November 5 2011: How Stephen Manderson survived a troubled childhood and a near-fatal stabbing two years ago to top the charts as rapper Professor Green
We are just half an hour into a three-hour interview when we both find ourselves in tears; he starts and I helplessly follow. It’s not really what I expected. Professor Green – born Stephen Paul Manderson; 28 next month; brought up on “Murder Mile” in Hackney, East London; a rap star sometimes lazily referred to as the “British Eminem” – does not look the type to cry over a fish-finger sandwich. And yet here we are in the Garrison Public House in Bermondsey Street, having lunch and crying.
Professor Green – his mates call him Pro, a nickname that dates back to his days as a dealer of skunk, a potent form of cannabis; he suggests I call him Stephen, like his nan does – is 6ft 3in tall, tattooed and, from afar at least, the epitome of the urban alpha male. On the left side of his throat, fighting for attention with a tattoo that spells out the prescient word “Lucky” in an ornate typeface, is a V-shaped scar that serves as a constant reminder of the bottle that was thrust into his neck in a nightclub in May 2009. He was indeed lucky: had medical attention arrived four minutes later, he would have died from loss of blood.
The tears do not relate to his own near-death experience, but to his father’s suicide when Stephen was 18. The conversation starts simply enough. He mouths off about the bullying on The X Factor (“It’s getting out of order”), yet he still watches it and concedes that, with viewing figures in excess of ten million, he couldn’t resist an invitation to perform his new single, Read All About It, two weeks ago (it subsequently went to No 1). It’s a huge deal for a British rapper to be on The X Factor. Not even Tinie Tempah, the first British pop-rapper to hit the mainstream in the wake of Dizzee Rascal’s success, has performed on it – which suggests that Professor Green is about to have his moment as the crossover rapper du jour.
We talk about how, bizarrely for a rapper, Stephen is prudish about swearing in everyday life. He is big on manners, thinks there’s no excuse for not treating everyone equally, never mind if you’ve had a hit with I Need You Tonight (a reworking of the INXS song, only with an additional “I”) and collaborated with Lily Allen on Just Be Good To Green (a reworking of the SOS Band’s Just Be Good To Me. He likes messing with old songs – the strongest track on his new album, At Your Inconvenience, is probably Spinning Out, which samples the Pixies’ Where is My Mind).
Stephen then segues from good manners to anger. He may have said “please” and “thank you” as a kid, but he was also prone to chronic red mist. Although, throughout lunch, he is thoughtful and engaged, I’m not sure I’d like to cross him. Behind his handsome, baby face is a tenacity that suggests he would never relish losing a verbal – or, for that matter, physical – fight. How angry was he as a kid? He doesn’t address the how, but the why.
“My mum had me when she was 16 and left home at 17. I was brought up by my maternal grandmother. My dad, who was 18 when I was born, was in and out of my life. He stopped seeing me for, like, a year and a half at a time.”
He dips a chip into tomato sauce. As he discusses his father he is matter-of-fact, remote even. “There was this one incident where it turned out that the woman my dad was seeing said to him, ‘You stop seeing Stephen or you stop seeing me.’“And he chose her. I was a pretty switched-on four-year-old at the time. When my dad next came round, I made a point of saying, ‘Goodbye, Peter.’ I was a malicious little s***.” He says this with such detachment that I am relieved when he smiles.
And how else, at 4, would he express himself? How would he have the language to convey his feelings of abandonment? “I know. I didn’t even know what to do with all that anger. So I showed it to my nan” – and here he pauses to grin and to find the right words – “who is the most selfless woman in the world. But I was never angry towards my dad. Not until I was much older. I was too scared; if I said anything angry to him, he might leave for ever. And it wasn’t just about the anger. I was insecure because I never had enough security.”
I ask if he found it hard to form loving relationships as a young adult, not only because his childhood experience suggested they didn’t last, but also because he doubtless felt as though no one would want to love him. He plays with his fish-finger sandwich, his eyes downcast. I don’t know whether to change the subject. Instead I ask if it takes him ages to let anyone in. He nods and speaks quietly. “I’ve always tried to push girls away. I tested them, tested their love. Pushed and tested them so hard that, in the end, they went away. It took me a long time to stop doing that.”
What was the turning point? He answers quietly. “My dad committing suicide. It was a shock to me, because he never had the guts to do anything remotely like that.” He must have had an idea his dad wasn’t in a good place, surely? “I hadn’t seen him for six years. I spoke to him the year prior. I reached out to him. We were meant to meet up on Boxing Day. He said his new family couldn’t wait to see me. I was like, ‘What do you mean? I don’t want to play happy families. Me and you need to meet somewhere neutral, talk; there’s an awful lot that needs to be said.’ He started mumbling excuses. I told him I’d knock him out if I ever saw him again. That’s what I said to him. And then I put the phone down.”
He releases a deep sigh. “Those were the last words I ever said to him. I wouldn’t change what I said for the world. The next time I saw him, he was lying dead on a mortuary slab.” He pauses. “Otherwise I’d have killed him myself.” He laughs, a small, sad laugh.
Stephen went to the hospital after his father had killed himself and discovered that someone from his father’s workplace was going to identify the body. “A family friend, fair enough, but still.” He is angry now. He sits up tall, spits the words out. “How disrespectful would that have been? So I walked in and there he was. The first time I’d seen him in six years…”
He takes a moment to compose himself. It’s nearly a decade since his father’s death, but the pain is still raw. Read All About It documents his relationship with his father to its full, brutal effect. He certainly doesn’t hold back: “As a kid I looked up to you/ Only thing was I never saw enough of you/ The last thing I said to you was that I hated you/ I loved you and now it’s too late to say it to you.”
