benji b, deviation from the norm.
A bleak Thursday afternoon in East London’s Goodhood store saw us embark on a shopping trip with the Radio 1 DJ.
Benji B by Chloe Orefice
Benji B is one of those guys that could talk you under the table; eloquent, articulate and surprisingly full of fashion knowledge, he's both a people's DJ and a DJ's DJ. He's one of those rare few that manages to take all elements of his record collection and bring them into the mix, taking you on both a musical journey and an educational trip with a high level of quality control throughout. Guests on his BBC Radio 1 show never fail to impress, having included the legendary likes of Madlib and Snoop Dogg as well as recent talent James Blake and Hudson Mohawke. A consistent purveyor of fine music both new and old, Benji's club night Deviation is one of the most appreciated and authoritative of them all; a night where real music fans can go in the assurance that they'll be blown away by the host and his guests, whom he takes the utmost care in choosing. The night just celebrated its 6th birthday and this Christmas will see Benji take on his annual five-hour set, allowing him to explore the depths of his crates and really tap into the heart of the dancefloor. As we browsed through racks of garments it became clear that Benji knows what he likes. Dressed almost head to toe in Raf Simons, we chatted about the relationship between fashion and music, and discussed what it is that makes a club night stand the test of time.
So what kind of clothes do you go for?
Clothes have always been a very, very important part of my life. I guess I'm part of the first streetwear generation, growing up with Shawn Stussy, early Supreme, and Bond International in London. I think there are three sides to my taste in fashion that have merged into one. Contemporary streetwear, contemporary menswear and traditional tailoring, which, if you're an English gent is always appealing.
Who are your go-to designers?
As you get older you realise that functionality is just as important as anything else, which is why I always end up going with people like Raf Simons. I'm not interested in seasonal fashion and trying to be 'down' - it's about incorporating things into your own style that feel natural. It's like a crowd listening to a DJ playing a record because he or she thinks it's cool, but they know it doesn't really fit into what they would normally do and if you're forcing it to work in your wardrobe, it will stick out like a sore thumb; it should always be effortless.
Tell us about the brands that you grew up with in music, like Polo…
Polo is so inextricably linked with hip hop, the re-appropriation of preppy, American style, and stuff that's basically associated with upper-middle class preppy lifestyle. Sailing gear - whether it be Helly Hansen - is a big part of that world. The king of that re-appropriation will always be Polo; Ralph is the king of that classic American design and functionality. But also there's a way of re-appropriating it and those associations with that brand are very specific.
Do you think there are any brands at the moment that would sit in association with a current genre of music?
To a certain extent, but genres in music aren't that relevant anymore. In the '90s they were so relevant because music was much more tribal, but music is less tribal now. The guy down the road is probably going to be into Tyler, The Creator but he's also going to like Zomby or whatever. If you spoke to a fourteen year-old girl in 1995 and asked her what her favourite music is, she'd probably say hip hop or punk or pop. If you spoke a fourteen year-old girl now, she'd probably say Drake or Gaga or Kanye West, whatever she's discovered on her journey. Those people are genres now. Those people are channels in their own right. So the concept of tribal genres or cult genres in music now is less relevant.
You mentioned that things can sort of flare up overnight. What do you think is necessary for club nights to stand the test of time and have that sense of longevity?
The concept of a club night has sort of died out a little bit. Most people don't have that sort of longterm commitment, they're just interested in ticketed events and bums on seats, which DJ or which act is going to fill a venue rather than a club night which could go on to spawn a music genre in itself. And if you think about all the best club nights, they've always had a generation of producers that have come through from that period, creating a creative environment that is that productive or fertile is not a coincidence. You have to be interested in the longterm when starting a club night. If fifty people turn up to the first one, and they're the right fifty people, and they then tell another fifty of the right people, that's better than having a rammed out gig with loads of people who won't care next month.
What are the nights that you think have stood that test of time?
There's not many left. There have been loads of great club nights that have become a scene in themselves. I respect any night like that in any genre, even if it's a genre I don't like, I respect people that have a longterm investment in culture. If you take enough out of anything, you have to be able to give back; that could be a city, that could be a relationship, that could be music, whatever. A lot of the time it's smash and grab with this culture, and people don't have a long term invested interest in building something, and that's the key to having a lasting club night. With me, the first pillars of a club night are environment, sound system, music curation and guest DJs, and that's why, when I started the night, I did it on a Wednesday night in a club that was off the beaten track. I ripped out the sound system and put my own one in. All of these things; attention to detail, attention to sound, environmental detail were things that I grew up learning about from all the very best club nights that I attended. It's something I wanted to offer to the next generation. I don't like sitting around and listening to people moaning about what isn't there and what used to be or any of that shit. If you don't see what you like, then create it. That's your responsibility as a creative person.
