slowthai is Just Getting Started
The visceral British rapper kicks a boot to the face of convention with his unique blend of antagonistic punk, UK grime and the blues.
Photo credit: Aidan Cullen
Tyron Frampton – slowthai to you – was due to be born on Christmas Day, but arrived a week early. He has mixed feelings about the holiday and its patron saint, Santa Claus – the big bearded old man.
“Boiler broke on Christmas Day / Ask Santa, ‘Why’s my life this way?’ / Putting heating on my next wish list / Fuck Santa, cause we’re cold as shit” he spits venomously over classical violin strings on “Slow Down”, the opening track on his latest EP, Runt – the record that launched him from a hot yet still relatively underground British act and into the wider global consciousness as a serious one-to-watch.
“A man comes down your chimney and yams your cookies and drinks your milk? That’s home invasion!” he exclaims today in a pub garden in Shadwell, where we are sipping pints in the shade to escape the heat. “I'm gonna say to my kids you never let no man come in your house and you never let no man drink your milk! What we're gonna do is get you in your nice pyjamas, have a nice night together, and tomorrow when you wake up you'll get everything you ever wanted because you’ve been good, and because I love you”.
Though he is commonly pigeon-holed as a rapper, slowthai fits perfectly into the recent wave of artists who refuse to be or have no interest in being defined by a genre – people like Octavian, 808INK and Kojey Radical. His sweaty, loud live shows usually end with him stripped down to his boxers and socks, climbing onto beams and hanging off of rafters, screaming ‘Fuck the Queen’ in front of a huge union jack, like a demented punk act. His lyrical content also swerves through the following things with ease: his time as a small time drug dealer, drinking tea with his nan, staying in a caravan in the British holiday park Butlins, love, and telling people to "get the fuck out my face".
Then there's his flow, which is incredibly versatile. “Polaroid” sees him spitting in a way that is reminiscent of Boy In Da Corner era Dizzee Rascal over a dark, grimey beat, whereas on EP closing track "Call My Own" he sings a hook over an icy and relatively sparse piano. Despite the differences in the tracks, his voice is instantly recognisable. Frequently he sings and raps in a way that's tinged with a melancholic kind of blue, but it wouldn't be hyperbole to say he doesn't sound like anyone else in music right now. So what's the Northampton based MC's story?
When slowthai speaks, it is slow – the name is a play on a nickname given to him as a kid because of his speech. Today, he trails off mid-sentence, goes off on fantastical tangents – at one point he launches into a story that involves someone sniping Theresa May, a wife murdering her husband with soup, and a pixie and Elmo from Sesame Street apropos of nothing. But when he raps it’s a different story: his flows are fast and sharp, acerbic and precise, and he knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.
Perhaps because of how varied his tracks sound, his musical influences are loose. When I ask him what he listened to growing up, he replies that he was heavily into grime as a kid before launching into a rendition of “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson, a song he discovered while watching Reservoir Dogs as a child. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he tells me "the ear-cutting scene" was his favourite bit. Movie soundtracks are the bedrock of a lot of his taste, but garage and jungle were constants in his household, and his aunt used to date the guy that owned the Sidewinder record store.
Then, of course, there are the punk elements of his music, which he attributes to time spent with his indie kid half-brother. “I listened to band music with them, and obviously at the time I was like ‘you're wet, what the fuck is this shit!’ but now I’m like this is sick!” Genre isn’t important to slowthai, all that matters is that he likes what he’s hearing. “Someone might be like ‘have you heard this death metal song?’ and if it gets me pumped, then I can run into a brick wall head first and be like fucking hell.
Though slowthai's descriptive raps tell stories and paint pictures straight from his brain, his music videos are also a big sell, breathing new visual life into his tunes. Take the video for "Ladies", a track from his first EP (watch below), in which there is a scene where he lies naked and curled up next to his fully-clothed girlfriend. The image is powerful in its rarity in pop culture alone, but it is also a reference to the iconic Annie Leibowitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken in the last 15 hours of his life before he was shot. Then there's “North Nights”, an altogether different experience, made up of references to slowthai’s favourite horror films: The Shining, Blair Witch, A Clockwork Orange and La Haine. “I don't know if it's my attention span”, he laughs, touching on his meticulously thought-out music videos, “but I don't like reading. I'm more of a visual person."
To give some background, Slowthai grew up on a council estate in Northampton where he lived with his single mum and four siblings. He spent a lot of his time getting into trouble – nothing serious, but enough to mean that his favourite tattoo is the one stick and poked in the centre of his chest that reads ‘sorry mum’. “It’s my most said phrase”, he chuckles. He sports a torso dotted with ink – a Russian prison-style tattoo reading ‘Forever Bruh’, ‘Sometimes’ in the style of The Simpsons opening credits, Mona Lisa’s head with ‘Smile’ written on her forehead. His first tattoo was a tiny music note on his wrist that he inked on himself with a needle and Indian ink at a party when he was 13.
“My older brother - who has a different mum – his mum went away and he had a party. He left a window open and I hopped in. They were all indie kids and were mad into stick and poke tattoos, so me and this girl sat there and tatted ourselves. I was so waved”, he laughs, “I got in at like 5 and my mum woke me up at 7 for school - I didn't even remember I'd done it. I was trying to scratch it off because I was that young, but it obviously wouldn't scratch off. So I was pulling my sleeve down trying to hide it”. Needless to say, his mum saw it soon after, but he escaped punishment because his younger sister used the tattoo kit he brought home to tattoo a heart on her wrist, which turned out so badly his mum didn’t even have the heart to punish them.
Right now, his time is split between his home town in Northampton and his girlfriend's family home in west London. The warmth when he talks about them is clear. “They've made me healthy, both mentally and my body. I didn't know about any of this stuff” he says, talking about a recent visit to Whole Foods. “It's so expensive but it's good, you feel good. Goji berries.” From cherry-door knocking on his estate as a kid to eating goji berries in Kensington, slowthai has come a long way. On the basis of what he's done so far, it looks as if he's only just getting started, and also that he's not watching for anyone else. As he puts it on one of the EPs stand out tracks, "GTFOMF", "you better knuckle up".
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