“MBets are good and perfection is a sin,” says Graham “G” Hastings, explaining the creative ethos that guides Young Fathers. They’ve even coined a name for it: “errorology.” That’s the guiding principle at their Edinburgh headquarters, Out of the Blue Studios, an environment where bandmate Kayus Bankole says, “You’re not afraid to make mistakes, to try.” Without him, the trio wouldn’t have happened with the chaotic, joyous brilliance of their sound, which has evolved again on their new album, Heavy Heavy.
This belief in error is partly atonement for the first half of the Young Fathers’ career, the original sin that almost destroyed them. Meeting as teenagers at Lick Shot, an under-16 hip-hop night in Edinburgh, they bonded over a budding love of the culture and were soon gathered around an old karaoke machine in Hastings’ bedroom cupboard, freely listening to beats. MTV drunks dream of success and fame, at 15 sign a “horrible, nasty production contract”. What followed was nearly a decade of sustained failure as their managers tried to mold them into “some weird fucking boy band,” shooting videos no one had seen and recording five albums of music they hoped no one would ever hear. not to hear.
Those years almost broke the boys who would become young fathers. But then their former manager put them in touch with producer Tim London, formerly one third of the Hippychick Soho hitmakers, who has since moved to Edinburgh. London let the trio relax in his basement studio, where they shook off the blinkers of their former ambitions and discovered the magic of error. “We were recording a song called Dar-Eh Da Da Du,” recalled the third young father, Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi, “and Kayus made this annoyed, stuttering noise before his line and it sounded so good that we just kept it. He broke the fourth wall, make it real. That was the starting point. ‘Mistakes’ are part of creativity.”
The moment marks the beginning of Young Fathers. Their blend of soul, rap, pop and noise arrived fully formed on their self-released debut EP, Tape One. This was quickly reissued by Los Angeles-based underground hip-hop label Anticon, who then released a second EP, Tape Two. Signing to Big Dada, the hip-hop imprint of British indie label Ninja Tune records, their debut album Dead won the 2014 Mercury Prize.
Even in this moment of triumph there was something inappropriate about the Young Fathers. “Our families didn’t really know what the Mercury Prize was,” says Hastings. “Our old friends who loved bashment and dancehall…even my dad…they’re proud of us, but they don’t necessarily get the music.” The band’s brilliantly amorphous sound often confounds the music industry, which favors friendlier artists . The Dead’s follow-up album, 2015’s White Men Are Black Men Too, came with a sticker that read “File Under Rock and Pop” because, Hastings says, “to register as hip-hop, the music inside would be wrong. We are more than that. We know the rules of hip hop. And our music is hip-hop without rules, just like rock is without guitars.”
Their anarchic, emotional live shows are famous, but they’ve spent so much time supporting the likes of Pusha T or Paul Weller, “where every show is a battle and we’re either going to steal your fans or we’re going to enjoy it that they hate us ” that “it feels weird playing in front of people who really like us”. To illustrate how their music falls between the cracks, I ask which radio stations play Young Fathers. BBC 6 Music is a supporter, they say. How about 1Xtra, the corporation’s black and urban music store? Does their mutant, no-rules, hip-hop-adjacent music have a home there? Sardonic laughter erupts. “1Xtra don’t play us,” Hastings scowled. “Not at all. Ask them why. Now people are so scared of alienating listeners, they make everything so seamless.”
“People tell us it’s too rocky for us,” says Bankole. “Or, ‘That’s too hip-hop for us.’ So everyone just pushes us away.”
“We don’t think our music is weird,” adds Massaquoi. “It’s just the context in which it exists that makes it seem strange. We love choruses, hooks. This is the pop music we want to listen to.” Their third album, 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, made those pop ambitions clear: “We’re trying to work within the three-minute pop song,” Hastings said at the time. Heavy Heavy does well with these ambitions.
“We did Frank Ocean, waiting five or six years to put out a record,” smiles Massaquoi. Heavy Heavy bears the imprint of those intervening years, not least Bankole’s extended visits to Ghana and Ethiopia, which contributed to the album’s danceable, sing-along sounds. “The music there is not so deliberate, it just happens,” he says. “It’s like watching a musical – people are sitting around and suddenly they’re singing. My mom will sing in the kitchen and then my aunt picks it up and then they teach me the words and suddenly we’re all singing together.
Meanwhile, Hastings became a father during the hiatus. “Before we had the baby, I was dealing with my career and how we were going to survive and all that,” he says. “And then he arrived and the exact opposite happened. It freed me in a way; it made me want to find out more about what we want to do and not worry about anything else.”
“That’s because the little man is a real thing,” smiles Masaquoi. “So you realize that whatever else you do in your life, like your music, has to be at that level of authenticity. You realize that there is no point in making compromises.
Heavy Heavy is in places a political record: a buoyant, ecstatic discoverer Rice touches on the prospectors destroying Africa’s natural resources, while I Saw is, says Hastings, “about Brexit and people turning a blind eye to what’s going on and just wanting to live in his own present”. But they are more interested in emotion than controversy. While making the album, a friend of Bankole’s comes to Out of the Blue after an argument with her husband. “We were working on a song,” Bankole recalls, “and she was humming and singing. So we set the song to loop and she sang on it, about the gratitude, even in the midst of all this anger and pain and sadness.”
The resulting track, Ululation, is remarkable, a dizzying rush of emotion set to an ecstatic beat. “It happened by accident, but moments like this are transcendent,” says Massaquoi. This is just another example of error in action; of young fathers who keep themselves open to the unexpected and fold it into their music. “We captured it because we created this space for these moments to happen. And so we’re able to make this music that’s steeped in humanity—all the facets, all the complexities, all the contradictions.”
Heavy Heavy is released on February 3.