Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The last time I interviewed Benga, it was in his bedroom at his mum’s house in Croydon. Still putting the finishing touches to ‘Diary of an Afro Warrior’, he was itching for the interview to end so he could get on with watching the football. Four years later, Adegbenga Adejumo is still the cheeriest man in dubstep but a few things have changed. He wants to be a popstar. And if recent singles Icon and the lyrically porn-y Pour Your Love are an indication, he isn’t being shy about it. Previews of what’s in store on upcoming second album ‘Chapter 2’, both songs are firmly in the popstep mould of Katy on a Mission. No longer focusing all his attention on setting off clubs like FWD, it’s safe to say Benga has a different audience in mind – one who knows him best as one third of Magnetic Man or from one of the mega-festivals he’s regularly booked for. As Icon_’s message-to-the-haters lyric – _Don’t you drag me down, I’m gonna live my life – makes clear, Benga isn’t losing sleep over anyone mourning the loss of those alien beats he pioneered in the mid-00s like 26 Basslines or Crunked Up.
“Fuck what people call me or whether they call me a sell-out, this is just the stuff that I actually like.” Benga
“I remember a certain someone saying to me that they thought the record sounded too poppy,” says Benga of reactions to the new material with some politely displayed frustration. “But I’m not going to change the record I’ve just made just ‘cos you think it sounds too poppy. Fuck what people call me or whether they call me a sell-out, this is just the stuff that I actually like. What would be the wrong thing would be if I actually sat down and changed everything I did to make a pop record. But everything about the record Icon is so Benga, the drums are so Benga, it’s a joke. What more do you want from me?”
Still only on his second album, Benga’s follow up to ‘Afro Warrior’ has been rumoured for a few years. Having gone through several changes, it was initially set for release on Tempa – an early version was made then scrapped – but is now finally making its way out through Sony/Columbia, though Benga is adamant that his vision for the album has remained more or less the same – it’s just the label that’s changed.
“I haven’t looked at this album as I’m doing an album for a major so let me produce it like a major label record. I’ve just done what comes naturally to me. I wanted to write songs. There was a point where I was going to release it on Tempa but there’s a lot of things that go on around an artist. Some of the key bits for me was people telling me I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that and that if I do this, this is going to happen. But for me, moving over to Columbia, I just believed that I would have my music spread on a bigger scale. It’s not always the case that a major will do a better job on your album but I do believe that what I saw with Magnetic Man was that they spread it to a lot more ears and I felt that’s what I needed to do with this album.”
Set to be a more expansive affair than its predecessor, if he’s making a play for an audience that doesn’t care about his history, Benga is wholly honest about his ambitions. And if he’s happy to offend hardened dubsteppers, there’s still the sense that he’s playing by his own rules, even if they don’t lie quite where old fans imagined they would.
“I’ve been doing this for over ten years. I started to think I needed to make changes to my career.” Benga
“I’ve been doing this for over ten years and I guess towards the end of last year, I started to think I needed to make changes to my career. I started to get bored. I hadn’t achieved all I wanted to achieve and my ambitions started to kick in and I started thinking I had to change it, to get to a bigger scale. I don’t feel like I can just keep making the same stuff. One, I’ll be a hypocrite. And two, my own music career will just die. I can’t do that.”
You’re still young but you and Skream are both veterans. Is that odd?
Benga: You know what? It’s kind of strange in the fact there’s a lot of young producers in the game who are 19 and they’re seen as game changers but I have a feeling that I have to be one of the guys to move it forward. I have a feeling of responsibility. But I don’t know if it feels strange. I’ve never thought about it enough.
Do you see Skream as competition?
“We grew up with that competition. Every time [Skream] made something, I felt like I had to better it and vice versa.” Benga
Benga: We grew up with that competition. Every time he made something, I felt like I had to better it and vice versa. I can’t get away from the boy obviously, we do the radio show every week and I love him to bits, but we still have that competition and I think me doing this album is just going to accelerate that competition so much he’s gonna see the lengths and the hype I’m going to get that he’s going to feel that he has to do the same for him.
So it’s your response to ‘Outside the Box’?
Benga: His album was very deep. But I’m not going to say it is ‘cos it’ll cause trouble!
Who did you think about making tracks for when you first started?
Benga: If I think about who I was aspiring to make tracks for and be like, it’d be the likes of Slim Shady and Jay-Z, all these massive American artists.
Where do you produce now? The first album was done in your mum’s house in Croydon wasn’t it?
Benga: Yeah, I can still remember mixing E-Trips on these Mission monitors and my mum and my brother came in, saying ‘this is some weird stuff’ and doing these weird dance moves. But I still produce at home, now it’s just my own home.
Do you still live in Croydon?
Benga: I’m in Gatwick now. Just at the back of Gatwick. I’m a daredevil. I drive around in my car doing 170 MPH on the main road (laughs).
Dubstep seems to be in so much pop music now – do you ever hear certain songs and think ‘god, that’s terrible’?
“We were just trying to push things forward, and every time something gets pushed forward, that’s the true dubstep.” Benga
Benga: [unconvincingly] Yeah I have. Obviously, playing on radio and asking people to send us beats, I hear some shit where I think wow, it lacks creativity, it lacks music, it lacks so many things on so many levels, it’s killing me. But then I’ve had this conversation with Skream and we were saying that what is true to dubstep is that in the beginning we were just trying to push things forward, and every time something gets pushed forward, that’s the true dubstep. Like Dismantle coming along and doing something completely different, that is true dubstep to me. When someone comes along with something that’s like Skrillex or something that sounds like me and it’s mimicking it, that’s generic music.
Post-Magnetic Man, how much higher do you feel the stakes are for you?
Benga: A lot more rests on making the album. But it was a huge inspiration, making Magnetic Man and seeing what it’s done. It made me think, where can I take my music? If I just write good music and stuff that I think is creative, fuck what people call me. Because I remember when Katy on a Mission came out. No one can tell me anything about Katy on a Mission ‘cos when I played that as an instrumental, people were bugging out, they loved it. Soon as a vocal came on top of it, boom, ‘sellout!’ So I just thought to myself, I’m not going to listen to any of that. I’m going to do what I did with Katy on a Mission and write what is true to what I feel at the moment.
What have you been listening to lately?
Benga: The most recent albums I bought were Labrinth’s album, 30 Seconds to Mars, Ben Howard and I’ve also bought Tyga and Meek Mill, rap albums. As producers and characters, I think Disclosure are well beyond their years. I love them without a doubt. Sometimes it takes a lot of knowledge to inspire the kind of music that they make ‘cos it’s very deep, very soulful and they’re very young to be making that.
Tell me something about the album.
Benga: I can tell you I’ve got one track on there that’s 170 BPM. It’s going to throw everybody off. It’s not a dark record but it’s very different to everything out there at the moment. There’s a riff in the song that reminds me of “don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge”.
Benga: Yeah, The Message. It’s one of my favourite records on the album.