The whole reason Thaiboy Digital ended up in Sweden was because his mom used to be a teenage bruiser. When she was a kid she was — “How can I say this? Not crazy,” the Auto-Tune crooner explains as we sit in an empty balcony at New York’s Irving Plaza and watch his pal and collaborator Yung Lean clown his way through an afternoon soundcheck. “She just go … out of line sometimes.”
So her mother, Thaiboy’s grandma, found a disciplinary solution: she got her daughter an exhausting job in the kitchen of one of the smaller palaces of the Thai royal family. There, Thaiboy’s mother learned to prepare everything from traditional Thai food to international haute cuisine. First, that landed her kitchen jobs throughout Thailand. Then, when Thaiboy was 8, it got her a job at Austria’s embassy in Stockholm.
Thaiboy and his mom and dad settled in a towering apartment building in the southwest neighborhood of Alby. “They would call it ‘hood,’ I guess,” Thaiboy says. “But it was dope. Like, the kids all know each other and we all go out and do stupid shit.” Thaiboy’s mother is half-black, which made him a bit of a target in Thailand; in kindergarten the kids would him “niggo.” In school in Sweden, for the first time, he met other kids from all over the world: “Arab, Latino, Russian, Chinese, North America, South America — every continent in the same class.” He also started learning both English and Swedish, to the point where the three languages began taking turns flitting through his brain. “If I get surprised, I think in English,” he says. “I like to curse in Swedish. And when its some real shit, I think in Thai.”
Growing up, Thaiboy, whose given name is Thanapat Thaothawong, mostly heard cheesy old-school Thai pop songs like “Oh Nok Noi” from his father’s records and slick choreographed boy-band stuff like D2B from the radio. In Stockholm, suddenly, there was MTV. “When I got to Sweden, it was a whole other fucking universe,” he says. “But hip-hop got me the most out of everything. My first song I ever saw was ‘In Da Club’ with 50 Cent. I was like, ‘What the hell is this? Why these people doing all this dope-ass stuff and then getting all this dope-ass shit?’”
Within five years of touching down in Scandinavia, Thaiboy would link up with Lean, our proto emo-rap lord, and start churning out his own bizarre sounds with a crew now called Drain Gang. At the time, Swedish rap was still mostly devoted to the aesthetics of American boom-bap. Following Lean’s exploratory lead and inspired by Soulja Boy, Future, and Young Thug, Thaiboy took the rubber band and stretched it tauter and tauter. “We smoke, we get high, and we sing with the Auto-Tune,” he says of his process, stopping to make that little side-mouth satisfactory click noise that people do. “That’s blessed.”
“My first song I ever saw was ‘In Da Club’ with 50 Cent. I was like, ‘What the hell is this? Why these people doing all this dope-ass stuff and then getting all this dope-ass shit?’”
In 2013, when he turned 18, Thaiboy got a phone call from immigration. His mother had recently left her job at the Austrian embassy and was living in Phuket. Thaiboy was crashing with his pal Ludwig, a.k.a. the producer Whitearmor, who had just moved into his own first apartment. Thaiboy no longer had the protection of his mother’s work visa; he also was no longer a minor. In the last 10 years he’d only been back to Thailand once. He was a young, peculiarly talented musician in Stockholm with Swedish friends and Swedish collaborators and a fully Swedish life. And yet he was told he had to leave the country.
Thaiboy says he called Lean on the phone and reported, “Ay bro, they just gave me this fucking news — bro, I’m fucking sad.” Within hours Lean had thrown up an online petition fighting his pending deportation. The conversation quickly migrated to the YouTube comments for Thaiboy’s songs.
SpaceCadetMarty: “As much as I love this song, I bet his parents are thinking ‘This is what we moved to Europe for?’”
Erik Aronsson: “the Swedish goverment are all idiots, instead of saving thaiboy they sit around doing nothing.”
Golden Eye: “I have had my own country i wouldnt let him in either lmao, weird ass anime ninja boys.”
Alpen Pirat: “No countries - just cultures left.”
Within a few hours of Lean posting the petition, it had thousands of signatures.
“I [showed the petition] to the migration place and they were like, ‘Yeah but it doesn’t count,’” Thaiboy says. He shared his music with the immigration officials, too, but, “They didn’t listen to it.” Thaiboy was left with two options: return to a country he’d long since lost connection to, or remain illegally in the country he’d come to know as home.
Backstage at Irving Plaza, an American girl and a Swedish boy are sitting on a couch and having a long and polite conversation about cocaine. “If it’s good coke you shouldn’t feel anything the next day.” “He likes doing coke but he doesn’t like when you do coke.” A roadie in a perfect old Cure T-shirt is talking about what sounds like the fraternal practice of shotgunning a beer but is calling it thumbgunning. As in: “There’s been a fair amount of thumbgunning on the tour bus!” Around us, Lean’s crew is loud and joyous. But their only visible substances are Flaming Hot Cheetos and sliced whole-grain bread.
