Doc Brown interview: serious hip hop and the human condition

We spoke to comedian Doc Brown about his return to serious music making after an eight year hiatus, ahead of his tour which takes him to Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Brighton.

Lorna Gray

Last updated: 21st Mar 2017.
Originally published: 17th Mar 2017

Image: Doc Brown by Nicholas Sayers 

Ben Bailey Smith, known better by his alias, Doc Brown started his lengthy career in 2000 by frequently attending rap battles and impressing peers with his witty bars and clever rhymes. His musical career took him on a whirlwind of collaborations and experiences which read like the hopes and dreams of any aspiring emcee. 

Having been somewhat unsuccessful with his solo material, Brown took to comedic rapping and stand up which saw him rise to fame at an unbelievable rate, making appearances on mainstream television and even going on tour with Ricky Gervais.

After an eight year hiatus from making serious hip hop beats, Brown returns with a new album announcement, a new single 'Corruptible' and live shows all over the country.

We caught up with Ben to discuss his upcoming and highly anticipated Stemma album release and his transition from comedy back into music making. 

So it's been eight years!

Yeah! 

That's a long time to be away from the music scene, what made you return? 

It's kind of a personal thing, I mean I never really fully decided to leave. I thought it was kind of going nowhere and then other work just took its place. Other work just took over completely. So I was kind of forced to rethink my career completely as soon as it became apparent that I was only going to get paid for one thing.

That's not really a satisfactory reason to stop doing something you love. So it was just a matter of finding the time, it's always bugged me from the very start I think because I've made a career out of rap in a different way. It was just a case of just getting to a point where I was like "look if you really want to do it then just make time."

It's just like exercise, if you just make time for it then you'll do it, and it was as simple as that. One morning I just thought, "you know what? I can still do this." So I just used every spare moment, which is why it's taken two years. I'm so busy throughout the year, it's like literally just been like, hours, minutes here and there where I've got time to write and go into the studio to record. The fun thing about the new music is that it was all written in short spaces of time, but over a long space of time if you see what I mean. 

In the past you've worked with some huge names such as De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and Mark Ronson, do you have a favourite collaboration or one which made you a little starstruck? 

I suppose it's got to be taken into account that when I was working with Ronson, it was on the cusp of Amy [Winehouse] becoming a star. I wouldn't say I was starstruck because I didn't really know anything about her at the time - not many other people did either. But I was amazed by her talent. Just in the rehearsals, seeing her sing.

The same with Lily Allen, she wasn't a star but she brought out 'Smile' whilst we were working together, which gives you a sense of where she was at as well. Amy's talent was mindblowing. It was definitely incredible to see that. I can't think of times when I've been totally starstruck by musicians.

I think you've got to have that thing where you think you're there on merit and also that it must get annoying for people to not have normal conversations with people because they're always just like, "I can't believe I'm in the same room as you." I don't think they want to hear that. I always try to keep it as cool as possible, I think I'm probably a bit too cool when I think back, though.

Do you have any dream collaborations in mind? 

That's a good question, oh wow. I think the ultimate dream would be Amy - obviously it's impossible but I can't think of many people who have really blown me away in my lifetime the same way as she did. There's a few people that are a bit more realistic.

I've always wanted to do something with Scroobius Pip, I think he's wicked, I think he's really talented. He's just different, you know? He was one of my dream collaborations when I thought about coming back to music, but timings and whatnot didn't work out. My other dream collaborations are on the album, so I'm hoping that means I've done well.    

Are there any emcees who you cite as influences on your own sound? 

Oh yeah, I mean millions. Growing up, I was into rap and indie music, those were my two things. There were so many artists in both disciplines that are massive influences on me as a youngster. In rap terms probably Big Daddy Kane, Big LylNars, Jay-Z, Biggie, Kool G Rap, Dre and Snoop, Eminem - the list is endless.

In indie definitely Julian Casablancas and Jarvis Cocker, mainly the guys who had an incredible turn of phrase, you know? I like the lyricists. Damon Albarn is a huge, huge hero of mine. 

You're timing in returning to hip hop couldn't have come at a better time when there are greats like Big Daddy Kane and London Posse heading out on tour.

Yeah! I just saw that about London Possee yesterday, that's amazing!

Your new album Stemma is out this summer, what can people expect from it?

