Entertainment

Professor Green Makes an Excellent Roast

We met the rapper in his south London home to talk about coming up, the emotional battles of making documentaries, selling drugs and the benefits of posting a good roast on Instagram.
September 20, 2019, 7:30am
professor green 2019

Walking into Professor Green's south London home on a Tuesday afternoon, I smell something I hadn't expected to smell: a Sunday roast.

There had been some mention of food in the back-and-forth emails leading up to us meeting, but this is a pleasant surprise. "My roasts do better than my music posts on Instagram," laughs the 35-year-old – real name Stephen Manderson – as he fills my glass. "I've had to start a whole separate account for them."

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There are no complaints from me as we sit down and settle into what will end up being a four-hour conversation. There's a lot to talk about, Stephen explains: a new record to plug after something of a hiatus.

professor green 2019

Between 2010 and 2014, Stephen released and toured three albums; he made six hard-hitting TV documentaries looking at topics such as suicide, homelessness, poverty and drugs. And then, after the last one wrapped in January of 2018, things went quiet. "I've taken some time to find my feet again," he explains, unexpectedly softly spoken. "It's weird – when you're making documentaries you're not really living your own life, you're in the lives of others. Even when you leave them you're still processing."

Making films left Stephen feeling exposed, despite the fact many of the themes they examined could be found in his music. It all sort of happened by accident. Following the release of Read All About It in 2011, Stephen was asked in interviews to speak repeatedly about the song; about the pain of his dad's suicide. A Radio 1 documentary followed, and soon execs has asked him to make a version for TV.

"That was Suicide and Me," he says, getting to work on the roast potatoes. "It was never meant to be a personal journey; it was meant to be a broad look at male suicide." Halfway through filming, he was called in for a meeting: the better story, they said, would be him trying to find out why his dad might have taken his own life. At first he wasn't sure.

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"Then I realised the reason I didn't want to do it was that I didn't want people to see me as vulnerable, which is the exact problem the documentary was trying to tackle," he says. "So I said yes, fuck it. It turned out all the things I was scared of being judged for – people seeing me crying, people seeing me as emotional – went down well. It's like that old rap battle thing, where you take the piss out yourself so the other person has no weapons. There's a real strength in being honest with your vulnerabilities."

professor green 2019

Six people lived in the three bedroom Hackney flat where Stephen spent his early years. Unlike today, there was no home recording studio, no designer furniture, no outdoor pizza oven.

Born in 1983, his experience of the east London borough was markedly different to those of his industry contemporaries who live in the area today. By the time he was one, his 16-year-old mother had moved out, leaving him in the care of his grandma, who worked three jobs a day in an often unsuccessful effort to keep the family afloat. "Growing up in Hackney was wicked, though," he's quick to add. "People say, 'Oh, it must have been so rough,' but you don't have that perspective. It's not like I was born in Wiltshire and had culture shock when we lost all our money. It's where I grew up. It was fun."

People around Stephen could tell he was clearly a bright kid, and at 11 he was offered a place at high-achieving selective secondary. He turned the offer down. "I just said no – it's not for me. Even at that age, I feel like I knew my place in the world. 'Those other kids aren't from where I'm from, they aren't like me.'"

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Instead, Stephen started at a local school, but when his great-grandmother died when he was 13 he stopped going. A short stint in a Pupil Referral Unit was followed by a short stint at college, but by 16 he'd started selling weed and dropped out – at that stage more interested in making money than studying. "It started off well innocent," he says. "Everyone smoked weed, and I had a head on my shoulders," he says. "I was the one going to get weed for everyone, so why was I paying for what I was smoking?"

He moved in with his then-girlfriend a few years later, conscious of never wanting to bring trouble to his grandmother's door. That, he says, is when the operation got bigger. It was around the same time the would-be rapper found music.

"I used to go ice skating and roller skating around northeast London, and that's where I found Biggie," he explains. Stephen started freestyling at the Jump Off and on Friday Nights at Deal Records on Carnaby Street. "I'd be selling shots and battle rapping – there was a community, a vibe. I found a subculture I felt at home in."

professor green 2019

It was around this point that he caught the eye of Mike Skinner, fresh from the success of The Streets' "Dry Your Eyes". Stephen joined The Streets on tour, jumping from record stores to huge venues across the venue. For the first time, Professor Green started to write his own music, then Skinner signed him to his new label – The Beats – and suddenly commercial success was within his grasp.

