Benji B on soundtracking Virgil Abloh’s final show with Tyler, the Creator
The Radio 1 DJ gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the late designer's swansong show, accompanied by an exclusive photo diary by Cosmo Webber.
Photography Cosmo Webber
Fresh from congratulating Nigo on his debut show at Kenzo, which he attended along with Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Pusha T, Louis Vuitton Men’s music director answers the phone. He is about to watch a three-hour performance conducted by the Paris Opera’s Gustavo Dudamel. In awe, Benji B (or Benjamin Benstead, as it reads on his passport) is processing his colleague and dear friend’s final collection that showed only days before.
“I didn’t want to be around anyone this week for whom this was just another gig,” he asserts. An alchemy of fine tailoring, irony and youthful wonderment, the AW22 show was Virgil’s last piece in an illustrious puzzle. While the creative director was absent in presence, his boundary-blurring vision remained. Largely designed before his untimely passing, the collection, Benji iterates, speaks for itself. “There were so many different suggestions from so many different people. I was like, no, this is a celebration of his breath-taking work. My job is really to get people to focus on that, and to be uplifted.” For Benji, that assignment required an amalgamation of musicians from different worlds, each top in their field. Tyler, the Creator was tasked with composing a score, which cult producer Arthur Verocai would then arrange for the Chineke! Orchestra to perform under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton.
The rationale for such an ornate soundtrack was simple. When shows were digital, Abloh and Benji had outdone themselves by teaming the likes of Goldie, Wu-Tang’s GZA and Lupe Fiasco for the SS22 collection’s film Amen Break. Now, with physical shows back on schedule, a more tangible approach was in order. “Virgil was like, ‘I want it to be theatrical, I want there to be elements of choreography,’” recalls Benji. “And one of the references that was often talked about in many of the million WhatsApp groups that we've shared was ‘orchestra’, ‘orchestra pits’, ‘the magic of the orchestra’.”
Benji, a long-standing DJ on BBC Radio 1, was hired at Vuitton by Abloh in 2018. The two, however, go way back. Both music obsessives, they seemingly first met in 2008 at Benji’s night Deviation (although neither are sure this was actually the first time). Abloh, who had a particular penchant for UK-cultivated music genres such as grime, drill and jungle, had been following Benji’s work at the BBC since the early 2000s. Later, Abloh would commission Benji to work on Kanye West’s Yeezus album, trusting his encyclopaedic knowledge of house, groove and funk that a lifetime of crate-digging and working under Gilles Peterson at Kiss FM had nourished.
As self-proclaimed music geeks, the pair approached soundtracking with painstaking attention to detail. When working with Tyler, it was essential the score was bespoke. In the twenty-minute piece, all music except that in Tyler the Creator’s ‘See You Again’ is totally new. “We’d often spoke over the seasons about how, and when, to do the right kind of collaboration with Tyler,” says Benji. “For us, it’s Tyler, the producer; Tyler, the video director; Tyler, the creative – and Tyler, the Creator. We are as passionate about Tyler in the studio as we are the front-facing superstar.” During the show, Tyler came out on a bike as the finale song ‘See You Again’ – one of Virgil and Benji’s favourites – played. A moment Benji had envisioned well before the show, this choreography was a last-minute decision. “The genius of V is the fact that all of these thoughts that he empowered us to have just manifested into reality,” remarks Benji.
An ambitious project, Benji’s idea was risky. Rather than the orchestra simply playing that same score Tyler had written, the orchestra were to play on top of it. “I had no idea, honestly, if it was going to work or not,” he admits. This meant that there would need to be orchestral arrangements organised, a task he assigned Arthur Verocai, a 76 -year-old legend in record collector circles and also a frequent reference for Virgil and Benji – both in fashion shows and deejay sets. “There’s many, many, obviously heartbreaking things about this week, but one of the things I really wish I could have done most is just send that WhatsApp message. You know, ‘We got Verocai, exploding head emoji,’” Benji says.
One success led to another. Verocai’s arrangement was confirmed, and Benji’s response to Abloh’s typically lucid brief another step closer to complete. The next ingredient? An orchestra that wasn’t yet another sea of white, middle-class faces. As the first professional majority Black and minority ethnic orchestra in Europe, UK-based Chineke! Orchestra – ‘Chineke’ translating to ‘God’ in Igbo – was a nailed-on choice. “That’s no disrespect to anyone in classical music,” Benji says. “It’s just refreshing to see more representation there.” Upon contacting the founder Chi-chi Nwanoku, Benji discovered Virgil had already reached out to her, yet another confirmation of Abloh’s commitment to uplifting Black talent. “He never told me that. It was a moment of beautiful synchronicity,” Benji affirms.
In the show, each orchestra member had a seat at the table – literally and metaphorically – where chairs were illustrated with quotes such as “Everything is important” by one of Abloh’s oldest collaborators, the artist Jim Joe. And everything was important. In this soundscape, the arts of the underdog were put on a pedestal, bolstered by those who had already infiltrated siloed spaces. An example of the latter, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel came up through El Sistema, a publicly financed music program that offered impoverished children in Venezuela musical opportunities. Now, through Benji and Virgil, his fame and recognition in classical circles has platformed young talent in Chineke! Orchestra, who he would lead during the show.
“Straight away, he understood everything,” recalls Benji. “He understood the arranger, Tyler, the plan.” During this first encounter, Dudamel treated Benji to a dress rehearsal at the opera house. “It was like 2:58PM and on the intercom it was like, ‘Maestro, to the stage please.’” Benji sat in the auditorium as Dudamel led the Paris Opera straight into Marriage of Figaro. “I started crying. I just really wish Virgil was at that meeting. He says one thing in June, like ‘orchestra pit’, and boom, I’m in the pit watching the world’s greatest conductor,” Benji says.
Not long later, Abloh’s brief came to fruition. More brilliant than the sun, Benji’s live soundtrack sowed the seeds for Abloh’s continued influence on creatives the world over. While Abloh’s death leaves a large hole in many hearts, Benji is resolute that the journey he began will continue. “I am creating a world that has to be true to what we do. And I say this in the present tense because I’m still carrying out this energy.” The ideas he and Virgil pinged back and forth on their iPhones are enough to last several lifetimes. The orchestra’s textures, Arthur’s arrangement and Tyler’s music evoked emotion, and with that, hope – hope for other creatives to rewrite canons. Benji concludes, “I think he was watching, and smiling, for sure.”
Photography Cosmo Webber