It’s the day after the night before. Last night was Sivasdescalzo’s app launch party graced by Benji B on the decks spinning an eclectic mix of hip-hop, grime and electronica. I am shaking with nerves before I meet this talented DJ, producer, radio host, fashion-music-person, club–night organiser and general music advisor to the stars. He’s a close friend of Virgil Abloh, attends parties with the likes of Kate Moss, and produced on Yeezus. Name it; he’s probably done it.
Despite his huge list of successes, Benji is still down to earth. Having said in a previous interview, “Conformity is not the route to success”, I knew this interview would be fun. Also, his sneaky mid-set cigarette hidden under the decks gave him a grungy youthful edge. Instantly, Benji makes me feel at ease and we continue to talk after the interview, meaning I have to race to a shoot having spent two hours longer than I expected in the hotel lobby. By the end of the interview, we both laugh about our lack of coffee despite managing to drain two each. Benji remarks, “So, that was the pre-coffee interview”. So, here it is.
You have built yourself on solid musical foundations – from a young age, you listened to pirate radio, played saxophone and percussion, avidly collected vinyl and even attended Notting Hill Carnival at 7 years old. Are you still finding new musical references physically (in record stores, concerts, festivals, and other events) or has the Internet taken over?
Both, definitely. Finding physical inspiration is still very important to me. Particularly record shopping, but I buy a lot of records online now. That’s a strange combination: buying something physical in the digital realm. In terms of concerts and clubs, I feel very strongly that no virtual or digital experience can ever replicate that. That’s not to say that a digital or virtual experience isn’t an interesting thing in and of itself, but for me, the physical experience of being in a nightclub and sharing that experience with other people is irreplaceable. So yes, I have to surround myself with that.
In terms of being interested in new inspiration, music is my food and I am always hungry. Just now, before I came down to meet you, I was listening to Spotify – and if I’m not listening to new music or ‘discover weekly’, stuff that I haven’t already heard, I almost to feel like I’m bunking off school; like I’m cheating. So for that reason, it’s a combination of all of them. I exist like everyone in this strange cocktail of all of the above.
So, on the topic of Spotify discovery, what do you think about the ‘information overload’ that characterises our digital world? There’s a non-stop supply of music that we could be listening to. Do you think that it’s overwhelming sometimes?
For me, it’s incredibly overwhelming – it freaks me out. Sometimes, I wake up and I just get worried about how much music there is in the world that I haven’t heard yet (laughs). When I first started on the radio, I didn’t realise how privileged I was.
Was that when you started out when you were 16?
No, a bit later, in my twenties, when I had my show on 1xtra. Ten per cent of the music that I should hear would find its way to me. But now, that’s not the case at all. Because if you’re 18 and making beats in Buenos Aires, why the hell should you know that my show exists on Radio1? The information overload is less funnelled – which comes with loads of positives because it’s obviously a more democratic time.
“The physical experience of being in a nightclub and sharing that experience with other people is irreplaceable.”
You worked with BadBadNotGood to compose an original score for the Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019 show. The psychedelic soundscape you created, that works in conversation with the looks, made me think of the version of The Wizard of Oz that’s soundtracked exclusively by Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I don’t know if that influenced when you were creating the music for that show?
Oh, massively. The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon were both references to the colour spectrum that you saw on the runway and the music.
So you saw that film?
Yeah, you nailed it.
You established your own club night, Deviation, in October 2007. As our society is changing, more and more people are asking about feminine representation in gig and festival line-ups. Where do you wager in on that discussion?
Well, it’s crucial, and I think raised awareness can only be a good thing. My approach to music has always been detached from gender; when I hear music, it’s music. But because of the structure of society, there is a ridiculous imbalance, and that imbalance is not just about people being mindful of it on line-ups. That’s almost like treating the symptom rather than the cause. The cause is giving balanced opportunity in learning, in production, skills, learning how to DJ, feeling welcome in a record shop, feeling welcome at an Ableton seminar – that’s where it starts. In the past, it’s been a very technical, male-dominated space, in the way that technical ‘boysie’ things can be. Do you agree?
Hmm, I think it’s a symptom of our culture that teaches us that is a masculine thing.
Totally, it’s all bollocks, but it’s part of the patriarchy set up that we live in. I’m glad the world is more aware of these things, and how these balances are. But I’ve always tried to approach things from a meritocracy point of view. Now it’s about digging and finding talented artists to listen to and share with platforms to make this change.
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You have invited multidisciplinary artist Murlo on your show. Having collaborated with creatives from diverse artistic backgrounds, would you say you have a fascination with boundary-crossing art that doesn’t stay in just one box? If so, where do you think it comes from?
