The Miseducation of slowthai
slowthai’s mum, Gaynor, listens to her son’s song Doorman every morning as soon as she wakes up. “It really gets you going,” she says. She listens to his songs on the way to work, at work, and on the way home from work; she knows all the words. “There’s not a day that goes by without someone messaging me saying ‘I just heard [slowthai] on the radio!’,” she beams. “He’s really speaking to the people, you know?”
Gaynor is half Bajan, and has medium length black hair, dark eyes, and the kind of laugh that could be recorded and sold as an antidepressant. She’s young; she had slowthai at the age of 16, then his brother (who passed away shortly after his first birthday) and his sister, and she brought them up largely as a single mum. When I ask what kind of music she’s into, she says “garage, funky house and jungle.” Today, she’s in a great mood because she’s just qualified as a semi-permanent makeup artist. “I can do your eyebrows,” she says with a smile.
In past interviews, slowthai has described Gaynor as his “idol” and a “hero”. In a forthcoming unreleased song, Northampton’s Child, he explores the story of her life as a single mum, including a hook that goes: “Only queen, raised me up and kept me clean/ Taught me right even when I’ve wronged/ Wiped my arse and changed nappies/ 12 hour shifts a week”. He hasn’t let her hear it yet.
She makes a cup of tea and places it on the dining room table. Within 90 seconds, slowthai wanders down the stairs, yawns, picks it up and takes a sip – like it was a telepathic signal. He’s wearing all black everything: coat, tracksuit bottoms and a furry hat with big ear flaps that makes him look a Russian diplomat. “I’m just back from a holiday in Jamaica,” he says, acknowledging why he’s rolling out of bed late. “I got you a present, mum,” he says, handing her a fridge magnet wrapped in newspaper. He gets her one everywhere he goes. It says “NO STRESS” on it.
Prior to 2018, slowthai had been abroad once, but now the fridge door is like a travel agent’s window. Last year he toured the UK, Ireland and Europe, and played shows as far flung as New York and Cape Town. In Dubai, he looked out in disbelief as a massive crowd of strangers gathered to watch him perform, 4,500 miles away from the East Midlands town where he grew up.
It’s no coincidence that slowthai (real name: Tyron, but also regularly called Ty, T Dog, and sometimes simply, T) has become a poster boy for UK rap during the era of Brexit. He tells lucid stories of hardship and criminality with a level of self-awareness and emotion that makes you believe he’s actually seen it and been touched by it. And while his political moves can sometimes be a bit gung ho – he calls himself a “Brexit bandit” and likes to start chants of “Fuck Theresa May!” at live shows – he injects nuance and detail into narratives about living wage Britain that we’ve become desensitised to. He somehow manages to toe a line between anarchic experimental protest music and BBC Radio One playlist-friendly singles. And all this has come from just two EPs, which explains why critics and fans are in such a frenzy about the prospect of a debut album. There’s a growing sense that we may have something truly special in our midst, a visionary outsider; a kind of millennial Mike Skinner.
“The album is based around what makes us Britain and what builds us up as a place”
“How’s the album going?” I ask him, as he tucks into a sausage and egg sandwich in a greasy spoon down the road. It’s the kind of place with a cosy fug, full of old couples who’ve known each other for so long that they don’t really need to talk anymore. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he says, waving his sandwich. “The deeper you get into it it’s like a fucking puzzle, man.”
The songs aren’t set in stone yet, but the concept is: it will be titled Nothing Great About Britain, and will capture the characters, stories and politics of a youth spent in the council estates, parks and pubs of his hometown, Northampton. “The whole tape is based around what makes us Britain and what builds us up as a place,” he says. It will be a self-portrait in which others might see themselves.
If you’re going to pick a town to reflect Britain, then Northampton is a good mirror. This was a boot and shoe town with a proud identity, and whenever there was a war Northampton made the footwear. On the outskirts, you can find all the quaint pastoral beauty you expect from a shire, but these days the county is better known as the most disastrous Tory-run council in Britain. Last year they declared themselves effectively bankrupt and announced widespread cuts to public services. Look for news stories about the place and you’ll find residents complaining of overflowing bins, dilapidated housing and large ghostly retail spaces where big chains have left town.
