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090420 Kiell Smith Bynoe Publicity Editorial 1 1106
Nine Songs
Kiell Smith-Bynoe

From grime MC to Sewing Bee, Kiell Smith-Bynoe is truly running the gamut. The star of Ghosts and Stath Lets Flats talks Olivia Swash through the most meaningful songs in his life.

24 May 2024, 08:00 | Words by Olivia Swash

Heading up BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee, a theatrical run of The Government Inspector and his own improv show, there’s a lot to celebrate for the most versatile man in entertainment.

“At my school, you were only respected for being one of three things: footballer, fighter or MC,” says Kiell Smith-Bynoe backstage on a break from rehearsals, the day before opening night for his run at Marylebone Theatre. Having starred in some of the most iconic comedy TV shows of recent years and achieved milestones like Taskmaster, it often comes as a surprise that the actor’s creative outlet was music for many years.

“For some reason, that was just what people looked up to. I went to an all-boys’ school in Forest Gate. Mostly working-class background, and quite a strong African-Caribbean population,” he says. Being exposed to other MCs in the school – namely Tinchy Stryder – inspired Smith-Bynoe, and he would spend lessons writing lyrics, before lunchtime clashes. “It was a low-level competitive energy that created this ability to turn things out so quickly,” he explains. These well-versed writing skills helped when pooling together for studio time as a bunch of teenagers. “You’re paying £20 an hour, or whatever it was back then, and you can get three or four songs done because you've had the practice of writing in the morning and performing at lunch in front of the whole year.”

“I wanted to be an MC but I never saw it as a career – just something I enjoyed doing,” he says of his Klayze Flaymz alias. “I would burn CDs at home and go and sell them outside HMV in Camden.” It’s now 16 years since his accidental proto-viral hit, “Junior Spesh.” Along with his teenage school friends, they paid homage to a Canning Town chicken shop’s kids’ meal deal. “It was an in-joke, so we made the song cos we thought it’d be funny, but never with the intent of it going out,” says Smith-Bynoe. “It wasn’t the type of music we made. We were making proper grime, and that happened to be the one that blew up. This is when songs were being sent around on MSN and Bluetooth! Within months, we were being asked to perform it at parties and clubs.”

A recent YouTube commenter suggested the group recreate the song with the £1.50 meal deal adjusted for inflation. “If I can get the global head of one of the biggest charity organisations in the world to book a day off so we can go to the studio and record the song 16 years later, then I'm capable of anything,” Smith-Bynoe says. “He does not need to be doing that! Ironic, cos he convinced me to do the song in the first place…”

That wasn’t Smith-Bynoe’s final opportunity to ride the heady wave of a grime/viral crossover. When his longtime friend and collaborator Gracious K’s heavy-hitting club favourite “Migraine Skank” took off in 2009, hype-man Klayze Flaymz was along for the journey. 

But it’s acting that had long been in the crosshairs for Smith-Bynoe as a career goal since the age of five. “What I’m doing right now, as in today, is what I thought I would be doing when I left drama school in 2010. I thought I’d be doing plays,” he explains. “Then the TV stuff came about and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I want to be doing,’ but I never expected it. I never thought I’d be a lead in a BBC One comedy. I thought I’d be successful, sure, but my idea of success was being a working actor.”

With a background in improv, sketches and skits, the comedy world was an organic move for Smith-Bynoe. “I’ve always wanted to have my own show as well, and I finally got to make that happen last year,” he says of his improv show, Kool Story Bro, which has an upcoming one-off night at Stratford East this month and will be making a second appearance at Edinburgh Fringe in August. His hilarious Channel 4 Comedy Blap Red Flag was a pivotal moment in Smith-Bynoe taking ownership and creative lead. “It was so huge for me,” he says. “I want more of that. I want to make my own thing and be in those rooms making those decisions.”

“I do sort of want an outlet for creativity in a musical aspect,” he reflects. “I did get that in String v SPITTA – the show I did at Soho Theatre. We actually just this week sent off the second draft for the TV pilot. We’ve been working on that for a long time.”

Smith-Bynoe’s Nine Songs picks span deep-rooted experiences from his fascinatingly full life so far: from contemplative and sincere to first flushes of romance-filled narratives. “I had 14 that just came out straight away and then I was like oh, yeah, this is hard,” he says of the selection process. “Then I had to really fine-tune it and think about what’s more important. So it was quite difficult.”

"Rainy Dayz" by Mary J. Blige ft. Ja Rule

I remember being at summer school at Stratford Circus, and the course was probably three weeks. It was split between age groups, and I was in the 11-14 group. I remember being – what I thought was – in love with someone in my group. I was like, “This is the love of my life. You’re my girlfriend now, okay!” That lasted maybe two weeks. We broke up because someone didn’t like the way that someone was sitting next to someone instead of sitting next to them at lunch… You know, those sorts of things. And I experienced what I can only describe as the most intense heartbreak I’d ever felt in my life, at that stage.