He shrugs. “I never censor myself when I write lyrics. The pain you hear in that song is very real. I was my father’s firstborn child. It would have been nice to talk to him before he died, but that never happened. He took that opportunity away from me. I have tried to understand his motivation. He got beaten a lot as a child. He was in and out of homes. One of the hardest things is realising that our parents are human. I realise he had issues; I just wish he’d tried to sort them out.”
I am about to change the subject, but he keeps going. “There are times when I feel it really hard. I was at a wedding a while back and the bride’s dad got up to make a speech and I was like, that will never happen for me.” His shoulders slump and tears suddenly jump from his eyes. He rubs his fists in his eyes, pushes the tears away. This big guy, covered in tattoos, scarred by a broken bottle.
There are tears in my eyes, too. I apologise. He smiles, despite himself. “It’s all right. When my dad died, I decided that I didn’t want to forget him, but equally I didn’t want to let him control who I am. You have to make the most of what you’ve got: your girlfriend, your friends, your close family. It’s a cliché, but it’s a really important lesson to learn.”
Stephen Paul Manderson was a bright child. When he was at Tyssen Community Primary School in Hackney, he was offered the chance to sit the entrance exam to St Paul’s, the prestigious independent school in London. He turned it down on the basis that none of his friends would be going there. “What should’ve happened is that I was grabbed, kicking and screaming, and made to sit the exam. But I don’t like to live a life of regrets; there’s no point in wondering what my life might have been like had I gone to St Paul’s.”
So instead he stayed in state schools, working reasonably hard and doing his homework, if only to get the attention from teachers he wasn’t getting from his mother or father. He started to take the odd day off, convincing his grandmother that he wasn’t feeling well. A day slipped into a week and soon enough he was barely at school. He started hanging around with other young men on his Hackney estate – “not the type of people I should’ve been spending time with”. He crashed stolen cars into walls and started smoking skunk, ten times stronger than cannabis resin or grass.
When he discusses drugs I am slightly taken aback, once more, by his honesty. “By the age of 9, I had rolled my first spliff. By 13, I was smoking skunk and, by 17, I was selling it. I smoked skunk from morning till night.”
A friend nicknamed him “Professor” because Stephen corrected him sternly about something or other; “Green” is a reference to skunk. The name has stuck, but by 24 Stephen had all but stopped smoking in an attempt to give his music a chance. At this point he had done his time on the London hip-hop battle-rap scene, in which rappers try to outwit each other lyrically, and had signed to the Beats, a record label owned by Mike Skinner, aka the Streets. Then Lily Allen came along.
“The Beats had gone under and I was thinking about giving up. I’d been doing it for so long and had got nowhere. Then Lily offered to take me on tour. She changed everything.”
He says that Allen has become one of his closest female friends, someone he can rely on and talk to about anything. “She’s a great person to have around because she’s been through everything. I’m very defensive of her. People judge her based on what exactly? I’ve seen how she behaves first-hand and if she’s a friend then she’ll give you everything. Her selflessness makes her vulnerable. She’s not as thick-skinned as people think – she’s human.”
As he talks, Stephen absently touches the scar on his neck. It’s almost as though he’s reminding himself how lucky he is to be alive. I ask about the stabbing incident, after which another young man was jailed for eight years. “This guy started on me in a nightclub. I put him in his place and he went away. He came back ten minutes later and thrust a broken bottle into my face. I know loads of people who’ve been stabbed and the neck is not a pretty place to be poked.”
Stephen managed to get out of the club. He rang his mum and his grandmother. “Obviously I was in shock, but I was determined not to sit there crying. It was awful that I had to put them through that. I was OK; I really thought I was going to die and I accepted it.” He was taken to the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel and underwent nearly four hours of surgery.
“I was so angry. It put me on the back foot. So now I take myself out of those social situations. I mostly avoid clubs and record industry parties. I’d rather stay home with the missus and order a pizza.”
He has been with Candy McCulloch, daughter of Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch, for a year. They have just moved into a gated community in which their neighbours are Premier League footballers.
He first met her when she appeared in one of his videos, but has no recollection of it because he’d taken so much Valium, and then again at Bestival, where she was watching her father perform. Used to volatile relationships, it took him time to get used to what he calls the “calmness in Candy”.
There’s a daft smile on his face when he talks about her. “I realised that you could really feel something for someone without there being all this drama. It shows there’s been a definite change in me and in the way I deal with things. I’ve never met anyone who is that truly…” – his voice cracks and, for a moment, I think he’s going to cry again – “…kind. There’s not a bad bone in her body.”
A few times during this long, emotional lunch, Stephen brings up the subject of children and then visibly panics. “They scare the hell out of me. I don’t want to be my dad.” But he can surely break the cycle; he seems, after all, impressively self-aware. “I have to break the cycle. I’d have to know that I could never walk away from my child. And I do know that; I would always put my child first.”
There are a few lines in Spinning Out where Professor Green raps about his new-found life as a pop star: “I made it here but I don’t know how I did/ Who’d have thought the sheer amount of s*** I’ve been through would amount to this?… F*** the fame I’m still the same as when I came up.”
As lunch comes to a close, I suggest that success might actually have been good for him, given him the validation he so desperately missed as a child. It certainly doesn’t seem to have turned his head, to have made him particularly arrogant. He nods thoughtfully. “I’m certainly happier now than I’ve ever been. And less scared about it, too.” His voice is still croaky, but now he is smiling. “I think, after everything that’s happened, I’m allowed to be happy.”
At Your Inconvenience is out now