The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society

The Great Hip Hop Hoax – Film Review by Laura Speers


The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Director Jeanie Finlay (2013)

The Great Hip Hop Hoax follows a rap duo from Dundee in Scotland who fabricate an elaborate story to secure a record deal. Following a humiliating audition in London where the pair are laughed at by a panel of judges for being Scottish rappers, they become more determined to make their dream come true. Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain reinvent themselves as brash and outlandish Silibil N’ Brains, who hail from California. As soon as the rappers fake American accents their fortunes turn. Booking agents, promoters and even music executives are soon duped by the pretence. Quickly touted as the ‘next big thing’, they land a contract with Sony, but the audacious masquerade and constant fear of being exposed as frauds takes its toll on the rappers. The film documents the astonishing true story of the duo’s rise to fame, their downfall, and the personal toll of the deception.

The film is made up of confessional interviews with the two rappers, as well as music industry personnel, close loved ones who were in on the hoax and others implicated in their web of lies. Intermingled with the unfolding narrative is shaky amateur footage shot by the rappers themselves, which captures the outlandish exploits of the pair following their first advance from Sony. In addition, stylised animation is deployed as a visual means to reconstruct the past. The animation also captures the two-dimensional nature of their rap characters.

At the heart of the story is the contentious issue of authenticity. To be taken seriously, the rappers feel the need to pretend they are from where the culture originates, the USA. Although substantial research on hip hop to date has emerged from the USA, there has been a shift in the last decade recognising hip hop as a global music. Tony Mitchell’s edited book Global Noise: Rap and Hip Hop Outside the USA (2001) arguably signalled the emergence of a body of scholarly work on rap, known as global hip hop studies (Alim et al., 2009). Since then, studies of localised hip hop scenes have been carried out all over the world recognising and celebrating the culture as a meaningful medium of expression and affiliation for youth. However, in the case of the music industry, it seems rap is only authentic if it is American and based on conventional, almost stereotypical, tropes of hip hop. As Gavin states in the film, “It has nothing to do with how good you are. If you want to get on a label, you have to be marketable.” Herein lies the tension between what is deemed ‘authentic’ and what ‘sells’.

For a music that holds ‘being true to oneself’ (Harkness, 2012) as a fundamental tenet of “keepin’ it real”, rappers who fabricate personas and live a lie portraying themselves as American, might immediately seem inauthentic. However, the documentary conveys the complex and often paradoxical nature of authenticity. If these two Scottish rappers wanted nothing more than to be hip hop stars, then perhaps we can understand them as ‘being true’ to that ideal. The contested and messy way in which authenticity can be interpreted and practised is what makes it such a highly charged issue in hip hop (Pennycook, 1997).

The essentialist debate of whether rappers are only considered authentic if they are from where the culture originates and fit the characteristics of the ‘original’ participants i.e. black, working-class and urban (Harkness, 2012) is not just limited to hip hop. There are similar debates in other genres, for instance country music (Peterson, 1997), blues (Grazian, 2003), punk (Williams, 2006) and dance music (Thornton, 1995). Furthermore, as the world becomes increasingly globalised and governed by capitalism, different music and cultural forms will continue to be appropriated and adopted in unlikely places across the globe, making questions of authenticity ever more salient.

Aside from the complicated questions raised about identity and authenticity, the story is also about friendship. Rather than experiencing a sense of condemnation or disapproval towards the main protagonists, the viewer feels sympathy for the young pair who were prepared to go to any length to reach their dreams, ultimately costing them their friendship. The interviews with Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd featured in the documentary had to be shot separately as they were not on speaking terms. The film is thus not just an entertaining account of rappers taking on the British music industry but a moving morality tale about friendship too.

The documentary will not solely be of interest to hip hop fans, but also to audiences interested in popular music or the music industry as the film provides a provocative insight into the way in which the artist-management system functions. Artists have a better chance of success with a well-known manager; though quite often have to relinquish rights to the label, perhaps unwittingly precipitating their downfall. The documentary will also appeal to scholars of authenticity because of the questions it raises concerning what constitutes the ‘real’ and ‘fake’, and the role of commercialisation in music.

The actual deception took place in 2004 leaving the inevitable question at the end of the film that if, ten years on, the pair would be able to ‘make it’ as Scottish rappers today. Although we are now living in a different cultural landscape, which celebrates hybridised and localised manifestations of hip hop, the documentary highlights the crippling power of the music industry. As long as it continues to exercise a controlling influence, in effect the music industry functions as the gatekeeper of authenticity.


Works Cited

Alim, H., Ibrahim, A., Pennycook, A. (eds.) (2009). Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language. London & New York: Routledge.

