How far would you go to make it to the top?
For aspiring rappers Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, failure was never an option – even if success meant giving themselves entirely new identities, fooling the music industry and losing everything in the process.
“Imagine I could make you be someone and you don’t have to have all the problems from your past,” Gavin Bain told VICE in 2020, “You’re going to play a character that everyone’s going to love and that character’s going to take you to right where you want to be.”
“Are you going to lie to me and tell me you’re not going to take that?”
It all started in 2000 when the pair met at university in Dundee. Both eighteen, huge fans of American hip hop and with big dreams to make it themselves, they instantly hit it off. It wasn’t long before they began making music together, emulating their favourite artists. Their lyrics and sound were characteristically true to the style of the time, brash, loud and boldly unapologetic – the only difference was their strong Scottish accents.
It was a formula that worked well for a while. Gavin was described as the ‘brains’ of the operation, tirelessly organising gigs and scouring the internet for new opportunities to get themselves noticed, while Billy brought charisma and a huge amount of attitude to the group.
“He’s who I want to be, he’s who I could be,” Gavin explains, “If I had his confidence.”
Together, they made the perfect match.
Performing under the name B Production, the pair had gained a cult student following through a series of gigs around Scotland and now the hunt was on for something bigger. When Gavin spotted an audition call on MySpace asking ‘Are you the next Eminem?’, it seemed like an opportunity tailor-made for them – without hesitation, they each booked a bus ticket and made the thirteen-hour journey down to London for the audition of a lifetime.
The queue, Gavin described, went around the street twice. However, confident that they had what the producers were looking for, the duo waited for hours for their chance to showcase their talents, eventually making their way in front of three record label A&Rs.
Needless to say, it didn’t go to plan.
Having laughed between themselves throughout the performance, the higher-ups stopped the pair after a mere thirty seconds, explaining that ‘we can’t sell Scottish rap’ and affirming that they would ‘never make it’.
Already crushed, Billy and Gavin both remember the devastating final blow from their critics before they left the audition room: ‘You sound like the rapping Proclaimers.’
Billy describes the trip back from London that day as ‘the journey from hell’.
“It was hard, really hard,” he says, “As a group, you feel like it’s the end.”
It wasn’t the end, however. Having taken a brief moment to reflect on the experience, the pair decided that they weren’t about to give up on their pursuit of fame so easily, instead using the disappointment of the audition to spur them on in proving their critics wrong. With that, they began calling venues and promoters across London, attempting to book themselves a gig in the capital. Unfortunately, they quickly ran into a similar issue.
The second they mentioned being rappers from Scotland, the majority of those of the other end of the line would simply hang up.
“‘Oh, sorry, guys – it’s not what we’re looking for’”, Billy recalls being told, “We felt like we were back in the audition room again.”
Then, Billy switched gears.
“It was my turn to phone and for a complete joke, I spoke in an American accent.”
“I said ‘we’re from California, we’re trying to get a show in London’ and they said ‘oh wow, can you send us any of your music?’ We were like ‘…What? Really?’”
Curious, Billy and Gavin took turns calling venues with the same story all afternoon, only to find that the calls from their American alter-egos were continuously met with a very different response: everyone was suddenly interested.
With that, their ‘joke’ began to get a whole lot more serious.
Billy and Gavin quickly got back in the studio, re-recording the unmistakablely Scottish vocals of the B Production tracks in a new, Californian accent. They overhauled their image, moulding themselves on the stoner/skater stereotypes that were prevalent on MTV at the time, and created a compelling backstory – they met in San Jacinto, were kicked out of school for burning down the gym, had hung out regularly with Eminem and D12. Finally, all they needed to do was name their alter-egos, eventually settling on the perfect titles: Silibil N’ Brains.
Their new identities were designed to be attention-grabbing, almost cartoonish. As Gavin puts it, Silibil N’ Brains were ‘like Itchy & Scratchy had come to life’.
New demos in hand, the pair headed straight back to London with just £368 between them (with free accommodation courtesy of Gavin’s sister, who allowed them to share her tiny studio apartment) for a series of shows.
The time had come for Silibil N’ Brains to make their debut.
To Billy, it was a shock just how differently the pair were received as Americans whilst delivering the very same material that had gotten them laughed out of an audition just a few months previously.
“We walked out on stage and just said ‘Hey, we’re Silibil N’ Brains, we’re from California’,” he explains, “The more we said ‘we’re from California’, the more we had the crowd – and we really had the crowd!”
