Tyron Frampton Comes Alive: U.K. Rapper Slowthai Brings His Bars to America

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Alex Hodor-Lee
slowthai performs at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s a Friday night at Brooklyn’s indie venue Elsewhere, and the most electric new artist in U.K. hip-hop is not tolerating any wallflowers. “Let’s open this up!” Slowthai instructs the room, a couple of songs into an hour-long set. He’s looking to include everyone in the party, especially those standing still in the back, in contrast to the kids already raging down front. “I’m here to bring you out of your fucking shell!” If anyone can do it, it’s Slowthai, and his very British brand of middle-finger-to-the-man populism. 

His joy is infectious, and it’s no act merely reserved for the stage. When Billboard sits down with him a few hours before the show in the green room, he’s rarely not beaming. And why not? The emergence of the tatted, grilled 24-year-old charmer with a wild-eyed grin, born Tyron Frampton, in the hardscrabble projects of Northampton, England, is one of the happiest, unlikeliest recent stories in music. “I feel like as long as I bring people together, and we all have a love for life and a love for ourselves, I feel like that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “I feel like I want to make everyone happy. I want everyone around me to be happy. I don’t want sadness in my life, and I don’t want fuckery.”

He’s certainly not shy about calling out fuckery and abuse of power at the highest reaches of government whenever and wherever he sees it. That much is clear on his exceptional debut album. Released in May, Nothing Great About Britain, is a mix of grime, punk, hip-hop and electronic production. Included are swipes at the royal family and searing indictments of social injustice, and the creeping nationalism infecting not only his homeland, but much of the West. The LP’s release was originally timed to coincide with Britain’s exit from the European Union, but that process was of course bungled, postponed, and continues to play out. During Slowthai’s U.K. tour Brexit Bandit, there were nightly chants of “Fuck Theresa," in reference to now ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, and the album’s rollout was marked by billboards around London touting harrowing stats on hate crimes, gender-based pay disparity, and a slam of the presumptive next PM, Donald Trump’s fellow portly, flaxen-haired xenophobe, Boris Johnson. 

British politics don’t generally translate to a Stateside audience, and Ty is aware of that, so he generally avoids the political invective from on stage in Brooklyn. “But I could just relate it all to what’s going on here!” he tells me. Well, of course he could, as America is waist-deep in madness of its own. “It’s the whole thing about, whoever is in that position of power, I’m like, against them,” Ty says. “I just want to put the power back to the people. So whoever is the demon here, it’s the only way I go, man.” Frampton has joked before about having political ambitions, but even if he’s not seriously considering a run for office, he believes something profound needs to change. “Everyone that’s in these positions of power, they’ve never really been anywhere, or experienced what life’s actually like,” he says. “And we need someone -- not myself -- but we need someone who’s actually speaking for the people, rather than trying to get a seat, just for their CV, you know what I mean?” 

Slowthai has certainly experienced what “life’s actually like.” The oldest child born to a teenage mother, his dad split when he was a toddler, and he and his siblings bounced from one council estate to the next, perpetually struggling to make ends meet. His youngest brother died at only a year old, a loss that left lingering scars on Tyron and the family, and there was a far from model stepfather who eventually kicked the family out. It’s these personal recollections and more that make up the most affecting slowthai songs, from last year’s “Slow Down (Santa)” and “Drug Dealer” and the grime-y “Polaroid," to Nothing Great tracks “Peace of Mind," the jittery, memory-chocked “Gorgeous," and the sublime closer “Northampton’s Child," a saga of absent dads, drug dealers and 12-hour work shifts told through the eyes of the woman who kept it all together: his mother Gaynor. 

