President T is in business mode. The inauguration in Washington D.C. might only be days away, but anyone who’s familiar with this grime legend’s idiosyncratic flow knows that there’s only one president. Today, his presidential suite is the backroom of a Caribbean restaurant in Kentish Town, known for doing particularly good cactus fries. Prez is sipping a can of Ting, blackout shades over his eyes, and a distractingly large bit of bling on one finger. He speaks with intent and clarity; directing his words right into the speaker of my iPhone to pick up each syllable.
Having started out in the (now defunct) Meridian Crew in 2003, alongside Skepta, Jme and Big H, the North London MC is famed for dropping one of the best grime mixtapes of all time - ‘Back Inna My Face’, as well as his legendary beef with Trim. But before the surprise drop of full-length ‘T On The Wing’, just before Christmas, we hadn’t heard all that much from the emcee. It’s something he addresses from the offset of the album, with the repeated refrain ‘Prez where you been?’ Turns out he’d been completing a prison sentence (‘After a lengthy bird / I was on the streets with wings’ … ‘Why do they call it HM Pleasure?’, he asks on the titular cut).
The chief of the non sequitur, President T has amassed a cult following for his unique, conversational flow and off-the-wall ad-libs that have spawned memes of him making breakfast, while the Chicken Connoisseur recently proved that his taste in wings is as on-point as his taste in MCs by naming Prez as his favourite. Now back - and bigger than ever - the grime vet is leading up to the release of one of the longest-awaited albums ever: ‘Stranger Returns’ - and it’s clear he’s not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Ask your uncle.
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‘T On The Wing’ marks your return since 2015’s ‘Greatest To Ever To Touch Down’. What sparked your decision to drop another full-length?
Well, ‘Stranger Returns’ has been anticipated for a long, long time. I made the fans wait years for it. So we decided that it was too early to release ‘Stranger Returns’ - in the current climate of what's going on in grime now. So we thought, let's give the fans a gap filler. A powerful album that is going to bridge the gap. And ‘T On The Wing’ was born. I had to tell the story of what's been going on in-between that gap.
Yeah, I was going to ask about the reason behind releasing a prequel to ‘Stranger Returns’ after such a long wait. Did you have excess material too?
Yeah, so much material. Even with ‘Stranger Returns’, there's a possibility it might be a double CD - it's a power album. It's been anticipated for nearly over ten years. So for me to just drop it without any build-up, like a prior album to build it up, I felt it was a bit unfair. Because then the fans are going to ask: ‘Okay Prez, this album 'Stranger Returns', you've been talking about it for ten years - once you've dropped that, what next?!’ And because I know ‘Stranger Returns’ is going to be harder to top or beat, I need to make sure it's the most powerful album in the world. Not just in the grime genre, but in British music, European music, worldwide music. It needs to make a big statement.
Do you feel slightly bad having made people wait basically ten years?
Yeah. Yeah, that's why I made sure ‘T On The Wing’ was such a powerful album with a lot of main features, big features in the grime scene; Ghetts, So Large, Jme, Big H and Bossman.
Yeah, you've got legends on there along with some newer voices. Do you think it’s important to give people a leg up, the incoming generation?
It's important to give the newcomers a chance to show their talents, and it's also important to let the current new fans of today know where grime is coming from. Hence why I got a track on there called ‘Larger’ with Bruza, and trying to bring back the old school element of it. But, you know, make it seem like it's into 2017 and 2016 grime.
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‘T On The Wing’ fires shots at ‘snakes’ and ‘slugs’ in the industry. Were your disses directed at anyone in particular?
If the shoe fits, wear it. If there's any track you're listening to on ‘T On The Wing’ and you feel like, that's aimed at me - then it might as well be aimed at you. Because if you're doing the things I'm talking about, then yeah it is. But if you're not, then it's not aimed at you. It’s not any in-directs or subliminals, it’s just a case of, if the shoe fits, wear it.
Your family are from Birmingham and Manchester originally - is it nice to see so many MCs from around there doing great things?
It's very good to see, because obviously only until recent years Northern talent hasn't been able to break through. But the chance has always been there. I don't think they wanted it as bad - that's all it is. It's not a case of you being from Preston, or you being from London. Whoever wants it more will get it. Whoever wants to go on stage and perform and do great things and sell lots of albums will get it. I've been in London since I was three years old, born in the West Midlands but grew up in London, Tottenham N17. But I do sit back sometimes and I smile, and I think I'm finally glad that the Northern talent is finally coming through.
