DJ and Music Director
Phoebe: Hi, Benji.
Benji: Hi, Phoebe Lovatt.
Phoebe: What's your full name?
Benji: My government name or my name, name?
Phoebe: Do you give away your government name?
Benji: At hotels, yeah, when I check in. But apart from that... Benji B.
Phoebe: Benji B.
Benji: You can call me Benjamin, Benji, Ben.
Benji: And that's it.
Phoebe: OK. And what do you do?
Benji: I work with music.And basically, in that, do lots of different things. DJing and having a radio show is probably what I'm best known for, but obviously I do lots of other things in music as well.
Phoebe: Ok, cool. Well, thank you for doing my podcast. The reason I'm doing this is because I want to speak to people like yourself, people who I think have had a sizable impact on the fields in which they work - and particularly people who work in creative fields - to learn about how you got to where you are. Not necessarily in a career-climbing sense, but more in a learning and education sense.
Phoebe: So, I'm gonna ask you about your actual education. Your formal education, your scholastic education.
Benji: What does scholastic mean?
Phoebe: School-ish, school-y. And then also your informal education which is people, places, books and for you, I guess, pieces of music that have quite informed your learning journey and kinda brought you to the point you're in right now.
Phoebe: Does that sound alright?
Phoebe: Talk to me a bit about your school days. Where did you go to school and what was school like for you?
Benji: So, I went to Hendon School in North London. Basically the reason I ended up going there was 'cause I didn't get into any of the schools that were close to me. It obviously happened for a reason because it was really good, overall. Like any school experience it had really rough ups and downs, and crap moments, and scary moments and stuff. But, what I took from school was less of an academic thing and more of a social thing because where I went to school was just very, very, very average, British, comprehensive mixed school. Or more specifically, average London comprehensive mixed school.
To be a citizen of London is to be a citizen of the world straight away. I'm really happy that I went somewhere that had the full spectrum of economic bracket and different ethnicities, different backgrounds. I think the dominant background in my school was probably Indian Subcontinent. So, the most commonly spoken language in my school was Gujarati. I grew up with Indian and Pakistani culture strong in my school.
Then we had strong West Indian culture as well, a lot of Jamaican kids. And the thing is about the age, that I am, specifically, is a lot of the kids I went to school with were first generation British. So, when you went to their parents’ house after school, you were going to Pakistan, or you were going to Jamaica. I grew up totally understanding the difference between the religions in different countries. There was a lot of Jewish community in that part of north London as well.
It was an opportunity to understand culture, really. It's just is what it is, like when you're 11 years old and you go to a Jewish household one day and then a Pakistani household and then a West Indian household, and a Japanese household–actually, there were quite a few Japanese kids in my school as well. You just think that's normal, because it is normal where I come from. So in many ways, I think that was an important part of school. It was just people understanding people and culture and food, cuisine, languages-
Benji: Music, for sure. My school wasn't particularly amazing in an academic sense, but I was very happy there. It was cool. It was pretty rough, but all schools in London are rough.
Phoebe: How did your interest in music begin?
Benji: Well, it's simple to say that, music in any sort of educational form, now, as a generalisation, is light years ahead of what it was when I was in school. Unrecognisable. Like, it's a legit thing to now go and do music technology, or you can probably go and learn how to use Ableton or something in school, which is I'm so happy about. Sadly for me, that wasn't an option. Generally, the arts in the era that I grew up, music was just considered some indulgent specialist add-on to the basics. So when you go to do your GCSEs, at 14, 15, 16, there's all the mandatory subjects that you have to do and then we had to choose between art, drama and music. And for me, obviously those three things go together and I wanted to do all three, but wasn't allowed to. I had to choose.
Phoebe: That's such a cruel choice.
Benji: It's a cruel choice, yeah. The most kind of alternative music practice we got in those days was like, jazz band. Apart from that, it's like all classical and choir, basically. So, if you did music, you had to be in the choir, certainly until your voice breaks if you're a boy. I learned saxophone from when I was seven, so I played that all through school and I was in all the bands and everything, but they always used to do this thing where they'd put it against sports, so I could never be in the football team because I had to choose whether you wanted to do music or sports. It was so backwards. But, now, obviously, it's completely different.
In answer to your question, I did do music at school. I did music GCSE and music A Level and both were crap, really crap. So much so, that it had put me off of doing any sort of higher education in music, whatsoever. I had the opportunity. I got into the Brit School, I was thinking about going to see about Royal College of Music in Trinity and all that.
The dream - I had no money - but the dream was to bop to the School of Jazz in the States.
But academic media just put me off, completely. So, yeah, I went to Hendon School until I was 16 and then between 16 and 18, I went to a college in north London to do my A Levels. And by then, I sort of checked out. I was working already by 16.
