Ben Bailey Smith AKA Doc Brown has been tearing down packed houses all around the UK for years with his unique brand of rap and comedy. After a decade out of the serious hip-hop game he’s leaving the laughs behind to showcase his lyrics with newly released single Corruptible and soon to be released album Stemma.
The MALESTROM caught up with him to talk about how he got started in music, what the album means to him, why he and his famous sibling Zadie Smith are born storytellers and what it’s like to tour with Ricky Gervais.
The MALESTROM: Most of our readers know you as a comedian who uses musical skills in your act, not everyone will know you started as a freestyler back in the day. So tell us about how you got into music?
Doc Brown: I guess it started off as a kid being excited by seeing rap and hip-hop culture around me, something about it was so raw and energetic, magnetic. The first thing I saw was breakers in Covent Garden, that really blew me away. Then growing up around Willesden and Kilburn I used to see this one graffiti artist called Elk everywhere. If felt like that first proper colour, it had the same energy as breaking, even though it was still, but it wasn’t even still, it was moving a lot of the time on long trains, it wasn’t static. I was just experiencing these new art forms. And the first time I saw people battling, I was just like ‘whoa this is insane.’ It was only street guys that did it back in the day, you didn’t get posh kids doing it, I always thought yeah this is amazing and I was always writing my own little rhymes but I never thought I could be a part of it cause I’m not street enough, I don’t know enough gangster guys, I don’t have enough backing (laughs). But what I realised when I started battling was that as long as you acknowledge who you are and what you’re about it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Like Rakim said,
“it’s not where you’re from its where you’re at.”
That’s such a deep philosophical statement, it might not seem like one on the surface. He’s not talking about rap he’s talking about life, human beings, who gives a fuck what your background is, this is what you’re bringing to the table in this moment that we share. It’s a profound statement, I guess I kind of realised early on that who I was, was part of what I was doing and I was very self aware. For example I always used to wear my glasses and they were always the first thing people took the piss out of, but I was so ready for the glasses stuff, you know what I mean (laughs). You think I’m not ready for that, and the gang stuff and me not being connected in the same way, dude I’m ready for that, I don’t care how hood you think you are, I’m the better rapper and this is going to be embarrassing for you. You’re going to lose to someone it’s embarrassing to lose to, if I lose it’s what everyone expects to happen. I had a sense of humour about it from the start which really helped the move into stand-up.
TM: What were those open mics like you used to host for Deal Real Records? You had some seriously famous faces from the hip-hop world coming through the doors at the time …
DB: It’s an experience I wouldn’t change for the world, if you know you know, it pre-dated camera phones and shit like that. However we have footage of every single night, every single minute of every hour of Deal Real at my friend Ollie’s house, it’ll be an epic TV show cause we got everyone on there. The thing about it was that it wasn’t even a thing, it didn’t really have a name, it was just so hip-hop, it happened for hip-hops sake, it just happened. Toward the end before it got shut down that was when it started to get more organised and even being more organised it wasn’t the same, do you know what I’m saying?
TM: Of course, things are so manufactured these days you lose that rawness.
DB: Yea. It was the last thing I remember from old London, like where people could gather and it wouldn’t necessarily be shut down immediately. It was a bunch of hip-hop heads from all over the country, all over the world, convening, loitering with intent, just enjoying hip-hop for hip-hops sake man, it was special. And the amount of people, you’d be amazed, in far flung corners of the world, who work in all different industries, in town planning, in health, in the law, who say ‘dude I used to go there! I’d go down on a Friday night and I’d watch you.’ And the kids that were in there, actual fifteen, sixteen year-olds who went on to change the world In some way. There were a couple of kids who used to wait and wait to get on the mic, they loved it so much, they ended up founding the battle league Don’t Flop, which is a huge international deal.
