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INTERVIEW WITH THE RAPPER-COMEDIAN BROTHER OF ZADIE SMITH

 

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

 

Thursday, July 16, 2009.

 

BenDoc Brown’ Smith is not your everyday rapper. On the day we spoke he was under pressure with his two young daughters. Far from the stereotypical, surly gangster image of the hip-hop icon, he keeps it real with babysitting and childcare. But make no mistake - he has earned his rep with acclaimed recordings and rap battle victories. He also hosted a legendary open mic night with guests of the calibre of Kanye, Mos Def, Pete Rock and CL Smooth and De La Soul.

 

And after a year touring festival shows with super producer Mark Ronson he took a break, resurfacing as a ‘slang consultant’ on BBC Radio 4s ‘Rudy’s Rare Records’, Lenny Henry’s all Black radio sit-com.  He was soon making short appearances on the show; showcasing his talents on MTV as well as writing for Stephen K Amos’s BBC comedy pilot.

 

He’s now a regular on the comedy circuit – but don’t expect standard, by numbers performances. His style fuses his eloquent rap abilities with comedic observations on life. A Finalist of Channel 4’s ‘So You Think You’re Funny 2008 Award’, Doc Brown is currently preparing for another run at the Edinburgh International Comedy Festival this August. 

 

The skills which made Doc Brown’s name in the hip hop world now inform his comedy performances - freestyle riffs on everyday life; thoughtful raps and hilarious treatments of the conversations he hears.  Summing up his fusion of comedy and rap he says:

 

“I am a stand-up with a very different, musical edge which is high quality rap - rather than parody rap; my comedy is mainly life stories of how I came to be where I am. People are [always asking]: ’why are you here; how are you here’; and I talk about my kids, I talk about my life really… “

 

As a qualified Youth Worker, he definitely has a lot to say and plenty of experience to draw upon.  Like many in the early part of their careers he struggled to make headway, acknowledging that he made a breakthrough when he was able to devote 100% attention to the hip hop game.

 

As he explains: “I was working in rap full time for a little while and then I went back to work with kids when the money slowed up…until 2005ish when my first album came out I started to do rap full time”. 

 

And the work paid dividends because the brother of acclaimed writer Zadie Smith deployed his efforts, contacts and skills to link up with [then upcoming, now superproducer] Mark Ronson. It was a fruitful and productive period in his almost  decade long career, which saw the legendary Deal Real rap night lead to sharing a stage with legends Busta Rhymes and Native Tongues pioneers De La. 

 

Recalling that heady period he describes how: “me and Ronson became friends through Deal Real.  We clicked from there. He invited me to come out do the European wing of his tour; we did all the festivals. It was an amazing experience.’

 

But just as he remembers the exhilarating buzz of these shows - where he sharpened his skills alongside mainstream stars Lucy Allen, Daniel Meriwether, Amy Winehouse, Santogold and others - the hype period concluded with a phase of calm reflection, which was the jumpstart for his writing and comedy career.

 

“I got a little bit lost I think because I had such crazy experiences doing festivals of 10-15 000 people…when I came of off that I started thinking: ‘where do I go from here?’

 

He didn’t have to wait long before a fresh opportunity presented itself. Managed at the time by Creation, who also looked after the career of Britpop giants Oasis, he was approached by the BBC to showcase his rap skills in a different forum. Taking up the story he says: ‘After I released my album [The Document] I got approached by the BBC to contribute to a show and write the raps.

 

With much of contemporary hip hop and rap deracinated, diluted and a formulaic commercial shell, the direction of the art form is also something that this Latitude Festival Best Newcomer Award nominee is concerned about. “It’s out of control now,” he suggests. ‘Anyone who sets up a MySpace page considers themselves a professional artist… what it means is that the game is completely saturated.”

 

Approaching comedy with the same zeal with which he entered rap battles he hasn’t looked back; this time not through the club nights and word of mouth of the rap scene but by the novel method of ‘Googleing’ ‘comedy competitions’!

 

Demonstrating his longstanding devotion to this most authentically grassroots expression he says: “I didn’t realise how strange and different that must have been to an audience to see raps that were just funny. To me that was just what I had written, but to them it was a rapper who didn’t take himself too seriously.”

 

It all lead to a stint as the intriguingly titled ‘slang consultant’ on BBC Radio 4s Rudy's Rare Records - a Lenny Henry sit-com.

 

“Danny Robbins [who wrote the show] showed me the script.  I made some changes [which] they thought were funny; Lenny thought I was funny and they took me under their wing. I ended up staying on for the whole series. They are talking about a second series right now. That basically kick-started everything for me because producers realised that I could write - also Lenny started giving me speaking roles; he realised I could act.”

 

Fortunately FOR Doc Brown, he was spotted at one of his early BBC Writers Room comedy gigs by his future Manager Duncan Hayes [who also looks after Ricky Gervais].  “Those were my first proper gigs and I got to the final of the ’So You Think You Are Funny’ Award in Edinburgh. I thought: ‘if this is real it’s another option’.’”

 

He didn’t win the comedy equivalent of a major MC lyrical battle but networking, links with bookers, promoters and agents at The International Comedy Festival was another major stepping stone. He got the entry pass to a new career and quickly realised that he had to devote attention to this new craft to earn a living.

 

“I realised I could do it - and with the rap I had something to rely on if the comedy didn’t go so well.  I started getting bookings to do comedy gigs and I thought I am going to have to write something.”

 

It’s this versatility and willingness to go at it to the fullest that’s kept him in work. And with a growing reputation in comedy writing, stand up and in rap he is assured of staying in work.

 

With his writing, as well as a series of MTV comic shorts - Get Rich with rapper Example and stand up Marlon Davis - and his classic album relicensed to his own Bust a Gut label he’s got options.  

 

“I am in a transitional phase creatively speaking. As much as I love it [rap]; comedy came along at the right time for me. The street culture of rap can be straight faced.  I like to have a laugh and poke fun at myself; and in rap that’s not [seen as] the way to be. Because it’s not just about what you write or rap it’s about the posturing… and that is very tiresome because no man is the same everyday.”

 

Augusts’ Comedy Reserve shows at the Edinburgh Fringe fit this phase of Doc Brown’s career perfectly. Sponsored by the Pleasance Theatre the Reserve provides financial support for young comics; and after impressing at tryouts at the Theatre’s London venue the rapper/writer/comedian won through as one of the four acts selected for the trip north of the border.

 

“This is something I am really lucky to be a part of,” he says. “You get about 20 minutes and hopefully next year I’ll be back with a full hour. “

 

As someone who has toured with highpoint of the culture De La Soul he would understands the lament of rapper Pos: ‘you cry keepin’ it real, yet you should try keepin’ it right." Ben ‘Doc Brown’ Smith certainly does.

 

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

 

Doc Brown

The Comedy Reserve

Pleasance Theatre

Edinburgh Festival 05 – 31 August

(not 18th & 25th)

Latitude Festival - Sat 18 July 

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