It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Professor Green. He’s changed marital status, record label and cemented himself as a documentarian on real social issues. One thing he hasn’t done in that time though, is release a lot of music. That’s changing right now. Class is back in session.
“I guess a lot of the kids nowadays just see me as the pop artist because they’ve known me since I was commercial,” he admits during our conversation at GRM Daily HQ. “Me coming back now, it’s just important that I reintroduce myself with music. I can’t just shove my story down their necks.”
That being said, Professor Green isn’t your ordinary pop star. Sure, he’s got a handful of chart topping records under his belt, but his come up is deeply rooted in hip-hop and inner-city life. To understand where he’s at today, with a new single out and an album on the way, you truly have to understand where he’s come from.
Born and raised on Northwold Estate in Hackney, Pro – real name Stephen Manderson – was brought up in a three bedroom flat with six other relatives. That was until his mother upped and left the household when he was a year old, leaving him in the custody of his grandmother.
“People always go ‘ah, it must have be scary’, but it’s not like I came from the Cotswolds and moved in to Clapton when I was 13,” he said. “It wasn’t a shock to the system, I grew up round there. Where you grow up, if you haven’t moved there, is just what you know. It’s all you know, it’s just normal. It’s only when you start to go out into the big wide world that you realise things aren’t for you how they are for everyone else.
“For the most part, where I grew up and the schools that I went to – and there were quite a few,” he disclosed through a chuckle. “But for me mostly it was the same for everyone I was around. We were from a similar situation, we didn’t have much money, a lot of us from broken homes.”
Despite the odds being stacked against him as a young man, he was an academic boy with a bright future ahead of him. He was offered to sit the exam for St Pauls, the prestigious boys school, at an unprecedented age. That was if he wanted it, of course.
“I didn’t have a stern hand at home and my nan sympathised with my situation, so if I said I didn’t wanna do something then she didn’t push me down that road. I didn’t want to go to St Pauls, because as a kid I didn’t know anyone going there and didn’t want to be the different one.
“My nan made the decisions based on what she thought was doing best by me, bless her. But sometimes I probably could have done with a stern hand as a kid. As you can imagine, in a household where I was really brought up by my great grandmother until she passed away when I was 13, because my nan was working three jobs…. That was when I stopped going to school properly and things started to get a bit different.”
It wasn’t until Professor Green was 18 years old that he turned his attention to music. As he puts it, he didn’t think he had a creative bone in his body, until one particular night at a pretty surprising location. He revealed, “All my mates that were making music, they were freestyling – we were all at Adam Deacon’s house actually – they were just all freestyling.
“I got put on the spot and I rapped a lyric. I probably went bright red in the face. Then them lot were like, ‘rah you can rap’ and I was like ‘nah, no no no’. I started to mess about it more and more with them, in their company, but then also on my own. So it started as freestyles and nothing was getting written down.”
From there, as they say, the rest his history. Pro’s relationship with legendary platform The Jump Off is well documented, becoming their first ever rap battle champion in 2004 after a streak of wins in the ring. “From the battling, all the DJ’s – like Semtex, Manny Norte, all them people were there – they were going to me ‘where’s the songs’? I didn’t have that initial challenge that they’ve got records and they’re tryna get people to listen, instead I’ve got DJ’s asking me for songs!”
He had a titanic opportunity and he took it. Mike Skinner (back then of The Streets fame) had been keeping a watchful eye on Pro and scouted him during one of the battles at The Jump Off. From there he took him on tour, to battle on The Streets’ arena tour as an opening act. Mike eventually signed him to his label alongside The Mitchell Brothers and Example, an endeavour that Pro says was being “running out of a shed, on a road.” Unfortunately, much like the actual Titanic, the opportunity soon went sinking into nothing.
“I’m stubborn and me and Mike were at log heads for a bit over music. I made my music and I didn’t wanna sound like The Streets and he was trying to make me sound different to what I was comfortable with,” he expressed. “Eventually we got to a point where he was like, ‘do you know what I’ve been silly trying to make you sound like something else, instead of concentrating on what you’re good at. I’m sorry, let’s get this moving’ sort of thing.
“Just as that happened, Warner pulled the financing. It was around the time of Napster and the music industry had been hit so they pulled all the financing to all the labels that they subsidised, and it went under. It took me like a year to get my records back from Warner. In that year I just went back to doing what I was doing before, just shotting, except this time I had a few more connections,” he finished with a dry laugh.
While going back to selling weed wasn’t necessarily the step in the right direction, it didn’t prove to be a fatal one, and Pro still looks back on the early days with rose tinted glasses. “That whole period was so sick for me because it was all brand new, the energy was wicked… I look back on it with fondness.”
It wasn’t until the release of his double A-Side record, “Hard Night Out”/”Upper Clapton Dance” that the wheels really got back into motion. Once the songs impacted, Professor Green was swiftly signed to Virgin Records with some big tunes in the locker. His debut and featureless single with the label, “I Need You Tonight”, was met with wild success, that he admits “nobody expected.”
“I was renting a room out my mates council flat. I was in the flat for after quite a long time after I blew as well,” he recalled. “I was walking the dog and it was just funny because people that I’ve seen every morning and I’ve said hello to, all of a sudden they’ve gone ‘ah, you’re Professor Green’! I’m like yeah, but I’m Stephen. You’ve been saying hello to me for ages, do you think I’m two different people or something?!
“It was weird because people did just start coming up to me and saying hello, which is an odd thing. To be honest with you, the bigger shift was later on. Because them times there was no front cameras, no such thing as a selfie, people used to just say hello and keep it moving.”
