THE SELF-STYLED ‘BREXIT BANDIT’, SLOWTHAI IS THE NORTHAMPTON RAPPER QUESTIONING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BRITISH. WHILE HIS BRUTISH LIVE SHOWS AND BARBED, BARBITURATE BANGERS MAY SEEM NIHILISTIC, HE’S REALLY ABOUT “LOVE AND UNITY”, DETERMINED TO FIND A VOICE IN A SOCIETY HE DOESN’T FEEL SERVES HIM. AND HE HAS A MOTOR MOUTHED MANIFESTO FOR A BETTER BRITAIN, FINDS JORDAN BASSETT. PICTURES BY MIKE PRIOR.
Slowthai is naked, dipping a toe into the world’s smallest bubble bath.
It is, for reasons unknown, tucked away beside the toilet in the bathroom of a south London studio, where NME’s photographer is shooting the Northampton rapper’s cover story.
You could imagine this cramped bathroom being the last you ever see, the kind Joe Pesci might get whacked in midway through a Martin Scorsese movie. In Slowthai’s hands, though, it’s transformed into a palace of affordable glamour. He pops a bottle of Prosecco and sips it from a flute as the camera flashes.
During his photo shoot, Ty proves himself a game entertainer. He gurns for the camera and, between looks, tells motor-mouthed anecdotes (he once nearly set his bed on fire after falling asleep with a spliff, an incident he acts out with am-dram gusto).
Later, he will post an iPhone snap of him in the not-quite-a-Jacuzzi to his 64,000 Instagram followers with the caption, “been bathing in sinks for 23 years DOORMAN OUT NOW”, plugging his brilliant new single.
Until now, Slowthai has favoured stuttering percussion and claustrophobic strings, his minimalist music threaded through with bleak, abrasive lyrics. ‘Doorman’, which mixes UK grime with old-school punk, is pure release, seeing a manic Slowthai batter through righteous lyrics such as “Doorman, let me in the door… I’m not a mop you can drag ‘cross the floor.”
“It’s the tale of a guy who is trying to make a relationship with someone from the upper-class,” he explains in a pub over the road when the shoot is wrapped up. Slowthai speaks very quickly, his answers to my questions unpredictable and sometimes wildly tangential (“My whole life is a tangent,” he jokes afterwards). He barely touches his pint of Fosters during our hour-and-a-half conversation, such is his intense focus on the relentless flow of words.
Hours before he recorded ‘Doorman’ with the producer Mura Masa, Ty and his girlfriend, Betty, wound up in someone’s fancy apartment at the tail-end of a night out: “They had a lift that opens in the flat – that’s the front door. They had three paintings on the wall that are 4.5 mil. It was just a different side of life that I’d never got the chance to see or be around. So from that I had an hour’s sleep, and then it was the first session I had with Mura.”
As with much of what Slowthai says, there’s skewed, disjointed logic here. ‘Doorman’ is a furious track about not being allowed into a club, but it’s also about feeling disconnected from the upper-echelons of society, about the frustration – and disaffection – that that breeds. It’s about peering through the window of a world you’re determined to kick your way into. In that sense, it’s the quintessential Slowthai track, an entire worldview boiled down into three minutes and two seconds of seething punk protest.
23-year-old Tyron Frampton – who adopted his moniker because kids at school called him slow – was born in Northampton, East Midlands, to a 16-year-old mother and a father who left for another partner when Ty was three. “He’s, like, an opportunist,” he says of his dad. “That was his way out – ‘She’s got money’. I feel like I’ve got that gene as well; any time he sees the opportunity… you know what I’m saying? It’s human error, man, but it’s like, ‘Blam! This will help me’…”
“My mum raised me – love her to pieces. Pops is a cunt – still love him to pieces. I’m never gonna be best mates with him, but I’m not gonna be bitter and hold resentment. Once you get to a certain age,” he reasons, “if you have resentment towards people, it only affects you.”
This sanguine approach may surprise anyone familiar with Slowthai’s persona and barbed rap bangers. His ‘RUNT’ EP, released earlier this year, adorned with gory artwork that depicts a dog chowing down on roadkill, features a tense, string-led track named ‘Drug Dealer’, which includes the couplet: “Nothing great about Britain / Is and it isn’t.” He’s got the first half of that line tattooed on his stomach. When he performs live, he often screams “FUCK THE QUEEN”, the backdrop a Union Jack, Ty slicked with sweat, stripped down to his boxers.
