Professor Elemental -- The Interview

I don’t yet know what 2011 is going to be remembered for, musically speaking – I suppose it’ll be Adele, Nicki Minaj, various underage gentlemen with waterproof hairstyles, and Tyler, The Creator. I’ve listened to most of it. Some of it’s pretty good. The hairstyles in particular are very, very well-maintained.

For me, though, I was only too thrilled to volunteer perhaps one-third of my total music-listening time in 2011 to a British emcee who dresses as a rogue character from an H. Rider Haggard novel, lives in a castle surrounded by a tea-filled moat, conducts troubling experiments in animal fusion, searches the jungle for artifacts that may in fact be located between his sofa cushions, and calls his most-loathed rival in the hip hop arena “rap’s Piers Morgan.” Then, there’s more tea.

So crown who you want, but for me, 2011 will go down as the year of Professor Elemental.

I cannot begin to tell you how often Elemental, the Steampunk inventor of chap-hop, has been the go-to guy in my speakers this year. I first heard him on Irwin Chusid’s show on WFMU. One second I was doing something with a spreadsheet, the next minute I was furiously looking up the name of the person who’d just shouted “It’s splendid!” over my computer speakers. Ten minutes later I owned a copy of Elemental’s debut album, The Indifference Engine, and about 45 minutes later I was racing around the office demanding that my co-workers obtain it post-haste. Discovering Elemental was one of my most giddy moments of the last twelve months. Take that as you will.

Elemental’s YouTube debut, “Cup Of Brown Joy” (sorry, sickos: it’s about tea), obtained well over a million hits in the U.K., which means it’s the isle’s equivalent of the honey badger clip.

Playing a character in hip hop can be risky, but the reason Elemental’s comic turns are so addictive is that behind the outfit is someone who truly loves and understands hip hop. He’s a fantastic, very precise rhymer (his lines about his disdain for coffee at the three-quarter mark of “Brown Joy” are just jaw-dropping). Producer partner Tom Caruana – so vital to the Professor that he’s given equal billing on the remix album More Tea? – makes amazing sonic flourishes, combining legit big beats with a bag of samples ranging from big band swing, early ‘90s hip hop, Wagnerian dread and ‘60s soul-jazz.

It reminds me of a line about the great 20th century musical parodist Spike Jones: You can’t make comedy music this good unless you’re wholly in love with the music you’re sourcing. It’s not parody (like Elemental’s nemesis, the “George Formby clone” Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, with his Shakey’s Pizza hat and his sub-John Oates ‘stache) – it’s stretching the ways hip hop can be used to tell a story.

I got in touch with the Professor in early November, showering him with plaudits like a fan-girl, insisting that I was in fact something of a journalist, and asking if he’d consent to a chat. After he kindly agreed to an interview, I sent my questions to his attention via a unicycle-powered postal-reflexive catapult*. His remarks are presented untouched, except for grammatical items I’m famously sticky about.

As a bonus, I also talked to Brighton hip hop advocate, seminarian and expert Paul Alborough, who… well, let’s just say he knows the Professor better than just about anyone. Except maybe the monkey butler.

Interview after the jump. It is, as they say, splendid:

(*Or it may have been via email. I can’t recall.)

PP: How are you, Professor! Where are you at the moment?

Professor Elemental: I am sat in my rather dusty, but still resplendent dining room. Waiting on that damned monkey butler to bring me my afternoon scones.

PP: First off: Whenever people have asked me who I’ve been listening to this year, I’ve said “Professor Elemental.” With one exception, everyone I’ve gotten to check your music out has loved it. That doesn’t happen a lot. And the one exception was more on the fence than disapproving. Are you aware of the potential of something happening for you here in America? Have you been here before?

PE: On the fence eh? Well, that’s not good enough. I won’t rest until I am beloved by all who hear me. Well, beloved or feared.