© Joshua Gordon
I see some of this flash past the car window. slowthai is taking me out for the day, to show me places and memories that inhabit his music. In the front seat is Lewis, slowthai’s childhood friend, manager and video director, and driving us is Chad. Chad, you can tell, is one of those extremely reliable guys, one of those “Sure thing, where and when?” guys. When I ask slowthai why he’s never learned to drive he says, “Cos Chad can.”
slowthai’s Britain is one that will be familiar to some and utterly alien to others. The first 14 years of his life were spent on a council estate on the east side of Northampton, in an area known as Lings. Back in the 70s, Lings and numerous other housing projects were built here by the government as a way to relieve overcrowding in London and Birmingham. Old news clippings show happy young families arriving to their wonderful new homes; gathering for street parties, exploring nearby woodlands, and planting saplings together. “I just can’t wait to be in Northampton!” sang Linda Jardim in the promotional track released by Northampton Development Corporation at the time.
But by the time slowthai was born, in the mid 90s, the utopian vision had disintegrated into a forgotten land. “Everywhere you’d go there would be bare youths on bad shit,” he says, as we walk onto the estate. It was common then to see people taking heroin and crack, usually down in the wooded area near the pond. Today, it’s deserted, except for two kids jostling each other as they try to ride the same bike.
“None of us had an understanding of what life was actually like. If someone's parents had a job it would be a fucking abnormality”
slowthai was an imaginative and energetic little kid, the type that would come tearing out of the house with no clothes on. Him and his mates would ride stolen bikes, smash wasps nests and go cherry door knocking, focusing mostly on the neighbours they knew would give chase, like ‘Mad Bob’. Every now and again they’d stumble across the charred skeletons of burnt out cars lurking in the trees, like they were old religious ruins. At the age of eight years old, someone threatened to stab him with a screwdriver. Someone also tried to stab his mum, with a shiv made from broken glass and sellotape. “It was just normal council estate life innit,” says slowthai.
slowthai’s real dad was absent, and a large presence in those years was his stepdad: a big guy, Irish, six foot two, with a head of grey hair that he’d had since his twenties. At points slowthai describes him as everything from a “man about the ends” to a “debt collector” – in an as yet unreleased song he calls him a “drug dealer” – but also someone who taught him to fish and made him join cubs.
When his stepdad was around, the family home was a revolving door of local characters and strangers, usually there to buy or sell something: a bin bag full of Lacoste kids clothing, a 50 inch television, a box of Armani jeans. “If you asked anyone where anything came from,” explains slowthai, “they’d say, ‘It fell off a lorry.’ I used to love that.” Plain clothes police officers would sit on the estate in a car, watching. His stepdad would smile at them and take tea over.
“I used to have a proper shit outlook on life”
"Then I had an epiphany. I re-thought everything"
slowthai hated going to school and the act of flunking was like a meticulously planned prison break. The carjack was his tool of choice. On a Sunday he would take one down to the school perimeter, which was lined with a tall wrought iron fence. “You’d find a quiet spot, put the jack between the bars and start winding and it would go ‘PHEOO!’ and blow them open,” he says, “then you had a way to get out come Monday.” Sometimes they would go to the part where the fencing is paused because of a stream, about seven feet wide and waist deep, and wade through it like American soldiers in the Mekong.
By the age of 13, he was drinking almost every day – usually White Ace, Lambrini or beer they’d nicked from the shop. He thinks that’s why he can’t really drink anymore. “My liver is fucked,” he says. That’s about when he began smoking weed for the first time. “None of us had an understanding of what life was actually like,” he says. “Everyone’s mum and dad didn’t work. For us, if someone’s parents had a job it would be a fucking abnormality. We’d be like, ‘What the fuck?’”
We pull up outside a house on a terraced street in the Kingsley area of Northampton; it’s painted a strange greenish white, somewhere halfway on the colour spectrum between vanilla ice cream and dead body. It’s for sale and stands empty. “Rah, they’ve changed everything,” says slowthai, touching the door knocker and flicking the letterbox.
When his mum left his stepdad, she brought slowthai (now in his late teens) and his sister here. She’d got a job working in a card shop and wanted to get them away from council estate life. “She was doing everything for us,” says slowthai, “working hard to keep a roof over our head. Anything that ever happened was because of her.”
