WHP FEATURE 021
“I’ve learnt about the world through nightclubs-” Benji B is talking on speaker phone as he winds through London, driving from West to East, the streets sparking off memories of iconic clubs that have long since passed.
“I’m now realising how unbelievably spoilt I was growing up, going to everything from The End to Bagleys to The Cross to the Key to Bar Rumba to Velvet Rooms to Complex to Subterrainia… The Blue Note! Fucking hell! I grew up in those places, they’re part of my DNA – I mean I literally grew up in them; I was 16 years old and getting in. They’re a part of my formative experiences.”
In shutting somewhere like Fabric you’re creating a brain drain. You’re removing the next generation.
This list of now closed venues hasn’t only been triggered by a drive through the capital. Along with many of his contemporaries, Benji is finding it hard to get his head around the Fabric’s closure. His forthcoming Deviation Party at Warehouse Project was originally meant to be a typical celebration of underground club culture – business as usual for the long running Deviation party. Now that celebration has taken on a defiant stance with the night being recast as a fundraiser for Fabric’s appeal process. Islington council may have pulled the plug on Fabric for the moment; for Benji and a huge amount of the clubbing community, that is in no way the end of the story. He starts to explain why he thinks the club matters so much.
“It’s an absolute fact that without Fabric x amount of 18 year olds are not gonna have that moment on the dancefloor where they go; I wanna produce a tune. I wanna be a DJ. I wanna start a record label. An immeasurable number of the inception moments for those people come from being on a dance floor, from having that eureka moment where a DJ’s music has rearranged your DNA. In shutting somewhere like Fabric you’re creating a brain drain. You’re removing the next generation. The closure of it is so immense; it’s almost like an untouchable giant. It’s huge man! It’s a big deal because of what it represents, in terms of the literal thing of ‘we’re losing this one club’, but also what it means figuratively for the entire club culture community in the UK. For me as someone who grew up too young to be going to M25 raves, but old enough to remember looking at the front cover of the papers and seeing the acid house smiley face, and all the backlash those raves faced – hearing the comments that came from that Islington Town Hall meeting that was the first thing I thought of, that Neanderthal ‘80s mindset of just not understanding what the kids are doing, and thinking, ‘oh if we stop this we’ll stop drug taking.’ That completely backward mood that’s utterly at odds with the upkeep of the United Kingdom as a cultural destination.”
those places where the music would keep going ‘til 10 in the morning and the people would be really friendly and say, ‘how you going mate, do you want some water’ – that’s what this culture’s foundation is based on
This passion for the club hasn’t been recently discovered - as Benji points out, he’s been going to Fabric as both a punter and a DJ since it first opened it’s doors, showing up on the opening weekend as a fan, and then going on to play in the venue numerous times, both as a guest DJ, and as the promoter and curator of the Deviation night. He’s seen trends rise and fall, slipping everything from broken beat to UK Funky to the new wave of techno into his sets, but the one thing that hasn’t faltered is his belief in the unifying energy of clubbing. As such he has little time for the notion that maybe clubs are closing because a younger generation is less interested in going raving…
“You have to remember that people can only choose from the options that they have,” he notes “– I always say this, but it really does my head when people, especially older people say things like ‘ahh it’s not like it used to be…” don’t underestimate people’s taste! If you give someone five shit options, they’re going to choose a shit option, because there are only shit options to choose from. It may be the least shit option, but it’s still shit. If you create four average options and one amazing one, I guarantee you the right people will find that amazing option and gravitate towards it.” He warms to his theme of the dearth in options putting off a new generation of dance fans from discovering what he considers to be ‘true’ club culture.
“If all of those places I mentioned before were still able and allowed to be open I wonder if people would still be engaged with going out. The more that you make going out about experiencing it on a live stream or a facebook page before you get there, buying a ticket like it’s an airline, and then being searched by 8 different bouncers when you get to the club, which is then a bit shit when you get in, a place where you’ve got to buy a bottle and the bottle has got a sparkler coming out of it – you know, that’s not club music culture. People are not into going out because bottle service culture has somehow infiltrated quote unquote “serious” club music culture. If all of those clubs I mentioned were still open and people still weren’t going out, then it’d be like, well it is what it is, but there has to be a correlation between the number of options people have and what they decide to do. Let’s look at Berghain for example – why does everyone in the world wanna go to Berghain? I’ll tell you why, yes it is special and it is a magical place, but how sad – and I don’t mean this as any insult to them because I fucking love Panorama Bar – but how sad it should be such a unicorn and be so unique. Don’t misunderstand me, I want it to be unique in it’s style and aesthetic, I don’t want a hundred Panorama bars because everyone should have their own identity, but I mean in terms of the energy, the freedom. People love going there because on a spiritual level it’s a bit like walking into the Loft, or Studio 54, or the Mudd Club, or any of those places where the music would keep going ‘til 10 in the morning and the people would be really friendly and say, ‘how you going mate, do you want some water’ – that’s what this culture’s foundation is based on; no racial discrimination, no sexual discrimination, no age discrimination, that’s what rave and club culture is all about. And when there aren’t enough places around to instil that feeling of freedom in people and to teach them that relationships are made and friendships are created and genres are incubated by these spaces… “
He trails off here, contemplating a city without an underground. But the gloom is short lived – his pessimism over Fabric’s closure markedly contrast with his pleasure at recounting playing this year’s Notting Hill Carnival. As someone who’s firmly entrenched in the music of the capital, Carnival fills Benji’s imagination as a pinnacle of British music – the place where you can go and hear the classics you’ve heard a hundred times, and love them all the more. This year he finally got to bring down a Deviation soundsystem, taking over a street for a party that- in another first- was broadcast live on Boiler Room.
