"I’m happy to be here, man." Professor Green on new music and mental health
Professor Green is a man in control. He’s making the best music of his life, he’s producing hard-hitting documentaries, and he’s happy for the first time in years. But Mark Hedley learns that his journey has been anything but an easy ride
I just wish someone would tell me it would be OK
But pessimism leads me to believe that it won’t.
To see even a glimmer of hope in the darkness
Is hard, and depression is a slippery slope.
I don’t wanna do what my dad did with a rope, though
So I carry on even though it’s hard to.
The only thing that’s definite is death, and things always change
As long as you give ’em a chance to.
– Lullaby (2014) by Professor Green
Professor Green is the real deal. The depression is real: he’s suffered from acute anxiety disorder since he was a young child.
The grit is real: he left school at 13. By 16 he was hanging out on Hackney’s ‘Murder Mile’ dealing weed (that’s where the nickname comes from). At 26 he was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle and left fighting for his life.
And even the rope is real: his father hanged himself. So did his uncle.
Yet when I speak to Green (aka Stephen Manderson) for the first time, he comes across as the happiest man alive. “I’m sweet, mate. Good as gold,” he beams to my cursory “How are you?”. And he clearly means it.
The evening before our first chat, I watched Green in an episode of Murder in Successville. The BBC Three comedy series sees celebrities thrown into scenarios where they have no script or prior knowledge about the events that will unfold. For a rapper who sings about subjects such as drugs and death, this seems like fairly uncharted territory.
“I just winged it,” he says. “I wing everything. I don’t know if I’m any good at what I do – I just carry on.”
He was good. Dry, quick-witted and sharp enough to keep up with the professional comedians who make up the rest of the cast. But surely for someone who has openly admits they suffer from chronic anxiety, the idea of improvised comedy must be terrifying?
“I wasn’t nervous for the actual show. One of the breaks ended up being worse: I went on the roof to have a fag and the wind blew the door shut behind me. I could see people in the distance; I shouted but no one could hear. I was stuck for 45 minutes before someone finally found me. I tell you what, I smoked a lot of cigarettes while I was up there…”. Green laughs infectiously. He has one of those chuckles where you always feel in on the joke.
But if you’ve seen any of his music videos, you wouldn’t think he was a laugh a minute. The video for 2010’s ‘Jungle’, for example, is dark and nasty; it’s pure grime in every sense of the word. Green looks as mean as the scar down his neck. “There ain’t nothing nice round here; trouble’s what you find round here,” he warns us, eyeballing the camera with an antagonistic scowl.
Selling weed enabled me to make music without having to work as much as a normal person
Despite the attitude – or more likely because of it – Green went from success to success. That year he released his debut album Alive Till I’m Dead, and picked up a slew of Best Newcomer awards – including MOBO’s Best Hip Hop Act. Things really went global with his second album, At Your Inconvenience – and the number-one song ‘Read All About It’ with guest vocals from Emeli Sandé.
A life of red carpets and awards ceremonies couldn’t have been further from Green’s upbringing. He was abandoned first by his 16-year-old mother when he was a baby, then by his 18-year-old father, leaving him to be brought up by his gran and great-gran. The anxiety began as early as his memory goes back.
“As a kid, I would have a belly ache, and I’d say I couldn’t go to school. I wasn’t old enough to be saying this as a tactic to get the day off. It was anxiety. But as a kid, you don’t have the capacity to understand what anxiety is.”
Unable to communicate the problem, Green was regularly taken to the doctors. Having had an abdominal operation when he was six weeks’ old, the medics naturally took it seriously, undertaking a number of internal investigations in search of an underlying physical issue. But none was found.
“This process allowed me to think I was sicker than I was – and it became self-perpetuating. It took me until I was in my twenties to realise it had been anxiety all along.”
Green dropped out of school at 13: “I got bored, so I left.” He was a bright kid, though, and he had been invited to take the entrance exam for St Paul’s school. “My response was, ‘I don’t wanna go there. Them people aren’t my people.’ In my family, we left school as fast as we could and we all got jobs. My nan did the best for me. But any other parent would have said, ‘You’ve got the chance to do what? Go for it – that could change the course of your life; of our whole family’s life.’”
Instead, he chose weed. By 16, he was selling it. “That took me to a certain place in my life. And then I found music. Selling weed enabled me to make music without having to work as much as a normal person.”
