Slowthai interview Noisey Autumn 2020 Cover by Sirui Ma
Entertainment

The Rebirth of Slowthai

The UK rapper and Noisey Autumn 2020 cover star has had an even more troublesome year than most. Here he talks about re-education, showing his softer side and a second album.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
SM
photos by Sirui Ma
September 28, 2020, 8:45am

Slowthai’s nan, Patsy, is facing the September sun from her daughter’s patio. She shuffles in her flip flops and watches slowthai wander in circles as his cousin and manager, Lewis, wrestles with a paddling pool. She announces that she wants a proper sewing machine. “What kinda sewing machine?” Ty – everyone calls him Ty – asks, picking up her right big toe between two fingers and giving it a playful wiggle. A basic electric one, she says, because arthritis has made manually sewing her clothes difficult. “We’ll get you one, nan,” he promises.

The success of Tyron Frampton’s debut album Nothing Great About Britain in 2019 has meant “freedom” for his family: freedom from financial concerns, freedom for him to focus solely on music. The 25-year-old rapper permanently lives with his mum sandwiched in the middle of a long row of terraced houses in Northampton. It caters to all, with a room for his mum’s semi-permanent make-up salon and a basement for his studio, where he’s been busy writing his second album. Ten minutes later, Patsy is chatting and chatting, as nan’s do on their way out, and pushes past Ty in the back door frame. “Text me, because you never do,” she chides.

Slowthai, Noisey/VICE cover profile

The mood is aimless. Every mug of tea, group chat joke and socially-distanced garden visit from a family member suggests I could be in almost any house in the UK. Since February, Ty’s deliberately been off booze, and he seems centred and healthy for it (“I’m learning I can’t have the in-between. I have one and it’s like fucking ‘ell, let’s have it!”). Touring Nothing Great About Britain last year meant one thing: drinking, and lots of it. “The road’s what made me into a fucking wanker,” he half-jokes, rubbing his head. “Let’s just wake up and have a drink. Time goes by and the next minute you’re drinking every day.”

Slowthai’s ascension has been rapid, so there’s been a lot to celebrate. After spending 14 years on a Northampton estate, raised by his single mum since the age of three when his dad left, Ty made a name for himself depicting working class life around him. Both incendiary (politically, emotionally) and considerate, he was specific in his mission to make Nothing Great About Britain, and British politics in general, accessible for everyone. He played shows for £5, put mirrors up to audiences at gigs to champion them and rapped about his love and respect for women, especially the number one woman in his life: his mum, immortalised as his “only queen” on “Northampton’s Child”.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

To say this mission was a success would be an understatement. Slowthai quickly became the voice of a generation during a decade defined by Brexit, austerity and class hostility. His trademark grin worked because, to disenfranchised Brits, everything true and unfair is “a joke”. He built a theatrical performance with an ensemble of one. It felt thrilling, necessary and gleeful. Where were you when slowthai called Queen Elizabeth a “cunt”?

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

But there are at least two sides to slowthai. There’s the one whose face is corrupt with pure manic energy and could turn around any living person’s bad mood with a bit of wordplay and flirtatious charm; the one for whom shirts are meaningless, existing only for the moment they’re taken off. Then there’s the one who seems socially shy; the one who, during our time together, wants to eat in the car instead of in front of people and laughs nervously under pressure.

A new tattoo glares large and freshly defined on his neck: an elephant on its hind legs with a bulging belly. “Cuz I’m always the elephant in the room now,” he says, shuffling from one foot to another in an all-black nondescript outfit. Why the stomach though?

“It’s full with all his insecurities,” Lewis offers.

“I’ve put on weight,” Ty replies, grabbing his stomach for a mini Truffle Shuffle. “No: video, innit.”

He’s referring to the video for his new single “Feel Away” – the first from the as-yet-unannounced follow-up to Nothing Great About Britain. In the video slowthai, pregnant with a baby, goes into labour during an ultrasound. Unfortunately, in this surreal world, his girlfriend marries another man around his hospital bed. Slowthai cries out, only to discover both he and the baby are made of cake, which the happy couple feast on.

The song is dedicated to his little brother, who died when Ty was eight, and was released the day after the anniversary of his death. The loss has stayed with Ty and affected him deeply – he had resulting anger-management sessions and lived off rewatching 8 Mile – evidenced by a tender and personal song about a toxic relationship.