‘Drug Dealer’, a track that satirises the idea that anyone from Slowthai’s background – council estate, broken home, crap comprehensive education – could only achieve wealth through drug dealing, is accompanied by a menacing video in which he parades around a vacant home, pointing a sawn-off shotgun at drawn curtains, warring with the outside world.
In person, he’s softly spoken and his eyes shine with recognition when you ask him a question. At the end of our interview, he pulls me in for a big hug. “[The music] is the release,” he says. “If I’m always angry and I bottle it up, bottle it up, bottle it up, I’m just gonna stay angry. But if I put it into moments that are two minutes or three minutes long, you let that out. That’s you venting. If you cry, you get the chemical release in your brain and you feel relief – you feel better. It’s self-discovery innit? That’s what my music is for me, mainly.”
This vulnerability is realised beautifully in the visuals for ‘Ladies’, a muted rap anthem on which he sing-speaks, “This one’s for the ladies / ‘Cause they have our babies / And they drive us crazy / But they made us men”. The video sees Ty curled up on the floor, naked, wrapped around Betty, who is fully clothed. It’s inspired by the iconic 1980 Rolling Stone cover for which photographer Annie Liebovitz had John Lennon and Yoko Ono adopt the same pose.
“I spend my life around people that are, like, bad people, if you want, and then deep down they’re not,” Slowthai says. “It’s just the circumstances they’ve been given. A majority of people that are standoffish, it’s because they lack the feeling that they’re connecting to anything, or that there’s opportunity for them to get anything. The biggest people – the baddest people – tend to be the most vulnerable. There’s so much shit – lack of money, not having shit, life being a struggle – but if you don’t think, ‘Yo! I’m gonna speak to someone that might be able to give me a hand, or help take me somewhere’, nothing will ever happen.”
He talks candidly about his brother, Michael, who died a fortnight after his first birthday, when Ty was “eight or nine”. Michael was born with muscular dystrophy, which Slowthai alludes to when he crosses his fingers at photo shoots, his signature pose. “He was paralysed,” the rapper says. “He used to cross his fingers, so that’s my lucky thing. That’s where I draw from. Any time I draw on a negative, or feel that kind of energy, that’s where it comes from.”
Asked if he believes men need to be more emotionally vulnerable, he replies: “Yeah, because that’s why there’s so many cases of suicide within men. It’s all bravado. You’re living in fear of not being a certain way. That’s the problem with everything. From the moment we’re born, fear’s put into us.”
Slowthai shows no fear, and very little emotional vulnerability, if we’re being honest, when he throws up onstage the weekend after his NME cover shoot. He’s supporting Kent punk duo Slaves at north London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace, flanked by his topless, balaclava-clad DJ/hype man Kwes Darko. “Ugh! I was just sick, man,” he groans. “It smells like sick onstage.” When someone throws a shoe at him, he chucks it back in the crowd, shouting, “Suck your mum! You’re a wanker. Your mum’s a wanker, too. I love it ‘cause I guarantee I’ll fuck your mum.”
Half the crowd boos, the other half moshes. The next day, he tweets, “KING WHITEY”, followed by the crown emoji.
In an interview with the fashion magazine Dazed, Slowthai said he stands for “love and unity”. Back at the pub, days before the Slaves show, the rapper acknowledges that his iconography – the Union Jack flag, the cropped hair – could attract a crowd he never wanted.
“Yeah, you could say the skinheads [might come],” he says. “But they get there and then they realise it’s not like that. And if I do attract that crowd, I will show them the error of their ways. If I can highlight something and make people re-evaluate everything they’re doing, that’s a mission achieved. If I do fucking Wembley to a crowd full of Nazis and, at the end of it, they change their opinion and question everything they’ve ever believed… We’re all human, innit? We can single out people and put them into groups, but that’s just their opinion.”
“If we attack people for sharing their opinion and they can’t give a valid reason for thinking like that, you push them on it. And then they question themselves. You need to reflect on shit. When you reflect, you go, ‘Woah! I’ve been living my life like this…’”
“When that bombshell hits anybody, you can hear a pin drop in their mind. ‘Cause they’re like, ‘I’m a cunt.’”
