Thursday, 20 March 2008
Interview with Benga the Afro Warrior
I meet afro topped production maverick Beni ‘Benga’ Adejumo in the lobby of a bitterly cold East Croydon station on a commuter packed Tuesday evening. He’s freezing his tits off. His stylish blue coat, colour coded with his sparkling BAPE trainers, is as thin as a plastic bag, “I had a photo shoot for Xlr8tr Magazine this afternoon with Skream, then recorded an interview and mix with Gilles Peterson for his Radio One show,” says the 21-year old Benga. “It’s been a long day. I’m freezing!” Thankfully, style over substance is not a quality prevalent on his eagerly awaited 2nd long player, Diary of an Afro Warrior; a cornucopia of disfigured melody and probing electronic hedonism.
Yet, before we delve into the wirey, sonic undergrowth of the album, we should really take a minute to observe the journey that matured and formed this musical prodigy. Before tinkling with midi keyboards, the Coulsdon, South London resident, was twinkling on the football pitch. Playing for Arsenal YTS, the young 12-year-old grew up in a footballing family, yet the inevitable choice between kicking ball and music was always clear, “my brother at that time was mad, saying things like, “You gotta stop doing one, music or football.” So, I picked music, coz I felt it more, I enjoyed it more. I could sit for days and days making music,” says Benga.
It was a combination of juvenile cheek and perfect timing that saw him get his first break. Experimenting at primary school with a stolen tape recorder, he began his first foray into working with music, “I would get this little tape recorder, hold it up to my stereo system and record and stop.” Recalls Benga, “Then put another tune on and create a dodgy mix.” The young innovator was soon buying drum and bass and garage records from Big Apple Records, even without his own pair of decks (when a friend got his first set up, Benga nailed the technique in just two weeks). Still just 12, his tender years marked him out from the rest. “They said to me, “Hey, you’re too young to be buying records, you’re wasting your money pal.” I was like, “I bet I can mix better than you.” They were like, “c’mon then.” So I clashed Hatcha (much laughter),” quips Benga. So impressed with his skills, Hatcha and then owner, John Kennedy, began to watch him DJ regularly, “I was playing some place down the road called Blue Anchor and John came in and said I can’t believe you’re tearing down the crowd and you’re only 12!” says Benga.
Playing alongside Hatcha introduced him to dubplate culture and the dark garage sounds of El-B, Benny Ill and Ghost. This was the catalyst for his own foray into production, “Hatcha would tear it up, he had so many tunes I couldn’t get, and that pissed me off. So the only way to get tunes like that was to make them myself,” recounts Benga. “I tried to imitate it, but where my sound wasn’t strong enough, the same with Skream, we’d come with some next level on it.” A style that producer Arthur Smith aka Artwork (who also worked at Big Apple) was keen to encourage, helping shape the acidic, proto dubstep textures that would soon see fruition on Big Apple Records as Skank in 2002.
Fast forward to January 2008, and I’m sitting opposite an accomplished and confident producer. A brief two year hiatus from 2004-2006 allowed Benga to indulge in some more lucrative music ventures, developing his production skills exponentially, that ultimately developed the sound and character we hear in his dubstep music today.
Yet techniques are merely tools of the trade. It is the vibrant creativity that impresses on Diary of an Afro Warrior; from the warm Detroit techno of Emotions, to the jazz licks of opener Zero M2 and B4 The Dual in contrast with the sheer uncontrollable electro filth of 26 Basslines and E Trips. What is more astounding is that Benga has never bought a Carl Craig 12” or listened to Pharaoh Saunders’ jazz and is not a massive music collector. “I’m not really the kind of sit down and listen to a certain type of music person. I just listen to whatever’s around,” says Benga. “I remember Arthur went out and bought me a bunch of CD’s, there was loads of old stuff. He bought me Chic, Stevie Wonder and loads of other old school things. That’s about it really, that’s the only time I’ve listen to whole albums.”
It’s clear that days spent hanging out his window with an aerial tuning into whatever pirate radio station was in range, had a profound effect on the young producer; absorbing jungle, hardcore and garage or “proper bangin, mad shit!” as he enthusiastically remembers, crackling through the airwaves. Whilst many producers heavily reference the past, overtly highlighting heroes, inspirations & icons, Benga is the opposite. Instead, like a super absorbent sponge, he seems to have unconsciously soaked up the musical energies buzzing through everyday life, all infusing and mutating within him, channelled back out through his own unique, organic compositions. “Arthur used to say, “You’re really natural at it. You kinda of listened to music when you were younger and get the influences now”; it all comes out when I’m making music,” states Benga.
