Young Fathers take on the world after Mercury win

Kayus Bankole, Alloysious Massaquoi and Graham Hastings won the Mercury Prize for the album Dead. Picture: PA
Kayus Bankole, Alloysious Massaquoi and Graham Hastings won the Mercury Prize for the album Dead. Picture: PA
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TEN years ago, on a cool, windy March afternoon, three 16-year-old boys took to the Live & Loud stage at Hampden, looked out at the massive crowd, and prepared to wow them with their own eclectic mix of melodic R‘n’B and hip hop.

It was a big moment for 3 Style, a teenage trio full of attitude and hormones, who were beginning to get used to being the warm-up act for bigger pop names. That day it was boy band Blue, a few months previously G, Alli and KS – their MC names – had been on stage to get things going for Alesha Dixon’s former girl group Mis-teeq at Airth Castle.

On Wednesday night, those same three Edinburgh boys, now men in their mid-20s and using their real names, Graham Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole, won the Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize for their album, Dead.

Their music, their style, their attitude, their band name Young Fathers – they are all named after their own dads – couldn’t be further removed from their days on the pop-star trail. However one thing has stayed the same: they are as eclectic as ever and are in no hurry to be pigeon-holed.

Despite being classed by most music press as hip hop, Graham was clear immediately after they received their award.

“It’s not strictly hip hop. We’re not really that bothered or have any loyalty to hip hop, we make music from our gut before we make music from any genre. We don’t want to be a band which is one genre.

“We met by coincidence at an under-18 hip hop night in the old Bongo Club. We shook hands when we were dancing. I was making beats – £10 software I’d bought – and I asked the guys to come down. There were more people involved at the time but the three of us bonded putting things together that wouldn’t normally go together. We loved stuff that wasn’t just hip hop, pop music, hooks, sweet things with dark things. We’ve been family since.”

They were 14 when they met at the Bongo’s Lick Shot club. But the fact they met at all is remarkable. While Graham grew up in Drylaw, Alloysious (Ally) came from Liberia and Kayus spent much of his young life in Nigeria and the US.

“He arrived at Boroughmuir High when I was in third year,” says Ally. “He had this real transatlantic thing about him and we quickly became friends. We were always interested in music. We met Graham through a childhood friend who went to school with him. That’s how we were introduced at the Bongo. We just hit it off.”

At that time, Graham was already experimenting with music at home. A school friend had told him of a cheap software programme for making loop sounds and he’d work in his bedroom, using headphones to keep it to himself. Going to the Bongo, he said, was a revelation.

“I couldn’t believe that people were dancing to music and it was fine. It just wasn’t where I grew up – it was almost as if expressing yourself was weak. But it just felt right dancing with the guys. We never spoke – it was too loud anyway.”

Ally and Kayus would visit his home, crowding round a karaoke mic from Argos, taking turns to MC and say their piece, before they’d get thrown out by Graham’s mum at 10pm every night.

“We’d go to the bus stop singing a song and talking about how ‘that’s a hit, boys’. It was never ‘that’s a cool song, I’ll play it to my mates’, it was always ‘that’s a hit record and I want everybody to hear it’.”

By the time they were 16, one of Graham’s aunts had put them in touch with music producer Mani Shoniwa and they landed a deal with the small label Black Sugar. Called 3 Style, they were soon making warm-up appearances and also played at T in the Park.

Interviews from the time showed their confidence.

“Edinburgh has this posh reputation, everyone’s supposed to have a piano, but not where I come from,” said Graham. “It’s [Drylaw] not like a ghetto, but it was violent where I grew up, all about being a wee rat and selling hash. We want to put our Edinburgh on the map.”

Ally would talk of his upbringing. “My mum tells stories about soldiers coming into the house with guns, and everyone hiding under the bed, and I remember my uncle – who I thought was my older brother – leaving the house one day and just not coming back.

“My dad was at Edinburgh University so we came to live with him, and I can’t speak my native language any more although I’ve still got family in 
Liberia.”

Kayus said: “I was in Nigeria with my family for a while but I couldn’t really handle it, so it was better for me to come to Edinburgh and stay with brothers and sisters.”

By 2008 they had changed. “We grew up,” says Ally. “If we were doing the same stuff at 14 as we were at 18 something would have been wrong, and we’re 27 now. We’ve developed.

“We became much more confident in ourselves and what we wanted to do. Our tastes changed. What we do now draws on a lot of influences, but there’s no particular artists that we want to sound like. We have our own sound, and it’s great to win the Mercury Prize but it won’t change what we’re doing and who we are.”

For three years, the boys toured the UK and Europe, appearing at T in the Park, Belladrum and Creamfields, releasing a number of singles and even appearing on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth. But by the end of 2011, they had left Black Sugar Records.

Fed up with the way their music career was going, they decided to release their next recordings online. The EP called Tape One was produced after a week’s recording in producer Tim London’s Leith basement studio. “There was a lot of frustration brewing in our bellies,” Kayus has said. “So there was raw emotion and it just came out organically. It was liberating.”

It was picked up by hip hop label Anticon and followed in a year by Tape Two, which was named Scottish Album of the Year. Then came Dead.

“We need to enjoy our music before anyone else,” Graham has explained. “We’d been 
trying to make music to please someone else, but nobody really respects that. You can have success that way, but you’re not going to sleep at night.”

Ally adds: “We want to be heard worldwide. You want people to be able to hear it, whether they like it or not isn’t important. The people who last the longest are the ones that divide opinion.”

Graham says: “More people 
have Young Fathers on their lips now [after the prize] and that’s what matters to us. We’ve never been a band that’s wanted to be underground.”

A new album is in the offing and they are off to Berlin to record it in the next few weeks. Then they’ll be back home at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations playing the Waverley Stage at the street party.

“We’re really looking forward to that,” says Ally. “If there’s any time to play Edinburgh, then this is the best time – at the climax of the year, when emotions are high and so are the people. Then there will likely be a tour after that.”

Without doubt their winning album, which had only sold 2386 copies before Wednesday, will appear in countless Christmas stockings. But Ally says the success changes nothing.

“It’s just part and parcel of the industry. The money will help us make more music. We are constantly writing and trying to be as creative as possible. We are not trying to hide anything, we want as many people to listen to our music.”

gdavidson@edinburghnews.com