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Dazed Mix - Benji B

Dazed Mix: Benji B

Ahead of this Sunday’s Deviation all-dayer, the eclectic DJ and Radio 1 presenter shares a dancefloor-focused live mix

Benji B has been shining a light on boundary-pushing electronic music for over a decade now. The born-and-bred Londoner got his start working on Gilles Peterson’s Kiss FM show when he was just 16 years old, moving on to host his own shows like his current weekly Wednesday night slot on BBC Radio 1. He also started DJing and hosting his own clubnight, Deviation, around the city, famed for an open-minded music policy where an unconventional hip hop producer like Flying Lotus could perform alongside a house music legend like Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. In recent years he’s started to rack up producer credits, too, working with Kanye West on Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, and creating an official disco dub of “Uptown Funk”.

This Sunday (April 8), Deviation celebrates its first event of its 11th year with an all-dayer at London’s Village Underground. Running from 4pm ‘til 1am, it’ll cover the spread of Deviation’s music policy, from a live performance by Amsterdam-based hardware house duo Juju & Jordash to a rare DJ set from London experimental visionary Dean Blunt. The event, presented by AIAIAI and Dazed, celebrates Deviation’s new collaborative headphone range, built to accommodate both home listening and club DJing. Benji also notes that they’ve also been designed with a custom clip to hold a quarter-inch headphone jack, a small but essential item in any DJ’s toolkit and one that’s easy to misplace: “That little thing is more valuable than gold in nightclubs,” he laughs over the phone. “The amount of times I’ve had to borrow one, or been asked to let someone borrow one…” 

Ahead of the show, Benji B shared a mix recorded recently at Dirtybird Campout festival in California. He also had a quick chat with us about the past, present, and future of Deviation.

I’ve seen previous interviews where you’ve been asked how you started DJing, but I’m quite interested in why you started DJing?

Benji B: The first person I saw DJing was at Notting Hill Carnival aged seven. I’d never seen anyone play music loud on a sound system before, but I was too young to think, ‘That’s a DJ.’ I just thought, ‘This is amazing!’ There was (also) an Arena documentary about hip hop that I saw with DJs cutting two records together. And the most significant band of my youth was Public Enemy, and when I went to see them I remember Terminator X on top of a massive ‘X’ and thinking, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’ Then, of course, there’s the Herbie Hancock ‘Rockit’ video and various other videos where you could see DJs doing that. I’ve always been fascinated by that. But the real answer is that I was a musician when I was a kid. I played saxophone, percussion, and various musical instruments from when I was seven until about 16/17. And really, DJing took over from the traditional music discipline as a creative expression.

As soon as I started going out in nightclubs – which, for me, started happening at 14/15/16, very early – it was very clear that it was something that I wanted to do. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind. I have no idea how I supported that vinyl habit at that time. When you’re really passionate about something, maybe you’ll eat beans on toast in order to get those 12”s that you want. I didn’t come from a wealthy background at all, so I started working aged 16 to support this, and pretty much all the money that I ever made went on records. As I got to 18/19/20, I just bought thousands and thousands of records. It’s that period in anyone’s life – of intense music consumption and learning – that really builds the foundations and musical DNA of who they become.

Your career kickstarted when you were a ballsy teenager and went up to Gilles Peterson at a club and said: ‘I really like your show on Kiss FM, but I can make it much better.’ Has anyone ever come up to you and said ‘I like your Radio 1 show, but I can make it better’?

Benji B: No one’s used that line, thankfully. I have had people come up to me in clubs. I will always, where I can, take the time to listen and check out people’s work. People like Gilles, people like Fabio, Kenny Dope, Jazzy Jeff – I will never forget these people precisely because (they were people who would) take the time to do that. Part of the manifesto of Deviation was always to welcome the next generation and support people coming through. I think that was always reflected in our crowd.

I’ve watched scenes in London and internationally that have run out of ideas because they were closed off to the next generation, and new records and new ideas coming in. A lot of the records were born in the club from that – I’ll never forget when Floating Points came to one of the first Deviation sessions and handed in a CD that said ‘’ in handwriting with a felt tip. If you don’t listen to that CD, you’re never going to discover what’s on it, so you have to make the effort to always try and listen to and embrace what’s being sent your way.

You started Deviation in the venue Gramaphone, which was a very unconventional space at the time. What makes a venue special to you?

