It’s undoubtedly a sign that you’re making serious waves when Skepta pulls up outside your mum’s house, in a Rolls-Royce, loaded up with enough bottles of liquor to restock an off-licence. And a couple of years ago, this is exactly what happened to Tyron ‘Slowthai’ Frampton. Having just finished recording his debut album — 2019’s incendiary Nothing Great About Britain — he had invited everyone who had helped him out to the council house he still shares with his mum in his native Northampton. The biggest grime artist in the world just so happened to be one of the first through the door.
‘He said, “Let’s play this drinking game,”’ Slowthai remembers with a grin, puffing on a cigarette, our socially distanced shoot at Marylebone’s historic Wallace Collection just wrapped. ‘I kept losing and he kept losing, but that’s the point! I was throwing up and he got so drunk he passed out on my sofa.’ With a hand covered in a large spider tattoo, Slowthai mimes stroking the back of the ‘Shutdown’ MC. ‘I had to help him. I was going, “It’s alright, it’s alright!”’
Skepta is far from the only star who has aligned himself with Slowthai. Industry greats from Liam Gallagher to Tyler, The Creator, have hailed him as the future. And then there are the thousands of kids who identified with that debut: a startlingly unique, punk-rooted howl of frustration that was quickly labelled the sound of Brexit Britain and gave a voice to the disaffected youth of the nation. His impossibly rowdy live shows — that would see him bounding into the crowd in little more than his boxer shorts and conducting hectic mosh pits from the edge of the stage — assisted with his stratospheric rise, as did his taste for courting controversy. His songs took potshots at the establishment, from the Conservative government to the Queen, and at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2019 he made headlines after brandishing a model of Boris Johnson’s severed head.
After a year muddling through the coronavirus crisis, Johnson remains in Slowthai’s bad books. ‘Boris was a liar before he ever got to being the prime minister,’ he tells me. ‘[I don’t know] how anyone ever thought, “This is a good idea,’ considering that when he was the Mayor of London he was just f***ing everything over constantly.’
Slowthai will next week release his second album, Tyron, which features guest spots from A$AP Rocky and James Blake as well as his (and his mum’s) old friend Skepta. It is an album that deftly balances hip-hop machismo with a more intimate and emotional dissection of his rise to fame. ‘It’s what I do but what I am not,’ says Slowthai of the riotous first half of the record, before describing the calmer, more introspective second side as ‘who I am when no one’s watching. It’s when you’re at home and you’re just chilling out in your comfies. It’s my opinions and thoughts without any front.’
Even if we were not in lockdown, a party to celebrate this album’s release is not on the cards. Slowthai is now pretty much straight-edge. ‘I had a beer the other night, but I’m happy just smoking my weed,’ he says, looking down at his second cigarette of the interview. ‘In fact, I wish this was a spliff. It calms me down, it chills me out. Everything in life’s about moderation.’
The decision to clean up his act came after a now-notorious incident at last year’s NME Awards. Up for most of the prizes that night — including Hero Of The Year — a mixture of too much booze, too little sleep and a joke taken too far meant the ceremony wasn’t quite the triumph it was meant to be. Onstage with the evening’s host, comedian Katherine Ryan, a bawdy, over-sexualised bit went sour. Ryan decided the joke wasn’t funny any more and pulled away from an embrace, but Slowthai persisted, exclaiming: ‘Baby girl… you ain’t never had anyone play with you like I’ll play with you.’
When Slowthai returned to the stage later in the evening a crowd member yelled ‘misogynist’ at him and he answered by chucking a drink — and then himself — into the audience. Though Ryan later stated that she had never felt uncomfortable, it was too late. There was a social media pile-on and Slowthai quickly pulled a work trip to New York. In the following days he asked that his Hero gong be sent to Ryan instead, tweeting an unreserved apology, adding: ‘I promise to do better’.
He will forever be disappointed by his behaviour that night — he visibly squirms when it’s mentioned — but has now learned to be thankful for the opportunity it gave him. ‘It made me reflect. I’ve always been around people that can banter heavily, but maybe that banter was wrong. I’ve learnt from that. She was bantering me twice as hard as I was bantering her, but I think the world has moved past that kind of humour. It made me realise that there are things [I carry] from growing up that I’ve got to hash out and reflect on,’ he says.
‘I’m always trying to grow.’ The incident happened at the end of a hectic promotional run for his debut, one which Slowthai reflects was dogged by substance abuse issues, exacerbated by being on tour. ‘I’ve got an addictive personality, so any substance that is offered… I’m kind of [taking] a bit of this and a bit of that,’ he admits. ‘But then it gets to a point where it’s not just a bit of this, it’s months of a bit of this and a bit of that.’
Even before the NME Awards night, Slowthai’s mental state was in a bad way. A few days after our interview he will take to Twitter to explain just how low he felt, writing: ‘This time last year I thought bout killing myself, I’m so thankful I’m still here… persevere and it will get better.’