Yes. The Americas. Land of theme parks and Fruit Loops. I have been lucky enough to visit for a couple of Steampunk conventions and they have been some of the best gigs of my life. I am definitely feeling the full potential over there… I should be back and forth quite a bit next year. Hopefully for Dragon Con, Octopodicon, Wicked Faire and a few others.

PP: Most Americans are probably not familiar with your character profession. In a nutshell, can you describe what it is you do besides rapping?

PE: My act is a winning combination of mad science, stand up comedy, casual conversation and erotic dance….With a creamy hip hop filling.

PP: How did you meet Tom Caruana? How would you describe your working process?

PE: I met Tom at the Glastonbury Festival. He was lost and fell over me at a campfire. I had just started rapping but didn’t know any producers, he had just started properly producing and didn’t know many emcees. Plus we both liked cake.

As for the process... well, he sends me a pile of beats, I roll around in them and choose favourites, write them in a furious scribble and then we come together to bash them into shape. It's my favourite thing ever.

PP: My kids want to know about your orangutan butler, Geoffrey. I mentioned it might be a thorny subject because I gather it hasn’t always been an easy arrangement to maintain. It sounds like he might have occasional trouble understanding the whole point of a master-to-subordinate relationship.

PE: Ah. Yes. Well, when I first found Geoffery – he was quite wild, in fact he was furious. But over the years I have tried to train him to wear clothing and give the very basic level of care to which I have become accustomed. Certainly, he still has a tendency take out his temper on the good crockery or I find him ‘marking his territory’ in the Duchess of Kent’s hat during a garden party… but generally he is a fine companion.

PP: You’re known for time-traveling, which is how I expect you discovered hip hop. I’m wondering if you had the chance to introduce past civilizations to hip hop. I’m guessing if you did, quite a few didn’t get it. But were they any that really took to it?

PE: Not really. Well, I did go back to the mid-'70s and teach this one chap named DJ Kool Herc about the finer points of hip hop, but that’s about it.

PP: Your song with Helen Arney, “Animals,” is without question the slow jam of the year. You and Helen discussing wanting to "get it on," as they say, in the same, sometimes unsavory ways that other members of the animal kingdom would, like salmon and hedgehogs. Were there any animal mating rituals that didn’t make the cut for this song because they were even more disturbing than, say, the praying mantis or the gentleman bee?

PE: Yes. There were plenty. Giraffes were particularly surprising, filthy beasts. Fortunately, my colleague Baba Brinkman has done a much dirtier remix of the song and was not shy about mentioning each and every one of them. But then he is a Canadian.

PP: I really hate to stoop to TMZ-gossip column type questions, but I’m afraid there will be trouble if I don’t ask about your beef with Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer. Sorry to dredge up old news if that’s the case. The battle took place, is that right? What’s the status of the feud?

PE: Well, the battle did take place, but the audience wrongly declared it as a draw, despite me having beaten B to a mushy pulp with my mighty word stick. We are having a rematch in Paris in February and by God, I will show him no mercy -- I may rip the tache right off of his chops.

PP: Speaking of beefs, I sense a hint of disdain from some of your contemporaries in the social and scientific circles in Britain. It just sounds to me like they’re afraid to try new things. Where do you think this springs from? Is there anybody in that circle you feel you can confide in?

PE: I’m genuinely not sure what you mean… so that must mean they are either talking behind my back or I have been too dense to notice. Bah! Who needs them anyway? I am going to go and live in America and eat Twinkies for breakfast every day.

PP: The video for “Cup Of Brown Joy,” probably the greatest song ever written about tea, was a big YouTube hit in your native country, and also a great example of your skills at exotic dancing. How did that come about? I was also wondering where the exteriors were shot.

PE: That video (and pretty much 90% of the reason anyone knows who I am) comes from the director, Moog. He is amazing and the finest director I have had the privilege to work with and he has a lovely line in facial hair. It was shot in Lewes and Stanmer Park in Brighton, Sussex on a fine February morning.

