Runt Of The Litter: slowthai Interviewed
slowthai is one of the most buzzed about artists in the UK right now. However, as the Northampton rapper formerly known as Tyron Frampton explains, he has no interest in being a “next big thing”.
“I don’t care about the fucking hype,” slowthai declares. “Everyone can keep the hype.” From anyone else, you’d be inclined to take this with a pinch of salt - a faux-bashful disinterest in fame in a time when pretty much everyone is fishing for clout - but from Frampton it feels deadly sincere.
Our conversation over a coffee, for example, isn’t exactly an exercise in PR-friendly soundbites - early on he admits he is not especially fond of interviews: “I hate it,” he smiles, wearily, “but it’s all right - we've all got to do it.” In spite of this, even before the caffeine hits he speaks with all the rapid, unbridled, unfiltered enthusiasm that both his music and his live shows might suggest, tearing off on multiple tangents before catching himself and apologising, laughing at his inability to keep track of his own rants about politics and possibilities - or the lack thereof - for the young working classes in Britain.
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Beneath his light and smiley exterior, there’s certainly a palpable darkness. slowthai wears a gold chain with a chunky clown pendant around his neck, in what initially seems a nod to his theatrical, jester-like ways, but transpires to be because he is scared of clowns - it’s a reminder that bad things are always present among the good.
His musical output seems to mirror this mentality in its dualism: his diaristic bars are recorded in one take and, though there’s very often humour, whimsy, and wry, kitchen-sink-style observation in his lyrics, there’s also a nihilism and a fierce, acerbic sense of seething - “Theresa May wanna be like Branson / Making P from airplane traffic” was a refrain on ‘North Nights’; on ‘Rainbow’ he spits: “Red, white and blue / Union Jack, United who?”; and, on ‘Drug Dealer’, from his recent ‘RUNT’ EP, there’s the line: “Teacher said, ‘What you gonna be when you’re older?’ / Drug dealer - what else can I do?”
These are, of course, bars that come from very real places. If he hadn’t found music, Frampton is very frank about what he would be doing: “My life wouldn’t be good - I would probably be in jail. I would be selling drugs, binging out on drugs, and I wouldn’t have the mentality I’ve got now. I would just be in a dark place - I feel like when you’re in that headspace and you can’t see anything else, you feel trapped.”
It comes, he says, from a small-town mentality (or: “a shoe-town mentality,” he quips, joking about Northampton’s footwear industry) and a broken home, not really seeing any possibility outside of the existence he was living in an era of austerity. He was a religious child after his baby brother died following complications from muscular dystrophy (“I asked for a Bible for my birthday,” he smiles, before talking about his time attending a Seventh Day Adventist church), but as he grew older, he began to see flaws in organised religion. Still, a lack of belief and structure is something he thinks can hold people back: “Everyone needs a belief system - everyone needs to believe in something, because otherwise you’re a lost cause and life feels like there’s nothing to live for.”
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Though he grins as he goes on to say he doesn’t need religion because “I believe in myself,” it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that it was music that gave him the clear sense of purpose and self-confidence that he has today. When he was a kid, Frampton and his cousin (who is now his manager) got hold of a bootleg VHS of 8 Mile from the local barber, and felt inspired to the point that they started writing bars after watching it (“It was the first time I had written, and it was shit,” he laughs now). Still, he didn’t think it would ever actually happen for someone like him. Through teenage years living in grime’s shadow (not least because Northampton was the birthplace of the scene’s infamous Sidewinder nights), freestyling with the older kids at Treasure Box Recordings, it was at age 20 slowthai decided to pursue music properly. He had been an introverted, angry youth up until then - he doesn’t get too into details beyond the fact that he would have been “not very nice to talk to,” but that he has a tattoo with the words “Sorry Mum” feels telling. So was it music that saved him?
The way he tells it, the answer is yes. He found himself alone while tripping on acid at Boomtown 2015 during The Bug and Flowdan’s Swamp 81 set: “It was an eye-opener! The stage presence, I was like, whoa! It got me thinking: ‘I’ve got to fucking do this.’ After that I came home, felt like I was dying and was a nervous wreck because I hadn't slept for the weekend - like anyone after a festival - but then recovery happened and, bam! From that moment I was fully just on music.”