Back then he knew all was not well when he broke down in floods of tears in Los Angeles after weeks spent getting only an hour of sleep each night. ‘I was mad paranoid, there were people around me that shouldn’t have been around me, and substances, and I just got overwhelmed,’ he reveals. ‘I remember going out to the pool and no one else was awake and I just started crying.’ The surrealness of the situation didn’t pass him by. ‘Then I kind of started laughing because I’m like, “Imagine being in LA at four in the morning and I’m watching the sunrise, I’m in a beautiful house, my life is going amazing… and I’m depressed!’ I was like, “What the f*** is wrong with you?”’
Thankfully he feels better now, at 26, than he ever has: another factor in his newly Zen outlook being the fact that he is well and truly loved up. Last summer he proposed to his girlfriend, Russian singer and model Katerina, whose uncredited backing vocals can be heard on his new record. The pair, who’ve been together a year and a half, met online — ‘It’s the modern way, innit!’ he smiles. They’ve been living with his mum throughout lockdown, but are now looking for their own place where they can start a family. Slowthai blushes when he talks about his plans to be a dad. ‘It’s something that I’ve always wanted,’ he says. ‘I want my kid to have a similar childhood to the one I had, because I didn’t see it as a bad thing.’
Slowthai’s own youth wasn’t the easiest. Born in Northampton to a single mother of just 16, he tells the story of how he was raised in the powerfully autobiographical ‘Northampton’s Child’ on his debut album. In it he detailed his love for his mother (‘the strongest person I know’), an absent birth father, family members with addiction problems and also the death of his younger brother, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and passed away at the age of one. His mother worked a variety of jobs (‘12-hour shifts all week’, as ‘Northampton’s Child’ tells it) to provide for him and his younger sister, both of whom also received free school meals. ‘We had a single working mum and not having to think about that took stress off her,’ he says when I ask him about the recent furore surrounding the Government’s attempt to put paid to said initiative. ‘You need food to think!’
After he finished school Slowthai studied music technology at Northampton College. Though that was where his passion was, he had to take a series of odd jobs in order to get by, including short-lived stints in retail. While looking at houses to buy, he recently found himself inside a home owned by his boss from when he was a labourer. It’s hard to say who was more shocked. ‘It’s weird because I’m going around these places wearing tracksuits,’ he offers modestly, ‘but I’m looking at half-decent houses.’
These, though, aren’t any old tracksuits. Slowthai’s towering frame can usually be found in the most exclusive offerings from Stone Island or Supreme — in fact, he fronted the campaign for the two eminent streetwear brands’ recent collaboration — as he stakes his claim as a darling of the fashion world. When we meet he’s sporting a boxfresh pair of Kim Jones’ new Nikes after attending the Dior Men’s virtual AW 2021 unveiling alongside Lily Allen and actor Pappa Essiedu.
‘He’s my boy,’ says Slowthai of Dior director Jones, proudly flexing a foot to show off his new trainers. ‘These ain’t out yet, I got them early. I think I’m the only one. Kim’s got a good mind. It’s inspiring to have people you can talk to, people that have been around for a while that you ask for advice and get a different perspective on things.’
Another such mentor is Damon Albarn, who Slowthai has been a fan of ever since he was kid obsessed with Gorillaz’s squelchy beats and larger-than-life aesthetic. He recently collaborated with his hero, appearing on Gorillaz’ Song Machine project. ‘I adore him — he’s himself, unapologetically,’ he swoons. ‘When I’m older, if I’m a fraction of the man Damon is, I’ll be pleased.’
Albarn has returned the compliment, calling Slowthai a ‘kindred spirit’. He’s already got a similar work ethic to the always-busy Albarn. Right now Slowthai is sitting on a bunch of brand new singles that are totally separate from Tyron, as well as thinking about album number three and its potential collaborators, his eyes set on an all-female cast, including Rosalia, Celeste and Billie Eilish. He’s even hoping to tempt Sade out of semi-retirement. ‘I love that [female] energy,’ he states. ‘Growing up I was always that lad who’d be chilling with the girls while they were doing their nails… and then they’d paint mine on the sly.’
But before all that there’s Tyron, which he’ll be promoting from the safety of a fully functional pub he’s built in a disused office unit in Northampton. It’ll soon open its virtual doors to host live streamed gigs complete with special guests, and there will even be a ‘talkshow’ aspect that Slowthai seems giddily excited about. He’s also been using the space as somewhere to go and let off steam with a cold pint of Coke. In fact, it’s where he spent his recent birthday. ‘I went to the pub and just played pool on my own,’ he chuckles. ‘No friends, just me!’
There’s a simplicity to this scene which sums up where Slowthai’s head is at right now. A testing but ultimately redemptive year has made him realise what’s really important, and with happiness has come a clarity about the future. ‘I don’t measure success in material items and fame, but more in changing the way we see things, changing people’s perspectives and in opening people’s eyes,’ he says. ‘That for me is the goal. Integrity — that’s all I want.’
‘Tyron’ is released on 12 February