PP: I come from Seattle, which is all about the coffee. What blend of tea would be most effective in converting coffee drinkers to tea drinkers? 'Cause I don’t think this chai business is working out.

PE: Chai? That’s not tea -- that’s a nutmeg-flavoured abomination, sir! Hmm... I always favour Yorkshire Tea, Barry’s Tea (from Ireland) or if you are getting fancy, I get my posh tea from the Wan Ling Tea House.

I should add that (sadly) I am not sponsored by any of them. Which is a shame. I would happily sell my soul for a box of free tea.

PP:“Splendid” got me first, but the song and video that really put me in your corner was “Fighting Trousers,” which is your Mr. B diss. I especially liked the Raging Bull homage in the opening credits.

PE: Again, that’s all Moog. He had the Raging Bull idea and it worked out just lovely. “Splendid,” I should say, was put together by the good folks at The home of kittens, cake and wrongness.

PP: One very tangible obsession that’s come out of my listening to your tracks is the Battenburg. I don’t eat a lot of cake, but I searched for some photos of Battenburgs online. They looked amazing. Now I’m trying to convince my wife to give me kitchen time this holiday so I can try making a Battenburg. Given that she relents -- and it will take a very persuasive argument from me to make that happen -- is it possible for an American to make a Battenburg without screwing it up?

PE: I have no idea. I once tried to impress my girlfriend by pretending I could bake and then got in such a tiz ruining a roulade that she had to come and comfort me. It was probably about then that I knew I would never be a gangsta rapper.

Good luck with your Battenburg. I think you should try and make it before you put this interivew online and make sure that there is a photo for your effort for the readers. (Here's a picture. It's not my Battenburg. -- Ed.)

PP: Can you clue us in on your plans for the future? What kind of things will you be exploring? What era will you be time-traveling to? If you happen to plan on going to the French Revolution, can you tell Marie Antionette “Thanks for the lovely evening” for me?

PE: I have enormous and extensive plans for the future… and the past come to think of it. I’ll be spending 2012 on tour and plan to visit everywhere at least twice. I also have a show featuring my future self, holograms and flying robots scheduled for early in the year. (I really do, and am not making this up!) Details will be announced via my website. It is the most excited I have ever been about a show, and can’t wait to do things that have never been done on stage before, let alone with hip hop.

No plans to head to the French Revolution -- it’s not the most fun period to return to. Although, I do agree that Mary Antionette is a saucy minx who’ll do anything for a bunch of grapes and a fresh camembert.

PP: I looked at your tour schedule for next year, and I noticed you’ve scheduled an appearance at a Steampunk convention in Oklahoma. Out of respect and concern for the Steampunk contingent, I have to ask: Are you at all worried about having to spend time in Oklahoma?

PE: I have no worries at all about the Oklahomosapiens. From what I hear they are a lovely folk with nice manners and a splendid line in bison. Mmmm, tasty bison. Hooray for Oklahoma! Hooray for Steampunk for getting me to Oklahoma! Hooray!


(We then turned our attention to Prof. Elemental's "associate," British emcee Paul Alborough:)

PP: Seriously, though, how did you discover hip hop?

Paul Alborough: We have lots of relatives in America, and when I was about 12 I was left with an uncle’s hip hop collection. I had never heard anything like it. It blew me away. It wasn’t widely known about in the rural parts of the UK either, so I loved that I was the only one I knew who was into it. The fact that it used so many words and could communicate everything from surreal stories (The Fresh Prince) to incredible feats of braggadocious wordplay (Big Daddy Kane) made me fall in love with it from the beginning.

PP: The story of the origin of Professor Elemental’s character is great -- a hip hop anthology that places the form in other eras and characterizations. The album didn’t happen, but what was it about Elemental that stuck with you enough to pursue it?

PA: It was the vehicle that I’d been looking for really. I’d already tried fancy dress while rapping, but it just came across as a bit weird.. and not in a good way. The professor is a natural extension of myself, so he’s easy to maintain as a character. Plus the potential for his adventures is limitless.

