Young Fathers: ‘We’re not weird – this is the pop music we want to listen to’

“Mistakes are good, and perfection is a sin,” says Graham “G” Hastings, explaining the creative ethos guiding Young Fathers. They have even coined a name for it: “mistakeology”. It’s the governing principle at their Edinburgh HQ, Out of the Blue Studios, an environment where, bandmate Kayus Bankole says, “You’re not afraid to make mistakes, to try”. Without it, the trio wouldn’t have happened on the chaotic, joyful brilliance of their sound, which has evolved yet again on their new album, Heavy Heavy.

This faith in mistakeology is partly atonement for the first half of Young Fathers’ career, the original sin that almost did them in. Meeting as teenagers at Lick Shot, an under-16s hip-hop night in Edinburgh, they bonded over their nascent love for the culture and were soon gathered around an old karaoke machine in Hastings’ bedroom cupboard, freestyling over beats. Drunk on MTV dreams of success and fame, at 15 they signed a “horrible, nasty production deal”. What followed was nearly a decade of sustained failure as their handlers attempted to shape them into “some strange fucking boyband”, filming videos nobody saw and recording five albums’ worth of music they hope no one will ever hear.

Our old mates, even my dad … they’re proud of us, but don’t necessarily get the music

Those years almost broke the boys who would become Young Fathers. But then their former manager put them in touch with the producer Tim London, formerly one third of Hippychick hitmakers Soho, who had since relocated to Edinburgh. London let the trio loose in his basement studio, where they shook loose the blinkers of their earlier ambitions and discovered the magic of mistakeology. “We were recording a track called Dar-Eh Da Da Du,” remembers the third Young Father, Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi, “and Kayus made this exasperated, stuttering noise before his line, and it sounded so good we just kept it in. It broke the fourth wall, it made it real. That was the starting point. The ‘mistakes’ are part of the creativity.”

The moment marked 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 swiftly reissued by LA-based underground hip-hop label Anticon, which then released a second EP, Tape Two. Signing to Big Dada, the hip-hop imprint of UK indie label Ninja Tune records, their debut album Dead, won the 2014 Mercury prize.

Even in this moment of triumph, there was something of the misfit about Young Fathers. “Our families didn’t really know what the Mercury prize was,” says Hastings. “Our old mates who were into 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 has often confounded a music industry preferring more pigeonhole-friendly artists. Dead’s follow-up, 2015’s White Men Are Black Men Too, came with a sticker reading “File Under Rock and Pop” because, Hastings says, “filing it under hip-hop would have miscommunicated the music inside. We’re more than that. We know the rules of hip-hop. And our music is hip-hop without the rules, just like it’s rock without the guitars.”

Young Fathers at All Points East festival in 2018.
Dad rock … Young Fathers at London’s All Points East festival in 2018. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

Their anarchic, emotional live shows are renowned, but they’ve spent so long playing support to the likes of Pusha T or Paul Weller, “where every gig is a battle, and we’ll either steal your fans or revel in them hating us”, that “it feels weird to play to people who actually 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. What of 1Xtra, the corporation’s black and urban music outlet? Does their mutant, rules-free hip-hop-adjacent music have a home there? Sardonic laughter erupts. “1Xtra don’t play us,” scowls Hastings. “At all. Ask them why. People are so scared now of alienating listeners, they make everything so frictionless.”

“People tell us, ‘It’s too rocky for us,’” says Bankole. “Or, ‘It’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 it exists within makes it seem weird. We love choruses, hooks. This is the pop music that we want to listen to.” Their third album, 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, made those pop ambitions explicit: “We’re trying to work within the frame of the three-minute pop song,” Hastings said at the time. Heavy Heavy makes good on those ambitions.

“We’ve done a Frank Ocean, waiting five or six years to put a record out,” grins Massaquoi. Heavy Heavy bears the imprint of those intervening years, not least Bankole’s extended visits to Ghana and Ethiopia, which fed into the album’s danceable, chant-along sounds. “Music is not so premeditated there, it just happens,” he says. “It’s like you’re watching a musical – people are sitting around, and then suddenly they’re singing. My mum will be singing in the kitchen, and then my auntie picks it up, and then they’re teaching me the words and suddenly we’re all singing along.”

Hastings, meanwhile, became a father during the hiatus. “Before we had the baby I was sweating my career and how we’re going to survive and all that,” he says. “And then he arrived, and the opposite happened. It’s liberated me, in a way; it’s made me want to home in more on what we want to do, and not worry about anything else.”

“It’s because the wee man is a real thing,” smiles Massaquoi. “So you realise whatever else you do in your life, like your music, needs to be of that level of authenticity. You realise there’s no point in compromising.”

Heavy Heavy is, in places, a political record: buoyant, ecstatic opener Rice touches upon goldminers destroying natural resources in Africa, while I Saw is, Hastings says, “about Brexit, and people turning a blind eye to what’s happening and just wanting to live in their own present”. But they are more interested in emotion than polemic. While making the album, a friend of Bankole came to Out of the Blue after an argument with her husband. “We were working on a song,” remembers Bankole, “and she was humming, singing along. So we set the track looping, and she sang over it, about having gratitude, even in the midst of all this anger and pain and sorrow.”

The resulting track, Ululation, is remarkable, a dizzying rush of emotion set to an ecstatic beat. “It happened by accident, but moments like that are transcendent,” says Massaquoi. It’s just another example of mistakeology in action; of Young Fathers keeping themselves open to the unexpected, and folding it into their music. “We captured it, because we’ve set up this space for these moments to happen. And so we’re able to make this music that is steeped in humanity – all the facets, all the complexities, all the contradictions.”

Heavy Heavy is released on 3 February.