“She wanted me to spit in her mouth,” Tyron Frampton—known to fans as the energetic English rapper slowthai—says by way of explanation. The sleepy-eyed musician was, at this moment, blocks away from his Midtown hotel at a kiosk buying a pack of Marlboros, groggily recalling a peculiar moment from a recent show. He’s just a block away from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, where, later that day, the 24-year old will share second-billing duties with 100gecs as openers for BROCKHAMPTON. Two nights prior, he’d performed in Atlanta at the Coca-Cola Roxy; three nights before that, they were at The Fillmore in New Orleans where, he recalls, a very enthusiastic fan would not let his set proceed, until he fulfilled her intimate request. “She kept yelling, ‘Spit in my mouth! Spit in my mouth!’ So I grabbed her face and I did it.” He pauses to light his cigarette and then, flashing a toothy grin from underneath his Prada trapper hat, adds, “And then I was like, ‘How’d it taste?’”
Slowthai is the latest—and undoubtedly the weirdest—in the wave of U.K. hip-hop and grime artist that have captivated American audiences in the latter part of this decade. Upon first glance, the 24-year-old neatly fits the archetypical, now-familiar mold: fashionable tracksuits, crossbody bags, a reasonable distribution of tattoos, and that road man swagger. Upon closer inspection, though, it’s clear that he’s not only playing a slightly different tune, but also perhaps even working with a different set of instruments all together.
For starters, slowthai is not from London. He calls the relatively small East Midlands city of Northampton home, and was raised on a council estate in an out-of-the-way part of town jokingly referred to as “Bush.” And, while he wears his sneering rudeboy aesthetic as confidently as anyone, it’s less a statement of purpose than simply the top-most layer of a dense (and, at times, surprising) cake. He’s a snarling sweetheart, a punk, and a pacifist—the type of performer who wants his fans to leave his shows feeling battered but beloved, bruised but empowered.
His debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, which arrived this past spring, is a neat packaging of all these contradictions, and a probing reflection on what exactly it means to be British. The title track lampoons tropes of classic Englishness, “Nothing great about Britain / Tea and biscuits / Mash jellied eels and a couple lil' trinkets.” Later, on “Rainbow,” he resists being pigeon-holed by stereotypical racial conventions (slowthai’s estranged father is white, while his mother is black of Bajan descent). And on the song “Drug Dealer,” he raps sardonically about what is often thought of as the only viable career path for people like him and delivers gems like this: “Lower class, but my class is so fucking flames!” Throughout the album, he intersperses classic street-tough posturing with a more vulnerable, unmistakably “posi” brand of masculinity and promotes a kind of nationalism that contends there is no flag, anthem, or queen more important than the unique community of people around you.
GQ spoke to Slowthai about how he learned to be less angry, his first trip to the strip club, and why he’s not a “rude, British twat.”
GQ: You’re decked out in a bit of Prada right now. Was it weird the first time you went into a store like that and realized you could kind of afford it?
slowthai: I'll tell you what: when I was there, I wasn't so much thinking about it, and then I was like, when it got the end, I rang my accountant and was like “Yo, I need to transfer money back to this account because I don't want it to be like—" Cause I lost my card, man! On the U.K. tour. So I ain’t had a card for a time. I just got my touring credit card. Otherwise, I would've been in there like 40 bags deep! Just like, “Yoooo!” [Laughs.]
You just finished your U.K. and Europe tour. I saw that picture you posted of you next to the tour bus with your face on it. Did you feel like a rock star riding in that?
They picked us up from my house. We all had our suitcases, and we come walking down the hill and then the bus was just there and it just said "SLOWTHAI" and I was just like, "Nah, this is crazy!"
You're touring with BROCKHAMPTON now. Has it been different from other tours you've done?
They just go hard! It's similar. They have the same sort of energy. I don't know if it's their outlook or perspective and what they fuck with in the music, but they just go crazy. Like, Austin… everywhere in Texas they was going crazy. Cause all the bars close at 2 in the morning, cause they were just goin’ crazy, cause it's like all they got. In New Orleans, it was sick as hell.
You spat in someone's mouth in New Orleans.
Yeah, in New Orleans. And I went to a strip club. First time I went to a strip club.
Did you go when you guys were in Atlanta?
I didn't go in Atlanta. I wasn't trying to go to Magic City. [Laughs.]
Someone was trying to take me to Future's Party at, like Mike Will's fucking warehouse or something, though. And I just went to the studio. I don't wanna… I don't know. I feel like when you get all in with the rapper group then you’re kinda like, "I need to get a watch." You know? That's not me. I'm not gonna get a watch and shit.
