Face speckled with rave smileys, Slowthai is triumphantly holding a cricket bat aloft in his spider-tattooed hand for NME’s photoshoot, resembling Freddie Flintoff after a weekend at Creamfields, or someone poised to win the acid-house Ashes.
As the sun blazes down on the cricket ground in his beloved Northampton hometown, he has even more reason than usual to sport his joyously infectious cartoonish grin that’s permanently etched on his face. Indeed, the smiley could be his spirit animal: when he collaborated with Gorillaz on ‘Momentary Bliss’ last year, he somehow managed to look even more animated than 2-D and co.
He makes a beeline for seat 47 – his lucky number. The Northampton County Cricket Ground is currently empty, but in September it will be teeming with over 12,500 raucous fans as he hosts his first festival, Happyland, where the policy is fittingly: “No smile, no entry.” Curated and headlined by Ty – everybody calls him Ty – the one-day event is practically in his backyard: he can see his mum’s house that he was living in until recently and that hosts his basement studio dubbed ‘Hell’ from the ground, as well as the property he’s transforming into a studio (“I’m building Heaven now!”) and the Victorian-style abode he moved into with his fiancé, to whom he proposed last year.
“There’s room for the whole family so everyone can come there at Christmas,” he says. “I wanted the kind of house that’s in Home Alone,” he adds, before joking: “With traps!”
Ty is a meticulous planner (“It’s manifestation in a way – if you keep thinking it, you’ll find a way of making it happen,” he says) and Happyland has been an ambition for a while. “I’ve always wanted to bring other artists you wouldn’t expect to come to Northampton here, and give kids like myself the opportunity to see something they wouldn’t have previously,” he beams, adding that he hopes it will become an annual event touring end-of-the-line places that are usually ignored by the music industry. “I want a day where everyone can be free of their stresses and expectations and feel happy and safe.”
The rapper feels like an outsider: his incendiary 2019 debut album ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ held a mirror up to the country that disenfranchised him, while last year’s stellar follow-up ‘TYRON’ – which received five stars from NME – explored the person behind the persona. The 26-year-old has therefore created a day he views as a haven for other outcasts. “I want the weirdest kids to be in one setting and feel free to be as weird as you like – we’re here to emphasise that and bring it out. I think everybody on the line-up’s pretty weird – including me!” he proclaims.
It’s an eclectic genre-spanning line-up of friends that proves that although he felt Britain made him feel like he didn’t belong, perversely he fits in everywhere: punks IDLES are there, who once anointed Ty “the most important new voice in Britain” (he says: “I hope they still feel that way – they’re just the bros, innit; as soon as I met them, I felt like we’d known each other since we were kids”), bedroom-popper Beabadoobee, Leicester heroes Easy Life, rapper Shygirl, nu-soulster Greentea Peng and Coventry rhyme-slinger Pa Salieu.
“It’s all artists that are doing their thing and they don’t compromise for anything – just like me,” Ty explains of his choices. “They’re not trying to fit someone else’s regime or criteria. They’re just trying to be themselves and that’s what we’re championing at Happyland.”
Thankfully, the cricket season will have ended by then, so the pitch can get fucked-up, as Ty is famous for his unruly, high-energy unpredictable performances that see him stripping down to his own-brand boxers like a rap Magic Mike, spitting in people’s mouths (COVID has put paid to that) and imploring the crowd to chant “Fuck the Queen!” – on his debut’s title track, he jokily dubs the Monarch “cunt”, no less – while revelling in the communal chaos. “I just hope I’m fit,” he laughs, saying that like the rest of us, he’s let his workout regime slip during lockdown. “Before I was running around and bouncing like a madman; now I’m going to be dying, panting and gasping: ‘Give me a cigarette!’ halfway through songs.”
“The only time my mum has ever been starstruck was when Mike Skinner came over”
He teases that there will be further Happyland “surprises” in store, and one of these is surely a feature on the Pa Salieu track ‘Glidin’’, a summer dancehall-inflected jam that dropped last week – and that he excitedly plays during our photoshoot. As the two spit bars at each other like broken teeth, Ty boasts of his formidable work ethic. It’s not bluster: it may be 4pm, but for Ty this counts as an early start, as he was up until 9am beavering away on tracks with a series of unnamed friends, which ended in them all wholesomely jamming out Disney songs in his Hell basement studio – hence his hoarse, faltering voice today.
This fearsome workaholic nature Ty signed to A$AP Rocky’s label AGWE last year: “He didn’t just go to me, ‘You’re just a kid from Northampton – I’ll take a chance on you; let’s work.’ I’d proven myself. Every time I go into a room with someone, I will body them – it doesn’t matter what rapper or singer it is, I’m going to write 10 times more songs than them and I’m going to be the best version of myself to bring the best out of them.”
