The Great Hip-Hop Hoax

The phrase “Money for old rope” has many apparent origins, though the one I like the best is to do with hangings. Apparently the more morbidly curious and macabre people of the 18th century often sought out used hangman’s rope as a souvenir of an execution – the hangman would dutifully oblige, cutting the rope up and selling it on, making a tidy profit without doing much of anything. Hence, “money for old rope”. The phrase is particularly apt here as not only is The Great Hip Hop Hoax money for old rope, but director Jeanie Finley has hung her two stars Silibil and Brains up to dry.

The story goes: two Scottish rappers head to London to pitch to A&R men. A&R men laugh on account of them being Scottish rappers. Scottish rappers mad. Scottish rappers, for teh lulz, ring up London venues affecting Californian accents. Scottish rappers achieve interest. Scottish rappers take on Californian personalities and get record deal, before being dropped on the eve of their record’s actual release, though not before spending all their money on drink and drugs, blagging their way around the music business and, fortunately for any future documentarians out there looking for their next movie, filming their exploits on a handicam.

It really is lucky that the Scottish rappers – Silibil and Brains, real names Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain – filmed themselves so much, because without having done there really wouldn’t be a film here. Jeanie has taken that footage, spliced it with some talking heads of the people involved – managers, label bosses, James from Busted (the other other one, glad of the work I’d imagine) – and that’s kind of it. As a result, the film has a very confused authorial voice, or, rather, no authorial voice. There’s no real point being made, and because the whole thing is being told retrospectively there’s very little surprise with regard to the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, if you were to read a magazine feature on it then you’d be dead impressed, but what’s more impressive is how Jeanie’s managed to make such a great story so very, very dull.

What’s most frustrating about the film is that there are moments when you feel it’s going to go somewhere. For one thing, there’s a natural divide between the Silibil and Brains now, the stress of their lie destroying their relationship. This isn’t really examined particularly thoroughly – I think of the moment in Man On Wire where Philippe Petit’s friend breaks down and talks of how their relationship ended with the project, and how moving that moment is. Nothing of the sort here. Early in the film, too, you get a real sense of Bain’s frustration and resentment that the music industry wouldn’t take him seriously as a Scot, leading to him castigating the whole industry as being about marketability rather than talent. Again, this isn’t interrogated beyond the surface level. If documentarians are journalistic in nature, then this is red-top spunk-splattered tabloid rather than coffee-ringed toast-crumbed Sunday supplement.

So what of the characters? If the director, the film’s creative voice, is so absent, then surely the two enigmatic leads who were ballsy enough to con their way into opening for D12 at Brixton Academy and being represented by music-mogul Jonathan Shalit could save the film? Well, essentially, no, because they’re dicks. That’s the overriding sense you get of them, perhaps not now, but certainly in the home movie footage. Arrogant, obnoxious dicks who it’s very hard to warm to, Gavin in particular. Animated segments pepper the film, but they don’t really serve a purpose – I suppose they emphasize the cartoonish falsity of the characters these boys created, but in all honesty that’s not something that needed emphasizing.

This film has the potential to be excellent. There are serious issues that could be dealt with here if a more considerate filmmaker were behind the camera. Why is Gavin still chasing fame to the detriment of his mental health and the relationships he has with people around him? Does Billy regret the way in which the relationship ended? What does this story tell us about that era of music? But no, none of that. Jeanie Finley read a great story and presented it in the manner of one of your mates down the pub, three or four pints deep. Exciting for some, but essentially, money for old rope.

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