The Great Hip Hop Hoax – Broadway screening, Thursday September 5
Originally written for LeftLion.
Following the success of Sound It Out, which took a fond look at Teesside’s last surviving record shop, Nottingham director’s Jeanie Finlay’s latest documentary, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, is now on general release across the UK. A day before its commercial opening night in Dundee, the original home of its central characters, Broadway hosted a special screening and Q&A, hosted by Sarah Lutton, programme advisor for the London Film Festival.
As Jeanie Finlay explained, the film-making process was littered with obstacles. Its two protagonists were no longer on speaking terms, and securing permission to film their story proved to be a lengthy uphill struggle. Given the breathtaking scale of the deception which the movie documents, this is perhaps scarcely surprising.
Thirteen years ago, Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain were a pair of talented and ambitious hip hop MCs, seeking a foothold in the music industry, but constantly thwarted by the mere fact of their Scottishness. At an audition for Warner Brothers, they were practically laughed out of the room, dismissed as “the rapping Proclaimers.”
However, once Boyd and Bain decided to re-invent themselves as Silibil ‘n Brains – a bratty, hell-raising and downright obnoxious skate-rap duo from Huntington Beach in California – doors that had previously been closed suddenly swung open. Signed up in 2004 by showbiz mogul Jonathan Shalit, manager of the likes of Charlotte Church, Myleene Klass and N-Dubz, they soon found themselves larging it in London on a hefty advance, widely tipped as rap’s Next Big Thing.
Throughout this time, Billy and Gavin – neither of whom had ever visited the USA – played their Silibil ‘n Brains roles to perfection, fooling everyone they met and never letting their meticulously constructed personas slip for a second. Consumed by their alter-egos, they partied hard and behaved atrociously, as Gavin’s obsessively captured video footage demonstrates. The mask only threatened to slip once: backstage at the Brit Awards, as a bemused Daniel Bedingfield perceptively queried Billy’s Californian accent. (“But I thought you were Scottish?”)
If the era of social media had dawned a few years earlier, Silibil ‘n Brains wouldn’t have lasted five minutes; one tweet from a former classmate, and the game would have been up. But as the deception continued unchallenged, the internal tensions grew, ultimately reaching a breaking point which torpedoed Billy and Gavin’s friendship.
Cutting between archive footage, present-day interviews with the chastened and reflective pair (conducted separately, and spread over several years), and Jon Burgerman’s comic animated re-stagings of certain key scenes, the film skilfully tells a story that is by turns funny, shocking, touching and agonising. Having wormed their way into a subculture that sets great store on “keeping it real”, the fakers had unwittingly signed a Faustian pact – and while their downfall might have been inevitable, their failure to foresee it lends them an “innocents abroad” quality that even the worst of their excesses cannot fully smother.
For Jeanie Finlay, “trying to navigate between two known liars” was an immensely challenging process, as she sought to unpick the truth from a pair of unreliable witnesses whose mutual hostility remained undimmed. “I felt like a terrible divorce lawyer”, she confessed, fielding questions after the screening.
The tale does have a happier coda, though. The Great Hip Hop Hoax received its world premiere earlier this year, at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, and both Gavin and Billy flew over with Jeanie for the occasion, reunited for the first time since their bust-up. Buoyed the renewed interest, they are now rumoured to be working on a comeback album. Perhaps there’s a loophole in that Faustian pact after all.