Ben Bailey Smith takes a serious view of his standup comedy routine, writes Jane Cornwell
THERE’S only one meeting room available at United Artists — a major literary and talent agency in London’s Soho — and it’s ridiculously huge. Shown in and left to wait for Ben Bailey Smith, the younger brother of the novelist Zadie Smith, I take a seat at the head of a table long enough to accommodate several Last Suppers and think how funny it might be if Smith were to sit right down the other end, facing me, and field questions from there, just for laughs.
Being an acclaimed stand-up comedian as well as a rapper, actor, children’s author and screenwriter, he’ll surely get the joke: “With an irresistibly amiable demeanour that gives him an effortlessly charismatic aura,’’ wrote comedy website Chortle of Doc Brown, the moniker Bailey Smith uses for his stand-up and music work, “he could yet be the Tim Minchin of rap’’.
I’ve seen Of Mic and Men, the show Bailey Smith, 34, is playing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and chortled at his good-natured mockery of hip-hop’s badass ways; at his creative broaching of the question, what happens to old rappers? How do you continue to make a living in what is essentially a kid’s game?
That Doc Brown has supported Busta Rhymes and De La Soul, and been a hype man for the likes of Ghostface Killah and Kaiser Chiefs, makes him more authentic, and his insights even funnier: “Rap,’’ he says, “is the long yet determined struggle not to appear gay.’’ His musical interludes, with their nerdy, selfdeprecating lyrics about everything from trouser sizing to unfortunate dancefloor erections, are a scream.
Then there’s the smash YouTube hit Equality Street, in which Bailey Smith raps alongside showbiz god Ricky Gervais reprising his David Brent character from The Office on a spoof popreggae anthem intended to promote racial and social harmony. Anyone who can rap lines such as “Black people aren’t crazy/fat people aren’t lazy/And dwarves aren’t babies, you can’t just pick them up” while keeping a poker face will surely spot a great visual gag when he sees one.
But unlike his award-winning sister, a warm and engaging interviewee who would very probably be waving at me from the other end of the table, Ben Bailey Smith turns out to be surprisingly serious, and in no mood for mucking around. “Hi, I’m Ben,’’ says the married fatherof-two, sitting down in a chair nearest me and waiting while I turn on my Dictaphone. “Big table,’’ he adds, looking around.
The middle child of three born to an English father and a Jamaican mother (“The weird way around,’’ he quips in his show), Bailey Smith grew up in Kilburn, northwest London, buoyed by a mindset that anything was possible. He was a bright kid, the sort that goofed around in class, putting on silly voices and giving his teachers grief, as directionless as his Cambridge-educated sister was focused. In 2000, the year that Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth became an instant classic, Ben was a university dropout hosting rap battles out of a record shop in Carnaby Street, convinced he was about to make his mark in hip hop.
“Back then, British rap was a pretty nonexistent scene,’’ he says matter-of-factly. “The only rap that had credibility came from the US.’’
Signed to a major label, he released three albums with tracks that avoided American terminology and referenced London life; his sampling of Bob Hoskins’s Britain-versusAmerica speech in the 1980 gangster flick Long Good Friday still feels current, inspired. But preDizzee Rascal and Tiny Tempah, Britain wasn’t ready for a “conscious” rapper who wasn’t American. Dropped by his label, and then from a festival touring outfit put together by DJ/producer Mark Ronson and featuring rising stars Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen (“I was really just a backing singer’’), Bailey Smith found him- self unemployed, and undergoing a crisis. Hooray, then, for the restorative powers of comedy: “One day I got a call from a friend who worked at BBC Radio, asking me if I could look at some scripts he’d written for a Lenny Henry sitcom called Rudy’s Rare Records. Lenny was really supportive and when I started getting laughs, I thought, ‘I like this’.’’
