Organic Growth: Benji B & Deviation

When Louis and I originally sat down prior to Breaks Magazine’s initial launch, we made a list of producers, DJs and musicians we both wanted to feature with the mag. Top of that list was Benji B.

Benji’s seminal Radio 1 & 1Xtra show is the only show that I make sure I never miss. Much like the shows that inspired Benji many years ago, his show is a must listen for me and I always leave with a slew of new artists to check out.

Many people also know Benji for starting the London based club night ‘Deviation’, which in recent years has outgrown it’s home at Gramophone and Concrete and is now spreading its wings in London’s XOYO while simultaneously hosting parties all over the world.

For some, the introduction to Benji’s work could have been his one-off Radio 1 show around Christmas last year where he played an hour set of tunes that varied from Wiley to Bok Bok’s ‘Silo Pass’ to Drake ‘Headlines’, all accompanied by a string ensemble. Something about this arrangement and concept really grabbed me and I still have it on heavy rotation.

I caught up with Benji recently to find out more about all of the above, and see what Deviation has in store for the rest of 2013 and onwards.

For those that don’t know can you explain a little about yourself? 

My name is Benji B, I come from London, UK.

Is there a stand-out track that triggered you wanting to get more into music and become a DJ? Or even – what influences as a child/teenager made you choose the career path you have today?

Probably hearing Public Enemy for the first time, going to Notting Hill Carnival aged 7, listening to the radio religiously as a kid, clubs and an addiction to music since I can remember.

What was the UK scene like at the time that you began your 1Xtra spot? 

It was in a time of exciting transition; it was the tail end of UK Garage, Boy in Da Corner was about to be released, Grime blew up,  other experimental music out of London and the UK like broken beat and ‘dark garage’ was strong, and of course Neptunes ruled the charts, and Dilla was making so much incredible music that he was influencing a whole new generation and it was hard to keep up. Digital music was in its infancy, vinyl was still dominant, CDJs had only been around a few years and Serato didn’t exist yet.

Being from London, was the radio (especially pirate) a large influence? 

Pirate radio was a huge influence. In fact I would go as far to say that the radio in general, educated me in so much music when I was a kid and in my early teens; before you were able to go out and get into clubs, the only way to experience club music or discover was through the radio. Its hard to picture it now – but imagine not having hip hop or house or that much specialist music other than rock on ‘legal’ mainstream radio stations.

Pirates were even more of a key influence then, as mainstream legal radio was just pop – with only a couple of exceptions. Back then you could turn the dial in tiny increments and a new station would pop up on every twist. Of course reggae stations were dominant, but in terms of early electro and hip hop, early house music, rave, breakbeat pre-Jungle, and what we now call rare groove, it was like a goldmine of influence and discovery. I used to tape them all – before I even knew or cared about what to call the genres. I used to make pause button tapes of ‘breakdance music’ haha. All from the radio.

Like many people of my generation, the explosion of hip hop from NY and the way that it was embraced in London culture was probably the most significant thing in my life. Of course in my early teens stations like Kool FM were everything to me, and pirate Kiss was a huge influence too. There are too many important stations to mention from that era – I am lucky to have witnessed the crossover of some my musical heroes to legal radio and in turn, witnessing the embracing of dance music / electronic music and hip hop by mainstream established broadcasters. The whole radio world probably had more of an influence on me than anything in the world – before I was able to step into a nightclub.

It goes without saying that you are a club DJ, and your Radio 1 show is a club music show, but were there any formative experiences when you were younger that made you just know that that is the direction you would take?

I think the question you just asked before answers part of this question; but undoubtedly going to clubs and hearing music on sound systems – witnessing the strength of UK musical movements, seeing DJs from abroad come visit – there was absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I wanted to DJ, wanted to collect records, wanted to immerse myself in the culture. I was a musician and played instruments for years but DJing was a more immediate way to express a musical message for me. I started DJing around 14, maybe first played out around 16 years old. In those days, credibility in your musical lane was the biggest currency that existed – and for me it still is.

