Did you grow up speaking Gaelic and if so, where, and did you get it at school?
Where I was brought up, near a wee village called Gartocharn on the border of the Southern Highlands and the central belt; It was English we had in the house, didn’t get a word of it at school! I started speaking Gaelic in my late teens because my family, originating from the West Highlands on both sides, all spoke it and my dad’s family in particular were very famous for being a big part of the Gaelic tradition (singers, pipers, tradition bearers).
What or who first got you into music and what was the first instrument you learned? And now what instruments do you play?
I first got into music through my parents – my father is from a famous hereditary tradition of pipers spanning many generations as is my mother’s (although she doesn’t play herself). I learned the pipes first of all and I’m told I could sing ‘canntaireachd’ before I could talk. The instruments I play now are: highland, small and uileann pipes, electric/acoustic guitar (like playing jazz guitar in particular), whistles, a bit of percussion, mouth organ, and of course the beatmaking/rapping.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up and what did you like about it?
I heard bagpipes, bagpipes and more bagpipes! The bit I loved best about it was seeing my dad playing and competing etc. I really loved the drums in the local pipe band though and that’s probably where my early feel for percussion and beats started. When I got into my teens I listened to everything from rock, blues, classical etc. I was also exposed to the commercial end of the Gaelic music scene and attended Runrig concerts as a youngster. I remember being really into them when I was still in primary school and singing along with their Gaelic material.
What or who inspired you to start rapping – and did you always rap in Gaelic?
My biggest influence as a rapper when it comes to Gaelic material is unquestionably the late Calum Eardsaidh Chonnich (Calum Beaton) from South Uist, where I spent my early twenties. I used to hear him recite line upon line of Gaelic poetry and with the drive in me to become a master of the language and its literature I aspired to be able to do the same. It was only when I had mastered some of the poems I heard from him and started reciting them musically without music that I realised the musicological connection between what he was doing and what I heard in the complex meters of some of my favourite MCs like Talib Kweli. When I started rapping it was all old traditional poems I used. Following that (being a Gaelic poet already anyway) I started developing my skills and the prospect of becoming an MC became a reality.
Why do you think rap or hip hop music works for Gaelic/Highland themes – what points of contact do you feel with the original African American rappers?
In non-colonised West Africa they have the tradition of the griot who, at one time, as well as being a musician and poet, would be able to recite people’s ancestry to them and tell stories, sing songs of someone’s forebears to give them a sense of ‘dùthchas’. In the writing down of our traditions our filidh, bàird, griot or whatever you want to call them lost their place in society and this coupled with Britain’s dismantling of our traditional communities killed off our very own tradition of Gaelic rap which has existed for thousands of years.
There’s nothing new about what I’m doing, only that I have set the poetry to contemporary sounds and beats using a turntable and a sampler or working with African drummers/singers for these sounds as opposed to the guitars, mandolins, keyboards of western folk music it usually meets. The difference being when it meets those instruments in a folk context it usually changes the nature of the music to be more Westernised; rap brings the poetry straight back to its roots. Most of the melodies and styles of ‘sean-nós’ we have are relatively new when compared with the recitative styles I encountered when studying the performances of our most ancient music; the aural poetry of Oisinn and other greats. When I refer to the poetry of Oisinn I do not mean the reshaped invented traditions associated with James MacPherson, but the thousands of lines of aural poetry which were collected in Scotland that we believe to be the actual words of the ancient poet himself.
As far as points of contact with Hip Hop culture are concerned, the first point I’ll make is that Hip Hop is not a culture. It is a civilisation! It’s about self respect, peace, love, unity and having fun. Its roots are ancient and go beyond what the big record companies and the media have led us to believe it is. Like Gaelic culture it has been highjacked and had its true spirit taken out. The people who celebrate both cultures are colonised and have been for centuries. The parallels between what has happened to all the exploited peoples of the world have already made an appearance in Hip Hop. It’s only the racists that believe Hip Hop should be for blacks only. It is a truly global culture and has instilled confidence in, I’m sure, millions of culturally disillusioned people like myself to move their culture into the modern era. It is a truly global phenomenon. It has it’s roots, but they go back a lot further than the ghettos of NY in the 1980s; it goes back to Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, Duncan Ban Macintyre – to all the great poets of history, musicians, dancers, artists of the world who have expressed a collective consciousness for their people the world over.
