It’s been ten years since Doc Brown last released a rap album. A lot of today’s rap fans will know him purely as the guy that did that jokes tune about making cups of tea, but in the noughties Doc, along with Poisonous Poets, were tearing up the UK rap and hip-hop scene.
Back in 2005 his controversial (read: unauthorised) remix of “Mad World” was championed by the likes of Jo Wiley and Jonathon Ross, propelling UK Rap to mainstream notability. Long story short, Doc Brown often drifts under the radar of the urban music scene, however man’s been repping since day.
Old school hip hop heads rejoiced, then, when Doc announced that after a decade out of the game he would be returning with his fifth studio album Stemma. The announcement of the album was swiftly followed by the record’s first single and video drop “Corruptible” and a mini UK tour, where he was supported by GRM fam member Mikill Pane.
I caught up with Doc moments before he hit the stage at his London show at XOYO to chat about the transition from rap, to comedy, and back to rap.
I have two modes: half an hour early or half an hour late. As I knew I would have limited time with Doc before he performed, I decided it would probably be better to err on the side of being early. This meant I was able to sit in the empty venue alongside a handful of Doc’s management team and watch the tail end of his soundcheck. It was fifteen minutes before the doors opened to the public and fans were beginning to appear on the Shoreditch streets, but Doc was toiling away with the mic levels making sure everything was sounding lit.
Tonight isn’t the final night of the tour, but it’s the most important. “It’s his homecoming, there’s a lot of people who have been waiting for this, a lot of old faces,” his publicist tells me excitedly. In fact everyone on the management team has a buzz of impatient anticipation about them; like a frantic enthusiasm.
When Mikill takes the stage for his sound check, I squeeze into the tiny dressing room alongside Doc and a few others to chat about everything that lead to this moment.
From the offset it’s clear to see that it has been a major learning curve transitioning back into his original career, despite all those years of experience. “When I first booked in the dates I hadn’t thought through how it was going work. I was still thinking with my stand up head on, like I could do everything just on my own and get it done in the cheapest way possible.”
However, with a little help from his friends, Doc managed to pull together an essentially grass-roots mini tour. “I know it sounds cliché to say, but its been proper emotional… The closer I got to [the tour] the more I realised I needed a lot of help, and I didn’t wanna get some hired mercenaries. While I was thinking that some of my closest friends were like ‘bruv if you need help let me know I can do this and do that’. But we’re all boys. We’re all close friends.
I can’t explain how different it is to stand-up. Stand-up I could do a hundred more dates and sell out a hundred more venues but I don’t experience it with anyone but myself.”
Doc never imagined returning to the music scene wasn’t on the cards for him. “I had totally given up on it,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “There was a period when I was first doing stand up where I stopped listening to rap and grime altogether. I just wasn’t really listening to that much music. I lost faith, I didn’t just lose faith in my own rapping, I lost faith in rap. I just wasn’t feeling the new shit. I just stopped listening altogether.”
He did, however, incorporate rap into his stand up career. There was no way I could chat to the man without bringing up his three viral megahit skits “My Proper Tea”, “Slang 101” and “Everybody’s Racist”. The songs rose to national notoriety in 2012 after Doc performed them on BBC 3’s Russell Howard’s Good News.
It’s hard to remember a time now when we weren’t constantly scrolling through our Instagram explore page looking for lol’s, however five years ago if you said the word “meme” no one would know what you meant. But, that perfect trifecta of funny, young, culturally engaged songs arriving just on the precipice of viral fame culture propelled doc into the kind of internet stardom that hadn’t really been seen in this country before.
When I explain this spiel to Doc he pauses for a second. “Wow I’d never even thought about it like that,” he says. I ask him if he sees it the same way, maybe I’d misread the situation. “I mean I guess so, yeah!” He tells me. “It’s mad! They do the rounds on Facebook still, so I’m told. Obviously I don’t watch myself on YouTube and I certainly don’t watch myself do stand up… its horrible.