It comes from not following a blueprint. When people say to me, ‘oh, you want to be the next…?’ I’d be like, ‘No, I want to be the next me!’ We’re all a unique thumbprint of our influences, so why should we not be able to express that and do what we want? Before, it was: pick a lane and stick to it. Now, it’s: why should you? If you look back in history, some of the greatest contributors to art have done more than one type of art. I don’t really see a need to separate.
Joni Mitchel is an incredible fine artist, and she almost put more love into her art because she became disillusioned with the business of music. The list goes on. I think it’s more a product of the consumer than the person. I think the consumer feels entitled to force a single label on artists, for example, ‘producer’, limiting them from experimenting. I’ve always been fascinated by people who don’t colour inside the lines.
As a child, you dreamt of becoming a photographer and continue to be a fan of Don McCullin’s work. Would you say his influence inspires your music nowadays – maybe through political statements or portrayals of contemporary society?
I wouldn’t say directly, no. But he’s part of a huge spiderweb of influences that I’ve been gathering since I was a child. Don McCullen did this speech about the ethics of war photography, about whether you should take the picture. It really opened my mind. As well as being an amazing photographer, he’s also providing a service to history because we can understand conflict through these images. Actually, this question leads on perfectly from what we were just saying. I wanted to be a photographer and do music and, in a way, I had to pick one. And maybe now you don’t have to pick.
Can you recommend us any musicians who you’d say are making similarly interesting statements at the moment? Say, Don McCullin was partly lifting the silence on recording the terror of war, are there people who are speaking out on similar issues?
Don McCullin is an interesting one. In a way, his images have no leading statement to them. His objective was primarily to record. With artists, there are untold numbers of artists reflecting their experience in different ways. Do you mean in terms of politically speaking?
It’s hard to think off the top of my head. Thom Yorke is always an interesting voice, so for him to be so vocal about Brexit is great. Matthew Herbert has done a whole Brexit project, which is really interesting; he’s basically spent two years with a big band making a Brexit orchestra. But I don’t know who to single out really, by the very nature of people’s experience…
I remember playing music by Fatima Al Qadiri quite a lot. She grew up in Kuwait during the invasion, and a generation’s obsession with computer games. When the war was still going on, there was a game on Playstation called Desert Storm that was about Kuwait. So they had this experience of sitting playing a game of the war when it was still happening outside. And she made a record about that.
That’s incredible.
Those sorts of things interest me; making art based on experiences. But I don’t think it would be right for me to single out one artist or speak for them because we are living in a time where everyone is political just because of the nature of what is going on right now.
“I’ve always been fascinated by people who don’t colour inside the lines.”
What is the role of a radio DJ in 2019, compared to, say, the pirate DJs you used to listen to? There’s been such an evolution since then, I would imagine.
I think that we live in an era of information curation, so our role is more important than ever. In this ‘information overload’ era, my job is to be a filter, it just so happens that radio is my format. The format is admittedly a bit old-fashioned but it’s something I still believe in – I put my ten thousand hours into it.
For me, specialist radio is a very, very important format. Radio in the daytime and radio in the night time are two different things. Radio in the daytime, everywhere, the DJ you hear speaking is not picking the records, they’re a personality on any radio – unless it’s pirate, obviously. It’s been like that since the 1950s. The radio station is deciding. After 7 pm, and sometimes 9 pm, that’s when specialist radio happens; that’s when we have a blank canvas to do what we want. I have to be able to have the blank canvas to be able to do what I’m doing.
So what are you doing?
Recently, I did a survey through social media about how people listen to the radio. It told me that people listen with the intention to have the two-hour experience. So, it is very much a two-hour mixtape. The whole idea is the flow and presenting music in some kind of meaningful way. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to. I am playing pretty much all new music every week, two hours of new stuff, and I have been lucky enough to break people over the years and a lot of people have come through the show.
I get feedback from people who listen to my show who you would just never think would have time. Really busy, famous people all over the world text me like, ‘oh, what was that track you just played?’, and I’m just like, ‘what? How have you got the time?’ But I think I should turn the question back on you. Is radio important or not?
I tune in for live music mostly, and I have friends with their own radio shows in Bristol. I think that it’s going to be like vinyl: it’s going to be vintage and have its own renaissance. There’s equally a history of memories with radio, like vinyl your parents collected. With radio, there was just this ‘box’ in the house that was always on. I like thinking of a two-hour mixtape though.
I am wondering what the next format is for me, it’s interesting. That was the pre-coffee interview (laughs).
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