Benji B is the polymath’s polymath. When it comes to radio, he’s one of the last true champions of the underground still playing an active role within the mainstream. His weekly Radio 1 show has had more guests, and has covered more ground, than we have space for; his deeply personal episode of 1Xtra’s ‘Gone Too Soon’ on J Dilla is one of the best radio documentaries you’re ever likely to hear.
An RBMA stalwart, his 2010 chat with Moodymann is arguably the most notorious, and beloved, lecture the Academy has ever produced – even going on to get flipped on Blawan‘s breakout track. Somehow he even finds time to cut extended dubs of million-selling UK no.1s and get creative credits on already-canonical rap albums. Plus, naturally, he plays every weekend all over the world; I personally took a 13hr overnight bus from Chapel Hill, NC to catch him play alongside FaltyDL and Pearson Sound in New York once. There’s a lot going on.
The decade-plus of experience garnered from multiple avenues all feeds into his flagship night Deviation, a totemic staple within his hometown of London. With eight years under the belt, summing it up doesn’t come easy (although, Benji’s recently-announced XOYO residency series does a pretty accurate job). But we thought we’d give it a go anyway. In advance of his Boiler Room debut for an extremely special Deviation takeover, we dredged up a number of photos from over the years to the man, letting him guide you through the evolution of Deviation.
Over to the man himself.
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BENJI B: It’s important to contextualise what Gramaphone was, and understand how it was such a crucial part in the genesis of the story. I was casually looking for a good couple of years for a new space to do a club night; Plastic People would have been an obvious pick. I would find myself in Plastic People three nights a week, whether to see Theo or at Co-Op or FWD>> or whatever. But just because it was so saturated with nights, part of my mission statement at that time was to do something that was off the beaten track, and forge a new identity in a new environment. I had a clear vision of what I wanted: somewhere that hadn’t been used already; anywhere between two and four hundred people; and, crucially, a basement with a low ceiling. Plus, more broadly, a creative space that could be the physical manifestation of everything I get to play on my radio show, and club culture at large. It was quite a tall order.
I ended up finding Gramaphone on Commercial Street. It sounds funny to say now, but at the time that part of Spitalfields was just far enough away from Shoreditch to feel a little out the way. They had only ever done a couple of student parties in the generic, pubby bar space upstairs. I went downstairs and saw some broken table with two old Technics sitting on it – but it was exactly what I wanted.
Gramaphone-era Deviation was a really musically interesting time: people wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at some of the line-ups nowadays, but back then, no-one was putting Hudson Mohawke on the same night as Moodymann. London clubbing was not in a good place around 2005-6, I felt. Beyond the honourable exceptions like Plastic People, it was a bit dead in terms of progressive stuff. For all sorts of reasons, London club culture in the 90s was pretty much the most amazing time ever; I’m really privileged to have grown up, and come up, in that era. Amazing movements would come out the pure scenes of jungle raves, hip-hop parties, reggae nights – but by the mid-00s, I wanted to bring together those elements. Gramaphone was the perfect shell for redressing that balance, because it was an empty shell. When I first told them they gather some material and curtains and make a little space for the DJ booth, they just laughed at me. But after they’d had a few roadblock sessions, they thought: “All right. This bloke’s kind of on to something.”
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5th December, 2007
Kenny was one of the first guests we had; this was the third show we ever did, I think. I went to see a gig at The Jazz Cafe the night before – Platinum Pied Pipers, I think – and Kenny ran up to me like, [imitates Detroit drawl] “Yo Benji, I’m playing at your party tomorrow night.” So I go, “Yeah, that’s right. I’m really excited. Thanks for doing it.” For extra context I was especially grateful because, as Deviation began a democratic thing based on artist relationships with no sponsor, we paid everyone the same; having someone as famous as Moodymann come to play for me at that time was a huge favour. Anyway, we’re chatting, and pops a question: “What’s the floor like in there? Can I bring my skates?” I didn’t know if he was messing with me, but he does actually go rollerskating every Wednesday out of habit. So I reassure him about the hard floor, and he proceeds to turn up the following day in his skates – which you can see tucked under his arm – and play a sick set.
