From reggae to jungle, the original member of Horsepower Productions and early dubstep luminary shares some of the best dance tunes from his city's rich musical history.
Sitting down to put together an introduction for Benny Ill isn't the easiest thing to do on a Friday afternoon. Not because our mind's already wandering towards watered down happy hour cocktails and Simon Rimmer on Sunday Brunch, but because it's hard to put into words just how important Ben Garner is to London's contemporary musical history.
A founding member of dub and 2-step garage inspired group Horsepower Productions, Benny Ill has been producing music for over a decade under numerous genre-ascending aliases – whether it's the straight-up dub sounds as one-half of duo Bill & Ben, collaborative tracks with Hatcha such as Highland Spring, or his contribution to one of the most definitive tracks in dub-reggae driven output alongside Kode9 and The Culprit with Fat Larry's Skank.
A Tempa regular in both his solo work and productions as Horsepower Productions, he's recognised in dubstep's history as one of the early pioneers of the genre, with four of his productions under various guises appearing on the label's 'The Roots Of Dubstep' compilation, expertly put together in 2006 by Blackdown. Helping to put South London on the map as the spiritual home of dubstep, we caught up with the London pioneer ahead of tonight's set at Oneman's XOYO residency to run through some of what he sees as the best dance tunes to come from London town, which (in no particular order) span all the way from '70s homegrown reggae, to '80s cosmic disco, and the more rough-and-tumble sounds of '90s house, garage, and jungle.
Read through Benny's selections below, and listen seamlessly via our YouTube playlist.
Benny Ill: "The outstanding London funk/disco outfit "Atmosfear" released this dancefloor classic in 1979. The tune became immortalised as an underground favourite, championed by many cult DJs at the time, including Larry Levan at iconic NYC disco club, Paradise Garage. Resurfacing in London's 'rare groove' scene of the late '80s, the records popularity continued from strength to strength, and much later attracted superb new versions from dance music luminaries Kenny Gonzales and Louis Vega (Masters at Work). A firm favourite with the Horsepower gang, this gem is set to remain in the "party classics box" for a very long time!"
Benny Ill: "The so-called 'Summer of Love' in 1988 was for many, the start of the London rave scene, and was based largely on imported techno and acid house music from the U.S.A. By 1989, however, the U.K. had begun to spring its own homegrown versions of the hypnotic dance groove, and the rest, as they say, is history...
This record by East London outfit Quartz was one of those tunes that took over the city and was on heavy rotation at raves, clubs, pirate radio, and car stereos everywhere. As such, it well represents the spirit of those heady days, but equally, it marked a new beginning for the U.K.'s own particular brand of underground music, with its unique production style clearly influencing many releases to come.
"We are about to take you into the world...of the LSD user." Very apt."
Benny Ill: "Onward to 1990 and sound sampling geniuses Smiley and P.J., who created this bonafide nugget. Having already scored underground hits with their debut 5,6,7,8 and such tunes as £10 To Get In that epitomised rave culture at the time, the duo went on to produce this record, featuring the Ragga Twins on vocal duties. Typically for this groundbreaking team, a clever use of a well known music hook (that particularly catchy riff from the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams) in combination with a heavy dance beat and a reggae style vocal intro was a sure shot at the time, and represents something of a milestone in the fusion of different cultural music styles that are still recognisable today.
"All the little acid people them, gonna love it!" And so they did."
Benny Ill: "Another piece that perfectly reflects the spirit around the time of its release – this remarkable tune from 1991 was originally presented by London's Reel II Reel Productions team, who had already gained underground success with their stamped white label releases. A pinnacle in its use of the now famous "Amen Brother" break originally championed by U.S. hip hop samplists, the track is considered by some to mark the start of the genre known as jungle. Whatever you believe, the particular style of usage of that inimitable drum break in combination with a reggae baseline and atmospheric sample clips certainly opened up a new chapter in dance music history.
"Gunshot means forward, lick wood means rewind" and rewinds were aplenty!"
Benny Ill: "This 1978 anthem from Brixtonian Eddy Grant was another London-made tune to make it into the box of esteemed players from Paradise Garage NYC, and like many of the 12" dance tunes championed in that era, it continues to enjoy golden status as a disco classic. A particularly suitable subject for a song conceived in Brixton, the narrative describes a little of the sufferer's life at that time and with reference to the famous "Frontline" (Railton Road) – a place which also became known to me personally as a kid growing up in South London. The synthesiser bassline cuts through with a lot of energy, allowing it to retain some impact alongside today's dance cuts. The instrumental Frontline Symphony is a classic in its own right and continues the groove accompanied with synthesised orchestrations, and on certain times of playing when the crowd are really locked into the groove, I've been known to leave the record running right through the vocal version and onto the dub."
