At 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, I met Slowthai at China Chalet, in downtown New York City, to talk about his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, out this month. It was the rapper’s second ever show in the city. When I arrived, I sat in a narrow booth watching media people cycle in and out of the back room, where the Brit posed for photographs and set up for the show he’d play later that night. It’s tempting to compare the rawness of the 24-year-old’s music to other British acts like The Streets, or Public Image LTD, but that would be missing the point. Slowthai, born Tyron Frampton, hails from the part of Great Britain now best known for leading the country off a cliff in the 2016 Brexit vote (the same year he released his first single,”Jiggle“). And when he’s not being pinned down by writers to the pre-fab categories of rap or punk, Slowthai is regularly positioned as a new model of British-ness. (“Rapper Wins Fans With Snarling Critique of Brexit Britain,” went the Times recently, in awe of his stomach tattoo that bares the album’s title.) Beyond those obvious tactics exists a young artist genuinely striving to do something original. “I’m in it to make some sort of change and better myself, to essentially become the best person I can be. I want to be growing,” he told me when he finally emerged. Wearing a white bucket hat, and big loose pants, Slowthai shook my hand, gave me a stoney smile, and sat down across from me.
LUCAS MASCATELLO: What’d you eat for breakfast?
SLOWTHAI: We actually had Venezuelan. What did you have for breakfast?
MASCATELLO: I had fucking nachos.
SLOWTHAI: Yeah, that’s like the same.
MASCATELLO: It was rough.
SLOWTHAI: You were like, “Shouldn’t be eating this.”
MASCATELLO: Things are kind of full on for you right now. Do you feel like things are clicking for you?
SLOWTHAI: Yeah. When we’re born, we all have that thing: I’m meant for something. And through this, it’s given me a voice to try and change things and empower people — make them feel that they don’t have to do stuff they don’t want to do. That they can actually do what they want to do.
MASCATELLO: Do you meet a lot of your fans?
SLOWTHAI: I tend to try to spend as much time with them as I can after shows. I don’t feel it’s right if I just do a show and then I’m gone like a moody twat. I’m no different to anybody out there. I’ve been in the shows, watching other people, and I’ll be like, “Just wanted to say, Cool.” And then, they’re too high-maintenance and can’t even say hello. They should thank the people that changed their lives. It’s one of my favorite bits because you never know what random stuff they’re going to say.
MASCATELLO: I’ve read you talking about how you’re trying to set an example, or provide a different kind of template for people.
SLOWTHAI: Yeah. Use my platform properly rather than just letting it be to make money and be a dickhead, really.
MASCATELLO: It feels like it’s also kind of a story-telling element. On a certain level, you’re inviting people in, not just to the music, but to be involved in your life.
SLOWTHAI: For someone to truly understand my music and my art, they kind of have to understand me because I’m one of them people. Yeah, the mystery is cool, but, at the same time, if I’m trying to empower people, I have to be an open book. You can see my flaws, the mistakes I’ve made. From that, make your own judgment, and move on your own path. It’s one of them things. You can’t compromise it for anybody. You just have to do it.
MASCATELLO: From the outside, it seems that if you’re more productive than you are self-conscious, eventually you outpace your ability to second-guess yourself. It’s like getting into a groove.
SLOWTHAI: I think we get too complacent for the same thing. We always want this same structure, routine on a loop. That’s the thing, I might make a punk song. It just depends on how I’m feeling at that time. I don’t think there’s a boundary or a limit on what we should be taught, how far things can go. I am trying to make my own template. I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of anybody that went before, because they didn’t do what I want to do. I have to carve my own way. Build. It takes time. I’m not in it just for just the quick thing and get out. This is what I live for. I want to do this until the day I die. You know what I mean?
MASCATELLO: Do you write a lot? Do you make other kinds of work?
SLOWTHAI: I don’t know, man. I just try a bit of everything. I don’t tend to write every day, though. I like to have something that makes me want to write. Otherwise, I’m just writing for the sake of it. I feel like if I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it the right way.
MASCATELLO: Do you ever think about having a band or playing with other people?
