Silibill N' Brains were two Californian rappers making it big in the UK's hip-hop scene. Except, uh, they were Scottish.
Silibil N’ Brains were going to be the biggest rap duo since Outkast. They were two kids from California who could spit with an angsty nu-metal flow, all middle fingers, messy rooms and, cargo shorts. After touring the world, they were spotted tearing it up in an East London den and signed to Sony with a £75,000 retainer and all the studio time they needed. They were a priority signing, meaning the label thought their first album was destined for No.1.
The only problem was that Silibil N’ Brains weren’t who they said they were. Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain had never been to California. They were two dudes from Dundee, Scotland, on benefits, in debt and determined to hang the music industry by its own pretence.
They were bitter from an early brush with fame when, after a 12 hour Megabus down to London for a label audition, they were laughed away as “the rapping Proclaimers.” So, they went home, found a small town on the West Coast and decided to tell the world that they met at a rap-battle in San Francisco. They concocted lies, bought clothes, perfected accents, and became Silibil N’ Brains. They kept up the accents and embroidered the lies for two years. Sony fawned over them; they partied with Madonna, went on Popworld and had AAA passes at the Brits. The more they played up their give-a-fuck jackass personas, the more the executives lapped it up, splashed their cash, and invested their money on two people who were, essentially, duping the recording industry.
Their acting and commitment was, at times, astonishing. From the moment they woke up, they had to remain in character. To their manager, to their friends, even the people they dated. One part of their elaborate lie is that they were friends with D12 from back in the day. But when they ended up supporting the group at a show in Brixton, they thought they were going to be rumbled. Boyd had to walk over to Proof, give him a hug, and ask how he was doing. Luckily, Proof was to polite to say anything, and gave him a hug back.
Eventually, the drugs, booze and all the lying caught up with them. They stopped talking to each other, they became depressed and paranoid; one day Billy got in a car and drove home to Dundee, and it was over.
After ten years of barely talking, Silibil N’Brains are back in the studio and The Great Hip Hop Hoax, a documentary of their story, will be in theaters soon.
Noisey: You were called ‘the rapping Proclaimers’ at a Polydor try-out. How did you take that?
Gavin: We were convinced we were going to London to own it. We were going to ram it down their throats. I think we said three words to each other in a 13-hour bus journey home. We believed in what we had created, what we had given our last two years of life to, and they didn’t even give us a chance to show our skills. They heard we were from Scotland and they laughed.
Billy: We were naive enough to believe in talent. We thought if you’ve got skills, then you can go anywhere. The journey home was this hellish nightmare. We didn’t speak to each other for a while after that.
Whose idea was it to ditch real life and become two rappers from California?
Billy: We fell into those identities as a result of how we were feeling. We decided we either had to give up or do something crazy.
Gavin: The hip hop we’d been listening to was American, so we were miming their accents when we were singing in the shower. We could rap in the accent naturally, but we began speaking that way as well. We realised we couldn’t just go down and rap in these Californian accents and then speak like two lads from Dundee. People in the industry would think that was ridiculous. So we got to a point where it felt all or nothing.
Were you surprised at how quickly the industry opened up for you?
Billy: We knew we had the skills and the writing ability going in. We knew that - if we were granted an audience - we could show them we were good. But we weren’t prepared for people saying: “Oh wow, this is really good, because it’s American.” That’s what made us carry on with the pretence; we wanted to get our own back, to fuck the industry.
Gavin: In the back of our heads we had a suspicion that it would be the case. I remember reading these "How to make it, believe in your talent" guides. These bullshit books sell absolute lies. How could I believe in my talent when you’re from this area of Scotland which is going to get laughed at. What you need to believe in, what we learnt about in such a sharp way, and what we exposed so massively, was the industry’s total belief in marketing. If you just want to get in and get signed, you don’t need talent, you don’t need anything but know-how. But the film shows how far we went. Two years in these characters? That required talent. We had everyone convinced we were the next Eminem. The scam was to con them in terms of the marketing.
You got signed by Jonathan Shalit, who signed N-Dubz, Jamelia and Charlotte Church. Is he a good guy?
Gavin: Shalit is a dick. He’s not a cool guy, and he’s probably never been cool in his whole life. But for that little time he was with us, he was cool. He made an effort to be down with the kids. He came up with some things, but he was a good manager. He fought for us. He’d give Sony unbelievable abuse for us. But the biggest dick we met was the head of Sony BMG, who had his finger on the ‘End of Career’ button. We had to go into this final meeting, and he just put this show on. He called us “unconvincing,” even though we’d conned the entire industry.
Billy: That’s got to be embarrassing for him. We were these jackass characters bringing it to the industry. We were filming everything that was going on – recording sessions, nights out, parties – and putting it on our website before anybody else. That’s now the done thing for signed acts. We weren’t told to do it. It came from us. We were told: “That’s not the way people do things in the industry.” But we built our own fanbase. I would love to know what they think now. I think Sony are scared of the film.
What did the stress of sustaining Silibil N' Brains do to you?
Billy: We came down to London in debt and on benefits, and we suddenly had 75k in our bank accounts. We had a lot of incredible times out in London, but the stress of sustaining those characters did weigh on us. There was a lot of paranoia going on, and that followed us around. We constantly felt like people were trying to catch us out. It’s not until we stepped back from it that we realised there would be no need for someone to question where we’re from. But we invented the stress; constantly saying to each other “What if we get caught? What happens then?”
Gavin: When we got the money in, we just thought: ‘Fuck it, let’s hit it.” We were at every event, every night, blagging this and blagging that. We got completely addicted to that. We needed to be approachable, fun, wild guys. We needed everyone to want to party with us. We felt we needed people to be with us, rather than against us. But we were 21-year-olds, we had no idea who we really were, and we started to become addicted to these characters who were far more cooler than we really were. The plan was to break into the industry and come clean. We started to lose that. After six months of playing a character and getting success, you start to forget who you really are. I’d see a picture of my parents and think: “I’m not their son anymore.” We worked so hard at making these addictive characters, and we became addicted to them.
The Great Hip Hop Hoax is in cinemas from Friday September 6. It tells the full story of Billy and Gavin’s fallout and subsequent depression. It is closely followed by a new album from Silibil N' Brains.
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