Ninety minutes north of London is a perfectly humdrum little town called Wolverton. It’s full of terraced brick houses and possesses a mild air of claustrophobia — your typical English suburb. On a recent April afternoon, the most notable activity on the high street was two teen girls in tight ponytails aimlessly kicking a yellow police barricade blocking nothing. But a place can really brighten up in a few hours: At dusk, a stream of happily chatty kids in Vans and bum bags materialize in Wolverton and rock up to local pub the Craufurd Arms to see their new local star, Slowthai.
With cheek and verve, the 24-year-old rapper has hit a nerve in England. He comes from Irish and Bajan ancestry and was raised Tyron Frampton on a council estate (i.e., in public housing) in Northampton, 30 minutes farther north. After a series of day jobs fizzled out, Slowthai (a play on the teasing he endured as a child for being a bit spacey) prioritized the music he had already been developing on his downtime. He learned how to self-produce on his computer, then cultivated a social following with Instagram wise-cracks and SoundCloud freebies that sharply synthesized grime and punk. His songs and videos are full of tracksuit tops, the sword Excalibur, and the iconography of his nation. Recently, for The Guardian, he hopped in bed with the Union Jack. He has appeared on the cover of NME, collaborated with Skepta, and gotten a co-sign from Liam Gallagher.
Perhaps crucial to his appeal for those who share his worldview, he is anti-Brexit. To borrow the parlance, he is a “remain” voter from a “leave” town. A good chunk of his songs and further commentary online tell it like it is. (He has been known to say, for example, of England’s resigning prime minister: “Theresa May is a dickhead.”) He’s especially thrilling to hear and watch when he inserts himself into the national conversation even if he’s not quite fully informed, and his riffs and references are neither a skewering nor a celebration of Brexit-era England. He’s most effective in putting another emboldened voice to youth unrest at a time of sociopolitical derision — recalling the Sex Pistols circa the Winter of Discontent — by alternately both chuckling and yelling, somewhat aimlessly, into the void.
His debut album, which came out in mid-May, is called Nothing Great About Britain. On the title track, he list-poems his way through some of the ugly and the absurd of his country, from the infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine to jellied eels to the far-right hate group the English Defence League (EDL). Then he offers a kicker: “Hand on my heart, I swear I’m proud to be British.” And then, almost as an afterthought, he calls the queen a cunt.
On the roof of the pub, a Supreme Russian trapper hat tied tightly under his chin — and in his endearing meandering manner — Slowthai tries to explain why he talks so much about his loyalty to Britain despite being so vocally at odds with its flaws. “Maybe I’ll go live somewhere like, pffft, the Himalayas and then have some new references,” he says. “But [England’s] what I know, innit. And I love all parts of it all. I love the pubs, I love the football. Those things, that’s all me.” The title Nothing Great About Britain could be taken as both a provocation from a young man full of jokes and spit and vitriol, and an honest interrogation into the state of things.
When artists touch on politics, there’s always a risk that they’ll be labeled a political artist and have to deal with all the attendant baggage. Slowthai is characteristically antithetical about that, too.
“I’m not ever with the intention of, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna change that!’” he says. “’Cause it’s down to people. I can only provoke a thought. People do attach to it, but I’m not ever trying to be Che Guevaraaaa!” He laughs as he draws out the last syllable. “Maybe I am, maybe I ain’t. I gotta say what I believe. I might even contradict myself. You can’t be criminal for it.”
“It sounds like it’s more about having a conversation,” I start to say, and he jumps in.
“Yeah, with yourself! Because to really figure life out, you need to be constantly thinking about it. And some things you can spend your life chasing and you just won’t ever know! As a man, you will never know how a woman feels. D’you know? And a woman will never know how a — mate, they might get close, though! And some things, they are just great. It’s undeniable. It’s like, a drink. It’s undeniably good!”
Tonight’s gig is part of the “99p Tour,” a short run through pubs, workingmen’s clubs, and tiny venues across the U.K., where he’ll play to scores of people with all tickets sold at the titular price. “I wanted to give people something that’s a real experience. And a bargain! No one does it,” he says. “Bun everyone, man! They trying to clear take your money. I do this for the passion, innit.”