When the show’s producer suggested he try his hand at comedy, he put together a routine about his hip-hop hits-and-misses and performed it at open mic nights, stumbling through some, storming through others. In 2008 he began a new career as a professional comedian with a show titled Unfamous (a play on the word “infamous”, and a pun that he admits didn’t quite translate), which sold out its run at the Edinburgh Festival, and which he took to Melbourne in 2011. “It was very autobiographical and too brutally honest to do night after night,’’ he says of a show one critic called “an amusing hour of unspectacular entertainment”. He pauses for a beat. “Of Mic and Men is the next chapter,’’ he continues, “but it’s sillier, and a lot more fun, and it’s just my thoughts really. There are certain things I’ll always touch on like rap, race and parenthood but it’s a universal look at life by a guy who used to be a rapper.’’
Bailey Smith spent very little time on Britain’s black comedy circuit, and is adamant that comedy should be colour blind: “My stuff was never black enough. But I always felt like I was the most radical comic out of everybody ’cause race wasn’t central to my work; that I could get everybody interested in what I had to say, and my colour was an afterthought.’’
In this sense he’s something of a poster boy for multicultural Britain (“I don’t know if there’s a race divide today; it’s more about class’’), playing character roles in television shows such as Midsomer Murders, starring as a homicide detective in the forthcoming British version of Law and Order and co-creating and featuring in children’s TV programs Strange Hill High and the BAFTA-nominated 4 O’Clock Club, none of which reference his ethnicity.
If being mixed race confused Bailey Smith as a kid (“I didn’t know who I was; combine that with racists shouting at you and it can really hit your self-confidence’’), he has a clear-eyed view of things now: “When I get to the very top we can reclaim the black, and that’s what I want to do,’’ he says with a small smile. “I guarantee I’ll be like, ‘ I’m not just the biggest CEO. I’m the biggest black CEO’. But on the way up I don’t see how it benefits you.’’
Bailey Smith is certainly on the way up. Celebrated for his outsider energy and mix of street smarts and vulnerability, he is now so in demand that his schoolteacher wife recently chucked in her job to work for their production company, Bust-A-Gut Ltd, which focuses on film and TV and has re-released the back catalogue of his music. “She’s supporting my brand, I suppose,’’ says Bailey Smith.
Three or four years on the stand-up circuit drove home the need to diversify; being away from his wife and daughters (aged eight and five) for long chunks of time had started to do his head in.
“Stand-up comedy is an insanely unhealthy lifestyle. You’re doing self-therapy every night. You’re alone all the time. But then I’ve never felt like a functioning member of society,’’ he says with a sudden burst of honesty. “I’ve always felt on the outskirts. I’ve always required the validation of strangers, and I think most comics are the same. So when comics or actors say they are shy, I don’t doubt them for a second.”
Bailey Smith doesn’t call himself a comedian but an entertainer and writer. And it’s with words that he has become a role model of sorts, holding forth in schools and in front of youth groups on topics including human rights (he is appalled at the Abbott government’s current treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees) and feminism, due in part to wanting a brighter, more equal world in which to raise his daugh- ters. “If I turn a blind eye to sexism, it’s exactly the same as turning a blind eye to racism or homophobia,’’ says Bailey Smith, whose YouTube rap about Britain’s topless Page 3 girls has gone viral. “I’ve always been into human rights. This was the way I was raised. And when something’s not right you can sense it — some people speak out about it, others just prefer to have that mob mentality and not say anything.’’
If the media try to censor him, well, he’ll always have stand-up comedy to get a message across. “I’m not a political comic,’’ he says. “However, there are things I’ve experienced that seem to be fundamentally wrong and I want to talk about them onstage because I feel passionate about them.’’
Interview over, he stands to go. “And then there are other things I want to talk about because they lend themselves to comedy.’’ He flashes a grin. “Because they’re funny.’’ Doc Brown: Of Mic and Men plays at Melbourne Comedy Festival until April 20.
Comic, rapper, author and actor Ben Bailey Smith; below, big sister and author Zadie Smith