Exclusive Interview: Doc Brown – “It’s Gonna be Scary for Rappers Next Year!”
Ben Bailey Smith is better known to many of us as Doc Brown, a rapper formerly of the group Poisonous Poets alongside the likes of Lowkey and #FilthyFellas own DJ Snips. We’ve since seen Doc carve a respectable career for himself as a standup comedian, appearing on the BBC and stages around the country, while as an actor, he has starred in the likes of Law & Order: UK, Brief Encounters and CBBC’s 4 O’Clock Club. His biggest role this year came in Ricky Gervais film David Brent: Life On The Road as Dom Johnson, a rapper taken under the wing of The Office‘s hapless hero David Brent, who fancies his chances as a rock star. Smith returns to the role having first appeared as Dom in the 2013 Comic Relief mini-documentary that inspired Gervais to make a full-length Brent spin-off.
Last week saw David Brent: Life on the Road released on DVD, and we had the opportunity to speak with Smith on the telephone. We touch on some of the talking points from the film, as well as his return to rap and how his audience evolves as he does.
In the initial press run for Life On The Road, you were often asked about David Brent’s use of the N-word, though it didn’t seem to be anywhere near as controversial with the public once they had saw it.
I’ve had so many lessons since I’ve got into entertainment on how the press operates. The press asked about it constantly, trying to stir up some shit on Twitter, and with actual normal people they didn’t even mention it bruv! It’s such a small part of the movie and was something that was very Brent – the joke is explained right there if you know who David Brent is – it’s not even a thing.
Does it speak to a wider topic about well-meaning but disconnected people fumbling over what is the right thing do?
How I’ve explained it in my years of doing standup is that people who aren’t scared about that stuff just say it because they feel it’s the right thing to say in that moment, and they’ll say it to what a PC person might consider to be a dangerous crowd of people to say that in front of, whereas your average person who’s crazily PC is probably gonna end up saying something genuinely offensive because they’ve never really played with these words and concepts. They’re too afraid to say anything so they say nothing, and they’re the type of people who’ll say something wildly out of control because they just haven’t tried and haven’t mixed with the right people. Anybody who thinks Ricky [Gervais] is offensive doesn’t really get it. He’s creating characters, like Sacha Baron Cohen, trying to play on the viewer’s prejudices and question them.
As you progress in your various disciplines, do you find yourself among more of those sort of people?
At first I found it difficult just going between the black circuit and white circuit of standup, and then also leaving behind a lot of the fans I had from doing underground rap, but a lot of them came with me on the journey. People who follow anything that I do tend to be intelligent, measured and good-humoured, and I had that kind of fanbase back when I was just doing rap.
I’ve broadened obviously, and as soon as you get on mainstream TV you’re gonna get a number of new followers who maybe don’t share all of your views, but what I’ve found from Twitter, which I find a fascinating sort of gauge of where people’s heads are at, is that even when I strongly disagree with my followers or they strongly disagree with me, it’s always civil and we hear each other out. The further I go, in a weird way the more people just seem to go with it. There are some people that are like ‘what does he want to do? I don’t get it, he’s doing this and that…’ but actually the disciplines are all pretty much the same. I’m a writer and a performer. What medium that’s in is really up to me.
Most interviews, the first question is ‘how can you do all these things? Are you a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none?’. I’m not a jack-of-all-trades. There’s loads of shit, the majority of shit in show business, I cannot do. I can write and perform, and that’s what I do. If I’m writing a book that rhymes, I’m writing a rhyme like I would in a rap. If I write a piece of standup that makes people laugh, it’s so similar to writing and performing a rap that gets people out of their seats. It’s provocative in the same way. Acting, that’s what I do when I’m doing standup, and partly what you do when you’re rapping, especially when you’re making a rap video, you’re acting. Those are the disciplines, and those are my only disciplines. The day you see me doing figure skating or going on Bake Off, then fair enough but I don’t do any of that shit. I feel if anything quite limited, but I just work very hard.
Rappers writing books should be more common than it is, but there is often that element with younger artists where they are too cool to look back to those before them and do further reading to improve themselves.
