Award-winning Scottish trio Young Fathers are set to make their Croatia debut at Electronic Beats Festival. Here, Alloysious Massaquoi talks to Time Out about controversial titles, politics and why their live appearance here will be unmissable.
Young Fathers' music is urgent, essential listening. Moving between angry, warped beats and beautifully melodious pop, the group has frequently been labelled 'alternative hip hop', though they insist this is lazy pigeon holing based on their looks (the Scottish trio are comprised of 'G' Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi, originally from Liberia via Ghana, and Kayus Bankole, born to Nigerian parents).
Regardless of how you label their music, it demands attention. 2014's DeadLP saw them pick up the Mercury Music Prize, while this year's White Men Are Black Men Too has garnered them plenty of attention, and not just because of the provocative title. It's a record that demonstrates the unique range of a group who may well just be one of the most interesting acts to take to the stage at Echo Park Festival. Young Fathers' live show is passionate, electrifying and utterly unmissable.
How did you set about making White Men Are Black Men Too and how did that process differ from the recording of Dead?
We decided to simplify the process without loosing content. Words were cut down, our musical landscape was more driven and spacious which gave us the option to sing more.
There was quite a quick turnaround between Dead and White Men Are Black Men Too. Are you guys constantly writing and creating new material?
Yeah it's a continuation of things. You have to keep making notes on whatever you see fit because it can all help to spawn new ideas to keeps things moving.
Did you feel any pressure for the new record in terms of expectations given the exposure the previous one brought you?
Nope, not at all. We had been sitting on DEAD for about a year and a half before it was released so at that point we were just itching to do some new records.
Is it true that ‘Nest’ was originally written as a subversive soundtrack for a Nestle commercial?
Yes, it was also accepted but in the end it would've had to have gone through too much of a process for it to work for their commercial. A majority of things in life is a compromise, you just have to decide when you will and when you won't. Our compromise was to write a song for a brand which we believe isn't ethically sound in order to use the money to raise awareness for that cause. It fell through in the end but we are left with a great pop song that made the album.
How did you feel about receiving the Mercury Music Prize? It’s been something of a curse for artists in the past…
It was great but at the same time we make music because we love it and not to win awards. We didn't get caught up in the whole show business side of it, to us it was more about the performance. Ours was the best, whether you liked our music or not you could see the passion and commitment in the performance. I believe that's what swayed the judges decision. We believed we deserved to be there and believed we should win and we rightfully walked away with the prize.
How have you dealt with the increase in attention since that win?
I haven really noticed to be honest. Folk recognise you here and there when your out and about but that's it. Nothing that we can't handle. When our music is A-listed on main radio stations week in week out and we are on TV more I'll let you know then.
You’ve been making music together since you were 14 years-old. How has your dynamic as a group changed over time?
Yes things change when you progress, you get more emotionally invested. There's more talking involved and the group has become a family and with family the dynamics are different too. Bonds and trusts are stronger. We instinctively push each other without haven't to say a word.
Given that you’ve been together so long, is it frustrating when people talk about your Mercury Prize success ‘coming out of nowhere’?
No because it's partly true. They need to know about you to have an opinion and before the prize a lot of people didn't know. There's still not enough people that know about what we do after all that. But If it takes another award or whatever for people to notice that your doing something special then so be it.
You’re regularly labeled as ‘alternative hip hop’, but the new album moves even further away from that tag. Do you think your sound is misunderstood?
Our music is genre-less and because of the context in where it lies in pop music the majority of people at this moment in time don't understand it and the point isn't to necessarily understand it, it's whether you like it or not. We are original and the first of our kind. There's no blueprint or manual to guide our musical direction so it's obviously going to be harder for a journalist to define what the sound is. So saying 'alternative' is the easiest and laziest way to describe it.
I understand why they do it but doesn't make it any less frustrating. The industry is built on things being simple and easy to package even if it's deemed 'radical' or 'controversial', that's probably the the easiest thing to package and gain more traction from.
How do you feel about being likened to groups such as Death Grips and Shabazz Palaces?
There's countless comparisons and the funny thing is we sound nothing like any of them. None of the comparisons have the musical ranges that we can so easily delve into to and out of on an entire album. Maybe it's more about what we look like, two black guys and a white guy. If we were three white guys and two of us played guitars would they bring those groups up? Or be called hip hop or alternative? No I don't think so.
Your music is often portrayed as ‘provocative’ and ‘imposing’. Do you see it that way?
Also polarising, aggressive, exorcism, raw, spiritual passionate, transcendent, voodoo, etc. I think our music is all those things and more that's why it stands out against the rest. Who are we to decide how someone should feel? At least they are feeling something.
Do you have a sense that as a band you’re addressing certain issues and delving into areas that other prominent music acts tend to shy away from?
Yes sometimes we do but it's not so thought out. As human beings if we see or feel something is wrong or unjust we should speak out about it. We're just fortunate enough that we can do it through our music. For other prominent acts it's maybe bad for business.
When it came to naming your record White Men Are Black Men Too, were there any misgivings about such a title?
No, It felt right from the beginning. I was 100 percent about it with no fear. It just had to be handled right, everyone had to be on board and to make sure that they were, we decided to ask around. We asked different voices, different races, but focused on particularly black voices in America in light of what was happening at the time and is still happening now.
Young Fathers play at Electronic Beats Zagreb on 6 November.