Doc Brown on comedic success, his new album and not doing panel shows or figure skating
- Credit: Archant
Ben Bailey Smith aka Doc Brown talks to Zoe Paskett about music, success in comedy and why he doesn’t ever do TV panel shows
Where do old rappers go when they die?” It’s a question I’ve never asked myself but Ben Bailey Smith has clearly thought about it. Also known by his stage name, Doc Brown started out as a rapper, running his own night and performing with such artists as Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen.
“Being a rapper, that’s always been attractive, because rappers always do what the hell they want anyway and let everyone else work it out,” he says.
Many people may know him as a comedian, but he doesn’t like to categorise his work, seeing himself as an artist with many strings to the same bow.
He grew up in north west London with his brother Luke and sister, author Zadie Smith, with whom he attended Hampstead School, before moving to Newington Green.
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Now he’s performing stand up (next appearance in Live at the Chapel), has acted in Law and Order UK and David Brent’s Life on the Road to name but a very few, written a children’s book and is about to release his first album in a decade before going on tour – but it’s all the same to him.
“I just don’t separate them up in my head as much as other people do. I don’t see them as that varied. Everything I do is basically the same. It’s writing and performing.
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“I only do disciplines that I know I can do; writing and performing is my thing. I don’t do figure skating or opera singing, you know, or dancing. I can’t do those things.”
The fact that he sees his work as strands of the same thing explains his talent for combining comedy and rap, seamlessly jumping from speech to spoken word.
“It’s part of who I was so it’s a natural thing to talk about,” he says. “Also it was kind of funny for me that it hadn’t worked out for me and I just sort of stumbled across the idea of an aging rap artist.”
His routines Proper Tea (“You’ve only gone and put the f***ing milk in first!”) and Everybody’s Racist (“You got an iPod shufflin’ the playlist, that ain’t picked reggae in a while? Racist”) have racked up millions of views online.
“I’m always looking at elements of my life that have that whiff of truth to them that people can connect with. That’s the key thing. And sometimes it’s the tragic moments, you know. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”
But there’s nothing tragic in his career trajectory, as we discuss the concept of success in comedy and what it means to “make it”. He talks about many of the comedians he admires who have taken different routes to reach where they are: Daniel Kitson, who’s “never on telly but is somewhat of a legend” and Noel Fielding and Ricky Gervais who have gone about sharing their crafts in alternative ways.
“I think success in comedy is subjective, but for me, if you live off your comedy, whatever that might be, I think that’s a success.
“There are so many [comedians] that I came up with that I see all the time – they’re living their lives and have bought houses and built families – they’re successes. But then there are other guys who never played the game and they’re successes too.
“Obviously Ricky has always done his own thing and has always been a dictator of how his work is going to reach people.”
This commitment is something that Smith shares with Gervais. He works how he wants to work, letting his stand up evolve over time and moving on from templates that he doesn’t feel comfortable in any longer, such as having backing music and performing
But it’s not just that. He’s never gone in for panel shows, despite being offered “many, many times”.
“When I look at a panel show, it’s a format that I’ve got to slot into rather than doing my thing. Why would you throw a comedian into this box they didn’t design? They’re writers, they’re creators so just let them create.
“I just don’t like watching them, I don’t enjoy them, so I don’t see why I’d be on one.
“I understand at the same time that these shows are very popular with people, they’re just not for me.”
His return to music has been a long time coming – 10 years in fact – and his fans are over the moon. His new album, Stemma, is launching in March and a tour accompanies it, with his London date taking place in Shoreditch’s XOYO on March 28.
“I was never satisfied with my output. I thought I did some good stuff 10 years ago but it was very difficult because there wasn’t really an industry for what we were doing, there wasn’t really a platform. A lot of people got frustrated and got on with their lives and I was one of them. But it’s always been an itch I’ve needed to scratch.”
He has released a teaser on his YouTube channel with his brother, rapper Luc Skyz, who he has collaborated with on the album, alongside Example, Andy Burrows from Razorlight and others.
“On the whole I’d say it’s progressive rap for grown ups. It’s not a desire to be some rap star or be like these kids doing their grime and being in the charts. I don’t really care about all of that. I just never really felt like I had an album that I was super proud of that I saw through to the end.
“That’s what this is, and that’s part for me and that’s part for my old fans who’ve been waiting patiently throughout this comedy thing thinking is he ever gonna come back?”
And for those comedy fans wondering if he’s ever coming back to stand up, he “making a lot less live appearances in 2017”, so the Union Chapel could be the last place you’ll see him for a while.
Doc Brown is in Live at the Chapel on March 4, unionchapel.org.uk.