The Great Developmental Professor Elemental

This article ties in to a podcast I recorded with Paul Alborough (Professor Elemental), available here.

In our last podcast, we spoke to David Liebe Hart. In that particular case, we had a personality on our hands who’s very difficult to detach from his character. The flip-side of that is a creative whose use of a character is acutely deliberate. That’s precisely the bill that Paul Alborough, best known for his popular Professor Elemental alter-ego, fits in spades. However, Alborough is a vast talent regardless of such construction. He calls to mind an important truth; something we’re all guilty of in an age of information. Would his immense abilities have found an audience if it weren’t for the cipher of the Professor?

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For this one example, the question is rendered fairly moot. Alborough has made his character work for him. All too often, when in a position such as his, things slip into empty gimmick. What offers the Professor an endurance is development. Since Alborough understands this, his persona has never become a constraint. Yet, this isn’t always the case.

When falling into the tricks of the viral trade, the creativity at heart is incredibly quick to fade. Through an examination of his catalogue, and with some quotes from our recent podcast, we may just come closer to comprehending the ways that the internet pressures our artistic drives. Regardless, I hope, at least, to give fair analysis to a body of work that’s more than deserving of your time.

For Alborough, hip-hop was a founding love. However, he was equally as influenced by the British comedies that surrounded him. As a result, even for a rapper, he holds a keen interest in wordplay.

I think Blackadder was a huge influence, ’cause it’s something I used to watch with my dad and it was where I got that real love of words. And Fry & Laurie as well, their TV series. It was all very verbal comedy; it was all very verbally dexterous and played on the ridiculousness of language. That really tickled my fancy. I just thought that was the absolute business. It was also, sort of, the late-80’s, early-90’s, where stand-up would start coming on TV, and you’d have people like Alexei Sayle, or even our short-lived version of Saturday Night Live, [which] had a few different comedians, impressionists and stuff. That left a big impact on me, because it was all quite anarchic. They were getting away with an awful lot of stuff.

It’s clear that these comedies had an effect on Alborough. Considering that, it’s easier to see how naturally character-building comes to him. Similarly, it surely afforded him the timing and satire that he’s long since mastered. There’s something in his music that inherently reflects the mood and tone of his homeland. Even outside of a crafted avatar, British comedy can teach a wordsmith much of worth. The world of washed-out middle-class English homes, in our sitcoms, is a powerful one. However, it has more in common with the bravado of hip-hop than first thought.

A good hip-hop MC doesn’t give a monkey’s about what he says; he’ll say anything. A good comedian’s the same.

It’s an axiom that seems consistently in the background of Alborough’s catalogue. Yet, while he could see the comedy in hip-hop, and vice versa, it wouldn’t become a key tenant until the Professor was born. Before then, Alborough was still a rapper of some experience. The only difference was, he took a slightly different approach. In certain ways, the liberation in hip-hop comes through its tenacity and teeth. This was what led him, along with many like myself, to see an allure in the very American world of beats and verse.

Like a lot of middle-class, white boys, living in the countryside in England, hip-hop was like a really safe way to rebel.

With that in mind, Alborough came to the scene with Elemental, a more straight-up persona with a markedly different voice. His early work is surprisingly expansive, spanning multiple collaborations with Mr. Simmonds, fascinating rumblings with Jon Clark and formative recordings with his long-time producer, Tom Caruana. The only issue for someone as talented and hardworking as Alborough was the brick wall that young artists consistently have to come up against. Without something to mark you out from the crowd, and perhaps a little well-placed luck, most fresh-faced rappers are left in limbo. While his first albums show him to be as proficient as always, they’d have been overlooked had Alborough not developed. It’s an injustice, but one that all too many promising creatives suffer daily.

Truth be told, if not for the Professor, that stuff wouldn’t have had even half the attention that it has had, even on a small level. I was doing Elemental stuff for years, before I did the Professor, and there’s a lot of independent UK rappers; some of them are amazing but don’t necessarily get heard, unless they’ve got some kind of “novelty” thing to link them in. I never really mind too much that the Professor’s taken over, because it’s taken me around the world. And the fact that we’re sat here talking now, and i’m not in some call centre somewhere (like I used to be), I could never really complain.

By 2008, Elemental came out with his debut full-length with Caruana; a partnership that has seen widespread success for them both. Entitled Rebel Without Applause, it’s a wonderful little album showcasing somewhat of a transition for Alborough. You can hear the birth mewls of the ever-enthusiastic Professor throughout, even on tracks where the straighter Elemental is spitting fire with archetypal alacrity. Most notably, the track Cup of Brown Joy is one of the very first recorded verses of the Professor himself. Alborough has spoken about the true first appearance occurring in a jettisoned track for an abandoned album, but that’s just a little geekery for the completionists. It was on this track that chap-hop was formed.

With Cup of Brown Joy becoming a bit of a viral hit, along with a video from Moog Gravett, Alborough was smart enough to recognise he was onto something. The next couple of years would see the release of the Professor’s debut The Indifference Engine, its follow up (Father of Invention) and a well-known feud with chap-hop usurper, Mr. B. Unfortunately, while his first two albums are genre-classics and extremely enjoyable in their own right, the originator behind it all couldn’t help a feeling of constraint.

Hip-hop’s too good to talk about any one thing. You want to be able to talk about anything that pops into your head!

Alborough didn’t have any pressure from his audience to develop. On the whole, much of his suddenly ballooning fan-base were happy with rhymes about tea and colonial anachronisms. As such, the Professor could still be sailing by today on nothing more than that particular well of ideas. The development came from Alborough himself, whose nuanced interests and tastes were beginning to see themselves buried under a rut. It was a rut that Alborough and Caruana made the very best from, but one that eventually brought about certain discomfort in its progenitor.