This inclusive message, combined with re-appropriation of iconography with nationalistic connotations, is key. Ty is mixed race (Barbadian on his mum’s side, Irish and English on his dad’s) and grew up on a predominantly white estate, a background that’s influenced his work and worldview.
“That’s where I got the [Union Jack iconography] from,” he says, pointing out that he’s stripped it of racial undertones, emphasising instead its implications of class: “It’s more about the brute spirit of it. The hooliganism, innit? It’s invigorating, the British bulldog, man. The fucking: ‘I’ll have it – I haven’t got fear of anything.’ They’ve closed all the pubs, turned ‘em into Wetherspoons. Smoking ban cleared the people out. They pushed all the people out of estates to give uni students homes. Push out, push out – then it becomes whitewashed until there’s nothing. I’m keeping some bit of, ‘This is what we represent’, but saying it can be on a bigger scale. We can all come together.”
Asked if, ultimately, he’s patriotic but annoyed at Britain’s flaws, Ty replies: “Yeah, but it’s not patriotism in a way where I’m all for the army or the Queen. I’m all for the brotherhood and the love and the connection of the community and the people that make it up as a place.”
His upcoming tour, which he’s dubbed The Brexit Bandit Tour, will rattle across Europe in March. It’s a protest at Brexit: “I’m going and I’m gonna do my thing – everything that they stand for, I’m gonna go against. Outlaw. You’ve gotta make an example of it and show how much it doesn’t actually mean anything.” Ty admits that his political insight isn’t exactly nuanced, and he doesn’t follow the news cycle particularly closely (although, slightly weirdly, his preferred outlet is Russia Today, the news channel funded by the Russian government). But he doesn’t need to be an expert; his job is to capture a mood and be cool about it.
When the tour was announced, he encouraged fans to flood Theresa May’s Instagram account with the hashtag #brexitbandit. “She’s the wrong person,” he says. “She isn’t right. There’s nothing she’s said or done that gives me confidence in her speaking for us as people.”
Of the hashtag, he explains: “I wanted to make it known that I think she’s a dickhead. So many people – the people that I speak to the most – are lost. They don’t have nothing to lose, nothing to grasp onto. They feel a similar way to what I do. For them, it’s being a voice. If we can make more noise than she can on her own account, it’s kinda saying, ‘You’re the voice’, innit? You don’t need this woman to speak for any fucker. We’re using her like a Reddit.”
As with almost everything Slowthai says today, it comes back to feeling part of an underclass. “If you’re born into a family that have an understanding or a history of something”, he says, “you’re raised into it. They’re all aristocrat people who end up being politicians and speaking for the lower-class and middle-class and people that they can’t actually understand, because they haven’t gone and worked in Poundland or applied to McDonalds.”
The revered comic book writer Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell) once described Northampton as “the centre of the universe”, citing a string of historically significant incidents that stemmed from his hometown (for instance: George Washington’s ancestors came from Northamptonshire); Moore lives around the corner from Ty’s estate, Lings.
“I wouldn’t say I’m, like, his mate,” he rapper says, “but I would always speak to him from when I was young.” Moore – fantastically bearded and rarely seen without a wizard-like cane and fingers decorated with blinging rings – famously loathes film adaptations of his work: “One day me and my boys were drinking Strongbow and bunning up [getting fucked], and he come walking up. We went into talking about V For Vendetta and how they made it into a movie. He was like, ‘I fucking hate it – they’ve just tarnished my work.’ Every time I’d see him you’d have a two-hour conversation on the street.”
When I ask what it is about Northampton that produces people like Slowthai and Alan Moore, who are creative, fiercely proud of – and loyal towards – their hometown, but also really outward-looking, he replies: “I suppose you sit around for long enough and then you give yourself a kick up the arse. I thought it was everyone, but I’ve always felt like, ‘There’s more than this. I need to do something. I need to release.’” He was visited by the need to tell stories. “There was always something in the back of my head that was buzzing, you know what I mean?”