Phoebe: Working doing what?
Benji: Well, I had a job on the weekends, but in terms of what I wanted to do, I was already working at KISS FM, by 16.
Phoebe: How did you get your way in there?
Benji: just walked up to the guy whose radio show I liked in a club and said: "I really like you radio show, but I can make it better." And he said: "Alright."
Phoebe: Who's that?
Benji: Gilles Peterson.
Phoebe: Oh, yeah, that guy! So presumably if you were listening to KISS-FM and had the confidence to tell a DJ on there that you could make his show better, that you had some exposure to music beyond the academic context. So who was teaching you?
Benji: The only reason I'm talking about that is 'cause you asked me about school and that's why it's relevant to the thing, but, me doing music at school has, I wouldn't say, no relevance, but might grow relevance to my musical journey. It was almost like when I was at school, doing music was like learning ... In your exam you'd have to know when Beethoven was born.
Phoebe: All the key facts.
Benji: Literally, when did Mozart die? What year did he write this? And to me, I couldn't think of anything less relevant to my journey and what I'm interested in. I'm obviously interested in those guys. They're amazing, but I'm interested in their music. I was interested in listening to it, or working out what it made me feel, or was I into it. It was a bit like the music version of art history, possibly. Do you know what I mean? That was what the option was at school.
My education in music came from everything but school. And it started from a very early age. Like most people, in any art form, I'm completely self-educated. Because by definition of being into something you have to be self-educated, right? Because it's a process of discovery, whatever crates you're digging in, it might be your parents’ crates or it might be the internet, or Discogs, or Instagram or Resident Advisor or whatever it is. For me it was pirate radio and record shops.
When you become passionate about any subject, it's just about that process of discovery. I was obsessed with the radio from an early age. I used to listen to Capital, Radio One, all the commercial stations, when I was a baby. And I've still got cassettes that I’d make of the chat show. I was really into the radio.
As I got to sorta eight, nine, 10, I discovered pirate radio. I didn't know what to call the music, but that's the beautiful thing about being a kid is that doesn't matter. You're into what you're into. I had very unusually, grown-up taste for a kid.
Phoebe: What were you listening to when you were nine?
Benji: I was listening to what everyone else is listening to, which is Madonna, David Bowie and pop stuff, Michael Jackson. But I was also listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, stuff like that. And I guess that's because I was playing saxophone and anytime you get sheet music to play on saxophone it's like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, John Coltrane.
So, I was listening to a lot of that music, and then really the biggest impact for me - and this is definitely me showing my age - was Public Enemy. When I discovered that, and the production on that, that just took me in a whole different direction. That's what's amazing about kids. You look at a seven or eight year old kid, and you think: "They're only seven or eight." But, actually those are musical moments that are happening in their life are sort of the compass point set that might take them where they're going.
Certainly, I was so 'on it' as a kid. I started buying my own records about 10 or 11, I was allowed 50p to buy one seven-inch a week.
Phoebe: Where did you buy it from?
Benji: Our Price, obviously.
Phoebe: Our Price. Literally-
Benji: Literally, Our Price, because Our Price had an offer - it was probably record companies rigging the charts or whatever - where you could buy seven-inch for 50p the week it came out.
Phoebe: What was the first one you bought? Do you remember?
Benji: Have no idea.
Phoebe: What were some of the earlier ones?
Benji: I found loads of them. I used to buy all the pop stuff like I said. It's funny, I did an interview with Nile Rodgers -
Phoebe: I should listen to it.
Benji:You need time because it was supposed to be 90 minutes and it ended up being four hours.
Phoebe: Oh my God. That makes sense to me, 'cause he does every night, he plays a show for about five hours, doesn't he?
Benji: Yeah, it was incredible. We got to the end of the first bit, the lecture. It was a public lecture for Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid. We got to the end of it and I think we'd only got to 1981 or something. I said to everyone, do you wanna keep going and he said, "Yeah." But what Nile Rodgers made me realise was the effect a producer can have on you without you knowing it, before you knew what a producer is. Because to answer your question, what's the David Bowie song I liked? What's the only Duran Duran song that I liked? Who made the Madonna song that I liked? It was all produced by him.
Phoebe: He's a major common thread, isn't he?
Benji: Yeah, but it's important to recognize that. The radio is having a massive effect, because that's what you're exposed to, but you're also making your own taste choices that early on. And you're not sure why that is, but you're responding to those things. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson like any other kid my age. That was the king. And then I also started to become really interested in music that was not from that time, but from before. So, things like James Brown. And I discovered that stuff quite early on in life and-
Phoebe: By yourself?