Yes, he’s competitive. “The aim is to be the best. You want to be like David Beckham or Steven Gerrard or Zinedine Zidane. You don’t want to be the Championship midfielder, do you?”, he laughs. “I’m winning the Premiership! I’m the UFC Fighter that wants the fucking belt!”
Ty has risen from a difficult background to be touted as the voice of his generation. His turbulent backstory was immortalised in the bracing ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ cut ‘Northampton’s Child’: a mother who gave birth to Ty at 16, and his sister a year later, and a father who left when he was little. His mum married another man and had another child, Michel John, who had muscular dystrophy and died shortly after his first birthday. Things in the family home disintegrated, leading to further upheaval.
But after attending music college in Northampton and kicking it with indie kids as much as rap aficionados, Ty channelled his council estate life into his glorious state-of-the-nation album debut, which was by turns emotive, exciting, funny and angry. Pre-empting his MO for Happyland, he sought to make everyone feel welcome, playing shows for £5.
Back then, when NME profiled him for his first Big Read, he was the self-proclaimed ‘Brexit bandit’, popping bottles of Prosecco, rolling around naked in a bath and dubbing Theresa May a “dickhead”. Two years on, much has changed – May is no longer Prime Minister, for one, and he’s given up drinking, but in many ways he’s still the same Ty we all fell in love with: the one whose personality changes the molecular structure of the air in a room. It’s the reason (apart from his skills) so many artists want to work with him. The roll-call includes Disclosure (their collaboration ‘My High’ netted a Grammy nomination), AJ Tracey, Denzel Curry, Tyler, The Creator and Brockhampton – he even gave up supporting Liam Gallagher to join the latter’s North American tour. Big-name stars would turn up to his Hell studio – like his big brother/mentor Skepta who once rocked up in a limo – to be greeted by his mum Gaynor making cups of tea.
“I think everybody on Happyland line-up’s pretty weird – including me!”
“To understand the person, you’ve got to know where they’re from,” Ty reasons. Has his mother ever been star-stuck? “The only time my mum has ever been gassed is when Mike Skinner came over – a big artist from her generation. But she banters with everyone the same as she would any of my mates I grew up with.”
He’s needed his friends more than ever. When his second full-length album ‘TYRON’ topped the charts this February, Ty dedicated the win to “anyone in a dark place”, explaining that a spell of depression preceded its creation. “I had thoughts of suicide,” he admitted. Given the torrid circumstances it was birthed in, how did it feel when he hit Number One? “I think I was a bit overwhelmed by emotion,” he remembers, quietly. “Because you get to the point where you don’t know what the fuck to feel like. I thought getting a Number One album would feel differently and I didn’t know exactly how to take it.
“The best thing about it was not me coming out of a dark time; it was that it connected with people who had either felt the same or had been in a similar place. And we didn’t compromise on the sound: it’s not like we made afrobeats or jumped on the drill sound to try and get a Number One in the UK. It just felt like it was meant to happen – and it was validation that I got there by working hard and not changing anything about myself.”
‘TYRON’ was released a year to the day of the fabled NME Awards, where a high-profile incident threatened to pull the grenade pin out of his career. Everyone knows the story by now: after a brilliantly fiery performance of his Mura Masa team-up ‘Deal Wiv It’, which saw him clamber over tables as if on a Ninja Warrior assault course, things went awry when a sexual joke with host Katherine Ryan went on cringely too long, and he got into an altercation after an audience member heckled that he was a “misogynist” – something that especially wounded him as he was raised by a single mother surrounded by strong women.
“My whole life I’ve championed people to be equal – you can do 100 good things and one little joke and you’re turned into an evil person,” he says.
He apologised and requested that his Hero of the Year award be redirected to Ryan who, for her part, told NME that he hadn’t made her uncomfortable and said: “I wish it had just stayed as a great rock‘n’roll moment in the room.”
“I owe a responsibility to my fans because they helped change my life”
The subsequent ‘cancel culture’ aftermath brought back painful memories of when some of his friends’ parents wouldn’t let them out with him because of his race (he’s of dual Bajan and Irish heritage) and class. “Before when I was young and stereotyped as the bad kid, people – and my friends’ parents – would treat me in a certain way because they thought I was from a certain place and acted in a certain way. My whole life I’ve had that animosity towards me.”
Ty is used to being pre-judged: his old track ‘Drug Dealer’ satirized the idea that someone from his background could only achieve wealth through criminality, and similar toxic tabloid tropes raised their ugly heads in the outcry. “When someone like me gets an opportunity, people will be jealous but they haven’t got a reason to speak about their envy,” he says. “Then as soon as something bad happens, they’re like: we told you they shouldn’t be in that position! It’s classism and it will never change.”