When he began making music, Ty says, he wasn’t really looking for a route out of his hometown, or to find a metropolitan music scene elsewhere: “I just wanted to make my own thing that’s based around there.” More importantly, creativity offered respite, and he wonders if Moore’s motives might have been similar: “It’s escapism, innit? You see your reality and the bleakness of it, but when you go into writing – for a day, an hour, 10 minutes – it’s that time where you fully get away. You’re just writing, writing, writing, without even thinking.”
Life in Lings was undoubtedly tough, but he describes it with affection, remembering incidents that will be familiar to most people from a similar – rural – socio-economic background: stealing a canoe and pushing it down a local lake (“It was like Venice”) and evading “the wag man”, also known as a truancy officer (Ty’s absences were so common that his Mum was called to court). Asked if he could have made the life choices that he satirises in ‘Drug Dealer’, he says: “Yeah, it’s either the easy option – just hit the road – or a job. It’s not like I had my uncle that was gonna give me a job. I tried jobs innit. I always tried.”
After unsuccessful stints as a labourer his mum found him a job at the clothes store Next, though he was sacked within a month for hooking a mate up with a family discount. By this time, he was working on music. He downloaded a trial of the production software FL Studio, then known as FruityLoops. “I didn’t have the full version, so I’d have to make the beat in that time and export it,” he says. Eventually, he cooked up 2016’s languid ‘Jiggle’.
That track (“Come to my ends / You must be crazy”) made Ty a buzzed-about emerging talent. “Blue ticks started coming,” he says, referring to positive tweets from verified accounts on Twitter. “What the fuck? A blue tick! I’d never met anyone with a blue tick!”
He grew his young audience through social media, sharing entertainingly daft Instagram posts that combine his absurdist sense of humour with an unvarnished attitude towards taboo subjects; in June his followers were treated to a snap of him and Betty posing with Lionel Richie, Ty pulling a wired face, the caption: “hello… is it coke you’re looking for?” Now he’s working on a debut album (tentatively titled, of course, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’), due next year, and finds himself straddling – or perhaps caught between – two worlds.
Ty lives between his Mum’s house in Northampton and Betty’s parents’ house in west London. The night before our interview, he and Betty went to a party thrown by the cult clothing brand Supreme; she drove him to the studio in her flashy white 4X4. “She works hard, man,” he explains. “She does a bit of modelling. DJ-ing. She can act. She’s self-made. No-one’s given her no hand-me-downs.” It was Betty’s friend’s swanky apartment that inspired ‘Doorman’.
Their combined, nascent success has allowed him to taste a world that once seemed off-limits, and I wonder if that proximity is more frustrating, as it could disappear at any moment.
Slowthai might chant “FUCK THE QUEEN” at his shows, but his attitude to the Monarchy is contradictory. “I love the Queen,” he says. “I love the whole fairy tale of the Royal family; the Crown Jewels; Buckingham palace; the tourist attraction. But really, is that what we’ve got a Monarchy for? It’s just for tourism, and then you survive and live off taxpayers’ money? But we’re all blue blooded until oxygen hits our fucking blood, so what makes you so different?” Well, it’s not quite scientifically sound, but this does sum up Slowthai’s outlook.
Buckingham Palace, an apartment that contains paintings worth 4.5 million pounds; I think Ty is beguiled by wealth and pomp, but also repulsed by the inequality it represents. He recently joked on the radio station Beats 1 that he should be Prime Minister. His policies: legalisation of weed, and increased funding for prisons. “The point of prisons is to reform people,” he says today, suggesting that prisoners should be trained for undersubscribed professions, such as teaching.
Slowthai also says: “Anyone who threw big words out, I’d be like, ‘Yo – tell me in a way that any normal person can understand. If you can tell me without it being smoke and mirrors, then we’ll run with it. But until I get some information that’s clear, which anybody out there can understand, then bun it.’”
It’s Slowthai all over: funny, reductive but actually widely resonant, determined to find a voice in a country that he doesn’t feel represented by. Social mobility in Britain has stalled since the ‘90s, and it’s not hard to see how he fits into that picture. As Ty says of his favourite, damning phrase, ‘Nothing great about Britain’: “We say we’re great, but what is actually so great? What can you do here? What is the aspiration? It comes to each person – what do you wanna do? What are we getting out of it? Is this place actually great, or are you?”