Benji: Well the most important musical discovery channel for me was my dad's record collection. My dad had an incredible collection of records. What's beautiful about going through someone else's records is that you make your own collection out of it. You find different things and you're not discriminating between genres or what you think you're supposed to like or anything like that at that age. So you listen to Weather Report and Joe Zawinul in the same way… He had a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Curtis Mayfield and Motown and stuff like that. Loads of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell, Sade...
Phoebe: Was he sitting you down and making you listen to it all?
Benji: No, he just let me go through the records really. I remember his flat in south London–I grew up half north London, half south London and he had this-
Phoebe: Oh, that's weird. You're the first person I've ever met who had that experience.
Benji: I hold dual passport.
Phoebe: Wow. Anyone who's listening who's not from London maybe will not understand why that’s weird.
Benji: That's like saying I'm Harlem and Brooklyn at the same time.
Phoebe: Yeah. True. That's a good analogy. But the north-south divide of London is quite profound.
Benji: Yeah, I owe a lot of my early musical discoveries to having a great record collection to dig into. And thenI learned to play saxophone, I used to play this music from Indonesia, Gamelan. I used to play lots of different music.
Phoebe: Who was teaching you to play saxophone?
Benji: My teacher was called Chris. I can't remember his surname and that's terrible, but I kinda just checked out of it all when I discovered records and DJ culture.
Phoebe: And you did that just by going onto Our Price?
Benji: Well, I think, the first time I ever saw a DJ with a sound system was definitely Notting Hill Carnival when I was a kid. Public Enemy’s DJ was Terminator X and when I saw them live, there'd be this huge X on the stage and the DJ playing and I thought that was amazing. But, I grew up with Pirate radio, so you're listening to people mixing and cutting records and all the rest of it all the time. My dad's friend, Robert, was the only person I knew that had SKY TV or any kind of cable TV. And he was also American and had a place in New York, so he used to tape Yo! MTV Raps for me. And I was obsessed with that and I remember all those films coming out like Breakdance and all the rest of it.
Phoebe: That was nice of him.
Benji: Yeah, it really was. And he used to bring them over and so I remember all that. There was an Arena documentary on BBC Two, that was made by Alan Yentob, which was about Hip Hop. And I remember just staying up as a kid and watching that and it blowing my mind.
You're a sponge at that age. I could probably talk for hours just about my influences, but it's not even that interesting to listen to, because the interesting point to take from it is just the fact that we're all our own thumbprint. I can't be you, you can't be me. The day that you're born, and the neighborhood that you grow up, in and your first clubbing experiences, and your radio experiences – they're shaping the DNA of us, musically, all the time. So, your reference points are probably more similar to mine than someone that's not from my city, but at the same time, they're still different. It's kinda interesting.
Phoebe: When was the point you decided that you were gonna try and make music your career?
Benji: I've been lucky, 'cause I've just taken one thing at a time. I've never really had goals and five year plans and stuff like that. I've just sort of gone with it. I would say probably around 16 because if this is sort of like education-based, this talk, then it's worth pointing out that by 16 to 18, my peer group and my friendship group was way older than the people I was going to school with. So the people I was hanging out with were 12 years older than me.
Phoebe: How come?
Benji: I don't know. I just sorta fell into it really, from being into clubs and having grown up tastes in music.
Phoebe: What clubs were you going to at that time?
Benji: There was the Jungle era. So, there was all those jungle raves and all the regular things and then outside of the bigger parties like that, the more specific promotions would be things like That's How It Is at Bar Rumba. Metalheadz at the Blue Note. Speed at Mars Bar and later on Garage came in, and House. We used to go to like Hard Times at Camden Palace and Jungle Fever. There's just so many different things. You know how in New York, you can just go out any night, if it's Tuesday, there's something happening, it was very much like that in London at the time, but with music and every single night.
You could go and see and hear Kenny Dope on a Thursday and then hear your favorite drum bass DJ and then you could hear a Hip Hop DJ on a Saturday and every single night you could go out and so I did.
Phoebe: How did you find out about things that were going on before the Internet?
Benji: Weirdly, more easily because the channels were more specific. So radio, raves, adverts on radio, pirate radio, specifically. But also just like Time Out. And flyers. You'd go to a record shop like Black Market Records or something and they'd just be mountains and mountains of flyers. And I think if you're part of specialist culture, then you make it your business to know everything that's happening. So, I could go into a record shop at that period of my life and look at the rack and know if there was one record in there that I didn't know, it's just like, "Oh, let me check that out," and then you'd take like a sort of massive stack of flyers and you'd know what was happening in the city, and who was playing where, and what was happening. It was a thing.
