Voices for the Voiceless: Scottish Hip Hop in 2016

Jonathan Rimmer believes that it’s past time we started taking Scottish hip hop seriously.

How on earth can you listen to rap music? It’s a question I get asked on a surprisingly regular basis and I tend to reel off the same reasons every time: the flows, the beats, the raw lyricism, the social commentary, the sound, the attitude, the ethos, the culture, the revolutionary social changes that it has inspired…

Aye, but how on earth can you really listen to rap music?

Snobbery towards this mode of expression is nothing new. Some of the most enlightened arts critics struggle to conceal their prejudices even when it comes to promoting artists. One recent review I read of LA rapper Kendrick Lamar’s incredible new album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ managed to imply that he had “transcended Black America”. Not only did the critic misconstrue a key concept of the album itself – that black artists’ talents tend to be ‘pimped’ and repackaged by the music industry for wider consumption – but he also inadvertently belittled hip hop’s credibility as a genuine art form.

We’re no better here in Scotland. On the rare occasion a publication does decide to cover a particular Scottish emcee, they tend to lead with a variation on the headline, “The Scottish Eminem”. Little elaboration is usually offered other than, “he’s white and he raps”. Hip hop is greeted with condescension because it isn’t politically correct, it isn’t high-brow (apparently) and its practitioners are predominantly working class – or worse, ‘neds’.

Of course, you obviously know all this already. Popular emcee/writer Loki told me in a pre-referendum interview that he believed that “parodies of Scottish rap are more successful than Scottish rap itself”. Mention Scottish hip hop to some people and they’ll probably bring up comedy rappers like The Wee Man – who is brilliant, don’t get me wrong – or reference the Hip Hop Hoax, a documentary about two Dundonian rappers who imitated American accents to get a record deal. It’s worse than just hip hop being marginalised: the scene is seen as a novelty. 

It’s not only narrow-minded Daily Mail readers that have this warped view of hip hop, though; I’ve heard similar sentiments from Scottish arts commentators and even old National Collective pals. It’s why I’m sceptical when I see pieces like this  suggesting that the ‘Scottish Cringe’ is dead. For all the talk of renewed Scottish identity and confidence, there remains a massive cultural gulf between our music industry and the largely working class hip hop community. The lack of support makes it all the more remarkable that our emcees do as well as they do.

We clearly have mini-success stories: Loki is increasingly recognised as one of the country’s best poets and cultural commentators; Young Fathers, who dabbled in hip hop on early tapes, won the Mercury Music Prize; Hector Bizerk are now widely considered to be one of the best live bands in the country; and Stanley Odd found a fan in Nicola Sturgeon last year thanks to their viral hit ‘Son, I Voted Yes’ (and ‘Marriage Counselling’). As talented as all these acts are, it’s perhaps telling that they either fuse genres or have some sort of crossover appeal. That’s not to say they’ve compromised their own sounds, but they’ve all had to put in work to be embraced outside the hip hop bubble, and in turn give the wider movement the exposure it needs.

I currently co-run Scotland Stand Up, a platform first established by fellow creative director Steven ‘Scuba’ Duncan back in 2009. We organise studio sessions and events, film and edit live shows and record podcast interviews. Perhaps more importantly, though, we try to review and scrutinise the music that hip hop artists put out – something incredibly lacking in the scene, particularly as most rappers rely solely on social media and lack the funds/resources to effectively promote their music. Obviously, we receive plenty of submissions from rappers who just aren’t of a good standard, but we believe it’s better to be criticised by reviewers who ultimately want them, and our movement as a whole, to succeed.

Most notably, in the past two years we’ve seen an increase in the number of emcees dealing directly with social and political issues. The likes of Edinburgh’s Werd (another prominent blogger and promoter), Dundee’s Zee and Glasgow’s Andrew Mackenzie are just a few of the emcees that have tackled issues like the independence referendum, and we’ve received various submissions to our blog page from young emcees attempting something similar. The effect that the vote had on the Scottish scene has never been thoroughly investigated, which I believe was a mistake. As Danny Quinn aka Wee D, one of the few emcees to openly vote No, told me in an interview for The National, there were “wider social issues from the debate that are still unresolved”. In his words, “it would be helpful [for political bodies] to be aware of what hip hop is… a powerful tool that communicates directly to the working class.”

