcheck, and the day has already been crammed with photoshoots, recordings and other promotional engagements. There’s a drawn out silence I’m anxious to fill as Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings slink deep into their seats – their attention’s firmly set on stand-by – as Alloysius Massaquoi mops up some spilt OJ.
But as we move into discussing their career arc, which recently peaked with the release of their blitzing debut album ‘DEAD’, they all intermittently perk up. Throughout, the sharp-edged sounds of support act Law soundchecking seeps through the walls. By the end, all four of us are huddled close, as the Edinburgh trio talk frankly, and surprisingly, about the challenges that still face a multi-ethnicity band in 2014.
Alloysius in particular moves at an exuberant pace as he speaks: words and phrases frequently clash into one another. When we talk about the newfound stability they’ve found with US/UK labels Anticon and Big Dada, his passion for what Young Fathers have spent years cooking up is all too clear: "it rolls into the fact that we’re ambitious and as long we’re transmitting that to the label and saying this is what we want to do, we want to be everywhere, we want our music to travel, that’s a big thing. The kind of music we’re making, it’s for ourselves, we’re pushing ourselves."
An air of restlessness and determination is how Young Fathers finally came good after too long waiting in the wings. Sensing that the powers surrounding them were why things were stalling, Young Fathers hunkered down in late 2011 and wrote ‘Tape One’ in a flash. The recording of ‘Tape Two’ followed a mere two weeks later – although you’d be hard pressed guessing this from the maturation and roundedness in the half-raps and chest-beaten choruses of Queen Is Dead or Ebony Sky.
Initially they thought their next bout of recording might lead to ‘Tape Three’, but soon realised that, “musically and lyrically”, they were crafting a different beast. Young Father’s Liberian-Nigerian-Scottish heritage is usually viewed as what feeds directly into their rich sound, and 'DEAD' is a record that further refines their anything-goes handling of genre and songcraft. With no hint of posturing, 30 year-old recordings of youth choirs, Western Comics, books on business advertising slogans and New Orleans funeral processions all crop up during our chat as recent sources of inspiration.
Fast-forward a few hours and Young Fathers let loose on stage. Kay throws jacking dance shapes and Graham eyes the crowd with dagger stares: at times they gravitate toward one another, arms to the skies like three guys on a football terrace. There’s no encore tonight, but as they exit I Heard’s chorus is echoed back from the crowd: “Inside I’m feeling dirty, it’s only ‘cause I’m hurting”. It’s a curious lyric for a sing-along, all tangled up in melancholy, but it’s hard not feeling the certainty with which it’s delivered. Tonight, Young Fathers’ big ambitions are worth believing in.
Just going back a bit, I was wondering about the point where you released ‘Tape One’ for free after you left your first label. Was that out of frustration, a need for you to take control?
Graham Hastings: "It was completely that. I mean, before we even started recording, that was the decision. We’d been waiting for so long…"
Alloysious Massaquoi: "…and no one’s heard anything."
Graham Hastings: "People try and tell you what’s best for you and all that shit, and we just got fucking fed up and decided whatever we’d done by the end of the week we were going to put it out, no matter what anyone else said. Since then we’ve never looked back, and we’re just fucking delighted."
Kayus Bankole: "We’d hear all the time: 'you need to hold back', 'you need to do it like this', 'it needs to look like this'… there’s no fucking handbook that tells you these things. Why would you have these restrictions? It’s better to have no rules, so something new is built."
Early on, did you have an idea of how you really wanted to sound? Listening back to your earliest tracks, it feels like a completely different thing, in the best possible way.
Graham Hastings: "It wasn’t something that changed overnight. We were always recording, and before ‘Tape One’, it was all about developing that. But ‘Tape One’ was just a moment when it clicked into place. Basically, I know what it is, we shut the door and we wouldn’t let anyone else in. And then as soon as that happened it’s a fucking relief, because nobody’s involved, it’s just us and then we’ve come up with this. So ‘Tape One’ means the fucking world."
Alloysious Massaquoi: "It was a step up: it was weird and wonderful."
Kayus Bankole: "The recording process for it was a new experience for us. All that frustration we had, we decided we’d get into the studio and we’re going to finish a track every day and have it semi-mixed. We repeated that for a week, then we took a few days to rest on it and listen with objective ears, and everything just fit perfectly."
"We’d hear all the time: “you need to hold back”, “you need to do it like this”… there’s no handbook that tells you these things. Why would you have these restrictions? It’s better to have no rules, so something new is built." – Kayus Bankole, Young Fathers
Your writing generally can feel so abstract, but you fall also into such raw, overwhelming emotion at times. Is the aggression on a track like Hangman coming from anywhere in particular?
Alloysious Massaquoi: "It’s just passion. Personally. I don’t really see it as an 'anger' track, it’s a song of intent. You want something, but you’re not going to get it."
Graham Hastings: "Hangman sounds hopeful to me. The best thing reggae music does, they can be singing the saddest fucking song in the world, but you don’t even know it. If you put the lyrics on paper, you’d fucking cry. It’s that that we like, that contrast, putting things together that don’t belong in a classic sense. With Hangman, because of the words written, from the intention of the writing, the words could have come from an angry place. I think sometimes when you’ve got anger, the best way to deliver it is not to be like…" [Kayus offers an angry cry]
Alloysious Massaquoi: "If anything it’s melodramatic that way. If you’re delivering it in a way where it strikes a chord then that’s how it comes across as angry or passionate, it’s the way it’s said, the way it’s delivered."
