Long before Slowthai’s name resonated beyond his hometown of Northampton he was just another teen hopeful, most likely found spitting at local mic sessions or hanging out with his cousin Lewes and best friend Alex. Together, the two now form The Rest, the duo responsible for creating Slowthai’s innovative visuals (with Lewes doubling up as manager and creative director) but back then they were just three friends brought together by a common need to create.
“It’s pretty in-house”, Alex jokes over the phone, but the years of friendship have led to a depth of understanding and shared creative language that underpins the unwavering quality of their video production. Such is their knowledge of Slowthai, not only his sound but his character, that their videos appear as symbiotic extensions of his tracks, sharpening his lyrics and reinforcing the acute sense of working class angst, all while staying true to the DIY aesthetic that characterised their early beginnings.
Their work provides an additional and necessary layer of understanding to the enigma that is Slowthai, not as some self-indulgent afterthought but one that galvanises the artistry and departs from the well-trodden rap video format. The first official production came with Jiggle in 2016 but this was a creative partnership forged many years previously, in the bedrooms and parks of their youth, when Slowthai’s musical efforts amounted to backing tracks used by Alex for film projects at college.
Finn Blythe: So what’s Thai like to work with as an artist?
Lewes Levi: It really required me to put my ego to one side and figure out like, who is this artist? What are they trying to portray? He’s always got his own ideas, but he’s either thinking on a two hundred grand budget or he’s thinking on a zero budget [laughs]. At the time of Jiggle he really wanted to do VHS videos, I was kind of against it because everyone was doing it so I suggested we just shoot it on an iPhone. Obviously loads of people are doing that too but if you shoot on an iPhone and put it on a GIMP or get colouring software and colour it yourself… That’s when I figured out, this is what he’s been waiting for, this is the visual he wanted, so we brought the same ethos to T N Biscuits. Before any of that he never really liked any of the videos we’d done for him, he was just cool with us doing them. So that’s when I knew, ‘OK, I understand him as an artist now, rather than just my cousin.’
Alex Motlhabane: Jiggle is probably like three or four years after we were properly hanging out with each other, like everyday, so we used to share short films, obsess over the same stuff and we kind of built up a style over the things that we used to like seeing, and just having the same tastes.
FB: So your process relies a lot on a personable relationship with the artist?
AM: Exactly, and people rarely have the time to get to know each other. It’s hard for us to take on any other work unless we can really have time, and that’s what I think everyone should do rather than trying to just make as much content as possible. Figure out how you’re going to help the artist rather than help yourself by making a video you’re happy with and the artist isn’t.
LL: Yeah definitely. I feel like a lot of directors try and put themselves first or call it a collaboration – it should never be a collaboration, it should be working for that person. Obviously you can have a style, but it’s how does this style work with the artist?
FB: Right, so you build up your shared knowledge and experiences. But then how much of those videos are a reflection of Thai himself?
LL: I would say they reflect him to the T [laughs]. When I watch them I’m like, ‘Yeah that’s kind of how he is to be honest’. For example in Ladies, that’s the side of him that many people probably won’t see but that’s a side to him that I’ve seen my whole life really. Like when he’s with his mum or with his sister or how affectionate he is to my daughter, that sort of stuff. But for example the naked scene is his idea, he said to me, “I want to do this shot from the magazine exactly how John Lennon did it”, and I was like, “Hmm.” But he told me this like three years ago and I was like, “You know what? He said this three years ago, he remembered it, let’s just do that.”
FB: That’s great.
LL: He’s got another idea that he told me at the same time as his John Lennon instinct, you know Isaac Newton with the apple falling – he wants to be rapping with apples falling around him and people shooting the apples with arrows [laughs] He has these ideas but then it’s like one in whatever are solid.
AM: He’s pretty much game with whatever we want to do, but that also comes from a knowledge of us just knowing him, and knowing what kind of stuff he likes. He has these dark stories to tell but he’s equally quite exuberant and light as a person. In conversation that’s who he is but yeah, there’s that equal dark and light in him so I think we kind of have to represent that through the videos and especially in Drug Dealer.
