There was a time, not all that long ago, when ‘Mad World’ was getting daytime radio airplay that it looked like Doc Brown was going to be the next UK rapper to break through into the mainstream. That time was five years ago though.
Doc Brown has been absent from the rap scene for a while now with no declaration of retirement or final album or show. Instead he’s been carving himself a niche in the world of comedy. Vern Pitt caught up with him to see how the new career is going, what his feelings are on UK Hip Hop and just why he left us and his crew, Poisonous Poets, in the first place.
What’s happening with poisonous poets and how’d they feel when you left?
It didn’t really happen like that when I walked from Poisonous Poets it didn’t happen like that. What happened was we were defiantly on the brink of something big, on two occasions really I feel we already had the underground buzz and the time before Lowey and Stylah joined we were nearly signed to a major label and that didn’t happen we got dropped and we moved on from there.
We always had that interest on the underground to do something big but ultimately, the thing is… I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a band but if you’re in a band it’s difficult to get everyone to agree on the same thing but ultimately there’s normally one front-man and the rest of the guys are musicians and it doesn’t really matter if people disagree you just get in a session guitarist or whatever. The problem was with essentially six front-men it was always very hard to do basic things like organising a tour or even organising one show was tricky, getting everyone in the same room at the same time, getting everyone to agree on the types of songs and choruses or anything. Everything was a debate. It was difficult because we all got on really well and in the end it wasn’t a thing where anyone jumped ship or we split up or anything like that it was a situation where people went on to do different thing or people worked at different rates you know.
I always did masses of stuff whether it was my own stuff or working with other people or collaborating on things a bit of acting or whatever I was here there and everywhere, do you know what i mean? I didn’t have much time.
Then after me Lowkey was always prolific and writing tons of stuff doing his own thing, Stylah was always doing his own thing as well. So it just got to that point where everybody is working at different levels it became harder and harder for us to link up.
Also the money started drifting out of UK rap there was less money to make and a lot more artists. The harder it became for us to make money as a unit, there was always going to less reason for us to do our thing. At the end of the day you have to make a living.
So why did you leave Hip Hop behind?
That’s not the reason that I stopped. A lot of people think it was a decision where I woke up one morning and though, ‘British rap is shit I don’t want any part of it.’ It’s not really that at all it happened really gradually. I started working with Mark Ronson a couple of years ago on the live circuit I was emceeing for him for his DJ gigs and then he got a band together and became astronomical and I was emceeing in that band for about a year and a half. That was while he was recording the songs for Version. So, these gigs were like 15-20,000 people at the festivals.
That was an amazing experience but when it came to an end and he moved on and didn’t require my services any longer I basically fell back down to earth with a bump really. I just though am I going to go back to that circuit where it’s just random gigs the odd decent gig, pub gigs the odd uni gig there’s just no coherence to what I’m doing in that UK rap world. By that time I’d already had my first kid and I thought, ‘Is this really the life for me?’ So I got really depressed and I stopped taking gigs really and I wasn’t as into it as I used to be. But strangely I was really inspired by Ronson and the musicians he introduced me to, to do a new album. So at the time I was working on a new album but I wasn’t performing basically. The new album was all live musicians with proper music and no samples so I couldn’t really perform it even if I wanted to unless I had a full band with me.
Whilst I was going through this I got contacted by a comedian I’d worked with back in the Document days in 2005. I’d done some music for a comedy show on Radio one and the guy that hosted that show was a comedian he contacted me in December or November 2007. He was like, ‘Do you remember me I’ve written a comedy series for Radio Four on the BBC and would you be interested in coming and doing some music for it.’ I was like, ‘Of course man I’d be bang up for that.’ I’m not doing anything else I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs.
So I went to the BBC and met him and Lenny Henry, because it was a show he’d put together with him and they said, ‘Look there’s some colloquialisms, some terms within the script, that we’re wondering if you’d look at because we’ve got a bit of an outdated sense of slang.’ So I took a look at the script made a few changes, they liked the changes, they thought they were funnier that way. The producers liked the stuff I did and they ended up employing me as a script consultant for the rest of the series.
