The art of storytelling in hip hop is often an overlooked aspect in the modern rendition of the genre. Many contemporary artists are driven toward commercial success and, in the process, tend to avoid socially charged lyrics; opting for a more superficial approach like a peacock spreading its feathers for intimidation. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (Atmosphere, The Roots and Jurassic 5 immediately come to mind). Rap originated as the poor man’s poetry in the ghettos of America, so it is ironic that in its present incarnation, vibrant hip hop culture based on social change has returned mostly in the underground in America and the UK.
You’d be even more hard pressed to find such depth in the Scotland hip hop scene. Does Scotland even have a hip hop scene? They must because it is unlikely that a group like Young Fathers would be able to create such a fantastic second album by chance. Based in Edinburgh’s growing underground movement but drawing influences from Africa and beyond, Young Fathers are breaking the mould for Scotland and the hip hop world in many ways. This album – their debut on Anticon records - is actually a re-release of material several years old, but it definitely merits another go. Tape One is rooted in intimate storytelling featuring smooth and eloquent poetry complementing African-inspired beats with a sprinkling of dub throughout.
The title of the record and the music both refer back to the genre’s pioneers and pay tribute to the growing and regenerating analogue tape culture. Tape One emanates a warm analogue lo-fi spirit; even though the music was delivered via a digital mp3 file, it was hard not to image the feel of the cassette in your hand and that click of the deck when the tape is seated right before pushing the door closed and engaging the heads with the play button. Thankfully, the group’s re-release has a cassette option which seems the ideal way to listen to a hip hop record. Tape One successfully delivers nostalgia while forging completely new territory both sonically and lyrically.
The album begins with deep synth bass and distorted rhythms which drive opening track ‘Deadline’ forward. Immediately, there is a sense that the poetry is important, as lyrics about broken families and relationships permeate the track (and album). “Don’t you turn my home against me/Even if my house is empty”. The plea repeats toward the truncated two minute ending, leaving behind the foreshadowed conclusion that Tape One is a meaningful collection of stories with some danceable moments. But the focus is most definitely on the story.
‘Remains’ is a track which could easily be crowned the most contagious beat of 2012, yet we only get to hear its infectious groove for shorts moments in the beginning and end. “Memory still remains/On file and locked away/Take back things borrowed/Tonight I decompose”. The story of family neglect and parental abdication of responsibility bears the weight of the track as the groove largely disappears, giving the effect of a spoken word dialogue over the kind minimal accompaniment that is similar to something a 14 year old would record with their first lo-fi sampler. “I wish somebody’d want me” is sung from the perspective of that young man looking for his way in the world and reaching for guidance to get him there. The effect is really quite brilliant and it makes for a powerful return of the mature rhythm from the intro. If you are looking for a more conventional approach, ‘Sister’ is your best bet. At first the marching rhythm and collective of African vocal patterns sound as if it might develop into an afro-beat experience. The song follows something of a pop pattern, with a pronounced chorus, but the sonic amalgamation of syncopated beats and voices is hardly cookie cutter; a prevalent theme of this album.
Young Fathers never rhyme about how they good they really are. Instead they are confident enough to drop a laid back dub groove in ‘Romance’ and follow it up with a sermon and outdoor drum circle in ‘Fortune’. Bold and refreshing, Tape One is definitely not concerned with image, genre or really anything other than quality storytelling over top a unique musical score. The sounds are pure alchemy and result is pure magic. The only complaint is the length – too short at just under a half hour.