WORDS: MUSTAFA AFRAZ
My introduction to Slowthai was through my best friend’s phone speaker about three years ago. Maybe because of the poor quality of the audio, or because of our internal rivalry to put each other on, I breezed over ‘T N Biscuits’. Coming back to it over a year later, I realised I hadn’t given the track a serious listen and after watching the accompanying music video, I was hooked.
Digging deeper into Thai’s discography, it became clear to me that Thai was someone unafraid of experimentation—he was willing to push his artistry far beyond the constraints of rap and grime. 2019 proved to be a breakout year for him, packed with single releases, tours, and features that let his irrepressible personality take centre stage.
He’s a busy guy these days, but during his Australian festival run last year we were able to catch up for a quick chat after shooting him for our sixth digital cover. When Slowthai and Lewis—his manager, cousin, and director—arrived at the shoot location, they greeted everyone in the studio and stepped outside while Thai hastily smoked a cigarette. When they returned, they exchanged a look and considered whether they should “cheat on their barber”, by getting a trim from the hair stylist on set, explaining that the bond between a man and his barber goes far beyond the act of cutting hair. During the short amount of time we spent together, brief snippets of conversations like this gave me a pretty clear idea of what Thai is like. He’s someone who’s frolicking across the set to ballet music one-minute but serving insightful observations about life the next—he’s cheeky, but he really does care.
Mr. Slowthai from Northampton, how are you? How’s your day been?
I’m good, man. It’s been good, how are you G?
Chilling bro, thanks for asking. It’s your first time in Australia, how would you describe your experience performing here?
Lit man, everything’s been going crazy. I don’t know, you don’t expect it this far from home but it’s been a blessing.
As a fan, it’s interesting to see how Australia has increasingly gravitated towards UK rap. I think a common mistake—one I’m guilty of anyway—is just assuming everything is from somewhere in London, which definitely isn’t the case. What was it like growing as a person and artist in Northampton?
It’s the same as any small town, just normal people growing up. You get it through however you can and there’s not much opportunity, no one really aspires to do anything, just a small place where they’re five years behind everywhere else.
Nothing for the kids to do and such?
Yeah, you gotta go out and search for it, the more you search for it, the more you find and in the end it all comes to you.
How did people around you respond when you decided you wanted to pursue music?
I suppose they don’t believe in you until you’re doing something. I mean for anyone who’s from a place where there’s not much opportunity or no one’s got aspirations, you just gotta be the one to do it. No one’s going to tell you to do something they don’t believe they can do themselves. Everyone just wants to hate because they feel they can’t do it. So that’s all it is, you just get on with it and not pay no one no mind, work on your talents and push through.
And how have those people’s attitudes shifted as your career has progressed?
I think everyone’s proud man, no one gives me no negative nothing, I feel they are happy. I think for someone who comes from there, where there’s nothing to do, they are all just proud and in a way everyone played their part. Be it that they told me to quit, I couldn’t do it, or they dissed me for it. In the end without them, I wouldn’t have been so motivated to prove them wrong yet. I feel you should just use it as ammunition to push on.
The song ‘Dead Leaves’ is about ambitionless people from your hometown jaw jacking, was there a certain experience that brought that out of you?
There was this guy called Bronson who was looked at as Britain’s most violent prisoner, and they made a film about him. Tom Hardy is the actor and there’s an interview with Tom Hardy speaking about a phone call he had with Bronson where he was basically ignoring him. Then one day they managed to get him on the phone and he said “Oh man, sorry, I’ve just been having like relationship trouble, we’re breaking up, dah, dah, dah, dah. I feel like this and I can't give this. Then Bronson said to him, “Remember there was floods in Oxford once? And a boy got his foot trapped in the drain and the water kept rising and rising and rising. In the end the boy died.” And he said, “You know why it wouldn’t happen to me? Because I would’ve told them to cut my foot off.” Then he said, “Sometimes in life to grow, you need to cut pieces of yourself away to fully blossom innit?” It’s like the same with trees, if you allow stuff to take all the nutrients from something that’s dying anyway, it would just drag you down and won’t let you blossom into what you could be. So, dead leaves, you have to cut them off. It was just relating to people in my life, who may not have been pushing for the best for me. May have been dragging me down and that is just something that always stuck with me. I felt like I needed to put it down and then cut them people off.
Can you tell me about some of the experiences surrounding your album, Nothing Great About Britain?
Well making the album was a lot of sleepless nights, sleeping on the floor and trying to get out how I feel. Going through a lot of things in my life with personal relationships and stuff, feeling isolated and like I’m on my ones. Yeah, just forcing through really man.
I remember watching an interview you did with Julie Adenuga right after the album dropped, and you said you didn’t know how to feel. Now that the public has had time to sit with it and you’ve seen the response, have you come around to it yet?
I’m proud, but it’s its own entity once you give it out and so you just gotta watch it grow. I mean the reception is like you’d never expect. You always doubt yourself, I doubt myself so much, that’s why I push on to try and be better and that. So many people have given such a blessed response and are being positive to it and it's more inspiring. It allows me to go ahead and do better things because I know people believe in what I’m doing and people connect with it. It’s the best feeling.
What do you think of the idea that your debut album tells your life story up until now?
