President T’s latest release, T on the Wing, opens with a question: “T, where you been?,” and spends the next twelve tracks fashioning the answer: Right here. Despite repeated claims that he “doesn’t even age,” T’s story goes back nearly to the founding of grime itself. He came up with the Meridian Crew, alongside many of grime’s biggest international names: Skepta, JME, and Big H.
His legendary status has been cemented by seemingly unshakeable survival instincts; his career has been threatened various by prison stints, one of grime’s defining beefs, and the genre’s very own Detox: his album Stranger Returns, which will soon celebrate the tenth anniversary of its announcement.
Not that Prez has nothing to show for his time, of course. With two projects in as many years, T is insistent that Stranger Returns is finally upon us, and that fans won’t be disappointed. I met up with him at a show in Cardiff, Wales, where he made quick work of preparing the buzzing crowd for Wiley, the night’s headliner. Clad in sunglasses even off the stage, he laid out a veritable thesis of grime; where it’s been, and where it’s going, in the eyes of one of its elder statesmen. —Corrigan Blanchfield
Grime’s got such an emphasis on live performance—how do you settle down and try to translate that to an album like T on the Wing?
President T: It’s a lot of hard work and determination, you’ve got to believe in your art and your craft. And obviously to take it to the level that I’ve got it, you’ve got to believe in yourself also. Basically you have to vet a song or a track and make sure that your people in the music industry listen to the music and give you a response. That, combined with your own opinion of the song, guides you to save something for an album or not, to just put it out as an extra track. Something like Stranger Returns has gone through years of that, and now it just needs some touch-ups, a little bit of championship spice, and it should be released by the end of May.
How has that album changed in the years since it was announced? Do you find that some of your music aged, or that you had to let tracks go for other reasons?
President T: Oh, enormously. The original Stranger Returns is nothing like what we have now, which has evolved to more of a world album. The original Stranger Returns was going to be deep in underground grime, and now that grime’s gone to other places it’s going to be a lot more massive. The fans have changed, and the people supporting the music are looking for other types of energies. Grime back then wasn’t necessarily at such a high energy level, and so I had to bring it up-to-date. I just feel like I have to keep the energy levels up, and keep my music hype. Music that drives people, makes them want more.
How have things changed for young grime artists since you came onto the scene?
President T: They’re more fortunate than I was, there are more avenues in media or platforms in the game that they can jump on to get themselves heard by the wider masses. I never had that back in the day. They’ve grown up in it, too—I had a “before grime,” I was playing semi-professional football, but obviously that didn’t work out. My dad was a Caribbean emcee and stage man, and my mom was a singer. I always knew that I was going to be involved in the music, but there wasn’t a blueprint there for me.
It’s a lot of individual success, now that the internet does a lot of the work for you, but still by being in a collective you can benefit other ways on more of a local scene—there’s not just one of you promoting it, there could be one, two, three, four voices out there.
We’re two, three years into what people are saying is the United States’ big grime moment. How conscious a decision is it for an artist to try and move into the American market?
President T: Obviously, and with all credit due to Skepta, he had to cross over and change his selection of instrumentals quite a bit to make it; whatever you do you have to keep the grime element. I do think it’s very important to get over there, though. Getting to the U.S. is probably my main challenge currently, as it should be for anyone since that’s where it’s all happening right now. Grime and rap are very similar in their elements, and I would say that grime is a sub-genre of rap. Grime is rap, but in an English way, and when they meet there’s a lot of interpreting of the others’ elements to make something new.
Until recently, grime’s been a really specific scene—a huge movement with a relatively small geographical footprint in London itself. How does that shape your interactions with other emcees, either friends or foes?
President T: In my eyes, the scenario with me and Trim probably isn’t as real as something like the Meek and Drake beef. That was basically made up by Trim, and I had to come in and finish the job off. There’s no serious millions at stake or anything like that here, and grime itself sort of thrives on confrontation and controversy. But I don’t think it really changes anything about how it crosses over into the real world.
Is there a greater emphasis on authenticity? The stakes of a clash have always seemed a bit more real to me than some of the American beefs.
President T: Absolutely. With grime, your career is absolutely at stake. Grime’s more based on lyrics and bars at first, and then the music will be appreciated sometime afterwards, whereas rap that can be kind of the total package from the get go. And it changes how you think about things—I’ve got to a stage in grime where I’ve made a good fortune out of my music, but obviously I’m looking to make a lot more. You risk all that clashing, all on a single event. The music should drive you first and foremost, but everybody’s got to make a living so that’s certainly going to be a factor. Success outweighs the money, but they also come as a bit of a package deal.
As grime becomes a bit more global, have you gotten many requests for collaborations outside of your usual associates?
President T: I wouldn’t say requests as yet, but I’ve had a lot of interest from North American rappers. Some of the A$AP lot, and ideally I’d like to work with 21 Savage right now. I like 21 Savage, I like his image and the way that he’s basically come out with his own pattern to the game. He ain’t copying no one, he ain’t following no one or no trends, he’s out there doing his own thing and it’s working for him. He’s coming out with that savage rap. Someone like Drake, stepping up to make things happen—I think it’s great for grime, it shows that Drake knows what good music is.
I think obviously he’s trying to tap into the UK market, though he’s always been big over here. It’s an opportunity. He knows what’s going to be massive worldwide in the next five, ten years, so he’s kind of putting himself in the right place to be involved in it. He knows how to spot good talent—not just a guy who can make a good song or spray a bit of a lit verse on a track, but someone that’s generally a good artist. If I could collaborate with him tomorrow, I would. There’s no stress about it from my ends, I think people just want to work with great musicians. I’m sure that if someone was big in the classical game then Drake would be over there because he knows what good music is, full stop.