And what if he had gone to St Paul’s?
“I probably would have ended up doing cocaine instead. That’s what posh people do, innit?” he laughs with the knowing snigger of a man who married a member of the Made in Chelsea cast. Somehow Professor White doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
In the autumn of 2015, the BBC documentary Professor Green: Suicide and Me was released to an overwhelmingly positive response. Indeed, it had such an impact that the Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger, screened it in parliament.
In the documentary, Green undertakes an emotional journey to uncover why his dad, Peter, took his own life. Only a few months before the suicide, Green was due to reconcile with his estranged father after six years of not speaking. But a phone call between them became heated, and the last thing he said to his father was: “If I ever see you again, I’ll knock you out.” He never saw him again.
In the documentary’s most moving scene, he opens up to his gran about the death: “That was the first time we ever spoke about it – and the only time. We’ve not talked about it since. That tells you everything you need to know about my family dynamic and how we operate. We don’t talk about things.
“It’s only just now I’m talking to one of my uncles – and even then, kind of forcibly. I have to draw things out of him.”
It’s not just his uncle he’s trying to help. Green is one of the UK’s most active campaigners for mental health. Since 2015, he has been a patron of Calm (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which is dedicated to preventing male suicide in the UK. He was also one of the stars of the Heads Together campaign, launched by princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge.
The statistics on male suicide make for very uncomfortable reading. It’s the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK – on average 12 men die here as a result of suicide every day. This is certainly a cause that needs a voice as loud as Green’s.
I’m generally becoming more active in activism. I can’t do everything, though, as otherwise people will just shut off
Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM, explains why Green makes such an effective spokesman: “He’s able to be a proper bloke in the traditional tough sense, while also combining that appeal with equal measures of creativity, sensitivity and emotional intelligence.
“His film with Freddie Flintoff for Heads Together last year was brilliant – it showed that archetypal alpha-males are able to find a happier life by expressing the kind of emotions that would traditionally be completely taboo.”
Green is clearly keen to make a difference where he can. “I’m generally becoming more active in activism. I can’t do everything, though, as otherwise people will just shut off – they’ll just stop listening.”
After the positive impact of Suicide and Me, Green followed up with another BBC documentary in September 2017 highlighting child poverty. One in four children are growing up in poverty – and these figures are predicted to rise by nearly one million in the next five years. “I took this documentary to parliament myself and not one member of the government turned up. These are the people we need to show the reality of what their decisions are causing. This further cemented my belief that we have a government that doesn’t care about poor people.”
This hasn’t deterred him, though. Earlier this year he produced a documentary series for Channel 4, called Working Class White Men. Again, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. “It helped people understand a type of person that they didn’t previously understand – that maybe they had even suffered abuse from. It highlighted a group of people who are completely ignored and misrepresented.”
He has another one coming out in August. What’s it about? “Well, that would be telling.”
NEW LEASE OF LIFE
The second time I speak to Green on the phone, he’s had a manic day shooting the video for his latest track. He sounds tired, but still cheery. For someone who has a track record of struggling with anxiety and depression, I have to point out he’s made a challenging career choice. However, it isn’t the work that stresses him out.
“It’s the bullshit that gets written about you. There’s actually been a lot less of it since my relationship status changed, which tells you where a lot of it came from. I ain’t got a circle of friends that people can get to. Things don’t come out from my side because my friends aren’t grasses.”
It’s also hard for him not to be affected by the haters: “People try and deflect from anything I do on social issues because they just say I have ‘champagne problems’, forgetting the 27 years I lived ultimately in poverty. Everyone imagines life is simple now, that everything gets done for me. That’s not the case.”
Despite his openness about his previous struggles, he now seems very much in charge of his vehicle. So what’s his coping strategy?
“Citalopram,” he answers without hesitation. As far as I’m aware, I’m the first journalist he’s told this to. Citalopram is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used to treat depression. He’s been on the antidepressant for three months now and it has been nothing short of revolutionary.
I’ve been creating more since I’ve been on Citalopram than ever before because I’m much more capable of focus
“I’m a big idiot. I tell people it’s fine to be open about mental health issues; it’s OK to admit to others that you need help. But despite all the work I do for mental health, I didn’t want to be the guy on anti-depressants. I’m an idiot – life has been so much easier since.”
