First published on The British Comedy Guide (3rd November 2011) //
Before turning to stand-up, Doc Brown (aka Ben Smith) was a successful rapper releasing three full-length solo records, and one other with the politically conscious London collective Poisonous Poets.
Since his departure from the UK rap scene in 2007, he has appeared on Comedy Rocks With Jason Manford before going on to perform critically-acclaimed shows at the Royal Albert Hall, the Soho Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival, picking up credits in The Inbetweeners, Miranda and Joe Cornish’s film Attack the Block along the way. All while co-creating the forthcoming BBC teen comedy-drama The Four O’Clock Club.
A busy man, he took the time to speak to Declan Tan and answer some questions…
How did the ‘Unfamous’ show go? The critics loved it, but how did you feel it went down?
The show had two long runs – one at the Edinburgh Festival 2010 and again at the Soho Theatre in January 2011. Both were amazing in different ways. It was incredible that both runs sold out to supportive and cool audiences. What was different was that the gigs in Edinburgh were sort of crazier but the show itself was actually better at the Soho. I guess the difference in vibe was that in Edinburgh it’s like New Year’s Eve every night so the atmosphere in general is electric. The Soho is more of a theatrical experience so it was a little more polite! But I personally felt the Soho gigs were tighter – purely due to the show being so polished.
What are you working on at the moment? Any plans for more work with the Poisonous Poets?
At the moment I am preparing a version of the hour long show for the Melbourne comedy festival. I’m also fronting a new culture show for Al Jazeera and I’m writing and starring in a new children’s drama series for CBBC. I’m also the voice of Comedy Central. The rest of the time I’m writing and performing comedy. There are no plans for a Poets reunion, although we are still in touch. Lowkey and I opened an exhibition at the British Museum recently and Reveal and Tony D came to my show at the Soho.
Because of your work with youth groups, your associations with the Poisonous Poets and your music, particularly the Citizen Smith album, we get the feeling that a social consciousness is an important part of your life and your work. Is that true? Is it the same in your comedy?
While I was rapping I was always involved in youth work – I ran music workshops for teenagers and young offenders all the time and also ran a charity for refugee kids for a time. I try not to make social consciousness a massive part of my music or comedy because I prefer to be an entertainer first and foremost, then do actual grassroots work when I can. It’s more about just being aware of the world around you and also never forgetting that if you are successful because of Hip Hop, which I am, then you have to recognize that Hip Hop is nothing if not a product of the street, therefore you have to give something back.
Who would you say your influences are, outside of music, be it literary, political, personal or otherwise?
I try not to be influenced when it comes to being creative, just in order to sustain my own voice and character. However, I do have many inspirations from the worlds of literature, music, comedy and film. People like Jay Z, Nas, and Big L in music, Garth Ennis and Frank Miller are massive inspirations from the world of comics, Harlan Coben and of course my sister Zadie Smith, The Coen Brothers… loads of people!
How did you find your own voice in comedy and rap – was it a long process to find originality and honesty? Does your honesty ever make you feel vulnerable?
For me it was a short journey towards honesty in Rap because I came up in the era where you still had to battle to be taken seriously. If you battle, there’s no hiding place so there’s no way you can bullshit. You have to be who you are or you get found out. So Rap was a good training ground for being honest in my work. When I slid into comedy, naturally the first thing I said was, “hello, I am a washed up rapper.” It’s been pretty straight forward since then.
How do you react if a show goes badly? Does performing ever feel futile, or make you despair?
Oh man, it’s horrible! It was much more frequent in my first year of stand-up when you’re still learning the ropes, now it’s much more of a rarity – only because I’ve learnt some escape routes you can take out of potentially dying and I’m not so scared to improvise these days. Performing never feels futile because this is what the fuck I was born to do – I’m made for this! But yes, it can make you despair, especially when you feel you’ve sold yourself or the audience short.
Is there a purpose to your work other than the audience’s enjoyment, as well as your own?
Jesus, is that not enough? Why do people put so much pressure on entertainers? Leave saving the world to the people that are good at it. I’m here to pick you up when life is shit. I’m totally satisfied with that position.
Do you see music and comedy as a means to discuss political/social issues? Can they get bogged down in the preaching?
I admire the Lowkeys and the Mark Thomases of this world but I could never do what they do. For me, I would rather write an article or speak at a rally or something than put it in my comedy. I personally prefer to keep the two things separate.
Whose work do you respect?
My favourite comics are Sean Lock and Mickey Flanagan – they’re both older guys with a bit of life experience. I respect anyone who’s honest to themselves and able to bring that into their work in an entertaining fashion.
Is there a certain level of hypocrisy in hip hop and comedy?
Of course! In all art there is hypocrisy. That’s what makes it so intriguing as well as maddening. You get preachy types who do crazy rock and roll shit behind closed doors, and you get people who sell themselves as crazy rock and roll types who are actually teetotal family guys. It’s entertainment man, it’s not the real world.
Is your legacy of work important to you?
Definitely. I’m proud of most of the stuff I’ve put out and I hope my kids will look at it long after I’m gone and go, “hey, Daddy was cool once!”