“Feel Away” is our first introduction to slowthai: Part II. It’s not a reinvention as much as it is a change of perspective: rather than portraying life around him, slowthai has turned inwards, using writing “like a diary” to understand himself. It’s partly the circumstances of lockdown, partly a long-held plan – Ty is a meticulous planner, someone who knows album names and concepts well in advance – and partly down to a year that has, for him, required solitude and serious reflection.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

Down in his mum’s basement aka his home studio, you’ll find Ty’s answer to The Batcave. One end is full of expensive-looking musical equipment, the other looks like a window display at Forbidden Planet. There’s a Chucky doll, several Ty Beanie Boos and a statuette of Alex DeLarge Clockwork Orange (he references the film in his 2018 video for “North Nights”).

There’s also lots of slowthai paraphernalia: a plastic bottle from The Tonight Show (presumably from his US TV debut earlier this year), a bottle of champagne and various awards, though one is missing: his NME ‘Hero of the Year’ award. After his controversial behaviour at the ceremony back in February, he tweeted a sincere apology and gave it to the Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan, who he said deserved it.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

From the comfort of home and hindsight, there is only one way to describe the start of slowthai’s 2020. “It was a moment where nothing was normal,” he says, swinging in his chair like he’s gearing up to face me. He was flying between London, America, Australia, darting between the studio, parties and shows. “Reality becomes blurred. You’re here, you’re there, you’re at an awards show and there’s all these amazing people around and you see them doing their things. It’s like a kid in a candy shop.”

And what do kids do?

“The kid’s gonna eat all the sweets and run around and go fucking mad.”

Everyone knows the story – or rather, a version of it – by now. The night opened with a live performance from slowthai and Mura Masa of their collaborative single “Deal With It” – a swaggering proposition that seemed to exist solely with the purpose of reminding the music industry how high the bar was. The offending incident followed: a horny joke by Katherine Ryan, who was hosting the awards, was returned by a drunk and exuberant Ty, who didn’t notice the bristling from the audience and carried the joke too far for too long, like a cat with a mouse under its paw. It was partially a routine the pair had rehearsed in advance, but Ty drunkenly ad-libbed out of control, making crude comments and getting right up into her face. It felt like everyone in the room was begging him with their minds to return to his table.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

“I wish I went and sat back in my seat,” he says of the moment things escalated. “But I’ve never been that type of person to waddle back, ya know? The only other time I’ve ever been around a comedian is when I walked into a pub and into the back room like ‘what’s going on here’ and the guy instantly targeted me. I should’ve learnt from that.”

It was a career highlight gone sour. When he returned to the stage to collect his ‘Hero of the Year’ award, people started to boo. One audience member called him a “misogynist” and he reacted badly, throwing a glass into the crowd. The emotions on his face were comprehensible: confusion, fear, powerlessness. Moments after he jumped off the stage and disappeared, clips of his exchange with Ryan had already been shared on Twitter and labelled sexual harassment.

Most videos were fragments of the evening taken out of context. In the way that all issues on Twitter are naturally dealt with, the discourse grew rapidly outward like a nautical shell: as if getting further away from the specific event or issue at hand is a golden ratio certainty. A drunk man becomes the face of sexual assault in the music industry becomes sexual harassment at large. Ryan also denied it was sexual harassment, which became a shell of its own, twisting until she’s a few degrees from a misogynist too.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

Not realising what was happening online, Ty assumed he was in trouble for getting angry. “I didn’t see it as being toxic, but when I watched those clips back, I was like, I can understand why people feel this way and I can understand where I was wrong.”

A hotel room had been booked in London, but Ty didn’t want to stay anymore. He got his team to drive him the 70+ miles back to Northampton that night, and in the car he spiralled mentally, scrolling Twitter for answers before eventually deleting the app. The fact that the majority of tweets seemed to be along the lines of: ‘He’s shown his true colours, it’s only been a matter of time’ hurt him.

