As fascinatingly improbable as the story of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd might be, the brilliance of The Great Hip Hop Hoax is that the film is about more than two white rappers from rural Scotland.
Stand back and look at the big picture, and director Jeanie Finlay’s film tackles all sorts of issues, from the price and trappings of fame to the mainstream’s clueless appropriation of street culture, to the complete phoniness of the major-label music industry. It also works as a cautionary tale which should terrify anyone considering rolling the dice on a career as a performer.
At the centre of the insanity are two fresh-off-the-Haggis-cart Scots: Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain, both of whom were raised in the kind of small northern town young people spend their lives dreaming of leaving. Rap is seen as an escape hatch for the two partners in rhyme, eventually leading them to London, England, around 2002, where they’re angling for a record deal but would be happy with a club gig.
Boyd and Bain are both talented as fuck. Coming on like two guys who’ve never heard of Vanilla Ice or House of Pain, they specialize in a bludgeoning strain of rap indebted to the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac Shakur. Unfortunately, they have a problem, namely that they’re white guys from Buttnugget, Scotland, and are therefore deemed unfit for anything other than playing the bagpipes in a Big Country tribute band. The record company bigwigs laugh right in their face, telling them they sound like a hip-hop version of the Proclaimers, while club owners hang up as soon as they hear their accents.
Licking their wounds, Boyd and Bain return to Scotland where they get an idea: what if they repackaged themselves as two skateboarders from America trying to launch a hip-hop career in the U.K.? After rerecording all of their Scottish rap songs to sound like the work of cheeba-loving MCs from Southern California, they rebrand themselves as Silibil n’ Brains and return to London. Before you can say, “the Beastie Boys”, they’ve become hotter than Eminem circa 2001.
Boyd and Bain begin living a larger-then-life lie, speaking with American accents 24 hours a day, hoodwinking not only those they encounter in the industry, but all of England. Major label bidding wars erupt, TRL comes calling, Kasabian and Green Day end up as drinking buddies, and no one is the wiser to their real identities.
All this is recounted in one-on-one interviews with Boyd and Bain and the industry players who were around them during their rapid rise. Cartoon segments that look straight out of the Gorillaz playbook are also used to great pop-culture-cool effect, illustrating such career highlights as Silibil n’ Brains opening up for Slim Shady’s D-12 in London.
When the inevitable regrets are rolled out towards the end of the film, The Great Hip Hop Hoax starts to look like another juicy episode of Behind the Music, which doesn’t make it any less gripping.
Finlay—who mostly gets the hell out of the way while Boyd and Bain recount the insanity—gives us plenty to think about in this smart, stranger than fiction, slick-looking triumph. If you’ve always dreamed of repackaging yourself as a street-savvy rapper from Compton, start here. But don’t say you weren’t warned.