The rapper’s unlikely rise to fame provided a window into the British struggle for national identity. For Document’s Fall/Winter 2020 issue, the ‘Brexit Bandit’ explains why he’s now looking inward for answers
“Yeah, I have quite crazy dreams,” slowthai laughs, flashing me his famous gap-toothed grin and flicking his cigarette. He’s not referring to dreams of stardom, but the kind of dreams that keep you up at night, where things aren’t quite what they seem and the symbols keep getting stranger. He describes dreams of being someone else, dreams of tsunamis, dreams he desperately tries to rejoin after waking to find out how they end, and one particularly strange interlude involving his father at a KFC in Thailand.
It doesn’t surprise me that slowthai has a vivid fantasy life. Just before our Zoom interview, I took in his latest offering: the surreal music video for “feel away,” his single featuring James Blake and Mount Kimbie. It starts with slowthai proposing to his partner in the maternity ward; then the perspective switches, and he is revealed to be the one pregnant. His fiancée runs off with the doctor while he labors with their baby, and the video ends with his severed limbs being served as cake at their wedding—a reference to the viral meme of people cutting into seemingly ordinary household objects, only to discover that they are in fact hyperrealistic cakes.
For a small-town boy with a modest upbringing, the past year has been a whirlwind. Since the release of his first studio album Nothing Great About Britain in 2019, slowthai performed live on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and headlined shows across the US and Europe. When the Bajan-British rapper wasn’t onstage, he was courting controversy with a grin, dubbing himself the “Brexit Bandit” and going viral for holding up the fake severed head of Boris Johnson during his Mercury Prize performance. On tour, slowthai earned a reputation for delivering frenetic, politically charged shows that often ended with him stripped down to his boxers and thrown into the crowd—when he wasn’t spitting in mouths, that is (“Yeah, I think I might’ve started coronavirus,” he chuckles when I bring up the fan request.)
Now, slowthai (real name: Tyron Frampton) is back at his family home in Northampton, a town in the East Midlands region of England. With a pandemic raging outside and touring on pause, he has spent the past months hanging out with his mom, playing video games, and smoking weed—just like any other 25-year-old. “Of course it’s a bit boring by comparison, but I think being back and seeing my friends and family allowed me to come back down to earth,” he tells me. “I can just chill, eat good, have a laugh…and I can make more music than I would have if I was constantly flying everywhere or getting drunk all the time.”
“I ran out of money and I was sleeping on studio floors and just recording. Every second I got I was trying to make a song. I think when you have nothing, that’s when you start to grow and get good, because you’re out of your comfort zone—you know this is either it, or it is nothing.”
With his copious tattoos, grill, and bad-boy charm, slowthai is the latest in a long line of British musicians to question the status quo—yet the rapper’s acerbic wit and bracing social commentary, paired with a mix of grime and hip hop beats, puts his sound in its own lane. In Nothing Great About Britain, he draws on his own experience growing up under austerity politics to render a searing portrait of Britain’s crisis of identity, springboarding from critique of economic inequality to lampooning political figures with sharp-tongued dexterity that keeps you on your toes. Even though the picture he paints is dark, slowthai’s anti-authoritarian sentiment and comedic edge evoke a battle cry rather than a lament: In one song, he derides the monarchy with gusto, taunting the Queen of England in a mock-bourgeoisie accent (“I will treat you with the utmost respect only if you respect me a little bit Elizabeth, you cunt”); in others, he references experiences with racial bias (“Won’t hire me, then they hire you / Fire me but don’t fire you”) and his career prospects as a working-class youth (“Teacher said, ‘What you gonna be when you’re older?’ / “Drug dealer, what else can I do?”)
Before he started gaining traction as an artist, slowthai was a self-described “little shit” doing what we all do: making it work. He describes a mix of soul-crushing retail jobs, a brush with addiction, and a desire to go against the grain (“Think to myself, something’s gotta change / Lower class, but my class is so fucking flames,” he raps.) “I was selling weed, trying to make money. Then I ran out of money and I was sleeping on studio floors and just recording. Every second I got I was trying to make a song. I think when you have nothing, that’s when you start to grow and get good, because you’re out of your comfort zone—you know this is either it, or it is nothing,” he tells me.
slowthai’s rise to stardom coincides with a broader shift in Britain’s music scene, with distinctly multicultural subgenres like grime, garage, and drill broadening the UK soundscape. Throughout our call, he is quick to acknowledge his good fortune, expressing gratitude for the support of his community and the people who believe in him.
