The Great Hip Hop Hoax, directed by Jeanie Finlay, charts the rise and fall of Scottish rappers Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain who created alternate personalities in an audacious bid to get the attention of the record industry and receive the exposure they felt they deserved.
The two met on the Dundee skate scene in the early noughties and quickly became close friends, bonding over a shared love of hip-hop. Before long, they were writing and producing their own songs as rap duo Silibil n Brains, heavily influenced by popular acts such as Eminem and D-12. With their confidence high, they travelled to London to take part in an open audition but were coldly mocked by a panel of industry reps who felt hip-hop and Scots just shouldn’t mix.
Boyd and Bain undoubtedly had talent but they didn’t fit the industry’s mould. Feeling cheated and hell bent on success they discovered that by mimicking the accents and mannerisms of their American idols they could access levels of adulation and hype that were otherwise unattainable. Upon moving to London the pair assumed the larger than life personalities of two Californian skater-rappers, based on an amalgamation of stereotypes from imported American TV shows such as Jackass. It wasn’t long before the pair were spotted by an A&R scout from Island Records and without ever breaking character, the two imposters maintained a party lifestyle of loose ties for nearly two years, funded by cash advances from Sony UK with whom they were signed. They were, however, facing a “Catch 22” situation, as releasing records meant television exposure, which would surely lead to them being recognised. This paranoid fear caused the release of their debut single to be repeatedly delayed, eventually leaving them side-lined by the record label.
Much of the film focuses on the gradual destruction of Boyd and Bain’s friendship under the enormous stress of living double lives, each crack in their story adding to fears of being convicted as fraudsters or forced to pay back the near quarter of a million pounds taken from Sony. Living a lie for so long took its toll on their sense of identity, more so for Bain who clearly had the most invested in their success and had become consumed by the reality he had created. It was particularly interesting to contrast how each rapper coped in the wake of their near success, with Boyd retreating to family life in Arbroath and Bain choosing to stay in London and continue to chase the dream.
Bain and Boyd, who are lively storytellers, display a range of emotions while reliving their exploits and perform the lion’s share of the narration. There are also interviews with friends, family and industry types including their ex-manager, who finds sympathy and understanding for the boys, memorably referring to their old lives in Dundee as “horrible and boring”. Animated sequences by the illustrator Jon Burgerman are used to add some visual interest to the narration. His cartoonish style fits the story well, although at times these segments can seem like a time-filling device, used to stretch the narrative.
Boyd and Bain were ahead of their time in terms of self-promotion and, fortunately for the documentary makers, they filmed their journey with the diligence of YouTube celebrities. This camcorder footage accounts for a large part of the film and captures some telling moments amidst the obnoxious pranks and drink-fuelled parties. Those local to Dundee and familiar with its skating scene will find the footage from the film’s opening scenes particularly nostalgic. Similarly, The Great Hip Hop Hoax‘s soundtrack includes guilty pleasures from the heyday of skater rap and, during the closing credits, the audience is treated to an a capella rap by Silibil n Brains; this time with their Scottish twangs left intact. It’s an appropriate ending for a film that is surreal and entertaining if not a little bit awkward to watch.