Slowthai is already playing bigger venues for higher prices, with stops on the summer festival circuit at Glastonbury and shows this week at the Brooklyn club Elsewhere. So it’s stuff like this that makes him resonate with people trying to understand the country. He’s 24 years old, and he wants to hang out at workingmen’s clubs, where it’s “old geezery kind of builders” playing darts and sinking pints. It’s a politically savvy choice, in that Slowthai might be playing for “leave” crowds and share a good time with them regardless, but he picked these venues for more personal reasons. “I like them spots because I grew up maneuvering through them,” he says. “It made an impact on my life — it’s character-building and that. They’re the places I wanna go: the sweaty, innnnntimate, still-smells-like-the-cigarettes-from-30-years-ago type of places. I like that.” That spirit makes the 99p Tour a perfectly on-brand little gimmick (intentional or not) from a modern British common-man’s showman.
Crowded on the pub’s roof are a bunch of guffawing kids, mostly decked in all-black Carhartt WIP. Slowthai calls them his “cousins,” and it’s unclear if he means that as “first,” “second,” or entirely figurative. Behind us, his manager, Lewis (literally his cousin), grumbles at the weird promo they’re being offered these days: “Teeth whitening?! Mate, he has never gotten his teeth whitened!”
When it’s showtime on the small indoor stage below, which holds 300 people, Slowthai’s charm and chumminess aren’t so much replaced as they are amplified a thousand times by a manic, pure energy. He pops his top off to reveal a scrawny frame with a hodgepodge of tattoos. (A personal favorite: “Sorry, mum” across the neck.) “I respect you all — individually, yeah?” he shouts. “You changed my life. Wagwan?!” The mosh pits start during “Drug Dealer,” but even in their midst there’s space for one couple — maybe romantic, maybe BFFs — to dance together, face to face, palm clasped to palm.
At some point, there’s an announcement from the crowd: Slowthai’s beloved Liverpool has scored. They’re playing Barcelona in the semifinal of the Champions League. Because they lost the first match 3-0, Liverpool needs to win this one 4-0 to advance — a seemingly impossible feat against the powerhouse Spanish club. But as a fan shouts that it’s currently 2-0 Liverpool, Slowthai shouts back, “Are you mad?!”
The pits keep going with Slowthai’s encouragement and careful direction. “Let’s start slow, like how you make love. I don’t know how you make love, but I start slow,” he says. The pits roil. After a bit, it seems, no one’s looking at the stage, just gawking at each other. The phones are out, yes, but it’s more of a GoPro situation, people filming their own active participation. “Everyone in the back who’s not involved, try to get involved,” Slowthai says. “I don’t want you to have a boring night!”
Another update: It’s 3-0 Liverpool. “What?! This is what dreams are made of!”
The crowd starts a “Fuck Theresa” chant, and he plays along. “It’s been a long day,” Slowthai tells us, sweat-drenched, ecstatic, and just free-associating now. “I’m high as shit. I’m trying to grow a belly I can put a pint glass on.”
Then, because it’s Slowthai, because everything’s seemingly breaking his way these days as his specific British angst has begun to travel Stateside to fans with their own localized furor to expel, there’s one last update: “It’s four nil? It’s fucking four nil?!!” Liverpool has just gone and done it. “Where’s the Champagne?!” he shouts, then dutifully sprays and shakes the bottle that appears. “Oh, it’s gotta be ‘Gorgeous.’ Liverpool won! You are all gorgeous!”
It’s funny — “Gorgeous,” his lead single, has a spoken outro in which Slowthai recalls a melancholy story about his dad, with whom he has a fraught relationship, taking him out to a Liverpool game when he was a kid but failing to get tickets and so totally spoiling what was supposed to be a great afternoon out. “People promise you the world, but they can’t come through,” Slowthai had explained earlier. “Or they just don’t know how.” Onstage, his Liverpool fandom comes off as flash and fun. In his songs, it’s a sadder, quieter thing. It’s hard not to apply that same disillusionment with his father’s letdown to the post-Brexit morale depletion or to think about how, for a certain kind of kid raised to anticipate disappointment, shortcomings become as much of the norm as does keeping the faith.
“Gorgeous” bangs, then the crowd mills around and shouts some more. To my right, a young woman in an Umbro shirt bends her neck and screams, somewhere in the direction of her own navel, “Oh my fucking God!”
“It were great, weren’t it?” Slowthai says. Then he picks up some murmurs. “What? Slowthai, king of England? Come on!”