BENJI B AND THE MULTIPLE FACES OF MUSIC

Benji B is a well-known DJ and a radio host in BBC Radio 1… But he’s also known for being the music director of Céline in the Phoebe Philo era and of Louis Vuitton in the new Virgil Abloh era. We talked with Benji B minutes before he DJed at the event where we presented our brand new Sivasdescalzo app.

If you ask about Benji B to a music fan, the answer you’ll get is gonna depend on where are they from. If you ask someone from England, surely they’ll talk to you about Benji B’s residency in BBC Radio 1 as a host known by his broad approach to music in all of its genres, styles and origins. If you ask someone from outside the UK, you’ll probably get an answer involving any of the multiple and excellent DJ sets he offers around the world.

But then, you can also ask a fashion fan about Benji B… And then you’ll get a pretty different answer. Because, without being a fashion head, he’s also known for working as music director for Céline in the Phoebe Philo era. Nowadays, Benji B has reached a whole new audience thanks to his new role as music director for Louis Vuitton in the Virgil Abloh era.

We talked about all of these with Benji B – about a little bit of music, a little bit of fashion, and even a little bit of art –, just before he jumped onto the DJ booth in the event where we presented the new Sivasdescalzo app.

You’re known as an avid vinyl buyer… Do you find any new musical references physically (in record stores, concerts, festivals and any other events) or has the Internet taken over?

Both, definitely. It is still very important to me to find physical inspiration. Record shopping is very important for me, but I buy a lot of records online now. That’s a strange combination: buying something physical in the digital realm. In terms of being interested in new inspiration, music is my food and I am always hungry. Just now, before I came down to meet you, I was listening to Spotify, and if I’m not listening to ‘new music’ or ‘discover weekly’, stuff that I haven’t already heard, I almost feel like I’m bunking off school, like I’m cheating. I exist like everyone in this strange cocktail of all of the above.

Don’t you think Spotify can be overwhelming sometimes?

For me it’s incredibly overwhelming. It freaks me out. Sometimes, I wake up and I just get worried about how much music there is in the world. How I think it affects me more directly is that, when I first started in the radio, I didn’t realise how privileged I was… Ten per cent of the music that I should hear would find its way to me. Because my show was like a channel, whether it be dance music or beats, it would find its way to me. But now, that is not the case at all. It’s really not. Because if you’re 18 and making beats in Buenos Aires, why the hell should you know that my show exists on Radio 1? The information overload is less funnelled, which comes with loads of positives, because it is obviously a more democratic time.

As a child, you dreamt of becoming a photographer, and continue to be a fan of Don McCullin’s work. Would you say his influence inspires your music nowadays?

I wouldn’t say directly, no. But he’s part of a huge spiderweb of influences that I’ve been gathering since I was a child. Don McCullin did this speech about the ethics of war photography, about whether you should take the picture. It really opened my mind. As well as being an amazing photographer, he’s also providing a service to history because we can understand conflict through these images. I wanted to be a photographer and do music, and in a way, I had to pick one. Maybe now you don’t have to pick.

McCullin was partly lifting the silence on recording the terror of war… Are there any people who are speaking out on similar issues right now?

Don McCullin is an interesting one on an ethical standpoint because your comment is your opinion on him choosing to give you the opportunity to comment. But in a way, his images have no leading statement to them. His objective was primarily to record… There are untold numbers of artists reflecting their experience in different ways. Do you mean in terms of politically speaking? It’s hard to think off the top of my head. Thom Yorke is always an interesting voice, so for him to be so vocal about Brexit is great. Matthew Herbert has done a whole Brexit project, which is really interesting; he’s basically spent two years with a big band making a Brexit orchestra.

Anyone else?

I don’t know who to single out really... I remember a couple of years ago I was playing music by Fatima Al Qadiri quite a lot. She grew up in Kuwait during the invasion. At a certain point, when the war was still going on, there was a game on PlayStation called Desert Storm, which was about Kuwait. So they had this experience of sitting there playing a game of the war when it was still happening outside, and she made a record about that. Those sort of things interest me, making art based on experiences. But I don’t think it would be right for me to single out one artist or speak for them because we are living in a time where everyone is political just because of the nature of what is going on right now.

What is the role of a radio DJ in 2019 compared to say the pirate DJs you used to listen to?

I think that we live in an era of information curation, so our role is more important than ever. In this information overload era, my job is to be a filter, it just so happens that radio is my format. The format is admittedly a bit old-fashioned. But it’s something I still believe in, that I put my 11.000 hours into. Recently, I did a survey through social media about how people listen to the radio. It told me that people listen with the intention to have the two-hour experience. It’s not the case of dipping in and dipping out, like when you are doing the dishes or in your car, it is very much a two-hour mixtape, so the whole idea is the flow and presenting music in some kind of meaningful way. That’s really what I’ve dedicated my life to. I am playing pretty much all new music every week, two hours of new stuff, and I have been lucky enough to break people over the years and a lot of people have come through the show. It has its own micro-ecosystem of artists and labels that listen to the show. I get feedback from people who listen to my show who you would just never think would have time. So I think I should turn the question back on you: is radio important or not?