Benji B: It’s hard to define what makes a venue special, because you can find positives about loads of different spaces. But it’s all about energy for me, and how the energy of sound and the energy of people behaves within that space. I have very specific goals when I’m looking for spaces and they can’t always be fulfilled, and sometimes you have to accept that. (When I first started started Deviation) I was looking for a venue for over a year. I wanted it to be off the beaten track, somewhere that hadn’t been used before. We found this place, Gramaphone, which is basically the basement of a pub with a Thai restaurant in it. They’d done a couple of student nights, but it was certainly not anything like a ‘venue’. When we told them where we wanted to put the DJ booth, they literally laughed.

I love an oblong space. I feel that the stereo image of DJing should always be dispersed from the narrow end of the oblong space so that it’s going down. You always have to think about the flow of the music and where people have to stand in order to receive that music. It’s also great if there’s a very clear binary distinction between dancefloor and bar. In Gramaphone, we managed to achieve that in a very small space. Another really important element is to eliminate traffic at all times, so that people who want to post up and dance on the dancefloor are not interrupted – they’re not having to move out the way because there’s a toilet at the end of the dancefloor. A DJ, for me, always needs to be on the same level as the people, or maximum one rise up. The final thing, for me, is that the ceiling has to be low, it contains the energy. I’m giving you the cheat codes right now! 

Those are the things that make an ideal venue. But none of that stuff matters as long as the acoustics are right and the sound system is good! That’s 101. All of the other stuff is perfectionist trimming. Based on experience, you could do a party in a car park, garage, or a front room – it’s all about sound system. 

“As soon as I started going out in nightclubs... it was very clear that it (DJing) was something that I wanted to do. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind” – Benji B

What was the last thing you listened to that blew your mind?

Benji B: Yesterday, I listened to this song by a guy called serpentwithfeet. I was aware of his singing – I’d heard him on the Björk remix, and I’ve got his new single. Somehow – and this is me exposing myself, because I pride myself on pretty much being up on everything – but somehow, I missed this track called ‘Four Ethers’. I had no idea how I’d never heard that song before. It’s so in my world. I listened to it and had to pull over, like ‘Wait, what!?’ He’s produced this track over this classical sample that builds but never really gives it to you, and when it finally does give it to you, there’s this juxtaposition of having this R&B and very emotional vocal over that music. It struck me.

Deviation is celebrating its first event of its 11th year with a party this Sunday at Village Underground. What should we expect?

Benji B: You should expect a super diverse line-up. We have a few different sides of our personality in one day, and I think the all-day element (of the event) is what’s allowing us the space to do that in one line-up. It’s the first time we’ve ever done a Sunday party that starts at 4pm, so it’s gonna be unpredictable. 

You’ve done the odd bit of production here and there. Will we be hearing more of Benji B the producer in the coming future? 

Benji B: Definitely. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, but DJing, travelling, and radio is very time-consuming! I’m going to allow more time to do that in various guises, whether it be working on other people’s records, exec-ing, or physically producing them myself. There’s a lot in the pipeline.

You’ve got a mix here for us that was recorded at Dirtybird Campout last year. Can you paint a picture of what that set was like for listeners at home?

Benji B: It was crazy. My tour manager picked me up from LA and we drove straight from the airport to the set. Google Maps was saying that it (would take) something like three hours, but it ended up being about four-and-a-half because of the traffic. He drove like Michael Schumacher in the back roads of these mountains in California, and we just made it in time for the set. I got driven to the stage, and it was this crazy, enchanted forest in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those situations where you’re walking stone cold sober into day two or day three of a festival where people have really gone for it. So I just went straight in. Everyone was dressed up as girl scouts and boy scouts and everyone was dancing in the trees, it was pretty wild! 

What else is coming for Deviation?

Benji B: The Deviation label is kicking off properly this year. There are Deviation events, we have a few sessions planned for the rest of the year. Towards the end of the year, in autumn, we’re going to be focusing on a Deviation retrospective, looking back at the past 10 or 11 years, celebrating some of the music that’s really big at the club. It’s really testament to a great clubnight when that night has its own hits, which might not be hits outside of the night but they are when you play them at the night. We’re also doing collabs, (like) the AIAIAI collab, which we’re celebrating this weekend. 

Before you go, I have to ask this – you’ve become quite close with Kanye’s camp in recent years. I don’t suppose you have any idea what he’s cooking up in Wyoming?

Benji B: No comment. (laughs) The studio code is very much like the dressing room code at football – when you cross the white line, it’s all out in the public, but when you’re in the dressing room, it stays in the dressing room. So until the music is in the public domain, it’s not your business to talk about what is, or what might be, happening. I’ve always abided by the studio code, and I always intend to. I’m pretty old school about that!

Deviation takes place from 4pm-1am at London’s Village Underground this Sunday (April 8)