There’s another kid who used to come with his Sony Handicam and film the rappers outside doing verses, I’d always be like ‘dude what you doing always coming filming some shit.’ He goes ‘I’ve got this thing, have you heard of YouTube?’ I was like ‘yeah yeah the thing where you post videos or whatever’, it was new you know. He goes ‘I’m doing my own one, and I’m like why would people go to yours and not YouTube?’ He says, ‘it’s going to be specific, about rap and garage and urban music but by someone who knows.’ I was like ‘alright yeah’, and that kid was Jamal Edwards (wealthy entrepreneur founder of SB.TV). Deal Real was a hub for incredible talent, I met a lot of people that I’m working on this album with, you know Example and Mikill Pane, there were a lot of relationships built out of that. It’s where I met Mark Ronson and ended up in a band with him for a couple of years. It’s where I met Amy Winehouse; so many relationships had begun there.
TM: How does it feel going back to your serious musical roots from comedy? And why go back to it now?
DB: I think it was just a moment in time, it was something that played on my mind from the very start, the very start of comedy, the very first job I began doing for the BBC. It played on my mind, cause I’d already retired before I started doing comedy, I decided I was done with rap. But then the fact that my shtick, if you like, was about my previous life as a rapper meant that I couldn’t let it go myself, every time I talked about it was a reminder that I’d never achieved to the level I wanted to achieve at. So it’s always niggled with me, I’ve just never had time to do anything about it. But the last sort of two years I’ve been writing and recording this album. To be honest you can make time, it’s like when you convince yourself not to exercise, you say you haven’t got time, you only need to do twenty minutes a day to not be a fat fuck. I just thought if you really want to do this before your old and decrepit just do it. I’ve nothing to lose this time around, I’ve got a great career, I don’t need to be a pop star and the beautiful part of that is the music reflects that, I’m not trying to be Stormzy or the king of grime, I’m not trying to get fans under the age of eighteen, this is a grown up personal album for grown ups (laughs).
It is what it is, people may say that’s not fashionable, that’s not what’s going on in the industry right now, do you really think I give a fuck? Can you imagine anything worse than seeing me come back in my late thirties and trying to be J Hus? And taking nothing away from J Hus or any of these grime artists, what they’re doing is amazing. If I tried to do it, it’d be so embarrassing, for the people that didn’t know me at all, who weren’t fans, people I was trying to win over, fans of grime or whatever, they’d be like why’s this old guy up there? And my actual fans who’ve waited ten years they’d go, ah we waited and … he’s done this? We thought he was going to do some proper rap shit. It’d be falling between two stalls, it’d be pointless, so I decided I had to say fuck everything and everyone’s opinions and make the songs that mean something to me right now, that’s what I’ve done, and that’s why it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Regardless of what happens I can be proud.
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TM: Tell us about the new single Corruptible? Which The MALESTROM is digging by the way …
DB: Cheers. Yea it’s out today (Friday 10th March) it’s called Corruptible. I like to think of it as the album in a microcosm that’s why I put it out first. The album is largely about the behaviour of human beings and how your behaviour and your lifestyle decisions become weightier and weightier with every day you’re on the planet. So the longer you’re here, the more your decisions have bigger consequences, that’s what I’ve discovered getting into my thirties. Like when your 21 you get fucked up, do something stupid or say something stupid to somebody, the day after it’s like ‘ah we’re just 21, we all make mistakes, no regrets.’ But you get into your thirties, you fuck up and it’s like someone could really get hurt. You might be responsible for kids, you might have bought a house with somebody, you might have someone who’s gone through some drug and alcohol related problems, what I’m saying is the problems get deep, shit doesn’t get easier.
I was fascinated by that; talking with my friends and seeing people go through things, more profound things. I can’t be talking about what kind of trainers I’ve got or how much money I’ve got or whatever. There’s bigger things to talk about in terms of the human condition. And that’s what the album is called Stemma, it basically translates as family tree, like a genealogy, and the album is largely about the sins of the father and how you break chains of behaviour and how you embrace regret. You hear a lot of pop stars and sports personalities saying ‘I’ve no regrets for my career’. What none? Like literally anything you’ve done wrong you’re like fine. You don’t want to reflect a bit so the next time a situation comes around you won’t do the same old stupid shit again. That’s the essence of the album and I think Corruptible sums it up in a number of ways, because the album is fun but not funny. It’s self critical but not overblown naval gazing. It’s not pretty but it is making a point. Corruptible does all those things in probably the most fun way.