“A lot of the people who were so quick to speak badly of me were people who, the whole time I’ve been doing well, have stereotyped me. ‘It’s a matter of time til he does something’, you know?” he says. “People see where you’re from, see your kinda characteristics, and label you this bad person. Well, I’ve always gone against the grain of what people thought I was because I wanted to prove them wrong. For me that’s the biggest satisfaction: when people see you and you’re like ‘oh, you actually did do something’ or ‘oh, you actually are a good person’.”

Matty Healy of The 1975 recently commented on the situation, saying of economically disenfranchised and “kind of anti-establishment” young men: “we celebrate them, we put them in pantheons and then when they reveal themselves to be young and naive at times, we go, ‘Well, that’s not fucking good enough’… We need to be looking after young men a bit better before we start demonising them.”

Ryan herself condemned those calling slowthai out – and herself out for defending him – saying she felt “motherly concern” towards him.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

“People are so quick to point the finger and kill ya, but if you live in fear of what everyone thinks, you’ll never do anything all your life. Fuck it, what can I do?” Ty says, and seems in that moment to say: ‘I can sit and wallow or I can take my lessons and learn from it and become a better person.’

His mood shifts from discomfort, to mild frustration, to acceptance, to positivity. They are appropriate and honest reactions to something this complicated: he’s done something wrong, apologised and rectified it best he can. But he’s frustrated by the backlash, frustrated with the fact that he’s on the side of his detractors in theory. Later in the day, when we leave the studio and he leads me back upstairs, he seems drained. “After this I don’t think anything needs to be said… We move on, we move forward.”

So this is how Ty’s strange year has rolled out: weeks of “moping around” at his mum’s house and mentally struggling post-awards (“Who can I trust, who not to trust. Just doubting and questioning everything. There are a lot of down moments.”) He quietly released a few tracks: among them the acidic, aggressive “ENEMY”, an obvious reference to the night in question and his therapeutic way of venting about the people who have turned their backs on him. Usually a visual person, Ty instead started reading and listening to audiobooks. There’s been Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala, How To Know Higher Worlds, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, and he re-read The Four Agreements. There’s been the wildly popular illustration book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, bought for him by a friend’s mum. It was widely adopted in hospitals, psychiatric institutions and by the army, who were using it to help soldiers with PTSD. One image is of a boy and a horse. “What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said,” asks the boy. “Help,” says the horse.

Slowthai / Noisey VICE cover profile 2020

There’s one other book that Lewis bought him that he especially liked but has forgotten the name of. I tell him to email the title to me later, but that’s no good: he sprints upstairs calling Lewis’ name, whirls through rooms like a Tasmanian devil, and he’s back downstairs holding a paperback. It’s The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry – a short book about the need for a new masculinity that leaves space for vulnerability and mistakes. It’s particularly lucid on how British class intersects with masculinity, noting that boys who grew up without fathers or in chaotic environments “can be swept away by unchanneled masculine energy”, and that nothing frightens a man like rejection or the fear of being ridiculed. But the most important force that turned Perry from violence and anger, he writes, was art. The freedom to go inward and create things.

Reading these books was “grounding” to Ty. It was part of a return to who he is as a person, something that felt lost to travelling, partying and music. “Joking around, just doing normal stuff, you forget how much you appreciate not just being in a box making music.” He deleted Twitter and Instagram from his phone and went to Thailand with his Russian model-singer girlfriend Katerina, who he met via social media (“The internet’s a weird place...for good and for bad”). In Ko Pha-Ngan he drank from coconuts and learnt to swim. He rode mopeds and, in the sun, he started to feel again. One night he proposed to his girlfriend. “It was spontaneous,” he tells me. “We were just lying down, there was the stars and everything and I got down on one knee and she just started crying, because I think she thought I was just saying it...”

Back home, he went into lockdown with Katerina and his mum. This was a comfortable prospect for Ty (“I’ve always just been around women, my mum and my sister, that was always my unit”). Instead of touring and festivals, he started eating properly, learning to cook Russian meals from his girlfriend: things like borscht and a vodka pasta, based on one they’d enjoyed in LA. Slowly he noticed that he looked less and less ill, less exhausted from touring and being on the road.

The insular, homely life suited him. “As I’ve gotten older, I like snuggling, I like watching movies and eating, I like cute shit. I’m not gonna hide away from it,” he grins. That’s all fed into his next album. “I like being softer though, and not being so aggressive with my voice and stuff. Having some piano moments and sweetness.”