“In Ladies, that’s the side of him that many people probably won’t see but that’s a side to him that I’ve seen my whole life really.”
FB: And what about North Nights? That worked really well.
LL: I was really struggling with that tune because I had the song for years and went over so many different ideas. But then all of a sudden there’s that lyric where he says something about milk and I thought he’s kind of a bit like the guy in A Clockwork Orange in the way that he talks and then I was like, “Shit, he’s kind of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining”, and so I just made the link of all my favourite films and ones I knew he liked. La Haine is one of mine and Alex’s favourite films, so I was like, “Fuck it. Let’s just make a homage to all these movies.”
FB: And then as far as your general attitude towards producing music videos, what do you see see as your role? What are you trying to achieve?
AM: I think we’ve been pretty selective with the stuff we do. With Kojey [Radical], especially his early work, it was quite political and I feel like Thai’s pretty political in terms of his perspective as a lower class person in Britain, the way he’s been brought up and the things that he’s been through. It’s a story we’re passionate about telling, so we’ve been quite selective in what we do but also our videos try and put across the same themes of the music rather than something that’s very stylistic.
LL: Visuals are the most important form of media at the minute. My main focus is – whether it’s the simplest idea and it doesn’t have many cuts or there’s not that much money so we can’t afford a set or a studio – how can we make this something that forces people to think differently? We didn’t have any money for T N Biscuits so let’s cellotape this phone to this camera because at least it’s outside of the box to a normal rap video. Hopefully that inspires someone else down the line to shoot a music video and it pushes the boundary further, because I feel the boundary is so narrow at this point in time, like especially in rap, everyone gets gassed off the shittest videos in my opinion [laughs]
“I feel like Thai’s pretty political in terms of his perspective as a lower class person in Britain, the way he’s been brought up and the things that he’s been through.”
FB: I guess you’re still in the process of fleshing out that style, and we as the audience are still getting to know him a bit, it will be interesting to see where it goes.
LL: Eventually it will be like a board and you’ll be able to look at all the videos we’ve done and find a passage between each one. Maybe not in order but there will be a strong connection between all of the videos, whether that be with characters or a certain story line.
AM: I just hope that it’s something that’s representative of Britain, which is what I feel Thai’s music is about. I feel like he’s the most quintessentially British rapper that we’ve had in a while so we want to do something that represents that.
FB: Why do you associate him with being quintessentially British?
AM: Because it’s the Britain you never see in music videos. Everyone else is half-imitating the US, especially in the rap scene, but Thai doesn’t have that and that might be him having a better idea of what it means to be British because he’s been out of London, he didn’t grow up there whereas like 90% of the rappers we have are from London. The way he uses a language that we use everyday, his references, the stuff that he talks about, it’s very British. For people who are not from Northampton I feel like they’re missing another layer of Thai’s references, they’re so local sometimes I wonder if people who don’t know Northampton get them.
FB: Can you give me an example?
AM: Err yeah, in North Nights there’s a line where he says, “Hot in the bits like Moulton”, which is an area in Northampton but I feel everybody thinks it’s molten as in molten lava, so it’s like a double entendre but if you know you know. There’s another one, I think it’s in Ladies where he talks about a yellow brick road and there’s a street in Northampton called Gold Street and I’m pretty sure he’s talking about that.
“He’s the most quintessentially British rapper that we’ve had in a while so we want to do something that represents that.”
FB: That’s nice though, you can appreciate his lyrics in a way no one else can. Is there anything you can tell me about that you’re currently working on?
LL: We’re working on our most exciting video to date, so that’s coming out in October and we’re working on a short film to promote the album or to sectionalise it, which is coming in 2019, I can’t really put a date on it.
AM: We’re trying to work out what’s the best thing to do in terms of Thai, because we have a couple of ideas and shorts that we want to do but we have to consider that Thai has an audience and they’re kind of accustomed to something. It’s trying to meet halfway between what we want to do and what would be right for Thai.
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