© Joshua Gordon
His mum knew he was taking the music seriously but he preferred not to talk to her about it. She would sit on the stairs outside his bedroom door and listen to his beats taking form, then, if she heard his footsteps, she’d spring to her feet and pretend to potter. Sometimes he would catch her. “I’m just interested, T Dog!” she’d protest.
“But this was my dodgy stage,” admits slowthai, “my time of fuckery.” Most days he would sit in his room, smoking weed. He’d go to bed at 6am, wake up 2pm; his demeanour was “standoffish”, constantly “monged out my head.” “I became like my stepdad,” he says, “All I was drawn to was making money. I didn’t care who got hurt in the way of doing it, and I didn’t care what it done to the people around me.”
slowthai didn’t hear the knock at the front door the night it happened, at around 9pm. He was upstairs in his bedroom with five of his mates. When his sister answered, a man in a balaclava pushed her to the floor and began stamping on her. He then made his way up the stairs, the knife in his hand leaving scratch marks on the bannister as he went. slowthai had heard the screams. He burst out of his bedroom, friends behind him, baseball bat in hand, and came face to face with balaclava man, who immediately bolted. slowthai ran after him through the streets, barefoot and crazed, but he was gone.
He asked everyone to find out who did it, but nobody knew anything. To this day, his sister has a fear of answering the front door. When I ask his mum about that night, she says, “Nothing really shocks me, we just got on with it as a family.”
Little Houghton is a village two miles east of Northampton. It’s quiet and idyllic, with a population of just over 400 people and a gothic style parish church. Everything around you is rolling, vast and green, sloping down towards the town in the distance. We pull over next to a large converted farmhouse. Once again, it’s empty and for sale. slowthai rubs the window with his sleeve and peers in. “This was my bedroom,” he says, like Scrooge staring at Christmas past, “this was where I got a conscience.”
When his mum moved to a house outside Northampton, slowthai wanted to stay local, so he moved here with a close family friend and his wife and four children. He stopped selling weed and his mum helped get him a job at Next, where, she tells me, he became a very charismatic figure amongst the female customers. He walked two miles to work each day across the fields.
At night, in his bedroom – two mattresses on top of each other, three books (one about The Streets, one about photography, and one about Amsterdam), a laptop and some speakers – he began to properly focus on his music. He wrote numerous songs here, but most importantly, Jiggle – one of his very first singles to get proper traction online, racking up over 200,000 plays on SoundCloud. In it, he raps, “Feeling great/ Nothing great about Britain.”
He helped look after the four kids, who ranged from 4 to 15 years old. He cooked and ate meals with them, watched movies, played football and hide and seek, helped them do their homework, and watched them be happy. They became like his kids. “The youngest was my little angel,” he says. He even spent one Christmas day with them.
“I used to have a proper shit outlook on life,” he says. “My family was always kinda broken. I only had my mum, I never had a proper dad. I had no boundaries, no rules. When I came here I felt like my fantasy la la land got washed away. They brought me into their sacred place – I could no longer do wrong shit. I had an epiphany. I re-thought everything.”
Four years later, on holiday in Jamaica last month, he had that epiphany feeling again. It was hot, pushing 30 degrees, and he was walking through the jungle with his girlfriend to a beach two miles away. The voice of a preacher in a nearby church carried on the warm wind; he was singing gospel – “The way you’re living’s not right, the way you’re living’s not riiiight”. Maybe it was dehydration, maybe it was sun stroke, or maybe it was the residual effects of some local produce he’d smoked, but it felt like the preacher’s words were dancing in his brain, kicking up neurons with their heels. He started to think those big big thoughts you get, about the way he carries himself, the way he talks, the things he puts out into the world – like his album.
It’s important to slowthai that this isn’t just another rap record. It needs to disrupt and incite – it needs to make something happen. “I want to change things for everyone that is on my level,” he declares. “I want to change the way we look at people from certain sides of life.”
Photography: Joshua Gordon
Styling: Daniel Pacitti
Nothing Great About Britain is coming soon via Method Records
slowthai appears on the Crack Magazine stage at Love Saves The Day, Bristol, 25 May