I remember, a long time ago, I was speaking to folk who’d come up to Aberdeen to Uni.
It turns out, a lot of people think Aberdeen is some sheltered, remote village. An oddity of a place, some kind of cultural back-water a million miles from anywhere.
Of course, it isn’t; but there were folk who’d fucked their UCAS application, or went to Aberdeen from outside Scotland with an air of trepidation. There’s little to nothing in popular media about the Granite City, really. Edinburgh has that castle and Trainspotting; Glasgow has violence and Franz Ferdinand. Continually, we’re left out of the “British Culture” narrative, despite providing the most essential music on a continual basis through modern history.
Anyway, grand-standing aside, these folk were genuinely confused as to why I’d know about rap music. It was as if the concept of a radio or the internet didn’t exist. I legitimately think that folk who don’t know anything about Scotland are picturing some land of Pictish villages and constant war; as if ‘Braveheart’ was a modern documentary from mid-90s Scotland. It’s the weirdest thing, but I wouldn’t tell that to you if it weren’t true.
Despite having a number of brilliant hip-hop enthusiasts; artists, producers, DJs, bookers – the thought of North Eastern rap music is bizarre to a lot of people. In the interest of being taken seriously – as well they should – it’s no-gimmicks, international stuff. And amongst the sonic explorers of the city is Hanukkah Skywalker.
On his newest release, 003, Skywalker (AKA Benjamin Lowit) has mined into incredible depths for samples, and brings all sorts of colours into the palette. There’s off-kilter rhythms of Dilla, the soulful textures of Madlib, the off-the-wall choices of MF DOOM. All from a Torry flat and a copy of Ableton.
But it’s not a sound informed by locality, and that’s actually to its benefit. This is music heavily indebted to international sounds; jazz and soul samples from far-flung corners and unlikely sources.
“I’m aware that there is a Scottish scene”, Lowit says. “But it’s not a scene I am particularly connected to, the sound tends to have its basis in grime, which isn’t particularly linked to the sounds I make.
“I listen to a lot more music from other countries and cultures, Japanese jazz, Italian film scores, prog rock from post-Soviet States. It’s great music and scenes and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. Early synth music from Greece, TV music from Czechoslovakia, there’s so much out there I really love.”
I bring up that semi-anecdote of Aberdeen’s supposed isolation because it’s insulting and it’s something I heard a hell of a lot. Lowit shows we had as good resources as anyone, as indicated when I ask him about his musical upbringing:
“My earliest hip hop memories are of 2Pac, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and the Wu Tang Clan on the radio and music TV. I think Still Dre or California Love were the two tracks that really stood out for me. I remember recording tracks off the radio onto cassette, Izzo by Jay Z and Hard Knock Life in particular were really sonically interesting, and different from everything else you’d hear at the time.
“When I was younger, it was very much the production of these songs that attracted me, they combined elements of jazz, soul, punk, and dub which were very much sounds I grew up with at home.
“I think lyrically I didn’t really start to appreciate hip hop until I was in my teens though. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was maybe the album I listened to that first made me want to make beats, it’s got such a diverse range sonically from the more visceral A Milli to the euphoric chopped soul of Let The Beat Build.”
And so, the music: throughout 003 there are particular highlights, like the beautifully sculpted Foxglove, a dreamy and euphoric piece of production that keeps itself rooted in exploratory boom-bap while keeping its head firmly in the clouds. There’s the anthemic ‘douglas fir’, just made for East-Coast mafioso don rap. ‘Giant sequoia’ has trappy hi-hats and fantastic soul sampling, violins and brass that dance around the syncopated rhythms.
Whether “beat-tape” or LP, this feels like a cohesive project. Skywalker has been making music for a decent length of time, and that homework shows. While there’s nothing wrong with by-numbers-bangers, this is thoughtful, considered hip-hop which would suit the most dextrous MCs.
And all from little Aberdeen, too. Like, can you imagine?!