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.