A genre-defining classic from dubstep's cutting edge.
The formative years of dubstep, from 2000 to 2005, were founded on dubplate exclusives and 12-inches. Everything was moving so fast that if you wanted to hear the latest music, you had to be at the club nights or listen to the radio. As dubstep exploded on a global scale, the expectation on its core artists to deliver albums followed. Skream, Kode9, Burial, Pinch and Horsepower Productions set the bar high, as did seminal compilations The Roots Of Dubstep and Mary Anne Hobbs' Warrior Dubz.
Despite having already self-released a CD album, Benga was next in line. By the time Diary Of An Afro Warrior came out on Tempa in 2008, Benga was blowing up. He and longtime sparring-partner Skream were touring the world, two wide-eyed mates taking this phenomenon from London basements to festival stages. Benga's collaboration with Coki, "Night," was released a year earlier, a crossover hit which propelled him to new heights. Favourites "Crunked Up" and "26 Basslines" also came out as singles in 2007. Bar one track, the vinyl version of the album comprised new and unreleased cuts, though they were already known to the FWD>>, Stella Sessions and Dubstepforum faithful. The CD version housed some other new material and added the hits, making them more widely accessible to those without turntables.
This period of Benga's music was still stripped-back, focused on the drums and upfront basslines. He had started out by making tunes for DJ Hatcha to play, and Hatcha was all about the drums. On Diary Of An Afro Warrior, you can hear the influence of garage artists like Wookie and there are traces of house or techno. It's the middle ground between the dubby minimalism of Benga's CD album, Newstep, and the pop-dubstep of his major label effort, Chapter II. It also sits somewhere between the eyes-down records played at DMZ, the so-called purple sound coming out of Bristol and the harsher, in-your-face style of the '10s.
There is no doubt that this was an album for DJs. Only a couple of tracks deviate from 140 BPM and all are formulaic in their arrangement. They're made for quick mixing: 16 bars then a drop, 48 bars then a breakdown. But what he did between the rigid structures was anything but formulaic. Writing the rules as he went along—sometimes propelled by a certain mindset (see "E-Trips")—Benga contorted synthetic sounds into innovative, alien forms. The sound design draws on the dub lineage by giving pride of place to the basslines, and there is a likable simplicity to the melodies. Benga had pioneered dubstep by making garage wrong, and the same adventurous spirit keeps this album fresh. It's some of the most out-there dubstep around, from the quirky "Z" to the sonar bleeps of "Light Bulb."
There are also some of dubstep's biggest tracks here, characterised by obsessively layered percussion, screwface wobbles, half-step switch-ups and some deadly second drops. I'd bet "26 Basslines" was reloaded as often as any dubstep track, and the bassline of "Crunked Up" was hummed the most. "Pleasure" hinted at the euphoric, vocal work Benga would go on to do with Katy B and as part of Magnetic Man. "Loose Synths" was lighter and more traditionally melodic. "Night" was different to anything Benga or Coki had made before. It was a staple for grime crew Boy Better Know and for Dizzee Rascal, for garage DJs like EZ, for BBC daytime radio and in Ayia Napa.
From the age of 13, Benga was known as the gifted kid buying records at Big Apple in Croydon and making beats on his PlayStation. So when this album came out to such a strong reception, it wasn't only a personal success but one for the whole scene, for everyone Benga had worked or raved with. Equally, when he temporarily retired due to mental health issues, it was felt by many. Diary Of An Afro Warrior is an important and unique milestone in dubstep's history, still the most complete and honest musical statement he has made. It's pure Benga: no vocalists, just a basic studio setup, genius ideas and motivation to answer to Skream!