In the last year or so we have witnessed a noticeable shift in what’s now perceived as
‘popular’ music. Dance music has eked its way into the mainstream, albeit in different
forms, and has subsequently catapulted acts such as Disclosure and Julio Bashmore from the underground to superstar status.
This is thanks in no small part to the work of Benji B, whose late night show on Radio 1 has been a shining outpost for all that is fresh and respectable in the current UK underground and beyond. His dedication to unearthing new talent garnered a level of influence among his peers that saw him join the team at Red Bull Music Academy nine years ago, and has more recently seen his monthly night Deviation make the switch from the humble surroundings of Gramaphone and Concrete to the larger XOYO.
How has switching to XOYO been for Deviation?
It’s been perfect, it’s been one of those things that was definitely meant to happen. In my
opinion, clubs move in five year cycles in terms of their life span and we had five amazing
years both at Gramaphone and Concrete. It got to the stage last year where I was thinking
‘I either want to take this to the natural next level, or rest it for a while until a natural next
level appears’, and XOYO was the perfect choice and the ultimate choice for a number of
Obviously moving to Friday night was the biggest deal more than everything else, but the
response has been overwhelming because not only has the hardcore Deviation crowd
followed us there, but people from around the country people come up to me and say
‘thanks so much for moving it to a Friday because we always wanted to come down but
never could on a work night’. And I’d never really thought about that before.
XOYO has all of the elements that are essential to my party being good; it’s still a
basement of course just somewhat bigger, still a great sound system which we tune every
month, we’ve had the same great line ups that we’ve always had but we’ve been able to
book more things across two rooms every night, and of course it’s club people running a
club. The change has been a big change but it’s also been a completely natural change, at
the natural time and it feels totally right.
So would you ever consider moving back to a smaller venue at any point?
Not at the moment, we’ve discussed doing little one-offs here and there in the future, but
I’m a great believer in residencies. If you look at the history of all of the greatest club nights
not just in London but around the world, they all have one thing i common; people who are
able to hold down a residency, a commitment, an investment in culture and nightlife. That’s
how you build things.
When I was a kid I was going out it was all about trust for me, it wasn’t necessarily about
headliners it was about ‘what record am I gonna hear tonight that I haven’t already heard?
Which DJ am I gonna hear tonight that I haven’t already heard that’s gonna blow my head
Hopefully we’re able to provide a balance between names that people already connect with, and respect, and know, and some new names as well. I’m not into crazy light
shows, I’m not into fancy bars, I’m into low lighting, good sound, great music and most importantly, a good crowd.
Part of the manifesto for me with doing it at XOYO was really to create somewhere on the
weekend map that my kind of people could go to, because even when I was going out on
a Friday or a Saturday in London, there was a lot of places where I really loved the DJs but
I didn’t like the environment or the crowd or the feeling. The vibe is the most important
thing to our nights, and that’s reflected in the kind of people that come down.
You’ve touched on bookings that you’ve made in the past, and how you’ve had to balance between bigger and smaller names. What with the success that you’ve had with the night,
do you feel a certain amount of pressure when making bookings for subsequent nights so they meet the same criteria that you’ve become known for?
No, I don’t feel any pressure because for us it’s completely natural. We’re never going to
book a DJ that isn’t a good DJ for a start, so it’s not about ‘oh this guy’s made this massive
track, he’s got a big social media presence therefore let’s book him’. I’m more interested in
DJs, which is why you see people like Kode9 playing, or Theo Parrish playing or J. Rocc
playing, or people from all sorts of musical backgrounds who have one thing in common,
which is that they can turn the party out, and communicate their message.
Those people that I just mentioned are in the same breath as some up and coming DJs
that you haven’t heard that can also turn the party out, so I don’t feel pressure in terms of
bookings, but I do take it incredibly seriously, that’s the thing that takes the most amount of
time, getting the line ups right.
But yes, you do need to find a balance when you move to a bigger place, but that’s not a
pressure either, because you build up a trustworthy name, as we discovered at our first
session at XOYO, where we didn’t announce the line up for exactly that reason. I wanted
to say ‘okay, the night is the draw, nothing else’ and sure enough it was rammed, we had
Maurice Fulton playing and it was a great night. So when you do things like that, it’s
always very reassuring to know that the night is the session that’s trusted more than
How would you say that working in radio shaped your general attitude towards music?
I don’t know if my experience in radio has changed my attitude to music, because my
attitude has always just been a love affair, it’s always been the thing that’s driven me, but
having the privilege of doing radio means that you have to be on top of your game, you
have to know what’s out there, and you also have to digest a phenomenal amount of
music, each and every week, so radio has shaped my outlook towards music in the sense
that I digest an incredible amount of music all the time. I’m lucky enough to have a real
strong idea of what’s going on in the music world, and radio is also a great platform to
express other sides to your other sides to your personality.
