Steg G is to Glasgow, what Dr Dre was to Compton… A bold statement to start off with, but Steg is the backbone of Scottish hip hop, and has been for decades now! Many, many years cutting his teeth, keeping his ear to the streets, perfecting the beats; DJing, producing, mixing, radio-presenting, educating... Steg produced some of the earliest Scottish hip hop beats known to man, way-back-when, way back when messages were something you received infrequently by Royal Mail, back when the Spice Girls and Britpop were topping the charts and back when East and West coast rap were battling it out in the US and… Well, you get the picture. I was nine years old when Steg was dropping his first records! With the Freestyle Master and co. they are literally the NWA of Glasgow! The WWA, Weegies With Attitude.
Anyway, the Stegosaurus has evolved, far from being a dinosaur he has morphed through the ages, consistently and continuously and chameleonically moving with the times. Mastering his craft along the way, pushing boundaries and working with anyone-who-has-ever-been-anyone in Scottish hip hop as well as supporting some of the biggest names in the whole world! In short, through his work with the communities of the city he lives in, and with the accolades and achievements he has attained in the world of music, Steg is a cultural icon in this city, and deservedly so, and yet you will never meet a more humble and affable dude.
And now we see him evolving once more; maturing into a whole new style he comes at us, quite unexpectedly, with a hip-hop orchestral fusion, performed with a 12-piece orchestra, The Glasgow Barons, and featuring five of Scotland’s best rappers, Solareye, The Freestyle Master, Empress, and hip-hop duo CCTV! Steg collaborates with Paul MacAlindin on an enticing, adventurous and incredible concept; it created a lot of buzz immediately, I’ve heard it being talked about a lot, and played on a lot of local podcasts and people’s playlists at gigs. I had the privilege of going along to see it live at the Barrowlands Ballroom and it was a spectacular thing to behold and drew me in and captivated me for the whole performance.
As we entered we were handed a programme as if we were attending an actual opera, and in some ways we were! We watched special guest legend and local celebrity Loki opening the show with some of his awesome and poignant new tracks. Loki recently won the Orwell Prize for ‘Poverty Safari’ because it was “exactly the book Orwell would have wanted to win” and is a true icon in Glasgow’s literary and music culture.
But the main event was a breathtaking hour of stageshow, orchestral music and a rappers’ showcase as they provided their talents to a very abstract piece. The orchestra was a smorgasbord of classical instruments; flutes, saxophones, violins, pianos, accordions, and cellos etc.. A highlight was the Freestyle Master dressed as a Peaky Blinder! I mean the visual highlight obviously, musically there was no shortage of amazing beats and sweeping symphonies interspersed with rock & roll guitar solos and a lyrical collage which told an unfolding story… But before I get into the meat of that bone I’d like to lay out this quote by Steg:
“The Air In Between explores exile, loneliness, economic activity and time, basically the things you need to do to survive and involves a mix of the finest classically-trained musicians and Scotland’s best rappers. As a hip-hop producer and educator this is a great opportunity to expand my own skillset and my repertoire as an artist. It aims to break down the invisible barriers that exist in music, culture, community and class and helps validate the artistic, educational and cultural benefits that hip-hop brings to Scotland as a true unfiltered reflection of our communities, from the people within.”
“…A true unfiltered reflection of our communities…” Indeed. If you look at the vast cross-section of Scottish rappers and their myriad of backgrounds, be it ethnically, economically or culturally, you see a magnifying glass held up to exactly what is going on in this country and what the people are thinking and feeling at any given zeitgeist over the last three decades. Just as punk in England in ’77 was ethnological of that time and that place, and likewise early rap was an echo of the folkways of the streets of America through the black community’s eyes in that revolutionary moment, so Scottish hip hop is a true, accurate and you may even say objective glimpse into the hearts of the people that make up its small but inventive and creative population. Each rapper representing a different class, subculture or background, but all existing under the same umbrella, the music.
