Keeping things fresh: Steampunk rapper Professor Elemental on hip-hop and education

Today we’re joined by Paul Alborough – a witty British rapper who “hosts, performs and teaches hip-hop in more ways than you can imagine” in the guise of steampunk cleverclogs Professor Elemental.

Paul’s been interviewed many times about his music, but as I’ve recently started working in South Auckland, with its strong hip-hop culture, I was especially excited by his former career as a special needs educator, and his ongoing commitment to youth development through hip-hop workshops.

I began our interview by asking about Paul’s time as a teacher.

The truth is that I stumbled into it, having realised that I hated or had been fired from every other day job that I could possibly think of. That, and a natural affinity with children, who always seemed a lot more fun to hang out with than adults, led me to the world of  education.

I was lucky enough to find a special school where I taught teenagers with a variety of special educational needs, and loved what I did. If you tell other people about that job, they are most likely to say ‘Ooh, that must be rewarding’. It is, but more than that, I found it constantly funny. The young people I worked with were all teenagers and were some of the finest people I have ever had the privilege to know. They were inspirational, hilarious, and much better at some things than anyone in the ‘mainstream’ I have ever met. Their outlook on life taught me a lot.

Simultaneously, I found myself performing as the Professor. Before long, it took off, and I realised that I wasn’t giving teaching everything that I needed to, so was forced to make a choice. In the end, the lure of full time musician/comedian/village idiot was too hard to resist.

What can participants expect from one of your workshops? Has your education background informed your work?

Definitely – having learned the discipline and timing through teaching, it’s a lot easier to be clear and concise. I am also very big on inclusion and ensure that everyone gets to take part equally.

In terms of what to expect – there is a little of me showing off, a brief history of the art of rap, some group activities and then we get stuck in. My aim is to make sure that everyone tries writing and performing. I’ve had a few workshops with over 50 people and only one hour for the workshop – and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of getting everyone involved.

Your song Fighting Trousers dissed fellow ‘gentleman rapper’ Mr. B for not running workshops with kids. What do you, as an artist, get out of running such events? Have you met any promising MCs of the future?

Yeah, that was a bit of a low blow to be honest. It’s not written in the emcee manual that you have to work with kids to be allowed to rap. I was being a bit of a pious git in that line.

I get tons out of workshops – working with young people keeps things fresh and the adult workshops often throw up obscure and brilliant ideas I would never have considered.

There have been tons of promising emcees who now have either careers in music or a decent reputation as a rapper. I was lucky enough to work with Rizzle of Rizzle Kicks, who is now some kind of rap pop megastar and all round excellent bloke. I’m happy to say that the ones who have been most successful have often been the ones who have really deserved it though hard work and talent.

Where’s the dividing line, for you, between learning and entertainment? Are the workshops a sideline or a core part of who the Professor is?

I think they are more of a legacy from teaching, and more a part of me outside of the Professor. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, I also do feel that it’s the responsibility of anyone actively into hip-hop to keep the artform alive. That might  be through performing, making music, teaching in a workshop setting or just helping the next person along. These are the things that keeps the culture vibrant and interesting.

Where’s the dividing line between Paul and the Professor? Does a comic persona make it hard to establish credibility with the wider hip hop community?

The Professor is basically just me when I am over excited. He also embodies a lot of my worst character traits, so can be quite cathartic to perform – but it’s very important not to get stuck as him or to believe your own hype. He would be annoying to hang around with all of the time.

I long since gave up on getting any credibility from the UK hip-hop community as a whole.  I have lost count of the amount of shows where I perform to a large crowd of puzzled and pissed off blokes in hoodies. That’s not to say I don’t have an excellent crew of friends and a few fans in the hip-hop world, but I am happy to set my sights on a broader audience. British hip-hop lacks humour and isn’t particularly accepting of it. Well, not mine anyway. It might be that I am just not nearly as funny as I like to think I am.

You’ve spoken out against copyright law and in favour of musicians making a living without the corporate skim. What do you make of Amanda Palmer’s TED talk? How much do aspiring hip-hop performers need to know about the business side of music, and how much should they expect to take responsibility for it?

Amanda Palmer is ace. I haven’t seen the TED talk, but I think that responsibility has been handed back to the artists in terms of business. That makes me very happy indeed. We now have the tools to play the game however we like. You can kickstart, release free songs, distribute videos and find like minded people with no restrictions – what could be better than that?

There’s a pretty dull side to all this too. A lot of spreadsheets, contracts, databases and emails come hand in hand with it – but it is totally worth it. My advice is not to hide from these things, but learn each aspect of business as you need it. Eventually you have a raft of skills and can achieve a decent level of independence. It can be isolating working on the business of music alone too – hook up with other people and share skills, that makes it more fun.

And of course, I know some amazing musicians that either don’t want to deal with all that side – don’t care about making a living off it and make music for the sheer love of it. That’s just as valid and gives more time to be truly creative. Cliche that it is, you need to find what works for you.

What’s your take on steampunk? Is it ironic imperial nostalgia? How does a whimsical Victorian never-neverland blend with a music style of black origin?

It may be a bit of a disappointing answer – but I tend to treat it as a big fancy dress party. A chance to play a game with a lot of like minded imaginative people for the sheer fun of it.

There’s obviously loads of angles you can look at steampunk, most of them very valid (although I am immediately wary of anyone taking it too seriously). Mostly from what I have seen, it attracts nerds, like me. And nerds on the whole tend to be very nice, friendly, imaginative people who are happy to throw themselves into these situations with a smile on their face.

I have been knocked by articles on the internet and a few morons at shows, for performing a music of black origin dressed up as an imaginary colonial explorer. Someone recently also called my act ‘racist’ which made me giggle at first, then weep a little inside at their sheer stupidity.

The Professor’s latest track is “I’m British” – which I used as my entry theme on day one at Auckland Libraries – find out more about Paul’s music and workshops at the Professor Elemental website.

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