From A$AP Rocky to Zed Bias, Benji B boasts one of the most extensive contact books in the industry. His journey from wide-eyed club kid to front and centre at Radio 1’s specialist programming has seen him become a respected figure across the musical spectrum – with his passion shining through regardless of the genre.
As a promoter he’s helmed Deviation – long one of our favourite parties, and given early leg-ups to the likes of Hudson Mohawke, Flying Lotus and Dorian Concept. Now he’s take up the mantle as the latest of XOYO’s Saturday residents across April, May and June, he’s looking to channel the fervour of his early teenage raving days into a series of unforgettable club experiences for a new generation. Starting off in raucous style a couple of weeks ago with a heaving session that brought in the likes of Skepta, Kaytranada, JME, Jammer, Novelist, A$AP Rocky, Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def, Bok Bok, Flat White and Jay Electronica to a packed club, Benji’s residency looks set to make Deviation at XOYO the epicenter of London’s club culture during its three month run. Looking to find out more about the residency and his experiences with nightlife in the capital over the years, we recently paid him a visit at his North London studio.
The last time we spoke with you was in conversation with Kode 9 back in 2012. The relationship between you two got me thinking about mentors. I was wondering how influential older figures and mentors were to you coming through on the radio and with DJ’ing, and if you wanted to mention anyone in particular?
Definitely. In terms of radio and broadcasters the biggest influence on me is Gilles Peterson. It goes beyond being an influence because we actually worked together and did some great things. I think that the effect of the people who influence you between, say the ages of 14-20, or a similar age range where you’re still growing as a young person, the effect and what those people mean to you is more profound than people who have an influence on you later on in life. Of course I was also influenced by Peel and Rodigan and Westwood and Stretch and Bobbito too in the 90s. I think with DJ’ing, in that period I would like to say people like Masters at Work and Kenny Dope from the US, and people like Evil Dee and DJ Premier, whose mixtapes I’d listen to religiously as a teenager when they were imported here. Fabio was a massive influence on me, not just because he was one of my favourite DJ’s in the genre alongside people like Randall, but he was also one of the first people to reach out and speak to me as a kid, in what was quite a serious scene.
To go back to Gilles, your first break in radio was producing his KISS FM show – I’ve heard the anecdote of you going up to him in a club and basically asking to produce his show.
It’s a true story. When I was a kid, being into specialist music the way that I was at that age, was not that usual. What happens when you’re into certain types of music and other people around you aren’t, is that you naturally gravitate to or find individuals who are. I was really into Hip-Hop, Soul, Drum & Bass, House music – the Kenny Dope, Kerri Chandler type House music at the time. There was only really one person who was embracing all these different types of music in one place and that was Gilles Peterson. When I discovered his show on KISS it used to be called the Vibra Zone on a Sunday and it became religious listening to me.
I used to tape Kool FM, Fabio & Grooverider on KISS, Kenny Ken on KISS, Colin Dale – he was sick! Coldcut and Jazzy B, Rodigan – these were cassettes I used to listen to every week. Westwood on Capital, his Capital Rap show when I was a kid was monumental. All of those people had a big influence on me but Gilles Peterson was the one person who was able to take all of this different music and put it into one experience.
I learned a lot about Jazz and Brazilian music from Gilles, listening to his show and listening to him DJ taught me so much in particular about that music. I thought I knew about Jazz but he took it to a whole different level. I had the more contemporary music on lock – Hip-Hop, D&B, House and so on. I felt at the time that his show could do with a stronger balance of the two. So I went up to him and said, “look, I really love what you do, but I think I can make it better” – that’s the kind of thing you can only say at that age, the idea of saying it now just makes me cringe. But full props to Gilles because he was like “right, you’re the Producer”. It was a very unusual situation to be in producing a show at the age of 16 at KISS FM on Holloway Road, but that’s exactly what I did.
Had you had technical experience with radio prior to this?
