8 steps to becoming big shaq
Sell From being behind bars to writing them, how comedian Michael Dapaah broke the internet.
Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, to be a comedian, you had to fight your way onto the comedy circuit (a degree from Oxbridge didn’t hurt) and hope someone would give you a turn on Never Mind The Buzzcocks or, if you were really lucky, your own show on BBC3. Overwhelmingly you had to be white and male. Type “black British comedian” into Google and two names come up. Two. Lenny Henry and Inel Tomlinson (like Richard Blackwood, Felix Dexter, Gina Yashere and Angie Le Mar, to name just four more, never existed).
But with the advent of YouTube and Instagram, times have changed and young black British comics such as Shadrack and the Mandem aka KG & Marston, Jazzie Show, A Squeezy, Man Dem On The Wall and, more latterly, Michael Dapaah and Mo The Comedian are harnessing their social media platforms to find and build audiences of millions. They no longer need anyone else to create their careers, they can do it themselves via YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
Clocking up an incredible 35m views in less than two weeks, and sailing into the top 20 earlier this week, Michael Dapaah’s comic creation Big Shaq singing his track Man’s Not Hot, has become a viral sensation, winning him fans such as Lil Yachty and Drake, and even inspiring Shaquille O'Neal to record a diss track.
While it’s tempting to assume his rapid ascendancy has been just months in the making, Michael’s overnight success has been anything but, as he notes many “failures and rejections” along the way. Inspired by everyone from Eddie Murphy to Robin Williams, Sasha Baron Cohen to Little Britain and Shadrack, Michael has spent the last decade trying to carve out a career. He created Them 3 at college with two other friends, before striking out solo to write and produce the mockumentary series SWIL (SomeWhere In London), which features several characters such as Dr Ofori the cab driver, Patrick the community support officer, and Mr Phillips the supply teacher. His most popular creation though, is undoubtedly Shaq, a sharp takedown of an upcoming road rapper with a penchant for maths, a best pal called Asnee and a ting that goes “Skkkrrrrrrahh.”
So how did he do it? The comedian, entertainer, presenter and rapper talks us through the eight steps to becoming a comedy star…
1. You don't have to be from South London, but it helps
“I’m from Croydon, although we lived in Ghana and South Africa for a while. We came back here when I went to primary school. Growing up was interesting; I was book-smart, however I wasn’t always in the right company, so some of the influences around me weren’t the best. Sometimes I found myself indulging in, I guess, not very positive activities. Seeing people like Krept and Konan and Stormzy come up from a very similar environment was inspiring. Stormzy is family. I was very proud to see him come up the way he has done, with such humility. Down the road [in Peckham] you have people like Giggs. Going through all this hardship as an entertainer and breaking down barriers to be the person he is now has been so motivating to observe. All of these different things have helped to shape and mould me as an individual. I appreciate being from Croydon, but even if you’re not from Croydon, you can be inspired too and do something great with yourself.”
2. Do what you love, even if it’s not what your parents expect
“I knew in my heart I wanted to be an entertainer. I remember going into college and not really wanting to do physics, chemistry, biology and P.E. I really lost interest in it but growing up under first-generation African parents in the UK the emphasis was on me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I understand it now; they just want to make sure you have a good future and don’t waste your opportunities. But it was tough. Going away [to prison] when I was 16, that’s where I discovered my real passion for acting and comedy, cos I just used to make everyone laugh. I told my dad, upon return, this is what I want to do. And funnily enough his attitude had changed and he told me to go for it. So I started college again and this time I did drama, English and business studies, and I did well, so I got into university. I started Them 3 in college, which was great, we had a good run, we won some competitions, we did some shows. We didn’t know what we were doing, we was faffing it, trying to break through, wanting to be viral at a young age cos you saw other people going viral, but not really knowing how to do that. I’m so happy things didn’t happen the way I wanted them to happen because I wouldn’t have been ready. Growing up in Croydon and being around certain people, my attitude wasn’t the greatest. I was definitely not the man I am today. I wasn’t ready for the industry.”
