“Where I come from,” says Stephen Manderson, aka the rapper Professor Green, “people see things in black and white. You either co-operate with the police or you don’t.” And ideally, in his world, you don’t.
The rapper has discovered that there are shades of grey, having been told he would be arrested if he didn’t give evidence in court against a man who nearly killed him.
His story provides a fascinating insight into the scourge of violent crime that afflicts many of our big cities — often committed between people who know one another — and shows just how difficult it is to overcome the “honour code” of silence.
If you’ve not heard of Professor Green you will soon, because he has become a prominent member of the so-called Brrrap Pack of up-and-coming British urban musicians. His first album came out in the summer, and his hits include a collaboration with Lily Allen. Last month he finished his first headline tour.
Tall, with short hair and tattoos, Manderson is hard to miss. He is 26 but his open, beaming face makes him look 10 years younger and utterly unthreatening. We talk in his tiny new recording studio, at the top of an industrial building, days after his assailant, Anthony Jones, was found guilty of wounding with intent.
The attack, in a nightclub in east London last year, was unprovoked. “This guy accused me of barging into his friend. He said I had to shake his hand and say sorry. I said he couldn’t tell me what to do. He said, ‘Think you’re a bad man? The baddest man in here?’ I said, ‘I ain’t a bad man but I ain’t a prick, either.’ And I think I was right to stand my ground. Wasn’t I?” Manderson seems genuinely to want my opinion.
“The guy didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘Cool, cool’, and backed off. Typical of a coward. But a few minutes later he came back through the crowd. I put my hand up and got stabbed in the neck.”
The broken bottle made a deep cut next to his new tattoo, reading, “Lucky”, and came within 2mm of his carotid artery. “It’s not a good place to be poked. I don’t know if I shoved him or punched him, but I got outside and I felt wobbly. I was holding my neck when suddenly I was hit on the back of the head. I rolled on the floor.”
The police arrived and arrested Jones. “I phoned my nan and my mum,” recalls Manderson. “I tried to relax but I really thought that was it.” He had three hours of surgery and still bears a livid scar.
Soon afterwards he took a call from the police saying he was needed as a witness at Jones’s trial. “I said it was impossible. I was on tour. I didn’t want it to interfere with my life. I hadn’t pressed charges.” But he was told that if he refused to appear as a witness he’d be arrested.
“So I was in what you might call a dilemma. A majority of the country would see going to court as the right thing to do. I don’t necessarily disagree. Snitching is a different thing. I don’t condone snitching. I’ve been arrested before, twice, and never snitched. But people said if I didn’t go to court, this guy might get out. And if I didn’t go, I would be arrested and miss five dates on my tour, and be liable for the losses, and I would let down a lot of people.”
It’s fascinating to see somebody who used to operate outside the law conclude that, thanks to his success in a legitimate business, he has something to lose. He went to court.
“It was a huge stress, with somebody for the defence trying to make out I was lying. And I had to be in the same room as the guy who did this. But what I did wasn’t snitching; I was summonsed. It matters to me that people know that, even though I know that in the normal world that might seem ridiculous.”
Indeed it does. But perhaps the participation, however reluctant, in the legal process of such a high-profile figure as Manderson will show others from tough backgrounds that you needn’t lose your “cred” by talking to the authorities.
His story is a case study in how one can escape a troubled upbringing. Manderson’s mother was 16 when he was born. He was brought up by his grandmother and greatgrandmother on an estate in Hackney. His father, almost as young, was never around much. He did well at school until his great-grandmother died, when he was 13. He took days off, and gradually stopped going to school altogether after year 8.
He started using cannabis, and dealing too. He made a lot of money. It was criminal, he admits, but he insists he never dealt in hard drugs. Even so, he knows what it is like to have a gun held to his head.
He started rapping when friends challenged him, and crushing rivals in competitions with rhymes made up on the spot. Mike Skinner, known as the Streets, took him on tour.
Two years ago he was arrested on suspicion of kidnap, false imprisonment and drug possession. No charges were pressed but his family were very, very upset, he says. He took it as a warning to back away from crime. Skinner signed him up to his record label, but then Manderson received news that his father had hanged himself. He was asked to identify the body at the mortuary.
“He wasn’t a horrible person. But he had his own problems.” The last time they spoke, by phone, Manderson told his father: “Go f*** yourself.”
He admits: “It would have been much nicer if we could have resolved stuff. But I’ve had to try to let it all go or it would destroy me.”
Skinner’s record label closed, but things picked up when Manderson signed a deal with Virgin, and Lily Allen asked him to tour with her. He obviously feels deeply indebted to her. He knew she was pregnant at Glastonbury and had to cover up when people asked about her, but says he hasn’t seen her since her recent miscarriage.
In a short time Manderson’s life has changed enormously. At parties he is photographed by paparazzi. At gigs young women throw their knickers at him. A film of him on tour shows the hysterical screaming of the audience between his songs; you can see the shock on his face. Will it all go to his head? “Nah. To have that kind of response was humbling.”
He adds: “I’ve managed to turn my life around. I’ve been fortunate enough to see that there is a lot more out there.”
He recently started seeing a counsellor for trauma therapy. “I have sleep paralysis. It’s not fun. You wake up but your body’s still asleep so you’re unable to move. It probably only lasts a few seconds but it feels like an eternity.”
He has started drinking herbal tea, to look after his voice, and for three weeks he has avoided alcohol. He’s a changed man. “That’s what growing-up is.”
On the social side, he says he has managed to “weed a lot of snakes” from his social circle. But he’s extremely pleased that old friends from Hackney, and friends of friends, agreed to take part in his latest video, a gritty depiction of urban life. They wouldn’t have done if they thought he was a snitch.
1274 words. First published 14 November 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.