Dressed – half-dressed – in a yellow tracksuit top and black shorts, Slowthai looks like a man who’s just got up, because he has (it’s 2.45pm). The Northampton rapper, known for his hard-hitting lyrics, unruly energy and a tendency to remove his trousers while performing, has been engaged in a quieter career duty: the signing of 6,600 promo postcards at three in the morning. He started by drawing a Superman S in his signature: “But it ended up just, ‘Hi. T’.” He waves his sore hand at me.
Despite his tiredness, the 25-year-old’s particular charisma pops through the screen: the cheeky maniac at a club, the one who gets the vibe peaking simply through lairiness. Slowthai is called that because his name is Ty (Tyron Frampton) and he spoke slowly as a kid. But it’s clear his mind is going a mile a minute. His answers to my questions are long and complicated, often philosophical. “I’m always going off on tangents,” he says. “Sorry about that.”
He’s in his studio, a basement room in the house in Northampton that he shares with his fiancée and his mum, Gaynor. I can see a sofa, covered in piles of folded laundry – “Here’s a Santa suit!” – and shelves with boy bits on: a rubber head of James Brown under a glass dome, a Clockwork Orange Alex statuette. Slowthai has spent a lot of lockdown time in this room and he chats about the audio books he’s been absorbing (Ego Is the Enemy, Akala’s Natives, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan), computer games he’s been playing (Fifa, Call of Duty, the new Tony Hawk). He strums on his guitar. “I’ve been trying to learn the Wurlitzer!” he says. Slowthai’s eyes curve like a cartoon when he smiles. He is nearly always smiling.
If you have only come across Slowthai in newspaper headlines, you’re likely to have a limited impression of who he is. His antics can overshadow his talent, reduce him to a columnist’s punch-line. When his(top ten) debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, which somehow married the Streets to the Stooges, with grime as the best man, was nominated for last year’s Mercury prize, he chose to perform live at the awards ceremony while waving the severed head of Boris Johnson (fake). Cue many outraged Daily Mail headlines. This was OK by him. But then, in February of this year, he won another award, the NME hero of the year. During that (extremely messy) ceremony, his energy, as ever, was high: he performed, then crowd-surfed and mooned the audience, all of which went down well. However, when he tried to be funny with host Katherine Ryan, the joke turned sour and sexually explicit and some of the crowd turned. A few people threw things at him; he jumped offstage to confront them.
The subsequent social media storm was quick and brutal: he expected grief for losing his temper, but he was accused of sexism by the polar opposite of Mail readers, the woke youth. He apologised, sent his award to Ryan, who claimed she had been fine about what happened, tweeting that he “didn’t make me uncomfortable” and saying later that they were both in character, “evenly matched and doing a pantomime”.
“If I was going to make a statement, that one ain’t it” he tells me now. “Obviously. I can understand how it can be presumed insensitive and I’ve learned from that. But if she’s initiated the joke and she can find humour in it, I don’t understand how so many people can say: ‘Oh she’s just saying that.’ You’re eradicating any value in what she says.”
Playing back the event on YouTube, it seems like one of those moments in a comedy club where a drunk heckler thinks he’s going to outwit the comic simply by going darker and not shutting up. But the incident has led to Slowthai being dismissed as a sort of hooligan savant, a guy who might parrot right-on politics but doesn’t know what they mean, and can’t live them in his real life. Slowthai is clearly sorry, but also has no respect for those who “eradicate everything good you do within five seconds”. And in May he released the exceptionally angry ENEMY, which sampled some of the ceremony, as a riposte to those who dismissed him as a misogynist.
“I want to be considered an artist,” he says to me, and he knows the way to do that is through his music. He’s a rapper, but sonically he hops around, his subject matter both personal and universal. His lyrics namecheck real people (including politicians), his mum, his friends, Northampton FC. His videos reference Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, the council estates he grew up on, and his own mad self: face like a manic cartoon, flipping between gurning to scary to cheeky to WTF. He’s well respected by other artists: fellow Mercury nominees Idles love him, calling him “an important new voice for Britain” and he signed to Tyler the Creator’s label in the States. He boasts several high-end collaborators such as Dominic Fike, Denzel Curry, Skepta, and A$AP Rocky, on his new album, which is called, simply, TYRON.
