A few years back, a listings magazine was required to come up with a snappy description of Young Fathers. In the end it plumped for "Liberian/Nigerian/Scottish psychedelic hip-hop electro boy band". You could argue that's less a description than someone desperately flinging random genres at an artist in the hope that one of them will stick. But, in fairness, describing Young Fathers is a tough call. Everything about them seems anomalous, starting with the fact that they're a hip-hop trio from Edinburgh: Scotland has never seemed to have produced much in the way of hip-hop, unless you count Silibil N' Brains, the Dundee rappers who successfully hoaxed the music business into believing they were from America, or Bill Drummond's brief, late-80s reinvention as King Boy D, supposedly a rapping Glasgow dock worker, self-styled "hottest MC of the River Clyde" and one half of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.
In fact, there is a tight-knit and insular Scottish hip-hop scene, involving names such as Loki, Madhat McGore and Hector Bizerk, but Young Fathers seem to exist apart from it. On their debut album proper – Dead was preceded by two brief mixtapes – you can occasionally catch a hint of a Scottish accent, not least on Get Up, while opener No Way features something that sounds like bagpipes – or rather a bizarre electronic representation of bagpipes – but for the most part, Young Fathers draw more heavily on the African heritage of members Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole than their immediate surroundings. The first voice you hear on Dead has a thick African accent, there are lyrical references to calabashes and being "king of my village". Last year, Young Fathers made a mix for site called OK Africa, which – amid recordings of African masses and Zimbabwean carrot-sellers – included a lot of Nigerian hip-hop and South African Shangaan electro, and you can hear echoes of both the former's distinctive loping beats and the latter's busy rhythms here.
You might characterize their sound as alternative hip-hop: they're signed to the LA label Anticon in the US, home to rap experimenters including Beans and the various ex-members of cLOUDDEAD. There's certainly plenty of sonic weirdness on Dead. That African-accented voice on opener No Way is rapping over a wheezing harmonium, a pounding, Suicide-like drum machine, some bizarre massed vocals and a distorted keyboard endlessly playing two sickly, off-key notes. Just Another Bullet is built around an unsettling noise that sounds like an kids' toy that's running out of batteries, and Mmmh Mmmh stumbles along in a haze that recalls the disorientating wooze of My Bloody Valentine. But all this is offset by the fact that Young Fathers' three members sing as well as rap – in voices ranging from a sweet falsetto to a raw-throated bark – and virtually every track comes with a massive pop hook. These don't feel grafted on, but integral to their sound: indeed, Dead is at its least interesting on the couple of occasions that the trio forget about the tunes. There's plenty of adventurous, avant-garde hip-hop out there, but you couldn't imagine any of it getting played on Radio 1. At a push, you could just about picture a track like Low on the daytime playlist: admittedly, it takes a pretty fertile imagination, but the track's melody is so infectious, and the massed vocals and clattering batucada-like drums of its chorus so striking that they might militate against its lack of resemblance to anything else on the station.
Reading on mobile? Watch Young Fathers' video for Low here
You could compare Young Fathers' globalised, magpie borrowing to that of MIA, but their music feels far less frenetic and contrived, less concerned with proving a point. Massaquoi, Bankole and the trio's third member, Edinburgh-born Graham Hastings, have apparently been working together since their early teens, and it's tempting to say you can tell: for an album that throws an awful lot of eclectic influences at the listener over the course of 34 minutes, Dead feels remarkably unforced and organic. In fact, the artists Young Fathers most obviously recall are Massive Attack. The comparison isn't so much a sonic one, although there's vague hint of Blue Lines about the half-whispered vocals of Just Another Bullet, and Hangman's increasingly clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere is the kind of mood that Tricky might have conjured into existence on Maxinquaye, albeit by a different method. It's more the sense that, like Massive Attack 25 years ago, Young Fathers have quietly constructed a strange and intoxicating musical universe that feels entirely their own, while no one else was paying attention.