Doc Brown was making a name for himself in hip-hop but then comedy came calling. So he married the art forms - to uproarious effect.
Prescription for laughter
It's a busy Thursday night in Bloomsbury, the central London district where Virginia Woolf's infamous set held court. At a plush, packed theatre, Ben Smith's increasingly popular set is causing uproar.
Smith also has literary links, being the younger brother of the brilliant novelist Zadie Smith, but favours a more urgent form of communication. Under the pseudonym Doc Brown, the erudite Londoner has introduced vibrant hip-hop to Britain's live comedy circuit and has rapidly become a headline act.
"People wonder why I've been fast-tracked," says the rapper, who brings his beats, rhymes and life to the Laughter Factory tour beginning tomorrow. "There are lots of comics that started at the same time that feel like I've left them behind. Well, I've had one big advantage: I've been performing for 10 years in hostile environments. Everything that sets me apart from other comics is stuff I learnt from hip-hop."
Smith's dynamic delivery can make other stand-ups seem awfully sedate and he's the focal point of a growing trend. Also bringing hip-hop to British comedy stages are two popular Irish duos, Abandoman and the Rubberbandits, while a pair of renowned human-beatboxers, Beardyman and Shlomo, have both performed full-length Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows in recent years. A dedicated hip-hop comedy night is also now a monthly London fixture at the aptly named venue Rich Mix.
Shifting to comedy was not a planned career move for Smith, who admits to having "no real interest in stand-up" before stumbling onto the circuit. Five years ago he was making a sizeable impact on the UK hip-hop scene, culminating in a live collaboration with the high-profile DJ-producer Mark Ronson. That role saw him regularly perform alongside the likes of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, but when the Ronson job ended he struggled to adapt. "The little taste of real success, then back to your daily life - I just couldn't quite face it," he says.
His unlikely saviour was a scriptwriter at BBC Radio 4, who needed someone with street smarts to help with the station's comedy output. He became increasingly involved, began performing onstage at BBC events and was spotted by several stand-up bookers. These included the manager of Ricky Gervais and the superstar comic offered useful support, including a warm-up slot on his 2012 tour. Before then, some challenging gigs in the UAE helped hone his style.
"I went [there] earlier on in my stand-up career and it was very interesting," says Smith. "It was the first time I had been abroad and performed to a different crowd like that. It was an eye-opener from a professional point of view. So I'm a bit more prepared for it now. I'm looking forward to it."
Wonderfully assured, his current set marries likeably laid-back chat with bursts of energetic, often self-deprecating rap, and he clearly enjoys the freedom to experiment.
"There's a lot of stuff that just wouldn't work in rap," he says, referring back to his old hip-hop career. "In comedy, as long as it's funny, you can pretty much discuss whatever you want, in whatever length. Although in music you can do the same thing for 50 years, play the same five songs. In comedy you have to constantly create, and that is way, way harder."
The move into comedy has offered other rewards, notably a route into acting. His CV includes several high-profile sitcoms, such as the recent UK/US spy drama Hunted and even some acclaimed children's shows. Other acts would struggle to balance the varied environments of rap and Radio 4, comedy and kids' TV, but Smith had a fine role model: his big sister. "I learnt it from her. She was always a chameleon, shifting between groups of people," he says. "I found that I had the same ability."
The siblings are occasional collaborators, too, mostly at live events. Ben has contributed to Zadie's literary canon as well. Dip inside her third novel, On Beauty, and you should find him listed as a researcher, and even appearing in the text.
"If you look really closely," says Ben, "there's a character called Doc Brown who pops up in the middle of the book as the host of the hip-hop night in Boston."
On screen, stage and page, that name is becoming increasingly hard to avoid.
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