Even after he was prescribed the drugs by his doctor, they sat in his bathroom cupboard for four weeks before he started taking them because he was scared of “that tag”.
“Everything is easier now. I used to have insomnia; now, if anything, I sleep a bit too much sometimes. I was worried that by taking them I’d lose my ability to be creative. I always thought there was something that tied my lows to being able to create – that to be an artist you have to be in some kind of pain; you have to be a tortured soul. And it’s bollocks.
“I’ve been creating more since I’ve been on Citalopram than ever before because I’m much more capable of focus. It just turns the noise down. It’s not nearly so hard to make decisions: I make them and move on; I don’t think of every other possible outcome. I can’t tell you how freeing that is.”
Green is more than a little familiar with the inside of a hospital wing. In 2010, during a night out in Shoreditch’s Cargo nightclub, he was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle. The man who struck him, Anthony Jones, had been trying to pick a fight with him earlier that evening, saying, “You think you’re a bad man? You think you’re the baddest man in here?” The unprovoked attack saw the glass bottle cut straight through Green’s distinctive ‘Lucky’ tattoo. The tattoo had only been inked a fortnight before to signify a more positive outlook on life. Irony notwithstanding, if it had gone a few millimetres deeper, Green wouldn’t be talking to me today.
I wondered how this played with his anxiety at the time. “It didn’t affect me. I was a little more cautious when I went out. But I grew up in a place where people got stabbed; people got shot. That tells you how psychologically desensitised I was to that sort of thing.”
In May 2013, Green suffered another attack – this time entirely accidental, but nearly as life threatening. He was crushed between two cars on his way to a gig at Hartpury College. At the time, he joked about it, even tweeting from the side of the road while paramedics tended to him: ‘Not ideal. Someone ran me over. Sorry Hartpury. #notanelaborateexcuse.’
Once the gas and air wore off, reality kicked in, and he realised the severity of the accident. His leg had been crushed, and he was going to be stuck in bed for months to come.
“It fucked me up. That put me into a spiral of depression. It fucking killed me. It was so, so random. I didn’t really need to be reminded of my mortality again. If I hadn’t have lifted myself onto the bonnet of that car it would have been curtains. Instead it was my left leg.
I was on loads of opioids – it was horrible, man. Do you know how trippy tramadol and dihydrocodeine is?
“I received £2,500 compensation. I was out of work for three months. I was on loads of opioids – it was horrible, man. Do you know how trippy tramadol and dihydrocodeine is? And I was on slow-release morphine, too.”
Physical rehabilitation was his salvation: “Movement is key to everything – basically, just stay moving.” He’s often asked what’s the one big piece of advice he’d give. The response: “Just carry on, man. Just carry on. I’m not insensitive to depression. But sometimes you’ve just got to get off your arse and do something. Pull yourself through it – or go find someone who can help you to.”
Fast-forward to spring 2017, and Green was back under the knife again, this time for the removal of three hernias. It should be a fairly routine operation, but again, fate had other ideas. He was only one of a tiny minority to have an allergic reaction to the medical mesh used for the procedure. The result was pneumonia, a partially collapsed lung, distension, ileus, and another soul-destroying stretch on a hospital ward.
Last autumn, he posted a topless picture on Instagram, saying it was time for a change: “I can’t have a dad bod without bloody having a kid first!”. So he gave himself a goal – a boxing match for Sport Relief – and started training hard. But after a few months, he discovered he had Haemophilia B, a genetic disorder caused by a defective clotting protein. It turns out he never should have been boxing in the first place, as he’s at far greater risk of a brain tumour. This time, fortunately, he managed to avoid a return to hospital.
So I guess that’s it for fighting, then? “Nah, I started training again: muay thai and kickboxing… just not getting hit in the head.”
BACK TO THE MUSIC
In the same Instagram post, lamenting the best part of a year lost to recovery, Green also stated: “I can’t leave music behind knowing I haven’t peaked yet… the stuff I’ve started is the best yet – time to get it finished.”