Two sides to every story, then, and that’s the angle of his excellent second LP, due early next year. Slowthai mostly made TYRON during the pandemic. It’s ambitious: covering the full span of a young man’s emotions, moving between ferocious bangers, in-room loneliness, aggro and regret. If the last album was about wrecking the establishment party, TYRON moves unexpectedly inwards. The sounds are chopped and screwed, vocals sped up, slowed down, with unexpected samples (including singer songwriter Gavin Clark), and there are 14 tracks, divided into two sections. The first seven are raw and noisy, the punk/grime provocation you might expect from Slowthai. Tracks, all capitalised, include CANCELLED, VEX, WOT and DEAD. The second half is introspective, honest and emotional, the titles in lowercase, the subject matter more vulnerable. From this side, he’s already released feel away, which samples James Blake and is about the end of a relationship. Now nhs, another track from the album’s quieter side, has just come out. He thinks of it as the title track.
“When people were clapping for the NHS,” he says, “my thing was, why did it take us this long to applaud something that’s been helping people, saving lives for generations, generations, generations? Helping people longer than we’ve been alive? It took a disaster to make people appreciate the NHS. Clapping, how is that helping anyone? If we really want to help, why don’t we do stuff to raise their wage or make it more comfortable for the people that are going to work them 12-hour, 14-hour shifts?”
The song is about being thankful for what we have, even if we realise later that there is something else out there that’s deemed to be better. “When I was a labourer,” he says (he’s had a lot of jobs that didn’t last), “the one thing that stuck with me was: ‘Take care of your tools and your tools will look after you.’ Anything that’s got character, it’s always better than something that’s box fresh.”
That’s not the usual rapper attitude, I say. Most rappers want brand new and as expensive as you can get. “Yeah, but that’s all bullshit. Constantly chasing the next thing. I’m just saying: ‘Look at what you’ve got and be grateful for it.’”
This attitude might sound understated, but it’s not delivered that way and does not extend to Slowthai’s approach to his music: he’s always been highly ambitious about that. He believes in albums. “I’m a fan of David Bowie,” he says. “I like albums, I like narrative, I love films. The idea and the story that flows from start to finish, it’s always been important to me.” Plus, he knows what he wants to make: TYRON was meant to be his third album, but the times seemed right for it to come out now. Vengefulness and rebellion, introspection and self-blame. The full emotional gamut.
Often, young men are only allowed to express two emotions, I say: anger and horniness. “I don’t think that they’re not allowed to express other emotions, it’s that they allow our society to make them feel that way,” he says. “I’ve got so many boys [friends] that are just angry in general, at life. And they have a reputation, so they think they have to act a certain way. Out of all my friends, they know I’m the one that if they wanted to cry, I’m there. It’s OK to cry. It’s not a thing [that] you’ve got to be the hardest man in the UK and walk around with your chest pushed out.
“When you know someone and you’re friends from little kids, you know them and what they’re really like, and any time I see them falling into a stereotype, I’m like: ‘Yo man, you’re being a dick.’ Same way as I’d want someone to say it to me. Being from a town like Northampton, it’s harder for people to leave that behind, because in some ways it’s like you’re 10 years behind everyone else, be it in open-mindedness, culture in general, the English, British… You work all week on a building site, you go to the pub, you have some pub grub with the boys. I’m fed up with that way of life.”
Slowthai grew up with his mum and sister, after his dad left when he was little. Gaynor was young (she had Ty when she was 16, and his sister a year later), and after a while, she married another man and had a child, Michael John. But Michael had muscular dystrophy and died just after his first birthday. It shattered the family.
Slowthai was eight when Michael died, “and things got bad, I suppose”. His stepdad turned to religion and Slowthai remembers moving out of their council house soon afterwards, even though it was in his mum’s name, because “their relationship was quite abusive and she just couldn’t be around him any more. I don’t think any of us could, really”. He, his mum and his sister lived at their mum’s mates’ for a bit, and at their grandad’s, all crammed together in one room. “I suppose they were the best times, when we all shared a room, we got along,” he says. “It was just funny.” He remembers one Christmas, staying at his mum’s friend Tasha’s house. Tasha had a karaoke machine, and he rapped over the songs, for everyone’s amusement. “I just remember everyone being gassed and I was: ‘Yes!’ Standing in my boxers and T-shirt! Nothing changes.”
When he was a little older, he and some of his schoolmates worked out that if you put headphones in a computer’s input jack rather than the output one, you could say stuff into the headphones and it would record. So he would go round to his friend’s house and they would try that on his mum’s computer, saying rude words, recording them on to a memory stick and then taking them home. His first musical attempts: “So trash, but I though they were brilliant.”