“We had the whole of Powys terrace which probably held 6 or7 thousand people.” He remembers, relishing the moment. “Bart, our resident sound guy, put stacks of speakers staggered down the street so the sound was amazing the whole way through. For me there’s no bigger high than that – I don’t need to be drunk or anything, there’s no bigger high than seeing carnival popping off, it was such a positive vibe all day. I played Skeng at about ten to seven and I felt the street move when the tune dropped. It was like a Mexican wave of energy... Rhythm & Gash set it off as well – that’s the amazing thing about British music – you can play an instrumental record at peak time and it’ll go off..!”
Part of his pleasure at Carnival was likely down to this rare chance to play the classics. As a DJ, Benji has made his name from breaking tunes and genres, both on his Radio 1 show and at his Deviation residencies. It’s unusual for him to revisit an established anthem, especially when there’s a world of new music to look to – but he acknowledges that right now, he’s both cresting a remarkably strong era for dance music, and uncertain as to just what is going to come next.
“We’re in an interesting period – I think everyone would agree that we’ve enjoyed a golden era over the last few years that’s not that dissimilar to the era I grew up in in my formative years. If you’re 18 and going out for the first time now, there’s an inspiring generation that are coming out who are really true to the spirit of club culture, people like Ben UFO and Jackmaster and the usual suspects – it’s important to respect those guys because they’ve come through and done it with no compromise.” He pauses before giving the flipside. “But musically we’re in a very transitional state. There’s an incredible amount of music that sounds exactly the same; there’s a lot of trend following amongst clubs let alone DJs. There aren’t enough leading lights in club land saying ‘this is what we do and this is what we like’ – people are following trends instead of pioneering what they’re into and what ends up happening is like a football field where all 11 players of one team are following the ball.”
That’s not to say that he can’t reel off the names of the artists he is into, quickly name checking big hitters such as Joy Orbison, Kassem Mosse and Trilogy Tapes as constant favourites – and as he mentions them he starts to ruminate on what it is that makes them so very different, and ends up comparing them to dance music icons-
“What is it that makes a Mr Fingers or an Underground Resistance track stand out so much from everything else, even though they were made 20 years ago? It’s not nostalgia- I wasn’t old enough to be inside a club when they came out the first time round- it’s because they have the soul of a human inside them. That’s what I look for in music; I look for the human element. It can be in a track as hard, as dirty, or as synthetic as you like. People mistake soul; they think it has to mean Jill Scott. I love Jill Scott, but soul is also Dillinja. Soul is a feeling.”
So where is this soul to be found next? He hasn’t any answers as to what form it will take, but he knows what’s required for it to happen;
“The thing is whatever innovative genres that have come out of here, grime or jungle or punk or whatever, you can’t predict what the next one can be. The only thing you can do is create the best possible environment for them to grow and flourish. You could argue that clubs like Plastic People or Velvet Rooms were instrumental in the creation of broken beat and dubstep, in much the same way you could say certain clubs contributed to the development of drum n bass.”
And this brings us back to his opening eulogy for British club culture, which as he considers again, he expands out; clubs aren’t just part of his own DNA – they’re part of the UK’s DNA. As we close up, this seems crucial to recognise - in a country currently struggling to work out its identity, Benji highlights the one export we have nailed time and again – raving.
“I guarantee you that hundreds of thousands of people – if not the millions since 1999- from Italy, Spain, France and the United States and Timbuktu and wherever else you want to mention, have caught a flight to London just to go to Fabric! Club culture is an essential part of the UK, it’s part of the thumbprint of what makes our country unique. It’s a meeting place, an exchange of ideas and a celebration of everything that makes this country very special.”