Decoding the Art of Show Music with Benji B20 September 2019
An institution in British music - and the recently appointed menswear music director at Louis Vuitton - Benji B's encyclopedic knowledge of music has catapulted him to the top of his game and anointed him as one of the most sought-after DJs on the world stage. Catching up in his London studio, END. sits down with Benji to talk about the enduring importance of specialist radio, DJs adapting to a visual world and the unique challenge of designing soundscapes for runway shows.
On the postmodern media landscape - where brands live and die on the strength of the immersive hyper-realities they create - runway shows have morphed from industry-exclusive affairs into global marketing events. What once were small-scale productions for buyers and press are now prodigious moments in time with every detail carefully designed to build a self-contained world around each collection: a spectacle with the gravitas to reverberate across the internet, weaving a multimedia tapestry of brand storytelling, all flashing across a million screens in the blink of an eye.
One such timely example is, of course, Virgil Abloh's debut as the artistic director at Louis Vuitton Homme for SS19. Transforming the gardens of the Palais-Royale into a glorious stretch of rainbow, the world sat transfixed as Virgil penned his first chapter for the iconic Maison and everything - oh, everything - was meticulously planned for maximum impact. From the womenswear-iterations of the new collection worn by the fashion elite sitting in the front row to the colour-coordinated t-shirt invites which corresponded to each guest’s seat along the rainbow to the inclusion of international tastemakers Blondey McCoy, Lucien Clarke, and Kid Cudi as models, the spectacle was truly something to behold. And right there in the centre of the rainbow was Benji B, conducting an original score performed by Toronto-based jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD. The selection of classically trained jazz musicians with a penchant for hip-hop was an auditory reflection of the harmonious coexistence between luxury and streetwear; a tumultuous negotiation finally signed by both sides with Abloh's appointment at LV. The modulating key, which matched the visual pace of the collection's evolving colour stories, lay a buoyant bed of sound for the season's most anticipated show. The final crescendo which gave way to an instrumental cover of Kanye West - long-time friend and creative collaborator of both Virgil and Benji's - paid homage to the designer's anti fashion-bourgeoisie roots on the early streetwear scenes of Chicago. None of this was a happy accident. Make no mistake, this is an art form of its very own.
But, of course, Benji B's legacy in music and club culture goes back decades before this moment and his appointment as the first music director at Louis Vuitton Homme is just the latest in a sequence of well-deserved accolades. Coming of age when a self-made mixtape was only possible through the arduous process of stop/start recording on your favourite frequencies, Benji B's first love will always be radio. Borne of a time when subculture was more than just a buzzword and when we relied on radio rather than streaming algorithms to introduce us to new music, perhaps Benji B's strongest asset is the deliberateness with which he operates. With a list of collaborators ranging from Kanye West to Phoebe Philo (to name but two), Benji's knowledge and talent is built on a foundation of patience and perseverance and of knowing that – when all is said and done - there is no forward scrubbing in the DJ-game, certainly not at the level or with the longevity Benji B has achieved.
A fixture on radio in one way or another since he was 16, Benji B is a true credit to UK music and has segued with perfect rhythm into the age of the multi-hyphenate by deploying the skills and knowledge he has amassed over that past decades into new arenas; straddling disciplines including fashion and film to producing genre-defying albums to curating some of the finest names in global music to play at his iconic club night, Deviation. Set to return to London on 19th October with sets from Benji, Moodymann, and WAAJEED, Deviation has - in quintessentially Benji style - built a reputation as a cornerstone of London club culture from the ground up since launching in 2007. Testament to Benji's unmatched curatorial prowess, Deviation has earned the trust of diehard club-goers and music lovers by bringing together an eclectic mix of emerging voices and established names in a uniquely lowkey atmosphere, attracting guests including Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Skepta.
Over the course of an afternoon in his London studio, END. dives deep with Benji B on the art of show music and why his weekly spot on BBC Radio 1 is still the bedrock of his success.
A significant aspect of your career over the past decade has been interweaving music with fashion – working with Phoebe at Celine and now as the first Music Director at LV - was music for fashion shows always part of your plan?
To be honest, not exactly, no. My life in music has always been an organic evolution from one thing to the next. When I was a kid I didn’t think ‘when I grow up, I want to be a walking encyclopedia of music’ but that's what has happened through years and years of buying records. If someone says, ‘we’re looking for this type of music for this type of show’ I can very quickly catch on to the vision and have an idea for the music to go with it. As soon as I see the space, see the clothes, see the product, see the models and sort of see everything else that’s going on, suddenly I have a soundtrack already in my head. Music is about context: it’s about curation and it’s about timing. DJing and creating music for clubs has been real education in knowing what to play and when in the right moment, and applying that understanding to other areas like film or fashion has been natural for me. There’s not an industry blueprint to follow for doing music for runway shows. I just gave it a go. It’s ranged from me putting together the most basic DJ mix on those turntables over there all the way through to me conducting a live orchestra in the middle of Paris [at Virgil Abloh's most recent show in June for Louis Vuitton]. There’s been every possible version of doing music in between and that’s the joy of it: the variety.
Is there a specific way you approach music for a new show?