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I do sit back sometimes and I smile...
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You’ve just returned from a stint in prison, did you manage to maintain a work ethic while you were in there?
I did lots and lots of writing and concentrating on getting out. That was the main thing. Perfecting my craft, my unique presidential flow. I didn't dwell on anything negative, I was thinking positive things. About the day that I get out. Got to keep writing things. I did myself a two-year forecast. I wanted to have a mixtape at the end of that year, and here we are now.
Was there a sense of frustration while you were inside? Like, seeing people on the outside doing stuff and wanting to be a part of it?
I wasn't really frustrated because without a scene or without people doing great things in the scene then I wouldn't be classed as a great MC. So that always needed to run but the main reason for me not being frustrated as well is because I know what I've got is very unique and no-one else can replicate it.
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You signed to Star Work Music a couple of years ago, how did that come about and how has it facilitated your comeback?
Yeah, two years ago. I had to make sure my music was getting to the wider masses and being given a fair break. If that's correct to say? So where there was no interruptions or anyone trying to block my music. I only thought it was right that I work with Star Works in partnership, so we could do great things. They took a lot of stuff out of my hands, so I'm able to concentrate on the creative side of things; music, recording, performances and just generally working with people more.
I've always been interested in your pick of beats. You seem to have a unique ear for instrumentals - what do you look for when selecting a production?
I like the space to add instrumentals where there's not too much stuff going on. A lot of people feel they need some electric sound in chart-topping beats to go places. But if the artist on the beat isn't really saying much then it's a waste of a beat and it's a waste of the lyrics. So I try and find beats that can send a message themselves or give the listener something to think about. Normally they’re the ones that haven't got too much instrumental, too much sounds going on. There seems to be a lot of space to have.
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Nobody wants to take the long route round to success. They all want to cross the grass.
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How do you see grime as having changed since the days when you were starting out in Meridian?
There's a lot of opportunity in the scene now, more than there was back then. Anyone can be a rapper overnight now. You find yourself YouTubing an instrumental or some sort of heavy bass instrumental. Record the track, get your bredrin to shoot a video, and there's a high chance you could have a million views. It's so open now. I'm a bit confused - is it for the talent? Or is it just that people want new material? I think that's down to the fans to make up their mind about it: do they just want new music or really good talent, know what I mean? There has to be some sort of balance and I would say that there's a lot of media behind the grime scene now. A lot of social networking platforms that people can use. Whereas ten years ago there was radio and you were lucky to get on TV.
It’s sort of levelled the playing field, but you've also got to have a really good social media strategy...
And there's too many artists out here that are trying to cross the grass. What I mean by that is, nobody wants to take the long route round to success. They all want to cross the grass. But that's why I'm here. I put barriers around the grass so you have to walk the long way round. So you can't cross the grass no more. And I'm making sure of it.
Interestingly, Wiley recently commented he thinks he's too old for the scene - how this was gonna be his last album. I was wondering what you thought of him saying that…
Wiley said that?! Himself? He said it himself? It all depends how you view yourself as an artist. If he feels that he's too old to make grime then I respect any choice that he makes but in my opinion, he isn't too old. He's got another ten years left. He's the Godfather. Without Wiley doing what he's done, half of these MCs nowadays wouldn't be MCs.
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Without Wiley doing what he's done, half of these MCs nowadays wouldn't be MCs.
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Do you feel like you have to win over a younger generation of grime fans that are coming through, even though you’ve got that solid fan-base of older ones?
You can't block great things, the way I see it. Yeah, since I came back into it full time - the music, it has been a little bit challenging to get the young crowd and address them in a way that they're going to be interested in ‘Prez T’ who was around ten years ago. But I would say that my style of music and the energy that I'm providing now, I'm capturing all the young fans as well. So yeah, it's all gravy in that aspect.
Going back to ‘Stranger Returns’, what can we expect in terms of guest MCs, producers?
There's going to be slightly less features than there were on ‘T On The Wing’, but the features will be absolutely fantastic. Every feature will suit the track that they're on. Every feature will suit the actual track. I needed to make sure of that.
Nice. And is there a concrete date yet?
End of Spring. That's our target.
Finally, you've spoken in the past about wanting to do a full old school Meridian Crew album, which would be amazing. Has there been any movement on that?
Yes. I've had talks with a few of the members. And we're still at the talking stage. We're still going through talks. When a decision is made, believe me, I will let the fans know.
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'T On The Wing' is out now.
Words: Felicity Martin