Old school legends might get away with rocking the chair and the mic at the same time, but the average emcee is lucky to sustain any kind of recording career past the age of thirty. Washed-up rappers, generally speaking, don´t have much to laugh about- a few groupie tales, a sob story about how they should have been the next Big Dawg and some financial woes is average has-been-rappers lot.
Doc came as close as most the crossing that invisible and elusive line from under-to-over-ground success, teetered on the brink of greatness and fell back, crash-landing in a cloud of skunk smoke on his Sofa.
Doc Brown was born Ben Harvey Smith, brother of Zadie ´White Teeth´ Smith and son of a Jamaican immigrant and a South Londoner, 30 years her senior. His upbringing in Willesden was representative of the inbetweeness that would shape his character and material in the world of entertainment. Not rich, not poor, not black not white, not a rude-bwoy, not a straight-laced-goodie-two-shoes; Smith is a man used to playing both sides of the fence.
His rap career started as a hungry battle emcee, taking a few beatings on his way up through the ranks until he earned his stripes and respect as a talented lyric spitter with a healthy splash of social conscience.
He released albums, toured with De La Soul, even got recruited by a young Mark Ronson for a group he was assembling that also included superstars-in-the-making Lilly Allen and Amy Winehouse. Doc had a verse on the original version of world-wide smash hit Valerie. However, after the tour ended Doc found himself home getting high with Trisha while most of the other group members hit the studio, preparing to get high up the charts.
As Winehouse and Ronson were perfecting the rap-less version of Valerie, Doc discovered he has expecting his first child with wife Siobhan. Even this news couldn´t really lift him from his post rock and roll disillusionment. He was getting too long in the tooth for the limited success of his rap career, as he said himself on his Document LP:
´Battling some little prick, shit, I´m a grown ass man´
Yep, come the close of 2007, Doc was not seeing the funny side of life at all. However, inspiration can come from many unlikely sources, and so it was that Lenny Henry came to Smiths rescue. Doc received a call from the BBC. Lenny was making a radio comedy called Rudy´s Rare Records for which he needed some help getting the lingo all (Joe) Buxon-esque and above board. Doc carved that niche into a cameo role and that led to his first few tentative steps into stand up. Within a few months he was on stage at the Edinburgh festival in front of 500 people in the finals of the So You Think You´re Funny competition. It was his first freeze up and his most important lesson in converting the energy of a live rap show into the ambience of a packed theatre.
¨Man, I learned a lot that day. It´s a long story, but that actual day had been insane, all kinds of stuff went on, but that´s how Edinburgh (festival) is, stuff happens. Anyway, by the time I finally got on stage that night I just wasn´t up to par. That´s when I realized, I needed more than just songs, if I had any chance of making it I needed to start bearing more of my soul¨ mused Doc when I asked him about that fateful evening.
Suddenly Doc was on a roll again. Fatherhood and cardigans had entered his life and he had learned to accept and embrace them as he now also adjusted to his new career challenge with equal gusto. He began hitting stand up clubs every night of the week, travelling the length of the UK before earning further plaudits and the more lucrative overseas bookings. Then came BBC TV, the online comedy rap videos, guest spots for stand up and sit coms and his pitch for a new CBBC show. It was no run of the mill show and the delivery of the pitch was unusual also. Doc ´broke´ into the office of the commissioning editor (assisted by his PA) and filmed a live rapped pitch sitting at his desk, disdainfully binning other (prop) pitches like he already owned the place.
I caught up with the busy comic in earlier this year…
Wassup Doc… Who are your comic heroes?
The weird thing about me doing stand up is I was never particularly into it, no more than the average guy. I had heard of two or three of the biggest guys in the States and the UK, but I genuinely had no idea there were thousands of comics working the British circuit, making a decent living. I also had no idea that half the voices we hear on TV had once been stand-ups. I just didn’t realize it was this massive world.
So my comic heroes were guys who made me laugh in films and television that my Mum, Dad or Sister put me onto. My Mum showed me Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby, my Dad got me into Ronnie Barker (probably my biggest comedy hero) and the Pythons, my sister crucially got me into Steve Martin. But all these guys came to me fully formed in sitcoms or movies- I had no understanding or real interest in the art of stand-up.
Naturally though, these discoveries drove me to dig deeper and 15 years before I told my first joke I remember marveling at Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and perversely- David Baddiel who had wowed me as part of The Mary Whitehouse Experience which I went to see live.
Is it me- or do I see a little Sean Lock influence in there too?
To be honest, I find it hard not to emulate Lock in everything I do on stage. He's my number one favourite comic and thank god I look and sound so different to him because it takes every bone in my body not to get up there and do a ´Lock tribute act´ every time!
Rather than sit on the fence as you claim to in your act, you actually seem to play both sides of it regarding your race, hamming up the black street and the white reserve. To what extent does being mixed race affect your comedy?
At first I didn’t even notice it myself, I was just being me- but now that I am more knowing of my own work I would say that being mixed is THE central part of everything I do. It’s what gives me my chameleon-like ability to fit in, even with some of the toughest crowds. It allows me to play more varied gigs class and race wise than most comics.
Has your sister seen much of your stand up?