Rap is the only artform that don’t really respect the forefathers. For us, the forefathers are old, and we’re the new guard, but soon you’ll be the old guy saying ‘ohhhh I influenced this guy’. You put on the Beach Boys now and everyone’s bowing down, it doesn’t matter how old they are. They’re revered. It’s a shame but I also understand it. Rap and grime, these are street cultures. It’s not something born out of a nice suburban college-going environment; it’s from the street and anything from the street – fashion, slang – it dies a death. It does kind of reflect the culture but for artists it’s frustrating. For me I just try to be as all encompassing as possible. With my new album, I’m not going to try to be like J Hus, or be like some 17-year-old grime kid because I’m a grown man with my own kids. I’m gonna reflect where I’m at right now in my own life. I’m going to grow with the music and the fans that grow with me.
What are your kids listening to? Are you able to show them what you like yet?
It’s so hard for a parent. I’ve got an incredible record collection, and you try and play them shit, and there’s certain stuff they can’t compute so you have to be bombastic. We worked really hard for the first six or seven years to play them strange stuff, and it really worked. I was playing them indie stuff and rap that was acceptable – I played them Run DMC and they liked that – but now that they’re like eight and ten, they just listen to Capital man. They listen to pop hard, and they’re all over the top 40. You know, that’s the way it is. They will come back as they get older because when I was their age I only listened to pop music as well. My parents had amazing records and when I became a teenage I got back into that. That’s how I discovered The Specials, Bob Dylan, Barrington Levy, Bob Marley, you know what I’m saying? All those people are heavy influences on what I ended up doing.
In the film, your character Dom goes along with David Brent despite everything because he values the studio time and tour experience. In your own music career, did you find you had to make similar uncomfortable compromises? Did you fall into the same trap?
I did fall into it. It’s so hard when you’re young, especially when you’re rapping and people don’t take you that seriously, you jump at whatever opportunity there can be. Most of the stuff, studio time and that, you just do it yourself and that costs you money, so as soon as I was offered anything…initially it was my group – Poisonous Poets were signed to BMG for a bit and we were at their mercy. They booked us studio time and we made the most of that, but the communication was so low and we were put in situations that we didn’t really wanna be in and we had no faith in our manager at the time.
I then moved on solo to another manager and the same sort of thing happened, just sort of being led down the primrose path not ever really knowing what the plan was. I was more proactive doing it on my own! I learned a lot back then and I drew on a lot of that for the Dom character, that kind of naivety, and try to get people to feel for him as well, as you need a positive character in a move like that.
You’ve written a couple of songs about football, though rap & football don’t often mix on wax. Why do you think that is?
First and foremost, black culture and football have never been fully binded. I’m not saying black people don’t like football – we love football – we don’t really get into the [terrace culture] side, which is a huge part of the game, partly due to the racism and prejudice that was out there in the old days, but that’s changing. If you go to Arsenal, that’s a very black crowd. When I first went to Crystal Palace in 89/90, there were anti-racism flags and more than half of our team was black, so Palace has always felt like a friendly place, and a place of sharing. It feels like a place that would welcome that kind of thing so even the Palace fans not interested in rap welcomed those songs. People just understood, laughed and smiled at the sincerity in both of those songs, and people from clubs all over the world have contacted me about those songs like ‘this sums up football’.
‘Stop Moaning‘ wasn’t really about Palace, it was about small teams all over the world that have to every day people moan about being in the Champions League. They don’t know the struggle, Palace have nearly been out of existence twice! I was so happy and honoured the Palace fans got it, and I was even more honoured when the club took the Cup Final song on board, and gave it the official stamp. That was one of the happiest days of my life!
You’ve got a new album on the way very soon. What made you want to make a rap album again now?
I think it was a number of things. There were things I was going through personally that I couldn’t really describe in standup form or any other medium – sometimes a song is just the best way to get your frustrations out. Secondly, I just thought rap was getting a bit weak man, American and British. The best guys right now are the grime guys. They’re killing it and more power to them, but in terms of rap I was thinking ‘who’s really doing it?’ It’s very disappointing, but at the same time there’s all these rappers telling me they’re the best. They’re not even above average, so there was a frustration with that. I just thought ‘let me just quickly dip my toe back in and show people how to do this shit properly’. It’s gonna be scary for rappers next year! It really will be, because nobody’s gonna expect it to even be good. They’ll be like ‘Who’s this old guy trying to come back? Trying to get one more bite at the cherry’, but it’s not that bruv, it’s something else entirely.
DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray™ and Digital Download