So, of course there’s something great about Britain, and about every nation. It’s those on the daily grind, not least single mothers the world over left to carry a family on their shoulders. And Frampton walks the walk: Tickets on his Brexit Bandit tour were priced at a youth-friendly 99 pence -- about $1.30 -- and he recently did a feature for the U.K,’s homeless-distributed magazine The Big Issue, for which the publication was able to charge more money and thereby raise a bit more for those on the margins. Which is not to say slowthai’s rhetoric can’t be unforgiving: the blistering title track of Nothing Great About Britain ends with a spoken coda that refers to the Queen with a word that rhymes with the title of his 2018 EP RUNT

To royalists who have a problem with that, Ty replies he’s only ever had one queen, the one who raised him. And, he adds, criticism is at the heart of patriotism. “There’s got to be opposition, there’s got to be opinions, there’s got to be feelings,” he says. “Otherwise we’re living in this fuckery where we’re like, ‘Ah everything’s great!’ as though there’s not millions of homeless people. I think it’s just one of those things where when people are ignorant, they don’t like to hear anything other than ‘Britannia, Britannia’ or ‘Make America Great Again,' you know? And it loses sight of what is actually great. It’s never been the name of a place, the name of a country -- it’s the people that make the country. Without them, there would be no country except from just land.”

Back on stage at Elsewhere, Ty’s cleared space on the floor, and picked out two guys in the crowd, Jonah and Stephen, to lead a circle pit as an accompaniment to  “Doorman," the galloping electro-punk banger from NGAB that’s a collaboration between slowthai and Alex Crossan, the electronic maestro known as Mura Masa. The two had never met before they got together to work on the track, and although they each suffer from anxiety -- Frampton’s generally manifesting itself by “being loud” and Crossan’s by “going quiet” -- within two hours they had created three minutes of exhilarating gold. The lyric spins one of Ty’s funnier stories -- the time he ended up at the multi-million pound London home of a girl he’d met, and fantasized about swiping one of the extremely valuable paintings on the wall. “Of course I’m not gonna do that,” he clarifies. “But it’s like, ‘That could change my whole thing -- everyone would be okay with this one painting!’” 

Up on the club’s roof, where we’ve gone so that slowthai can have a smoke, we keep talking about “Doorman” -- specifically, the audio samples that bookend the song, taken from a 1983 documentary on punks that Ty discovered on YouTube. I tell slowthai that I find something sad about the closing sample, in which a condescending narrator tries to make light of a kid addicted to glue-sniffing. “Well, yeah, because you feel like that’s all he has,” he agrees. “But you know, growing up in the U.K. or whatever, and being in that state, that’s like a lot of people, man. It’s like the people you meet and they’re like, ‘Aw, he could have been a footballer,’ there’s like so many stories where it’s like, instead, they’d rather just get fucked, and live for that moment... Whatever gives them their shits and giggles, I’m all for. But if it’s killing your soul, it’s not good, man.”

Ty never killed his soul, but by 2017 he was well on his way to doing a number on his brain. A stint in college had opened his mind and helped him “not to be a dickhead," but he and the classroom weren’t an ideal fit, and he dropped out. A series of odd jobs followed, and with making money fast as his mantra, he lapsed back into “some dodgy shit.” He was fired from a job at the clothing store Next for giving an employee discount to a friend, subsequently wrote his breakthrough single “T N Biscuits” and later in the year, released his first EP, I WISH I KNEW

But by that point, he’d gone to a dark place that included an addiction to Xanax. His team gave him a time out. “Like, they wouldn’t let me go to the studio," he says. “They just said, ‘You’ve got to fucking sort your shit out.’ I just didn’t give a fuck about anything anymore. And then I think I lost my mind a bit, and after that I didn’t think I was gonna be normal again. I was like, ‘My brain is fried. I can’t think and shit, I’ve fucked myself up.’ I was having bad dreams, shit nightmares, like my life was falling apart.” 

Remarkably enough though, with a new year -- 2018 -- came a new outlook. “It was on the new year, I remember that was the first time that I smiled, and I finally felt happiness again,” he says. “I recorded a song called ‘Bless You.' And then, from that point it was like bam! That was it, it was like every day making tunes. I was back! And as soon as I got back, I was like, ‘I ain’t going back that way again.’

Within a few months, working with his “right hand man and brother," producer Kwes Darko, the two had completed most of the songs on RUNT and Nothing Great About Britain, and scores more -- as many as 180, by his estimate. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. From fractured home to aborting college to dead end jobs to now, improbably, this: slowthai is one of the most talked about new artists on the planet. With the release of Nothing Great, the acclaim and attention and looks have only increased. 

