“I owe everything about my musicality to my city.”
The man behind BBC Radio One’s most specialist of shows and Deviation, London’s most erudite of club-nights, Benji B strides the vanguard of underground club music with everything he does. Trap sent Oli Marlow off to Benji’s East London studio to dig deep inside the mind of one of the UK’s true musical visionaries…
It’s weird how things in life can come full circle. One of the most arresting and personal experiences I ever had at Benji B’s midweek basement club night, Deviation, was back in 2009 watching the Dutch producer Martyn perform there around the time of his ‘Great Lengths’ album. It was one of those fortuitous, ‘I’ve lost everybody I came here with but it doesn’t matter’ type of moments, where you’ve become just another person caught up in a totally captive audience.
Tonight, at Martyn’s return to the midweek session three years later; although the venue is a little bit closer to Shoreditch’s Overground station – and it’s drapes that are cocooning the sounds rather than exposed brick work of Gramaphone, the club’s former home on Commercial Street – there’s a synergy between crowd and DJ that’s exactly the same.
Admittedly, it’s always been that way, a fact no doubt due to the close proximity of the two venues, but Deviation is the one club night this writer has frequented that’s always managed to attract the committed and most devoted of followers, those who’ve learned to trust the powers in charge to educate them and keep their midweek adventures in music a little bit secret.
Sitting in Benji’s East-London studio (one that’s actually got an N in its postcode) on a bitter winter’s evening, we’re a far cry from the humid, noisy environments in which our paths usually cross. It’s really quiet in here, clean and almost serene; an ordered haven that he busies himself tidying at a couple of points during our time together.
Flanking a wall loaded with the kind of big screen Apple products, turntables and other electronics you’d expect to see in the hideout of one of BBC Radio 1’s most specialist of DJs, he sits with poise. Visibly engaged he’s happy to look back over the past five years he’s spent trying to replicate the warmth and magic of his own early experiences in some of London’s most renowned dances.
“Club culture in its purest form is truly about being inspired by a generation and taking the baton and carrying that on,” Benji states animatedly, warming up to my rather haphazard line of questioning.
“Every generation of people have to have those educational kind of experiences when they go out and, for me, going out at that early age was not about getting high or getting off with girls – they were interesting side notes – and really cool ones – but they weren’t the things that drove me go to somewhere far off like The Fridge in Brixton on my own.
“I owe everything about my musicality and my taste in music and my experience as a DJ to my city and the clubs that I visited throughout my life,” he agrees.
“There’s no question that with my own club now, every single element of every single detail is something I learnt in and owe to that time. It’s something that I’m not borrowing, but that I’m trying to keep alive. That’s important.”
The reasons that this writer, like many others, holds the idea of Deviation in such regard aren’t really physical or malleable things. Sure, the custom-prepped soundsystem installed for each session is a massive part of why the actual sets are so enjoyable, but it’s the idea of that likeminded tribal mentality that Benji touches on so readily in conversation, the idea of a regular crowd that turns out week in week out, that really is a massive part of it.
Developing that club family, people you co-exist with in those types of heightened situations, is an essential part of the euphoria of clubbing in general. Talking to Benji, even though he admits his experiences were a while ago now, he still understands the underbelly of clubbing as a lifestyle.
“The thing about Deviation is that it’s nothing to do with trends,” he agrees, riffing on my own recalled experiences at Deviation, discussing landmark sets, the calibre of the surprise guests and especially Martyn’s performance back in 2009.
“It’s about recognising a thread that runs through everyone that’s committed to any form of art that has substance.
“Like, why did you have a different experience, listening to Martyn in a basement with 200 people on a Wednesday night rather than anywhere else?” He offers with rhetoric.
“The answer is simple: it’s because he’s playing in an environment that, at a very grass roots level, is the purest place where he can truly feel comfortable; a place he can really be himself without any constraints. An environment where the DJ feels powerful enough to have the confidence to go wherever they want.”
Similarly to his specialist show on BBC Radio, Deviation is, first and foremost, an advocate of new and interesting music, but it’s never been its crux. Despite welcoming names such as Flying Lotus, James Blake, Hudson Mohawke, Kode9, Joy Orbison, Dam Funk, Floating Points and their ilk, the ambience of the evening is as much set by Benji’s warm-up sets as it is by the guests. Free from pretention or the constraints of DJs playing 60-minute octane sets, Deviation’s always offered party goers a little bit of an upper hand, an access to a higher learning from DJs whose sets range in focus, pace and hue.
Even though it’s always felt like a little bit of an intimate secret that managed to avoid the more transient of clubbers, Deviation has never been that exclusive or cliquey in the way that you might imagine a regular, connected Londoner’s club to be. At its height, Deviation was booking unmissable acts most months, setting them up perfectly for a core audience hungry to learn and often it really did feel like Cheers – the place where everyone knew your name.
“It’s not financially motivated,” Benji states in no uncertain terms.
“When I started Deviation, the manifesto was very simple. It had to be somewhere completely off the beaten track, somewhere slightly out of people’s comfort zone. It’s hard to think of it now, as people are comfortable in the Shoreditch triangle, but where Gramaphone was, was out of the way.
“I wanted to do it on a Wednesday on purpose, because Wednesday is the hardest night of the week. I wanted to do it in a venue that had never been used for anything like that before and put somewhere new on the map. I wanted to bring my own soundsystem in every month and also represent the kind of music I play on my show because if I can appreciate all these different styles and find a thread that runs throughout them, then there’s surely more than one person who can appreciate that too.”
Considering the success and reach of Deviation in the last year (well attended bigger club nights in Paris, Berlin and New York and the bigger warehouse events they’ve been throwing around London to mark their fifth birthday) you get the distinct impression that his original manifesto worked. In talking to Benji at length, he’s very methodical about his justification and appropriation of it all.
