The cynical complain that originality is dead. Listen to the right bands, or read what’s blazoned across their clothing, and you’d be forgiven for thinking a whole bunch of genres are dead, too: punk and grunge coming straight to mind, via the suggestions of Crass and Kurt Cobain, respectively.
So where can our rising creative forces turn to, if nothing exists that isn’t in some way imitating what’s come before? It’s simple: all it takes is one great artist, one great band, to remind us all that we’re not standing in a graveyard at all. We’re in a garden, where nothing’s dead – it’s just grown, changed, and looks to be flourishing.
Edinburgh-based trio Young Fathers are one of these bands – and describing them isn’t the easiest task. One of three, Kayus Bankole, prefers it this way.
“Best to let others paint their own picture and have their own meaning,” he tells us. “Why take away the love? Some people say they can't describe it, but journalists, it’s their job to try. They say it’s leftfield hip-hop, dark gospel, rap but not rap.”
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Young Fathers, ‘Get Up’, from ‘Dead’
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The threesome’s influences are everything and nothing. “There’s no direct influence – to emulate something already existing is ridiculous to us,” says Kayus. His bandmate ‘G’ Hastings continues: “Some have names, some we couldn’t name. It’s like skipping through the radio. You hear a Nigerian preacher on the Christian station and he’s almost singing, but he’s not; he’s got his own rhythm and he cues in the ident and it’s a distorted choir. “MAY YOUR GOD BE WITH YOU.” That situation alone has a thousand things to take from it.”
If you had to pinpoint it, Young Fathers make rap music, but their voices are buried in jagged, sometimes military-like rhythms, African tribal beats and electronics. Occasionally pop-like hooks filter through silky vocals, and Young Fathers’ lyrics reveal an incredibly poetic and hugely stylish use of metaphor and storytelling.
“We use rap like you’re meant to – metaphor for this, reality for that,” they say. When speaking to Clash, it becomes clear that this avid poeticism is less a musical device for Young Fathers, and more of a perspective. Kayus’s description of his upbringing reads like a dream: “The United Kingdom. There is light and clean water; every moment and every step made out of the front door, we were told to be grateful for. ‘Read, read, read,’ was the slogan which our parents tried every effort to embed in us. Getting told what to do was never appealing. You have to be your own boy, feel the pain when you put your finger in the fire. Feel the hurt, and make your own joy.”
Liberia-born Alloysious Massaquoi describes his upbringing as, “The beach, coconuts falling on my head, getting hit by a car, the plane journey to Scotland, first encounter with snow, being picked on, being myself, in the playground and a girl asking if I tasted like chocolate.”
Is it the fact that these three men come from such different cultural backgrounds that makes their music so refreshingly eclectic? “It’s the recipe, the unique mess in the mixing bowl,” says Kayus. “But our cultural backgrounds are more than the obvious, melanin thing. There are more similarities there in a lot of ways and it’s not an obvious Afro-Scot cliché. We could all have met in New York or Berlin and the same thing would have happened.”
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Young Fathers, ‘Low’, from ‘Dead’
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They seem to share a particularly fatalistic view on the first time they met. “It was only right that we found each other,” says Kayus. “This is the kind of shit you cannot make up or buy. Unspoken words and bold gestures made it clear that we share the same blood, the same fearlessness. We are brothers.”
So how did they then start making music together? “At the age of 14, a stolen Dictaphone became one of our most prized possessions,” Kayus reveals. “We screamed, yelled, whispered, and grunted down it. It was beautiful. The recorder stayed glued to our mouths and ears for a couple of days. We had a taste of it; it sounded like something, our bellies began to rumbling and we wanted more!”
‘G’ Hastings continues: “We met up in my bedroom and hung a mic up in the cupboard. We ran the beat from the karaoke machine and pushed each other out the way to do our bits. Mama G chucked us out at 10pm and we would walk to the bus stop imagining the videos. They were all hits.”
A decade or so later and Young Fathers are making truly brilliant music. Having released two universally acclaimed EPs to date – ‘Tape One’ and ‘Tape Two’ (review) – they are now in possession of their first studio album, ‘Dead’ (review).
‘Dead’ is a strikingly fearless album, which would smell like sweat if it could. “It was time for us to ‘bring the heat’,” Ally says.
“We started kicking up dirt and saying things we never thought of before. ‘FATHERF*CKER’ was one. It was healthy and uncomfortable,” says ‘G’ Hastings, “like singing round the hole in the ground as they lower the body.
“Lyrically, there’s lots of love. We talk about things people don’t normally allow; some of it is very personal and some of it is just outrage, fitted around intrigue. Sometimes there’s no need for talking; a moan or a cry can say it all.”
All things considered, it is sometimes the biggest of questions that are the most revealing of a person’s character. As the interview draws to a close, we ask Young Fathers about the meaning of life.
“Don’t let them beat you down,” says ‘G’, resolutely.
“Sudoku,” decides Alloysious.
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Words: Daisy Jones
Portrait: Neil Bedford
‘Dead’ is out now on Big Dada/Anticon. Young Fathers are online here. They tour throughout February – check their website for details.
This article originally appears in issue 92 of Clash magazine, guest edited by Elton John. Get more details on the issue, and buy a copy directly from Clash, here.
Listen to 'Dead' in full via Deezer, below...