Because he’s so relaxed, both on the mic and playing tunes, it leads to seriously memorable moments. There was a point during this set where he goes, “I want to hear some Jay Dee – but I haven’t really got any.” He only had the Welcome 2 Detroit record on him, so I opened my box and pulled out a selection for him. One of them was Steve Spacek’s remix of “Eve”, which he had strangely never heard. So, being Kenny, he goes, “let’s hear it right now,” stops the other record and starts the Dilla track from the beginning. He was so zoned out on it, we reached the runout groove, which kept going on and on and on. He got on the mic and said, “My bad. I just zoned out to that shit. Let’s hear that again.” And he just reloaded it and played it from the beginning once again, all the way through. It was so funny. He just brings pure good vibes, and he’s uncompromising with who he is. He’s a true individual, and the club has always enjoyed a great relationship with Kenny.
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2nd April, 2008
Much like Dorian Concept, Flying Lotus and Floating Points, Hudson Mohawke was another one of those guys who had one of his first ever gigs in London at Deviation, in that very same spot. The very first time HudMo played there were only fifteen or twenty heads that really knew what was up. Obviously that grows the next time, and the next, and now he’s a fucking superstar – as here, which must be more recent. The important thing to recognize about Deviation is that there’s no separation for me between someone whose name rings out internationally or whether it’s this kid from down the road that’s making interesting music. I want them both just as much in the club. We view it in exactly the same way.
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2nd July, 2008
This has got to be 2008, although I can’t remember who else was on the bill. I used to play with Rich in New York frequently: he had a famous night called Jump N Funk at APT, plus we did a number of US dates together in 2005 to support a mix CD that I’d done. Everyone looks up to Rich – first off, because he’s the tallest person I know! But he’s an all-round awesome dude, and has definitely got more than full stripes when it comes to DJing. I said he’s underrated internationally. But obviously heads that know, know.
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3rd September, 2008
This was a classic Deviation night, with a real story – though there’s always a story with the music at the party. There’s just so much to say about this picture. I was on the lecturing panel at RBMA Toronto in 2007, and there was this participant there from Vienna [The Clonius], who gave me a CD with no track information, just like, “half of these are mine, half of these are by my mate from Vienna.” There was this one minute-long beat that blew my head off. I started playing it on the radio, and in the clubs, but I didn’t know what it was called. I just wrote “Viennese Shizzle” for my own purposes on the CD.
People ended up coming and requesting “Viennese Shizzle” at shows, and I’d have to keep telling them that wasn’t actually what it was called! It’s one of many tracks that were kind of developed through being played at Deviation: I’d basically do my own live edit of it every month, arranged on the fly; messing with cue points, looping up different parts, trying to make it flow for a dancefloor. A little down the line I got a dubplate made up for me, before it saw release as “The Fucking Formula”.
So this guy in the photograph gets invited down for what I think was his first ever UK show, and rests his microKORG – with missing keys – and PC laptop on what is quite literally a broken cardboard box. I can picture even now looking at the faces in the front row, just like: “Eh, what’s going on?” Even Jude turned to me and said, “are you sure about this?” And then of course he proceeded to take everyone’s head clean off. He had the whole place going mental.
Dorian Concept is a beautiful example that in life you should never, ever judge a book by its cover. Because this cute kid with an orange t-shirt and this Playmobil-style stick-on haircut – which is amazing, a proper Beatles-esque bowl – came out and murked the club. It was a beautiful thing to see. I absolutely love this picture.
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Date Unknown, 2009/10
There are a lot of people of a certain generation – like Funkineven here, plus Floating Points – who’ve been Deviation regulars for time. We’ve watched them grow up with the club, if you like, and mature into amazing artists. Full props to him, and that whole crew really, because they were on the dancefloor every single month at Gramaphone. Oh and that aesthetic: totally Stevie J. He’s been on that forever, vintage flying jackets and vintage leather jackets. That’s him.
