Scottish Hip-Hop: Renaissance In Extremis
I love Scottish hip-hop. What makes me qualified to write about it?
Who gets to tell the story of a culture, of an art form? Whose job is it, and what are their obligations? I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot, lately.
I started out as a music journalist in 2005 as an unpaid contributor, with no formal training beyond an English Lit degree. I only managed to make it stick professionally for one of the 8 years I spent writing for a variety of publications and sites. One of the reasons was that I really wanted to cover unsigned, under-represented artists — not the grist from the PR machine mill.
Writing for an Edinburgh free sheet, I fought hard to keep coverage of the local hip-hop scene as prevalent as coverage of local club nights (which, to be fair, also drove some ad revenue for the paper). I wrote early features on the likes of Penpushers, Livesciences, Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey, Solaraye’s Stanley Odd crew, Hector Bizerk and others.
Throughout the 8 year period that I covered the very niche, defiantly DIY Scottish hip-hop scene, I wrote about a coming ‘Silver Age’ for Scottish rap, seeing a ton of potential in these artists. All of them, I thought, transcended the need for the term “‘Scottish’ hip-hop” — they made complex, allusive, challenging, infectious music. Even when it was lo-fi, it had energy and attitude.
At small hip-hop nights, or at sought-after support slots for touring UK and US rappers, I’ve seen these rappers kill it live, time after time. There have already been landmark tunes, seminal albums. Yet somehow, media coverage for the most part has failed to emerge.
Incredible hip-hop, coming out of Scotland, has honestly been critically slept on for as long as the three decades its pioneers have been making it.
And yet, in 2018, despite its challenges and frustrations, it feels somehow like a ‘moment’ has finally arrived. Things are changing. All too slowly, perhaps… but something has shifted.
I’d like to think that the creativity and quality of the key artists in the genre cannot be ignored any longer. But I think that is perhaps still naive. I believe these artists will continue to have to fight for recognition.
Ready or not, this is Scottish hip-hop’s Silver Age.
Scottish hip-hop breaks through…?
Any recent breakthrough in public perception must be credited in large part to the efforts of Paisley’s Shogun, whose Vulcan freestyle blew every single other Scottish hip-hop video out of the water, in terms of views on YouTube. His canonisation (if such a thing exists) within UK hip-hop as a whole can only be seen as progress. For what seemed like the first time, in Vulcan’s wake, media eyes began to turn towards Scotland.
Cultural commentator Darren Loki McGarvey also played a huge part in putting the idea of Scottish rap in the public eye, with the massive success of his nonfiction book ‘Poverty Safari’ — winner of the 2018 Orwell Prize. McGarvey’s work has managed to expand upon and popularise the social issues and sharp political consciousness which drive much of Scottish hip-hop.
We can only hope that the success of his books, podcasts, TV shows and articles are matched by a similar appreciation of his rap skills, because these inform and underpin his celebrated work in important and meaningful ways. Darren did not emerge fully-formed as a writer and commentator from any university or traditional career path — rather, his experiences as a rapper led him there. To ignore that would be to misunderstand him.
Furthermore, his success must not be treated as tokenism. His voice has been celebrated as coming ‘from the margins’ and he has been commended for speaking truth to power. But if the door is shut firmly behind him, then his hard-won platform risks becoming a lonely island in a sea of middle-class mediocrity — akin to Radio 1 playlisting Sleaford Mods amongst oceans of stage school guitar bands and trust fund kids like George Ezra.
Stanley Odd’s Solareye cannot be overlooked for his contribution to Scottish hip-hop, mixing pop, funk and soul with savvy, poetic, political rap to great effect. He captured the Scottish public’s imagination during the 2014 independence referendum with the anthemic, politically savvy ‘Son, I Voted Yes’. As a touring entity, Stanley Odd proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what motivated artists can do to escape the inertia of a local scene.
Solareye is also officially Doctor Hook — he is an academic, whose PHD researched Scottish hip-hop in a cultural context. His paper was another important milestone, the ideas in which I hope to see discussed more widely. Dave’s efforts on behalf of the genre have been tireless.
Due to these, and the contributions of a great (great) many other long-term players behind and in front of the scenes, Scottish rap’s tight knit community now looks better equipped than ever to convert a scattering of breakthrough moments into a longer-term, more consolidated approach towards the outer margins of UK and worldwide hip-hop culture. It is on the rise.
That it has taken so long, and is in so many ways a precarious proposition for all the artists involved, is the untold story.
Where do we go from here?
A perhaps unpalatable truth: Even if nobody ‘breaks big’ or achieves a level of fame and financial independence with their music, the artistic bar in Scotland’s rap community has been raised over the years. The culture and aesthetic are forever affected — that this isn’t widely accepted now, and might continue to remain a well-kept secret, doesn’t change that.
If Scottish hip-hop remains woefully empty of investment, it can also perhaps stay free of commodification. Free from celebrity, it is free to be uncompromising.
