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slowthaiPhotography Jay Russell

Get to know slowthai, the rapper making UK hip hop a more twisted place

Watch the Northampton artist and Dazed 100-er’s new video ‘Polaroid’

It’s a blazing hot morning when I speak with slowthai. The 23-year-old rapper is in a garden somewhere in west London, basking in the sun over FaceTime. In place of breakfast, a cigarette dangles from his mouth, which often cracks open to reveal the gap-toothed grin that fans have come to recognise, since slowthai blew up with his breakout track “Jiggle” 18 months ago. “‘Jiggle’ was made as a joke,” he says wryly, “but then I was on the road to glory.”

Before it became his passion, he made music to impress his elders, “piss about, and have a laugh”. Throughout a conversation that covers frank discussions of his early tracks to his aspiration to build a shrine to Dragon Ball Z, slowthai’s thoughts wander. He’s full of weird analogies that drift off unfinished, and he often contradicts himself, something he acknowledges happily. But beneath this exterior of an amiable guy who exists in his own dream world, something else lurks. slowthai’s music bites, hard. Tracks are nuclei of harsh energy gilded with ferocious, often scathing lyrics that drip acerbity and black humour. The sound is distinct, defined by an irresistible sing-song Northampton accent and a grating, grinding catch in his voice that snags the listener’s attention. Add to that his visual identity – a torso covered in scribbled tattoos, videos that are pure chaos full of off-key clowning, shows made up of irreverent stage play – and you find yourself confronted with an artist who feels like the dark foil to mass-consumable UK ‘pop’ rap. And while his work feels like being plunged into a kaleidoscope and seeing hundreds of fragmented slowthais, each piece he puts out is focused on the process of navigating the tangled mess of humanity.

As slowthai releases his new video single “Polaroid”, a twisted ode to fake friends inspired by Alan Moore’s take on the Joker, we spent some time with the Dazed 100-er to hear more about his work, the road he took to get here, and why the smile we all know him for might not mean what we think it does. “It’s just about understanding how people actually are, as well as myself,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out who I am, too.”

What does the path between ‘Jiggle’ and today look like to you?

slowthai: It’s like I’m doing the pilgrimage to Mecca, except that I’ve not made it across the English Channel.

Is the plan to make it past the Channel?

slowthai: I just wanna make the music reach everybody who needs to hear the message. This journey is spiritual; it’s about me finding myself. I’ve already done things I never believed I would. Even stepping out of Northampton and being in London – London always seemed like the big city I might go to for Carnival, go for a party and a chill and then head home. I never thought I’d reside here and make all the friends and family I have. It’s exciting. It’s like a blessing, man. I always think, ‘Yo. I could just be doing Northampton shite and other fucking dumb shit but I’m here, I’m alive.’

But Northampton will always be home?

slowthai: No matter what, that’s where my heart resides. When I’m away it’s like I’m missing something – my energy comes from Northampton. When I leave, it’s not like I ever get lost in it all, but you can get lost in the different ways people are when they act different.

In your new video you talk about ‘Kodak moments’, and there’s a lot of imagery of people asking you for pictures. Is that something you’re experiencing more of now?

slowthai: It’s really based on people I grew up with who never believed in what I was doing. When you start to do well, people who never backed you are the first to be in contact like, ‘Yo. Let’s be friends!’ And it’s like, ‘Nah. Fuck off, bro.’ Remember when I was down? Remember when everyone was getting paid from their job and I was in my likkle box room, saying, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’ Now, look at me. Look where I’m going. Take a picture, bro. Shake it. Remember this. It’s a Kodak moment. The people I’m with believed and the others only have the photo memory. Fuck them.

There are also lots of graphic images of a grinning, cut up Joker. What’s behind that?

slowthai: Basically, it’s the story from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Alan Moore is from Northampton – he’s my guy, he’s a genius. The Joker went through life happy, all about his family and everyone around him – but too much pressures and stress turned him crazy and sent him to have that constant smile. And my thing is, if I’m not happy, I’ve always got a smile on my face. Even if I’m pissed, it’s a constant fucking thing. No matter what, just grit your teeth and bear it. Take every fucking picture when people come up to you and you don’t want to talk – you just want to be alone and people are like, ‘Yo, Slow – say cheese, bro.’ But you don’t have to smile and scar yourself to make people feel good. Be yourself.

Is that something that you’ve learnt recently?

slowthai: Yeah. But it also works the other way. If anyone is sad, what’s the worst that can happen? Holding onto the feelings and wallowing in some sad place? You might as well smile, find some happiness and get out there ’cause once you do it's not so bad. In this video, I’m there with my face cut up Chelsea smile steezy, lying in bed dying in the hospital. So, I broke out, linked my boys, and done a lot of ting – slapped a couple phones out of people’s hands. Get rid of phones and just connect naturally.

“I want to say things and write in a way that makes you think different – otherwise, what am I doing?” – slowthai

How do you find doing press if you prefer connecting naturally?

slowthai: For me, it’s the worst part. I can’t lie. I enjoy meeting the people, but I hate fucking questions and explaining myself. I’m evolving as a human being. I’m out here to live and be free, and tomorrow I might change my headset – I could totally contradict everything I was saying yesterday. But this one’s not bad. It’s good! It's just one of them things. I want the music to speak for itself. I want to say things and write in a way that makes you think different – otherwise, what am I doing? I’m not invoking no thought or opening your mind. I’m trying to make good music and say things to make people change their thinking as well as change mine. It’s my art, but it’s open to interpretation. But, if I explain too much, it takes the meaning out. I want everyone to come and get mashup and then we just have a good fucking party.

So, is this public persona of you being a dark clown true, or is it open to interpretation?

slowthai: I can find the worst thing in the world funny. My humour is dark. If I’m talking about the worst situations in my life, it’s like a comedy – you can laugh at my pain. If I make more people laugh than cry, I’ve done my job. It’s like the fine line between love and hate: you’re either drawn to the dark side, like Darth Vader, or you’re a light-hearted person.

None of my lines are intended to be perceived in any other way than how they are wrote, though. I wouldn’t ever attempt to shock people for effect or to get a quick rise out of people by disguising any kind of insulting lyrics in my work, that’s not me. I’m about love and unity, always.

How do you toe that line between dark humour and going too far?

slowthai: I think you should be able to voice your opinion and say whatever the fuck you feel without getting bombarded on Twitter. If people judge you, fuck them. They can cut. I hate when someone says something and everyone comes at them, but no one says how to change – it’s just: ‘Nah. That’s wrong!’ Let people breathe. Everyone wants to take on the one weak zebra who’s trying to be happy with its stripes.

You mentioned Darth Vader earlier and you have Batman imagery in the video – are you into comic books?

slowthai: I’ve always loved them from a kid, but I never had the chance to collect them. I love the imagery, the way they’re structured, the story, and the surrealness of it all – they take you away into a different world. Later on in life, I want a room of comics and action figures. Dragon Ball Z, anime – a shrine to all that shit.

Apart from becoming the world's greatest collector of Dragon Ball Z memorabilia, what else do you have planned?  

slowthai: Bare music, bare art, bare visuals – just hell breaking loose and fun and happiness. That’s the end goal. As long as I’m happy, I don’t care about accolades or anything else.

Are you happy now?

slowthai: I am happy. The sun is shining, the interview is finished. I can go eat breakfast now and have a good day.