The crowd’s interest only grew from there, too, with the duo deciding to incorporate improv rap battles in between each track, spitting outrageous insults and ‘your mom’ jokes to each other and to the audience. Loud, crude and borderline offensive, it was everything that Silibil N’ Brains had been designed to be – and it wasn’t just the crowd that ate it up.
Gavin and Billy had taken ‘no more than three steps’ off stage before being approached by a producer from Island Records. He’d been blown away by their show, as well as the reaction of the crowd, and could see the pair’s potential instantly.
Unfortunately, his first question for them was the very one that they had been dreading.
“He said ‘Oh my God, you guys are amazing! Where are you from?’,” explains Gavin, “Without thinking, we both said ‘California’.”
Billy – now very firmly into his role of Silibil – describes this as the ‘defining moment’ in their story.
“It felt like the room froze, it felt like the world stopped,” he says, “There was no turning back.”
Within weeks, the pair had met with top UK manager Jonathan Shalit, who asked how much they were expecting to be paid, with Billy responding that they ‘won’t get out of bed for any less than seventy grand’. To their shock, Shalit obliged.
Shalit immediately got to work securing Silibil N’ Brains a record deal, with the duo being signed to Sony for a total of £100,000 each. However, it wasn’t all celebrations as the deal went through – even at this early stage, certain cracks were beginning to show.
“The same day that we were signed to Sony Records, the lawyer finds something fishy,” Gavin remembers, “He’s like ‘Why won’t these guys show us their passports?’”
The questions brought with them the realisation that this was no longer a joke or even just a case of fooling A&Rs to prove a point – this could get serious.
“While we believed that if we got found out, we’d have to pay all the money back, we didn’t know if we could go to jail.”
“It got real at that point. It got really real.”
What followed was a year-long blur of drinking, drug abuse, brushing shoulders with stars (Silibil N’ Brains had partied with everyone from Green Day to Madonna) and spending an estimated £1,000,000 between them. On what? They’re still not sure.
“I think most of the money went down their throats,” manager Jonathan Shalit has theorised.
However, the dream to make it big was still at the very centre of everything the pair did, sometimes recording from the early morning until late at night, ensuring that they remained in character throughout – not a single member of the group’s entourage knew of their true identities, after all.
In fact, the stress of remaining in character as Silibil N’ Brains was beginning to take its own toll, with neither Gavin or Billy willing to drop the charade even in private for fear of getting ‘out of practice’. Their efforts were ramped up even further – consistently using their faux-American accents around family, girlfriends and the few close hometown friends that knew of their secret – after Billy found his accent slipping at The BRIT Awards, prompting musician Daniel Bedingfield to question their nationality himself.
“He said ‘I thought you were Scottish’,” Billy recalls, “And for a second, my heart stopped. All I could think was ‘Have I been speaking Scottish for the last half hour?’, I’d been drinking all night, I was panicking and thinking ‘How do I get out of this?’”
“I said ‘I’ve just been travelling round, so I’ve got a strange accent, a lot of people think I’m Canadian’.”
It was a close call – and the first sign that the closer they got to achieving their goals, the harder it would be to keep their secrets under wraps.
Still, things grew. Radio and television interviews left the pair responding to difficult questions with sarcastic comebacks and jokes in an effort to avoid raising suspicions. When asked on MTV about their childhoods, Billy responded that they had been ‘adopted by aliens as kids and travelled around the solar system ever since’.
For Gavin, the stress of keeping up with the lies – coupled with the coping mechanisms of non-stop drinking and heavy drug use – had left him struggling to separate the truth from the false reality of Silibil N’ Brains. He had started experiencing psychological problems – anxiety, insomnia and even hallucinations.
“I’d see demons in my sleep,” he remembers, “You freeze, you can’t move, you can feel this demon squeezing your neck.”
As the demanding days and heavy nights became one long blur, Gavin had reached the point where he had ‘completely forgotten’ their true identities. The pair had never even been to America, but the lies had become so all-consuming that Gavin even felt that he could ‘see’ the places that his alter-ego had called home.
In the meantime, their growing influence and increased TV appearances hadn’t gone unnoticed by acquaintances and former schoolmates from their true hometown, setting the wheels in motion for widespread speculation regarding their true identities.
Users of internet forums began posting stories of their encounters with Gavin and Billy.
‘I went to school with Silibil!’
‘I got into a fight with Brains in a chip shop in Dundee!’
