THE hip hop scene in Scotland is all set for a breakthrough into the mainstream – served up with a healthy slice of folk tradition
SATURDAY night on Sauchiehall Street. Blood and beer; rage and fear; the usual fights for the usual slender reasons: alcohol and some perceived slight. Inside the O2 ABC, though, up near Charing Cross, there is violence of a different kind – verbal, ritualised, and cheered by a paying audience of several hundred young men and women who like nothing better than hearing fag rhymed with bawbag. This is Badmouth Battles, perhaps the most popular event in Scotland’s surging hip hop scene. “Make some noise,” the crowd are urged, and they don’t need telling twice. “This is f***ing Glasgow.”
Badmouth Battles is a Glaswegian equivalent of the long-established rap battles which go right back to the origins of the genre in New York in the late 1970s and which came to international prominence through the Eminem film 8 Mile. Each rapper, or MC, has three one-minute rounds in which to denounce his (the scene is overwhelmingly male) opponent in as devastating and witty a manner as possible.
The look of it, on stage in Glasgow, is boilerplate hip hop – hoodies, caps, pointed fingers and posed aggression – but the language is extraordinary: multisyllabic rhymes; mixed metaphors and spliced similes; puns piled high like fags in an overflowing ashtray; all delivered at terrific speed in dense, slangy, foul-mouthed Scots; baggy tops and glottal stops. The overall effect is elegant and waspish, yet dark and profane, Cole Porter meets Irvine Welsh. It harks back hundreds of years to the tradition of flyting in which Scots poets exchanged vicious rhyming invective for the amusement of the court of James IV.
“Mate,” says Del Boy, shaking his head, “see the baws ye need tae get up there and dae that?” Del Boy, a member of the Glasgow audience in his late 20s, who works for the council parks department and likes to be known as The Scumbag, is lost in admiration for the battlers. “It reminds me of guys on a building site taking the pish right oot each other. It’s just oor way o’ life, oor banter. To see that onstage, it puts a wee bit o’ pride in you. It’s the yin and the yang. We may be hard bastards but we can take a laugh.”
These rap battles, they’re happening everywhere. Not just in clubs. Not just indoors. Kelvingrove Park; Bristo Square. But battling is only one part of the Scottish scene. Right across Scotland there are MCs writing rhymes and uploading them to Soundcloud or putting out albums, pulling audiences and getting radio play. Who’s going to break through first, people are asking. Will it be Louie, a young MC from Barmulloch whose group, Hector Bizerk, performed at T in the Park? Will it be Madhat from Edinburgh? RiP from Dundee? SHY & DRS from Aberdeen?
“The spiritual home of Scottish hip hop is Pollokshaws East station.” So says Mistah Bohze, who – at the age of 38 – is a much respected veteran of the scene. One particular bench in the station in the southside of Glasgow became, during the 1980s and 1990s, a meeting point for the city’s pioneer rappers to hone their skills and play each other’s music. Rap in Scotland began in 1984 and grew out of breakdancing contests at Glasgow’s Plaza Ballroom. The first Scottish hip hop record on vinyl is generally agreed to be The Frontal Attack, a polemic on the poll tax, released by Aberdeen’s Dope Incorporated in 1991. The rappers making music now are very much a new generation, sometimes literally so: 20-year-old Jordan Carey, who raps as Konchis, is the son of Davy Kwafo, a Scottish hip hop pioneer better known as Mr Defy.
Talk to enough Scottish MCs and a phrase you hear often is their desire to give “voice to the voiceless”. This music is the product of working-class young people, often unemployed or in casual, minimum wage jobs, for whom rap represents the possibility of escape – either commercially or, more likely, creatively – from a life on the dole. “Hip hop is our folk music,” says Steg G, real name Steven Gilfoyle, who runs the Glasgow-based hip hop label Powercut Productions. “The story of 21st-century living in Scotland comes out in the raps. It’s our CNN, our news channel. It tells you what’s going on in Arden, in Springburn, in Wester Hailes.”
Scottish hip hop is often the sound of the schemes. Mog, a highly regarded MC originally from the Penilee housing estate in Glasgow, but now resident in Edinburgh, is perhaps the most intense and committed chronicler of this culture. In songs such as Evolution and Roon Here, he documents whatever is our version of broken Britain – shattered Scotland, maybe. “Life in a Glasgow scheme,” he says, “you don’t really hear anybody detail it anywhere unless they are making fun of it, like Chewing the Fat. But I wanted to do it seriously.
“It’s made a joke – ‘Crazy Glaswegians, all they do is drink and fight.’ But it’s not a laugh if you’re in amongst it. It’s not a laugh if you’re dealing with drugs and violence and underage sex and every bad thing you could imagine.”
Writing raps, for Mog, is therapy, an escape from the demons of his past. It’s like that for a lot of the people involved. You hear, all the time, how involvement in this music kept MCs off drugs, out of jail, out of the grave. “Hip hop’s saved lives up here,” says Steg G. “It saved mine.”
Meanwhile, back at Badmouth Battles, the night is wearing on. Victors punch the air, losers slump gutted and silenced. Despite the ferocity of the insults – and anything from personal appearance to personal history is fair game – everyone is pals at the end, ready to share a bottle. “I got ma mind oan ma Bucky,” someone raps in a pastiche of Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice, “ma Bucky oan ma mind.”