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29th August, 2010 [Carnival Session]
There was a Carnival weekend where I tried to do Carnival West and Carnival East: one party literally at Carnival, and the other in a temporary Old Street warehouse space called CAMP. That’s Geeneus, who owns Rinse FM, and Katy B – and as you can see, a very young Katy B. She’d be at Gramaphone pretty much every month with this lovely little crew of close mates that she rolls with; I remember looking out and seeing them there all the time. Katy’s blossoming all happened very quickly, but this photo is actually quite early on; just before “Katy on a Mission” came out, I think.
It was a significant party actually: a celebration of Carnival through the years, programmed so it couldn’t be shut down as so many Carnival raves are. That session was unbelievably hot, maybe the hottest one I’d ever been to in my life. Zinc’s ‘Back to ’95’ set – technically flawless; sequenced and executed perfectly – had grown men shedding tears on the dancefloor and remains one of the best sets I’ve ever heard in my life. It was the year of “Hard” and “Hyph Mngo” shutting everything down. G and Katy I’ve always had a great deal of respect for, so having them on the night was a no-brainer.
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13th October, 2012 [5th Birthday]
Here’s Kenny again, with Flo – Viennese herself, funnily enough – on the left, and Tracy Mahogani, who runs his label, on the right. This photo was taken from one of the best nights, in my opinion, of the last ten years. The team that works with me knows that I’m the worst perfectionist in the world, and there’s always something that can be improved. I’m a stickler for detail. But I can honestly say, hand on heart, that night was a perfect night – if I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t change anything at all.
It was the Deviation 5th Birthday, and we rented out a gospel church in Hackney Wick, and took it over. We had to deal with the deacon and the priest and all of that. Two rooms with DâM-FunK, Kode9, Kenny, myself, HudMo just a few months before those big TNGHT tunes dropped – it was incredible. It was also about the heads that came out: Ma Dukes was there in that booth all night, for one. One of my closest friends Waajeed was in town staying with me too, and he’s always been supportive in helping balance out that kind of nervous passion you get with the big ones when juggling the liquor licenses, the temporary event notices, the soundsystems, and getting that sense of community right.
I ended up playing an ‘A-to-Z of Deviation’ set that night to a rammed room, from a mezzanine level. The sound was incredible, and all the Deviation classics went off like it was a concert: Maurice Fulton’s edit of “Love Endeavor”; Carl Craig’s remix of “Angola”; the Theo version of LCD Soundsystem – and those are just some of the obvious ones. Kenny might just have played the best set I’ve ever heard him play. It was a magic night. Really magic. It got to 6:01, lights up and still no-one had left, so we were begging the security to let us have one more tune. The security guard from the church turns around and deadpans it.
“No, sorry, we’ve got to start cleanup now, because we’ve got Sunday school starting at 7 a.m.”
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5th July, 2013
That’s onstage at XOYO, definitely in the past 18 months. “Shabba” was coming out the month after, and he premiered it at Deviation. Both “Shabba” and “Work” have been big tunes at the club, but polarising sometimes. It’s important to represent all sides: I love some of the tunes that Ferg‘s done. It’s significant as we always have MCs quite early on in their careers.
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16th October, 2013 [6th Birthday]
It’s important that we talk about Jude, because he is an enormous part of Deviation. At the outset I spoke to him, and was like, “I need a welcoming voice, a voice that I respect, a voice that I know knows music, and a voice that shares a lot of the same reference points that I do about clubs.” I’m not necessarily looking for a ‘hummana-hummana-hummana’ emcee that’ll ride every bar. Jude knows when to be in the way of the music and when to get out of the way of the music. He’s not conventional, putting on a voice and dictating to the audience. He’s genuinely feeling what people are feeling on the dancefloor. He’s a good friend, but he’s also a great litmus test. Jude’s opinion on music and bookings and sets and everything, especially in the intensity of the dance, is one that I value very highly.We are the residents, him and me. Credit to him: in almost eight years, he’s missed one session. That’s it. He has been there.
