British-based rapper Paul Alborough achieved international acclaim when the video for his humorous ode to tea-drinking, “Cup of Brown Joy,” became popular on YouTube. In this interview with Castle in the Air, Paul shares with us how perseverance and finding his own style (notably in the form of his quintessentially eccentric alter-ego Professor Elemental) prepared him to make the leap to becoming a full-time professional artist.
Castle in the Air: Who do you see now as some of the early influences on your artistic career?
Paul Alborough: It’s a lovely, if very eclectic mix. I’d credit Isaac Hayes, Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, Vivian Stanshall, my dad, Chuck Jones, Neil Gaiman, Oliver Postgate, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Pryor, and the early works of Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince with creating much of the Professor’s makeup.
Was there a particular moment when you realized that you could be an artist rather than only a consumer?
It was ever so early on that I started rapping—when I was about 13 years old. But I was led to believe that the idea was so very ludicrous that I kept it to myself.
How did you go about getting started? How did you figure out how to make your first songs, your first performances? And was there anything about your home life that helped you in this?
Because of a lack of confidence, my first shows didn’t really come about until I was 22. In some ways I wish I had started earlier, but then getting a good grounding in (yawn) getting a day job and learning to be a teacher—these things certainly helped me appreciate the joys of creativity and provide a bit of a safety net, so I am not stuck with relying on music forever.
My home life was a happy one, so I was blessed with the time and support to begin doing nice creative things—but the thought of doing it for a living was completely out of the question. I think it’s a rather British conceit, not to reach too far and to settle for something modest in life.
The Internet has changed much about how artists work and communicate. What’s changed since you began?
It’s everything to me—YouTube launched my career with a single video. Facebook and Twitter have become essential tools for any solo artist and I use them as best I can. I love it! When I first started doing music, you either had to find a record deal (next to impossible) or remain very local—now there is no reason not to be ambitious without limits. I feel particularly lucky in how many great people that it allows me to meet, too, both professionally and in terms of making new friends.
What sort of day job did you have while you worked up your Professor Elemental character?
After a series of mind-numbing sales jobs, I eventually settled on being a teacher in a special school in Sussex. It was a fantastic job and very funny—working with young people keeps you young, I think, and I learned a lot from them. But it’s tiring, too, and I was glad of the change.
How have self-confidence and self-consciousness factored into your work?
One thing I learnt is that it’s very important to speak about yourself confidently and in the present tense. Never apologise for creative things, even when you can see they are flawed. And always say “I am...” rather than “I am thinking about…” or “One day, I’m going to…” I remember the first time someone asked me if I was any good as a rapper. It was the first time I said, “Yeah, I’m great,” that it all started to happen.
That is not to say that you should go around being an arse about it, though. It’s a thin line between being confident and just being a bit of a twat.
You had a breakthrough with the “Cup of Brown Joy” video. When did you think to yourself, “I can make this into a living”?
It was about a year ago. Gigs were flooding in and I found myself asking everyone who had “made the leap” about what the secret was, and how to go about it. I really recommend that as a good starting point. Find people who inspire you and copy/learn from them. I also read a couple of amazing books by Tom Hodgkinson called The Idle Parent and How to Be Idle. I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially to you American fellows who always seem to work too bloody hard…
At Castle in the Air, we compare bold steps in an artistic career to jumping off a cliff while wearing Icarus’s wings. Did your situation stir up similar feelings?
Yes, exactly that. Except for me, my wings were made of oak and brass and powered by a small steam engine.
What are the differences you see between being a professional artist in Britain versus in the United States?
I’ve talked about this a lot onstage—I think Americans are happier to celebrate success and live their dreams. On the other hand, I have encountered some insincerity and flakiness on the part of Americans who make promises. It can be a case of “all talk and no trousers,” as we might say.
Whereas over here it’s much more down to earth, but also more pessimistic. I have lost count of the number of people who say, “But what are you going to do when you can’t do the Professor any more?” like this is some kind of happy fluke and is bound to end shortly.
What things are most important to you as both an artist and a person?
Oh, I think the same things that anyone needs—friends, family, my children, my lady. Money is low on the list, although I do realise the need to obtain enough to be comfortable. Oh, and comics, Hip Hop, cartoons, comedy, and horror films to keep my imagination nice and sharp.
One thing about doing this full-time is that you need to make the effort not to do it all the time. It’s not healthy to obsess about it and it hurts your creativity eventually. It’s good to remind yourself of the things you like outside of your creative stuff.
What has surprised you most about the transition into full-time art?
The amount of admin that is involved in being a rapper. I never really thought of Method Man or Nas sitting down to go through their receipts and invoices, but it seems 70% of being a rapper is admin.
What do you think you’d do differently if you knew then what you know now?
Not much. I might have got certain aspects of my business life sorted a bit sooner. But the only reason I didn’t do that was because I spent my 20s having the time of my life, and I can’t regret that one bit.
Please share a piece of advice particularly for rappers who would like to “make the leap,” as well as a piece of advice for artists in any medium.
For rappers, the old cliché of “be yourself” is particularly vital in Hip Hop. It wasn’t until I abandoned any pretense of being a “normal” rapper that I found any success. And there are too many emcees who make up all sorts of rubbish about killing people and drug-dealing in order to sell records. We don’t need any more.
The only other more general advice I’d give is to make the leap; set a date, prepare financially, work out whether you need to remain working part-time and what other changes you might need to make in your life to accommodate a life of creativity—then do it. No excuses. Life will be so much better.
How can people keep up with your projects and career?