slowthai’s mum, Gaynor, listens to her son’s song Doorman every morning as soon as she wakes up. “It really gets you going,” she says. She listens to his songs on the way to work, at work, and on the way home from work; she knows all the words. “There’s not a day that goes by without someone messaging me saying ‘I just heard [slowthai] on the radio!’,” she beams. “He’s really speaking to the people, you know?”
Gaynor is half Bajan, and has medium length black hair, dark eyes, and the kind of laugh that could be recorded and sold as an antidepressant. She’s young; she had slowthai at the age of 16, then his brother (who passed away shortly after his first birthday) and his sister, and she brought them up largely as a single mum. When I ask what kind of music she’s into, she says “garage, funky house and jungle.” Today, she’s in a great mood because she’s just qualified as a semi-permanent makeup artist. “I can do your eyebrows,” she says with a smile.
In past interviews, slowthai has described Gaynor as his “idol” and a “hero”. In a forthcoming unreleased song, Northampton’s Child, he explores the story of her life as a single mum, including a hook that goes: “Only queen, raised me up and kept me clean/ Taught me right even when I’ve wronged/ Wiped my a*** and changed nappies/ 12 hour shifts a week”. He hasn’t let her hear it yet.
She makes a cup of tea and places it on the dining room table. Within 90 seconds, slowthai wanders down the stairs, yawns, picks it up and takes a sip – like it was a telepathic signal. He’s wearing all black everything: coat, tracksuit bottoms and a furry hat with big ear flaps that makes him look a Russian diplomat. “I’m just back from a holiday in Jamaica,” he says, acknowledging why he’s rolling out of bed late. “I got you a present, mum,” he says, handing her a fridge magnet wrapped in newspaper. He gets her one everywhere he goes. It says “NO STRESS” on it.
Prior to 2018, slowthai had been abroad once, but now the fridge door is like a travel agent’s window. Last year he toured the UK, Ireland and Europe, and played shows as far flung as New York and Cape Town. In Dubai, he looked out in disbelief as a massive crowd of strangers gathered to watch him perform, 4,500 miles away from the East Midlands town where he grew up.
It’s no coincidence that slowthai (real name: Tyron, but also regularly called Ty, T Dog, and sometimes simply, T) has become a poster boy for UK rap during the era of Brexit. He tells lucid stories of hardship and criminality with a level of self-awareness and emotion that makes you believe he’s actually seen it and been touched by it. And while his political moves can sometimes be a bit gung ho – he calls himself a “Brexit bandit” and likes to start chants of “F** Theresa May!” at live shows – he injects nuance and detail into narratives about living wage Britain that we’ve become desensitised to. He somehow manages to toe a line between anarchic experimental protest music and BBC Radio One playlist-friendly singles. And all this has come from just two EPs, which explains why critics and fans are in such a frenzy about the prospect of a debut album. There’s a growing sense that we may have something truly special in our midst, a visionary outsider; a kind of millennial Mike Skinner.
“How’s the album going?” I ask him, as he tucks into a sausage and egg sandwich in a greasy spoon down the road. It’s the kind of place with a cosy fug, full of old couples who’ve known each other for so long that they don’t really need to talk anymore. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he says, waving his sandwich. “The deeper you get into it it’s like a f****** puzzle, man.”
“The album is based around what makes us Britain and what builds us up as a place”
The songs aren’t set in stone yet, but the concept is: it will be titled Nothing Great About Britain, and will capture the characters, stories and politics of a youth spent in the council estates, parks and pubs of his hometown, Northampton. “The whole tape is based around what makes us Britain and what builds us up as a place,” he says. It will be a self-portrait in which others might see themselves.
If you’re going to pick a town to reflect Britain, then Northampton is a good mirror. This was a boot and shoe town with a proud identity, and whenever there was a war Northampton made the footwear. On the outskirts, you can find all the quaint pastoral beauty you expect from a shire, but these days the county is better known as the most disastrous Tory-run council in Britain. Last year they declared themselves effectively bankrupt and announced widespread cuts to public services. Look for news stories about the place and you’ll find residents complaining of overflowing bins, dilapidated housing and large ghostly retail spaces where big chains have left town.
I see some of this flash past the car window. slowthai is taking me out for the day, to show me places and memories that inhabit his music. In the front seat is Lewis, slowthai’s childhood friend, manager and video director, and driving us is Chad. Chad, you can tell, is one of those extremely reliable guys, one of those “Sure thing, where and when?” guys. When I ask slowthai why he’s never learned to drive he says, “Cos Chad can.”