Phoebe: So, you were hanging around with people who were 10 years older than you. Mostly men? What was your friendship group like?
Benji: No, it was really mixed. I guess I was really launched into music world and hanging out with DJs and people who went out. Club culture. I grew up in real club culture. I grew up with people who go to clubs like that and Music heads. And also people who knew how to be in clubs. That's why I really respect the generation before me a lot, because they kicked the door down for us a lot. And they also come from a generation where it's more pure. That Hacienda, Acid House, whatever genre. That era of going out is...I can't really explain it. I learned a lot from hanging out with them.
Phoebe: Like what?
Benji: Fundamentally, it's the opposite of now. You go in there in order to not take a picture. Do you know what I mean? Certainly in the culture I grew up with, it's like, I guess in the UK we have a lot of problems with class and it was the one era when none of that mattered. You could be working class and be the biggest DJ. Some of the parties I went to were a bit like scary and stuff sometimes, and different. But that was part of the discovery of it and I can't really explain it. Rave culture - and we in the UK, used the term 'rave' to just describe a party - if you say, you're going raving, it means you're going out. It doesn't mean in the US where I'm literally going to like a field. Of course, it did mean that at one point, but then it just became slang.
I'm just saying that in terms of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, all of that stuff, it did not matter. Especially in terms of who was playing the music. The thing that's changed radically and nothing that I say in this podcast will be anywhere close to “Remember when? or “They don't make them like that anymore”, because obviously in so many ways, we're light years ahead of where we've been. But I have to say the meritocracy element of music, specifically, has gone backwards.
Phoebe: In what sense?
Benji: In the sense that in that era, the only thing that mattered was, "Can you bring it? Are you good?" It didn't matter if you were fat or thin or a boy or a girl, or whatever. Especially in a genre like Drum & Bass or Jungle. If you went to Metalheadz it would be like Kemi and Storm - two girls would be playing - or there'd be like a slightly fat guy in the booth or there'd be a white guy with a ponytail, a rude boy with a gold tooth. It didn't matter. What mattered was what was coming out of the speaker. That was the thing that got you respect.
In a way, that part is an interesting thing. My education was: “That's how I'll be successful.” Somewhere in my DNA is that currency - looking for that sort of approval from my peers. Is looking for that authenticity. My thing was: "Oh, yeah, you played good," as opposed to: "You became famous." So, obviously there's always been like massive 'profile' DJs like Paul Oakenfold or Kyle Cox, people like that who have become massive in their filled stadiums. They'll play to 50,000 people in Jakarta or whatever. It was almost like a product of being good at something, rather than press. Obviously the that modern incarnation of that is followers and whatnot.
Phoebe: So how did you go about becoming good?
Benji: That's my point, really, is that there was only one route to it and that was to really know your records and to really become good and have something to say, musically speaking. To just plug away. We're doing this podcast in a suite in a hotel, but when I was 18, if you said: "Come and play in this wine bar for free and I'll give you a drink," I would have been like, "Yeah." It's just that sort of plugging away and eventually getting the recognition of your peers.
I remember when people like Fabio & Grooverider or Gilles would say what I did was good, I’d think that was my payment. I think that it's fantastic that we're concentrating so much on inclusion and making sure that there's gender-balanced line ups, because it has been stacked the wrong way. It's been such a boy's club. but I do think that the focus on sort of, I don't know, all the things other than what it is that you do, takes away from the fact that that stuff used to matter less.
Phoebe: Yeah. I remember reading something by Zadie Smith about the era of London that she grew up in which - I think she's a few years older than you - but she's kind of the same era, same part of London. This golden moment, that was as close to a sort of multicultural utopia has ever existed, and will maybe ever exist again. I think that plays into a lot of what you're talking about.
Phoebe: In terms of the music scene, it was kind of a very inclusive time, I think.
Benji: It had to be. You had to come with respect. You're coming into the same shared spaces. Loads of people with mad different backgrounds and everything. It’s an exchange and a learning process. I won't name any names, but I just feel like so much media at the moment is based around auctioning off authentic culture to the highest bidder. You know what I mean. And it's like: "No, no. The point is you can't just pick up an experience and recreate it." You could do that for one night, for something like Paradise Garage or Studio 54, for a fun-themed party, of course. But you can't just recreate Twice As Nice in Dalston. Like part of it was going to The Colosseum in Vauxhall and having to not wear trainers. You're going to that thing. You can't make that thing your thing. You can't just go: "Oh, let's plunk it in a place that I feel comfortable."
Part of clubbing was going outside your comfort zone. It took me to parts of London, I'd never been to before. First club I ever went to was Hammersmith Palais. I'd never even been to Hammersmith before. Do you know what I mean? Literally, I'm gonna be getting on the bus and going: "What's Hammersmith?" I was 14. You know what I mean? The first time you go into a neighborhood that's not yours or whatever. That was a huge part of it.