He turns out one funny, unhinged, irresistible music video after another, most of them directed by his closest collaborators, cousin and manager Lewis and close friend Alex, who work under the name “THE REST." In the two most recent, “Nothing’s Great About Britain," Ty and friends offer a wicked close, in a pub singing “God Save The Queen," only seconds after our hero has called the monarch the c-word; while in “Inglorious," his fiery trap collab with Skepta, Ty recreates Malcolm McDowell’s eye-opening “Ludovico Technique” from A Clockwork Orange, only instead of ultraviolence, it’s images of uber-patriotism, extolling the virtues of Old Blighty, that he’s forced to endure. 

Slowthai’s a natural with the camera -- so much so that more than one person has suggested his real future might be in acting. He says he’s open to it, though writing and directing appeals to him the most, and there is one role he’s long had his eye on: The Joker. Honestly, with his manic demeanor, you have to think it would be a perfect fit, if only Joaquin Phoenix hadn’t had the role on lock at the moment. (The actor stars in The Joker, out in October.) “Joaquin beat me,” Ty says. “But I was thinking for the past four years, there’s just got to be a Joker movie! And I was like, ‘Let’s do it!’”

The fashion world is also circling, and while Ty won’t specify which style houses have made overtures, he’s not ruling modeling out. But he does maintain a healthy, clear-eyed skepticism about just what getting in bed with a fashion brand really means. “I think they just suck the life, it’s like vampires, man,” he says. “They just come in and most of the time, you’ll do more for them brands than they’ll do for you. And after they’re done with you they throw you out, on to the next guy, then the next guy.” 

For now, slowthai is about the music. His July and August schedule is packed with festival dates and shows of his own throughout Europe. A full US tour is possible for the fall, on which he hopes to “properly present” all of the Nothing Great album, and not long after that, expect more new tunes. “I’m not gonna rush it. I want to get the music where it needs to be,” he says, adding that he’s got “hundreds” of musical ideas and at least “20 or 30” songs that could be ready to put out tomorrow. But he’s up for the many different paths that his new life may present. ‘“Jack of all trades, master of none’ they always say that,” he says. “But I’m just like, just do it! Do anything! You give me a piece of string, I’m gonna keep running until it runs out. I think life’s about the experiences, and variety is the spice of life. So why go with only one flavor crisp, when you could have all the crisps in the world, you know?” 

This new life is all a far cry from the kid he writes about in “Slow Down," whose family’s boiler broke down on Christmas Day, and who asks Santa, “Why’s my life this way?” These days, Tyron Frampton doesn’t have to worry about heat, but he says that kid is never far from his mind, even as he’s learned a rather twisted truth about celebrity -- the more you blow up and the more money you have, the less you have to pay for. Ty’s conflicted about the whole material windfall: “I wanna be more on the side of like, maintaining my shit, and remembering how much I value certain things, then get to the point where I don’t value nothing and just don’t care,” he explains.  “I still can’t get my head around any of it… Sometimes, I just want to be the same kid I was in Northampton, with my same mates. I don’t want to ever lose them.” 

Although he stays much of the time nowadays in London with his girlfriend, he still makes the 60-mile journey back to his hometown often. “Things have gone so quick that I can’t get my bearings and figure it out,” he says. “That’s why I still always go home and I’m with the same people. I think the further I got into it and kind of started to lose it that connection, the more I realized that I can’t lose it. Like, I need to remember the time when I was outside the shop asking for that 20p, when I didn’t have money to do anything, and I couldn’t go anywhere.”

Slowthai’s humility and evident empathy for the less fortunate are just as striking the eclectic music, clever bar spitting, and tweaking of authority figures for which he’s making his name. When he’s on stage you can’t take your eyes off him -- only that’s exactly what he commands the Brooklyn crowd to do toward the end of his set. “Don’t look at me,” he tells the room. “Take a moment and look at the person next to you, the people around you. This is a circle of friends!” Tyron Frampton’s life was one that by his own admission could have ended up in jail, on the streets, or worse. The fact that it didn’t, and that this one-time class clown from small-town England now increasingly has the world as his oyster is the kind of story from which others, he hopes, can draw inspiration. 

“I was able to change my life, and now I’m in a positive place,” he concludes. “And it’s just, it’s blessed. I want to look at the sun and say, ‘Today is a good day!’ I never want to moan and say, ‘Fuck, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ I just want to put out hope.”

slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain is out now. His European summer dates begin June 29th at Glastonbury. 

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