TM: The best lyrics often come from the pain we suffer and shit we go through in life, do you sometimes go to dark places to write your music?
DB: Not at all, I’ve never been able to write when I’m miserable or upset. It’s all about reflection, when I feel great that’s when I just wake up and write and the best stuff comes out. It doesn’t mean I’m writing about feeling great. Now I’m in a self confident enough position to actually address that dark time. I saw Stormzy talking about something similar to this and was really impressed by the way he spoke about it. He was talking about depression, he was doing the whole interview with a big smile on his face and you could tell he was in a better place and now he’s able to deal with it artistically. I mean the idea of an artist becoming a screw up so they can write about it is kind of fictional, I know that some people do it, but they’re not very good artists. I mean if that’s what you need as an artistic crutch then that’s going to be a self fulfilling prophesy and things are going to go bad for you if you need to be fucked up to make your art. I’m the total opposite, I need to be confident, happy, comfortable, that’s when I make my best music.
TM: You work with your brother Luc Skyz on the record, how do you find collaborating with family?
DB: It’s not straightforward I suppose cause you can’t treat them like any other artist, you’ve got a much more deep relationship. For the song Empires I did find it really easy, it was just nice. I mean all the collaborations on the album were like reunions, it just felt good to be on a song with him again. He wasn’t even rapping at the time he was personal training. It just felt great, it was like getting the old gang back together, dusting off the guns, jump on the horses and stride back into town. That’s why we’re kind of bolshie on the song cause it’s like yea we’re back and we’re still decent.
TM: You have another successful sibling, your sister Zadie. Was it your family that instilled that belief in you all to be creative and achieve?
DB: Yea it’s from family first and foremost, I think some people might assume that our family were these crazy high fliers, big high achievers, but they were just working class people with an intense work ethic. Neither of my parents finished school, they both dropped out in their young teens, so they’re not academics. My Mum went into youth work and ended up in social work and psychotherapy, my Dad worked in direct sales, so nothing fancy and nothing creative. But I think if you’re from a working class background or even more so an immigrant background, there’s a thing where it’s like anything for your kids is a bonus. If you’re kids want to be something you go ‘well yeah, great, go for it.’ In my family when my sister showed an interest in writing at an early age and I showed an interest in performing arts they were both like, ‘listen, why not?’ They weren’t like ‘you have to keep up your science or keep up your maths’, they were like ‘if this is your thing go for it’ (laughs), it was really encouraging. And it wasn’t an uneventful upbringing, it was a crazy time in history, in London, we were round a lot of characters, a lot of interesting people and people from all sorts of backgrounds. I think me and Zadie and Luc we were born storytellers in a way, we were primed to tell interesting stories about people and their emotions and feelings.
TM: Lets talk about the ‘Humanity’ tour that your currently on with Ricky Gervais, how’s that going?
DB: It’s been great man, we just got back from Cardiff, the Motorpoint Arena, we did two nights there. It’s been great, it’s like a couple of nights a week, we’ve got Manchester and Liverpool coming up. Its fun, minimal pressure on me cause its Ricky’s show, I’m just there to enjoy it man. The fans are always happy to see me when I come out, it’s not like supporting a band where it’s like dude where’s the band get off. It’s been great, not always easy with juggling all the music stuff, but if there’s anything I’m good at it’s juggling (laughs).
TM: What’s life on the road been like with Ricky? Do you get to let your hair down?
DB: Ricky’s not a party guy; he’s not a party animal. Even if he fancied a couple of beers after the gig we can’t do that, we can’t just go to a pub. Travelling with him is hard work because he’s that famous. You can’t linger in train stations or on the street; you gotta know where you’re going and get there quick and keep your head down. Cause people do freak out.