I'm not misty- eyed saying overall culture was more advanced. It wasn't. Post-Thatcher, 90s mainstream culture was definitely not more advanced than it is now. We're in a much better place, now, in terms of turning on the TV or the radio and what you see or hear. But club culture is always been counter to that.
If you look at the history of New York - the city where we're sitting, the Garage, the Mudd Club, Danceteria, CBGB – all of these places created a collision point, that created a tidal wave that we are literally still surfing, now. Culturally speaking. And that happened because of that meeting of different people, uptown, downtown - all these different scenes coming together. That's why the Hacienda is a place everyone talks about it in such a misty-eyed way. I never went there, obviously 'cause I'm too young, but my version of that is London is where you leave your bullshit at the door and you come in. Those are the things that shape culture.
Half of the clubs that to describe from New York, I didn't go to, but I know they were celebrating some of the most marginalised people in New York society. Basically Black, Latin, and gay. And so the coming together of different cultures in places like the Loft, with Mancuso or Paradise Garage. The reason that those places are folkloric to people like me is because that's beyond just the music. That's exactly what I've grown up standing for my whole life, because of music. I've met all of these different, amazing people, ages and races and all types of people. It sounds almost cheesy to talk about it but that's the beauty of music and that's the beauty of club culture when it's at its truest form.
Phoebe: My father was a club culture journalist for years, so you don't need to sell me on the virtues of nightlife! I think, just being a little bit younger than you, I kind of feel that I came of dancing age at the end of that era. Or as it was beginning to come to a close and reiterating into whatever it is now, and I've always felt kind of sad about that. Because I understand or grew up with this deeply-embedded understanding of what nightlife and club culture actually meant to a generation of people, and how informative, educational, mind-opening, unifying it really was. It makes me a bit depressed now that there's perception of going out that it's kind of vacuous.
Benji: It's important to recognise that has always existed. What happened in the sort of late 2000s was that thing of “going out” or going out to the hip new place, or to the hype thing, or to be seen, or to get high, or to meet a potential partner, or whatever. That's always been going on, but also what's going on is this posturing version of going out. That's existed everywhere in London, New York, everywhere, forever, since post-war, whatever. Since the 60s, people have been trying to get into the cool place. But what happened was, at a certain point in the last kind of like 15 years, is that those two worlds just merged somehow.
So, that thing has become connected to this thing. I don't really wanna sound negative, because in a way, all evolution is positive. The best way I could sum it up really, from a DJ perspective, is - and I'm not necessarily saying that either one of these things is better. I could just sum it up as it being different.
When I went out to clubs, in the sort of height of going out every night, from 16 to 24 or something, I went out specifically in the hope that I would hear music that I'd never heard before. So, of course we all love hearing our favorite tune in the club, but I would go to the club thinking, "What am I gonna hear tonight?" Or I'd wait till the lights came on. I could probably afford one drink and the nightbus home I'd just be, "I'm gonna stay till the end," because he or she might play something that I've never heard before.
Now, people go out in order to hear the songs they were listening to on the way to the club in the car. Familiarity is king, now. So discovery is less attractive or less important to people, because they want to feel the confidence of knowing what the experience is gonna be before they get there. They wanna see the photo on their phone of what it looks like inside. They wanna see what kind of people are gonna be... That discovery thing is sort of gone. It's just where it is.
Phoebe: How do you approach discovery now that you're not like a starry-eyed 16 year old on the dance floor?
Benji: In pretty much the same way, but it's different because I don't go out for fun as much as I used to.
Phoebe: So, you still do go out to find new music?
Benji: Yeah, yeah.
Phoebe: How and where?
Benji: Exactly, that's the problem.
Phoebe: How does that work for you?
Benji: Well, for me, I've always done the same thing in terms of finding music. I go record shopping. The streams of discovery just changed, so it's no longer 10 record shops in Soho. It's now, streaming. It's iTunes, it's blogs, it's record shops, it's online. It's everything, so it's more complicated. But, in terms of going out, there's a certain healthiness to the fact that I don't necessarily know all ... That's the natural order of things. Whatever the newest, most cutting-edge thing that's coming out is not gonna be coming from me, because I'm no longer at that bleeding edge. You know what I mean? It's sort of, I'm where I'm at and so what you hear coming out of the speakers I play through, will always be true to where I'm at. But, it would be totally ridiculous for me to sit here and say, "Oh, there's nothing good going on."