When did you first hear Shooglenifty’s music, and, assuming you are a fan(!), what do you like about it? Any favourite tunes and why?
The truth is that I didn’t listen to any trad fusion music at all until very recently. Whilst exploring my own tradition I was obsessed with ‘the pure drop’ as they say in Ireland and the material I enjoyed listening to was all unaccompanied, old style music! I remember explaining that to Angus [Grant] the night of Knockengorroch and how I really wasn’t familiar with their material at all for that reason! I had performed with his father and spoken about old tunes, but never with himself. I particularly like Angus Senior’s version of my grampa’s cousin Willie’s tune Mrs MacDonald of Dunach and I hope to get it from him some day!
It’s only recently, having had something of a revolution of the mind in my approach to tradition that I have opened up to listening to Shooglies, Treach etc, and appreciating the amazing creativity of others of who have found a way of blending tradition and the new in their own unique way. I’m glad I came at it this way though, because it gives me a deeper understanding of how what I’m hearing came together and I must say, having gone through the back catalogue on Spotify I think The Untied Knot is my favourite! James [Mackintosh]’s drumming in particular is completely immaculate and I count him as one of the very best drummers in the country (a really rare thing indeed). The grooves he provides and the tempos etc. are always spot on.
When did you first appear live with Shooglenifty and how did that feel? How did it work fusing what you do with the Shoogle tunes?
When I met the boys backstage at Knockengorroch this year I had no idea that they would be up for having me on stage, I think it is testament to how keen the guys are to encourage the up and coming (if indeed that is what I am!). I remember standing and listening from the side of the stage with my pal Joe Peat who was doing the monitors and being blown away by the audience’s reaction (mainly made up of people you wouldn’t associate with traditional music). It showed how the guys are kind of ‘genre-less’. Acid Croft is surely about as close as you could get to it! When I finally got the signal from James that my spot was coming up I got a huge rush of energy. It was the first time I’d ever performed on a stage that size and I must admit, I got a hell of a buzz out of it! As far as the fusion goes, I think it worked very well considering we had never tried it before and I hope in the future that there will be more collaborative opportunities!
What did it mean to win your recent award at Na Trads (Griogair won ‘Best Gaelic Singer’ at the recent traditional music awards in Dundee)?
Winning the Trads meant a lot to me because it made me feel like I’m a part of the bigger picture of all these wonderful musicians and great minds who are currently creating so much beautiful music in this amazing little country of ours. Just to be a part of that and to be considered worthy of being nominated, never mind winning the award was a real honour.
What can people expect at the Glasgow gig? How can you encourage people who might be put off by the “Gaelic rapper” tag?
At the Glasgow gig expect to hear REAL HIP HOP combined with REAL GAELIC MUSIC. That is what we intend to bring to the table every time. It’s the realness of getting up there and saying it like it is (or like you think it is), cutting and scratching sounds that blend naturally from the african American tradition with the raw energy of Gaelic music (not just poetry, but piping, fiddling and singing) that is the GhettoCroft signature sound.
If people are expecting to turn up and be shouted at in Gaelic, they’re in for a surprise! This is something you have never heard before. We also have English language material that people can participate in and understand so the non Gaelic speakers won’t be alienated and maybe, just maybe, a little door into the world of the bàrd/Gaelic MC will be opened up to those who are open to it. There is a deep spiritual element to the kind of Hip Hop we are into anyway and this is reflected in our material. The kind of African American Hip Hop we listen to is all about picking yourself up out of the ‘Ghetto mentality’ and raising your consciousness to create a better you and a better planet. In a disenfranchised, colonised highlands/Scotland where we have our own struggle for freedom many people (although they maybe don’t admit it) feel a strong sense of disillusion and frustration at what is happening politically. We’re here to remind people that they are somebody. That they can and will make a difference in building themselves, their nation and their culture for the generations of Gaels and Scots yet to come.
What’s next for you?
My immediate future plans are centred around the release of the highly anticipated Afro Celt Sound System‘s The Source, which is due for release next year. Thanks to my man James Mackintosh, I got quite heavily involved in the album and went on to become a full blown member of the band. With that in mind the tours, festivals, etc. I will be undertaking with my new found kindred spirits in Afro Celt Sound System will take up much of my time and creative energy. Gaelic Hip Hop will certainly not be taking a back seat and, indeed, I see the two projects as being very much part of the same thing both ideologically and musically!