It’s hours before another sold-out show on their European tour and the guys in the Scottish indie-rap trio Young Fathers are calling on a shitty Skype connection from Paris. The lighting at the venue, the Badaboum, is musty, and the group seems tired (and not particularly excited to be talking to a journalist) after a month of promoting its new album, Cocoa Sugar: Half of Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi’s face is cut off by the screen, Kayus Bankole has his head in the palm of his hands for half of our chat, and Graham “G” Hastings is looking around everywhere but at the camera. When asked how the live shows are going, Graham in particular sounds weary but, still, philosophically resolute. “Some places are so reserved they just stand and watch, sometimes people are just high as fuck, so they don’t move — you want it to be like Soul Train, with everybody dancing and ignoring the band, but it never is,” says Graham of what he wishes the live show would be like for his music, which, with its dark, dramatic passion, doesn’t exactly evoke a joyful dance line. “Before, you’d have to fight to get people involved. Now we don’t have to fight, but I still like thinking that way. Now it’s a fight to make sure they come back the next time. It’s not as abrasive a thing, but it’s still a fight.”
“A fight” is a good way to understand how this group views its mission (and live shows, which have a sweaty fury), even after two mixtapes, three albums, and enough recognition to sell out shows. They are a self-described working-class band from Edinburgh, and that means that there is always — always — work to be done. On Cocoa Sugar, their third album, Young Fathers have taken their sound to its poppiest place, with well-spun, Baptist church choir hooks that loop in your brain even when you turn the album off. That catchiness is intentional: They might have won the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2014 — beating indie darling FKA Twigs — but critical success and award money isn’t enough to pay the bills.
“This isn’t a lifestyle choice. If we’re not making money then we have to go get jobs. We can’t just do this because we like music,” says Graham. “We’re punching a clock. Even if it’s a weird clock, we’re still punching it.” And yet, the easy, crowd-pleasing Migos they are not, either: Cocoa Sugar is still characteristically knotty, with the trio interlacing rapping and singing over homemade beats à la 1970s New York experimental duo Suicide (whose synth lines are referenced throughout), creating hip-hop as reflected through a convex mirror. “We’re not trying to put people in a trance,” he says. “We just do what feels good.”
All thirty years old now, the three members of Young Fathers came together at around fourteen years old as regulars at a local hip-hop night at an Edinburgh club. “It was a room with a white sweaty wall and it was just all out,” Graham says. This was the Y2K era, and the DJs often incorporated dancehall and r&b into the mix, a novel approach in Scotland. In 2018, rap is regarded as pop music all over the world, but it wasn’t ten or fifteen years ago. “It was our first introduction to everything. When you went to school, rap wasn’t what kids listened to — it was underground,” Graham says. By chance, right before the three of them started hanging, Graham had been making simple beats. “A friend from school gave me software, and I saw that it was so easy — there’s the drum, there’s the bass. Then we just started making songs together in my bedroom,” he says. They recorded their first work, a little love song called “Tell My Why,” on a karaoke machine, and though that song never saw the light of the day (“No way! We were fourteen-year-old boys trying to write songs,” says Kayus), they formally started the band in 2008, and started performing at clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, eventually releasing well-received mixtapes in 2011 and 2013 and, finally, a pair of albums in 2014 and 2015.
It must feel good, then, to confound expectations at every turn. Their roots are as a rap group, sure, but across Cocoa Sugar they sound — sometimes alternatively and sometimes all at once — like punks, avant-garde experimentalists, and seductive r&b crooners. Though the album is remarkably consistent in its scrappy, seductive tone and tempo, the process of creation for the band is loose, all the better to let each member be as weird as he wants to be. To record Cocoa Sugar, they built, for the first time, a professional studio in Edinburgh, but managed to keep it purposefully amateur. “We don’t like nice studios!” says Kayus. They are secretive about the equipment they use, but Graham says it’s pretty basic and, most important, accessible at all times. There isn’t one member who serves as the producer — they all just create sounds and see where the music takes them. “All of our equipment is turned on all the time so anyone can hit anything — it’s completely open for people to do whatever, rather than it being a complicated setting where you need to plug something in. If you want to make a noise, it’s there,” says Graham. “We’re self-contained. Sometimes when you work with engineers, by the time they’ve set up the microphone, the moment is gone.”
Cocoa Sugar swirls around questions of religion and race and masculinity and identity (Ally is originally from Liberia, while Kayus was born to Nigerian parents in Scotland) and class, but never really reveals what it’s trying to say about any of them, giving the band a feeling of intriguing intangibility. “People are like, ‘We don’t understand it.’ It’s just like, ‘Fucking hell, man. What can you do?’ This is not us trying to be anything — it’s just who we are,” Graham says. “Maybe it’s because we’re from this cold northern part of Europe where no one does anything like this. Maybe the three of us will be the only ones who can understand it.” There is something naturally sphinx-like about a band with soulful Marvin Gaye vocals coming from the stark and classic Edinburgh, but they also seem to cultivate and encourage a certain kind of unknowability. I ask them what they mean by a particular line — “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue,” on “Turn” — and they prefer to leave the interpretation general. “It could be about race, it could be about individuality — it’s about embracing who you are. And being adamant that it’s OK to be who you are,” says Ally. “We’re leaving a lot of question marks for self-discovery in the future,” says Kayus.
When asked to describe Edinburgh, an unlikely home for some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop around, Graham at first sees it as something of a foil for artistic souls like Young Fathers. “ ‘Gray’ is probably the best word to describe it. It’s not really a music city, it’s not really a cultural city. It’s dead, in a way, so when you express yourself, it’s not taken well. When I was young, [creativity] was a reason to get beat up,” he says. “The typical kind of working-class ethos is always trying to toughen yourself up, so you couldn’t really express yourself. When we started in music, it opened up a whole world.” Raised without a silver spoon, they each have a heightened need to be not just creative, but successfully creative, a pressure that the prestige of winning the Mercury Prize helped alleviate — a bit. “See! We were right, the whole time!” says Graham. “For your parents, you can say, ‘I’m not just fucking about. This is a thing now.’ Coming from Edinburgh, you leave school, you get a trade, and then you work for the rest of your life. When you can prove that you are a working musician, then it’s an extra bonus to tell your parents.”
What Cocoa Sugar has most of all is intensity, which, after forty minutes on a shaky Skype call with the sharp and decisive band, feels logically like the only kind of music it could ever make. Take the track “Wow”: They screech the words “Ego/Ego/Giving me what/Giving me what I need” over a manically pitch-shifting beat that sounds like it’s driving itself right off a cliff. You hear both freedom and strain at once in their voices — they’re liberated, they seem to be saying, but in these exhausted voices it can not be overlooked that this is hard-fought liberation, that it was never (and never will be) easy. Working-class lads from Edinburgh with nothing but everything to prove. “That gray [Edinburgh] attitude, it’s still with you. It’s ingrained. You battle against it probably for the rest of your life,” Graham says, in the shadow of a touring schedule that will find him and his bandmates fighting their fight at least through June. “But it makes it all that much more special when you do battle it.”
At 8pm on May 5, Young Fathers play Elsewhere – Zone One at 599 Johnson Ave. in Brooklyn
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.