I’m not just going to play two hours of banging music every week, it’s also important to
reflect music across the board that works in a listening context, in a radio way. In that
respect, sometimes radio forces you out of your comfort zone and gives you the
confidence in a club scenario to drop tunes that are a bit different, and not just stick to the
same old stuff.
What role do you think you play to your audience?
I’m just a filter, and it’s a huge responsibility, because I’m a filter of music and we all
subscribe to different filters in our lives. An art gallery is a filter, a cinema is a filter, a
specialist street wear shop is a filter. They’re filtering your choices so ultimately they’ve
gone through the trouble of listening to, or looking at, or viewing all the crap and they’ve
filtered it all out into a selection of what they think you should check out.
I see my responsibility on the radio very much as reflecting new music. Of course every now and again I dip into my encyclopaedic record collection knowledge, and reference what’s
happened before, but my main responsibility has always been to reflect the now, in
electronic music, soul, hip-hop, house and everything in between. I see it as my
responsibility to reflect all of that music and give it a platform. So in many ways I see
myself as a curator of music, and I know it sounds cheesy but it really is an extraordinary
You have spoken in the past of how we are in a ‘golden age for music’. What do you think
are the reasons for such a boom?
I’m not sure what the reasons are, but one thing that I’ve learnt from being in music for a
while is that it’s definitely cyclical, and things that you’ve seen one time come around
again. I think the last golden age of British dance music culture was the mid to late 90s
and I feel like it’s happening again now.
I always recommend people not to fantasise over the past, and instead concentrate on what is wonderful about now. There in an obsession with all culture and art to romanticise over something after it’s happened and not give it its due props at the time.
At the moment there’s a generation of producers that are children of multi-genre listening.
Growing up on the tail end of drum n bass, early days of dubstep, or house or hip-hop, all
those things have gone into a melting pot and the younger producers that have emerged
since the beginning of Deviation are now a force to be reckoned with in their own right.
I don’t know what the reasons are for any golden age, but in all art or music, there are just
moments when the planets align and we are in one of those moments now. That’s not to
say that the music coming out everywhere is consistently interesting, with every boom
time, there’s a double amount of copycat records and average things being produced.
Now that this boom is coupled with our internet-driven disposable culture, do you think the rise of YouTube as a music library is a blessing or a curse?
It’s a blessing for all of us in the sense that it’s the greatest jukebox in the world. I tend to
try and view every development in both technology and culture in a positive light, and try
not to view it in a way that I’m holding onto something that used to be. But it is true that it’s
changed the perception of radio shows somewhat. My show is based on a mixtape format,
it’s an experience that flows if someone was to listen to the whole two hours.
But I think the average music person, because of the speed of online blogging, now views music in more of a ‘oh that’s cool but what’s new’ way. They want to hear the new record, and they’ll see that someone’s played it and they can check it out on YouTube, as opposed to listening to the radio for the purposes of radio itself.
For me radio was always the combination of hearing new stuff but at the same time it was
about listening to them put all together in a way that it might teach you something or open
your mind. So I think that YouTube has maybe affected the way that people consume
music in terms of attention span, and speed, but it’s also an incredible resource. I think it’s
affected artists more, and that’s had a knock on effect with me, because artists are now
super paranoid about giving music out early because of YouTube rips. They believe that
once their tune is ripped and out on YouTube it’s out in the ether, and I understand their
perspective, but other people view having their tune ripped from a Radio 1 show as great
promotion and a good look.
Going back to Deviation, do you have any favourite memories so far from XOYO or any
stand-out moments of the last couple of months?
One of my favourite sessions was when we had Mala in Cuba and Floating Points
downstairs, and we had my friend Ge-ology playing upstairs, and at all times when I went
to both floors it felt like a Deviation party, and that made me very happy indeed.
Last month we had a classic moment where Omar-S was doing his thing, and I went
upstairs and it was just going off. Seb Chew was smashing it, Radi Dadi played an
impromptu carnival-style set and it was like being in Notting Hill Carnival in the little Room
2 at XOYO, and some of Beyoncé’s backing dancers were down and they were just like
‘wow we’ve never seen anything like this’.
That was a really memorable moment, but for me personally DJ-ing wise, probably the
session with Jamie XX where I played for the last hour, and just put my foot through it and
the whole place went crazy, and I must say a special shout out to my MC Judah who was
the reason why the place felt so warm, he was the difference between it being just an
average club night and it just going off because he’s so welcoming and good on the mic.
That was one of those sessions where the lights came on and it was still completely
packed, we could’ve kept on going for another couple of hours easily.
Catch Benji at his next Deviation party on Friday 7th June with Theo Parrish in Room 1
and Palace curating Room 2. More details can be found here
Words: Lev Harris