Grazian, D. (2003). Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Harkness, R. (2012). True School: Situational Authenticity in Chicago’s Hip Hop Underground. Cultural Sociology. 6(3) 283-298.

Mitchell, T. (2001). Global Noise: Rap and Hip-hop Outside the USA. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2007). Language, Localization, and the Real: Hip-Hop and the Global Spread of Authenticity. Journal of Language, Identity & Education 6(2) 101-115.

Peterson, R. A. (1997). Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, J. (2006). Authentic Identities: Straightedge Subculture, Music and the Internet. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 25(2) 173-200.

Thorton, S. (1996). Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: University Press of New England.




Imagine a boy…

It’s in their nature by Natalie Wreyford

Inspired by Emma Dabiri’s article in The New Statesman about hair in which she asked us to “Imagine a world that is dominated by Black Africans”, where “All the successful women in society have full resplendent, Afro hair, even the minority white ones.” I thought it might be interesting to try a similar imaginative experiment about gender. So here goes. There’s a lot I couldn’t fit in. Please feel free to come up with some additions.

seth passport

Imagine a boy… born into a world where all the daddies stay at home and look after the children and the mummies go out to work full time. Where, in the first years of his life, he sees a lot more of Daddy and other daddies than he does of Mummy, and he starts to link his own gender with this important role in life.  He is given toys that promote this association – baby dolls to look after, play food and supermarket baskets, even miniature cleaning equipment. He sees Daddy do the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking, the tidying up, and it reinforces the idea that this is what boys and men do.  Mummy helps a bit, but it’s not really her job. He sees it all the time on TV and in films too. The men always stay at home with their children and they don’t often have other jobs, only sometimes they are nurses and teachers and other nurturing roles. He also enjoys his sister’s programmes, all about adventures and rescuing people and fighting the bad gals, but his friends all have the same T-shirts he does, the ones with the pretty boys who wear the sweetest shorts and shirts, and who gaze out bashfully from his colouring books and dinner plates, as they pick flowers and stroke baby animals. As he starts school and starts to learn about the world, he begins to realise that the stuff Mummy does, out there in the big world, might be a bit more interesting that this small cozy world of Daddies. He’s doing well at school. He’s ready for new adventures. He’s encouraged to pursue what he’s interested in, and imagine himself in some of the roles that mummies (and a few daddies) take. But all the time, in the back of his head, and often in the front too, is the reminder that one day he will most likely want to have children too, and how will that fit in with all the other plans he has? How will he look after them? He had better make sure that he finds himself a good woman to look after him and the kids. He’d better make sure he doesn’t do anything to put the ladies off. He’d better make sure he looks good all the time, because you never know when Mrs. Right is going to appear. Also the girls seem to have much more confidence in class. They’re not afraid to speak out, or to mess around and get in trouble. It’s part of their nature. It might help if the girls weren’t always commenting on the way he and the other boys look. And reading those magazines stolen from their mums with pictures of men with no clothes on lying around in the strangest of places. The girls have started asking him to text them a picture of himself like that. He doesn’t want to, but he really wants the girls to like him and some of the other boys have done it. As he reaches senior school he starts to think that he should have as much right as the girls in his class to do whatever he wants. But he feels most comfortable in the supportive environment of male-dominated subjects where they talk about art and relationships and don’t get laughed at by the girls when they put on those unflattering lab coats and goggles.  His dad went back to work a few years ago, but he’s always there to pick him up from school and on Fridays he goes to the Supermarket. That’s also the day the cleaner, Jose, comes. By the time he’s at university, the boy has decided that he wants to try to make his mark in this world. He’s ambitious to have a good job and to make a contribution to the world. He’s found a girlfriend who is pretty nice to him (after a series of disastrous learning experiences with girls who were only interested in losing their virginity with him and made him feel pretty insecure and unattractive at times). He believes it is possible to have a career and a family. It’s all a question of balance. He imagines working flexi-time, rushing back from an exciting day at work to pick up the children from nursery and sing them to sleep. He doesn’t dare talk to his girlfriend about these things. If she got any idea that he was thinking even in vague, speculative terms about these sort of things it would probably make her run a mile. It’s not like he wants to rush into things, but sometimes he wonders whether it will be as easy as he thinks (he’s heard thinks from the Masculists at the students union which scared him a bit. Something about men doing ‘second shifts’ of work and childcare and not being paid as much as women, and not making it into the senior jobs in practically any professions). But maybe those men don’t want to rise to the top of their professions. That’s fine. Maybe they prefer to stay at home and look after the kids, just like their dads did. After all, it’s in their nature isn’t it?