Perhaps this is one reason why the writing, just now, is so strong — mocked and reviled for decades by outsiders who can’t imagine rap in a Scottish accent, the Scottish scene has become something of a closed loop. An inward-looking hothouse of creativity, where the best artists compete to better each other, not so much in terms of sales or views, but in terms of artistic ambition and quality. This has advantages and disadvantages, of course. But as a result, Scottish hip-hop has evolved its own codes, its own symbols, its own vernacular. It’s as densely poetic and fiendishly complex as any rap music being made in London, Atlanta or New York.
In some ways, success can be the worst thing that can happen to an artist or a sound. Before the ‘second summer of grime’ brought back the aggy vocabulary and DIY ethics of the original wave, making huge stars out of the likes of Stormzy and Skepta, we had to suffer through an unfortunate period of commercialised grime with overt electronica and pop hooks, and guest choruses from terrible pop-stars. The apotheosis of this phase being Dizzee Rascall’s hypercolour, yet dismal 2009 album Tongue N Cheek, with beats provided by the likes of Tiesto, Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden.
Scottish hip-hop has had no such mainstream pop culture moments outside of the globe-dominating Vulcan, which remains little-known outside the (admittedly huge) rap subcultures of the UK.
The closest Scottish hip-hop has come to the mainstream is the rap-inflected R&B / pop of Young Fathers — but they have long maintained a conscious distance, perhaps wary of contaminating crossover success with any linkage to a local scene that is sonically very different from their material, almost completely unsupported by labels and the industry at large, and critically maligned.
Nonetheless, there is a feeling among Scottish rappers that ‘now is the time’. Unprecedented numbers of rappers played at Scotland’s music festivals this year. The efforts of promoters like Mark McGee, Steg G, Edinburgh’s Werd and Alana Hepburn have stoked a public appetite for homegrown rap. Open mics and cyphers are thriving, as is the battle scene.
Several of the most talented rhyme writers in Scotland have recently released career-best, era-defining work. Unfortunately, it continues to be met with an almost total critical blackout. It’s time to face up to the reasons for that, and to make an effort to redress the balance.
Celebrating Scottish hip-hop’s big players should not make us unafraid to criticise any hip-hop in Scotland which is undercooked, underwritten, full of cliches, or embarrassing to listen to. Not every single rapper making videos on their iPhone and uploading songs to Soundcloud is talented, by dint of being Scottish. But by the same measure, to characterise all Scottish rap as bad, or unlistenable, is undeniably a result of snobbery, and cultural cringe.
By comparison, there’s still a significant amount of bad grime coming out of London, not to mention the legions of uninspiring and talent-free indie bands foisted on us each month by legions of PRs and complacent media. Trust me, I’m still on the PR mailing lists.
That’s just two genres, both of which receive almost wall-to-wall media coverage and support.
The kinds of voices heard and represented in Scottish hip-hop have, so far, been utterly marginalised within the UK, and even within Scotland itself. This must change.
Towards a critical response to Scottish hip-hop
Scottish rap deserves the same critical attention, the same investment, and the same appreciation as other music made here. It really is that simple.
Gasp’s latest tune, You’re Welcome, addresses just these issues — directly calling out the hip-hop specialist press for overtly ignoring Scottish hip-hop, while covering the middling-to-bland 90s boom-bap clones who constitute the majority of England’s underground scene.*
*(See how easy it is to misrepresent, generalise about, and dismiss a whole scene and culture? I’m exaggerating for effect, but the struggle is real. Gasp says it better than me.)
His anger and despair on this track are palpable, justifiable, and real. Gasp also calls out the snobbery of self-proclaimed ‘independent’ Scottish cultural magazines for not offering more support — a sentiment I have little choice but to co-sign. He’s right, and his words in this track needed to be said.
The problem is less that Scottish hip-hop is ignored and scorned by the media (as I have pointed out, this has both positive and negative connotations), and more that the lack of engagement with the genre from professional journalists and critics leaves a stark gap, in terms of providing these very talented artists with a serious critical response to their work.
People like Gasp are accomplished artists, sophisticated producers and performers — in particular his grand guignol videos deserve to be more widely celebrated. By and large, in the media and the wider music scene, they are frequently ignored.
This is even more of a grave problem when you consider the deprived, disenfranchised, marginalised communities from which a great many of these artists hail. Their voices need to be heard, their stories told and listened to.
The partisan reviewer
A critical response to Scottish hip-hop is something I have always wanted to contribute towards, and my work as a journalist was an effort to achieve just that. But my efforts cost me, professionally, in both directions.
As an artist, the magazine I wrote for was rarely able to criticise my own work, or the work of artists on Black Lantern Music, for fear of a conflict of interest. As I began working with more and more Scottish rappers and producers, this further restricted my ability to cover them critically and impartially — or so the editorial line went. It’s a catch-22 I couldn’t resolve.