Because, you know what, there might be some amazing party in Bed-Stuy right now that I don't know about or there might be some amazing party in Peckham or whatever that's just like the equivalent of what That How It Is or Deviation was. But I just -
Phoebe: Don't know about it?
Benji: Maybe I don't.
Phoebe: So obviously now you’re not just a club DJ. You still do that, but you do a lot of other things as well.
Benji: I always have, I think that's the important thing, I could never just be a DJ. I never went to university because I knew what I had to do for the job I wanted to do. I felt at that time, rightly or wrongly, that university would just set me back four years, instead of advancing me four years.
Now, I'm older and have a more mature view on things. I would probably think, well, actually it's not about that. It's about the people you meet, and exercising your brain in a different way. But at that point, in that era, unless you're really posh, or really rich or something, the point of the university is to kind of learn how to get a job. I already knew that my job was not one that you could get with a university thing and that music was not necessarily gonna help me either at university. I was already well on my way, because I was already working for free on a Sunday night at KISS FM in a live radio studio. Already had guest lists to all the clubs. I was that kid. I was just that kid. I was the cool kid that went out to all the things and da, da, da. So, I was already on my way.
In the summer, when I was doing my A-levels, there was a festival, Essential Festival in Finsbury Park, I remember. I got headhunted for my first job when I was still at school. Someone came up to me and was like, "Look, we'd really like you to come and work our production companies." A guy called Jez Nelson who is a radio producer. So, basically on the last day of A-Levels, I remember ... You know they do those exams that start at 8 M or something. I think it finished at 11 and everyone went to burn their books and write on each other's shirts and go to the pub and whatever. And I got on the Northern Line and went for my first day of work.
Phoebe: At the production company?
Benji: Yeah. And then worked every day, since. So, I've sorta been on this work one, since literally the same day as the very last day of education, I've been working. It's very easy for me to sit here and go, "Yeah, DJing around the world, fabulous, da, da, da."
No, I had a day job from 18 to 23, producing, doing this, what we're looking at right now. Setting up microphones and post production, audio editing, making radio shows. I was a radio producer for five years. Did well in that. I won this Sony Gold at age 19. We had to lie about my age, I think to the radio station 'cause it was like, you weren't supposed to be a producer unless you were 30 or something. But, yeah, I just really went for it at that stage. I was living in a way that I couldn't now, where it's 24-hour living, really.
Phoebe: The energy of youth.
Benji: Yeah. Going out all night and coming in and then making radio programmes. That was really how I got heavily, heavily, heavily into radio. But I've always done other stuff. On radio, DJng, production. Worked a little bit in the industry.
Phoebe: So, you wouldn't say that you had much self-doubt in terms of not getting your career in music?
Benji: I would say that I have loads of self-doubt, but I know there's only one thing I'm absolutely sure about and that's what I like in music. I'm useless in the rest of life, but in that one thing I've got a very, very clear idea of whether I like something, or don't. And beyond that, whether it fits into the sort of vibe of what I do as a DJ or not.
It's interesting because when you set your mind to something, you can do it. I don't think I set my mind to one thing specifically, but I don't think it's a coincidence that I used to obsess over the radio and in the UK, there's obviously no bigger radio station than Radio 1. So, it's kind of like, I guess it stands to reason that my internal compass point was probably set to that, and then you end up there.
Phoebe: If you're someone who believes for example in the Law of Attraction or visualisation that it wasn't even a conscious thing for you to have to visualise that. It was just your north star. Sheer laser focus.
I'm loathe to skip a huge chunk of your career as a DJ, but just to kind of bring it a bit more up to the present – obviously you've moved your musical career has veered into fashion. I just wondered if you could speak a bit about, it's a new chapter for you, I would say?
Benji: Yeah. Sound design or whatever kind of fancy way you wanna describe that world is not new for me. I've been doing that for a long, long time.
Phoebe: But it's a new application?
Benji: Yes. A new application. I've been in that world for maybe seven, eight years, now. So, it's relatively new.
Phoebe: Can you just talk to me a little bit about how you've had to adjust the way that you've applied your knowledge before to a new industry and a new setting.
Benji: It's all instincts. It’s all just learning. I just have a rule of thumb that I just work with people that I think are interesting, and cool. And that sounds really privileged but it's actually not. It's actually, really does you a disservice sometimes because you might miss out on a check or you might miss out on other things. But I just try and do that. I try and do things that are interesting.
It started on Savile Row, really. A couple of people there, I worked with on Savile Row and then I worked with a guy called Jason Basmajian who was creative director at Gieves and Hawkes and is now at Cerruti. The other side to it is that I've always had a relationship from Bond International days all the way through to now, Or Union in New York, all the way through to now, so I've been involved in the openings of the Supreme stores, or Stussy stuff.