The great thing about pointing yourself in the direction of your dreams is that you don’t always do it consciously; I would go to carnival as a kid and watch the selectors and think: one day I want to be controlling that sound – now I play at carnival every year. The first time I went to important residencies like Metalheadz in London, Body and Soul in NY, Thats how it is, parties like that – I thought to myself that I would love to have my own club one day. Now I run Deviation, possibly my favourite place to play in the world.

I used to listen to the top 40 chart show on Radio 1 every sunday; to John Peel, to everything. I think if you even have a vague interest in radio your internal compass will always be set in the direction of the worlds biggest and best radio station – BBC Radio 1. Now I find myself broadcasting there every week. I am not sure that all of these goals have been conscious – but all of the experiences in music undoubtedly pointed me in the direction that I have travelled until now. It’s not an accident.

When selecting for the radio, or for a DJ set etc – You could make an artists career kick off with the influence you have over listeners. Does this thought process through your mind? Or is it simply – ‘I like this tune, I’m going to play it’. Or a bit of both?

I can honestly say that the radio show is an area in which I have 100% objectivity, without any external influence.  To me it really doesn’t matter who made the record – if its right for my show it gets played. If that were to ever change it wouldn’t be the same radio show – it wouldn’t be the same me. I don’t let anything other than the music cross my mind. A great exercise I sometimes do is listening to new songs without knowing who they are by. It is a completely unbiased process. Its great to be able to support movements and artists I believe in, and of course its a great feeling when you look back and realise you have helped along the way in breaking someone’s artistic career, but this is never the thing that informs decision making about playing music on any level. I just play the music I like and believe in. I am not looking for medals.

If you weren’t from London do you think you’d be looking at music and playing music in a different way? 

For sure, 100%. We are all products of our environment – but I would say that I owe a huge part of my cultural and musical identity to my city. I might have not grown up with the internet, but I wouldn’t change a thing about the era I came up in. I feel that I was incredibly blessed to have lived it and witnessed it and although we are in another great time for music right now, I am unsure if a period that special will ever happen again. If I didn’t have the musical experiences I have had, I wouldn’t be me – thats what is amazing about music – if you live music in context it will shape you in a way that is incomparable with anything or anyone else. The DJs and producers that are really starting to blow up now have their own musical timeline and influence. If I had been from a different place I would be a different person. Everyone has their own musical blueprint from their surroundings.

Did you know how big and influential 1Xtra would be when you joined the ranks all those years ago? What’s it been like watching it grow and develop into the success it has today?

I did. I knew it was a privilege to be part of building a new station from the roots upwards, to be part of a new world (in digital broadcasting) and also to be part of a station that I felt I would be able to listen to as a fan, right across the board. To go from an age when you would look forward to hearing your favourite hip hop or jungle or house show late night only a weekend, to a new era where this music as celebrated and played right across the one network was a great time. I hosted a weekly show on 1Xtra for 8 years from 2002 – 2010. When I was asked to host a weekly show on BBC Radio 1 in 2010 it was an amazing feeling; and in 2012 the decision was made to broadcast my show on both networks simultaneously every week.

The same goes for Deviation, that’s a worldwide event now, but all from organic growth – that must feel awesome?

The only way to build anything serious in club culture is to invest in the long term, to start small and allow the growth to be long term and organic. the way Deviation has grown into a worldwide brand and an important London residency has been completely natural. Its foundation is really all of the early roots of club culture I experienced; attention to sound, environment, curation, taste level. Avoiding short term hype and big name bookings and concentrating on long term trust. I am very proud of how Deviation has grown without sacrificing any of those values.

Has it been a slog juggling the radio, Deviation and a full time travelling DJ career? 

Of course. Its a 7 day a week job year round. I work more hours in a day than anyone else you know. Going through 3 days worth of music each week to find 2 hours of gems requires dedication; mix that with travelling worldwide, DJing every week, running events, producing special projects and trying to stay on top of a gazillion promos and emails and yes, it gets hectic.Thats why it has taken us so long to get round to doing this interview. But I can do it because I love it – and you will never hear me moan about it.  Its the best job in the world and I asked for it all, so when you feel like complaining you have to pinch yourself and remind yourself of that.  Being passionate about your work is a privilege that not everyone is lucky enough to have.