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This maturity has also emerged from what Ty sees as a cognisance of negative patterns of behaviour and realising how we all reproduce those, to some extent. As a child he might see his mum’s trouble with her step-dad, and the toxic behaviours involved, or older family members getting kicked out of school, and think: why are people like that? “As much as we think we’re gonna change – and we do change – there are still small parts that repeat themselves throughout time,” he says. “It’s hard to break the cycle and see things for what it is, rather than following the same path.”

At the same time, he’s thought about the duality in people. “We all have the bad characteristics and the good characteristics and when you come to terms with who you really are, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just being yourself. I think that’s the hardest thing for anyone in this world: to be fully yourself, without any hesitation,” he adds. “And that’s a lot of what taking time from it I realised, all this stuff –” he waves a hand over his phone like it’s a mirage – “it’s not real. The people who have all this stuff, all the money in the world, you don’t see the moments where none of it means anything to them, when they are on home at their own and they’re miserable as fuck because they’ve not got people who are real to them.”

Ty is eager to play me tracks from the new album, although we can’t discuss it in depth. For the first time today he seems lighter. He stretches back into the chair, proud. “What kinda songs d’you wanna hear? There’s two sides, remember, two sides to a person.” I say I want the “bad” side. I get a furious, flexing song about getting cancelled with a feature from his “big bro” Skepta. It feels like a sulphurous follow up to “ENEMY”, and a reminder that no one sounds quite like slowthai.

This “softer side” he’s been talking about is heartbreaking. He half-sings, using his voice with a range that’s as surprising as the songs themselves. At the same time he sounds stronger, more vulnerable but self-possessed enough to share it. We’re supposed to be leaving but he’s smoking straights and keeps playing another song, another song. Fuck it, last one.

Who can slowthai be moving forward? He’s still the person who created the most important album about Brexit Britain, and its legacy, he hopes, is that it made people “think for themselves”. He’s still the person who encouraged young people to engage with politics, and he will continue to prove that he’s still one of the most exciting rappers in the UK. Behind his computer there’s a piece of fan art so big and stylistically impressive that I mistake it for a professional commission. It was gifted to him by a female fan at one of his shows. Now, when he’s making music, it’s right there in front of him: a huge black board of handwritten lyrics, and tea in bone china cups with saucers and Boris’ infuriating face mid-roar.

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Slowthai’s message as an artist remains unchanged, because it’s at the heart of Ty the person: equality, wherever possible, on a person-to-person level. “People who know me and who have been around me understand that everyone’s treated the same. It’s always been to make things equal. It’s not ‘I’m up here and other people are down here’. There’s not part of me that says ‘fan’. It’s always been ‘family’. I always try to make sure people don’t feel hurt or some kind of way.”

A part of him is at peace with the fact that he was made an “example” of. He says, on a tangent, that he feels great sympathy for people who’ve been cancelled maliciously or targeted on social media. “That’s the worst thing for me, that we live in a world where these things actually happen and hurt people and leave people feeling repressed and suppressed or pushed down,” he explains. “At the end of day, we’re all here to be our truest selves and fulfil our potential and when people hinder that or stop you from being who you’re meant to be or dim your light… I just can’t understand why anyone would wanna make people feel them ways. I’m always changing and growing and I hope people can see it.”

Back in the light and on the patio, Ty is asked about his wedding day. He’s perched on the edge of a weights bench, teeth glinting, and says no plans have been made yet. Like the surprise engagement, he’s going with the flow. He’s got an album to do first: videos to make, another metaphorical baby to birth and present to the world.

In the garden are the odd plants he’s been growing during the pandemic. Like the rest of us, he keeps killing them, but something’s survived. From a cream pot, a knee-high spindly plant reaches towards the sky. It’s an avocado plant, he announces, and I say ‘no way’, because did you know they could grow in this miserable country? “Yeaaah,” Ty’s voice slides into a high pitch, encouragingly. He holds the pot with one hand and presses his fingertips around the soil with the other to reveal a huge, protruding avocado seed. It’s split apart into segments, opening like an origami fortune teller. “It’s gotta crack open,” Ty explains. “Got to crack open for it to grow.”

@hannahrosewens

Photography by Sirui Ma.