More recently, I guess, what's better known is I was musical director of Céline for the last few years. And then more recently, obviously working with Virgil Abloh in his position as Creative Director at Louis Vuitton Mens. To be honest with you, it just feels really natural. It's interesting for me because it's learning a new discipline. It's absolutely not like: "Ah, let's just put three cool tunes together for a runway show." It's much more involved in that.
If someone started saying to me, "Oh, well, the thing is we've got 40 looks and the boys are walking at 10 second intervals” - that would have been a foreign language to me. But now I understand when people start talking to me that way.
So, I just did the Poiret show with Yiqing Yin last week and it was funny, there was a moment where they were talking like that and someone just looks at me like, "What?" But I would kinda lie if I know the difference between if models walk at like 11 seconds, or 12 seconds, and how many looks, and how long a show's gonna be, and the difference in dynamic between programming and music for eight minutes, 12 minutes that is like radically different, basically.
It's the same principle I've always used. I'm just digging in my own crates, really. It's like you don't realize you have an encyclopedic knowledge of music, until suddenly you do. It's not like I sat down at 18 and go: "I'm gonna have an encyclopedic knowledge of music." It just happens to be what I've put my, 100,000 hours into.
Phoebe: It's only 10,000. So if you've done a 100,000-
Benji: Or whatever it is, you know what I mean?
Phoebe: Yeah, you probably have done 100,000.
Benji: Yeah. I enjoy it. It's one part of what I do and I enjoy it in much the same way that I enjoy doing sound for picture or music for films. It takes a long time but I enjoy it a lot and it's become a big part of what I do at the moment. So, I guess it's just like anything. It's like the same thing of looking into the faces of the people you're playing to and knowing what you need to play next. It's not something that I can explain on a podcast or write a book about it. You either have that or you don't, and you get better at that with experience. About reading a room, or reading an environment or understanding what's gonna work.
It's exactly the same with clothes or fashion shows. “What's gonna work? Who's the person? Who's the girl that's walking? Who is she this season? Who is he this season?” And then I can only bring my taste onto that, but I'm not going to impose only music that it's like I would DJ out. You have to be objective in those situations. But I walk around with four terabytes of music on a hard drive, everywhere I go.
Phoebe: Just in case.
Benji: Yeah, that's what you end up with, isn't it?
Phoebe: You must get asked quite a lot for advice on how to be a DJ… What do you say to younger people now that are trying to break their way into what aspect of your career they want? Whether it's being a club DJ, being a Radio 1 DJ, doing a night like Deviation or working with the biggest fashion houses in the world. What would you tell people?
Benji: When I was a kid everyone was like; "I wanna be like so and so." "I wanna be the next blah, blah, blah." And I was always like, "No. I just wanna do what's right for me." So, in a way if there is someone who's doing all the things that I'm doing, I haven't met them. Of course, I'm influenced by people as everyone is, but it's important to do what's right for you.
To go back to your point about being on Radio 1. Being on the radio and certainly in the States, it means something different, 'cause people think of the radio in a different way. When I talk about the radio, we're talking about very specialist music culture, where there's no ads. There's no agenda. There's no playlists. If I didn't have a blank canvas to do what I wanted, obviously, I wouldn't be there. Like that's what I do.
Phoebe: Which I why the radio in the UK is still so special and it's hard to explain it here in New York, where we are.
Benji: There are loads of examples like NPR and student radio and stuff like that, here, but there's so much agenda. Not just in America, there's agenda in the UK and everywhere around the world like: "If you perform at our thing, then we'll put you on the playlist and da, da, da. And we represent this." I'm in this amazing unique position where I can just play what I want, so it's quite a big responsibility to use that power well. And so I've always tried to do that.
But, for me, that was the channel. That was my channel of discovery, so we're talking about education. So much of my education came from the radio. Came from sitting there with a pen and paper waiting for the DJ to say what the record was, or just sitting there taping shows. Boxes and boxes of tapes of shows. And so the time it took from then for me to be on Radio 1 - which is a massive radio station - in that time, the meaning of it all changed. So, the ground around me changed. In a way, I'm quite old fashioned. Even though I'm not old.
Phoebe: You're of an era that the rules of your career don't apply anymore-
Phoebe: Which is why I wonder what you do say to people who are looking to achieve your level of success. I think the younger people, everyone they might admire, the people who are culturally relevant right now, actually, established their careers in a way that is no longer applicable because it was done through channels that don't exist anymore, like even in your career, that's happened. So, I just wonder, if a 20 year old, DM’d or whatever it is, comes up to you and says: "Got any advice?" What do you say to them?