"It ended up being a false start, though," says Stephen, so engrossed in our conversation he forgets to add salt to the Yorkshire puddings. "Napster came out, Warner withdrew the funding and there was no more record label."

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Everything disappeared in 2006, so he returned to dealing: "I was back doing what I knew best. Except weed had got a lot more expensive, and I knew a lot of people who did a lot of cocaine, so I sold that." He never sold crack or heroin, he's quick to add. "It seemed like an easy opportunity," he says. "And let's just say there were a lot of familiar faces in the industry when I finally signed my record deal, if you know what I mean."

There's something refreshing about the candidness with which he speaks about drugs, both today and in his documentaries. He tells me a story about dropping a pill at Glastonbury and then having to go on live TV donning sunglasses, asking the presenter for a cuddle after his Pyramid Stage set.

I ask why he's so honest. "Other people have so many skeletons in the closet and they've never been honest before, and they can't start now," he says. "Plus, you get hung out to dry: decriminalisation of drugs makes perfect sense, but last time I said it the headline was something like I was giving the thumbs up to smack [The Mirror went with: "Professor Green says he wants to legalise heroin as Demi Lovato recovers from shock 'overdose'"].

"There's such a big difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. We don't talk about it, so it happens behind closed doors," he says, pulling a lump of meat from the oven. "It's in my music, so I've not really got an option. I do make great roasts, though – that wholesome thing sort of balances it all out."

professor green 2019

It's been nine years since Stephen was signed for the second – and this time successful – time with Virgin. His single "I Need You Tonight" was supposed to just to test the water, but it hit number one in the midweeks, slipping to third by the weekend, beaten by Scouting For Girls (yes, he's still bitter).

He describes those first years of fame as like being on a hamster wheel: constantly trying to keep up, petrified of slowing down and flopping. "It's then I learnt that everything I thought would absolve me of all the shit from my past to make me happy didn't," he says, passing me a bowl of buttery vegetables. "I thought being successful would make me happy, making money and having security. They made life easier, but didn't do that."

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Approaching 30, he started to make time to work on his own mental health, confronting traumas and experiences from the past, some of which he still opts to keep hidden. "Having absent parents was tough," he offers. "I remember sitting at the window in the living room, looking out at the bus stop, crying my eyes out because [my dad] never got off. A week turned into a month and into a year. It was difficult' you start asking questions: is it my fault?"

He'd battled with anxiety since early childhood, but it took him decades to realise it. Now, at 35, he takes things slower – he's content, and no longer petrified it'll all slip away again.

professor green 2019

We cover a lot of ground, enough for me to help myself to seconds: the label of "white rapper", the prospect of fatherhood, friends moving into his house after his high profile divorce from Millie Mackintosh. But it's politics that we finish up on. He came out to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. I want to know if he was always interested in that world.

"For a long time I didn't give a shit about politics at all," he says. "I didn't understand it, I didn't realise how much it affected me and certain things I encountered growing up." Why, he asks, should you bother paying attention to someone who doesn't even speak in a way you can understand? "I still don't like politics, and I'm essentially uneducated, aren't I? I don’t know enough to talk about things."

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Except, I say, that's obviously bollocks. In the time we've spent together he's spoken eloquently about inequality, disenfranchisement and reforms to the prison system. He's more articulate critiquing the role of police, Brexit and the education system than most of the professional pundits you'll see on TV. I point this out to him.

"But that's not me being educated in politics," he replies. "That's just obvious stuff that doesn't make sense to me. Politicians know all this stuff – they have to. I just care about people, so say how I feel."

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There's a long pause. Is that true, I ask, or were most of the people he's referring to just born into privilege and a sense of entitlement? Maybe politics needs more voices like his, I suggest, with his experience and knowledge, his audience and compassion. I refer back to the little kid he earlier described, one who opted out of a fancy school because he didn't think it was a place for someone with his background. But then lunch is over; it's time to finish up.

Having a vape outside, the interview and photos are all wrapped up. "What you said before," he says, "it's got me thinking. Maybe politicians just feel they have a right to be there, to make changes but don't actually know better… I should probably have more confidence in what I can do with politics, too."

He won't run for Parliament yet, but his line is "never say never". I laugh: it sounds like a politician's answer to me.

Professor Green's 'M.O.T.H.' EP is out now, as are tickets for his upcoming M.O.T.H. Tour.

@MikeSegalov / @CBethell_Photo