That was my first job really, in comedy and that show came out in February 2008. The producers of that show produced other shows for the BBC and they liked the work I did so they bought me in to do some work on other comedy shows. I was writing songs for shows and eventually writing a few gags and stuff and the producers at the BBC really encouraged me to perform live. It wasn’t a decision of my own.
So I went up at a BBC new writers night at the Albany in Great Portland Street and I did a couple of comedy song and a bit of banter and that was it really. I really enjoyed it and the audience was all industry people, TV people and BBC people and agents and bookers and stuff and a guy approached me after the show and said he had some interest in what I was doing and that I was a breath of fresh air. I was like whatever and he gave me his card. I didn’t think much of it for another few months it turned out he was Ricky Gervais’s manager. I entered a competition last April called ‘So you think you’re funny’ for new comics and I got all the way to the final at the Edinburgh festival which is like industry-ed out. It’s all TV film people, film people, Paramount, Comedy central, Just for laughs, Channel 4, BBC everybody and it’s full of agents as well.
Soon after that I started getting gigs from bookers who were in the audience that night and by October I was gigging regularly. In that same time I came back to that same manager [from the earlier night] and he’s managing me now.
That’s it man, it became a reality. As soon as I realised that it was real, even in the competition I didn’t think this was real I still thought of myself as a rapper by profession. When people started coming up to me (bookers and agents) and offering me paid work afterwards I realised if I put my mind to it I could really make it work. Now I gig every day I write gags for radio and TV and it’s real and it’s a lot of fun. Why would I go back to rap now? I’ve got another daughter now and I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had.
For me it’s just black and white, anyone who knows me and my music knows I was never a guy that took himself too seriously and rap is a world that takes itself super seriously the older I get the more I find it really tiresome. I’m 29 and sometimes I walk around in rap there’s 18 year old kids and I can’t relate to it man I can’t relate and more it’s a kids game and I’m a grown man now I’ve got two kids and I’ve still got shit to say still. I could drop and album to this day and still think it’d be the best thing UK rap has seen this year, but the fire’s not there and I wouldn’t want to disrespect the music in that way, there’s a young guy who would kill to get his record and that’s the way it works you pass the mantel on. My young brother [Luc Skyz] is still doing his thing and he’s 100% behind it it’s going to be awesome, it’s his time.
The thing people need to understand it’s not a thing where I went, ‘Fuck Rap I’m going to try and be a stand up,’ it’s a gradual progression. The fact that it feels so natural is what makes me think that it’s right.
Were you always the funny guy with your mates?
Yeah you know and looking back on my past life everything has been building to this point. When i look back at my very first CD, ‘Citizen Smith’, there was a song on there called ‘Italian swagger’ which was basically a spoof, or a parody, of Italian gangster movies. I look back on it and think I was always at my best when I was able to just be myself and have a laugh because that’s the type of person that i always have been. At times the world of UK rap was restrictive in that way, I found it creatively restrictive.
Did you feel that you had to be Doc Brown the rapper?
Yeah and I’ve been Doc Brown more than half my life now so I am him and I acknowledge that. If you come see me do stand up I still perform as Doc Brown it’s me. But ultimately I felt like at times you were forced as an artist to fit into certain boxes and some things are just not for me.
I’m not a street person, I’ve got friends who are involved in that world some are in my family some are very, very close friends but it’s not me. There are a lot of rappers who get that line confused and they might have a friend who’s involved or they might know someone who has been in prison and they get the whole thing blurred and think that they can talk about it on their songs. That was never for me even though I felt the pressure to do it at times. You look at my crew, Poisonous, that was a very rugged crew. You look at people like Reveal, Therapist these are street guys but you know i was always adamant regardless of how road a track might be if i was on it you would only get a certain chat from me. You’d get a certain talk to me that reflected me and my beliefs. I was always like that no matter how much I felt I was backed into a corner I would always try and react in a way that I could stand by, that in 10 or 20 years time I could stand by my creativity at that time. Still it was a bit stifling, if you are a creative person then why not just do whatever comes naturally?
What’s the content of your comedy act?
I just talk about me and my life. It’s the same as rap you just try and be honest and truthful things, no matter if they are embarrassing or not, the more embarrassing the better, they’re funny. That’s it really I think it’s funny in itself that I used to be a rapper. If you think about comedy audiences don’t know the first thing about rap, it’s interesting to them it’s like, ‘Ok this is a new point of view.’ Most comedians are the same as rappers they just talk about the same shit. They’ve got their shocking jokes about paedophiles and they talk about the bits of shtick about their lifestyle and what-not, but where I’m coming from is totally out of leftfield.