In comparison with his first long player, 2006’s Newstep released on his own Benga Beats imprint - more a compilation of songs than a coherently structured long player – Diary of and Afro Warrior suggest a more experimental and expansive Benga, “I learnt a lot when I was making pop and house music, but I turn it on and off. It’s knowing how to use it in dubstep,” says Benga. The CD album is leaden with 14 tracks; club bangers, Night, Crunked Up and 28 Basslines, mix genially with more lyrical gambits, including the ambidextrous Loose Synths and off kilter wonk of 3 Minutes. Pleasure and Go Tell Them, proffer quirky vocals snippets, both manic and mysterious, perfect genre bending oddities. The house inflected Someone20 further challenges the dubstep envelope, clocking in around 120 bpm, yet retaining all the paraphernalia of a true Benga creation.
For those with a vinyl dependency, you’ll be in for an altogether different experience. Culling all but four of the CD tracks, yet adding five new ones, the triple plate vinyl LP is made simply and eloquently for the dance. “When you go to the vinyl it’s different, that’s for clubs. I genuinely believe that when I make tunes for clubs, it’s just dancefloor” states Benga. Gone are the accessible motifs, in come subsonic, angular creations like Twister, Metallic and Out of Phaze, more than enough to scare off the uninitiated, but plenty to make the hardcore drool.
Not many dancefloors have avoided the irresistibly catchy hook of Night, even in the Middle East, “Skream was playing in Israel and he phoned me up and said “listen to this”: a whole bus was singing the main riff of Night – do do do do do do dooo dooo doo doo do – it was mad!” Built with fellow producer Coki (one half of Digital Mystikz and the only collaboration on the album), it was a conscious upping of both producer’s games that led to its creation, “It was our third tune. We made World War 7 together, another tune called Full Throttle. They were mediocre. I’m not saying they were shit, but average tunes. We should be able to come up with something new. We kept coming up with melodies and riffs, but kept turning them down; it’s weird how the simplest thing worked so well,” recounts Benga.
Skream maybe Dubstep’s pin up boy, but Benga is fast stamping his indelible mark into the collective consciousness. Smashing seven shades of bass out of Pete Tong’s Essential Mix in early February, Benga also has recorded slots with a host of Radio One tastemakers; Gilles Peterson, Annie Mac and Rob Da Bank, and even receiving peak daytime spins from Jo Whiley, highlighting more than anything the reach and appeal of his music. Yet, these are rare chances to hear Benga on the radio, and for good reason. “People can over rinse it. When I’m playing out things are still fresh, I’ve a lot of tunes in my bag that I don’t think a lot of people have heard. So when I’m playing you think, “do I wanna come out?” It makes your mind up for you, simple,” says Benga.
If you do catch one of Benga’s electrifying DJ sets – a punishing dubplate journey through the outer reaches of dubstep, a fusion of techno, grime, jazz and electro, imploding into a hyper energetic wall of sound and sub – you’ll see his hair first and trainers second. Is he addicted to BAPE trainers? “Badly, baaadly,” he chuckles back. The reason resonates heavily with his music and desire to maintain individuality; “BAPE’s are exclusive, with only one pair in your size in Europe. You’d never come across the same person wearing the same ones. I’ve been ringing up BAPE every day this week because they have four new pairs out and I’m gonna buy every single one of them,” Benga confesses.
If you do draw your eyes away from his sub £160 trainers for a second, you;ll also notice a few familiar faces in the dance. Skream, Hijak, Walsh and other scene luminaries frequently support each other at gigs. Yet it has been Benga’s close friendship with Skream that has helped get both of them where they are today. “He is one of the ones who pushes my limits and I think I do the same to him,” admits Benga, “It’s no competition. It’s more the fact that I make a tune that’s big and he’ll want to make a tune better than that. It’s only healthy for us. It helps to keep you sane and grounded. Living in that world too much, you’ll start thinking you’re a super star.”
Diary of an Afro Warrior is out on Tempa in March 2008. For more info check – www.myspace.com/bengabeats
This interview is printed in the March issue of ATM Magazine