I’m glad Benga has given up DJing.
Not for any reason of snotty schadenfreude, nor argument with his musical direction – that’s a complicated issue, which we’ll get to presently – but because it’ll probably be good for him. Beni Adejumo has always been a fascinating character, and though he was extremely adept at playing the superstar DJ – striking poses on album covers and websites, and being Skream’s partner in crime – there’s a lot more to him than that, which differentiates him from his old childhood friend and which means he could never take the same trajectory as Ollie Jones.
With Skream, what you see is what you get – the hyperactive, hyper-social workaholic, constantly barreling from one conversation to the next, one musical project to another, always ready for a joke, an argument, a recording session. But whenever I’ve met Benga over the years, whether alone or with Skream, no matter how hectic the surroundings are and how much he’s got his performance head on, there’s always been something reflective about him, a sense that part of him was standing back observing.
I’d bumped into him a couple of times before but the first time I interviewed him at length was at the start of 2008, when ‘Night‘ had just properly blown up. We met at his family home in Croydon, and at 21, even with six years experience of putting tunes out, he still seemed like a kid. He was full of questions, still bemused by dubstep’s growing overground popularity, intrigued by the machinations of the industry, friendly and funny. But then that night, watching him stride through the crowd at FWD>>, afro teased out, beads swinging, he looked every inch the superstar, super-cool yet full of enthusiasm, and it was obvious that he was up for the ride without question.
Two and a bit years later, at the beginning of dubstep’s truly maniacal phase, he didn’t seem so sure. I caught up with him along with Skream, Caspa, Rusko and Joker for a huge feature on the genre going global, and he was still the same gentle and wryly funny presence, but visibly older and wiser, and just a little regretful about having blown some opportunities. After Eve had repurposed one of his beats, superstars were knocking for collaborations, but he’d been unable to stop the roller coaster for long enough to play the US industry game properly.
This was around the time he’d spoken to the NME of repeatedly coming close to death from tour excess, but he seemed to be well on top of it, and in particular was glad to have his Croydon friends around to ground him and remind him that he was nothing unless he pulled his finger out and actually built some tunes. That same week it was the monumental Rinse at Matter rave where the video for ‘Katy On A Mission‘ was filmed, and watching him and Skream on stage they seemed on top of the world – looking back, they kind of were.
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Since then, though, Benga somehow seemed to lose his footing. I saw him at Outlook in 2011, and though he was in good form in person, his set was fragmented. As is well documented, I have no issue with tear-out dubstep – and indeed, in 2012-13 Benga showed how good his ear for the sound is with some banging releases by Pixel Fist and Kutz on his Benga Beats label – but this set was just a series of climaxes with no flow, nothing to connect them. Interviews over this period showed him no longer dicing with death, but still embracing being a man-about-town in Ibiza, pinballing from DJ set to party to DJ set to party, and it seemed that this was taking precedence over his work as a producer.
He was still making tracks all this time, but it seemed like there was no focus, no centre to it. His major label album, which eventually became Chapter II, was delayed and delayed, track listings mooted then changed, and when it finally emerged last year, it felt like it was stuck between rave madness and chart aspiration, and more to the point was way too late. That style of high-octane dubstep as pop music had already peaked, and everyone else – most notably Skream – was moving on. Ironically, for all the attempts at pop vocal tracks, it was the instrumentals – the funky as hell ‘There’s no Soul’, the techno of ‘Getting 42’ and the film-scores-in-waiting ‘Running’ and ‘Chapter II: To Inspire’ that shone out and showed what he was capable of. They were the exceptions though, and despite a huge poster campaign and expensive videos, the album did not sell very well.
“Retirement” is always a movable feast for musicians, but at this point a stepping back from all the nonsense of the industry is almost certainly the best thing Benga could be doing. Dubstep is in a much needed period of re-assessment and rebuilding after the ridiculousness of 2010-12, and hopefully he is too. If he wants some quiet, domestic time to start a family then more power to his elbow for making the clean break and doing it. And here’s hoping that while Skream gets stuck into the industry hustle that he does so naturally, Benga can let that reflective side of his personality dominate for a while and maybe get back to what made him fall in love with music production, and us in love with his productions, in the first place.