Benny Ill: "Although this London group went on to increasingly greater popularity in global terms, according to many, their debut 12" in 1989, Fairplay (featuring the beautiful vocals of Rose Windross), eclipses their later and better-known releases and remains a firm favourite with the original fans. The legendary Soul II Soul nights at the Africa Centre in London's Covent Garden and later at The Fridge, Brixton were inspirational to many at the time (including myself) and this record represents a perfect snapshot of the period. The song also featured on their bestselling 'Club Classics Vol. 1' LP, which is one of a very few British R&B records to make it big across the pond and achieve a high status in the nascent scene of the genre it sprung from. No mean feat indeed, and somewhat akin to selling sand in the desert."
Benny Ill: "Spawning many underground hits on the American disco and funk scenes of the '70s and '80s, South London's finest funk outfit Cymande also provided the backdrop for a good deal of '90s hip hop (in sampled form) and thus became worshipped by sound sampling enthusiasts across the globe. Their unique combination of funk, soul, reggae and African rhythms, plus the musicianship and originality of their many classic releases, provides them with a special place in the hearts of music lovers worldwide. Which tune to better describe this than 1972's spellbinding Dove, an emotional 10-minute epic taken from their self-titled album of that year, which displays their mastery to the fullest. The fact that many extended and edited versions of their songs are still evident on record shelves today is a testament to their universal appeal.
The traditionally strong Reggae scene in London inspires me to include this title, and because there is so much to choose from I'm going to go with a huge personal favourite."
Benny Ill: "The 1976 7" debut from West London's "Aswad" depicts the urban suffering of that time period, and its message still carries a strong poignancy for today's listener. In fact, it sometimes seems we haven't come that far at all in terms of police and public relations. But enough politics, for now, and let's consider the musical aspect. Aswad was introduced to me via their seminal 1983 LP 'Live and Direct', which was recorded live at the Notting Hill Carnival of that same year. London's carnival holds a great importance to the history of underground music in the capital, not least to myself, being an avid attendee since a young age, and this record represents for me a perfect slice of its pervading atmosphere. Not exactly a dancefloor filler today but performed to a knowledgeable crowd the reaction is electric."
Benny Ill: "I couldn't provide a London 10 best without including a true jungle dancefloor bullet and 1994's Screwface 2 by Dubtronix fits the bill perfectly. More familiar to some for his output as a celebrated house and garage producer, Jeremy Sylvester, similarly to others in the UKG scene had earlier productions in the field of jungle music. This fine example contains one of my favourite movie samples ever, extracted from the Steven Seagal flick Marked For Death. Amongst the production tricks employed in this title, it shows one of the better examples of the sound sampling technique 'time stretch' popularised in that genre. But where is Screwface 1? I hear you ask. Is this a rare example of a sequel eclipsing the original? The true answer is probably only known to Mr. Sylvester himself, but my guess is it was numbered as "2" to distinguish this track from a similarly titled release at the time."
Benny Ill: "Forward to 1998 and some material that may be more familiar to younger ears. A little history is required here to explain: garage house music, born in the clubs of New York, quickly found it's way onto the London scene, and in a similar fashion to acid house, we soon responded with our unique take. By '98 "U.K. garage" was the sound of the city and its 2-step variant was the latest vibe. Enter West London's M-Dubs (not to be confused with the more famous but inferior N-Dubz!!) who had many great tracks in the 2-step style, and their signature minimal but infectious grooves. Again with this one, it was hard to go anywhere in town at that time without hearing it, being particularly massive at that year's NHC. The golden voice of Richie Dan and that catchy little piece of female vox ensured its status as a classic. Known (incorrectly) to some as Iron Mike, the record earned this unofficial title in the fine tradition of Chinese whispers, like the jungle favourite known as Nicholas Parsons (which is really Satin Storm's I Think I'm Going Outta My Head)."
Horsepower Productions play as part of Oneman's 13-week residency at XOYO on September 23rd alongside Digital Mystikz, Youngsta, Plastician, Chef, and SGT Pokes (tickets).