The Legend of Slowthai
The Emerging UK Rapper’s Debut Album Is Coming to Take the Throne
- Photography: Mat + Kat
- Video: Mat + Kat
- Interview: Niloufar Haidari
“Bon soir, ca va, oui oui… What does that mean?” asks slowthai before he launches into an impersonation of Christina Aguilera in "Lady Marmalade" and bursts into laughter. Between outfit changes, slowthai—real name Tyron Frampton, referred to by friends as Ty or simply T—is constantly storytelling, inventing fantastical movie plots. His work, especially his music videos, provides an outlet to bring these stories to life. In "Ladies" he recreates John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s infamous Rolling Stone cover, curled up naked against his girlfriend reciting lyrics in her ear. In "Nothing Great About Britain" he retells the legend of Excalibur, framing himself as a modern-day King Arthur. Old narratives, brilliantly revised for the Brexit, Trump, one percent-era and delivered in a Needles tracksuit and Nike TNs. In slowthai’s reality, Batman dies and the Joker survives.
It’s this powerful imagination and boundless energy, rooted in real-life experience, that has set him apart from his peers in British rap. Slowthai makes music that tells the story of a Britain that is largely overlooked, a country of misspent youth spent on council estates, in pubs and bookies. A country of abusive stepfathers and drinking problems, of boredom and stolen dirt bikes. The 24-year-old has built a cult-like following off the back of two vibrant EPs—2017’s I Wish I Knew and 2018’s Runt, along with a slew of singles and a sold-out UK tour. His live shows usually end with the rapper stripped down to his boxers, drenched in sweat. Musically, he eschews genre and swerves between acerbic raps over grime beats, snarling lo-fi punk, and half-singing alongside a plinking piano. His fanbase is just as diverse: from suburban kids that feel his lyrics capture the anxiety of Britain’s lower class youth, to fashion designer Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*, graphic designer David Rudnick, and the Liam Gallagher.
The last time I sat down with slowthai was in 2018, in an East London pub on a hot summer’s day, a month before the release of his second EP, Runt. Today I am in his family home in Northampton, a forgotten town about an hour north of London where he grew up with his mother and four siblings. He’s getting ready to unleash his highly-anticipated debut album, aptly titled, Nothing Great About Britain. The two meetings are almost a year apart, but the British artist is much the same person, if a bit older and wiser, more settled.
We sit down together in the quintessentially British front room, adorned with framed family photos, piles of cushions, and hanging heart-shaped décor reminding us that “life is better when you’re laughing”—to chat about growing up in Northampton, his upcoming album, and the things that actually make Britain very much Britain.
It might surprise some people to know that you're quite shy and soft-spoken as a person, seeing as slowthai the artist is so loud and confident...do you see it as an alter-ego almost?
I’m one of them people that just likes being in my head a lot, and the further I’ve got in this thing I don't like to talk as much. I like to hear people; I like to hear their stories and take something from them. It can be considered an alter-ego but it's me—I’m never putting it on, I’m just that caught up in the moment that it becomes me. That's my heart, that's my soul. Other than that, I like being quiet, I like chilling out and listening. It's better that way than being the loud cunt.
What was making an album like compared to an EP?
It's more intense—you spend a lot of nights in one room with the same people. I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, but it's different putting it down and writing it. I wanted to make a volume where there’s a narrative from start to finish.
What story are you telling?
It's my story. It's basically dethroning the Queen and putting my mum on that pedestal. It's not that I’m slewing Britain and trying to take [something] away; I’m trying to make it more apparent what we neglect and what we're not focusing on, which is the communities and families and people that actually build up the country. Whether you're an immigrant or you were born here, I believe you haven't gotta be English to be British. You can be from anywhere in the world, it just depends on how you've adopted the culture and took it in.
What exactly do you mean when you say "Nothing Great About Britain"?
We’ve held [Great Britain] up and built this empire or whatever, and that's what people presume it to be: this place that went and done all these things… Everyone sees the surface level, so it's a way of showing people there's more to it. There's more to people, there's more to the country than you think. It's an open-ended question without the question mark: what is great? You tell me. I give you my opinion, my side of the story, and you either argue or agree or whatever. It's a way to get people speaking and thinking.
In the title track, you end with saying "I’m still proud to be British." What are the things that make you proud to be British?
Just how I am. I think you're a product of your environment so everything that's around you makes you who you are. Growing up, I was very close-minded to certain things because of where I come from, and [I’m proud of] growing out of it and becoming open-minded and seeing a different life. What makes me proud to be British…I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of my tribe, I’m proud of my unit, I’m proud of the people that raised me up and I’m proud to be part of something.
Was there a particular moment when you started to question things?
I think it's when I went [to] college and met a bunch of different people that I wouldn't usually speak to, and then they start showing you things about their life and you're like "hold on, why weren't my life like this?" You start to question everything. I’ve always been inquisitive and observant, so seeing things and trying to understand them for what they really are has always been a thing, but if you're misguided and influenced by people that don't feel the same way, you just put it on the back burner and just follow and fit in…that's why my whole message is just be yourself and try and figure out who you are.
The closing track, “Northampton's Child”, is definitely the most personal thing we've heard from you yet. It's also a glimpse into what life is like in modern-day Britain for a lot of people.
We separate people because of what they have and don't have, and we treat people less because they have less. We're sold a fairytale dream of what family should be and that's what makes things dysfunctional—it will never be that because you're trying to emulate a fairytale. I’m meant to have two kids, a wife, work my whole life...in the end I’ve only ever lived 10% of my actual life enjoying it—for what? Because this is what society tells me to do? It's an entry point so people can understand where I’m from.
What’s the story behind the album art?
The estate [pictured] is the first flat my mum got from the housing association, where I went from the hospital when I was born. The week before we shot [the photo] the people [living in the flats] got an eviction notice saying they're knocking the flats down. When we were shooting, they were trying to shut it down saying "this is insensitive" but I was arguing with the woman saying actually what you're doing is insensitive, and you're trying to keep it as quiet as you can. I feel like that added a lot more layers to it. Basically I'm the laughing stock—someone's gotta be the joker; the one that everyone points at, laughs at… But in the end they reign supreme. If I have to go through 10,000 years of pain to empower people and show them that it don't matter what clothes you've got on, get naked, be comfortable with who you are...and if being comfortable with who you are gets you put in a situation where everyone's pointing the finger and laughing, then ride it out and it'll make you a better person.
Has your mum heard it?
Yeah, it made her cry. That's what's important to me—if you can evoke an emotion from someone, that's how you know it's the right thing.
Niloufar Haidari is a freelance writer based in London. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Fader, Vogue, and more.
- Photography: Mat + Kat
- Video: Mat + Kat
- Interview: Niloufar Haidari
- Styling: Daniel Pacitti
- Styling Assistant: Rhys Thrupp
- Photography Assistant: Tom Skinner
- Production: Claire Burman