I remember this song being on the radio, and I related to it so hard. I felt like it was on all the time when I was feeling so heartbroken. It was all a coincidence, because it’s radio innit. You didn’t really have anything that you could decide to play a song from, unless you had a Walkman, and I don’t think I did at that stage.

It probably lasted about five days, but it felt like my whole life was in turmoil and I would be in this dark state for years. And every time I hear that song, it’s what I think of. I saw her a couple of months ago because she was doing some filming – she's a very well-established and good actor. So I told her and reminded her of that, and we laughed and laughed! I can’t not hear that song without thinking of that time.

BEST FIT: You don’t want to drop who it is?!

I probably shouldn’t!

"The Most Beautiful Girl In the World" by Prince

I was probably eight when I first heard this. I think I was so much more romantic as a child – Wait, that’s not true – because I am still quite romantic now. But I remember this song and I was like, “I need to learn all the words and sing it to this girl.”

BEST FIT: …A question I had for you for this song is, “Be honest, have you ever sung this to anyone?”

I didn’t actually do it, I didn’t go through with it. But that was the plan – to learn all the words and sing it to her. She was my crush from maybe year two until year six, so like, four years? It’s a different girl to the first one. My mum and her mum were really close friends, so we used to go on holiday together and stuff. That song is a reminder of my romance arc. My hidden origin.

I actually spoke about her on a podcast recently. As a joke, I said her full name, and I thought that obviously they would edit out her surname. About three months later I got a message from her saying that her colleague at work asked if she knew me, and told her that I was talking about her in this podcast and said her full name. It’s very funny for that to happen more than 20 years later.

"Make The World Go Away" by Jim Reeves

There’s something about Caribbean women of a certain age, maybe mid 60s and upwards, who love Jim Reeves. I don’t know what that’s about or where it comes from, but my nan was obsessed with him. I remember her asking me to make her a CD with Jim Reeves songs on it, and she wanted this song on there three times so she didn’t have to keep pressing it to go back!

I was a real nanny’s boy. My nan was like my best friend, we were really close. My mum used to work quite late because she worked for London Ambulance Service, so I’d get dropped to my nan’s after school and be there most of the time. I’m an only child, and my cousins were sort of allowed to do whatever they wanted, whereas my mum was really strict.

My nan taught me loads of things. She never taught me how to cook, but she did teach me a lot of things. And this song reminds me of when she was getting older and slowing down a little bit. The relationship changed from her doing things for me, to me doing things for her.

As she got older she was bed-bound because she had diabetes and had to have her leg amputated from below the knee. Carers would come and move her from the bed to the chair and back to the bed, but she was still sharp in her mind and always funny – always caring, loving and kind. We’d watch TV together and chat. She would ask me to put that CD on. Just great times with my nan – that’s what this reminds me of.

I’ve started going to Barbados a lot more regularly. I only went once with my nan, but my mum used to take me all the time when I was in school. I was like, “Urgh, I’ve got to go to Barbados again! For the whole summer holiday!” I hated it because all my friends were in London kicking a football at a car, and I wanted to do that, and instead I was being dragged around the island. I realise now not only how expensive it must’ve been, but also what a blessing it was to have a place like that, that was like a second home. Now I’m trying to buy a house there for my mum. It’s long, but I’m in the process.

They have a thing called Fish Fry on Fridays in Oistins. It’s like a big food market, but there’s also two dancing areas. One for the young people that just want to drink, and one for the older sophisticated people having a slow dance, and they play a lot of Jim Reeves. Those memories come rushing back.

BEST FIT: Your Instagram post about your emotional relationship to Barbados was really nice. I saw that Ayo Edebiri was in it too!

Yeah, we were out there at the same time and we were doing a bit of exploring together. Her mum was born there, as was my mum. They met and they were chatting away. She’s got a massive family out there – I think her mum is one of 12 or 11.

"Your Love Is a 187" by Whitehead Bros.

My dad never lived with us, but he would be there quite a lot. I remember when I was going out somewhere he would always offer to drop me, cause he just loved driving. This song reminds me of my dad, because he always had cassettes and he would play them in the car. I don’t really get where he got them from – someone must’ve been making them for him before people were making CDs. But this is one of the songs he used to play that I completely forgot about until I heard it on the radio maybe a few years ago, and it reminded me of being in my dad’s car. He was a proper R&B guy, maybe that’s where I got it from! Well actually, both of my parents were. It seems like he loved album tracks. It was never the songs that you’d recognise straight away, it was always like hidden bonus tracks.

My dad used to drive everything. He drove trains, buses, minivans, lorries. He was a driver. But he was also a semi-professional cricket player, he used to take teams on tours. He’d do the Caribbean quite a lot, and India… He loved driving. It was always a different car, but the same playlist. It was always a bunch of cassettes until he finally gave in to CDs.

