I have just watched the fascinating documentary The Great Hip Hop Hoax, which concerns two rappers from Dundee, who found that they couldn’t get signed when A&R people heard their Scottish accents, and so they pretended to be American instead. This ruse worked. Posing as Silbil and Brains, skateboarding rappers from Huntington Beach, California, the duo were quickly signed to Sony Records and appeared to be poised for stardom. Throughout their incubation period they maintained their conceit, fooling everyone around them.
The film raises all sorts of questions about that classic popular music concept of ‘authenticity’, but there are many layers to it here. On the one hand, there is the fact that the British industry figures would only deem their act marketable if they were from hip hop’s homeland. On the other hand, it is made clear throughout the film that they were signed because they were genuinely good and also because they were genuinely immersed in hip hop culture. Chris Rock, from Island Records, who approached them after their first ‘American’ showcase, states:
If you meet someone who’s into hip hop you know straight away. I have a massive collection of trainers. I buy vinyl records. I listen to music all the time. I wear these crazy glasses that everyone thinks ‘my god, what are they?’ And that’s the hip hop culture. Authenticity within hip hop is pretty much that. You’ve got to live and breathe it. Silibil n’ brains were hip hop. It was hilarious. They had clever enough lyrics and flow to actually impress people like me.
The film also made me think that authenticity in hip hop culture is more complicated than first appears. While it’s perhaps the ultimate genre for wanting to keep things ‘real’, it’s also the case that hip hop artists are shape-shifters. This is most obvious when it comes to nomenclature. There are very few hip hop artists who haven’t changed their names: Tracy Marrow becomes Ice-T, Curtis Jackson becomes 50 Cent, Thebe Kgositsile becomes Earl Sweatshirt, and so on. This can be related to older black music practice – McGinley Morganfield became Muddy Waters and Chester Burnett became Howlin’ Wolf. There is even a tradition whereby artists take on more than one persona. James Brown had a roll call of titles (Mr Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, etc.) and George Clinton has numerous alter egos (Dr Funkenstein, Star Child, Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, etc.). This can also be witnessed in hip hop: Marshall Mathers is Eminem is Slim Shady; Robert Diggs is RZA is Prince Rakeem is Bobby Digital is the Scientist. And so why not be Scottish and Californian?
Sadly, the public never got to experience Silibill and Brains’ duality. Their act was dropped and it appears that they failed for two main reasons. One, is that it was psychologically dangerous for them to perpetuate their lie (this process reminded me of the episode of Colditz in which Wing Commander Marsh feigned madness in order to be released, but got so deep into his act that he became insane). The second reason is that they missed their window.
I have never seen this aspect of popular music success and failure captured so effectively before. Things move fast and there is only a buzz around an act for a certain period of time: the public cools off; record company personal move on to other projects. Crucially, Brains delayed the release of their first single. His sister is convinced that he did so because he was scared of the consequences of their cover being blown. Whatever the reason, the timing was terrible. Shortly after delaying the release, Sony merged with BMG and the person who signed them got laid off in the process. Jonathan Shalit states that ‘there’s always a moment when you’re developing creative people, if you don’t have success before that moment passes, they often don’t have success’, and their co-manager Del Conboy talks about industry practice: ‘once someone at the top has told all the foot soldiers that that band is probably on the way out the phone stops ringing, you can’t get hold of people, and I remember thinking at the time, because I’d gone through it before, "this feels like that time again". No one will really say "this isn’t working, it’s over"'. Their new A&R man was part of this process. He apparently told them, ‘we’re not going to get rid of you, but we’re not really sure about this either’, before adding the killer line, ‘I don’t think you guys are believable’.