The whole idea of it being chap-hop was a lovely springboard when we were first doing tea, or Fighting Trousers. I’m not going to moan about having a label but, in an ideal world, I’d love it to be just seen as silly hip-hop again. The chap-hop thing, sort of, makes my teeth itch a bit. If I wasn’t doing it and someone said, “Have you heard of chap-hop?” I’d be a bit, “Oh, man. That sounds awful.” I want it to be really good music.

Thanks to Caruana, that’s always going to be the case. Even when Alborough was still, to some extent, resting on certain laurels with tracks like Everything Stops for Tea, it was always more than cheaply kitsch. This was, in large part, thanks to Caruana’s skill. He can use the obligatory antiquated sounds and samples masterfully, often marrying them with crisp and surprisingly modern beats. His abilities behind the desk are on par with Alborough’s behind the mic, which is far more than outdated name-drops and patriotic references. It comes back to his understanding of comedy which, on his first works, melds beautifully with Caruana’s contributions.

If you make wacky music, that will only take you so far. But, if you make good music that’s about ridiculous things, that’s, I think, a secret to keeping it going.

An urge to develop became more clear, as Alborough began branching out into the cosmopolitan world of other entertainment. The character of the Professor, and his styling, was still very much there; just applied in different mediums. Around this time, his love for comics came as much to the fore as his passion for hip-hop and comedy. Through a series of well-made issues, some with covers by the likes of Charlie Adlard and Brian Kesinger, the world of the Professor saw itself cleverly inflated. Alborough found a key way to use previous limitations as a genuine liberation; something that continues today with further comics, novels, tea-bags and tabletop games.

The Professor’s really useful. [If] I have an idea for a horror story, or a comic I wanna write, he’s like a lens I can focus it all through

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While everything seemed done in making the Professor as rounded as possible, the whole zeitgeist became a bit too suffocating for one as thoughtful as Alborough. The first strong signs of a shift in tone came with his EP, The Giddy Limit. This release saw him making a more conscious step into the modern era, bringing his character with him to make commentary beyond his original purview. Not only did it feature more contemporary references and political tinges, but it saw a slight hole forming in the fourth wall. Alborough began to project more of himself, through some understated ways, into the project. A lot of the music even followed suit. Listening to it, it would be a stretch to consider it chap-hop. What the creators thought of a novelty genre seemed clear.

I don’t resent it, ’cause you just have to go with whatever you get! It’s not like I need people to take me seriously I think, but novelty suggests that it’s like, “Ho ho, look at that funny fellow with his cup of tea! Anyway, what’s next?”

For the Professor, the next major release came in the form of Apequest. Continuing on from the statement made on The Giddy Limit, this took the brave approach of being his most sprawling work yet. Over twenty-two tracks, and presented as a concept album, it tells a coherent tale that’s closer to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than Allan Quatermain. Throughout, you can hear Alborough firing on all cylinders with a simple drive to push forward and explore new territory.

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You want to keep constantly innovating and doing something new, or otherwise what’s the point?

That attitude runs across the entire record, which jumps from idea to idea with tight craftsmanship. It’s a fine collage of Alborough’s personality too. You can hear the sincere love for hip-hop in every corner; its music and production is as innovative as it is unshackled by any one cliched style. By this point in his career, Alborough had made his mic-skills a guarantee too. His adoration for comics is there as well, from the whole story to the styling of its characters and artwork. Most of all, British comedy is upheld admirably across its entirety. From Monty Python to Douglas Adams, through the aforementioned Blackadder and more, the tones and timbres of our collective national humour permeate the whole.

Frankly, with all these developments heavily in-tow, Apequest feels like a magnum opus. My only problem with labelling it as such is knowing that Alborough’s far from done with moving forward. I doubt that he’ll ever be content to tread water in shallow pools. Having spoken to him personally, I got some extra insights onto his direction for future concept works. With the tease of supporting characters propping up the Professor in Apequest, and in the artwork to his latest release (Professor Elemental and His Amazing Friends), it seems that we have a greater weight on a surrounding cast to anticipate.

What i’m trying to do, this year, is to build a little supporting cast for him; just to broaden his world out. I imagine him living in a, slightly, timeless version of Britain, like Wallace & Gromit or a Carry On film. They’re just archetypal Britain. They’re not particularly Victorian and they’re not completely modern either, ’cause they’re a bit old fashioned. We wrote, and recorded, four half-hour episodes of a comedy radio show, with hardly any music in. [We] got some amazing comic actors to play different parts. So, now, he’s got a rival and a girlfriend, and there’s a superhero… A policeman who he doesn’t like, and all that kind of stuff. [I’m] just seeing what we can do to build up the surrounding cast, and give him some other things to react against.

These comedy radio shows should fit perfectly into an oeuvre that honourably shed its less ambitious roots. World-building of this kind can be deeply important to the longevity and fulfilment of a character. Thankfully, understanding this, Alborough is sure to poke through the noise no matter how much he’s misconstrued as a tea-crazed gentleman chap. With so many dimensions left to explore, that’s only one reason why listeners should keep an ear on the output of the Professor. Put simply, his music is magnificent. His comedy is nostalgic and intelligent. His development is far from over.

I want to test the optimism, and I want to do, maybe, a concept album where I just… am horrible to him. Like, I’d strip away everything. I’d take his mansion, I’d kill his monkey, steal his hat…Just, see what would happen if you really ground Professor Elemental into the dirt.

Here’s my conversation with the Professor himself, as the tenth episode in our second season of podcasts:

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.