Not really, not due to choice- she lives in New York. But she saw one of my first ever gigs. She’s a massive stand-up fan and was a real help in the early days in teaching me what was hack and what was truly alternative on the scene.
Any more siblings you should warn us about?
I got my younger brother Luc Skyz who’s a proper rapper! He also plays an arrogant, fame obsessed hip hop superstar in (my new TV show) The 4 o’clock Club.
(UK rap-pioneer) Derek B infamously accused Lenny Henry of opening the door for black performers in the 80´s and firmly closing it behind him. What was it like to work with such an oft maligned black comic icon?
I know I’ve taken the piss on stage but they’re just jokes. In reality Lenny is one of the nicest people in the business and always has time for others. He really encouraged me to succeed and I’ll never forget that. I think a lot of black people from the outside looking in think that black celebrities aren’t “helping” the communities they came from by getting more black people working with them, but the reality is- the black celebrities do not hold the key to the door. The system above us as black performers is as white and middle class as you could possibly imagine and until we are decision makers, producers, casting directors etc., there always be “The Token Black Guy”.
Give us a Ronson anecdote?
Mark once told me that for his old friend Sean Ono Lennon’s 13th birthday, Michael Jackson (massive Beatles fan) invited John Lennon’s son to bring a friend to spend a night at Neverland. Sean brought Mark and they slept in Jackson’s Bedroom (no funny business!) and Jackson slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. When they woke up MJ was watching Sesame Street drinking coke in a can through a straw. All this kinda vindicates my life long feeling that MJ was a lover of childhood, not children. A crucial difference that Ronson knew to be true firsthand!
And playing with De La Soul- that must have been like a dream come true right?
Opening for De La every night was more than a support gig. I got to hang with those dudes and it was just a really warm enjoyable experience. By the time we did that legendary 11 consecutive night run at the Jazz Café back in 06, they were giving me half an hour a night and let me set up my own merchandise stall right there on the dance floor. I remember one night (hip hop legends) Prince Paul and Dres from Black Sheep joining them onstage and then drinking with them afterwards, it was definitely a highlight of my life.
You wrote and starred in the 4 o´clock club, can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a coming of age comedy drama about two brothers, one an adult that is still trying to grow up and the other a 13 year old kid who has the wits and guile of college professor. The elder brother Nathan (who I play) was a school drop-out and failed rapper who returns to his old school as a teacher, in a bid to turn his and the school’s fortunes around. His younger brother Josh is a wannabe rapper who now attends the same school and puts a spanner in his sibling’s work whenever he can as both vie for success in the staffroom, the classroom and crucially- in the wild west of the playground.
I notice that it premiered on Friday the 13th- are you superstitious?
Ha! Yeah, maybe a little. It’s ballsy though, no? And that’s been my whole approach to this series from day one. Do whatever they don’t expect you to do!
You´re working on a show which is an HBO/BBC collaboration right? I know that it´s called NEMSIS and it´s created by Frank Spotnitz (X-FILES), but can you tell us any more without putting our lives at unnecessary risk?
Not really! I had to sign a contract specifically saying that I couldn’t discuss script or story with any press or digital media, or social networking. It’s hardcore! But I can tell you it’s a lavish, sprawling international thriller and I think people will love it!
I saw you blogging about STRANGE HILL HIGH, is that safer ground?
Strange Hill High is actually bloody amazing. It's the work of these incredible Japanese animators called Yoshimi and Katoi. All miniature vinyl toys in an actual real life miniature world shot in a contemporary form of stop motion. These guys are the next Aardman without any shadow of a doubt. Strange Hill is a haunted school where everything is not what it seems and I play the hero Mitchell alongside John Thompson, Richard Ayoade and Caroline Ahearn. It really is incredible and it'll be out on the BBC sometime next year!
It was amazing exposure. You don't realise just how many people love that show. I still get stopped in the street by teenagers asking me to roll up their spliffs for them- it's nuts!
And you´ve been hanging out with Ricky Gervais recently right? Did he see the TEA rap?
No, I did a 15 minute routine on Russell Howards show, there was a section on there with that tea tap, My Proper Tea, which blew up a bit on youtube afterwards, it´s got like half a million hits or something crazy. But me and Ricky actually share the same agent, so he´s known about my act for a little while. I´ve just been supporting him doing stand up in Norway, those guys are deep with the comedy, they even get references people might miss in London!
There were a lot of heart broken Doc fans out there last Christmas, what happened to the DVD release for UNFAMOUS?
There were some technical problems and some financial restraints involved as well. I don’t want to start moaning about it because I’m the most upset out of everyone- it was easily the best stand up gig of my life.
And talking of Unfamous… What´s the secret, how did you finally balance being on the road with having a family?
I think I just got to the point where I realized the money is good but the fame is bullshit. All these motherfuckers think they know you- they don’t know you. Only your best friends and your family know you- the guys who were there when you were in the queue at the bus stop, chipping in a quid for a five pound draw, you know? I don’t read what people say about me anymore for the simple reason that I don’t give a shit- I know I can go home to people whose opinions really matter.
As for the bright light, the adrenaline and all that baloney? You just learn that it can be snatched away at any time, so you become more focused on what is real and what is a mirage. Basically, once you’ve got the love of the good people in your life, every little thing in showbiz is a bonus.
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