In his teens, he wagged school, doing stuff he shouldn’t to bring in money. Then he went to music college in Northampton and met indie kids for the first time, who broadened his horizons by playing him Radiohead and showing him that some of his roadman attitudes were “bullshit”. But gradually, his friends started settling. “I was always like: “Come on, let’s do the music. The music’s the thing.” And they would be like: “No, I want to get a mortgage. I’m going to get a job. And I want to work my way up.” And I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go and put on a smile and be like: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I would rather die. I would rather put everything into something and fail a thousand times and have no money, than live a life unhappy, just to scrape by.”
At one point, he went down to London, to the then-pirate station Rinse FM, with his friend rapper Izzie Gibbs. Stormzy and Jaykae were there, but they didn’t give him the time of day, “because I hadn’t done anything,” he says. “Not like I hold any resentment for it. It empowered me to further myself, because I was like: ‘Nah, I ain’t having it.’ I’ve always believed I could do it, a hundred per cent.”
Slowthai is used to being misunderstood. He knows that part of what people react to is what they think they see: a shaven-headed young white guy, “EDL, Brexit”. In fact, Slowthai’s mum is half-Bajan, and he grew up knowing his background was mixed.
“It’s not that being called white bothers me,” he says. “It’s like: ‘You don’t know me. You don’t know my family’s struggles, when my great nan came here in the Windrush generation, or my family being from the Caribbean.’ And the mix of everything, be it the Irish [his stepdad was Irish], the Caribbean, the English, I just get ‘oh you’re just an English boy’, and that eradicates all the struggles my family have had. I’m not saying me myself has had the worst struggles, but my family. I can’t get pissed off about it any more, because people who know, they look into my music and they know what I stand for and they know my background. I don’t fit into any bracket. I’m not good enough for you guys, and I’m not good enough for you guys, so where do I fit?”
During the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, he “wasn’t too outspoken, because it’s not just something that is today, and the next two weeks, and then when it’s forgotten about, it’s forgotten about. It’s something that has to be for the rest of our lives. And I’ve not heard that many people scream it in the last couple of weeks or months.”
There’s an element of Slowthai that enjoys not fitting in to any one group, being a solo entity, moving between different scenes – “the hood kids on bad shit, the indie kids, or just chilling with girls and seeing it from their perspective. I’ll just take it all on.” He gave up drinking after the NME incident and has been doing pretty well with it (he was the kind of drinker that once he started, he couldn’t stop. He was waking up on his US tour and having a shot for breakfast: “Jameson’s, for me, was like water”). But there was one night recently when he went to the pub, because “I was looking fresh”, and got a bit drunk with his mates. After the pub, they went round to a friend’s house.
There was a fight, between the friend whose house it was and another person. Slowthai stepped in to break it up and got blood on his new tracksuit. “I was like, bro, you’re a dickhead! You’re in your own house! It’s not like we’re out and someone’s causing you offence.” He shakes his head. “I don’t even want to be there. Because if I can’t have fun without any substances, what kind of person am I?” He’s not drunk since, though weed and the occasional mushroom trip still seem to be part of his recreational repertoire.
Again, there’s two sides to his “I don’t need people” protestations. The final track on TYRON, adhd, talks about how Slowthai can’t be alone. How he needs his friends. It features a phone call from him to a mate, just saying that he misses him. It’s Slowthai’s favourite track on the album. He played the guitar, sampled it, and once he heard the sound, he knew what he wanted to do.
“I always wanted to make songs that make people cry,” he says. “Not just that you made people feel good, but you’ve really hit the emotion, or made them relive a moment where they feel something. And with that song, I never used that tone before and everyone in the room just went into the same headspace I was in. It allowed me to get everything off my chest. And I was dragging myself through the dirt. It made me feel like I’m hitting what I want to say. I’m fully getting it out. I’m expressing it.”
It’s the song he plays to himself in his headphones. “At the end of the day,’ he says, “I do music for people who need it. If you need it, it’s there. If you don’t need it, so be it. I can only be there for the people that need it. I know who I am, I know my beliefs, what I stand for. And my aim in life is to leave a legacy, something that is fundamental, that will live on long after me. Because my physical form, me as a person, is going to die. We’re all going to die. You can’t save a life, you can only prolong a death.” Slowthai grins. “Fuck it,” he says.
• TYRON is out on Method Records on 5 February