If luck were a lady, she and Stephen Manderson are having a rocky relationship.
The 26-year-old from Clapton in north east London spent years building his skills as rapper Professor Green before being signed by Mike Skinner (of The Streets) to his label, The Beats. Unfortunately, the label then folded.
Fortunately, Manderson was picked up by another label. Unfortunately Warner, The Beats’ parent label, wouldn’t release him from his contract. Last summer, Manderson was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle at a Shoreditch club – luckily, it narrowly missed his carotid artery and after three hours surgery he was back on his feet. His attacker is due in court this month.
Piling irony on injury, not only was he stabbed just above the new tattoo on his neck that says “Lucky”, but his single at the time, Hard Night Out, was built around a lyric about pointless drunken nightlife violence.
Manderson strikes an imposing figure at 6ft 4ins with tattooed neck and arms and could easily fit an unforgiving stereotype. But, talking passionately about music or recalling painful memories, through his ‘ackney accent he is softly spoken and articulate, his wry grin all the toothier now his snaggle-teeth have been straightened.
You could be forgiven for never having heard of Professor Green, but the cheeky INXS-sampling single I Need You Tonight and new single Just Be Good To Green, a duet with Lily Allen that samples 90s hit Dub Be Good to Me, have brought him a wider audience. “Lily’s great,” he grins. “We sang together at Bestival, then took me on tour with her. She’s like a sister – big sister and little sister, depending on the situation.”
But the years before were altogether less glamorous. Manderson started rapping at 18, building up a reputation in competitions like The JumpOff – a lyrical jousting match where two rapping MCs take turns to insult each other in ever more ingenious and outrageous ways. Winning the UK title in 2004 and 2005, Manderson found himself flown to the Bahamas for a US-based competition. He was placed second, but rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in hiphop.
“That was crazy – me, going to the Bahamas!” He makes a dumbfounded face. “It was very intimidating; the contest was held in a boxing ring, and they had 400 people in a room that held 200. P Diddy was there, Busta Rhymes was there. Outside there was Ludacris, Pharrel – all these big names just having a barbeque on the beach.”
Clapton’s Northwold Estate to the Bahamas was quite a journey for the boy raised by his grandma – “the most important woman in my life”. His mother was only 16 when he was born, his father mostly absent. “My dad was the parent that I really looked up to, and that’s why it hurt so much when he was never around, he’d just disappear for a year at a time,” he says. “I remember times when he was supposed to come, and I’d be sat at the window waiting and he never would.”
He left school at 13. “Academically I could have done well – I was quite a smart child. My problem was always my attendance,” he grins. “What I needed was a stern hand, a slap, and to be dragged back to school kicking and screaming.”
As music took up more of his time, his job as a typesetter turned part-time and to supplement his income Manderson turned to the green of his namesake – dealing weed. But a visit from the local constabulary that risked his competition in the Bahamas put an end to that. “That was a real wake up call. It was something I’d been doing a while, but I only then realised what I had to lose. I’ve pretty much given up now anyway – I had a draw at Glastonbury last month and thought, oh my days, my eyes are closing.”
Another shock to the system was the death of his father in 2008. Unreleased track Nothing More bubbles with anger at his father and feelings towards being effectively left by both parents. “There were things between us that until recently I’d never got over. Then one day I got the call, saying he’d hung himself,” he remembers.
“I suppose it was either going to bury me or turn me around. I let go of him and of the resentment I had.
“There’s always part of me that wishes I’d had that kind of relationship with him, but it’s not going to happen. All I can do is make sure when I have children, I don’t make the same mistakes.”
This and the inter-label strife following The Beats’ demise was “a blessing in disguise”: “It gave me the drive, and forced me to get on with it myself.”
His first releases, Lecture #1 and the Green EP, were never officially released but were sold at gigs and as downloads. Manderson’s fast rhymes and punchlines are unmistakable – on Are They Rapping Like Pro? he says: “Everything I rap is in flames/this year I’m here/blowing up like backpacks on packed trains/The haters just fuel the rage/I got presence just like that guy tugging on Rudolph’s reins”. The beats are meaty, the themes are stark realities – nowhere less than on the oustanding Upper Clapton Dance, built on a classical riff borrowed from Brahms. Another track, Save Him, follows the life of a good boy gone bad. “It’s a familiar story,” Manderson says. “There’s a lot of people that have good hearts and do bad things. If all you’ve got around you is negativity, how can you act positively? Unless you have that one life-changing experience, or one person that says something that really clicks, how do you change?”
Can’t music help? Aren’t there enough rappers covering drugs, violence and girls? “I don’t want to make preachy records,” he says. “My situation is changing because of my music – but everybody makes music, how many of them use it to change their life? It’s ignorant for people not living like that to say, oh you don’t need to sell drugs. They do. They need money, for a family. They don’t want to work in JJB Sports, but it’s all they can do because they didn’t go to school.”
The Green EP’s is less aggressive, the melodies more prominent, with a touch of self-depreciating humour reminding us Pro Green does not take himself too seriously. “I was learning then,” he says, “It was all punchline/punchline/punchline. I didn’t understand song structure and melody, I was just rapping. But I want to make songs, not just raps.”
Predictably, search for the phrase “the new Eminem” online and Professor Green is a name that appears, alongside Mike Skinner and fellow east Londoner Plan B. What’s the connection? Not much, apart from their skin colour. “It’s cheap journalism,” he laughs. “But I suppose it’s quite flattering. The impact Eminem had on rap is immense – a white rapper who the industry accepted, and whose skills a lot of people feared.”
The new album reveals broader musical influences: the guitar-drenched sound of Oh My God, the bass-heavy dubstep sound of Jungle, guest vocals including sweet chanteuse Emile Sandé and the smokey voice of acoustic singer-songwriter Fink. But there’s also something else – a vulnerable side. The final quarter of the album exposes a more mature approach to songwriting. Goodnight is a touching eulogy to his recently-departed great-grandmother; the piano-led Where Do We Go asks what if? of a former relationship, recounting a near-miss with fatherhood that obviously resonates strongly with the son a teenage mother; and Closing The Door, a slow, dubby track written during a moment of crisis in a relationship.
“We were together for three years, split up for two, and then started talking again after I got stabbed,” he says of his girlfriend. “We’d just got back together, the single was just doing well, I was about to move into a new place, so was she – I just had a bit of a freak out. I just felt I couldn’t focus on her and my career. We didn’t see each other for a few weeks, and Closing The Door was the result.”
Not all the album works: sometimes there’s too much guest singer and not enough Professor, sometimes keyboards that are just too pop clash with Mandersons’ rough, nasal delivery, and one track fails the autotune test.
But Pro Green won’t be bowed: “You know, ‘being real’ is something that gets thrown around a lot. I’m not trying to be pop. I’m just making music I like. If it turns out to be pop and people are like, you’re selling out…” He shrugs. “Cool, innit. I’d rather sell records than not.”
New Professor Green album Alive Till I’m Dead (Virgin) is out July 19. See www.professorgreen.co.uk
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, July 2010]