Benji B: We are in a golden age of music once more
If you don’t already, you should probably start to regard Benjamin Benstead as one of the UK’s most important musical figures. His career – a testament to hard work and making the most of opportunities – is as inspiring as some of the risks he has taken, and most crucially, pulled off.
Better known to Radio 1 listeners and music fans as DJ Benji B, his Deviation night has grown in to one of the most important and well-respected brands in the British nightlife calendar, while his Wednesday night show is equally courageous in its music choices. He’s a trusted voice on new music, emerging genres and talented but as-yet undiscovered producers, and has easily stepped in to the 2am-4am show once manned by Mary Anne Hobbs.
Benji’s career in radio began when he was still in his teens after pestering the KISS 100 studio until he got an internship. Here he befriended Gilles Peterson and slowly rose through the ranks before cutting his teeth as a producer. When Gilles went to Radio 1, so did Benji, and it wasn’t long before he had made the switch to the other side of the mixing desk with his own show on sister station Radio 1Xtra.
That was 10 years ago and a lot has changed since then – not only with the fragmentation and digitisation of the radio industry but also with how young people access music online. Where once people scanned the outer reaches of the FM frequencies looking for underground pirate stations, they can now just have a browse through YouTube. But Benji, who once said he grew up in a ‘golden age of pirate radio’ is adamant that today’s youth won’t miss out on those life-changing discoveries lurking in the fuzzy ends of the dial that helped shape his musical tastes.
“The way that we access music is changing, but the music is as good as ever,” he explains. “There will always be a need for curators, filters and selectors to choose the best of what is out there and present it to music fans. We are in another golden age as we speak.”
He adds that his favourite era of music is “the now” and teasingly adds that if people want some recommendations about who or what is hot right now, then they should, “listen to my Radio 1 show every Wednesday to find out.”
His long running radio career means there are few artists that Benji hasn’t rubbed shoulders with. New artists including Jamie Woon and Ramandanman first joined him in the BBC studios back in 2010, and since then he’s welcomed Thundercat, DVA, Nicolas Jaar, A$AP Rocky and MF Doom. In October 2012 he introduced Bauuer as his special guest – nearly five months later the US producer’s track Harlem Shake is soundtracking more YouTube memes than most nerves can handle.
Even though he is synonymous with new talent, Benji says it was Chicago house legend Larry Heard, aka Mr Fingers, left him the most starstruck, but that would probably change if he ever got to interview Stevie Wonder, who he claims is at the top of his interview wish list.
Benji is reluctant to reveal too much about future Deviation line-ups, letting the night’s mission statement, “good sound good music good people – and no compromise,” explain why fans have been flocking to the sell-out parties for the last five years. In 2013, the brand made the switch to a new home, Shoreditch’s XOYO, and like many promoters, Benji has steered Deviation away from a warehouse/car park/somewhere else without plumbing.
He explains: “We believe that clubs move in five year cycles and after five amazing years of doing basement parties on Wednesdays, we wanted to create an environment on a Friday where our crowd would feel comfortable; a space for our music, and something for people like us on the weekend schedule.
“It’s self-evident how much people have been influenced by our line ups over the years – now is the perfect time to really take things to the next level.” Experimentation is a word that is often mentioned in the same breath as Benji B, and considering he was the first DJ to play Flying Lotus on UK radio, it’s not hard to understand why.
So you can actually imagine the awkwardness when he reveals his worst ever professional moment. “It was probably a corporate party in Denmark where the girls were so wack and got so drunk they stormed the DJ box looking to see if I had a copy of The Black Eyed Peas’ Humps. Needless to say I didn’t have it. They weren’t happy. I left.”
But, despite not winning over a gaggle of dip it low Danish dames, he has managed to earn some serious respect from musos and people with a fondness for a more gentile and refined style of music. After being asked to perform as part of Red Bull’s Revolutions In Sound event in 2011 where he invited a string quartet to join him in one of the London Eye’s pods for an exclusive improvised performance, he has again reached out to the classical community.
“It first came about when I was asked to curate one hour of music inside a pod on the London Eye and I decided to perform it with a string quartet. One year later we decided to revisit the idea but take it to the next level and incorporate 16 string players and record it at Maida Vale. The concept is to have me mixing my favourite tunes and the bespoke string arrangements mixing too – sometimes mixing the tunes themselves. The response has been overwhelming. We are going to take it on the road this summer and do a couple of special one off performances.”
Deviation, XOYO, 1st March, Benji B, Jamie XX, Actress £15 OTD www.xoyo.co.uk
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