Yeah of course. I had done college radio etc… Put it this way, it started from the age of 4 or 5 when I taped the top 40 from the radio every single week. I used to make pause button cassette tape just off the radio – I mean, most people from my generation did that.
I think subconsciously my external compass was always set to be on Radio 1, even from that age. I think it’s that strong, it was something that I knew I wanted to do. Radio was such an informing party of my musical knowledge. And I love the radio, I just love it. I love the idea of a perfectly put together mixtape. The idea of being the point person for breaking and playing new music. The idea that a radio station is not just a random playlist of tunes with someone talking in between – which a lot of the time it is – but an appointment to listen.
Lets talk more about the club nights you were going to around this time.
Everyone will say this to you but there’s a reason for it; one of the most influential experiences in the history of clubbing culture is Metalheadz. There’s not a club that I’ve ever been to, before or since, that comes close. There are many that remind me of it – say the peak of FWD>> around 2005/6/7, at the height of it’s creativity when producers were making tunes and cutting them especially for that room. Nights like Co-Op and Balance at Plastic People.
For those of us who never got the chance, what was it about Blue Note that was so special?
Metalheadz was amazing because the DJs had to bring it! People talk about cutting edge – that was cutting edge – literally. I’m sure DJs could go and play in Leicester, Nottingham or Switzerland on a Saturday night and just roll it out, but on a Sunday they had to bring their A game! It was like playing home and away, this was the home game, in a derby. The intensity, the sound, the level of production – actual music production. That level of innovation, I honestly can’t think of another example of that level of intensity, a movement being so productive. I’m talking about tunes like Adam F ‘Metropolis’, I was there the first time that was played, Grooverider played it. A bit later on there were tunes like ‘Acid Track’ by Dilinja – it was just unbelievable.
It’s funny because I read an oral history of Metalheadz. Two of the nights they talked about I was there – well I was there all the time. Peshay got sick and he wasn’t around for a long time. The night he came back, it was his comeback gig and every single producer cut tunes for him. I just remember the energy in the room that night, it was just incredible. It was really amazing to read about this because their memory was exactly the same as mine. That was the thing that really resonated with me within that article – you’d be in Metalheadz and you’d find your own corner, you’d always have your own spot. Mine was sometimes by the decks but I’d usually hold a corner. It was seriously one night where you’d see the same heads every single week. You’d see someone on the dancefloor or in the corner that you knew and you’d start talking to them, you’d be in the middle of a conversation and then if you’d hear the start of a new track mixing in, both people would just stop talking, listen for a while, and then start talking again (laughs). It was fucking amazing, it was so about that.
Prior to the much publicised recent love-in between Grime and big name U.S Hip-Hop, you were one of the most prominent people with a foot on both sides of the Atlantic and a big platform to play both sounds in the same context. Have you been surprised by some of the negative reactions that appeared in the press?
I think someone like Skepta and someone like Kanye West have something in common. They both respect and respond to an authentic voice and authentic music. There has been media criticism that Kanye has been trying to co-sign on some cool stuff from London – that‘s simply down to a powerful cocktail of two things: British cynicism and envy. I’m not interested in any of that attitude. If you know someone like Skepta for example, you know that he’s so fiercely independently minded and militant – and more to the point, has done it all on his own, with his brother JME for the last 10 plus years. Do you really think he’d be collaborating with someone if he didn’t think it was genuine?
To me, it’s entirely natural that those two guys should sit in the same room. Artists respond to artists. James Blake can go and work with Drake, then the next minute he can have a conversation with Joni Mitchell. Kanye West can lunch with Carine Roitfeld, and have dinner with Chief Keef. Creatives are not bound by boundaries. Skepta can be talking with someone from his neighbourhood sure, but easily have a creative conversation with someone from the other side of the world. I feel like it’s only ever the media, journalists and commentators that need everything to be compartmentalised in this way, and are threatened by not being able to control those compartments. My experience is that real music people and artists respond to each other naturally, and the common goal in those environments when they meet is simply to make the dopest shit possible. What better goal could there be than that? As long as a musical message isn’t compromised in any way whatsoever then surely that message reaching more people is good? I don’t understand anyone who thinks the opposite.