"Thong Song" by Sisqo

Absolute banger. Did you know that the instrumental was written for Michael Jackson? When you listen to that production, it is outstanding! This really reminds me of my childhood, because I remember getting told off in primary school for singing it, which obviously made me do it more. I think I know every word to the whole Unleash The Dragon album.

Whenever I washed my hair – and I would say that 90% of black boys in London were doing this when they would wash their hair – I’d leave the shampoo on my hair and mark out the line-up in the mirror so I had silver hair like Sisqo. Hopefully someone is going to see this and think, “Oh my gosh, I forgot I used to do that.” But I will never forget. There’s something about this song that places people in a certain time. I feel like everyone knows where they were when that song came out, or when they first heard it.

BEST FIT: When this came out, were you past the pure romance point of your romantic arc, and it was more… hormonal?

Yeah, maybe, I remember sitting next to Charlie Fisher in assembly and us just starting a low mumble - “Du nuh nuh nuh sha sha sha” - and then someone else - and then the whole of our class was singing it, and we would get shouted at and told to stand at the wall!

"These Are The Times" by Dru Hill

This was the first single I ever bought with my own money. I remember going to WHSmith with my mum and buying this. The album cover was gold and had the lyrics in it, and that’s how I learned that song.

BEST FIT: “Tie you up in little pieces / Swallow you like Reese’s Pieces” - what a line!

Haha! There was a part of me that was learning that I appreciate production as well as just the lyrics and the song and the melody. I love everything about this, and even now my taste is slightly more geared towards the more classical sounds: strings and violins and pianos. It ticks every box of what I like in production and performance. The ad-libs on this song, it’s crazy. It’s right up my street.

"Migraine Skank" by Gracious K

The other day, myself and Charlotte Ritchie did a talk at an event at the BBC. Trevor Nelson was doing the Q&A and I told him that we’d met before, in a different life. I told him I had come on his show with Gracious before, because I was his hype man. He was like, “No way!”

I’ve heard this song maybe ten thousand times: the radio edits, the remixes, everything. It was a huge part of my life. It came out in 2009, when I was in drama school in my second year. I was doing all day at drama school and I would go home, then a driver would come to my house with Gracious and we would go anywhere in the country. Sometimes we would do three shows in three different cities a night. It was insane. Then I would go back home and go to drama school the next day, having performed to 600 people in a club the night before. Then we started going round the world as well – we did all the European holiday destinations. It was a great time. Every summer we’d just fly from here to there. This went on until about 2016.

I loved being on stage and performing in front of a crowd. We were meant to open for Flo Rida once, but we were late because there was an accident on the road. We got there and he was already on. The promoter was like, “Well, we already paid you, so do you want to go on after him?” So Flo Rida opened for us!

"Jaded" by Drake

I am a big Drake fan. My friend, who was also in Red Hot, introduced me to him. We used to use SoundCloud quite a lot and I remember him sending me “Brand New” on there. So that was the first Drake song I heard. I was like, “Who is this?” I really liked it.

I love that he is sort of a romantic as well. I guess that’s what I’m into, that’s my sort of thing – and the themes of that song. Apparently, and I don’t know if this is true, but apparently the song is about Jorja Smith. I remember hearing it and thinking how I want to make songs like this. That happens to me quite often, like when Kendrick Lamar put out “The Heart Part Five”. So that was one of those songs that made me feel that.

I looked up my most played song on my Apple Music, and this is it, apart from a Nick Hakim EP which is only four songs that I’ll put on repeat a lot, but then after that, it’s this!

"Say What's Real" by Klayze Flaymz

I wanted to put one of my own songs, because it’s part of my musical journey. If someone said to me, “Play me one of your songs,” I think I’d go this one. It’s the one I’d be the most proud of now. Someone once said to me that this is the second most honest song I’ve ever written. The original is a Kanye West track – “Say You Will” – and then Drake’s “Say What’s Real” is a cover.

BEST FIT: It’s such a time stamp of where you were at when you recorded it. Do you reflect back on your own success since that point?

I do, cos I think it’s the best form of motivation. To look at what I was doing ten years ago, not expecting that I'd be doing what I'm doing now. At the time, I was talking about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.

There are definitely days where I’m like, “Yeah, this is what I’ve always wanted.” Like the first day of a new job, working out what you’re going to do with a character, or even getting picked up from your house, taken somewhere and asked what you want for lunch. It’s all the stuff that I wanted to do.

Looking at YouTube videos that I did years back, thinking about how far I’ve come, but also the quality of the stuff that I was doing back then, which I think is quite high… I don’t think there’s much that I’d be embarrassed about. So there is a great sense of pride there.

There’s so much on the list of things that I still want to do – what I’d love to be in, or get my own thing made. I’m motivated by how far I’ve come, and also there’s so far to go.

Catch Kiell in Kool Story Bro at Stratford East on 7 June, The Government Inspector at Marylebone Theatre until 15 June, and in The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC iPlayer. Find Kiell Smith-Bynoe on Instagram.

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