Besides, I was never a capital-J Journalist, was I? I never studied the craft, learned shorthand, or worked in a news environment. So surely this ideological ‘distance’ between me as a critic, and the scene at large, was artificial? I was just a punter-turned-rapper-turned-critic.
I believe you cannot have it both ways — if culture is in a period where those embedded within a niche artform or community are the only people with the knowledge and access to cover it, then cover it we must, and objectivity be damned. Writers like Gasp and his peers deserve to have their work analysed, dissected, responded to. It’s a crucial phase in an artist’s development.
Paradoxically, a wish to see more critical engagement with Scottish hip-hop, including my own music and the artists my label supported, was one reason I stepped away from journalism. Sadly, not much has changed.
The lack of a critical response to Scottish hip-hop from outside the confines of the community is therefore still, seemingly, a tricky problem — most of the people qualified to review it are in some way affiliated, either as rappers and producers themselves, or as promoters, label bosses, or musicians.
With the notable exception of Jonathan Rimmer (who wrote a great overview for Clash Magazine in January of 2018, and reviews regularly), and the handful of dedicated fans and artists who run the Scottish Hip-Hop blog, there are few, if any unaffiliated critics willing to cover the culture with any meaningful regularity, despite occasional, tokenistic efforts to do so.
It is with this in mind that I have decided to come back to music criticism, at least temporarily, and take a look at some of the most significant Scottish hip-hop releases from 2018.
Reviews: Coming to New Hellfire Club
I have started publishing a series of reviews via the blog of the New Hellfire Club, an independent group providing support and infrastructure for Glasgow bands. I’ll try to offer some thoughts about why these releases are significant, and where these immensely talented artists could go from here. I want to write about Scottish hip-hop’s future again, and its vital present. I want to take its pulse.
I will be doing this with a full declaration of my partisanship: I have played with these artists at gigs; I have featured them on my own albums. Some have been released by Black Lantern, or through my friend and collaborator Asthmatic Astronaut’s new label, This Is Not Pop.
I am not writing these reviews as an independent or unaffiliated, objective journalist. Rather, I am writing as a fan, as an artist, as a curator — one who agrees with Gasp’s recent lyric:
Yes, people from Scotland can rap as well / We have the same fucking brains / Maybe if you actually platformed our genius / The idea wouldn’t seem so fucking strange.
In the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing 2018 albums, mixtapes and EPs by MVCC, Gasp, Kid Robotik X King Meraki, Shogun, Solareye, Loki, Mistah Bohze, Physiks, and Jackal Trades, several of whom are affiliated with legendary Glasgow rap collective The Being (pictured above). This, to me at least, is the historical nexus at which many of the most interesting things are happening, so that’s where I will focus first.
Later, I hope to cover more artists from labels and collectives like SKOOP, MFTM, Southside Deluxe and MCF; artists like Ciaran Mac and Tickle, slept on cats like CHURCH OF WHEN THE SHIT HITS THE FAN, and the excellent live hip-hop bands who rule the Scottish gig scene, like Busker Rhymes, Earth Wire, Supa & Da Kryptonites, and Spring Break.
I want to know what the members of Hector Berzerk are up to, and check in with the former members of Scotland Yard and II Tone Committe. I want to find out about new pockets of madness and creativity I’m not even dimly aware of yet.
This list above is by no means exhaustive — if I was to cover every single artist who’s on the grind in Scotland just now, we’d be here a while. That alone, for me, is cause for celebration… and while I might arguably be biased, I’m done holding back from offering criticism and recognition, just because I am also embedded in the culture.
I’ve always been an outsider in Scottish hip-hop, more of a fan and observer than a participant in many ways. I’m neither working class, nor a native Scot, although I’ve lived here 26 years. I have no mixed ethnic background, so claims of cultural appropriation could be directed at me on a great many levels. You might consider me a shill, a hack, or too compromised to really pay attention to. Nonetheless, I hope to convince a few new people to discover these artists, and I hope other journalists will follow me in this critical appreciation of a desperately under-served genre. I may not be the right person for the job, but I take it seriously.
Besides, I’m bringing you treats. While mainstream, commercial hip-hop embraces autotune, mumbled phraseology, pop star guest appearances and hypercapitalist excess, Scottish hip-hop’s Silver Age is redolent with the themes and artistic brilliance of America’s own, in the mid to late 90s — but without the nostalgia implicit in the hip-hop you might find in Wordplay.
Scottish hip-hop is about lyricism, about culture and belonging, about the bad breaks and the good times. Open your mind a little, and you may find your new favourite rapper in our ranks.
You’ll see all of my reviews appear at New Hellfire Club’s blog. Thanks to Chris and Jamie at NHC for their support.
Soon, I’ll write something about the cream of the crop from the instrumental hip-hop and beat scene, as this is just as vibrant and creative an area to explore in Scotland in 2018, and warrants its own story.
For now, this is about the rappers in Scotland currently blowing shit up, creatively, artistically and politically.
- Bram E. Gieben, Glasgow, November 2018
More to follow!