3. At some point, quit your part-time job and actually go for it
“Working at Vodafone was a blessing because I needed something to support me while I was studying. But it got to the stage where it began to frustrate me. I had something greater in my heart that I wanted to do. But the thought of leaving the security of getting paid at a certain point each month put fear and uncertainty into me. My father was very supportive of me because he really believed in my abilities, which helped give me confidence. But it was a scary transition. When my friend Nathan died [that was the catalyst to leave]. Around 2011, I hosted the finals for a talent show called Unsigned Stars, which Stormzy won and Nathan was one of the founders of that show. He was someone who believed in young people and their talent, he created platforms, he did so much. But Nathan was depressed and he was suicidal and, yeah, he took his life. It moved me differently. It was monumental for me. I decided to go for it with my comedy. All of that stuff that’s happened in the background -- losing people, friends dying, having to overcome internal fears, working on my faith, not believing in myself, feeling frustrated... I took time out to create, I wrote for eight months when no one knew who I was, or cared, and then I slowly began to dish out content and it grew and grew, from 3000 views to 5000 to 20,000 to 100,000 to a 250,000 to 500,000. And we’re still growing. I’m very thankful for my journey; without going through the losses and pain I wouldn’t be the more seasoned, more mature man I am today.”
4. Use social media to build your audience
“10 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I can do now. I have a direct connection with the public, so I’ve been able to grow an organic, real audience. The rulebook still exists to some degree, but I don’t play by that rulebook; I play by the rulebook of ‘We live in this generation now.’ Television still exists and it’s great but the ability to create and bring it to life yourself is what I love. It puts me in the position of a producer and I love to produce stuff. I’ll always have respect for the conventional routes like the comedy circuit, but I’m wild when it comes to this creative stuff. Social media has played a colossal part of my growth, of my audience.”
5. Get on Fire In The Booth
“Charlie followed me months and months ago, I followed him straight back, thanked him for the follow. He hit me back to say he loved what I was doing. That was kind of it, from then on the relationship sparked. Then, this summer, I was in Kavos for a presenting gig. I was in a restaurant eating a gyro and I saw Charlie walking past. I went and tapped him from behind. When he saw it was me he had the biggest grin ever. It was just natural love from there. Rashid from Linkup TV asked me to come down and shoot a content piece for Charlie’s album, The Plug. We shot the piece and it was mad funny and then we spoke about Fire In The Booth and we went in, we did it. I thought it would do good in the UK, but the way it went global was crazy. When Shaq got on the mic that was it. When I get in character, I’m fully in character. I am not Michael Dapaah. Michael Dapaah is a totally different person from Big Shaq! The “Ting goes sssskrrrkkk krrraaak” came from Shaq being in his element, spilling out his emotions. I love to entertain and uplift and give people a good time.”
6. Hang out with Drake
“Yes, my guy, the absolute legend! He followed me before things started to go really viral. He was showing love from when I was releasing early episodes of SWIL. He followed me and we started speaking by DM. He would say ‘Yo man, you’re hilarious.’ Messages like that were very emotional for me because he’s one of my favourite rappers and so for him, one of the biggest artists in the world to notice me, a boy from Croydon, was a lot for me, it was so inspirational. What I really admire about Drake is his humility as a man. He took time out to show me love when he didn’t have to. It’s a great example for me of how to conduct myself. Humility is the most important thing.”
7. Don’t just think about yourself
“I was invited out to the BET Awards, which was crazy. That was the first time I’d been to America, to go for the awards. Imagine going to America for the first time in your life and you go straight to Miami, one of the most lit places in America! Absolutely mental. And then people recognising you. Mental! Especially for Big Shaq; him being recognised across the water was a big thing for him. Shaq being Shaq he just took it in his stride. I’m very grateful cos BET opened the doors to things like the Breakfast Club, which I did as myself. It’s bought attention not just to me but to the UK itself. I don’t ever do stuff just for myself, it’s about the people who come after me, it’s about building a movement, a culture. I think we’ve got great talent here and we have stars here who should be global. If it takes someone like Big Shaq to shine more light on what’s going on over here, then we’ve all won. “
8. Don’t give up
“I’m always very humbled by everything, but I know I have a responsibility to continue because I have more people watching me than before, which is great, but it also adds pressure. But pressure makes diamonds. Bring on the pressure baby! I’ve been through some tough times but I’ll always be a student to life. To anybody else wanting to do this: don’t ever give up. Don’t ever, ever give up.”