Benji: Well, first of all I try to encourage them. Like this happened yesterday. There's a guy here, whose younger brother basically like will not stop asking me questions. I love that because the energy's so pure ... He's so pure with the way he's asking me the questions. It's so genuine. It's not about how do I get on? Because basically, it's not the fault of anyone that that is now the context of how people are thinking. It's just what's around us.
So, people aren't allowed, in that field to be crap for awhile and be good at something. I'm sure I was. I'm sure that in the time when I was cutting my teeth, working how to DJ and playing in the Dome and various little clubs in London...I'm sure that wasn't good, but you're learning the whole time. You're getting better. I think that the culture that we live in at the moment is it makes people fall in love with the idea of something rather than the thing itself.
Falling in love with the idea of being a DJ is not the same thing as falling in love with music, or falling in love with records. It's important to have that love affair with something. It's important to fall in love with what it is that you're doing. And then to really allow yourself to really have the time to hone that craft. Unfortunately because of these devices that we're looking at right now, you will have to make more mistakes in public and refine it as you go.
But I think that the mediums have changed, so like before, it was only the radio way. You could get your message out. It's not that broadcast of thing, like I do want to be a good broadcaster, but really what I'm doing is bringing a combination of what I play in the club as well as music to listen to on the radio. That's what I've always tried to do and that's my medium. But I just found that medium because it's the medium I grew up with.
In a way, the medium, is less relevant than the message. So, I've sort of mastered that two hour format, because it's what I know. But, it's just the same thing as saying: Music is more relevant if you play off a CD or a vinyl, or if you play off of a vinyl more than MP. It's not. It's about what's coming out through the speaker. So, the idea will always be more important than the medium. It's about ideas, it's about taste, it's about authenticity. I think that it's harder to be individual in this world that we're in at the moment which is just pure sheeple culture of conforming.
If you think about the foundations of the city that we're sitting in, in terms of culture. It's all about countering it. It's all about counterculture. Now we have these channels that we're all following and everyone wants to look the same and dress the same and have the same sneakers. It's kind of a very different thing. think having the confidence to do your own thing is what will always set you apart. That doesn't mean like needing to be individual for the sake of it. Like what you like. But I can't speak about anything other than the culture that I know, and that culture is to sort of just really be true to yourself in what you love, in art, or music. If you do that then it's all bulletproof, but it's never gonna happen over night. It's just not. You can't take your time. You know what I mean?
Phoebe: That's a challenge for our age: to take your time. People feel there's so much immediacy to our culture.
Benji: But, also, when I talked to 18 year olds and 20 year olds, the kind of money people talk about and is expected is just completely a different universe to what it was when I was a kid. "Oh, yeah, I got this Converse gig. I did this Nike gig, but I had to turn it down, because they're only paying me a few grand or whatever." I was like, "What?" You know what I mean? It's a different expectation level and that's probably good in a way because people are kind of remunerated better and paid better.
But, to answer your question, it's a really annoying answer that I'm going to give you, but it's the true one, which is: “Do you.” You have to do you. You really have to do you, like I can only do me. Whenever I don't do that, that's when it fucks up. Like if I go into an environment and I'm like: “Oh, this is a bit of a bottle service club and they're just gonna wanna hear like the top 10 rap tunes or whatever” and I try to do that version of myself, it never works 'cause it's not that authentic. And if I go into a nosebleed techno club in Berlin or something, where I'm like, "Ok, I can do this." It doesn't work.
Do what you do and then that is a frequency of what comes out in the speaker that people feel.
If your trade is about being authentic in your chosen art form, then people can definitely tune into when you're not being authentic. 'Cause it's your responsibility. You're basically a mouthpiece. It's a lot of energy involved.
Benji: It's all energy, really.
Phoebe: Absolutely. What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Just that, maybe?
Benji: I feel like somehow you've managed to get every cliché out of me. I don't know why they're all coming.
Phoebe: Give us some more!
Benji: I'm sorry that I've turned into such a cheeseball interview, but it really ... Oh, God, I can't believe I’m about to say this! But, it really is not about getting there. It's about the journey. I'm totally OK with that, now. Like, I haven't been forever. There's no destination.
Phoebe: Just death!
Benji: No, no. There's no destination, and I'm the king of the shoulda, woulda, coulda. I think my advice to any creative person would be: Take what you do, seriously and don't take yourself seriously.
Phoebe: On that note. Thank you, Benji B, for speaking to us about your education.
Benji: I don't know how much education we spoke about, did we?
Phoebe: It was a lot.
Benji: Yeah. All right. Thank you, Phoebe. I hope you've got a good editor because that was a long ramble.
Phoebe: It was an interesting ramble. But wait, let me make sure I save it, now.
Phoebe: How do I do that?
Benji: Press stop.