So you were like, “No, thank you. I'm gonna go read my bible and go to bed.”
Nah, go work on my craft! So when I come back they know what it is, right? I feel like, in this industry especially, there are so many people that are like, they're The Guy. And around everybody, there's always leeches and vampires. I don't ever wanna be that guy that's there drinking your drink and shit. If I'm gonna meet you, we're on a level where it's like respect. I don't wanna be like under anybody.
People who've been to your shows say the energy is just different. Do you feel like you've always been a performer, even before you were a musician?
It's just energy, man—if I give you everything I've got, you've got to give me something back. If you watch a show and [the performer] is just dead onstage, it's just like, this is boring as fuck. And I just want people to come out and be themselves, so I just have to be myself without feeling any lack of confidence.
That's what I like. I want all my shows to be anarchy, everyone just sweating sweat. I want there to be blood, I want there to be the vibe of people coming together not feeling like they have to be like "the cool guy." I hate people that think they're too cool.
Do you remember your first show?
I think the first show we got booked for was at this place in Peckham called Rye Wax. It's where Tyler done his show...You know, he was meant to do a show in London and it like shut down the whole street. Well, it was there in this little basement, and it just went off, man! I just went down there, no one knew who I was, and just turned it up.
You weren't nervous?
I don't really get nervous over stuff like that. I get nervous speaking. If I'm in a restaurant and it's like mad loud—because I speak quiet, I don't know if it's because I'm in my head all the time—the waitress will come and she'll be like, "What do you want?" and I'll be like, "Uh, uh" and I feel under pressure at that point. Anything else, I've never had [anxiety].
Growing up, fighting all the time... that used to buzz me on. So it'd be like fight or flight, but then tiny, weird little things like just talking to people naturally, I've always struggled with that.
You’re close with your mom and your sister. Were they on board with you striking it out as a musician?
My mom always made sure that I do what I wanna do. But at the same time, she was like "You need to fall back on something; you can't put all your eggs in one basket." And then there would be like a point and time where I would be like doing fuck shit and she would be like, "You can't live here and do this." When I put all my eggs in one basket and did the music and slept on sofas, she couldn't really say nothin’ because I weren't in her way. I weren't causing no problems.
My sister, she was always onto me because she would work and I'd be just doing bullshit all the time, and she'd be like "You can't do this. This is our house." I was bringing trouble to the house.
As soon as it all started going well, though, no one could really say anything.
Do your mom and sister like your music?
Yeah. I think they both could do every song word-for-word.
For example, say I'm at home chillin' and I just hear my chune bangin' out and it'll be like a car parked outside. And I'll be like, "Who the fuck is this? What is this?" I think it's one of my boys just tryna piss me off. And I look out the window and it's just my mom like in the car just jammin' out. I've seen her drive past. I've been walking down the street once and she drove past, I could hear it. And she's just singin' word-for-word.
But my mom's quite young, so she listens to a lot of what I listen to. She finds stuff that is relevant now. She would be like playing this song and I'd be like, "What the fuck are you listening to? I ain't even heard this shit!”
What type of stuff was she playing when you were growing up?
It was a lot of garage, a lot of jungle, a lot of dance music. And Portishead. A lot of R&B as well. My mom would play random shit, man. She weren't so much into soul, that was more my nan. All the rock influence comes from my stepdad.
I always used to love that song from Reservoir Dogs, [sings] "You put the lime in the coconut and mix them all together, put the lime in the coconut and you feel better." I could listen to that on repeat as a kid. That was my shit, man.
A lot of the album is about what it means to be British; it grapples with race and class in the U.K. right now. Were these things that you've always thought about?
I think growing up, you feel the impact of it all, being divided up by your race or who you roll with. Being in a majority white place, like where I'm from, any [other] ethnicity is kind of looked at and frowned upon.
I've always thought, "What is ‘great’? Why have we got this title?" When I finally looked into the history, I was like, "Rah, this shit? It's not a good history. It's like dreadful."
From there, growing up, being with my boys, I really didn't pay much attention to the politics because none of it felt like it was affecting us, even though it was. We really didn't care, because we were young, fuckin' about, tryna have a good time, and tryna get any kind of money we could.
The older I got, it was just feeling like you've got to be the guy, [that kind of] masculinity. I think as I got older, I was like, “I don't actually fuck with the morals I've built up for myself. This way of life just isn't me.” I felt like I was always looking to fit in, and trying to fit into the wrong bracket, when I could've just been myself.
What made you start changing your mind?