He’s stayed true to his word. The week he arrives at the square mile studio for our photoshoot, a new single was about to drop that Friday. The track, ‘Mercedes Riddim’, is a collaboration with Hackney-born rapper Dutch (aka Dutchaveli). The song represents a return to Green’s early rap roots. The video has echoes of ‘Jungle’, but this time, life’s had an upgrade. Instead of kids doing doughnuts in a £10k Hyundai i20, Green’s riding in a £100k Mercedes AMG-GT. The female vocal choruses of his most famous hits have been replaced with Dutch’s hard-hitting guest verse.
“It’s nice to go back and work with a younger generation,” says Green bouncing with enthusiasm for the new track. “It’s good because it makes me work harder. Dutch is bloody good at what he does – and he’s hungry. That brings the best out of me. It don’t matter if you’re friends: when you get on a song with someone, your job is to win. It’s a good bit of friendly competition.”
I’ve got a song that makes ‘Read All About It’ look like a little sissy
Music has always been a form of therapy for him – his first form of pressure release. “I became much less angry, because I was able to express myself. I could work out what the hell was going on in the jumble inside my head.”
When he wrote ‘Lullaby’ (2014), he had just come out of a police cell after being re-arrested for a crime he was never charged for. But it still ended up losing him £1m in endorsements.
“I went straight to the studio and said ‘I’m not having a very good day today.’” ‘Lullaby’ was the result. After six hours trying to channel his frustrations into music, a guitar riff provided the inspiration for the song. They laid down the initial track in just 20 minutes, but then Green agonised over the first verse for several months, much to the irritation of his record label. But he’s a perfectionist, and once the producers heard the lyrics, they agreed it was worth the wait. “I put so much of myself into my music. I’ve never censored myself. People call me a role model. I’m not taking that; raise your own children!”
So what’s next? “I’ve got so much music I’m working on. I’ve got a song that makes ‘Read All About It’ look like a little sissy.”
While we’re shooting in the studio, Green never switches off. He’s joking with his manager, Ged – “If Ged says I’m being a twat, then I’m probably being a twat.” He’s fielding calls from his publicist – “Oh god, what have I said now?”. And as the snapper shoots away, he plays two different versions of a sample he’s been sent for a new record on his phone. He’s buzzing, a creative tour de force.
But despite this, he still thinks about jacking it all in. “If I had the opportunity to, I’d probably hide from the world – be a recluse. I can’t sit in a café or go for a walk in the park to clear my head without being stopped.
“I have thought about selling up and moving to the country, but I think I’d probably turn into an old crazy person. I like the noise of London – the busyness; the constant change; the dynamics. You meet someone different everywhere you go. You never see the same people in the same places… unless you go to Shoreditch House.”
Above all, he’s wary of social media. Knowing himself all too well, he appreciates the black hole it can present. Two million followers on Twitter, another 800,000 on Instagram: “One person shouldn’t have access to the personal opinions of that many people. I try to be selective about the information that I take on board because there’s just a constant influx. It’s way too easy to distract yourself from what you should be doing. I’m grateful for people who like my music, but why should I care about the opinion of someone who I’ve never met?
“People will read one article or see one clip – possibly out of context – and that then becomes who I am to that person. If I listen to their opinions, I’ve lost.”
Where I am right now in my life… I’m fucking happy to be here, man
Of late, Green has been expanding his creative repertoire to include restaurant critic, writing columns for magazines and websites. Indeed, restaurants provide a bolthole from the madness: “I hide in restaurants most of the time. I know lots of restaurateurs. But they like to party a lot – so I have to leave in good time!”
“One of my favourite places to hang out is Mare Street Market. It’s back in Hackney, in my old ends. It’s got everything all under one roof – deli, coffee shop, rotisserie chicken… God, I really sound like a right gentrified wanker now, don’t I?”
Well, I guess being married to Millie Mackintosh had to rub off a bit.
But 2018’s Professor Green is in a good place. “Where I am right now in my life… I’m fucking happy to be here, man.”
He looks back to darker days, when depression tinted every aspect of his life: “With depression comes numbness. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people and do some amazing things – and there have been situations where I should have been able to have so much more fun than I did. I look back at those times and think, ‘Shit, man. I wish I had enjoyed them more.’
“Now it’s a case of looking forward – and making sure I make more of the times I have ahead.” No doubt there will be plenty of them.
Professor Green’s new single, ‘Count on You’, is out this month. For more on Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), go to thecalmzone.net. Need help or just to talk to someone? Call 0800 58 58 58