It’s not just his own modest upbringing that earned him a reputation as a champion of the proletariat. In 2019, he earned loyalty across the UK with a budget tour, charging only £0.99 for tickets and asking his fans where to go. Though the 99pence tour originally focused on often-overlooked small towns like the one he himself grew up in, popular interest led to a £5 tour of larger venues. Community has always been pivotal for slowthai, who takes aim at the monarchy in Nothing Great About Britain in order to draw focus back to the working-class people at the country’s heart.
The music he’s been working on over quarantine represents a pivot away from Brexit politics, but involves the same humanist outlook. “People inspire me to be better, so I want to inspire them to be better, because we’re all in it together. This song, and this whole album, are about growth and self-development,” he says. “Do you want me to play you some stuff?”
Sitting on the sofa in his family home, slowthai plays me his new music. He is alternately playful (“That’s just me being a saucy little fellow!”) and candid, walking me through the inspiration behind each track while chain-smoking cigarettes. “I think, through isolation, we’ve realized how much we actually need each other. This one is about appreciating what you’ve got,” he explains, referencing society’s newfound respect for the national healthcare system. “When COVID started, everyone was clapping for [the NHS]—and I don’t disagree with that, but considering they’ve done generations of good work, I don’t see why it takes a pandemic for us to congratulate or thank the people that are pushing for us.”
While slowthai still believes in the need for widespread political reform, his new music has more to do with creating positive change in himself. “I wanted it to be about duality, so it’s split into A-Side and B-Side—the first bit is chaotic and edgy, the things we put out to the world, or what people see us as because they don’t know us on that personal level,” he explains. “I recorded it while I was going through tough times in my life, with my mental health. I wanted to vent—so the A-Side is just me expressing myself, getting angry at everything that’s making me feel down. And then, the B-Side is about me being like, ‘Is this what I wanna do?’ and realizing that this stuff isn’t helping me, it’s just holding me back. It’s about searching for the answers in yourself. You’re either gonna sit there and cry about it or you are gonna go out and live life and do your best, and try to be better for yourself. You should improve because you want to improve, not because people expect it of you.”
I can’t help but sense he’s referring to his own brush with cancel culture earlier this year: an infamous incident at the NME Awards that started as banter with comedian Katherine Ryan and culminated in an altercation between himself and a male audience member who shouted that slowthai’s lewd comments were misogynist—a sentiment shared by critics on the internet and social media. Ryan, who was presenting the award, took to Twitter to respond. “He didn’t make me uncomfortable. This is why we need women in positions of power. He opened his mouth like any heckler coming up against a COMIC—not a woman—a COMIC,” she wrote later that evening. Even so, the incident spurred some serious self-reflection for slowthai, who later requested that NME forward his Hero of the Year award to Ryan instead. In a public apology to Ryan, he wrote: “You are a master at your craft and next time I’ll take my seat and leave the comedy to you. To any woman or man who saw a reflection of situations they’ve been in in those videos, I am sorry. I promise to do better. Let’s talk here.”
“I believe a lot of people who’re on Twitter—caught up in the moment, saying negative shit—they’re lost themselves, they’re just fighting because they feel like that’s the one place they have a voice.”
“My whole thing with [cancel culture] is, why don’t you do something positive and try to teach the person where they’re wrong, or how things could be presumed a certain way?” he remarks, after sharing a track inspired by the experience. “Strangers on the internet are so fast to push people into a corner and label someone they don’t know. I believe a lot of people who’re on Twitter—caught up in the moment, saying negative shit—they’re lost themselves, they’re just fighting because they feel like that’s the one place they have a voice,” he says. “All you can do in life is learn from something. Anyone who knows me knows what I’m about, knows what I stand for, knows who I am. You can’t hate someone who’s trying to do everything for their family and trying to push and be the best version of themselves.”
slowthai tries to make himself accessible to fans, often responding to messages and encouraging people to reach out and vent to him about their problems. “I try to treat people the way I want to be treated. If they took the time out of their day to message, who am I not to take time out of mine to message back, and speak to them, and make sure they’re okay,” he says. “It’s a family—that’s what I’m aiming to create. I actually just spoke to this girl, who told me she came to my show and posted it on her story; this guy who’s a fan replied, and from that they started dating. Now they’ve been together for a year and a half, and just moved into a house! If they decide to get married, I’m getting ordained—I’ll be the one to do it,” he jokes. “Things like that make it ten times more worthwhile. Even taking the time out to mention that to me—that this was a prominent memory they made together—that’s sick.” After an hour or so of chatting, I’m beginning to understand the depth of his conviction that it’s the people, not the government, that make Britain great.