Theorizing the affect and influence of his early formative experiences into the world of late nights, lie-ins and rum hangovers is all well and good, but there’s an immediacy and vitality to Deviation’s particular strain of incense-scented musical unity that’s pretty hard to ignore. You’re repeatedly welcomed by the same smiling faces and you’re free to go in and dance as hard as you want. You can stand at the bar talking, handing out CDs and talking up projects to the slew of recognisable faces inside, or you can just be there, drinking gin all the way to a slump at closing time if you want. There’s no pressure.
“In much the same way as if I went to any of my favourite clubs in the history of London, it’s essentially about trust,” he ponders, bringing his initial point on London’s club heritage to an unintentional conclusion. “I don’t go there because this DJ or that DJ is playing; I go there because it’s the night.”
Deviation has definitely cultivated a ‘vibe’ that precedes it, no matter where it goes. Bookings aside, it’s probably the most important thing it has got going for it, something Benji is incredibly aware of, letting it slip on more than one occasion that it’s the one thing he owes to his MC, Judah, to Alice and Zainab (and the team around him) and all those who’ve helped create such a welcoming, knowledgeable and ultimately addictive atmosphere.
“We recently did Deviation at Horst in Berlin and there was an environment that really reminded me why I do what I do,” he offers, stifling a knowing smile.
“Every DJ has that experience once in a blue moon, when you suddenly remember why it is that you love doing what you do; why you have the best job in the world and why you are the luckiest bastard in the world. But funnily enough, when DJing becomes a profession, those moments don’t come around that often.
“Hopefully, with Deviation, it is one of those moments [for the artists playing], which is why you can have Martyn just smashing it out of the park, or why you have Kode9 or Floating Points or Joy Orbison come through and play something completely deep. Because when you come in and look out at the crowd and you think ‘OK, this is a reminder of why I do what I do’, it’s the best feeling in the world!”
Standing at the bar in Concrete, Deviation’s current home in the basement of the Tea Building, a few weeks before this article goes to print; it’s obvious to note that the people inside the new space are a little different from the people I was screaming along with to the intro of Martyn’s ‘Vancouver’ back when.
The energy and intensity of the soundsystem is the same – truth be told the layout of the room probably suits it better – but rather than walking down the stairs and in on a thrum of bodies jockeying for position on the dancefloor as much as by the bar, where the conversing obstacles all stand firm, the whole venue feels calmer and a bit more clinical. It’s like, now the secret is well and truly out, there’s a new slew of people looking to Benji’s club night to try and find what I found so readily back in the halcyon days of Gramaphone.
Discussing the changes in approache to London promoters’ programming that have yielded this newer, possibly more internet savvy, wide-eyed enthusiastic crowd there’s a little bit of vitriol in Benji’s voice; not towards the people attending the night, but towards the booking-by-numbers, name DJ, headliner culture in which he’s now having to operate. Deviation’s strength was always in the no-frills, proper DJ manner that the guests were set up. There was a magic in the way the warm-up sets worked with the room and took you through multiple styles, sounds and genres to the heavy hitters, and the way the guests were put completely at ease and encouraged to go on and play however they wanted.
“I felt in the last six to eight months of the club’s lifespan, with the honourable exception of the club’s amazing fifth birthday event, that [the vibe] has changed,” Benji agrees, honestly, accepting my points.
“I feel like club culture at the moment is very much guest and name based, so that if you put Hudson Mohawke on, you’re gonna get a Hud Mo type of crowd; it’s just different. It’s funny because I’m a bit out of step with how big people are and how popular they’ve become because I still see them as people who are on that DJ wavelength.
“I’m a great believer that clubs go in five year cycles,” he continues, citing examples from his own personal experiences where his cherished nights transcended more into a catch-all term for a venue.
“For me, it’s very important that the next step with the club is to take it to the next level and evolve it, but to take that original ethos with it. To take it up a notch and really expand, but keep that feeling of trust, so you’ve got that regular thing back of ‘It’s Deviation! I can’t miss this!’ I want to get that back…”
In person, Benji’s acutely aware of the motivation behind my questioning, often reversing the roles and quizzing me on how I feel the club has changed, what I think about London’s landscape and certain DJs or artists. You get the sense that however fumbling or short your answer is, he’s taking it on board, processing the information and storing it for some later use. Aside from digressing into a discussion on people’s predilection for experiencing a club night online – his puzzlement in digitizing something that is a very physical thing that’s subject to whimsy and personal experience is an outlook I share – he’s noticeably keen to focus on the positive aspects of what he’s built and look to the future.
“What I want to do next is celebrate the fact that we’ve had some extremely memorable moments and touched people in different ways, and that our taste in booking is quite unique and has gone on to influence what’s possible on a larger scale.
“Next year the plan for Deviation is…,” he pauses, sighing a little at the task ahead as he searches for the right phrase.
“Deviation 6.0. Five years is the cut off. I feel that our club night has contributed something meaningful to London club culture in that time and, even though it’s a small contribution and the club itself is small, in my experience, all the very best things have started from that scale.”
Referring more to the power and reputation that trademark Deviation vibe brings, he continues:
“We’ve created something that you cannot buy, something you cannot invent or create overnight. It comes with time, investment and the love for a project. It comes with experience and with dedication in giving back to a city that made you. As cornball and cheesy as that might sound, when you take a lot from anything, I believe it’s your karmic responsibility to contribute something back.”
Catch Benji B on BBC Radio One every Wednesday night, 2-4am, or anytime via BBC iPlayer.
Words: Oli Marlow
Photos: Ollie Grove
With thanks to Danna Takako