It's about laying down a soundtrack for something visual, and supporting the visual element with audio. At the CELINE shows, for instance, there was always an artist that was central to the collection, like Dan Graham or Philippe Parreno. It's about tapping into what that means. How does the art make you feel? Who is the CELINE girl this season and what is her character like? What’s the set design? All of these elements start to create a mood board of music. If you go into any creative director or designer's studio anywhere in the world, there is only one thing that is the same. There will always be a pinboard of some kind: a mood board of ideas and colours and looks and fabrics. When I start doing the music it’s exactly the same. I create a mood board of ideas which gets whittled down based on what the creative director is responding to the most, what he or she likes the most, and then what I think is the most appropriate. You look at each individual piece of music as you would pieces to build an outfit in the collection, and then you put them together in the way that makes the most sense. I've been lucky that the creative directors who contact me to work with them view music as vitally important and respect and love it as much as I do.
You’ve said in the past that DJing in clubs is about making people dance and DJing on the radio is about making people listen. What would you say DJing for shows it about?
Creating music for runway shows is about making people focus on the clothes. I’m not doing my job well if people are so distracted by the music that they’re not looking at the collection itself. The music is to support what’s going down the runway, not detract from it. If I’m doing my job right, I'm contributing to the perfect storm of elements: the right casting, the right clothes, the right lighting, the right set, the right styling and, of course, the right music. I wouldn’t ever say I’m doing my job well if you don’t notice the music – because of course I’d like for people to notice and feel that it’s adding something to the experience – but if it’s totally distracting it’s not doing its job. It’s about understanding that 13 minutes of music in the club, 13 minutes of music on the radio, and 13 minutes of music on the runway are all radically different sets of 13 minutes. It’s understanding how to use those 13 minutes perfectly to heighten the experience you're creating.
Amidst everything else you have going on; you’ve always been dedicated to maintaining a presence on the radio. Why does that matter to you?
Radio is in my DNA at this point. When I was a kid, late night radio was the discovery portal for specialist music. When I talk about radio, I’m not talking about the Top 40 playlisted radio that's on during the day, I’m talking about specialist radio which happens at night time. Effectively I’m talking about a fresh new 2 hours of music discovered and presented every week. Certainly, in my development in music it was the specialist DJs with radio shows who were the crucial component in that discovery process, so I think very early on my direction was set in the direction of radio. When I was young, these specialist shows were gateways into nightclub culture for people who weren’t old enough to go yet. Now you maybe experience nightclubs via Facebook or Instagram Stories, but back then you had to go to the nightclub in your mind by listening to the music that was played there. Radio is very important to me, I don’t treat it like just a vehicle to play records in any order, it’s important to me to have a 2-hour experience that feels like a mixtape. I’ve never been able to do shows that are purely music for the dancefloor or purely music for the radio. I like to reflect what I’m playing in the club on the show, but also feature the kind of stuff you'd like to listen to on a Sunday morning. Being able to present that mix in a meaningful way that flows; that’s what I’ve been trying to hone over all these years. And of course, radio is presented so it’s someone telling you about the music, too. It’s a medium that’s considered outdated by many people, but it’s still my preferred way of communicating music each week.
You mention that a lot of people might consider radio an outdated medium, what's kept you committed for all these years?
It keeps me on my toes. If I didn’t have the 'on-air' red-light pressuring me to get my act together, would I be so aware across all new music every week? I do 52 shows a year of all new music and that’s what keeps me at the cutting edge of what’s happening. Having a platform - a blank canvas on national radio - that allows me to support any kind of music I like is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I think a simple way to explain it is just to do what you know. For someone who is 14 years old right now, their discovery portal might be YouTube, or it might be a streaming service, but for me it was always radio. For that reason, I understand the format and I’ve always had a goal to have a radio show on Radio 1. I’m still committed to that vision. It’s amazing because people come up to me in Japan or Europe or America or wherever. People listen to the show on every continent and I still feel blessed that I have this as my main vehicle to communicate through music.
You’ve spoken in the past about how when you were starting out things were about credibility and not fame. Do you think that’s shifted in an age which is so fixated on visual media and when fame by any means seems to be an aspiration for many?
I think it’s important to evolve and adapt to every era and we’re currently living in a very visual age. Since the advent of the internet we’ve been living in a visual age and that’s ramped up with every iteration of social media to the point that now we’re at a stage where the most popular social media platform is just images. There have always been superstar DJs – they’ve always existed. What you see more of now is the pairing of superstar DJs and the visual medium more than the audio medium. People are mastering the visual element of things but they’re also really good at their jobs. In an age where we’re bombarded by the visual in an industry that’s centred around audio, it will always be the quality that shines through. I take heart from the fact that, yeah there can be great press campaigns and great visual identities created, but when it comes to music and DJing it’s usually the good stuff that cuts through, regardless of format. I think mastering the visual perception side of things is more important than it ever has been, but it’s not something to moan about: it’s something to embrace and adapt to.
I think it's interesting to hear from people who've reached the top of their industry about what they're looking to do next. Is there anything left you've not done that you still want to do?
I’m forever learning and discovering, I never want that to change… I just like creating so anything that allows me to keep creating. I’d like to not have an email address – that’s a good goal. Less emailing and more creating. More producing, too. I do a lot of producing work which I’ve not spoken about much. More music for film. Also new avenues of curation, whatever that might look like in the future. I pick projects based on the potential of being able to do good work. The centre of what I’m interested in is actually just doing good work, so I look at projects and say 'is this going to give me the time and space I need to do it well? Am I going to enjoy it? Will it be creatively rewarding?’ That’s the rule of thumb I stick to whether it’s accepting a DJing gig or doing a show. Style and music have always been inextricably connected: they're both about expression. I look forward to working more in both fields.