Right now what I’m currently doing is a bit “in vogue”, loads of people want to interview me. In a year it might not be, and I’ll still be over here doing the same shit. It’s all I’ve ever done. That’s the same thing with anyone that’s true to their musical vision. Whether that’s Grime, Folk, Punk, whatever. The pendulum of mainstream taste will swing toward you and away from you. It’s just important to stay doing what’s true to you.
Moving on to your XOYO residency, what was the mission statement?
The mission statement with the residency was very simple: I wanted it to be a true reflection of my influences and people I look up to and have had an influence on my career in some way. In that bracket are obviously Kenny Dope, Gilles, Fabio, the Blue Note & Metalheadz session. I wanted it to be my contemporaries, people of my generation I grew up playing with who have long been part of the Deviation family. I wanted it to be reflective also of producers who have been part of the Deviation story – people like Hudson Mohawke and Floating Points, whose careers have blossomed in the exact life span of Deviation itself. We booked these guys in 2007 when they were emerging, look that them now.
The whole principle of Deviation from the beginning was that it didn’t matter if it was a big name DJ or some kid from down the road who’s beats I like. Crucially I wanted to represent the new school as well – Kaytranada, Sampha and so on. Past, present and future. Also what I wanted it to do was to reflect on the diversity in curation. We have a night with Ade who owned Plastic People, playing with Floating Points and Four Tet, then upstairs all the Balance crew. There’s also a night with Wiley, Kode 9 and Zomby – a completely different texture. But both things are equally me. There’s the tribute night with Zinc doing a classic Jungle set and Todd Edwards doing a classics Garage set – two DJ’s I used to queue up to go and see at raves. It’s pretty much the most amazing series of line-ups someone’s put together for a while in London.
London is seemingly swallowing cultural landmarks whole at the minute, due to so-called ‘re-generation’, rising rents and privatisation – Plastic People and Blackmarket Records being more recent examples. Is the future as bleak as some people say?
Plastic People wasn’t swallowed up by any gentrification, it was sold by it’s owner. It happened to be the right time – there’s an art in life to finishing things. With Plastic People we all knew it was going to get sold for some time. But that didn’t change how dramatic it was for us when it actually closed. For me, that place was like my “Cheers”, the place where everybody knows your name. But how much better is it to close something and have nothing but unbelievable memories? The legacy that it will leave in terms of not only cultivating new club nights but actual movements is immeasurable. You could argue that without Plastic People certain types of music would not have evolved in the way that they did.
There’s truth in the fact that it’s not easy to open a club these days and licensing is as tough as it’s ever been. But you have to remember with those conversations that these are not new problems, these are problems generations have faced everywhere.
What about the next Gramaphone and the next Plastic People?
That is the responsibility of the people that are making it to discover. It took me 2 years to find Gramaphone – 2 years I looked for a venue in London! Bear in mind when I started there, with the exception of FWD, Co-Op, Yoyo and others, overall clubbing wasn’t great back then – in terms of innovation, moving things forward. To me it’s way better now that it was in 2006/2007. Yes, there are issues with venues at the moment, but it is our responsibility to give back to the city and create. If you have a defeatist mentality of “everything’s shit and we cant do anything” then you’re not the right person to take the culture forward. That’s it.
Talking about some of those club nights it’s clear to see why you were inspired to put on Deviation slightly off the beaten track down in Spitalfields and do it on a Wednesday night
For sure. With these nights, it was not about Saturday night excess, which is a quintessentially British past time. I’d drink like two Jack Daniels and Coke all night and be the last person on the dancefloor wanting to hear one last new tune. The reason I started Deviation was because I wanted to create that clubbing experience for the 16 year old version of me. I want to give that kid that same excitement and discovery.
Words: Josh Thomas
Photography: Laurence Howe & Josh Thomas
For more on Benji B’s Deviation residency at XOYO head HERE.