We don’t do enough to promote rap music in Scotland.
I know this all too well; when I ran a hip-hop night (relax, it was no big deal) in a student union (told you) I didn’t play any Scottish rap artists because simply put, I didn’t know any who would fit into what I was playing. It was a fun gig most of the time, but there was always some wry cynicism, as if I was playing some kind of novelty music. People asked for Macklemore. I was genuinely asked how I could know “this stuff”, you know, those underground artists like Dr. Dre and Biggie, as if the radio hadn’t bothered making its way to the bedrooms of Scotland yet. There was almost always, if it was busy, some utter goon – the type to wear shorts on a night out – doing that “up down, up down” arm-wave. I hope that people had fun, and I’m convinced plenty folk did (those who didn’t call me “the worst person they’ve ever met” because I didn’t play them ‘Gangnam Style’, like, read the room, dude), but it always felt like it was perceived as a joke, as opposed to an expression of real love for the music. Occasionally, it went too far; I was once rightly scolded by my friend DJ Home Alone for trying to play MF DOOM to Freshers. If you know what I look like, it makes total sense that I did that.
Still, the 00s were rap-centric for anyone with a radio. There is a generation raised on the stuff, and it’s even more ingrained in popular culture now. Liking rap in early-2000s Scotland might have been seen as an oddity, but not liking any would be bizarre now. Yet, any review of Scottish music and pop culture in the last 20 years would have you think that we had no access to any of this music. Like anyone in their late 20s/early 30s wouldn’t know who Ashanti did collaborations with. Of course, people were going to be influenced by, and make hip-hop in Scotland. Still, Scottish rap is treated as a novelty by anyone outside our borders. London is still seen as the only viable location for commercially successful Black music in the UK. That’s ridiculous.
You might remember the reaction to Paisley’s rapid-fire lyricist Shogun a few years back but save for the odd bit of coverage for Aberdeen’s excellent Ransom FA, real exposure for Scottish hip-hop acts is scarce. As a music press, we really need to address that, because the talent is there. Nova Scotia the Truth, Sami Omar. We’ve had turntablism and elements of hip-hop culture in Scotland for years, but never the embarrassment of MCing riches that we have now. Enter Bemz.
I was first alerted to Ayshire’s Bemz with the A$AP Rocky nod, ‘Goldie’, with its cold, disparate beat and hook-upon-hook delivery. While other Scottish rappers of the Loki ilk tackle societal issues or veer into concept territory, this is self-aware, celebratory rap music. ‘Flex’, from earlier this year, shows Bemz’s perceptive beat selection, but it’s ‘Bando 2 Studio’ which really shines, using cloud-rap synths but flowing with absolute ferocity as “a black kid in a white city”, making ends meet and turning around a set of circumstances to create meaningful art and express through honesty. The clarity in Bemz’s flows is remarkable, and his ability to switch from barren landscapes to raucous, surely radio-ready bangers shows an artist with adaptability, composure, and a real sense of craft.
“Putting in the graveyard shift to keep the dream alive”
Although we aren’t spoiled with Bemz releases yet, his EP in 2018 shows an ability to create a coherent project. The production is a little more rough-and-ready but his throaty, visceral flow sounds incredible over mournful sax on ‘Track 1’ of ‘Life’, and emotional maturity way beyond his early 20s throughout. On the most recent single, ‘Suddenly’, Bemz works with Afrobeat textures and vocoder, wrapping Cold North and Kobi Onyame’s limber verses with a hook that’s an instant earworm. There’s a real enthusiasm in Bemz’s so-far limited catalogue for exploring different sonic templates but there’s a consistency in his measured rhymes.
Saint of Lost Causes, an EP, is out on October 28th, and we’re desperate to hear it. Maybe in the future, someone will run a hip-hop night in a student union that’s littered with amazing Scottish artists, and people nod along in recognition of a bouncing Scottish rap culture. Here’s hoping.