Doc Brown: interview

Posted: Tue Jan 11 2011

Respected rapper Doc Brown tells Time Out about his decision to turn his back on the music industry to embrace the power of laughter

Ben Smith aka Doc Brown is one of comedy's rising stars but being funny wasn't always his chosen career path. He started out life as a rapper and became hugely respected, working with the likes of Lily Allen and Mark Ronson before one day turning his back on serious music with a new mission in life - to find the funny.

Why did you decide to leave the world of serious music behind?
'Well, if I'm honest, it was partly due to Mark. The band started out doing hip hop versions of indie and rock 'n' roll songs but I think he just sort of grew out of that and didn't really need me. When it became much more pop there was no real need for a rapper any more. So that was it, really. I just sort of moved on. And from leaving that band I couldn't really go back to the underground world that I was in before so I turned to comedy.'

How long did it take you to feel accepted by the comedy world?
'Straight away. It took me years in rap, you know? But ultimately stand-up is the only art form where, when you go down, you crash and burn and it hurts and people don't hate the joke or the presentation, they hate you. Every comedian's gone through it, every single one of us. There's not one who hasn't felt it at least a few times. Once you've died, that's it really, you're humbled to some extent. You meet the odd knob, but most of us tend to have a sort of inbuilt humility because, although we're egocentric performers who just want everyone to shut up and listen to us for 20 minutes, we also know what it's like to feel real rejection on a massive scale. That's why even the biggest guys I've met have been really cool, nice guys. Everyone's walked the same path.'

For a while you wrote spoof raps for Radio 1, but the raps in your stand-up aren't parodies. Is it important to you to keep the quality of the music itself high?
'It's vital. The vast majority of musical comedy is really painful. I wanted to create something that was seamless, raps appear and disappear. When it's not necessary, it's not there, and you'll just get ten minutes of stand-up or whatever. Whatever's necessary is what I'll bring to the table, I'm not going to crowbar in songs just for a cheap and easy laugh. I see it as part of my story; it's who I am.'

You're often described in interviews in the press as 'Zadie Smith's brother, Doc Brown'. How do you feel about that?
'I really don't mind it, especially if there's an original angle on it. Sometimes people are genuinely interested in how we're linked by words and by the use of language and I'm always happy about that. If anything it bugged me more when I was a rapper because it wasn't cool to be attached to an author, but now that we're in, not the same field, but similar fields - we've written for the same newspapers or we've critiqued things on the same shows - in a sense we're both writers, it's different and I'm very proud of her. Obviously one of us is way more successful than the other one! But to me it's a beautiful thing. I think comedy's brought us closer together as well.'

Doc Brown's 'Unfamous' is at the Soho Theatre, Jan 18-29.