In modern parlance, he’s a tastemaker. He, however, would probably call himself a DJ – although he’s also a producer and an entrepreneur. At Tileyard, we’ll swerve the semantics completely and just call Benji B a neighbour. Here he talks about his influences, his career and his love of collaborations.
What’s the first music you remember loving and inspiring you?
Music became important to me from the moment I dived into my dad’s record collection. So in a way, my dad deserves the greatest credit, for having great taste and allowing me to tap into that.
As a result I had quite unusual taste for a child. I mean I loved Top of the Pops, the top 40, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bowie, but at home I also loved Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Charlie Parker, just really interesting stuff and really inspiring people.
And the wonderful innocence of youth means you don’t care who it is or what it is, you just love it. I hope that’s something I’ve kept with me.
What were the records or artists that you first felt were your own, beyond the charts and beyond the music being played at home?
The two big lightning strikes for me happened at around nine or 10. The first was Public Enemy, they’re the most influential band of my lifetime. They hit me like a lightning bolt. They had elements of James Brown and of the soul and funk that I’d been listening to, but layered like an incredible collage. And at that age I was obsessed with rap music, hip-hop, early electro.
And then there was early house music, which was breaking through into the public consciousness at that time. I was way too young to go to clubs, but I was buying bootleg cassettes from Camden and hearing this music from Chicago, not that I had any idea at the time where it was from, I just knew it was amazing and incredibly important.
In a way, those two strands have always been in my DNA and in my music.
When did you actually start going out and immersing yourself in club culture?
For me it happened at an unusually early age. The first time I went to a club I would have been 14 or 15. The clubs that you went to at that time was to do with one thing and one thing and one thing only: word of mouth on where it was easy to get in with fake id.
I was going to ask how you were going to clubs at 14…
Well in those days it was quite easy. You could sometimes rely on dodgy security. Like The Fridge at Brixton, for example, it was £3 to get in, but if you gave them a fiver, they were like, Yeah, whatever, in you go. The Fridge, Camden Palace and the Hammersmith Palais were all famously easy to get into with fake id.
And when was the first time you thought you could be part of this scene, rather than just a face in the crowd?
Well it might sound strange, but I remember going to the Notting Hill Carnival when I was about six or seven and seeing a sound system for the first time. That really blew me away and I thought, Yeah, I’d like to do that one day.
And what about later on, when it was more than just a dream?
At about 16 or 17 I started going to this club called Bar Rumba, where Gilles Peterson used to play on a Monday. And I used to go to Mars Bar, which was just behind the Astoria for a night called Speed that Fabio did on a Thursday night. They were really important nights for me.
How did you make the transition into actually making a living in this world?
Well at that stage I was absolutely in love with vinyl and with buying records and was spending any cash I had on records. There was no doubt in my mind that this is what I wanted to do. For me, going to clubs at that time was nothing to do with rebellion, or girls, or drugs, or hedonism, it was purely to do with the music; that was it. Often, I went to clubs on my own, to listen to the music and to school myself.
And then how do you set about starting to actually get paid?
Well the thing is, in those days, being a DJ wasn’t that common. Now, if you say I’m a DJ, the response is, Yeah, so’s my brother, my uncle and my dog. But in that era, a pre-digital era, having that size record collection, and having that sort of record collection, was quite rare, and that meant when I was at college, whenever there was a party, I’d get recommended, and it grew pretty quickly from there.
It’s hard to chart how it happens from there; people like you and then you get another gig, and then you get another one, and so on; it builds from there.
What was the step into the mainstream?
In the radio world I think it was when I met Gilles Peterson and started producing his show at Kiss FM, that was a really good collaborative experience. In club terms, in that era, you still had the profile factor for the massive DJs, but in specialist club culture it was still very much a meritocracy, based on how good you are, not on how many followers you have or how famous you are; word would spread. It was also about credibility and endorsement from your peers.
Was it a growing reputation as a club DJ that got you through the door at radio?
It happened concurrently, actually. Radio had always been a big part of my life and I’d always wanted to work in radio, so I got involved in producing at Kiss FM at the same time as I was developing a run as a club DJ. The two things are related, of course, but equally, they were both being built under their own steam rather than one being reliant on the other.
When did Radio 1 come on the scene for you?
In 2002 I got two calls from the BBC. One was to ask me to come and help set-up and produce on a station they were creating called 1Xtra. And I received a call from someone else asking me to present a show there. At that time that would have contravened the BBC’s conflict of interest policy – you weren’t allowed to be a producer and a presenter at the same time. So I decided to produce to get the station on air, and then present the show once it was up and running, because that’s where my passion was. So I had a weekly show on 1Xtra for eight years, from 2002 to 2010 and then in 2010 was asked to broadcast on Radio 1.
Was that an important move for you?
Yeah, I mean, if you’re involved in radio from a very early age, your internal compass is set to Radio 1; there’s no bigger, more important or more credible radio station in the world, and I’m delighted to still have the privilege of broadcasting there.
Tell us about Deviation – how it evolved and where it’s at now?
Deviation came about as a reaction to something, in a way. I really felt that there was space for a club night like that, and I wanted to have a residency. So I set that up in 2007.
When you say, ‘a club night like that’, what do you mean?
I would say it’s a physical manifestation of my taste in music, a physical manifestation of my radio show.
How much time does it leave for general club work?
Plenty, of course, yeah, that’s what my job has always been: getting on a plane every Friday and DJing round the world, that’s been my life for the last 20 years.
You’ve also collaborated with a lot of artists over the years, is that something you’ll always find time for?
Yeah, one of my favourite things to do is producing other artists. It’s something I get a lot out of. It’s a hard thing to define, sometimes it’s very hands on, sleeves rolled up, actually making the music from scratch. And sometimes it’s more what people would call executive production, it’s in the edit or the curation, it’s about getting the right ingredients and helping make the right decisions. You can’t apply the same rules to each artist, you have to respect their methods and their visions. Creatively I find that the most fulfilling thing I do.
What about previous collaborations, have you worked with anyone here at Tileyard?
Yeah, I did the only official remix of Uptown Funk, which was actually done in Mark’s studio below me. I heard the record when it was being made and I said, I love it, it’s a great pop record, but I’d really love to do a traditional, New York style disco dub of it, like a classic disco B-side basically. And I did it live on his desk. So instead of doing it on a computer, I did it as they would have done back in the day, all analogue, through the desk, punching in and out of the parts.
Finally, how did you end up at Tileyard and how do you find working here?
Well, first of all, I love it here. It changed my life. I had my studio at home for seven years, and then I had a series of cool, hip, East London warehouse studios, I had three in the space of about five years. It was a nightmare: there was no sound-proofing, the power was dodgy, the security was crap, you know.
I was able to design the studio myself, with Tileyard and the amazing acoustic engineers here.
I also like the way that it’s a bit incognito and tucked away, so you can have a really quiet, heads down sort of day if you need to – or you can get out and be in the mix if you want to do that.
There’s a very positive and strong community. Nick’s done a great job of curating here and getting the balance right. It’s not some horribly cool members club, but at the same time, it’s not just random, it’s not to do with money.
Check out Benji B Selects on Spotify (updated weekly) for go-to bangers when you need them most.