slowthai on never losing his Northampton energy

Words: Eric Davidson
Photography: Ellius Grace
Makeup: Aisling Kelly
Styling: Michael O’Connor (Pieces from Brown Thomas)

Words: Eric Davidson
Photography: Ellius Grace
Makeup: Aisling Kelly
Styling: Michael O’Connor (Pieces from Brown Thomas)

Ahead of slowthai’s Brexit Bandit tour, culminating in his biggest London show to-date at York Hall, get to know the artist from Bush. His EP ‘RUNT’ and string of singles since, including a collaboration with Mura Masa, have made him one of the most talked about voices in UK rap. This shoot and interview is from the cover story of District Issue 005.

“There’s a bottom of the pile… And the bottom of the pile is real gritty, you hear me? All around the world there’s always a bottom…

Kwes Darko – ‘The Bottom’

The above quote is part of Kwes Darko’s opening monologue on ‘The Bottom’, a track Kwes produced for Northampton rapper slowthai, released in 2018.

If you’re getting to know slowthai, that release is a good place to start. It tracks his early life, his family situation, his aspirations and identity. Lines like “No father figure, but my mum was watching” and “I’ve been attracted, chasing mansions” tell a story of a young man who by no means had it easy, but an artist who is in the middle of making something special happen.

His life has changed dramatically in the last two years. He’s brought his raw live show, one that mirrors the early days of punk and hardcore more so than hip hop, all over the world. In his wake, venues are left with broken glass and the words “Drug dealer!” echoing in them, and throngs of young rap fans leave with a new anarchic idol.

But this isn’t exactly how slowthai imagined things panning out. From adolescence, he’d sit on The Dreamboat (a rotted rowboat on the side of a lake in his hometown of Bush, Northampton) with his mates, pondering the future. They’d smoke joints and bounce predictions about what was written in their stars, envisioning what type of people they would become.

“I thought I was going to be Pablo Escobar!” slowthai, real name Tyron ‘Ty’ Frampton, says laughing in the greenroom before his sold out show in Dublin. “I didn’t ever think I was going to go out and write songs. I enjoyed doing it, but it was a pipe dream. Back then it was money, I wanted money. It was like, ‘I’ll have a billion and I’ll buy a yard and everyone will come live on my yard and I can grow as much weed as I want and get high…’.”

When describing the house he’d buy with his fortune on ‘The Bottom’, he raps about his oddly specific dreams, “Gates to the grounds, Fountain with a giraffe”. He explains this a little more to me.

“I had a mad dream of having a giraffe when you walk in my yard, a stuffed giraffe… And you know the Scarface fountain, ‘The World Is Yours’? Since I’ve been in nursery, I’ve always seen the house I’d live in.”

It’s probably safe to assume that he knew being the East Midland’s answer to a Colombian drug kingpin was unrealistic, yet while his fantasies might have been slightly madcap, his hustle was real. These are the two faces of slowthai that crop up throughout our conversation, mixing the absurd and chaotic with the profound and the driven.

It’s this unpredictable energy that he’s channelled into becoming a successful artist.

“Now I’m in a place where I can understand my ability, what I can do. Back then it was, ‘Try this’, and my words were just mumbled. You could hear one word in 16 bars. Now I can have fun and push myself.”

Fast-forward a few years from lakeside in Bush, slowthai is consistently releasing new music that’s getting critical acclaim from publications as diverse as The Guardian and Dazed. He was one of the faces of Skepta’s Nike x SKAir campaign, appeared on Boiler Room and racked up millions of views for his horror-tinged videos.

A fast rise, no doubt, but one hard to argue the legitimacy of. I ask him to pinpoint the moment he knew things were going to change for him.

“I was walking down the street wearing leather shoes, and I walked across a field and it was waterlogged and all the shit went into my shoes, all the mud. Then I wrote ‘T N Biscuits’. That’s how I wrote the bars to it. I don’t think I knew what would happen, I just thought I’d go back to the road. I didn’t really believe it at that point, but everyone was like, ‘This is a banger!’, but I didn’t rate it. I thought they were just throwaway bars. I don’t really know from then, I was just at the end of one journey and I started the next.”

It was a fork in the road, but a route that was easily decided upon.

“At that point, it was either do this, or spend your life doing this, which will end up in some dumb shit. I’ve always been the one to be all or nothing into something. Everything else becomes secondary.”

Leaving his old life in the leafy estates of Northampton totally in the past isn’t an option, though. With bars about drinking Scrumpy Jack, scuffed up Reeboks and getting in fist fights, he’s preserving the memories of this tumultuous, character-forming time within his music. As he gets bigger, you’d imagine cheap cider might be abandoned, but he has a reluctance to totally leave those days behind.

