There are those that rap, and those that rap well; then there are those that transcend the confines of hip hop culture to become credible, commercial, mainstream pop acts - Kanye, Jay-Z, Eminem, for instance. But it’s unfair to compare Professor Green to any of the aforementioned; utterly British, uniquely inimitable, if anything; his closest equivalent is Lily Allen.
Littering his lyrics with wry pop culture references, a sharp sense of humour and an honesty rarely found in rap music right now, Professor Green is one of the most exciting talents to emerge in 2010. With the UK charts increasingly full of MCs, now, more than ever, pop is ready for an artist that does more than merely rap well. Lucky then that Professor Green is truly and genuinely unique. Funny, forthright and full of stories, he’s a rapper with a powerful personality, as engaging as he is honest, funny as he is open. Consider the various tattoos on his neck, arms and torso and the 8 inch scar across his neck and it’s not hard to see that the 6’3 spitter more than stands out from the ‘Braaap Pack’. “I'm white, I’m from Hackney and I’m soon to be covered in even more tattoos. If Vanilla Ice wasn't Vanilla Ice, I would be,” he grins. He jests of course; unsurprising given the amount of wit and self-deprecation found in the east London MC’s music.
The Inxs sampling I Need You Tonight was Zane’s Hottest Record In The World in February; the single will be followed by the S.O.S. sampling Just Be Good To Me, in May. Featuring Lily Allen, the song has already been performed in front of thousands of people around the world. “We got chatting on Facebook and I mentioned the track, which turned out to be one of her favourite songs. She asked why I didn't let her sing the chorus!?,” remembers Green. “I was like ‘Well, if you want to… ” As well as appearing on the single, Allen has taken Green on tour with her around the UK, Europe and Australia, bringing him onstage to perform the track. “I’m so appreciative of what she's done,” he says. “She really helped take a not so great year for me and make it into a better one. She's honest and very straightforward, you know exactly where you're at - she stands by what she says. I’ve had the best experiences to date touring with her,” says the Jay-Z, Lamb and Portishead fan, before recalling a Yacht trip with Muse in Sydney as one high point.
His melody-laden rhymes and physical presence aren’t the only thing that makes Green so individual. He’s already had quite a life in 26 years; from winning battle rap competitions and being signed by Mike Skinner, to being stabbed in the neck and collaborating with Lily Allen just two months later, life had already been incredibly colourful for the rapper born Stephen Paul Manderson in Hackney in 1983.
Shortly after he was born, Stephen’s 16 year-old mum and 18 year-old dad broke up. Raised by his Nan on an estate in Hackney’s Upper Clapton, the pre-teen Stephen was exposed to the realities of inner-city life from a young age. “It was never boring; we knew the police on a first-name basis,” he grins of growing up on a housing estate. A bright kid, Green was offered a place at the prestigious St. Pauls, but, preferring to follow his friends, he turned down the place and ended up at a comprehensive school in Tottenham. Although academically gifted, he was unable to remain out of trouble, going to two senior schools and “a kind of halfway house” before dropping out entirely. “I was smart and I had the potential to do really well, but school didn’t interest me. I got really bored,” he admits. “A lot of it has to do with my dad. I looked up to him but he was in and out of my life; I was a sensitive kid so all that got to me. Instead of having a stern hand at home, dragging me to school, I got to do what I wanted.” He hadn’t seen his dad, who died suddenly in 2007, for six years. “It would have been better if we’d had the chance to have a conversation, but I’ve made my peace with him.” As a teenager living in east London, the absence of a father figure made it easy for Stephen to get into all kinds of trouble.
He also made money legally, working as a designer and typesetter in a design company. It was on a lunch break one day that he saw a flyer for a freestyle battle night called Lyric Pad, held at Camden’s Oh! Bar. Though his rap experience was limited to messing about with his mates, he entered the competition, which sees two MC’s battle using raps they mostly make up on the spot. “I had no experience, but I went there that night and won,” he shrugs. The following month, where he won again, Green was spotted by a scout for London’s infamous night, The Jump Off. He stormed the night, winning each week, until eventually becoming Champion, and the only MC to win seven times in a row, not once, but twice. With his quick retorts, smart metaphors and off-the-top punchlines, Green was not only a hit with the crowd and the judges, but also Mike Skinner. The Streets star saw Green perform at the B-Boy Championships in Brixton and invited him on tour. In the interim he sent Green a beat that would become Stereotypical Man, a song that went on to become huge on the UK Underground scene, spending weeks in the Channel U charts. His first mixtape, Lecture No.1, featuring another underground hit, Upper Clapton Dance firmly established Pro Green as a mainstay of the UK hip hop scene.
