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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.28.13] documentary

Jeanie Finlay's hugely enjoyable documentary charts the experiences of Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain, two friends who met at Dundee College in Scotland in the early 2000s. Sharing a love of hip hop and trying unsuccessfully to break into the industry themselves, they took a short-cut to fame by changing their identities. In 2004, after a trip to an audition during which their 'Scottish rapping' act was met with derisive laughter, they returned home more determined than ever to gain recognition and a recording contract. Several failed attempts later, they were messing around and thought of a good joke. They called promoters and spoke in heavy American accents, claiming to be a West Coast duo looking for gigs in the UK. To their astonishment it actually worked and they were booked for a spot straight away.

After performing live in Soho they were immediately approached by Island Records' producer Chris Rock, who introduced them to Jonathan Shalit, who signed them to Sony after hearing a demo CD (one they had recorded with their new Californian accents). The financial deal they were offered was modest, but it allowed them to forget about previous money worries and move out from Gavin's sister's tiny London flat and into a house, where they could concentrate on making new material. Fast-forward several months and Billy and Gavin - or 'Silibil and Brains' - are working on their first album, about to release a single and are appearing on the British version of TRL. The only problem of course, was that they were having to do all of this while pretending to be Californian, and the stress of maintaining this lie was beginning to have a profound effect, both in their personal lives and on their mental well-being.

The film uses home-movie footage intercut with talking-heads and has nicely crafted little animations which are narrated by the key players in the story. There is a real sense of just how nerve-wracking this charade was, especially in the beginning when they were both unused to the level of subterfuge required to pull off such a long-term stunt. We learn about the techniques they would use to hone their back-stories and prevent any slip-ups in the continuity of their characters' pasts, and we even get an idea of the lengths they would go to in protecting themselves from anyone who asked too many questions, as when they accused one potential manager of coming on to them when he had simply asked which part of L.A. they were from, and refused to ever talk with him again.

Obviously the guys never really made it into the mainstream, and the tale of how it all came crashing down is an oddly familiar one. I won't go into detail but the story makes for a fascinating documentary, and it's genuinely startling just how much mileage these guys got out of one simple lie. Crucially though, the film makes it obvious that they wouldn't have gotten anywhere without actual talent. I know nothing about Hip Hop music as it all sounds like 'clicks-and-whistles' to me, but in watching the early footage of Gavin and Billy playing gigs at college, and from seeing the material they were working on at Sony, even I can tell that they had something special going on. Their songs were catchy and funny and it's not unrealistic to think that - had things gone differently - they might have been huge.

An absorbing and often very funny documentary, The Great Hip Hop Hoax is, as Silibil and Brains would no doubt say, "Totally f**kin' awesome... bro."

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