SLOWTHAI: I want to do a side project, and, later on, I want to take it more musical. Not heavier, but not so rap.
MASCATELLO: Your music’s pretty heavy already.
SLOWTHAI: I want to just change, be different.
MASCATELLO: You did that Portishead cover. Tell me where that’s coming from.
SLOWTHAI: When I grew up, my mom was always playing Portishead, so it was significant for me. I felt like I could put a twist on it. I tried doing it from the woman’s perspective, speaking about an abusive relationship. I just wanted to flow it out. That’s one of my favorite songs, and I felt like if I’m going to cover anything, it’s gotta be that.
MASCATELLO: Maybe it starts from a place of you trying to connect the dots a bit.
SLOWTHAI: That’s what I mean. I’m done trying to directly say things. I don’t want ever to write a song and it to be like, This is what it means. It’s how you interpret it. You can get a completely different message, but it might help you through the toughest situation in your life. Who am I to tell you that’s not what it means? It’s what you make it. I’m not here to tell you how to be, I’m just here to show you me, and how I let it be in my life. How I do my thing.
MASCATELLO: I think about that a lot with visual art. You have to be comfortable with people deciding it means something different than what you might have intended.
SLOWTHAI: I think that’s that beauty of this — it can mean anything. The possibilities are endless. There’s people that want to shut it in and be like, No, it’s just this. It’s like saying space only goes so far. That’s the marvel of space, it’s never-ending.
MASCATELLO: How does it work being somebody that’s representing the idea of being British on a global stage?
SLOWTHAI: It seems like it’s only relevant to people that are from Britain. The point I’m making is everybody in the world believes they’re from a great place. The album is about saying, forget all that shit and just remember your communities. Your families. The things that bond you together as a country, worldwide, whatever you want. Remember, the most important thing, is that the power lies within us, not anyone speaking on our behalf, not anyone standing and thinking they know the best. There’s something that’s great about everywhere. What’s great is your family, your loved ones, the people that you’ve lived for and lived with.
MASCATELLO: There’s a chance that if your message become big enough, then you may become the thing that people identify as being great about England. Do you think about it being hard to escape being the representative of something?
SLOWTHAI: Yeah, but innit, that’s their entitlement. I can’t take that away from anybody. That’s what it’s got to be. Someone has to be the face of something for it to spark in people’s minds. So many people think it, and, if they haven’t, at least the thought will provoke them so it opens their noggin.
MASCATELLO: Do you feel like you’re trolling at all?
SLOWTHAI: Sometimes, yeah. There’s definitely something.
MASCATELLO: Like the album cover?
SLOWTHAI: I wanted it to say, “Laugh at my pain.” I’m the joker, the jester. Throw stones at me, I’ll take it. I’ll be the one who gets laughed at so everyone else can see.
MASCATELLO: It’s funny to see how people deal with absurdity and humor, especially when things are so dark.
SLOWTHAI: But that’s the best humor, the kind that you don’t really want to laugh at.
MASCATELLO: What does the live show do for that?
SLOWTHAI: I want to take people to the height of their endurance, to find that moment of adrenaline. I try to get it that high, where there’s a euphoria anytime I do a show. I want you to literally lose yourself in the moment, so you forget everything for that hour thirty. When they leave, they’re happy, there’s nothing but happiness. It’s a place where they can come if they’ve got pent up aggression and let it out in a positive way. I want people to leave with that same energy, so when they go out it’s like, Yeah, this is it.
MASCATELLO: So it’s a release for people?
SLOWTHAI: And it’s a release for me. Since I’ve been doing this, I tend to use all my energy that I build up. I’m slumped all the time.
MASCATELLO: You seem pretty mellow.
SLOWTHAI: When I do the show, then I’m like, Pow. It’s a moment to get everything out. It’s also a moment to connect with people that relate to the music. Or, if they don’t, then hopefully I converted them to it.
MASCATELLO: It gets real for people then. There’s that whole thing of rave culture and punk culture bothing being about the same sort of spiritual experience.
SLOWTHAI: Being in that zone — only a few moments in life do you feel that.