This south London party is fast gaining a reputation for cutting edge club music and a familial atmosphere.
In between tracks, the DJ picks up the microphone and blurts friendly quips at familiar faces who shuffle through the doors at south London’s Rye Wax, “It’s not like I’m spitting bars or anything like that, I’m just chatting shit,” jokes Ben Walker, aka Beneath, as we talk about his penchant for talking to the crowd during his parties. It was my first, and his party’s second in its series, and I’ve come to appreciate Ben’s microphone antics as a welcome staple. “I always try and go into the crowd and say hello to a few people,” he says. It’s an inviting, warm atmosphere to which the likes of Batu, Lurka, Parris, TTB, Asusu, Laksa, and Bake have all come to showcase new music. Exciting artists who, like Ben, are known for their distinct styles and are eager to push things forward.
Ben is instantly recognisable in his Lacoste cap as he walks into Peckham Rye’s Gowlett pub where we meet. He sticks with a Coke, due to a nasty cold brought on from staying up touring and watching UFC, before abashing my clichéd opening question – freely admitting that his musical upbringing was founded on the Spice Girls, endless hours of the Kerrang! music video channel, and whatever his nan would leave on the radio, be it Queen or Elvis. For a second I thought he’d say jazz or hip hop – I guess that would be similarly cliché.
After laughing off his teen days mixing trance, he arrives at his passion for UK music. Dubstep made him understand music as an expression, and with an exciting young crowd of producers, it presented an opportunity. “I read an article by Skream and Benga saying [they] used Fruity Loops. I was like, ‘I’ll just download Fruity Loops,’ and I started fucking about with sounds. It’s the easiest entry level software, but unless you’re really skilled, it’s difficult to craft out a full sound.” A full sound would mean upgrading to hardware, or so I thought: “I went to a synth shop recently and the guy was like, ‘look at all these sounds, look at all this stuff you could use’, and I was like, ‘I can make all this on my computer.” Despite end-of-year lists being filled with music made using software, software is still belittled for lacking “raw” integrity because it’s not tactile. “Raw is a knackered laptop and cracked software” reads part of a tweet from Joe ‘Kowton’ of Livity Sound, a line which Ben still thinks about now. “All my favourite music is made on a computer – it’s ideas. You can make a sick idea on hardware, you can make a sick idea on software. It’s all about ideas.”
Ideas over aesthetic is the charm of Ben’s No Symbols label. Beginning as more of a name than a label from which he could release his own work, he followed in the footsteps of early dubstep culture; having his music pressed as white labels with little interest in promotion. Releases on the label have been infrequent but clinical. Following a two-year hiatus, the latest two releases see him experiment with an audacity that breathes sharp punches of urgency into his work. The kicks become thunderous and the synths have added grit. His releases in 2014/15 for PAN and Berceuse Heroique were also lauded for their brazen vibrancy and unpredictability; daringly thrown together with little regard for subtleties and half-measures – giving them a character distinct from his counterparts.
While he’s carved out his corner in UK music, Ben hopes to help others find their niche with his label, Mistry. He only has time for artists who, like him, show character in their work. “A lot of people send me stuff that sounds like Livity Sound and I’m just like, ‘this has been done before’”, Ben says. The Bristol-based trio championed a unique sound, slowing techno soundscapes and enriching them with dubstep sensibilities a few years ago. While Ben admits that Mistry releases also share a similar coherence with their focus on bass, he strives for artists who try to offer something different to this UK twist on club music. Gaunt was one such artist we agreed upon as a good example, making his debut on Mistry with an excellent record filled with buckets of angst, energy and swagger. In addition to Gaunt, Webstarr and Laksa have also released their debuts via Mistry. “If you’re just releasing artists who have five releases I feel like, ‘what’s the point?’ If I do a few people’s first releases, try and help them with something, then it makes it feel it’s a bit more than just, ‘here’s a record.’” Thanks to Mistry, Laksa has since gone on to release on Timedance, a label run by close friend Omar, aka Batu, over in Bristol, which has had a particularly successful year in itself. With each release treasured as an opportunity, Mistry becomes more of a community than merely a label; a community where an artist’s work can be a part of something more personal than just a name on a record.
Showing personality is what bridges the gap between artists and their audience. In the world of voiceless dance music, though, how do you relate to your audience? “Have fun,” Ben puts it simply, “Hodge is a good example, he’s big into his social media and you get the idea of the kind of person he is, same with Powell.” Diagonal label owner Powell played to his strengths picked up from his advertising days, using billboards around east London to shed context and humour on his music. “I think some people, when they’re first starting out, are quite intense but I always think that when stuff feels a bit more relaxed, it feels more natural,” Ben says. Since 2012, Ben has released music, done radio, DJ’d and run labels. It’s been a patient and natural growth, but to have the impact it deserved it needed a face and a character to show for it. Since the digital world is overloaded with people promoting themselves, Ben opted for a more ‘human’ platform, and one that is in the midst of change.
Over in Peckham, at one of the area’s treasured music spots, Rye Wax, Ben hosts his No Symbols party that recently celebrated its fifth event with an all-night set from himself. Although excited by the prospects that a cosy space like that presented for No Symbols, each time he manipulates the space into his own: turning off “the stupid fucking fairy lights” to make it as dark as possible, bringing the desk forward so that “the crowd’s right there”, and chatting “some shit on the mic”. For dubstep, grime and any other shows with pull-ups-a-plenty and a hype man, there’s a clear connection between the crowd and the stage. “But the music that I’m into is kind of missing elements of that,” Ben says, “it kind of got thrown away or neglected. Maybe different kinds of people come to the nights or put on the parties and it wasn’t important for them, but for me it is important.” It’s not what you’d get from say, SGT Pokes, the music doesn’t have the same suspense for that. Instead, Ben’s droll words trade hype for humour – bringing a wry grin to your face as you dance. “I try and be a bit funny, be me, really – a fucking weirdo,” he laughs.
All it’s taken is for someone to bring a level of character to a night in London and we have a unique setting for sharing new music. “I’m just trying to do something a bit different, even with the no names on the flyers, or just the photo and info on the flyers. It’s kind of turned into a portrait series of my friends.” It’s endearingly simple. There’s no lack of good DJs to play across London, but there is a lack of venues that create an atmosphere which embraces the music you’re listening to. “If I was trying to sell 800 tickets, would I try and be more professional and say, ‘Don’t buy a ticket if you’re a knobhead?’ I probably wouldn’t say that, but also I might be like, ‘fuck it I’ll say it.’” Brash? Maybe, but maybe, since fabric threw in the air the question of club culture, it’s all the more important to have parties like No Symbols that offer a much needed distinction between clubs where people just want “to meet people or get fucked”, as Christian Eede recently put it in The Quietus, and those where we go for the music.
“I’ll keep doing them as long as it’s fun to do, feels necessary, it’s different from other parties, and it feels right,” Ben says, tempering expectations. Looking back, I wonder whether I’d hoped he’d say this was the way more parties would be headed soon. Here’s to hoping.
Words: Joe Mills