Musically, how does the London of your youth compare to London now, does it feel just as progressive? 

Good question. Its inevitable that there is an element of nostalgia attached to any period in youth, although I have to be honest and say that even with that considered – the mid 90s in London was the centre of the musical universe. Clubs like the Blue Note, pre-shoreditch as we know it now, influenced a whole generation. There are too many to mention. Scenes were so healthy then – it felt like a new sound was being invented every day. Coupled with that there was an embracing of ‘underground’ specialist music culture by the mainstream and major record labels – in many ways the current period we are in reminds me of that and definitely feels like a really special time.

But to answer your question strictly and honestly – I am not sure if it feels as ‘progressive’ across the board – many people are revisiting past sounds right now instead of focusing on the present – although having said that sometimes you have to look to the past and take a step back for inspiration in order to take 2 steps forward. Overall though, I am sure for a 16 year old growing up in London the options to explore and be inspired by are amazing. So I hope that the experience of growing up in London right now for the 16 year old version of me is just as special. I think it probably is. Amazing how music seems to move in 20 year cycles.

One of our favourite projects you’d undertaken over the last few years is your work with strings. Firstly at Revolutions in Sound and then more recently with Radio 1 and a much bigger string ensemble. What made you want to do this? 

Well it started with the request for me to go and DJ inside the London eye for Red Bull Music Academy’s Revolutions in Sound project. The concept was that people could win a sort of Willy Wonka golden ticket to go and be one of 25 people in a pod listening to their favourite DJ. I thought to myself – if I won that ticket I wouldn’t want to just go and watch some guy just playing records. I would want something special. Then I thought – what texture would I want as a soundtrack to a view over the Thames, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, the London night sky. I would want strings.

So I starting working on the idea of strings doing versions some of my favourite tunes of the time. Then I realised – I didn’t want just strings doing wack cover versions. I wanted it to knock like the record, to have the same beats, the same vocals. So I set about on the process of making string arrangements for tracks that I felt would really work. I wanted to do a true DJ set where the arrangements were so tight that the string players could mix tunes with me, and I think we achieved that. The response was so overwhelming that we decided to take the idea to a natural conclusion and record a performance with 16 strings at the legendary Maida Vale studios.

Whats the process of that like, arranging strings for tunes like ‘Silo Pass’ and ‘Higher Ground’ ? 

Well for that I owe all credit to Grant Windsor, the arranger and conductor I invited to work with me on this project.

We talk about music – I send him a stack of tunes I think might work, then he immediately strikes off the ones he knows won’t work because of tuning or otherwise, and then we go back and forth on how we could do arrangements of the rest of them. Sometimes it’s relevant just to build on what is already there, sometimes Grant will try a wholly different arrangement on top. It’s a fun process. The real magic is working out the flow of how the songs can connect with each other – the transitions between the songs using strings is the part of this project that gives me the most satisfaction. We will be performing at SW4 festival later this year.

Just to come back to Deviation quickly, now in it’s 5th year and having recently moved to XOYO (a bigger venue than previous), does it feel like Deviation 2.0? 

Yes it does. It feels like Deviation 5.0 actually. I feel that the club has evolved organically with each passing year and our new home feels completely natural. The possibilities have completely opened up; we are on a totally new level. Curating the line ups for deviation is one of my most important jobs and every single session that we have done there this year has been memorable and classic in its own way. Having Maurice Fulton, Jamie XX, Theo Parrish, Actress, Omar S, Jackmaster, Floating Points and Mala all in the first 5 sessions is a pretty good start.

I cant wait for the session coming up in Friday. 2 of my favourite DJs and music people in the world – Kode 9 and J Rocc, plus ASAP ferg coming over to London for the first time. its gonna be nuts. We have something special planned for the birthday this year; there will be two sessions in October at XOYO – can’t divulge more information than that at this point but its gonna be fun.

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