The Scottish group Young Fathers is a uniquely 21st-century ensemble both with the identity of the creators behind the music as well as the styles the music moves through. The group is made up of Graham ‘G’ Hastings, who grew up in Edinburgh, Alloysious Massaquoi who is originally from Liberia by way of Ghana, and Kayus Bankole who was raised by his Nigerian parents in the US before moving to Scotland. In their later work, like on the recent album, White Men Are Black Men Too, the group’s relationship to identity is foregrounded. But on their two early mixtapes, aptly titled TAPE 1 and TAPE 2 they communicate their identity more through sonic means, although some lyrics like “white boy beat, block boy rhythm” off “Rumbling” on Tape 1 make direct reference to the group’s unique perspective.
The music contained on the recently reissued TAPE’s is a confluence of dark-edged trip-hop, experimental indie production, and varying vocal styles that shift from reggae-ish melodies and phrasing to group shout-alongs from punk records. While their style is indeed unique, there is a deep similarity between the music contained here and the early records of TV on the Radio, particularly the Young Liars EP and Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. TVOR left this sound behind after Return to Cookie Mountain — the expansive connective tissue between their early more lo-fi/experimental leaning works and the full-bodied funk workouts they still put out today. So, hearing a group explore similar sonic ground is refreshing, as it feels like an area of synthesis that is too under-explored. (Consider the deeply plundered area of Joy Division-style post-punk or the ramshackle post-Pavement and Guided by Voices sound-alikes and you’ll probably agree too.)
But Young Fathers wouldn’t have achieved the acclaim and success they have if they were simply retreading sounds proffered by a legendary group. The group feels particularly novel in their decentralized approach to both music making and the perspectives presented within the lyrics. The tapes are produced from the band themselves, so there isn’t necessarily a distinction made between where one musician’s input starts, and another’s ends. By the same token, the vocals and lyrics throughout never feel out of step with each other despite pursuing different ends in themselves.
Reminiscent at times Massive Attack and the band’s former member Tricky, the rapping here has a natural, conversational flow here that feels untainted by the larger influences of British hip hop at the time — there is virtually no imprint of grime influence on this record, excepting maybe similarly wide-eyed point of view that’s unafraid to look into darkness. There is an attention to the sounds of words together, with consonance and assonance, which makes the lyrics at times reminiscent of spoken-word and slam poetry. And rather than attempt to paint some kind of overarching picture in prosaic terms, Young Fathers lean more towards poetic juxtaposition to evoke an emotional response. Through that, they communicate the same type of unease that you’d find on Tricky’s Maxinquaye.
This confluence of influences is evident in the different ways that the singing is handled, which is also varied throughout. There is a near-constant Jamaican-inflected delivery that, taken together with some of the samples that loop throughout the choruses, give the tunes a more worldly, globalized feel. And yet the sounds aren’t cosmopolitan — this isn’t urbanite elitism. The group’s overlayed vocals (sometimes singing in conjunction with samples) furthers this communal sensibility on the record, putting Young Fathers into the same neighborhood as artists like WU LYF or even Odd Future that is able to insinuate community through the very expression of their music. This kind of community-minded art still feels novel in a celebrity-obsessed music culture and even within the decentralized distribution system music has now. Young Fathers reminds you that music is made to be shared and any individual personality in the group is secondary to the overall effect the music has.
Still, as with many early releases, there are some growing pains. The song structures on both tapes tend to be pretty similar, following a pattern in how they build and resolve. The production’s roughness can become a bit suffocating too, sometimes burying the lead vocals amid samples so you can’t quite decipher what is exactly is going on. Taken together these two tapes illustrate an ambitious and bold group that is trying to establish their own lane with some real success.