Interviews News 28 January 2017
Author: Trudy Barry

GRM Exclusive: President T on prison, being a role model & grime’s evolution

Author Trudy Barry
28 January 2017

 “I would have been shot dead.”


President T is a don and he knows it, admits it and revels in it – and rightly so. One of the originating members of Meridian Crew, which would split into Bloodline and a little known group of artists called Boy Better Know, Prez T has been around since day one.


Amazingly, the Tottenham born artist has only just dropped his debut studio album after over a decade in the game. T On The Wing is an amalgamation of almost 15 years worth of experiences, from his time growing up on North London’s streets, to a stint in prison, to where he is today.


When I meet with him it’s 9pm on a Tuesday evening, he’s sitting in the corner of a South American restaurant in Kentish Town hatted up and sunglasses on. He’s had a long day of interviews, entering hour eight, and I’m anxious that he won’t be up for chatting. I’m wrong.


As I watch the journalist before me gleefully pose for a selfie with the Prez I nervously sip on my vodka and Sprite mix, kindly prepared for me by one of T’s management team. I take a seat in the hotspot and start by congratulating him on dropping such a well-rounded album. His face lights up, the sunglasses come off and we’re ready to chat.


“Life’s been amazing since the album dropped. Without very much promo, no pre order and its done amazing. That’s what I’ve been working ten years for,” he tells me proudly. My nerves have already dissipated. He’s no longer one of the creators of the scene; he’s just a really friendly guy who I’m having a chat with.


My first question had to be about that mad Katy Perry sample in the album’s opening track. “Was that intentional? When I heard it I was like… woah. Are you trying to keep us on our toes with your inspirations?” He pauses for a second and gives me a sly side eye, “…yeah… ok that sounds good, yeah.” He laughs, “You ask the questions you get the answers!”


It’s definitely been a minute since we heard from T, his elusive Stranger Returns album has been pending for years now and other than popping up on freestyle clips, it’s been quiet on the North London front. So what inspired this surprise album drop? “I was sick of all the gimmicks and all the overnight Hollywood stars that are trying to influence the scene and infiltrate the original grime mic man. Also I had the right drive and push and I got into major organisation mode.”


Before we get too deep into talking about what inspired his return to music, I have to take a second to appreciate the album’s mad artwork. A black and white image of T giving the camera his meanest eye while fire comes in from the left and fans emerge from the right. ‘PRESIDENT T’ is emblazoned on the top right hand corner, understated yet powerful. The whole thing has got a very late 80s/early 90s US hip-hop vibe. It has to be spoken about. But as soon as I bring it up, T stops me by holding up his index finger.


“Can I pause you one sec there?” He leans over to his manager on the other table and gives him a triumphant high five before telling him, “Props to you because I didn’t like it at the start but respect: she said she likes it!”


His manager seems almost shocked, before asking if he really didn’t like it. “I just didn’t like the way I looked in it.” He explains, “but if the world liked it…”


When I tell him that I get “DMX vibes” from the image, the room almost erupts. “Okay! Thank you very much” T beams. His manger jumps up from his seat and grabs a bottle.


“You are on your grind!” He exclaims “You are so clocked on; I have to get you another drink. Pass me her glass! You’re classy man, and you know your stuff.” He pours me another drink as T nods his head in approval. Why was I nervous again?


T explains that while he wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of the final project at first, the original concept for the image was his idea. “We kinda wanted to give off an image of anti-establishment.”

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A few days before our chat, Little Simz appeared on Channel 4 news on which she spoke about the concept of grime artists and rappers as role models. As someone who’s slightly older and has been through a lot in his life, I’m interested to see what T’s opinion on this is. So how does he feel about artists being seen as role models?


“It’s a positive thing. I think all artists who are seen as role models should take it more seriously. You need to know that you’re influencing the younger generation, which means you have to be very careful about the message you send out there. As much as some of my tracks might be a bit ‘parental advisory’, I would still like to think I’m sending out a positive message which is ‘no matter what you do, do the right thing’.”


It’s interesting to hear him sound so zen and protective over the younger generation. Could this be something to do with the time he spent in prison a few years ago? Did that time affect how he lives his life morally, and where would his life be now had he not been to prison?


“It’s kind of made me feel like life is too short to be clowning around and to be wasting your time. It showed me that time waits for no one.


“With some of the stuff we were getting mixed up in back in the Meridian days, [had I not been to prison] I’d probably be dead. I would have been shot dead. Or got into some kind of antics that would have ended me up in a bad way. So in the end I changed my direction in life and made sure I stayed on the positive side of the fence.


“Prison, combined with life experience was a turning point. Obviously there’s a personal element to my life that was very… on the wrong side of the law some years ago. But everyone matures and everyone grows up. That’s what happened to me.


“Not everyone but I would like to think everyone does, eventually. That’s what happened to me. Basically, I’ve done a lot of maturing in my own mind and patience has a lot to do with it as well. Everyone wants to be rich tomorrow and it’s not like that. It takes time.”


It’s clear that prison definitely affected T’s outlook on life, as you would expect. But after spending time away, how easy was it to transition back into the grime music scene which is so closely linked with crime and corruption? He tells me a strong support system was the key to finding his feet again. By the time he came out Meridian Crew had split into Bloodline and BBK and he felt he had allies in both crews. By the time he came back, BBK were “constantly running the game” to such an extent that he never had any qualms about jumping back in. “The gaps that I took out of the game, I always knew that people from my area were running it, so it was kinda easy for me to jump back into it.”