TM: How’s he influenced your work?
DB: What he’s influenced in me is the work ethic, I’ve always worked hard and I’ve always done more than the average person. You know I get frustrated with people who don’t work at my pace, at my level, but Ricky isn’t one of those guys. He’s like an older version of me, he’s just on it. The biggest influence from him to me is just like own your shit; be a creator, don’t be a puppet for somebody else. If you’ve got something you want to create then create it man and call the shots with it, be confident. Create a cult, that’s what he’s always telling me, create a cult, it may not seem mainstream while your creating it, it might seem risky but trust me. There are two ways to approach art, you can create on the basis of I want the whole world to love this, therefore I’m going to water down all these elements of me to make sure it’s palatable to everybody, or your going to go, fuck the world I’m making this exactly how I want to make it, in the way that I would love to consume it. And then the world gradually clocks on to what it is and you get the world anyway. It’s something cultish, something that is 100% new.
TM: What’s your process for writing stand-up? Are you effected by world events? A lot of comedians lately have become fixated on Brexit and Trump taking power. Does all that feed into your material?
DB: I don’t get involved in that. I talk about it in interviews and when I’ve got a platform I’ll get on my high horse and talk about some shit, politics, social stuff, equal rights, I will talk about that stuff, but I just find it boring in comedy and In music, I don’t really want to hear it. I want to be entertained, so I don’t really touch on that sort of stuff, I react to things that interest me and things I talk to my friends about, there’s hints to my politics in my music and comedy, but that’s all it will ever be. It’d be more powerful if you were receiving a BAFTA and said ‘by the way, stop fucking killing children.’ That’s when it’d be like ‘rah, ok, did he just say that, wow.’ Rather than having a song about ‘save the children’, who cares bro, I need some escapism right now, some entertainment, that’s what I’m paying for.
TM: Have you got a piece of wisdom you can share from life, or your years in the industry? Is there a mantra you stick to?
DB: There is actually, and this is for artists and creators really. I have one mantra that I constantly remind myself of whenever I struggle to make decisions like what to do next in my life and career. It’s quite simple,
‘Don’t make a meal for someone you wouldn’t eat yourself’.
You can take that however you want to take it, but I take it to mean if you’re wondering whether or not you should write and create your own TV show or present a format of some shiny floor show with Martin Clunes as your high quality guest in the first episode or whatever it is. If you’re worrying about which to do and there’s more money in one, and there’s more work in the other, ask yourself would you watch it? Would you sit down and watch that shit? Say you’re making a song, would you want to listen to that song you’ve just written about the relationship between trees and bees? Would you really want to listen to that shit? If the answer is no, you’ve just made a meal that even you wouldn’t eat. What’s the point in that?
TM: You used to be a youth worker, what message would you give to the disenfranchised youth of this country who are struggling to get on despite the abundance of talent and creativity they possess?
DB: I think the one thing that never changes is that although things are fucked up and you’re not the decision makers, the world is yours. It’s yours, no matter what decisions people in power make to disenfranchise the youth, they can’t fuck with time. They can’t make a decision where they go and on top of all these government cuts, on top of the warmongering, the prejudice, the bad treatment of our own citizens, we’re also turning back the clock, we’re going to make sure we live forever. They can’t, they tried to do it with money, passing it down to more dickheads, but you can’t control time and eventually all these disenfranchised fifteen year olds will be in control, they’ll be the kings. I would say just be prepared for that. It’s so hard to have hope in these times, but if your fifteen, sixteen you wield a lot more power than you think. Number one you’re a trendsetter, when it comes to culture, all kind of culture and even future social and political thought, you’re a trendsetter, cause you lot think outside the box in a way that jaded people and people of my generation don’t do anymore cause we don’t see the point. You guys think outside the box naturally because of your youth, utilise that because it’s a huge power. Just be prepared when you get there and have that influence, be ready use it in as mature a way as you possibly can because that day will come, even though it feels like it won’t right now, it will. Eventually you’ll be in the driving seat.