In meeting before a recent performance, it's clear that he's a gent in demand: It's been a bastard tracking him down and even as we sit people are endlessly coming to have a word. After a couple of false starts due to a soundcheck cutting across the conversation, we're then being interrupted so he can answer a familiar incoming call: Oliver Jones, perhaps better referred to as Skream. Benga's been at a photo shoot—the poster boy doing his thing—while Skream (who alongside their former mentor and Big Apple record store employee Arthur "Artwork" Smith make up Magnetic Man) has been waiting back in their native Croydon for a lift he was due. Benga manages to battle the onslaught as if some flak from his wife.
After the seas that Diary Of An Afro Warrior managed to charter, though, the attention seems warranted. And it's fair to suspect that expectations are high for the South Coulsdon bruiser and his upcoming full-length. He's talked up some collaborations that he's delayed for nearing a year and despite one hectic itinerary of late, he recently managed to record the new album, due a March release once he's picked the best batch of tracks and teased out those killer hooks. But with international dates on the horizon at Turin's Club to Club, Poland's Unsound Festival and at a club night in the Czech Republic, will his soldiering ever be done?
We were talking about where you stood with spending time DJing and producing at the moment…
When I started DJing, it wasn't only for the fact it could make me some money. I could have just given my music to N-Type or someone, but they might not have represented it in the way I wanted it; they might not play my material alongside tracks in a set they way I would. So I just thought it's best to play it myself.
So life as a DJ kicked off because you wanted orchestrate the context to your tunes?
Yeah, I suppose.
What do you have in store with upcoming releases? You've got the Benga! EP coming out soon but when do you see yourself going back to lay down a new album of material?
I've already made the new album—finished it off about a week ago. So far I've only given out a few tracks whereas last time around I gave out the whole thing and everyone was battering it for ages. This time it's just a couple songs that'll be out there.
Five Essential Benga Releases
The Judgement (Big Apple)
As easy as it may be to get all bleary eyed and nostalgic about his first steps, Benga's early output is mostly eclipsed by recent strides, with this being a notable exception. Produced alongside Skream, sultry brass, choir choruses and trademark treble-heavy loutish bass made this one intimidating introduction to the pair.
10 Tons Heavy / Progression (Planet µ)
Written with his mentor Hatcha and sat deep amid murky reverb, this (along with "Comb 60s") marked a big progression and more mature approach to Benga's sound. Out through Planet µ, it's less for dancing and more for listening to whilst skulking Streatham high streets late at night.
Zombie Jig (Benga Beats)
Showing it's far from just about the basslines, this slow-burning release with its stilted organ and soft string teases is like the Coulsdon beatnik summoning a "Ghost Town" poltergeist for bass head kicks.
Crunked Up (Tempa)
A defining 12-inch in Benga's catalogue, "Crunked Up" possesses the Benga trademarks: high-end acid washed synths and one hefty bass hook.
Spooksville / Dreamscape 24 (Immersion)
Produced with regular collaborator and fellow Croydon bass auteur Walsh, these slow-tempo boulders, despite what a title like "Dreamscape 24" might suggest, are deep-set rumbas from a master of low-end crumbles.
That's it. That's the way we do it, and it's the way we keep people interested. Know what I mean? Like when you go to a rave you might like a song, but all the people might not be into it, so you've got to roll them in fast.
Like the old jungle style of constantly locking up ready...
Bang, bang, bang! Sometimes I find that when Skream and I play together sometimes it's a lot better because we have the time to pick two records where he goes in, then I go in and we keep it going.
How did you find recording? I know recently that you used to knock tracks out in their hundreds and Skream said he was still chalking off ten tracks a week. Are you still as prolific as ever in that respect?
I'm the same man. I'm still merking tunes. I say merking as if I'm some grime MC. I'm still building as much as ever, but not picking as many. Maybe it's because the levels aren't quite as strong as they are now. Whereas I used to be able to write ten songs and every single one was useable, now I only pick maybe four tunes of those ten. I'm more about making tunes that everyone will remember. I want tunes that I go back to like "Crunked Up" that I still batter now.
There seemed to be a big progression with the last record. Do you look back at earlier material and get embarrassed or has it all got a place in your heart?
It depends how I released it. With Diary of an Afro Warrior, they were more just tunes that were around that I was eager to get to DJs, but those are the ones that I can look back at all times. "Judgement," a track I wrote with Skream, I still look back and love it. There's been a few other records that I look back and can appreciate the distance I've come, but still like the ideas that were there.
I'm productive as ever in terms of amounts of music, but I'm not so sure if people would say "Wow, that's different." Because I'm listening to a lot more dubstep that doesn't help, when you're listening just to the music you make. I'm on my way out though. I was just going round the block, but I'm trying to turn left this time.
Whether with Skream, Walsh or whoever else, do your writing relationships with others seem as important as ever or do you like to keep it more to yourself now?