Here are 15 moments to remind us why Benga is a game-changing producer first, superstar DJ second (leaving out ‘Night’ and ‘Katy on a Mission’ because they speak for themselves perfectly well).
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(Big Apple, 2002)
Still such strange music, even leaving aside the fact it was made by a 14-year-old. It’s garage, it’s breakbeat, it’s dub, it’s none of the above, the rhythm programming is so on point, and the sense of wide open possibility is palpable.
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(Big Apple, 2003)
Again, dubstep in its ‘what u call it‘ phase – the galloping rhythm is like nothing else, and you can still play this now and have people demand to know what it is.
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(Benga Beats, 2004)
It’s all in the fine detail. Let’s hope that Benga uses his time off to check out some of this stuff and just remember how much it’s possible to do with so little.
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(from Mary Anne Hobbs Warrior Dubz, Planet Mu, 2006)
From Mary Anne Hobb’s Warrior Dubz comp and clearly showing the influence of Digital Mystikz, this is Benga’s potential coming to fruition. It’s all about subtle melodic hooks, and as with so much in Benga’s catalogue, would make for a killer vocal version.
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HATCHA & BENGA
’10 Tons Heavy’
(Planet Mu, 2006)
It’s amazing to think there was a time when people complained that this was too heavy and noisy and it “just wasn’t dubstep” any more.
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During this period, Benga would go in any direction rhythmically, as at the beginning no formulae were set in stone. Also: that garage organ.
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(from Pleasure EP, Tempa, 2008)
The Pleasure EP double pack might actually be the closest thing to a great album that Benga has made. The title track with the right vocalist could easily have been another ‘Katy on a Mission’, and ‘Benga’s off his Head’ is outrageously trippy. A good techno DJ could kill it with this zoned-out but superheavy beauty to this day.
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‘Me N My (Up In The Club)’
Essentially this is Eve riding ‘E Trips’ from the Diary Of an Afro Warrior album, for a hip hop meets dubstep mixtape that Plastician put together. It is brilliant, but a bittersweet hint of what could have been.
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‘Warrior’s Dance (Benga Remix)’
(Take Me To The Hospital, 2009)
The beginnings of Stadium Benga, it absolutely blows the slightly pedestrian original out of the water. I know it’s popular and easy to hate Benga’s big, crashing later tracks, but if he (and/or Magnetic Man) had become the new Prodigy, that would be one motherfucker of a stadium/festival act.
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DISTANCE VS. BENGA
Listen to the stutters and trick fills in the bass and drums – this is a mental record.
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(from Phaze: One, Tempa, 2010)
When Benga goes four-to-the-floor, he always seems to do it with real panache, and this one is just ridiculous. It’s the same trick he later pulled with ‘Getting 42’ – over-the-top EDM ridiculousness in the dynamics, but with enough reliance on the subs and enough hints of ghetto house to make it massive fun. Could imagine DJ Funk playing this.
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DJ ZINC & BENGA FT. MS. DYNAMITE
(Bingo Bass, 2010)
Overshadowed by Zinc’s massive ‘Wile Out’ on the a-side, this still stands up as a fantastically crackers bit of wobble-house, and again makes us wish our man hadn’t got so locked into the 140 groove, as turning to a different tempo seemed to fire up his inventiveness…
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TODDLA T FT. WAYNE MARSHALL
‘Sky Surfing (Benga Remix)’
(from XX, Ninja Tune, 2010)
…but then he didn’t even need to move away from 140bpm to get his mojo working. This stone cold banger, from Ninja Tune’s XX 20th anniversary compilation opens up a whole realm of what might’ve been possible – indeed might yet be possible – from Benga going dancehall.
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Joker was going through a bit of a trance phase here, and he clearly roped Benga into it for this piece of absolute ridiculousness on his own label. Hardfloor acid, rock bass guitar, crashing brostep and trance rushes: it goes overboard in so, so many ways. You may hate it, but just imagine what a world-conquering album Chapter II would have been if every track was as audacious as this.
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‘There’s No Soul’
(from Chapter II, Columbia, 2013)
Well, maybe it is more or less ‘On a Mission’ part 2 but who cares? It’s done with style, panache and a lovely, lovely groove. He’s still got it!
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