Yeah, I don’t think my life story, I think it kinda gives people an insight into my life and allows them to get to know me more, get to know Britain and what it’s like growing up there. I feel like everywhere has got a similar thing, we all have the same struggles, the same politics. There’s always something to be pissed off about, it don’t matter.
As you said, the response has been mental, so mental that you were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. You performed at the ceremony, in which you used a cutoff head of Boris Johnson as a prop. How much heat did you catch for that?
I don’t really watch no one like that, it’s a blessing to be a part of and to be considered as part of the Mercury list. But, [I] feel like it’s a curse anyway. For anyone who’s ever got it, it has gone on to haunt them.
How would you describe the current political climate in the UK?
I feel like living there is a big confusion because you’re told one thing when it’s a completely different thing. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that you don’t actually know and the people that it counts for are cut off from it. Banging your head against a brick wall is the best way to explain it.
How important do you think it is for people to form their own personal judgments about things?
People have to have their own opinion that can’t be provoked, otherwise, everyone’s just a sheep. It’s the most important thing for people to have different views and know different things to spark a conversation, so we can find some solution or resolution. If people don’t have an opinion they’re just dumb and like what does anything matter otherwise. You have got to have your own thing.
Did you think the album would translate as well as it has outside of the UK, especially because a lot of the topics are so British?
I always had ambitions to be like, “Yo yeah I want to do this.” It was more so going to places I didn’t ever really think of. I don’t see it as a because you’re from somewhere different, you can’t connect with it thing. If it’s good music then it’s good music. I’m not going to compromise or cater it to somewhere because I want to go there more for music. If people feel it, they feel it and if they don’t, then keep making music innit? I make it for myself and the people around me, or for people who can connect with, or have the same outlook I have.
There’s a certain nostalgia I feel when listening to ‘Gorgeous’. Can you tell me about that song?
‘Gorgeous’ is about making certain decisions in life that may make you feel ugly, but behind those feelings, we’re all still gorgeous. The way the song come about, is that [Kwes and I] were just chilling, chatting shit and then I was like, “I wanna wear the Bally”. Because he always used to wear a Bally on stage and he was like, “Nah, no, you can’t wear the bally. You’re gorgeous” and I was like, “Nah!” In the clip he was playing the piano while he was saying it, then we just made the tune out of that. Then with the bit at the end, he records our sessions on his phone, so if I say something that could be used or if I’m spitting a bar, we can go back to it and be like this is what you were saying. I didn’t know and this was like one of the first few times we proper got it in and I was just telling him the story. I was like, “This the beat reminds me of when I was a kid with my stepdad” and it was just about being lied to basically. That’s that story, it just came naturally. I felt like everything good just comes and you don’t have to force it, you know?
How did ‘Psycho’ with Denzel Curry come together?
Well, my producer Kwes had the beat or whatever. Then he was like, “Yo, Denzel is coming through you wanna do this?” And I was like, “Yeah, fuck yeah.” I’ve rated Denzel for time, we linked up from that and just became boys, made the tune and it’s done.
Tell me a little about Kwes bro. You’ve been working together for quite a while, which led to him producing most of the album. How’d you guys come together?
He used to go by the alias of Blue Daisy, and me and my cousin (who is my manager) used to listen to [him]. My cousin once mentioned me working with him some time ago, but it was kind of forgotten. When we released ‘Jiggle’, he hit us up and it came full circle, then we just became brothers for life.
Now he’s your DJ as well right?
Yeah, he does the DJing and backs me up, he’s like my protector man.
Releasing the album wasn’t the only major move you made this year, you also featured on Skepta’s album cover and had vocal features on both Igor and GINGER. How did all of that come about?
Yeah, I don't know, people just asking innit? With the Brockhampton thing, it was our first time in LA, we went and linked them because I appreciate what they do and they appreciate what I do. They played us the album and I was like, this (‘Heaven Belongs To You’) is the one I liked the most. Linked them again the next day and they were like, “Do you want to try something on it?” [I] went back, done it, wrote it. It took me like 20 minutes to do the verse, recorded it and it was done. I didn’t think I was going to hear nothing else from it and then the next minute they was like, “Yo, can we put this on the album?” And I was like, “Yeah, hard.”
Then the Tyler feature?
Oh, he just said he liked my voice and asked if I would do it. I appreciate him so much and have been a fan since I was young. I thought, Yeah, fuck yeah. That’s a dream come true, bro. It’s a blessing.
Most of your music videos are directed by The Rest. Who are they exactly?
My cousin/manager again is part of it. It’s him and Alex, who is basically my brother as well, we are all family. We all work together and in the same thing.
The tattoo on your throat says 47, does that number have special significance to you?
It’s my lucky number, like wherever I’m meant to be, I see it or I hear it. It just seems to follow me so I thought If it’s where I’m meant to be, I’ll put it on me. So I’m always where I’m meant to be.
How do you feel about where you are at right now?
I feel blessed bro, there’s no other way to describe it. There’s no way to sum it up in words. I could be anywhere, but I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I’m forever thankful to every person that supports me and everyone that fucks with me or fucks with the music. Any way I can support them and reciprocate what they’ve given me, I will because it’s the greatest gift I could’ve ever imagined. You know what I mean?