From weed dealer, to battle rapper, to a major label artist with a number of smashes under his belt in just a few short years, it was one hell of a come up. These things are always a two faced devil though, and Pro was set to taste everything that comes with new found fame. Before his wedding to reality star Millie Mackintosh he had a couple of close encounters with the papparazi, and a new sort of fame monster had awakened for him. He was officially tabloid fodder.
“It was mad. I remember the first time, I was living in Clerkenwell in the flats just on the corner of Leather Lane, still nothing fancy. They were still council flats. I was with Candy [McCulloch] at the time I think, and we had come back from a club and a pap had followed us all the way back. He was on his moped. I remember running up to him and grabbing his helmet and dragging him off his bike, because don’t fucking follow me home. I don’t want people knowing where I live.
“Then something tweaked when she pulled me off of him and I’ve calmed down, like yeah it’s probably not worth getting done for ABH. I’d lost my temper, because that was the first time anybody had followed me to my door… I couldn’t fathom it, why the fuck are you following me to my house, what do you hope to get? That was the first encounter like that.”
It wasn’t to be the last either. Pro said, “I grew into it a little bit more and started to understand that you can’t fight every pap. As much as you might want to shove a camera up their arse, you can’t always do it.
“There was a time when I was coming out the Groucho Club and one of them tried to put a camera under Millie’s skirt. At the time I was on crutches and one of the other paps got a photo of me hitting him round the face with my crutch. I tried to run after him, but I couldn’t catch him. It’s mad because, if you think about it, anybody else puts a camera under her skirt and they’re on a register. It’s indecent and I don’t believe in stuff like that. It’s horrible.”
Thankfully, those days are mostly all in the past now. He’s made television and tabloid appearances to support his documentary work and, most recently, his new music, but that’s about it. He’s freshly signed to Relentless Records, after departing company with Virgin, has released a hard hitting rap tune and a brand new commercial single too. With a focus on UK rap music and grime right now, it might be easy to assume that Pro could be hopping on the band wagon with his next project. That would be wrong. He’s always been a rapper from the jump, and even when he’s been taking on the charts, he’s never watered down his music because he had to.
“You never make pop records intentionally. I don’t. I made “I Need You Tonight” and “Just Be Good To Green” before I got signed. I never made them to crossover, they were just records that I liked.
“If you look back to the beginning of when I first started making music, you had “Stereotypical Man”, but you had “Upper Clapton Dance”. You had “Before I Die”, but you also had “Saving”. There’s always been that angle on my music. When you look at “Rapping Like Pro” where I took the Pharrell and Gwen Stefani tune, the delivery is still the same. I wanna talk about subjects that I wanna talk about, so if I wanna talk about being given the runaround by a girl, it doesn’t really make sense to do it over a harder song and to make it into something that it isn’t.
“The fact that it crossed over was just because it related to people. Two of my biggest songs to date, “Read All About It” and “Lullaby”, they’re not “pop” songs. One is about the suicide of my dad and the problems that I had with his widow, and the other is about my own depression.”
He assures that there will be something for everybody on his as-of-yet untitled fourth album, and promises straight rapping, as well as the more commercial material. There may even be a collaboration or two on there, as he’s been keeping one eye, not just on the door, but also the rise of the rap scene.
“The work rate of some of these people, like Section and Bonkaz. They’re making it hard work for everybody else! I got so much on that it’s hard for me to delegate time to just that. It’s important and I have to, but you can’t always just go ‘right, I’ve got Wednesday free so I’m gonna go and write a banger’. You might want to write something on Tuesday, but I’m a shooting a documentary, so it’s hard juggling everything now.
“But with the new wave, there’s so many people. Bonkaz is one of my favourites, Stormzy, obviously. Avelino is bad, his wordplay is crazy, punchlines are wicked. Santan Dave. There’s so many people bro… I had Stormzy on my third album. I was early on him. Some people find it real difficult to show love, like ‘oh what if I show love and I don’t get it back, I might look a way’, but I don’t feel like that. If I like your music, I like your music and I’ve never been shy to speak out about people’s music I think is sick. Some people are not comfortable with themselves, init.”
Pro went on to reveal he may even have a collaborative EP with producer Z Dot on the horizon, although the album still remains his primary focus. He said, “It’s so hard to sit here and tell you, because I haven’t finished [the album].
“For me it’s up in the air, but what I like with the game at the moment is I can just put something out. Even if it pisses my record label off, I can just make something and put it on my SoundCloud and it’s up and it’s there. The label can take it down, but it will just end up somewhere else.
“The way people digest music has changed so much in the past two years. I listen to albums front to back, until I know every word because that’s how I’ve always consumed music. I’m not blind that people are different now, they pick and choose what they want to listen to and they don’t necessarily buy whole albums.
“I kind of think the immediacy isn’t always negative, there’s positives to it. Being able to just do something and put it out means things are more current. The first album, I had some of those records for over a year before I put them out. It’s just nice to make a song, put it out and for you to be promoting the song that reflects exactly where you are at that moment in time.”
What he can tell us though, is he’s fully got his mojo back. “It just goes back to social commentary. It’s about a situation we’ve all encountered, whether we’re a person that’s gone out and stayed out too long, or you’re somebody that has had somebody go out and stay out too long,” he says of his current single “One Eye On The Door”. “I just wanted to come back having fun. It’s cheeky and it reminds me of the stuff that came out first. There’s so much seriousness around me, with the documentaries and “Lullaby”. It’s a cheeky fucking record.
“That’s just where I’m at. It’s just how I feel. It’s not all doom and gloom at the moment, I actually feel pretty good about things.”
With a slew of new music ready to drop and a couple more documentaries in the pipeline too, there’s some certainty back in the life of Professor Green. He might not want to force it on us, but he’s got an interesting tale to tell and it’s by no means over yet.
Here’s to the next lesson.
Original photography by Trudy Barry