So on Paying, when that really starts building up, is that a one-take, two-take thing?
Kayus Bankole: "That was a one-take thing; I actually forgot my lines. I didn’t write anything down, and I couldn’t remember the last bit I had in my mind, so I was just yelling stuff because I was angry and frustrated. But a grunt, and a moan, and a cry can say a thousand words and you actually have to put pen to paper for it to make sense and be based in real emotion."
It’s ironic too as those moments end up sounding like some of the parts of the album with the most conviction.
Graham Hastings: "We’ve worked with people in the past, and they do not use their ears. So if you fuck up in your take, you say a word wrong, you slip up, or forget your words, it’s like no, do it again. But with us, you use everything. If someone makes a mistake it could be the most beautiful mistake in the world. You sing a note out of tune, but if you sing a note out of tune at the right point, it could be the best point in the song, the one that gets to you."
Alloysious Massaquoi: "In I Heard [off 'Tape Two'], there’s a bit where my voice cracks, it goes out. I was unsure, and they all said, 'No, it sounds great.' Or you listen to ‘Tape One’ with Kayus on Dar-Eh Da Da Du… what’s your line?"
Graham Hastings: "He forgets his line."
Kayus Bankole: "Yeah, I forgot my line." [Laughs, trying to remember the line]
Kayus Bankole, Graham Hastings & Alloysious Massaquoi: “He falls to his knees and the milk turns sour.”
Graham Hastings: "So he forgot his line but he keeps on going –"
Alloysious Massaquoi: "And you actually hear it in it."
Kayus Bankole: "Until I got it."
Alloysious Massaquoi: "I’ve never heard that before. That kind of thing, you cannae plan that, you cannae say I’m going to do it over again."
This is really specific, but I swear there’s a bit in 'Tape One' where it feels like… I always thought my headphones were breaking. I’d just got these brand new headphones and I was convinced they were busted.
Graham Hastings: "Rumbling is the most convincing, there were people emailing in saying, 'I just got a new hi-fi and it fucking broke my speakers!' – all that stuff. I kind of feel sorry, but there’s an enjoyment in that [laughs]. I have a kind of perverse thing, about the physical fucking thing if I bust someone’s new headphones. There was another guy talking about his new Beats, and it just blew them. I mean I fucking hate Beats, but I love that. I’m making music, but you’re actually physically damaging something…"
You’re really breaking down the barriers there.
Alloysious Massaquoi: "What’s it called, breaking the fourth dimension?"
Coming into the physical world.
Alloysious Massaquoi: "Yeah."
"There was a guy talking about his new Beats, and it just blew them. I mean I fucking hate Beats, but I love that. I’m making music, but you’re actually physically damaging something" – Graham Hastings, Young Fathers
Feel free to bat this last question away, but do you think much about attitudes to “alternative” hip hop, or acts that use rap in a different way, like you do?
Alloysious Massaquoi: "I mean our sound seems natural to us; it’s not a contrived weirdness. We’ve heard a lot of groups and bands that actually embody the name, and say “we want to do alternative stuff’. For me, I think it’s an excuse for them being shit. It’s almost like by using the word “alternative” they’re saying: “we’re against this, we’re against that”, “we make this…”, but we’re not against anything. We do what we do. There’s no need for all that other stuff. We’re not “alternative”. We don’t see ourselves in that way."
I guess I was thinking on your earlier experiences, and how it can feel like hip hop or rap as genres get put in a box more than most.
Kayus Bankole: "I mean it makes it easier for people, and it’s kind of annoying as well. We were taking about it while we were having lunch – we did this live session and they thought one of our lyrics was using profanity or whatever, using the N-word. And we were like, what?"
Graham Hastings: "They assumed because you’re a rap band… I was the one who said it, and they thought I was saying the N word [Graham is white]. That assumption’s only made because we’re a rap group, you wouldn’t have made that assumption if I was playing a guitar."
Alloysious Massaquoi: "The lyric was, 'I was raised from the rubble, Butt-Naked’s body double'. Because there was a Liberian General…"
Kayus Bankole: "…called General Butt-Naked."
Alloysious Massaquoi: "And he used to fight, Butt-Naked. 'Butt-Naked’s body double', and I don’t know how that sounds like the N-word, to anybody."
Graham Hastings: "It’s like with the other multi-ethnicity bands that we get associated to, which we sound nothing like. You get that all the time, because people just want to box you up, and people go, 'You like that multi-ethnicity band, you’ll like this one!' It’s borderline racist. It’s got nothing to do with it. So there’s nae point us sweating about that, it’s going to fucking happen. Those are the most upsetting ones, because you’re trying to do the opposite of that. It’s just a fucking horrible thing to do."
I guess with that whole notion of “alternative” hip hop can be so restrictive. There’s a way of thinking where everything gets bunched together, so you guys, Shabazz Palaces, whatever, all get treated as one thing.
Graham Hastings: "Yeah, people go, oh it’s a bit strange, and there’s a rap on there: you’re alternative hip hop. It’s not our decision, everybody else can sweat about it but we don’t give a fuck. We just do what we want to do, and people can make their own decisions. And they’re always going to do it, and there’s no way you can stop it, so there’s no point getting annoyed about it. So I’m not going to."
Big Dada released 'DEAD' in the UK on February 3rd 2014. Young Fathers will be supporting Baths in North America throughout April and May, head to Anticon's site for more details.