With that in mind let’s get to the music; ‘The Air In Between’ begins eerily and psychedelically with Solareye; a critically-acclaimed legend in the hip hop scene as a successful poet and rapper, both with his solo stuff and with his work in the incredible Stanley Odd. Here, he is stringing rhymes together effortlessly while raconteuring a brief history of, well, stories… Literally, told from the perspective of The Story. Shear offbeat brilliance straight-off-the-bat. Unapologetic genius from the word go. And that’s just chapter one, leaving you begging to hear chapter two…
My life is definitely a life spent on tick, and Govan hip-hop duo CCTV are rapping it now; with a sinister beat and lyrical adroitness they tell the tale of life at the bottom of the social ladder, in Glasgow’s housing schemes. A persistent and attention-grabbing track punctuated with the poetry of the poor proletariat. As you might expect from him, Steg mixes every track perfectly and majestically into the next, as the story unfolds its surprises as it progresses.
Long-time Steg G collaborator, old-school original Scottish hip-hop artist, and rap battle doyen; The Freestyle Master, steps up to the mike next to orate from the perspective of a circumforaneous protagonist mourning his lost love. And then the orchestra makes its presence felt for the symphonic intro to ‘Another Day, Another Way’ which sees Empress swaggering in to stake her claim as one of Scotland’s best female emcees, and she does just that, with her impressive deliverance over ominous music from both the DJ and the orchestra, some beautiful stringwork in this track! A truly beautiful song and a stunning performance from Empress! It’s no wonder she is gaining a huge following right now and was SAMA-nominated for best hip-hop.
‘Scattered Seeds & Deep Roots’ is a standout track; Solareye is narrating the intricate, interwoven journeys of the album’s characters. “Nobody’s an island and scattered seeds grow deep roots”. With a socio-political theme of immigration and cultural divides this track is another collaborative stroke of genius between the lyricist, the DJ and the orchestra. A concept album, the scope of which, is way beyond anything attempted by Pink Floyd or the like.
The orchestra uplift us on the wings of a beautiful melody for ‘Nae Going Back’ before CCTV slam us right back down into the gutter with laments of crime, punishment, war, peace, fight, flight, hate, violence and other scourges of modern lower class life. Like a work of Dostoevsky rolled into one concise rap concept album. Complex rhyming patterns are dexterously delivered to divulge the vicissitudes of the common fugitive of the law.
The Freestyle Master strikes a chord with ‘Lonely City’, a melancholy melody marries the thoughtful, reflective, poetic lyricism. The song is describing the misadventures of the mendicant with a moody, mellifluous atmosphere, contributing once again to the multifariousness of this hip-hopera. The downtempo beat of the last track gradually rises into a stabbing, slashing, lyrical injection from Empress in ‘Sunken Dreams’, which makes you sit up and take notice. Poetry of a prisoner of poverty told with heartbreaking sincerity as the Empress takes us to the empyrean of the story.
‘Ghost Notes on the Timeline’ brings Solareye back as the exogenous orator with some beautiful and elegiac lyricism. He pulls the thread that tightens the story together and brings the full technicolour tapestry into view. An elating, trippy beat and a rolling piano are taking us to the climax of the saga, with a wordplay virtuoso and a contemporary genius in Solareye lighting the path.
Another dose of heavy realism with themes of desperation, depression and isolation from CCTV as they play out their character’s ultimate doom in ‘What Way’. Juxtaposed by an almost pop beat, but that acutely menacing instrumentalism from the orchestra is never far away to add the prognostic portentous undertones. Empress delivers her final slice, the penultimate slice, with a thoughtful reflective winding-down track, where she pays tribute to her musical heroes and brings her character to a buoyant conclusion.
Between them, Steg & The Freestyle Master have their hometown well-documented, ‘Glasgow’ is another brilliant love song by them for the city they live in. And it is a perfect way to finish the musical showcase off, right down to the soulful saxophone and the ethereal outro. This project is a bona-fide work of genius, a masterpiece in the true sense of the word. You can tell a lot of hard work, patience, skill, effort and love have been poured into it and the resulting alchemy is a work of art that Glasgow can be proud of, a true and accurate portrayal of the culture of a storied city, and a defining moment in local music history. Probably one of the best albums you’ll hear this year! Find it on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, and Bandcamp:
C.T Herron (Gonzo Div.)