And indeed, it was not long after that his breakthrough track ‘Jiggle’ was born, and people began to take note of his distinctive vocals and dark, billowing productions. His work with now go-to producer Kwes (formerly known as Blue Daisy) would take his sound to the next level - swirling, metallic, equal-parts dreamlike and hard. It was a collaboration that started out of mutual admiration - when he was starting out, slowthai had thought about hitting up Blue Daisy one day, then suddenly got a message because Kwes had heard him on NTS and wanted to link up. For slowthai, things like this have happened because he believed that they would – “believing things into existence,” he says, noting that anyone he has ever worked with is someone he had previously thought about how much he’d love to collaborate with, to experience how they work. “Life is about observing, it’s about seeing everything and taking it all in - soaking it all up.” Incidentally, he and The Bug follow each other now, so he’s hopeful that might happen one day.
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slowthai is a great believer that you should try everything once - but more specifically, that everyone should be entitled to that ability to try. This, in part, is where his glorious recent ferocious, Mura Masa-produced punk song ‘Doorman’ came from (the disparity in styles is, he says, because he wants his art to represent all facets of the culture that made him who he is). ‘Doorman’ was recorded the morning after a big night that had culminated at a friend’s dad’s house in Chelsea. He was stunned by the opulence of it all - a lift that opened out into the apartment (“like in Power”), and obscenely expensive art hanging on the wall: “I had never seen anything like that before, so when I went to bed at about 7 or 8 in the morning then, boom, got an Uber and went straight to Brixton to record an hour later, I was still taking it in. It’s more about saying, ‘let me in’ - like, I want these things, and I want them for all the people that have never had them.”
The more we talk, the more it becomes clear that, for slowthai, his growing notoriety is all part of a plan to further spread a message: “Because my family was all broken, I want to build a family and it not be based on blood or on a name - it’d be like one big fucking family, so you’ve always got someone. All those people who are caught up in their emotions and feel like nothing will ever help, but sometimes you feel a hug from someone who actually cares…” He pauses before smiling, “I just want to be the guy that hugs everyone and hopes they feel alright.”
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Yes, he is furious about Brexit (“When it happens, I will be that illegal guy running through borders”), about Theresa May (“You can go and dance in another country and act like you’re fucking cultural but the fact of the matter is you don’t know shit about the struggles of the people that live here”), the Queen (“What do you actually do aside from coming out of your fucking big palace for your two birthdays?”), and a whole lot more. Most of all, though, he is angry about the burgeoning crisis among young people across the UK. The prison-like school system lets disadvantaged children down, he says, and young people are increasingly taught to seek validation from outside of themselves, while the rates of depression are at an all-time high. Indeed, Frampton wants to speak to the young, directionless and the disillusioned in this fractious time for Britain - the “runts” of the litter that his EP title addresses, because he can see himself in them.
“I want them to know that everyday might seem like a burden, and you could be in the worst situation ever, but remember that feeling is only temporary,” he says. “Live in the moment and remember that there’s always a brighter side - where you are is where you’re meant to be at that time and you’ve just gotta see it for what it is and push forward. Break the boundaries that people have set for you.”
At his live shows slowthai famously strips off (“I think it’s beautiful to be confident,” he grins), forces the crowd - even those at the back - into the pit, and calls out “boring industry wankers” who are just there to check the next wave.
“I don’t care who you know or what you can do for me,” he says, matter-of-factly, reiterating that his desire to make art has nothing to do with hype, “I’ll get there anyway.” Aside from clowns, Tyron Frampton’s other great fear is water, having nearly drowned as a child. It means the statement that follows gains a lot more resonance: “If I’ve got to swim the English Channel every day for 10 years to get to where I need to be - to spread my message and make people feel like they’re not lost and alone - then I will.”
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Words: Tara Joshi
Photography: Clark Franklyn
Fashion: William Barnes
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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