“The thing about show business is, a lot of what people call success is based on moments in time when someone did the right thing in the right moment and everybody saw it. In that moment, it happened and it was the right thing for that moment therefore it became classic and people want to dip back into [it].
“When Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk, that moment there… Fred Astaire saw it and freaked out! It was so legendary in that moment that we still dip back into it watching it on our shitty phones or whatever just to feel a little piece of that thing that was the perfectly right thing for that moment.”
I ask him if he dropped those videos now, when the internet is saturated with funny videos, would they have had the same affect on his career? He pauses for a long time. “That’s a very good question” he says eventually. “I think if you do something or say something that strikes a chord with people, the internet will kind of do the rest for you in a way, you know? I see things that have got millions of views but I think it has to be a huge amount of work pushing it, because it doesn’t touch me. But when you see things that have got hundreds of millions of views, you totally get it, you can’t fake that.”
His phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes album, Stemma is where Doc gets really animated. He’s clear with what he wanted the album to be and from the passion in his voice when he describes it, he has evidently achieved his goals. “It’s kind of a weird mix of intensely personal, inward looking and then the total opposite – intensely universal and outward looking.
“I didn’t want it to be all about me but I did want it to be all about the human condition. I wanted to describe what it was like to be a man at my stage of life, not necessarily all from my perspective but from all the people around me, the conversations that I have with my boys about real shit. That’s the stuff I wanna write about.”
His ‘boys’ (which he hastens to clarify means mates, not necessarily just men) prove as his main source of inspiration for both music and comedy. The comedic and musical writing processes are very different for Doc, however conceptually they both start at the same place, the conversations he has with the boys. “Anything that’s real that we talk about, that gets everybody like ‘rahhh no hold on there’s levels to this sh-t’.
“That sh-t there, if it has fascinated ten boys all from different walks of life and we’ve talked about it all night, in my opinion that might make a good basis for a song or a joke.”
But why create an album and a music tour instead of another stand-up show? As Ricky Gervais’ standard opening act, it’s hardly like his comedy career was dwindling.
“I think the two major things that changed was in 2014, my life was in emotional turmoil. I was dealing with a lot of things that had me on a personal level at rock bottom. It is very hard to perform comedy or to be the funniest guy in the room or the clown when you’re that low. It took me a while to realise that I was dealing with depression and a number of other things that had happened to me very badly. Coming out of that, being able to look at it in retrospect as an artist, you want to talk about it. But no one don’t wanna hear about that in stand up!”
However after writing his thoughts and feelings down in song form and playing some demos to his infamous ‘boys’, it became very clear that whatever ‘it’ was that made Doc an incredible rapper ten years ago was definitely still there.
“The beautiful part of it is, whatever happens with [Stemma] is a bonus. I’m not trying to be a popstar, I’m not trying to compete with the Stormzys and the Skeptas. I know my lane, I know what I can do and I know what I can achieve. I’m in a position where I’m totally happy for people to just discover the music in their own way. I know it would be very hard for me to pop up and be like ‘this is my version of “Shutdown”’. People would be like ‘chill bruv you’re a comedian’. So I’ve got to ease it in and I’m cool with that.”
He sounds blasé but with that transition there were certainly huge risks, for example people turning up to his shows expecting something very different. “The complicated and difficult part for me is a lot of people in the regional gigs have come hoping that I’m going to do stand up. The fact that I’ve won them over, for me is like rah! That’s such an achievement.
“The weird thing is, at all the regional gigs I’ve met with everybody to do signings and photos after and everybody said ‘I came to see [comedy], I wasn’t expecting it but I’m down, I’m fully down.’ A lot of people also said it was still funny but just in a different way, which I thought was really interesting.”
Finally, I need to know if after comedy, acting and rap we can expect any other Doc Brown careers popping up in the future. His answer to this is very quick and very firm.
“No I’m good. I need to get some sleep occasionally and see my kids… maybe.”
Photograph: Nick Sayers