“That’s my core foundation. I wallow in the past a lot. No matter what, I’ll always go back to Scrumpy Jack and Lambrini, doing spinnies. It’s one of those things, you can take the boy out of the council estate, but you can’t take the council estate out of the boy. No matter where I get, if I have billions, if I drink any drink I’ll be thinking, ‘Yo, you remember when you were 12 in the park, on a fuckin’ roundabout, riding ‘peds, pop pedal and pump’. That’ll always stay with me.”

It’s this nostalgia that feeds him as an artist, too.

“The whole energy of growing up, everyone around me, that’s where a lot of my personality is built from. That’s me. That’s what made me. It’s the first thing you think of, all of the shit you did when you were young. You have a minute and you’re thinking, ‘Did I actually do that?’, and you’re laughing at the embarrassing shit you used to do as a kid.”

All of these memories are, of course, quarantined in Northampton. At a push, it’s a small city, but technically speaking it’s a town. A place that has a storied political history, but a location that’s not traditionally known as a breeding ground for contemporary artforms.

slowthai had to make do with “Northampton’s version of Jammer’s basement”, as he is quoted as saying in Notion Magazine, a place called Treasure Box Recordings. Set up by local MC Frustration in his mother’s house, the place was like a flame for the moths that were the local youths looking to forget about the mundanity and danger of their everyday lives. While Treasure Box served a purpose, it wasn’t conducive to creativity for slowthai.

“I was more bothered about being stoned,” he admits. “It did [help his creativity] in some ways, I suppose, because you’re taking in your surroundings, a product of your environment, but I was just the kid bopping through. Everyone else was serious about it.

“There weren’t any gospel good people [in Treasurebox], there weren’t any prayer groups, we didn’t all sit around and talk about what we had for dinner last night. There was always bad energy there, but it was something that took people’s minds away from their circumstances. It was a self-made youth club. A youth club without a dickhead telling you what you can and can’t do. It run itself.”

With a rap foundation that is at best uncultivated, is slowthai Northampton’s musical saviour? Take Ireland as an example. It seemed once Rejjie Snow began to blow up the floodgates were thrown open for hip hop in the country. Dozens of young artists suddenly had confidence in their ability, because if one local kid can make it, why can’t they?

I ask if he feels he’s been able to give local artists the confidence to express themselves.

“I hope so, if not I’m not doing what I’m trying to do well enough. I feel like kids are becoming more open to following their heart and trying shit. Whether that’s down to me or just the internet I don’t know. Because, what are you going to do, work a normal job or go to university and do all the bullshit? Or are you going to actually try and achieve something? If you get some- where, then mission accomplished, but if you don’t you can go back and study or get a job. It’s a no-brainer to attempt something.

“If you’ve never failed before then you don’t have experience. I hope by me being me that people can be them.”

One part of slowthai’s work that is a common thread is his near-obsession with horror and the macabre. At a show in East London earlier this year, slowthai was carried through the buzzing crowd in a coffin, emerging in his boxers. His film references range from found footage nods to straight up George A. Romero and Stanley Kubrick tributes.

For him, it’s how horror pushes you to the edge of your seat and out of your comfort zone that appeals the most.

“Every day, everyone is going through their own traumatic experience. It’s just bringing light to things, making the darkest parts of someone’s life into some- thing that can be laughed at. Showing someone that your fears and phobias are not the be all and end all. You’ve got to push through it and realise nothing is that scary, that big or that shocking. Especially in the world we live in where people smash each other’s heads in and you see videos on Instagram of it. I don’t think anything is shocking any more.”

When discussing Stanley Kubrick, slowthai says, “He’s got the mind”. For a director like that the soundtrack is of the utmost importance to create a sinister mood. He agrees, but finding collaborators often proves difficult – the George Romero to his Goblin.

“Those films, from people like Kubrick, are some of the best visuals you’ll see.

“Most of the time you build up expectations of working with somebody and then you meet them and they’re not anything like you thought they were. I feel like a lot of this industry is built up of fake people. It’s just people tarnishing something good. I’ll collaborate with my friends first. You can’t think of it like work, it’s a passion, so I want to do it with my brothers.”

slowthai’s creative journey has been brief in relation to the road he has ahead of him, but he’s already acutely aware of the industry he has been thrust into. While a manor where he can spend his time fishing and riding motorbikes doesn’t seem as unrealistic as it used to be, he’s now working on discovering what he’s about as a person.

We part on one more philosophical nugget as he prepares to step on stage in front of a room swelling with eager and energetic young fans.

“You’ll never actually find out who you are, you’re always evolving and changing. But that’s my endless goal, to better myself and keep pushing through on this spiritual journey. Be it shit or good. Guts or glory.”