He’s from Northampton, not Thailand, and nor is Slowthai slow. The man born Tyron Frampton raps with barely contained energy – yelping, restless, ready to burst. On his latest single, Doorman, he takes the idea that grime is the new punk literally, backing his rhymes with primal drums, a brutal bass rumble and a sample from a news report about glue sniffing.
Few were looking to the East Midlands for the next big thing in rap, but last month the 24-year-old found himself voted into fourth place in the BBC’s Sound of 2019 poll, just behind Grace Carter, King Princess and Octavian. The annual survey, which asks music influencers who they believe to be on their way to stardom, has previously put US star Khalid, soul success Jorja Smith and Mercury winner Sampha in fourth – not bad company.
Slowthai only became aware of the poll a year ago, when it was topped by Norwegian pop singer Sigrid. “I just thought, out of so many people out there making stuff, how did these people get on this list? I wanted to be on the list! In my heart, I felt I wasn’t working hard enough,” he tells me.
When we meet in the Soho offices of his management, he looks every inch the big-time rapper, extensive tattooing mostly hidden beneath a black Supreme coat-and-hat combo so enormous that he almost has to turn sideways to get through the doorway. On video, he appears dangerously unhinged, parodying scenes from The Shining, Psycho and A Clockwork Orange in the clip for North Nights, with eyeballs that swivel madly in his grinning head. He has a habit of being brought on stage in a coffin or a bodybag.
But he also has a sensitive side. In the video for Ladies he can be found naked and foetal, half-singing into the ear of his girlfriend Betty in tribute to Annie Liebovitz’s Rolling Stone cover shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In person, that grin is warm and constant, and though he has a habit of meandering off topic as if we’re talking at 3am in a haze of smoke rather than mid-morning in a boardroom, he’s very likeable.
He’d been dabbling in rapping and production since school, forgetting about it for months at a time and dropping out of a college course in Music Technology. When he came up with the lyrics to T N Biscuits, currently his most streamed song on Spotify at a cool 4.6 million, he was trudging home through a Northampton park, heavy rain soaking into his loafers, having just been disciplined by the clothes shop Next for giving his mate a family discount on a suit.
“The farmers are coming/Pitchforks sharp and they’re running,” he says with a cackle at the end of that track, suggesting that an army of rural rappers are on their way to break London’s stranglehold on the scene. Growing up on Northampton’s Lings estate, the child of a Barbadian mother who had him at 16 and an English father who left when he was three, there was no glamour to draw on for his songs.
“At school I was told I had ADHD, but my mum said, ‘You’re not craving attention. You’ve just got a lot of energy. It’s not a bad thing.’ I didn’t want to be made docile. If you’re overenthusiastic about things, it’s how you’re meant to be,” he says. School wasn’t one of the things he was enthusiastic about, though. His mother was called to court because of his persistent absences. A tattoo says “SORRY MUM” just below his collarbone.
His song Drug Dealer is about what seemed to him to be the only viable career choice. Doorman is about feeling shut out from the world of the privileged. “The first thing I wanted to be growing up was a solicitor, I think because all the people around me needed solicitors! But I never really followed it up. Then I wanted to be a dessert chef because I liked the presentation,” he says.
“After I finished with college, I moved around, did some dumb shit. I’d done labouring, done a bit of plastering and never been able to stick it out. I could always make money elsewhere, and the amount of money I was making lazing about trumped anything I could make slaving away.”
He reached a pretty low ebb in the second half of 2017. “I was addicted to Xanax. I kept taking these sleeping pills. I went to a festival, lost my mind, was up for five days and overcooked the egg fully. It was a psychosis or something,” he says. “But by the new year I’d come back from being gone in the head. I had my first smile in so long that wasn’t a synthetic smile from taking drugs. I felt normal again. And at that point I decided I was going to put everything into music. I realised this makes me happy. I had the belief. Otherwise I’d probably be in jail now.”
A barrage of singles over the past year, acompanied by videos that suggest he has a bright future in acting as well as music, built enough buzz for him to be in the sightlines for that BBC list. Next he has two London gigs lined up off the beaten track at the Bethnal Green boxing venue York Hall, on what he’s calling the “Brexit Bandit Tour”. He voted Remain in the referendum – the first time he ever put an X in a box. “The Brexit vote was just them playing mind games with the people. It’s all smoke and mirrors and lies,” he says now.
Another of his tattoos, on his belly, says “NOTHING GREAT ABOUT BRITAIN”. It’s a line he used in a song from 2016, Jiggle, and again on Drug Dealer last year. “When you feel good, it’s not due to the place that you’re from,” he says. “There’s nothing here that is great to me except the people.”
He says the line is going to be the title of his debut album, which is “Eighty per cent done” and includes two contributions from Kent punk duo Slaves, who he supported at Alexandra Palace in November. That band are also outsiders, proud not to be Londoners and making music that doesn’t fit comfortably in any current scenes.
“I don’t feel like I should just be a rapper. That’s boring to me. I never want to make one type of music,” says Slowthai. “You wouldn’t just eat sushi for the rest of your life – there’s so much more food! I want to play guitar, piano, drums, write songs for other people. I can do punk, I can do indie, but as long as it has my voice, it’ll always be my sound.”
Doorman is out now on Method. Apr 1-2, York Hall, E2. slowthai.com