Mog, Gasp, Physiks, Ciaran Mac, Milla, Deadsoundz and Erin Friel are just some of the artists doing exactly that. They’re achieving something crucially important that virtually no other genre is doing: representing the reality for most people growing up in modern day Scotland. They use their own accents, everyday colloquialisms and write some of the most evocative and relatable poetry you’re likely to come across.

This year is a great opportunity to increase our movement’s profile and diminish the negative stereotypes that blights this raw and authentic art form. So, consider this an invitation to engage – immerse yourself in a hip hop scene that has never been so exciting. Get yourself down to a live hip hop night such as this month’s free showcase at Nice N Sleazy. Check out the bizarre and entirely unique battle scene, led by rappers like Soul, the current de factor UK Battle Rap champion with over a million views on YouTube. Catch new talent on the BBC’s new Front Seat Freestyle segments and the legendary Steg G’s weekly hip hop show on Sunny Govan Radio. Most of all, don’t be prejudiced. Just listen.

Comments (14)

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  1. Bram says:

    Great article, keep speaking truth man!

  2. Ann Lynch says:

    Great Article. Long Live hip hop.

  3. tickle says:

    yes! 😀

  4. Kenny says:

    Great stuff. I couldn’t agree more about the question of The Cringe. It took us from the Proclaimers in the 80s to get to the point where bands like Biffy, Glasvegas and Frightened Rabbit can sing in Scottish accents and not be ashamed. It would be a tragedy if it takes that long for Scottish hip hop to get the same kind of appreciation and acceptance, especially since guys like Loki, Solareye and Louie are so brain-meltingly talented. It’s notable that outside the UK and even just outside Scotland, very few people even question the accents of these guys and just appreciate the music. Scottish self-loathing is a real problem in all our creative industries, but hip hop probably feels it the most. The new Hector Bizerk song “Empty Jackets” (featuring another talented young female artist, Be Charlotte) is pretty on point around this stuff, making the point that “you can be a part of that…when you are living in London.”

    Loving that Ciaran Mac video too. 😀

  5. The Bear says:

    I have a show on Crystal FM Penicuik and play Loki, Stanley odd, hector bizerk mog and more. We all struggle to get music out there, and it can be like screaming against the wind.
    Best new Scottish music is this poetery put to good tunes. It’s the sound track to our life.

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      That’s good to hear. There’s a few stations still carrying the torch. It’s still quite an uphill struggle to attain wide recognition.

  6. Kevin Williamson says:

    Mog is one of this country’s finest poets and lesser known musical gems. Especially recommend checking out the two albums he’s done with Adam Holmes and ZA under the Bang Dirty moniker. Great stuff.

  7. Fay Kennedy. says:

    I heard Loki in Glasgow 2014 at the concert of a life time. Am an expat from Oz and one of the ancient ones being in my eighth decade. Your amazing all of you expressing your reality in your own lingua franca. The greatest gift oor mother tongue.

  8. Sound Thief says:

    Misogyny must be conquered

  9. howauldzyergranny says:

    Harry Lauder was the Kanye West of his day.

  10. PSG says:

    Went South by Mog is one of the best things going, just love it. Nae to single it out, cuz True Colours and heaps of his other stuff also rocks, but if I had to pick one… it ticks every box.

  11. PSG says:

    Plus! No mention of Conscious Route! The true voice of Scottish Conscious Rap. This is him wi Werd and Jordan Butler:

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      Conscious Route is great! I could have spent all day shouting folk out.

  12. SimonB says:

    Stirring article!

    Music can be a wonderful medium for giving expression to the spoken word, bursting the institutional bubble of social conditioning…

    “The man of independent mind…”, oh thank You Rabbie for your inspiring raps of yesteryear!

    … rap, the most explicit expression of spoken word set to a beat has been twisted, perverted and maligned across generations…

    Politics and music have seemingly been regulated by the gatekeepers of the business, shaping the cultural narrative, as revealed in the many disturbing Youtube videos that explore the dark side of the industry for those who are curious and courageous enough to venture down the rabbit holes…

    Many stirring artists across all musical genres have sprung from the soils of Caledonia, shining with integrity, yet typically becoming drowned out and suffocated by the bland and banal*:

    http://highexistence.com/amusing-ourselves-to-death-huxley-vs-orwell/

    *For those unaware of the overlooked heritage and pedigree of Scottish ‘pop’ music, try this for size!:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V–hWckaBvg

    Love&Peace

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