Concurrently, he won the Jump Off prize to perform at Fight Klub, a world championship battle held in the Bahamas. Unfortunately a raid at his house led to an arrest for intent to supply. Fortunately a few days prior to heading out to the Bahamas in 2005 it was decided no charges were to be brought and Pro was issued a No Further Action. It was then that Pro realised he had to turn his life around. “I could have lost everything, but thankfully I didn’t. That was the end of that part of my life right then.”
Placing second to world champion Jin, he returned home and soon had more cause to celebrate; Green was offered a deal with Mike Skinner’s The Beats label and got a gig presenting the In New DJs We Trust slot on Radio 1. Although The Beats folded in 2007, before Green had the chance to release, the pair remained friends, with Mike producing Crying Game for his new album. “The down time was hard to deal with at first, but it ended up being more of a blessing in disguise” he muses. “I honed my ability and I'm a lot more ready as an artist now.” In 2008, Green recorded The Green EP, and began looking forward to getting back into music, even if that meant doing it entirely independently.
Before he really had chance to push the EP, he was savagely attacked in an unprovoked fight at a nightclub in London. Though he’s unable to talk too much about it for legal reasons, Green was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle in May 2009. Holding his neck together and fending off his attacker who continued to attack him, Green staggered outside while people filmed him on their camera phones. Fearing the worst, he took a few deep breaths and tried to keep calm while an ambulance was called. “I phoned my Nan and my mum and I told them what happened. I tried to relax but I really thought that was it.” Missing his carotid artery by a couple of millimetres, Green was incredibly fortunate to survive; it’s perhaps no small coincidence that he was stabbed over a tattoo that reads ‘Lucky.’
Green took time after the stabbing to re-evaluate his life. He admits it’s changed him: “I find it harder to relax when I go out now, I'm a lot more aware,” he was determined to see it in a positive light. “When a bad situation comes around, you either go forward focusing on the positive or on the negatives. It either buries you or makes you a stronger person,” he surmises. Throwing himself back into the studio, he recorded a number of songs, including I Need You Tonight and Just Be Good To Green. Around the same time Lily jumped on the track, Green also had his first major-label deal with Virgin and the opportunity to finally finish his debut album, Alive 'Till I’m Dead. “I like making light of the dark. No matter how dark it gets there's bits of humour in there,” he says of the record. “My humour is very much British, though my biggest influence in rap was Biggie. No matter how dark the music he made was there was always an element of humour."
Production and collaborations comes from a host of musicians including Mike Skinner, Lily Allen, Labyrinth, Naughty Boy, Thunder Catz and long time collaborator Cores. Hypochondriac pokes fun at his obsession with visiting the doctors, Where Do We Go shows off a vulnerable side, while the fuzzy bass, searing synth and grimy guitar of Oh My God is tailor-made for festivals. “Nothing has come about from me going 'I need to do a single for radio,’” Green is careful to point out. “There's a difference between pop and cheese; the bubble-gum pop era is gone. I think people want substance. They wanna hear something they can relate to.”
It’s been a truly rocky road, but finally it looks like life is looking up for Green, with his long-awaited album ready to release by the summer. “I’m just really looking forward to getting it out there, it’s taken a long, long time. Like me, there’s more than one side to my album and all I can hope is that people like it. In this game, you have to be dedicated. You can't have one foot in and one foot out,” he decides. “I've left everything that used to detract me alone, my focus is, at long last solely on my music.”
Single 1 ‘I Need You Tonight' out in April 12th
Single 2 ‘Just Be Good To Me' featuring Lily Allen out in July
Album 'Alive 'Til I’m Dead' out in July