The conversation turns to his own family life and his relationship with his mother Gaynor, to whom he pays tribute in his song “Northampton’s Child” (“You’re the strongest person I know / Made us happy even when you felt down / Always other people first / But I’m thinking for you right now.”) One of his tattoos is similarly dedicated to her: “Sorry Mum,” spelled across his chest. “As much as she’s my mum, she’s been a friend to me more than anything,” slowthai says, a fact he attributes in part to their small age difference; Gaynor was only 16 when she had him. “Even when she knew I was going through a phase, she just wanted to let me be who I wanted to be. She understood that I just gotta decide for myself.” When I ask what she thinks of his newfound fame, he laughs. “She’s funny. Out of everyone, she always knows things before I do. Even though she’s not on the internet all the time, she makes it her mission to find out everything. And then whenever I’m tweeting some mad shit she’ll be like, ‘What does this mean?’” “Not today Mum, relax.”
Even with the wholehearted support of his mother, his family life hasn’t been without struggle; his little brother Michael John, who had muscular dystrophy, passed away just after his first birthday (something he alludes to in lyrics, and has spoken about on social media.) The aftershocks of this loss were deeply felt by his family, and in the years since he has publicly written about the impact his little brother had on his life. “I’m doing everything in my power to live for him and also make him proud,” wrote slowthai in one Instagram post, revealing that “feel away” is dedicated to him.
“I never want anyone to feel like I’m up here and they’re down there. If someone is a fan of my work, that just means we appreciate
the same things. It don’t matter who you are or what you do, your color, your creed, sexual orientation; as long as you connect with it.”
slowthai struggled with anger management after his brother’s death (“You’re lucky I’m not as big as you / I’ll punch you till my hands turn blue,” he says on “Northampton’s Child,” addressing his cheating stepdad.) Today, he is embracing music and writing not just as a way to express aggression, but as a site of vulnerability (“I’ve been writing poetry,” he tells me when I ask how he’s keeping entertained during quarantine.) The razor wit and raw, anarchic edge that launched him into the spotlight are still present, but this new album marks the beginning of a new era for slowthai: one defined by introspection, self-awareness, and personal growth. “I’m not religious, but I used to be. I asked for the Bible for my birthday,” he explains, laughing at my astonished expression. “The title of this next song is an anagram for ‘Pray Until Something Happens.’ It’s just something my family always said to me.”
Over the course of our conversation, what surprises me most is slowthai’s genuine desire to connect: He reciprocates every question I ask him (Where am I from? What have I been up to during quarantine? What are my weird dreams like?) and when he falls silent, it’s not out of awkwardness—it’s because he’s listening. “I never want anyone to feel like I’m up here and they’re down there,” he says of his fans. “If someone is a fan of my work, that just means we appreciate the same things. It don’t matter who you are or what you do, your color, your creed, sexual orientation; as long as you’re feeling it and you connect with it. That’s what life’s about, it’s about meeting people and helping each other, so the next generation learns from our mistakes, or things we’ve done, so then they push it,” he says.
While slowthai’s anti-authoritarian spirit and dynamic stage presence invite comparison to the punk luminaries of decades past, it’s his unremitting drive to connect with the people and communities around him that strikes me as authentically subversive in today’s individualistic landscape. In the fraught political climate of 2020, it’s easy to revert to tribalist arguments and moral policing that only sows division. slowthai knows what it’s like to be disenfranchised, but he also knows how to capture this frustration in a biting lyric and use it to rally people around a shared cause. His unlikely rise to fame provides a window into the British struggle for national identity—yet as much as slowthai’s shows are a mosh pit of raw energy and anti-government sentiment, they are also a testament to the power of community and the people’s dedication to a better future.
slowthai’s forthcoming album TYRON will be released February 5th, 2021.