Rap has become synonymous, in the minds of many, with aggressive young men flaunting their wealth, weaponry and women. It is hard to argue with this assessment, as many artists actively embrace this stereotype and often find success doing so – topping mainstream charts and the YouTube trending page; however, there is another, less well-publicised, sub-culture of rappers who seek to push the traditional boundaries of the genre and tap into themes that go beyond “burying ops” and “making p’s”. The Scottish rap scene, in particular, seems to be a hotbed for these alternative sounds: the indie/hip-hop trio Young Fathers are arguably the most commercially successful hip-hop group to have emerged in Scotland over the last few years, while music from the older generation, exemplified by Scottish rap titans such as Stanley Odd and Loki, explores complex political issues like class struggle, independence and environmentalism.
I contacted up-and-coming Scottish MC, Tzusan, to get an insider’s take on the scene and, more specifically, explore the relationship between masculinity and rap, and whether rap could potentially have a positive impact on shifting “masculine norms” that prevent some men from openly discussing their emotions and mental health. Tzusan’s music would probably fall into the “experimental hip-hop” category. His distinctive sampling style supports a measured flow that hits hard with rhythmic and distinctive word choice. It’s not unusual to hear a literary or cinematic reference feature in his bars – in the track “Freezer Section” he name checks Kafka, Chekhov and Fanny Cradock – and there’s a distinctly surreal undertone to many of his tracks, reflected in the metaphors he uses, e.g. “cut your shadow loose, deploy it as a parachute”.
None of this fits the usual rap stereotypes and I suggest he must be a bit of an outlier, but he protests that there are actually a lot of artists in Scotland and beyond, creating their own unique sounds, including the likes of Milo, Frankie Stew and CRPNTR, with whom he collaborated for his first album – The Teriyaki Tapes. The beauty of rap, he tells me, is that it can be whatever you want to make it. There are hardly any barriers, other than the ability to rhyme, and it is therefore one of the most accessible genres of music to practice, since it doesn’t require a band/instrument or the ability to read music. Producing your own beats is a bit more complex but there’s a multitude of free beats online and the culture within the community generally fosters a collaborative spirit between artists and producers.
This gives rap the potential to be a useful tool for expression, particularly for young men who don’t feel comfortable using traditional mediums such as writing or painting; however there is also a competitive element to rap that is absent from most other forms of music, and pits artists against one another in what could easily be misinterpreted as constant jostling for supremacy and status. Tzusan isn’t particular interested in starting “beef” with anybody else in the scene, but he appreciates the fact that rap has its roots in “battles” and assures me that if anybody came calling, he’d be ready for them. A lot of the high profile rap beefs give the impression that it’s all about asserting dominance, but for most artists, he says, it’s pretty light-hearted. You don’t hate the guy you’re up against: you’re just telling jokes about him, trying to get a laugh from the crowd, or show off some word play you’ve been working on. If you really analyse it, it’s mostly pretty childish, playground stuff – making fun of somebody’s height, haircut, or the colour of their hair.
Back in his high school days, listening to Jehst while sharing a joint convinced him and his mates that “words were cool”. Rap was an outlet for getting creative and throwing big words around without coming across as a book-worm or a pretentious know-it-all. It also got them thinking about the injustices in the world around them and stirred an anti-establishment anger which, he believes, is largely unrepresented in other genres of music. This type of anger is, after all, just another human emotion and while it might not have the same marketing appeal as love or sadness, it deserves some form of representation. Rapping can be an incredibly cathartic experience, both for the artist and listeners who can relate to the lyrics; therefore it is vital that rather than letting it scare us (an attitude that Skepta alludes to in his track “Shutdown”, mocking the backlash to his appearance at the Brits alongside Kanye: “A bunch of young men all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressively on stage, it made me feel so intimidated and it’s just not what I expect to see on prime time TV”) we look past the stereotypes associated with “rap culture”, the swagger and the swearing and listen to the message within the lyrics.
The title of this article is a line from Scottish grime MC Shogun’s track “VULCAN”; however, as much as it may seem to epitomise machismo, it takes on a new meaning when it is considered in the broader context of the song. His anger isn’t directed at some rival who’s been encroaching on his turf, or “disrespecting” him; it’s rooted in his frustration at the limited life prospects of those living in the community around him, the loss of his uncle – and primary male role model – to substance abuse and the fact it seems that there’s nothing he can do to address any of these issues, other than rap about them. He wears a tracksuit and snarls out his bars, with a stony-faced posse, mean mugging into the camera, behind him; however, if you can penetrate the Paisley accent and anger, there is a vulnerability that he, and many other young men like him, may feel comfortable expressing only in the resilient language of rap.
[Tommy Pia – he/him]