Do you feel you’re representing rap to a new audience?
Definitely. I get a lot of abuse online from former fans saying I should have never left rap or I’m making Hip Hop look stupid, I would never do that. If I rap in my set the precision and the skill within that rap no matter how funny or ridiculous that might seem is still top notch and better than any one of these rubbish rappers that come out of the UK every day. It has still got a level of ability that is very, very high and no matter how far I go no matter what I do in this world of TV and entertainment I will always, always say it’s Hip Hop that got me here. Or otherwise I’d be performing as me I’d be performing as Ben Smith not Doc Brown, it’s a nod and wink to Hip Hop everything I do no matter how subtle it is. But often only intelligent people can see that which is fine by me because intelligent people are the only people I’m interested in. I’m not interested in idiots, there’s a whole bunch of rappers who can represent for those guys.
How do Comedy audiences react when they’re expecting to see a comedian and you’re rapping?
Well I’m ‘So you think you’re funny’ finalist 2008. That’s like out of 1,500 comics nationwide and I’m ‘English of the year 2009’ third place, which is out of 400 comics, so you can make you mind up from there.
Do you worry about being accused of portraying Hip Hop as a stereotype?
I’m and intelligent individual and I like to aim my comedy and whatever I create to people of a similar mind-set. I’m intensely careful of every word I write and everything I say. There’re times when I’ll play on the stereotype but I’ll always flip it, I’ll spin it on its head. It’s hard to explain without giving you jokes, when you haven’t seen the set, but if you come and see one of my sets now you can see straight away how I take the piss out of rap. I take the piss out of the things that are naturally funny like the way that people take themselves so seriously but I’ve always got a spin on it because I’m very aware that I’m the only one person representing rap so what I say is essentially gospel to the people I’m saying it to. Like say you have a Chinese comedian and an all white crowd and whatever he says about China and Chinese culture is going to be taken as gospel because he is that spokesperson. So he has got an added responsibility (it shouldn’t be that way but it is that way) to pick the funny things out of Chinese culture but to not make people go away thinking that Chinese people are stupid. I’ve got that same responsibility for Hip Hop.
Which is the hardest crowd to work?
There’s nothing harder than comedy. The only thing even close to that in Hip Hop is battling and they don’t really have that any more, not in the way I understood it. When I started battling at Mudlumz, Battle Scars and when The Jump Off started you had to freestyle if you didn’t freestyle you got booed off stage. Now you can write lyrics, it’s a piece of piss. Back in the day it was fucking hard and very, very nerve racking. Nothing else comes close.
I’ve been up on stage with Mark Ronson at Bestival in front of 20,000 people rapping between Lilly Allen and Amy Winehouse it should be nerve racking really but we’ve rehearsed for days I know exactly what Mark wants me to do you just do it. It’s a piece of piss, I’d do it whilst I was drunk, have a laugh. But with comedy there’s no disguise and there’s nowhere to hide.
In fact Bestival is a good comparison because at the Bestival 2006 we had a terrible technical breakdown. Lily Allen’s mic wasn’t working and at that time Mark used to use CDJs with the drums on them, everything else was live and he used to trigger the drums with them and that wasn’t working. We had loads of problems just at this one gig. People still went crazy 20,000 people still went nuts, they don’t care do they they’re all high and just having fun in the sunshine? They don’t care that Lily Allen’s mic wasn’t working.
Comedy, you fluff one line and you’ve got 300 people hanging on your every word and every sentence needs to be funny it’s a massive, massive pressure. Your brain has to be working on so many different levels it’s a huge creative challenge which is what I like about it, but it’s also a what I hate about it because you can’t relax until after the show.
Doc Brown is presently working on his own series call ‘Me, Ray, so far’ which is available on youtube, working with Lenny Henry on a new show for Radio Four and is playing a whole month at the Pleasance theatre in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh festival.
He also plans to release the album he recorded with the live musicians from Mark Ronson’s band this summer on iTunes (largely as a thank you to his fans for their support over the years) but will not gig in support of it.