Young Fathers: joyous on stage, raw on record

The Edinburgh band put the pop into hip-hop and have always avoided the pissed-off persona of the typical hip-hop artist. Despite their showmanship, there’s a serious intent behind many of the songs

When Alloysious Massaquoi closes his eyes, he can still make out the sweaty walls and hear the dark, dingy bass in the underage Edinburgh hip-hop club where he met Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings, the other members of Young Fathers. That's where they learned how to put on a show.

“There used to be rap battles, MC battles, loud music, loads of girls,” Massaquoi says. “Then we’d go up and do a three-minute pop song and dance onstage and piss people off. We enjoyed that because we did what we wanted to do. People would get offended because we were not doing what they expected us to do, which was stand onstage and go ‘Woe is me’ about how bad our lives was.”

Young Fathers are still not doing what is expected of them. Between their live shows (exciting, exhilarating, joyous) and their records (raw, compelling, emotional), Young Fathers have shown that they can rumble with the best by doing things their own way.

“You have to do something different,” says Massaquoi. “It’s not enough for any of us to just write music or play shows like someone else has done. What’s the fun or excitement in that?

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“I don’t want to be a second-rate artist. I want to be myself, and I’m free to do that. But I think a lot of performers are scared of that freedom because they’re afraid of being judged by their friends or other performers.”

The pop element running through Young Fathers’ songs is what makes things zing.

“We grew up listening to and loving pop music, and pop music is what we want to make,” he says. “It’s the hardest music to make because you have to balance the words, and saying something, with having good melodies and the beats. When the stars align and everything comes together, though, people can gravitate to that. If a hip-hop track gets played enough, it becomes pop.”

More pop than hop

In live performance, Young Fathers definitely take their cues from pop rather than hip-hop.

“When we first started, there was nothing really amazing about what we did except the music,” Massaquoi says. “We take the music we do seriously, and it’s not about us having a laugh onstage.

“Because we’ve been working together since we were 14, we know how each of us moves onstage. We know when each of us will move onstage and which way we’ll go. It’s that kind of relationship. Think of the Jacksons or Sly & The Family Stone and [how] they move like a unit, bouncing off each other.”

Massaquoi has a problem with hip-hop shows.

“When I think of live hip-hop, I cringe because it’s usually someone standing on a stage with their hood up talking about having had a bad life or someone arguing that they’ve had a harder life than someone else. It’s boring; it’s been tried and tested year after year.

“It’s just not good enough to do that any more. You can’t go up there and not perform. There’s a showmanship part to it that many rappers forget about.”

Let’s talk about race

Hip-hop as a form allows Young Fathers to address a range of issues, as on the new album, White Men Are Black Men Too.

“It reflects the consciousness of what we see around us,” he says of the title track. “When you talk about race, it becomes a grey area because everyone’s experience is different. There’s no set answer. What it boils down to is fairness. We’ve got a track on the album which talks about equality, and you’ve got all the -isms in there.

"There's also a track called 27. Since I was a kid, I always thought about what it would be like in [the year] two thousand and something when I was 18 or 19, but I stopped at 27 because I couldn't see myself beyond that. It's about getting over a lot of fears that we've had."

Like Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy before them, Young Fathers recognise the power of words and don’t take them for granted.

“We’re describing feelings, so you have to go deeper,” he says. “Sometimes you use words because they sound nice or they’re interesting words. Sometimes you’ll spend quite some time searching for the right words to describe a situation.

“It’s a case, then, of mixing all of this: mixing the words and the pop melodies and the ideas. Remember that we’re trying to write in a pop way rather than a hip-hop way. There are elements of rap in what we do, but it’s not the strongest flavour to my mind. You can’t go around yelling, ‘I’m so angry, my life is shit’, all the time.”

For Massaquoi, it’s also about creating music for the longer term. “We want to make a great body of work that lasts and endures and that someone can listen to in 20 years’ time. We want to make timeless music, music which sounds of this time and, in 20 years’ time, of that time. That’s a big goal we have.

“Every song we put out, we’ve loved. We’re not hiding anything or keeping anything back. If you don’t like a song, don’t put it out. Make up the story rather than tell someone else’s story. Scrap anything which doesn’t excite you. You have to challenge yourself. It’s about being true to yourself and just going for it.

“The world would be a better place if more people realised that.”

Young Fathers play the Academy, Dublin on March 26th. White Men Are Black Men Too is released on April 3rd