Does booking the DJs take up most of your time for Deviation?
Oh yeah, curating the lineup is one of the most important things we do. I think it's what sets Deviation apart. When anything comes along and changes the landscape, after a while it seems normal. But at the time it was quite different. What we did five or six years ago has gone on to influence a whole slew of club nights. And that's fine, I see that as flattery.
You've got MC Judah hosting every single one of your nights. What do you think he brings?
Judah is as much of a resident as I am at Deviation. I think he's missed like one night in six years. He's the host; he is the voice you hear welcoming you to the night. He's not an MC that's chatting or toasting over the music, his role is more subtle than that. All the best nights have had a voice that I associate with the night, whether it be Conrad at Metalheadz, or GQ at any other jungle night. Judah's role is very sensitive to the music; he's a music man; his record collection is just as deep as anyone who plays at the night; he's sensitive to the music and if he's feeling it, he's one of the best people to work alongside. He also doesn't suffer any fools, so he knows good music. He's an important part of the night in the sense that his voice is just as much as a resident as I am as a DJ.
And you're playing a five-hour set at your annual Christmas party. What is it about five-hour sets that you enjoy?
Well I just did it on the first year as a thing in December, and it was so popular that we continued it as a tradition each December. This will be the sixth one I've done and it's just a chance to stretch out and show the true breadth of music that we play at Deviation, know what I mean?
Have you got a five-year plan? You've just celebrated your sixth birthday…
I just want us to continue to evolve naturally, and grow in the way that we should. We want to hopefully continue to be the best club night in London and the most relevant.
What are the notable venues or sound systems you've played at? What clubs have been the best to play at - had the best soundsystem and the best vibe?
When I was growing up you'd go to a club and the first thing you'd see is a sign saying 'sound provided by Eskimo Noise' or 'sound provided by whatever' and that was the most important thing back then; you'd walk into a rave and you'd know you'd be blessed by these amazing sound systems. So I was incredibly spoilt, growing up with incredible sound systems at various different raves, parties and clubs. If you went to Metalheadz at Blue Note that was hugely influential for me because even though the Blue Note sound system is pretty good, they would beef it up every week with Eskimo Noise sound. I wanted to bring that to what I do, because what I play, you cant experience it without a good sound system. The 2000s was a period where club culture became people playing music off laptops and quite shit sound systems, I wanted to remind people what it is to go to a club with real sound and experience the real thing.
How did the your compositional work with a string quartet and sixteen piece string orchestra come about?
In 2011 we were asked by Red Bull Music Academy to do a pod in their Revolutions in Sound project within the London Eye and the idea was that people could apply for this Willy Wonka golden ticket to be one of the audience members in this pod with their favourite DJ. So effectively I had to DJ to 25 people that had chosen to come to my particular pod for an hour. And I just felt really strongly about the fact it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch a DJ while overlooking London, in a pod in the London Eye, the last thing I'm going to do is go in there and press play on a CD and play a couple of tunes to some people. I wanted to do something special. I thought to myself, what texture would I want to hear in that kind of environment? And immediately I thought about strings. I decided the coolest thing to do would be to do a DJ set and have a string arrangement added to it.
Then the BBC asked me to do a sixteen string version of it in Maida Vale which we went did and expanded the concept really. The plan of it was really simple: taking my favourite tunes and adding everyone's favourite texture - strings - on to the ones that will work, work with a really good arrangement on it, and then present it on a DJ set in much the same way that I would at a nightclub.
What's your favourite hangover movie?
I never really have time of that. Usually when I'm hungover I realise that I was meant to be somewhere two hours ago.
Name a few albums that are perfect to wind down to?
Probably Shuggie Otis Inspiration Information, maybe an album by Joni Mitchell, like Hejira or The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and maybe a D'Angelo one... or maybe Kate Bush.
I saw in an interview, where you spoke about respect in music, that if you were to approach a music scene you didn't know much about, you would approach it with respect. Today, with different areas of music flaring up so quickly, do you think that people are approaching scenes without the respect that they should?
That's a very hard generalisation to answer, you know, I guess it's different in every case. You can't invent a music scene; it either happens naturally or it doesn't; it's something that evolves naturally. The greatest compliment to any music scene or music night is when the DJ is a little bit nervous about playing there…I could draw the comparison between playing to fifty thousand people at a festival and not being nervous and then playing to a few hundred people that matter and really shitting yourself. I think that's the best way to answer that.
Text James Hutchins
Photography Chloe Orefice