This would have been our sixth birthday – I can tell because of the anniversary shirt! That night we had Floating Points, Four Tet, Pearson Sound, Josey Rebelle. Friends and fam, all unannounced, taking it back to a Wednesday night – just as we will for Boiler Room. This photo that you chose is nice, because every birthday — in fact, some other sessions as well — he comes and plays a little selection at the beginning. On the birthday, I wanted to give him a set right in the middle of the night, to play some classics. Jude has got a serious collection, and no one should test Jude when it comes to record collecting and record knowledge, because he knows what’s up. Myself as MC and Judah as DJ? Yeah, it’s a bit of a role reversal. [Laughs]
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7th March, 2014
“Tarantula”, weirdly enough, is one of the biggest ever tunes at Deviation. Zomby’s music has been played since day one at Deviation – it was a natural fit. It sums up a particular vibe, and is reflective of a lot of influences, but has an immediately recognisable identity. That’s a hard thing to achieve in any sort of music or art. And I think Deviation’s the same thing: I’ll happily list to you all of the clubs that have influenced me over the years. And yet, in combining all of my best experiences, I created something which was uniquely its own thing.
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25th August, 2014 [Carnival Session]
The Carnival lineup is always different to a normal Deviation lineup. We do it at Paradise, which is basically the best party at Notting Hill Carnival that’s not situated within Notting Hill Carnival. It’s not complicated: find the best DJs and put them in a great venue that’s an easy two minute walk outside the carnival route. We can get Zinc or EZ doing classic jungle; Omar or soul-type DJs; Semtex doing Carnival-related music. In these shots you’ve got D Double E and Newham Generals, plus Roses Gabor and Toddla T. The line-ups are always nuts, and an opportunity to play more Carnival-related music, which is very important to me on that weekend.
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I can’t reiterate enough how, while Deviation is totally to do with people getting hyped about artists that they love, it is also a little bit old-school in a sense that it’s club culture based on community, and understanding what aspects are going to work well together. It’s a tangible and credible experience. Promoters in this day and age are all about self-aggrandising social media bullshit and tickets, tickets, tickets. Filling out clubs based on simple mathematics has been happening every Friday night forever. A key difference is that maybe today people are, to their credit, doing it with tasteful stuff and really good DJs. But the principle remains the same. That’s not exactly curation. The intimacy is not quite there, to be honest.
People aren’t trying hard enough. They’re too caught up on what’s on Radio 1 or Boiler Room, or even Deviation, or whatever. Something is happening at grassroots somewhere. Trust me: right now, there are some sixteen to eighteen year old kids doing something really interesting and unheralded in London. And by the way I think all of those names I just mentioned are absolutely awesome. But they’re also the reason that we’re really spoilt. London is the most spoilt city on earth, with all these amazing nights at their fingertips. Knowing that when someone like Masters at Work play, it’s not going to be the last time they’ve got an opportunity to see them – that breeds complacency, and it’s a difficult thing. If you said to someone, “Ah, Jimi Hendrix is back from the dead and he’s performing with Coltrane this weekend,” or, “John Lennon’s going to make an appearance,” there’d be some people that would go, “That’s awesome but we’ll check it next time; it’ll be back.”
Every single good club night in the history of time – be it Co-Op, FWD>>, Metalheadz, Body & Soul, and so on – were guaranteed to have started with fifty to a hundred people on the dance floor, and then spread organically by word of mouth. That was always the mission statement for me: doing it on the most difficult night of the week, in a place that no-one had heard of before, with a bespoke soundsystem that I wouldn’t compromise on. Unfortunately, Gramaphone was quite a basic club, with more than a few struggles to fix at times; I lost money every month. The best compliment for any night is when the identity is strong enough so that people come there with trust, and that Deviation became a hangout for creative people shows it really was a magic time. These photographs bring back a lot of memories. I mean, it was hard work, but it worked.
I guess the love is in the detail, right?
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– Benji B hosts a Deviation special tonight [Wed 4th March] in London, with some very special guests in attendance. Kick-off is at 7pm, don’t miss out –
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