We all go through phases in life. [When my brother died] I moved to a village in Scunthorpe called Hibaldstow, which is this proper rough area, but then I started dressing like an emo, wearing dog chains and mad baggy clothes and all black and listening to Linkin Park, just being mad sad and shit.
When I left school and I got to college, as it got to the end, I started proper feeling myself, tryna just be as weird as I could. Cause I wanted to see what this was about.
When I got to college I met up with a lot of indie kids and punks and shit. They were mad open-minded. Everything that I was like, "Nah, fuck that! You can't do this! You can't be like that!" They were like, "Bro, why would you even think like that?" And they made me feel stupid.
They challenged you.
Yeah, they challenged me, and I was questioning myself. It took time. Because [at first] I was like, "fuck that!" My boy Rufus, he's like, "Why don't you like this music?" I was like, "There's no reason not to. I actually do, but I'm just tryna be like 'nah' because everyone does.”
Because only a certain type of person is supposed to like "that" kind of music.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you start enjoying shit and you're open and you start speaking about the way you're feeling, you can feel comfortable to be yourself. And you're like, "Yo, man!" You just feel like an idiot.
That can be something that pins you down because you're like, "Ah, man. Well, I can't ever change because I'm just this stupid." You know what I mean? And it's like, nah, you just grow and evolve and change.
You see it as an opportunity?
Yeah, I think that's what I've learned: to take every day as it comes and, with every new experience, take something from it, learn from everything. My mom always told me anyway, "Speak to everybody and treat everyone as you'd like to be treated" You never know. It could be the homeless guy on the street or it could be the wealthiest guy in the world, you never know who's gonna teach you anything. There's a conversation and you learn stuff about yourself, man.
The Union Jack figures prominently in a lot of the imagery you use. The flag has recently been deployed by some right wing Brits to represent a sort of xenophobic nationalism. By using it so frequently, were you trying to reclaim it?
For me it's putting the power into the people that actually make the place a good place. Because the people that are rolling around and are just like St. George's Flag outright racists that are like "Rule, Britannia!"—they are not what makes this place good. They are what makes it shit. They are the people that give us this negative [reputation], so whenever you go anywhere no one likes you because they feel like you're just a rude, British twat who doesn't wanna learn anything.
My thing is just like using that symbolization or whatever as something people relate to, connect to and, at the same time, not value as—
As inherently valuable.
Yeah. More value the people!
I hate that shit of like, I'm from this one place in the world. We're all people, and as long as we remember to come together and stick together and lookout and love each other, then nothing really matters.
Now, especially with the internet, we're disconnected, and spend so much time focusing on shit that's irrelevant that we forget everyone that's around us and everyone that make our lives good. It's that, basically.
I've always just wanted a big family. I just wanted to bring people together and make a place where people feel they can be themselves without any judgement.
You're very glass-half-full. But having read about you, I know that that wasn't always the case. What sparked the change?
It just got to a point where I started feeling shit, and I was mad upset. I cried one day. I was like, "Rah, I haven't done this in so long." I had no conscious for anything, so I didn't feel bad for anything. But when I started thinking about stuff and I did start feeling bad, it all just come weighing down on me. Then I was depressed and shit and I was like, "I don't wanna do this anymore."
I'm an emotional person, man! I never used to be; I just used to be fucking mad angry and just wanna hurt people. Now, I wanna love people, empower people to feel good.
I feel that's the thing. Just smile at the world and it smiles back at you.
Do you have friends from back in the day who knew angry Ty who are now like, "Damn, you changed?"
None of them are like that, man. They're just like, "You've always been weird." [Laughs.]
There's not any of them—that I know of—that have got any negatives to say about me changing. Some people say, because I'm busy, "You ain't got time for us anymore" and stuff like that, but they're always proud, man.
I'm just working so I can get to a place where I can change everyone's lives that are still in the same place and bring them with me and then we can travel and have moments together. ‘Cause they're my true friends. They're my friends from when I was like, this big to now.
Now that you're on this big tour with BROCKHAMPTON and you're gaining traction in the U.S. and different parts of the world, do you feel like a representative of the U.K. music scene?
I think people say it, but I don't see it. I just make music, and wherever I go, whoever connects with it connects with it. It doesn't matter where you're from. I think that's what separates the U.S. from the UK..: It's like, Oh, you're from here! Or you've got a different accent! As long as you relate to what I'm saying, then none of it matters. It doesn't matter where I'm from, where I'm going, what I'm gonna do. Just know: if you fuck with it, you fuck with it. You don't fuck it, you don't, and that's it.
There's a million places in the world to go that you can travel to spread the sound. As long as it speaks to people and they feel the music honestly... that's all that matters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