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Hip hop is not really my kind of music. Even when it started to break into the mainstream in the late 80s I tended to only really like the safer, more soulful take on it, finding the Beastie Boys to be boring, never mind their desperation to outrage Fleet Street which just made me roll my eyes, having seen it all before with the likes of the Sex Pistols.
Of course these days it's entirely mainstream but by and large it's an American thing. Eminem works not because he's white but because he's white and American - and he has a story to tell. There are regional variations of hip hop - French hip hop is really popular in the French speaking world but to my mind - and no doubt to most other English speakers - it loses its potency due to the language barrier, never mind the language of romance being used in a way most people wouldn't expect. So what do you do if you don't fit that mould?
In 2003, two Scottish rappers, Gavin Bain and Bill Boyd, formed a duo called Silibil n Brains in Dundee, where they built up a loyal following. Their success led them to London and an audition for a record company. Unfortunately things didn't go as planned, with their performance laughed off stage and record company executives branding the pair "rapping Proclaimers". This seems like unfair criticism but most people might shake it off and try elsewhere. Bain and Boyd took it very badly however and such was Bain's blind ambition he hatched a plan which would find Silibil n Brains signed by a major record company - with the basis of this contract based on one simple lie - that both Bain and Boyd were American.
"Straight Outta Scotland" tells the story of Silibil n Brains and how, in the words of the cover, "they persuaded the music industry they were the latest hot young talent from California". In truth, neither Bain nor Boyd had ever been to California - or anywhere in the USA for that matter.
The book was originally published in 2010 as "California Schemin'" but I didn't encounter it until recently when it was reprinted with the new title of "Straight Outta Scotland", a more apt title perhaps in light of the rap and hip hop links.
Gavin Bain's book starts with his childhood in South Africa, where he lived a privileged life with servants and a nanny until he was 13 years old when his father's business went bust. Bain Snr realised that the family couldn't survive in South Africa so the whole family was uprooted back to his native land - Scotland.
Bain went from a huge home in Durban to staying at his grandmother's small flat in a very dodgy area of Motherwell which locals had dubbed "Little Bosnia". He started at Braidhurst High School in the town and was immediately picked on by the school bullies for his South African accent - with bullies invariably picking on anyone they perceive to be "different". Bain fitted that bill perfectly and had to quickly adapt a Scottish accent.
Bain's description of his school years seem to comprise purely of fights, and although there is a genuine sense of relief when the family relocated from the flat in Motherwell to a larger home in Newarthill, school seemed to be a place of torture for Bain.
At first I have to say I wondered why Bain felt it so important to mention this part of his life and how the upheaval of the move affected him but it's been said before that people who lie to get what they want frequently have experienced a huge change in lifestyle during childhood and I can only surmise that this is part of Bain's reasoning for what he did later.
Bain left Motherwell to attend a graphic art course in Dundee and it was there he met Bill Boyd, who was to become his musical partner.
Following the decision to re-invent themselves as American rappers, the book follows the pair's deceit as they were signed by Jonathan Shalit, the man who discovered and managed Charlotte Church, and under Shalit's guidance they signed a record contract with Sony. Bain and Boyd managed to con £250,000 from Shalit and Sony and the book recalls how they lived the rock n roll lifestyle to the full - even though they never released a record.
Bain is honest in his writing but I never got the impression he's really sorry for what he did. I guess he doesn't have to be - he lived a lifestyle which got him a tour with D12 and meetings with Eminem and Madonna, but the suggestion seems to be that the lies he told took a toll on his health - never mind the amount of alcohol he was drinking.
Boyd comes across as an altogether more carefree person than Bain and you can sense Bain's envy of this in his writing. Bain seems to be consumed with ambition and an unnerving belief that everything he ever committed to the studio as Silibil n Brains was unfeasibly brilliant. Having taken the opportunity to listen to what's available on YouTube it comes across as rather ordinary, run of the mill hip hop with a bit of punk thrown in.
There is part of me which has a sneaking admiration for what Bain and Boyd did - they took on an increasingly cautious music industry and essentially conned them. Bain seems to have no real sympathy for anyone at Sony who fell for the scam but he does seem genuinely sorry over how he conned Jonathan Shalit, someone who seems to have genuinely had faith in their talent and who spent a great deal of time and money in promoting them. This, of course, could be down to the fact Shalit has been somewhat sangfroid about the whole thing, as opposed to Sony who have po-facedly refused to comment.
For several years they spoke to everyone in American accents, which they honed on listening to Michael J Fox and Matthew Perry on TV. At one point early on in their deceit someone suggests to Bain he sounds Canadian - and I was expecting him to mention in the book that he clearly hadn't done his research properly because Michael J Fox is Canadian - but no such admission materialised.
Bain admits he knew that fame would undoubtedly mean they would be unmasked - but they carried their deceit off with an almost admirable aplomb. After appearing on MTV's Most Wanted several comments were left on YouTube from people who know both Bain and Boyd in Dundee but no-one seemed to notice - or care. The stress of the deceit does seem to have been eating away at both men however and they frequently had physical fights with one another. They had a very un-American appetite for alcohol too, an appetite which found Bain hospitalised several times.
I did find Bain's writing to be eminently readable, but it is rather self absorbed. He doesn't take the time to probe anyone else's real feelings on the scam, preferring to focus instead on what he views as the positives he was able to take from it. I also find his self belief to be rather irritating at times - he really does come across in this book as believing he was part of something really special in Silibil n Brains. At first I thought perhaps he was being ironic, but as the book progressed and this insistence that absolutely everything they ever recorded was brilliant continued, I realised that no - he really believed it was.
His horror at Sony's unwillingness to realise any of their music is palpable, along with his disdain over their reasoning for this unwillingness - despite the fact at least one of their songs which comprised of one swear word beginning with the letter "c" was never going to be played on the radio.
He also writes with relish about the perks of touring, leaving little to the imagination when describing the antics of groupies, along with blagging tickets to the Brit Awards and the other fringe benefits of being in the music business, but also touches on how the industry treats you when you are no longer hot property.
If "Straight Outta Scotland" confirms anything it's that truth really is stranger than fiction. If I were to read this story in a novel I would dismiss it as pure fantasy and as such there's no denying that the scam Bain and Boyd pulled off was rather spectacular. The problem is it seems to act as a vehicle for Bain to make excuse after excuse, never mind the fact as a reader I got the impression Bain had one eye on a film deal from a story which isn't, in all honesty, his alone to share.
Bain's writing is decent enough but the book does plod in places. It gets tiring to read about yet another fist fight or yet another session of Bain's paranoia which at times seems to border on self pity. I appreciate the stress of lying to the extent Bain was on a constant basis would undoubtedly affect your health but Bain had countless chances to come clean which he didn't take, so blind was his determination to be a star.
This is a book which I did enjoy reading but I can't help but feel the story would have been told better by a more objective author, allowing all the characters to speak in their own words. Instead the reader has to make do with Bain's viewpoint only, and at times what amounts to what is essentially purely his assumptions, which is altogether unsatisfactory.
As an insight into how the music industry worked before the recession "Straight Outta Scotland" is an eye opener but at the end of the day it lacks the insight of other people to get a totally honest account of what happened. I guess that's the trouble when you tell lies - even when you come clean, not everyone will believe you.