It's experimental in places, but on the whole it's a pretty consistent sound and I think it's what people that knew me from before, it's what they'd expect from me. It's thoughtful, progressive in terms of the lyrics.

The music is a lot more dense and complex than anything I've done before, I mean in the old days I just got a beat off somebody and rapped on top of it. Everything on here has been worked from a blank page up, with me sat there at the boards.

So it's a much more organic project than anything I've ever done before. It's fun, but not funny. I think there's a lot of depth in there and a lot of maturity. The one thing you don't have to worry about is the idea that there's going to be you know, me under a bridge with my hood up rapping with a bunch of seventeen-year-olds. It's not going to be that. It's an album for grown-ups. 

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You mentioned that there's no comedy within this album, are you worried at all that people will be expecting that given your comedy career? 

Yeah, I'm sure there will be plenty of people expecting it to be funny, but, it just isn't (laughs). I don't know what to tell them! If you want to see funny shit then come and see the stand-up. I mean I've put out comedy albums as well, this is something different.

I've sort of worked around the clock doing Radio One and One Xtra, and Capital and Virgin, all the radio stations. I've been doing as much press as I can basically explaining that this is where I'm from - this is not a departure, it's a return. Comedy is the new turn, the fact that I ever done comedy is unreal. Where the hell did that come from? To make serious music is where I'm from and this is me heading back there. After that I'll be back doing comedy and television again, it's a personal thing.

There's quite a few political lyrics in your older material, is that something that can be expected from this album as well?  

No, not really! In my old stuff I always had a balance. There was a couple of sort of social comment type songs, there would be a couple of fun songs, a couple of silly songs - I always had songs with humour in them. The rest would all just be personal. I guess it was just a way at the time to categorise me, to call me a "conscious rapper", an Akala type, but I was never like Akala, his songs across the board always had that social comment.

With me, it was two or three songs per release. I really look at that as part of my youth because now I really tend to separate out the two, I tend to talk about my own politics and opinions of social issues within interviews. When I've got that platform at certain events but I don't get into it in terms of what I create within my music.

As I've got older I've just realised that I don't really want to see that within songs, I just want to be entertained, you know? If you have an opinion I'm totally happy to see that as part of the rest of your existence as a person in the public world. When people say, "why are you talking about politics when receiving your Grammy or BAFTA" and I think that's the perfect time! That's the right moment to say how you really feel. I actually would much prefer that than hearing your song about government cuts, know what I mean?

I think as a young writer, there's no question, it felt like the right thing to do at the time. But now, I'd rather go to the movies for escapism. This new album is just a mixture of songs, from super personal songs and songs that are based on conversations with friends and family about the things we're going through. The human condition is what fascinates me more than anything else, that's what I really love to see reflected in art. 

Your tour is starting next week, how're you feeling about it being your first serious music tour in a while?

I'm really nervous about it but in a good way. I did a warm up thing a couple of weeks ago and it's like as soon as people see how much better the rapping is - I think that's the one thing people haven't really taken on board. When I do comedy, and I rap within the comedy, it's like Sesame Street rap. It's for people who don't like rap, it's for the people who don't know anything about rap.

I think people are a bit scared that it's going to be deadly serious - I'm never that serious! It will be fun I'm just not going to be rapping about tea, I'm not going to do a skit with John Bishop! None of that is going to happen, it's going to be a fun music show. I don't feel any pressure in that regard, I think that's other people's pressure. What I feel pressure in, is learning the songs and presenting and performing them at the highest possible level - that's what I'm nervous about. I'll overcome that in rehearsals.

I've got the freedom to say whatever the fuck I want in between songs, so I can address all of these things head on and the songs will still be good. I think it's way more of a problem in other people's minds than in mine. I think that's probably because a lot of people won't accept that some people can do more than one thing. They just won't accept it. Whereas I look at it and think that there's not a massive amount of difference, I'm a writer and performer so I'm able to do that in slightly different places in slightly different disciplines. 

You can get Doc Brown tickets for his upcoming tour from the boxes below.

Doc Brown, Bristol - The Fleece, Wednesday 22nd March

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Doc Brown and Mikill Pane, Manchester - Band on the Wall, Thursday 23rd March

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Doc Brown, Liverpool - 24 Kitchen Street, Friday 24th March

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Doc Brown and Mikill Pane, Leeds - The Wardrobe, Sunday 26th March

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Doc Brown, Brighton - The Haunt Saturday 1st April

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