I don't know. Little things help when I collaborate with people like Walsh because they help me figure out whether I'm heading down some crap route. You find that people that aren't producers-by-trade have ideas that producers wouldn't. They don't understand how it all works, so it just comes to their heads. It helps.
Are you more or less reliant on those people though? I imagine when you were first coming to grips with programs you needed each other to figure them out, whereas presumably you're a bit more independent now.
Once you learn about one program you can get to grips with another and it's easy enough to find your way around. I can use almost everything now apart from Reason. But that's it. I can use Cubase and Logic and it's all the same really.
How do you feel changing programs has effected your sound though? Moving from your darling Fruityloops must've been a hit to the system.
It was important to me and Skream because we found this thing called TS404 and we used to make all our basslines on it and once we moved from that, we understood how it all worked. If we'd just started on Logic, we wouldn't have come up with those basslines right at the beginning of this all. Once you know a lot more about systems and your way about programs, you can be less playful and it kind of kills your creativity. Takes out that random quality to it.
Your itinerary over the last year has been pretty much non-stop. You enjoying that?
I can tell you what my schedule's like. Over the two months I can say that I have played at least four times a week. But this is it: If the system's good and they have a good set-up, I'm always going to enjoy it because I can put it across to people in the way I want to. It's only when the system's no good I end up thinking my travel was a waste of time. To preach this music, which is bassline music, you need a good system. Hook me up with that and I'm happy.
All of a sudden everyone's quite eager to tag different movements away from or within dubstep depending on the slightest bit of treble here or low-end wobble. Do you think people are getting too bogged down in trying to label everything and that it underplays how versatile and broad dubstep was even from the start?
Because there were a fair few sounds that never really hit in the way they should've, but that's what happens. People find something they like and then it gets battered, isn't it? So it's up to us to move it on. Simple.
Are there any strands, whether it be the international take on dubstep or otherwise, that you particularly love but wouldn't touch or, equally, any you hate?
Absolutely hate? Right! No. I wouldn't say any I particularly hate; I just hate badly produced music, not production-wise but just no thought. I don't know—I haven't got an example because I wouldn't drop anyone's music into it like that.
You're too much of a gentleman.
I try, I try. But I can't think of much I hate, but there's all types of stuff I like. Love Martyn's stuff, whatever it's call, tech…
[laughs] I just like certain songs, isn't it?
I don't, to be fair. I still look at everyone in the same way. To me, age never mattered when I was young. I never thought that I was young and couldn't do what the elders were doing. When people mention age, I just don't think it's made me change a lot. Obviously I might chill out a bit, but I'm not thinking that now that I'm twenty-three I've got to make liquid music. When I look at the new people coming through, I don't really look at age as the defining aspect. I understand what you mean about me being some sort forefather or some grandfather of music, but I don't even see it as that, I just see myself as one of those people that when people look to dubstep people look at a few heads and I'll be one of those that they look at. But I don't feel like no granddad.
It's whether you felt indebted to help out in the way Hatcha and the people at Big Apple helped nurture you at the beginning. Do you feel you should be helping out some young talent?
It all depends how they come to me, though. I never really went to Big Apple to ask for help. I was going in there to play my music and they never really taught me to produce other than to guide me and suggest I head down a certain route. If people ask for that sort of thing I don't mind, but it was more that we were two kids out of a bunch coming to them. In my position, how it is now, it's quite hard to do that. The more and more I try to listen to more people's music...before I could listen and think they're doing something different whereas now it's starting to get stale.
Do you think it's a difficult for people getting into the music? All those dubplates and the exclusivity to it.
Nah. It was the same for us than any other kid. I know what you mean, because when we first got into dubstep, it wasn't massive. But now there's a certain route people would take. There's far more people in on it now, but I wouldn't say any of it was closed off. They've just got to be better now, but that never hurt anybody. And, to be fair, when we got into the game it wasn't like we were crap.
Hours in front of that PlayStation.
Hours was spent, man. As soon as I moved from PlayStation to PC and got my first release, hours was spent. But this is the thing: It takes a while to get anywhere, a bit of dedication. It takes a bit of time. And to all the kids—and I'm not being some political bastard here—but do you think Skream and I got to where we are wasting our time on the streets? We were at home on our computers making tunes. Used to get told my room reeks and to get out, know what I mean?
Any younger producers you've recently thought show true promise?
The only person that sticks in my head right now is Joker. He's bad. He's only 19, so he's not far off, but he reminds me of us. But they're big tunes, good on him.
Of all the thousands of tracks you've laid down, what's the most stupid name you've given a tune?
Probably still "Ketchup." And that'll just be because I've eaten some chips producing.
Ketchup in your room? Filth.
You know, busy guys.
Top + wide photo credit: Shaun Bloodworth
Sidebar photo credit: Chris Hoyle
Benga DJing photo credit: Matt Trent