Terrified of being found out and unable to seek advice from anyone else, they frantically set about contacting site administrators and attempting to have the posts removed. However, it was too late – and the cracks were well and truly beginning to show.
“There was constant stress and worry that someone was going to catch us out,” Billy remembers, “That someone could come out and tell the world who we really are.”
The last thing the pair needed was for their charade to face its biggest challenge yet, as perhaps the most outlandish of their lies came back to haunt them.
“We had just come back off tour,” Gavin explains, “And our manager says ‘you’re not coming off tour, you’re going back on the road with your best friend’. We go ‘What do you mean, our best friend?’”
His response sent both Gavin and Billy reeling.
“He said ‘Oh, Eminem’s in town’.”
It was a turn of events that may have once seemed like a dream for the duo – but now felt like the beginning of a shared nightmare, threatening to bring their house of cards tumbling down – Silibil N’ Brains were set to support their hip hop idols, Eminem and D12, at London’s Brixton Academy. Needless to say, they had never considered this possibility when they lied that they were close friends of Eminem to get producers interested in them at the start of their careers.
The solution that the pair came up with was characteristically risky: continue to pretend that they know them and hope that Eminem and D12 themselves don’t mention it.
Attempting to put all anxiety and nerves aside for the most difficult moment of their careers to date, the pair channelled the very essence of Silibil N’ Brains like they never had before. Sauntering on stage, the pair shook hands, high-fived and hugged the group, generally greeting them as the old friends that their management believed that they were.
Incredibly, once again, they got away with it.
Unfortunately, however, the growing difficulty of keeping the truth about Silibil N’ Brains under wraps, along with the pressures of living and working together, had started to put a strain on the relationship between Gavin and Billy themselves. Their once extremely close friendship had transformed into nothing more than a contentious business partnership – civil at best and violent at its worst.
For Billy, enough was enough.
“The lying drove me and Gav from best friends to hating each other. I didn’t want to walk away, I didn’t want to leave a dream I’d had since I was a child, but I knew I had to.”
Craving an end to the stress and the fighting, Billy drove home to Scotland and said goodbye to life as Silibil forever. Despite his own anxieties and increasing struggles with his mental health, Gavin felt betrayed.
“He talked about it like it was nothing, like he had no attachment to it, like this wasn’t a thing that we’d gone through together,” he recalls, “That’s what drove me absolutely crazy. It felt like he had come along for this plan for as long as it suited him, then it was like ‘Screw everyone else, I’m off’.”
“I was the captain of the ship. I had to go down swimming.”
Determined to keep the charade going and unwilling to give up, Gavin attempted to continue as Brains for as long as he could – management, however, had stopped returning his calls. Silibil N’ Brains were a team and Sony weren’t willing to deal with Gavin alone.
In debt, out of work and with his mental health at an all-time low, Gavin felt he had nowhere left to turn. Shortly after, his sister found him collapsed and unconscious on his bathroom floor. He had overdosed on prescription drugs.
Against all odds, Gavin survived. Desperate for him to give up on his pursuit of fame, his family were horrified to discover that Gavin was determined to continue performing independently – but there was something that he had decided that he needed to do first.
“First gig back, I’d used the comeback of Brains, big American artist, to fill the venue but I couldn’t go on stage,” he recalls, “I was backstage and I thought ‘Who am I?’”
As he walked out to face the audience, he had finally decided.
“I just said ‘Look, I’m not Brains. I’m Gavin Bain. I’m Scottish’. It was the strangest response to a first song that I’d ever had!”
The crowd reaction was mixed, to say the least. Gavin remembers being hugged, slapped and even having to come clean to a member of staff from Sony that had been in the audience. Some were confused, some were angry and some told him he was a ‘genius’.
It was over for good. After everything – the lies, the fights and the great hip hop hoax – Silibil N’ Brains were no more.
These days, Gavin and Billy lead different lives entirely.
Billy resides quietly in Scotland with his wife and two children, making a living working on an oil rig. To him, however, it’s exactly where he is supposed to be.
“I’ve no regrets about London, but your perception of living the dream changes,” he says, “To this day, I believe I’m living the dream.”
Gavin, meanwhile, remains in London. He has since spoken out several times about his experiences and the incredible story of Silibil N’ Brains, even releasing an autobiography, Straight Outta Scotland. He still performs with a band to audiences in pubs and clubs in the city, citing that he continues as he ‘hasn’t done what he has set out to do’.
On the posters and tickets, however, he is – and says he will always be – Gavin Bain.