slowthai: The Prince of Northampton
slowthai is excited to show me his backyard. When his mum started renting this house in Northampton, the backyard needed work. It was basically just a pile of old bricks, so slowthai dug it all out, laid down some white gravel, put the wall back up. Today, it looks really lovely. The 23-year-old takes me to a bushy dwarf palm tree in the corner, where he apparently sometimes hears strange noises. He tells me he thinks there might be an evil monkey living in it. He picks up a spade and starts shaking the tree to check. No evil monkeys today.
slowthai is a very excitable guy – we shake hands three or four times during my time with him, and at one point have a full on hug. He’s also quite famous now. His angry tirade of a breakthrough single, T N Biscuits, cemented him as one of the most exciting new rappers in Britain. Since then, he’s delivered the groundbreaking video for his new song Ladies – basically a feminist critique of street culture – in which he poses naked and vulnerable alongside his girlfriend, who lies fully clothed.
As a result of all this attention, these days slowthai often has to travel 67 miles south to be in London. He doesn’t like that. He prefers being in Northampton, it keeps him grounded. When you meet him, he can’t help but tell you stories about the place. Bob Marley played here twice, slowthai will tell you, while wearing a Northampton FC training top with a gold pendant rested over the top.
© Alex de Mora
He’ll tell you about the often flooded Aquadrome caravan park he’d play in as a kid, where he bought a VHS of 8 Mile from a barber who sold bootlegs. He’ll tell you about the secret gaps in the fencing around the Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, so you can sneak in for test matches if you’re clever and like cricket (he doesn’t). Even when we’re talking about one of his favourite songs, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi by Radiohead, he qualifies it by telling me that Thom Yorke was born in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, so, you know, he’s actually one of ours.
slowthai grew up on Lings, a council estate in the Eastern District of Northampton. “It was the realest place,” he tells me. “All them estates are real. There’s no snidey weird vibes with people trying to befriend you – if someone don’t like you, they don’t like you. Everyone knows everyone. It’s like a big family. But not everyone gets along, just like in a family.”
He remembers once, at school, his teacher asked him what he was going to be when he was older. He shouted back, “I’m gonna be a fucking drug dealer, what you on about!” At the time, it seemed like a fair reality. “Because of where I was and who I was surrounded by, it seemed like my only avenue. When you’re in a small town, you either sell drugs, become a builder/labourer, get an office job, or go to university. The majority that go to university realise it isn’t what they wanna do, and end up working as a builder anyway.”
In secondary school, he started to hang out at Treasure Box Recordings, the official name for an MC’s mum’s house where local youths would all gather and freestyle. The walls were painted yellow, and everyone’s signatures would be scrawled over it in marker pen, kind of like an East Midlands version of Jammer’s basement – the London dungeon that helped cultivate grime. “It was like a sweatbox,” describes slowthai. “Everyone was in there bunning snout. I’d jump in and try to do something. It was jokes because I would never write, I would just do it off my head.”
Even to this day, slowthai doesn’t enjoy actually sitting down and writing lyrics that much. He likes the finished product, and invoking the thoughts, but he constantly feels his mind running frantically for the next line. He’s like that in conversation, too. Sometimes, he gets so enthusiastic about what he’s trying to tell me, that his words slur into one another, like his mouth can’t keep up with his brain. But then he has these sobering moments of verbal clarity where the clouds separate and what he’s trying to say comes across like a great orator standing on a podium.
“I want to be so switched on that I’m amazed by everything I write,” he asserts. “I want to think about what I’m saying and get a certain point across and tell a story.” And what are those stories? “About everyday life and growing up in Britain. There’s nothing great about Britain.”
This is a sentiment he explored on a recent song called The Bottom, which explores how no matter where you go in the world, there are always people who have been forced to the bottom of society. In the first verse he raps about a life of choosing the pub over the doctors, drugs over a job, about lacking confidence and feeling nervous. It was part autobiographical, but also a reflection of what he saw around him in the other young men growing up in the corners of Northampton. “Everyone needs to go to the bottom,” he reassures me, “because once you’re there, you’re at ground zero and you can only build.”
© Alex de Mora
Like a lot of what slowthai does, there is a dualism to the song. He’s also a dreamer. In the second verse, he describes his dream house. It’s a surreal and fantastical place. There’s gates to the grounds, a fountain in the shape of a giraffe, a granite floor car park, black diamonds, Mars bars and glasses of milk. He’s had this exact vision since he was a child, and he won’t stop until he gets there. “I see it as a big farm,” he tells me, “where all my family can come to live.” He likes calling himself a ‘farmer’ – a slur that people from the city often call folk from places like Northamptonshire. “The farmers are coming,” he warns me, in a rare moment of seriousness.
One thing slowthai takes very seriously is his artform. On every song you’ll hear, his vocals have been done in one take, and he cites old blues and soul artists as inspiration for this technique. His live shows, too, demonstrate his respect for the art of performance – often he abandons the stage for long sections of the gig, and ends up in his boxer shorts amongst the crowd.
“I want everyone there to perform it to me, then we go crazy and dance, like it’s some mad ayahuasca trip,” he beams, staring right past me. I heard that one time you were brought on stage in a closed coffin? I ask.
“That was just the smallest thing I could do. When I have serious money, I’m gonna go crazy,” he replies. “I’m gonna do stuff nobody has ever done, for the sheer fact of: we gotta keep things moving forward, and we gotta bring back the element of theatre to a performance.”
Speaking of crazy, here’s a trick from slowthai: if you take a bottle of Lambrini and put it to your mouth, tilt your head back and point the bottom of the bottle to the sky, then start spinning while you down its contents, the combination of dizziness, sugar and alcohol intake will make you feel immediately and stupendously smashed. slowthai calls this ‘spinnies’.
© Alex de Mora
One night when he was a teenager, he was on a street corner with his mates, riding his bike, smoking weed and doing spinnies, when he noticed the long, grey-haired figure of Alan Moore striding towards them. Moore is a local character in Northampton, having lived most of his life in the town, and is globally renowned as the greatest comic book writer of all time – responsible for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke and many more – as well as being a novelist, a cartoonist and a magician. “He introduced himself to us and told us what he did,” explains slowthai. “He gave us a little speech, being like, ‘Yo, this is what I do, and I’m from here, so this is what you can do with your life’.”
“I’d rather learn about one place in depth than to have a wide knowledge of the world,” Moore said in the 1993 film Don’t Let Me Die in Black and White. “I think that if I can learn about Northampton, I’ll probably understand something about every community.”
He still sees Alan Moore occasionally when he goes for coffee at the BP station. According to slowthai, there’s loads of characters like that in this town, but very few have pushed themselves to success. “There are creative people here, people who could really change things. But so many of them get trapped in the mindset that what they want to achieve is unobtainable, so they just stop.”
One of the things that makes him happiest about his recent success is that it might inspire other people from around here to keep making their music or keep writing their stories. In a weird, cross-generational way, slowthai and Alan Moore have something in common: this insatiable love and pride for, and feeling of connectedness to, their town of Northampton, a strange town that sits almost perfectly centre on a map of England. They don’t want to leave home to achieve their dreams, they want to take it with them.
Photography: Alex de Mora
Styling: Daniel Pacitti
Polaroid is out now via Method
slowthai appears at Appelsap Festival, Amsterdam, 11 August