PP: As I’m writing this, we’ve just recently heard about the sad, way-too-early passing of Heavy D, whose lyrics you referenced in “Livin’ In the '90s."You have a very strong affection for the hip hop of that period. What was it about that particular era of rap that makes it close to your heart?

PA: Well, it’s a combination of things. For me, it's when the music was at its most vital and most varied. You had rap that was funny, smooth, gangsta, conscious and everything in between. People were trying new things and labels were signing some very unusual acts that wouldn’t get a chance these days. Plus the producers were all knocking out such incredible beats -- DJ Premier, Pete Rock, K-Def, Buckwild -- everyone sounded fresh and new.

That said, to be more objective, I think it’s really because that’s when I was a teenager. We all think that the music that came out when we were a teen is the best, because that’s when we first get into music. My Dad will always swear by Motown and Stax soul, and older friends of mine will say that the '80s is the golden age of hip hop. It’s just down to when you were born I think.

PP: What kind of contemporary hip hop do you feel is making the grade? Are there any new artists or strains of hip hop that resonate in you, that you think are moving the genre forward?

PA: Tons and tons of artists are doing brilliant music, both here and overseas. Much as I love the music of the '90s, the last ten years have brought out so much incredible music -- plus the fact that you no longer need be signed to get your music heard by millions.

Dizrali And The Small Gods, Haji P, Kyle Rapps, Dr. Syntax, Foreign Beggars, Stig Of The Dump, Jay Electronica, Baba Brinkman, Rizzle Kicks and tons of others all move hip hop to new places in completely different ways.

PP: I was curious about the workshops for kids that you do. It sounds a lot like a group we have up here called 826 Seattle, which just won an award for inspiring kids to take creative writing to the next level. What are your workshops like? What are some of the biggest rewards you’ve experienced from them?

PA: I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people doing workshops. It’s the most constantly surprising experience, and every workshop has at least one young person who astounds you with their skills or potential. Probably the most satisfying one was a beatbox and rapping workshop with young people who had severe learning difficulties -- we created a song from scratch in an hour, and we were all so happy with it.

Plus, I taught (the now very famous) Rizzle Kicks in a series of workshops a few years back… at the risk of sounding like a weather-beaten old trainer in a boxing film, I knew the kid had something special about him -- so amazing that he has now hit it big. What better outcome is there than that?

One thing I have learnt from endless workshops with teenagers is that teens get a bad reputation, particularly in the UK. We need to treat our young people with more respect.

PP: My son Hank is three years old, and his speech is still in that sort of indecipherable age between baby-talk and understandable language. So I occasionally engage in some call-and-response things with him, ostensibly to improve his communication, but also, I admit, so I can hear how he sounds when he repeats things in his own funny way. One of the songs I’ve played a lot for him and my daughter Lucie is “Cup Of Brown Joy,” and sometimes around the house I’d just break out the chorus on that. “When I say Earl Grey, you say ‘yes please’! Earl Grey!” And they all respond appropriately.

One afternoon I was kind of absent-mindedly goofing off with the kids at home. So I started riffing on “Cup of Brown Joy.” I did the line about Oolong – “Now when I say oo, you say long! Oo!” “Long!” “Oo!” “Long!”And I stopped there – something else caught my attention and I didn’t go any further. But Hank kept talking, and I didn’t really notice what he was saying until he got insistent:“When I thay ‘herbah,’ you thay ‘No fanks! Herbah!” Met with silence from the rest of us.

So then he said, “When I thay ‘herbah,’ you thay ‘No fanks’!.... Herbah… Herbah… Herbah… SAY IT!” At that point we pretty much figured we had no choice but to say it.

PA: Ha! That’s brilliant, wish I could say the same for my kids. When I start rapping, my three-year-old just gives me a withering look and says, “Stop being silly daddy.”

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