Of note: the particular diversity of the looks. There’s ski goggles and jumpsuits and satchels and sweatbands and little Morpheus-esque sunglasses and thin silver chains. Lean is in baggy trousers and, as he notes during soundcheck, while hiking his pants up to show bare leg, “sexy cowboy boots!” Emilio, everyone’s co-manager, is in a long striped dress shirt, a green sweater, and middle-parted hair: he looks like a minor-but-charming Clueless love interest. Thaiboy is in white Air Force 1s and a Fendi beanie. I have no idea from who and from where these kids are stealing these bits.
The last time Thaiboy was in New York, he tells me, he looked a bit different: “I didn’t have eyebrows and stuff.” And his entire head was shaved to the skin. It was part of a Buddhist mourning ritual for his grandmother, who’d recently passed away in the northeast Thai province of Roi Et. During the ceremony, the extended family gathered to wash the body of the deceased before cremation. To honor her, Thaiboy had undergone a ceremonial monk conversion.
Thaiboy was close to his grandma: he spent time with her in the hospital in her last days, when she could only make eye contact and hold his hand. Her death came after he’d been forced out of Sweden. It was a time of murky thoughts and personal confusion. “My world was pretty sweet. Angel life. And then 18 years old, boom. It flip. In Thailand we say, cak hna mu pen hlang mu. From palm to back hand.” It gave him, he says, “Sad energy type shit. It’s like, me singing my pain. It feels good, but it’s heavy.” You can hear it in a song like “Climbing,” off the latest Drain Gang album, D&G. Austere, slightly supernatural, and mesmerizing, it’s the most powerful thing Thaiboy’s ever made.
“It was fucked up for me to have to leave. It didn’t fit in my mind. I thought, ‘No way they gonna let me go.’”
He’d first started writing music as a lark while hanging with a loose crew, mostly kids he’d been partying with at various parents-out-of-town gatherings since he was 13. They were high and happy and freestyling on a school field trip to Copenhagen. Once back home, Thaiboy and his pals decided to keep going. “We called everybody up like, ‘Hey man, we finna record some stuff! Write your shit! I remember Zak” — a.k.a. Drain Gang’s Ecco2K — “he just came out of the hospital, he had an operation on his stomach or something. But he wrote a lot of shit!”
Back in math class after the field trip, Thaiboy wrote his first-ever verse. He came up with the stage name while trying to find something to rhyme with “white widow.” “It just came out. I was like, ‘OK I fuck with that.’” (If you’re wondering how exactly “white widow” rhymes with “Thaiboy Digital,” well, that goes a way toward explaining Thaiboy’s particular freeness with language.)
Soon enough: “We were a community, I guess. A big circle. A big party circle that do shit other than party as well.” This was before they were Drain Gang; they called themselves Smög Boys. He remembers one of their first shows, at a cafe with maybe a hundred people stuffed in the tiny room and ten people stuffed on the tiny stage. “We sneak in the vodka and everybody drink and throw up and shit and barely remember their verses,” he says. “Drunk as fuck. It was fun!”
The crew met Lean through friends of friends and started opening up shows for him. Then Thaiboy recorded his own solo videos, including one utilizing the jacuzzi of the Uruguayan embassy. (“A friend of my mom’s worked there,” he says. “I don’t think they know about that.”) He was getting internet attention and local press coverage. And so when the call came that he had to leave, he couldn’t accept it. For the next two years, while still living in Stockholm, he fought the order. “It was fucked up for me to have to leave. It didn’t fit in my mind. I thought, ‘No way they gonna let me go.’”
Adds Emilio, the manager, “It wasn’t a lot of money around back then. The lawyer we had was pretty bad. It was really hard getting any contact with the migration services. It was all bureaucratic and slow.”
Dealing with the stony government officials — “They got no emotions,” Thaiboy says — ground him down. And when all avenues had been exhausted, the final phone call came. “It was a Monday. They said, ‘You have to be outside of Sweden by next week.’”
In his book The Snakehead, The New Yorker reporter Patrick Radden Keefe tells the saga of Chinatown’s legendary human-smuggler Sister Ping. To the FBI and INS authorities who chased her through the ‘80s and ‘90s, she was a mafioso; to the uncountable number of Fujian province immigrants she helped get to America, she was a living saint. She gave them the hope that some upwardly mobile later generation will look back and “have no solid grasp of how it was precisely that their grandmother or great-grandmother first crossed the oceans but simply know that she did.”
Millions of people living well in economically stable countries will never have to make the hard choice of getting up and leaving, illegally or otherwise. But that, quite possibly, is because somewhere along their familial lineage, someone else already made it for them. And suddenly, this was Thaiboy’s choice, too.
He wasn’t worried about facing persecution in Bangkok; it wasn’t that heart-wrenching immigration tale we get on the front page of the newspaper day after day. It was simpler. But it was no less profound. After establishing herself in Sweden, Thaiboy’s mother had brought her family along, too. “My mom put on a lot of my uncles and my aunties and my cousins in Sweden,” Thaiboy explains. “She said, ‘Sweden’s dope! Come, come, come! And everybody have kids and family now.” Now Thaiboy had a chance to carve out a career, one that would better his lot. And if he broke the law to do it, couldn’t you see the justification in that?