‘TYRON’ wasn’t totally about the Awards: what people couldn’t tell from his always-smiling demeanor was that even before the incident, he had been feeling depressed. Sometimes a smile is a lid on a scream. “The Awards just amplified those feelings. When there’s people blurting at you on the internet and waiting for your downfall, it gets a bit in your head, but at the time, I had other things in my life that felt more pressing than people on the internet believing I’m this monster of a man.”
From the outside, he looked like he had it all: the NME decreed ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ the fourth best album of 2019, he was in a position where he’s friends with childhood idols like Damon Albarn (“I can chat with him on the regular”) and label boss/collaborator A$AP Rocky (“It’s just the same as when you link up with any mate, have a spliff, watch telly, have a cup of tea and a laugh. He drinks chamomile; I drink British builders’ tea”).
But that’s the false Happyland of the internet, he says. From his time as a labourer, he has builder mates. “In the pictures they post, they’re dressed up to go out – they ain’t looking like they just crawled out of bed with cement on their face. The internet creates so much pressure because people believe this fantasy of life. I’ve been dealing with [mental health issues] since I was young and it built up to a point where I had to fully deal with how I was feeling rather than pushing it to the back of my mind and getting fucked up to feel better about it.”
“I’ve got the name for my third album, and I’ve written most of it”
He tackled these issues on ‘TYRON’, which effortlessly eschewed second album syndrome and was forged in the fires of controversy and intense self-discovery (he read; took a holiday; found love). In the immediate aftermath, Skepta helped him out during the social media firestorm, holed up in an Airbnb where they created ‘CANCELLED’ together (and Skepta also shepherded him out of a bad time on shrooms).
“He’s one of those people who came to Northampton when I was 12 years old and since then, he’s always looked out for me,” praises Ty. ‘CANCELLED’ is one of the first seven tracks on TYRON, all arriving with CAPITALISED names that are raw, angry, pugnacious bangers. But the second half (featuring lowercase team-ups with schmoozy crooner James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Deb Never and Gen Z genre-swerver Dominic Fike) showcases the introspective and vulnerable side of Ty’s personality. It chimed in a period when we were all left struggling not to succumb to the thoughts we never reveal publicly. On tracks like ‘adhd’ – where he movingly makes a phone call to an absent friend – he wears his imperfections like a crest.
It’s a reflection of his two sides. You have the CAPITALISED, front-facing Ty who makes bold artistic political statements like enlivening the usually-soporific Mercury Awards by brandishing a fake decapitated head of Boris Johnson – a livewire move which he agrees probably resulted in him being overlooked by the BRIT Awards for being too unpredictable (”But then who needs the Brits? I was nominated for a Grammy!”) and is always keen to make interviewers laugh and remains an open book (his past experiences with the press have not caused him to retreat into a circumspect foxhole).
When I ask a lame question about if there’s any chance of him putting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on the Happyland guestlist now they’ve left The Firm, he replies, “Maybe”, with his tongue firmly in cheek. “But he might be like: ‘You called my nan a cunt!’ But I always thought he seemed like he would have a laugh. Me and him will be ’avin it! I’ll send a memo!”
On the flipside, there’s the lowercase Ty who talks to his fans who are struggling over social media and sent out postcards to them during the pandemic. “I owe a responsibility to them because they helped change my life,” he says. “I messaged one kid back who was in a dark place and his girlfriend messaged me the next day saying: ‘Thank you. ’Cause if you didn’t message him back, he wouldn’t be here.’ Because I’ve opened up about dealing with my own issues and being in a dark place, I’ve always said my DMs are open for you to have a place to vent where there’s no judgement because I understand what it’s like to be in that situation and wish someone had done the same for me.”
Despite being approved by heavyweight US rappers, he doesn’t view stateside success as any different to Northampton or a priority. Besides, he has so many ideas and plans squabbling for attention in his head – even extending to writing a children’s book. “But I use so much profanity!”, he says. “I can’t just say: ‘Jack and Jill went to fetch a pail of fucking water!’ But I do want to create stories that inspire the next generation.” As for his third album: if ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ was political, and ‘TYRON’ was personal, he says his next “is about the irony of life”, adding: “I’ve got the name – but I can’t say it yet – and I’ve written most of it.”
At the end of our interview (as is customary) he pulls me in for a hug: it’s fortunate restrictions have been lifted as Ty’s a hugger. It’s another sign life is heading back to normal after a anything-but period. He tells NME of his ups and downs: “When everything’s going good, everyone’s like, ‘Let’s cling on and float to the moon. It’s like Bitcoin. Like I was Bitcoin for a moment then I had my dip and no-one wanted to buy again and now suddenly I’m on the rise again. You just keep fighting to get stronger and level up. It’s like Mario – you’ve got to keep eating those mushrooms!”
Slowthai’s Happyland festival takes place on November 25. Tickets are available now