That’s the kind of confidence that only an OG can hold. In the time that he’s been around the scene surely must have changed considerably though. He ponders this sentiment for a moment, but can only really think of positives. “There’s a lot more artists in the scene now that want to do big things. Also there are many other platforms for a bedroom rapper or bedroom producer to get heard to the wider masses all over the continent.”

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With such a positive outlook on the new gen of artists coming up, I’m interested to see why he chose old school artists to appear on the album. It seems to be a trend that older artists – the Ghetts, Wileys, Kanos and P Moneys on the scene – tend to stick together when it comes to features. I mention this observation to T and he seems almost shocked, sat silent for more than a second.


“Well that sounds… yeah that sounds correct. Older artists do tend to stick together. But also, I’m an artist that’s willing to embrace it. I’m very open to new artists who are coming with a lot of energy. For example, Bonkaz and So Large [T appeared on the remix of So Large’s “Sandwich”].


They seem to have a lot of energy behind them and are sending out a positive message similar to the message that I’m sending out. I’m willing to work with any artist that has that power streak in them.”


So, putting a spanner in my theory’s works, it sounds like T is more interested in the individual rather than the generation they belong to. He tells me “younger artists can make a track and I listen to it and I feel like ‘wow, he’s going back to 2006 with that’ but back in 2006 he probably wasn’t even in secondary school so I rate that. I like Novelist, for example. What’s his bar again? ‘OOOOHHH YEAAAH’. The first time he ever sprayed that I was like ‘no way!’”


In this digital age, it’s a very different route to ‘making it’ than it was back in 2002. Way back then the way to come up was radio. In order to be recognised and appreciated you needed to have a distinctive voice (something with President T certainly has) in order to be remembered and identifiable. Having mentioned the phrase “bedroom” artists earlier in the conversation, I’m still interested in pushing T for his opinions on the current scene. Now that there’s more of a face to a scene, has having an individual sound and flow become less important? Have we reached a point where, like a lot of US rap, the image is more important than the music?


“Yeah. It’s the personality and the individual message. Some artists conceal their face, which builds up the anticipation of who they are. People buy into the image of what they can’t see. A lot of people believe in God for prime example, but no one ever saw him.”


“Yeah!” I exclaim. I’m getting far too into this chat and have totally strayed from my list of questions. “Crews were big back in the day. All of the biggest artists started off in crews. But there’s not so many now. Why is that? Has the internet eradicated the need for a crew?”


“Correct. You can put it out into the world. The reach is so vast now, anyone can listen to it think it’s good or hot and you can go far from there. You go down a path and just go straight to the top. That’s what’s changed about the game from then to now.


“People want to show their individuality now in order to show their worth. Once they feel like they’ve done that, then is the time to come back with their crew and make crew music. All due respect to any artist who was in a crew and had to break away to get what they need out of life and music. You can always have your crew but you have to take care of your solo career. If every track you’ve done is with your crew, then how can you say you’re an artist within yourself?”

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From our chat so far it’s clear that President T’s time in the scene has made him a wise man. I compare him to an “elder crossed with Yoda”. He laughs and disregards my Yoda comment. “An elder, yeah!” He reiterates. I ask if this well-earned title has put a new form of pressure on him – the pressure to not f-ck up, in fear of setting a bad example. Has he reached the point of no mistakes?


After making me clarify my definition of a mistake – “What like a bad bar?” – he thinks about my question for a minute.


“I’m very conscious of sending the right message out there.” He says somberly. “I do have a fear of sending out the wrong message so I’m very conscious of what I say and I know that I am seen as a role model to younger artists. Anything I can do to help up and coming hard working young artists, I will.”


As with his earlier answers, it’s a refreshingly uplifting and inspiring speech that appears to come out of nowhere. I inform him that I have asked this question to old school artists before and the answers have either been noncommittal or the question brushed off entirely. “Some artists coming from my era feel like they haven’t been given the credit that they should have been given [so are reluctant to help]. All I can say to that is: the proof is in the pudding. Show your worth.”


We sit in the corner of this South American restaurant, sipping our vodka Sprites from wine glasses and trying to work out why there does sometimes feel like tension between the new and older generations of grime. “I guess when you guys were coming up, there was no previous generation. You guys were originating the scene so you didn’t have elders to come to help you out?” I suggest. “Yeah.” He nods his head defiantly. “Yeah, yeah you’re right.”


Perhaps the project that can ease the tension is the highly anticipated Stranger Returns. The mythical record was intended to be Prez T’s debut album, but still hasn’t dropped. Having been in the pipeline for years, with ever pushed back release dates, the elusive album has got some pretty high expectations to meet. The album may have even shifted purpose along the line, now telling the story of the return of the prodigal son. He describes himself as the “stranger” who has come to educate the younger audience. It’s for those “who need to be updated with what the authentic grime sound is. Just in case you get lost in the sauce and think it’s something else.” He promises that the record will drop in 2017, but we’ll have to see.


As I down the last of my drink I have to ask, with such an explosive start to 2017, what’s the rest of the year got in store? He slams his hand on the table and flashes a grin. “Championship music. Stranger Returns. President T takes over the world. Gold trophies. Horse and carts. The works!”