Instead, Thaiboy accepted his legal fate. There would be indignities on the way out. Two weeks after he left the country, he says, he got a call from a Swedish immigration official. They asked him to provide proof he had, indeed, complied with their order. “I’m like, ‘Are you for real? You don’t believe me?!’ I’m pissed!” Still, he texted a photo of the stamp in his passport. “I get no answer. Just like, ‘Read.’”
Once back in Phuket in his mother’s home, he quietly plotted his return. In the meantime, a fan and fellow musician called Younggu hit him up. “He DM’d me like, ‘Oh my God, Thaiboy, you in Thailand? Come to Bangkok, I show you Bangkok!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, why not, I ain’t doing shit.’” Quickly, he was introduced to the city’s incessant nightlife. “You go clubbing, every area of Bangkok has clubs. And then it’s the after-party. And then the after after after after party.”
Younggu introduced him to another musician, Rahboy. “On the second day I was in Bangkok, I witnessed him become, like, the rap god,” Thaiboy says. It was a massive battle competition, and Rahboy crushed all comers. “In Thailand, they just curse at each other in the most disgusting way,” Thaiboy explains, smiling. “It’s like, ‘I’ll rape your mother, I’ll fuck your girlfriend,’ all that shit.’”
It’s far from Thaiboy’s style, which had been born and formed with his weirdo childhood buddies in Stockholm. In his years since leaving Sweden, Thaiboy has traveled on tourist visas and met up with Lean and Drain Gang for shows in New York, in Detroit, and in L.A. He’s gotten back to Stockholm for a few weeks here and there and churned out some tunes; some of his producers have come to him in Bangkok, too, to record. But it’s been frustratingly catch-as-catch-can. And more than anything, that’s what motivates him to get back — that desire to reunite with his friends so they can all make songs together again. “I think it’s best for me to stay in Sweden,” he says, “so I can do music. I don’t suck at the rest. But I’m the best at this. And it makes me the most happy. It’s the thing that makes me walk the longest road.”
Immediately after Thaiboy’s deportation, he and Emilio began slogging through the forms and applications needed to land Thaiboy a Swedish work visa. And because they’ve done everything by the book, they’re now optimistic that his papers will come in sooner rather than later. “You can always rush those decisions,” Emilio says, “and then it can go well or really badly. We’re in the middle of the process. We have some final paperwork to file. But from what we’ve heard from the migration services and the lawyers, it shouldn’t be an issue.” What’s more, Thaiboy’s mother is now back in Sweden, this time working as a chef for the Spanish embassy in Stockholm. Adds Thaiboy, “I can feel it in the wings. I’m sailing. I’m on my way back.”
The New York show opens and Thaiboy sprints out onto the stage in a Sad Boys T-shirt and the crush surges forward, phones out. He is hopping up and high-stepping all over the stage. He looks overrun with joy. And even his banter is Auto-Tuned. “Everybody wanna make a mill put your ones up!” he warbles. In the final minutes before the show, the backstage was calm. Lean wrapped up a game of backgammon and quietly sat to have horror-villain face-makeup applied. Thaiboy and three pals were squeezed into a small couch all looking and laughing at one phone.
When I’d asked Thaiboy about the future, he happily painted me a picture. “I think like maybe Wolf of Wall Street with like, I don’t know, P. Diddy swag and Rick Ross boss shit and Migos jewelry. Why not? And sold out arenas every year. Like I say ‘Hellooooo’ and 60,000 people say ‘Hellooooo’ at one time. Like rallying a whole fucking army. Why the fuck not?”
There is a conservative American ideology that frets that new immigrants will never fully assimilate — that they’ll never leave behind the ways of the old world and embrace “our” values. The holders of that ideology have a hundred other xenophobic reasons to decry immigration. But how little faith they must have in American culture to worry about that specifically. It is a powerful, all-consuming thing. All the way in Stockholm it convinced a Thai kid he can make weirdo rap joints and ride them to conventional superstardom. What kind of person wouldn’t watch the power and the glory of MTV for the first time and be moved to wonder, “Why these people doing all this dope-ass stuff and then getting all this dope-ass shit?”
Thaiboy also tells me another part of his imagined future — the part where he gets his official citizenship and, with it, the additional four digits that would give him a full Swedish social security number. “I been imagining that for a long time, man,” he says. “It’s all about the last four numbers. Imagine me getting those numbers, man! It’s gonna be everything. I’m gonna make some crazy party and, I don’t know, tattoo that shit or make a fucking statue with those numbers!”
When immigration first forced him to leave, he says, “I told them, ‘I’m gonna fucking come back.’”
And so you will be back. And you’ll be totally legal, I say.
“Yeah, exactly. Totally legal. And more turnt!”