The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Tom Seymour

It’s the early noughties. Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain, aka Silibil ‘n’ Brains, are two lads from outer-Dundee with a talent for hip-hop. After being rejected with the moniker ‘The Rapping Proclaimers’ at a London music industry try-out, they return to Scotland to reinvent themselves as louche Californian rappers – clothes, accent, backstory, the works. The industry suddenly lies down for them, and Silibil ‘n’ Brains sign to a major label with $75k in their account and London’s nightlife calling.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax revisits the pair in the present day. Nottingham-based director Jeanie Finlay tells us how they managed to get away with it at first, and how it all managed to go so horribly wrong.

GFW: When did you first hear about the great hip hop hoax?
Jeanie Finlay: The story was already in the public conscience. There were a number of pieces in the papers, the first being in the Guardian I think. It was a very appealing story because it had lots of things to offer; the idea of what it is to be Scottish, the reason why some people feel the need to deny it, and the idea of two people being tied together by a lie. It seemed like a story about what we’re prepared to sacrifice, and how much that can f*ck you up. The fact that they never made it seemed famous as well; Silibil and Brains got to taste the flame of fame without actually ever fully getting there.

What would have happened, do you think, if they came clean and said: “We’re Scottish, we’ve been having you, but we’ve demonstrated we have the tunes?”
It’s fair to say this whole caper was not born of logic. They weren’t rejected 100 times and that made them come up with this brilliant plan; they had one rejection and that drove them crazy. The obvious next step of rejection is not to remodel your identity around being American. It seems like a really bonkers idea that only they, at that time, could have come up with.

How did you first make contact?
I met Gavin in London four days after I read the Guardian piece. He was in a bit of a wild-eyed frenzy at the time; drinking energy drinks while he took offers from book publishers and other journalists. He liked being filmed and telling his story, but he was coming to terms with all the attention. I think, before the story broke, he’d been working in a watch shop and trying to get Hopeless Heroic, his new band, off the ground. I felt like I was being part of his grand masterplan, and I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to be part of that.

What’s the status of their relationship now, and what affect has the film had?
There’s been a reunion, and I think the film may have been a catalyst for that. I made the film with them completely apart, and it was a bit like dealing with a divorced couple; they had a peripheral view of what the other one was up to, but they didn’t talk. I’d say they’re both still fiercely competitive of each other. But they’re very open in the film about what they mean to each other, and they started talking again as a result. They actually recorded an album in February which they’re promoting off the back of the film. But they’re ten years older now, and they’re more fixed in their ways now than they were back in the day.

California Dreamin': Dundee's Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain, aka Silibil ‘n’ Brains.

The film uses footage they took on cameras to tell their story. Did you know you had that archival trove before you started the project?
I knew there was always lots of archive footage filmed by them, and it's tempting to slather the film with it. There’s hours of raw material, but what was exciting was finding single moments – a look or an exchange – that illustrates the story, and I filmed lots of additional visuals to make it play more and heighten those moments.

The group have admitted to getting involved with a lot of drug use during the period in which the film's set. Did you feel you had to protect them from those revelations at all?
They weren’t that explicit about the drug use in the interviews; they would only admit to doing a few mushrooms. I think you get they were into that stuff without me spelling it out. They were into the lot – sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Was the structure and narrative of the film established before you started shooting?
No matter how straightforward the film may look, it’s a really tightly woven, intricate narrative. It evolved over a long period of time; any documentary filmmaker that says otherwise are talking bullsh*t. We decided on the main story points, but we were going back to get more footage for each point.

When was the first time you showed it to Gavin and Billy?
They saw it before Christmas. Billy loved it, but Gavin had lots of problems with it, and wanted me to change lots of things.

Like what?
I can’t say, but ultimately I get final cut.

Some of the people referenced say how controlling Gavin was. Did he find it difficult to understand you were the director of the film?
He knows I am the director, but it’s tricky. He’d been working on another film on which they’d offered him creative cut, so it was tricky to establish myself and say: “This is my film, and I’m trying to be fair to both of you.” But I think seeing yourself on-screen can be a stressful and terrible experience, and I’m not here to f*ck anyone up.

It allows me to show you the story, rather than just me filming someone saying: “Yeah, we did loads of crazy sh*t.” We’ve got scenes of them urinating on each other in Leicester Square; it’s a thrilling and shocking scene, but it’s also horrendous. If I’d seen them doing that, I would have thought it was disgusting behaviour. But it completely illustrates the point they’d got to.

'The Great Hip Hop Hoax' just screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival and will be released in cinemas this September through Vertigo.

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