Hosted by Highsnobiety Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency visited British DJ and radio presenter Benji B in London.
As Louis Vuitton’s first ever Music Director, Benji is responsible for the musical line-up on the runway as well as at the after party. Both long-time club kids, Virgil hired Benji to really create the rhythm and pace of the show and that’s a lot harder than many people make it out to be. Whether it’s working with Toronto band Badbadnotgood or Dev Hynes or with a live orchestra, turning runway music into a cultural moment is an art form.
He’s also worked with everyone from Phoebe Philo at Céline to Supreme and Stussy, and has produced tracks on Kanye’s Yeezus and The Life of Pablo albums.
We dropped by Benji’s London studio where we spoke about his encyclopedic knowledge of music, how club culture has changed and working with the greats.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Episode 5. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Welcome Benji B. We're sitting in your studio at London's King's Cross. You have your hands in multiple different areas right now. Everything from your Radio One show on BBC to working with big fashion designers, to still DJing during club nights. What happens here?
Benji B: Pretty much everything happens from here. It's my creative space. Everyone deserves a creative space in life, whether that's a bedroom, age 16; a record room, age 25; or a studio in your 30s. It doesn't matter where you are in terms of life or financial ability or creative success, having a space to go and create has always been very important to me. And the idea of the studio was that it was like a Swiss Army Knife studio where I only have the essentials.
I liked the idea in creativity that nothing should stand in the way of the idea. So that was the sort of manifesto for building this creative space. I wanted it to be like a fully functioning ideas place where you can just come in here and just get the idea out.
Between your regular music gigs, It’s been a big year with the added layer of fashion shows and events.
To be totally honest with you, the tempo is the same as it's always been. I'm a worker and I've never been afraid to roll up my sleeves because I'm lucky. I'm lucky to be able to create my own universe of work in which I am lucky enough to work with the things that I'm passionate about. And any of us that are lucky enough to do that should take the opportunity with both hands and live it. So the line between work and life has always been quite blurred, as it is for so many of my colleagues. The intensity of the last couple of years has been a lot. But as I say with some of my friends, we're always doing six jobs at once. And so what changes is really how many people notice or how much the pendulum of popular taste might swing your way. But we're still over here doing what we do. To me, a radio show that I've put a lot of effort into and has no guests, no publicity, and no hype is just as important as something that has the eyes of the world on it.
Where does that work ethic come from?
I think it's a cocktail of a few things. Both my mum and my dad work hard. They were separated when I was young, so it was North London throughout the week and South London on the weekends with my dad. Both households were quite musical. My dad's especially, and so I think I owe it to my dad's record collection from my first digging experience. It was the kind of record collection where you would stumble across Charlie Parker, but also Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Herbie Hancock etc. And the great thing is when you're a kid, you don't discriminate. You don't think, "Oh, this is jazz, this is rock, this is pop," whatever. You just think, "This is music".
My mum had quite a few jobs at one point. So I guess from an early point in life, I saw the necessity of providing for myself. I've never really had a handout or help. I've just crafted it from early. I never went to university. I did my first day of work on the same day as my last A-level exams.
You went straight in?
Yes. I got my first job while I was still in college through my connection with a guy called Gilles Peterson, whose radio show I really liked. I approached him and asked him to work on it. So I produced his show at Kiss FM from age 16, which actually sounds a bit mad now. It's super young. At the time, I was fully immersed in a world outside of school. And so I got headhunted by a production company at a festival. They came up to me and said, "Look, we really like what you're doing. When it's time and you're able to have a job, we'd like to give you one.”
I remember on the last day of school, everyone went off to burn their books or go to the pub or sign each other's shirt or whatever they do. And I got in the tube and went in for my first day at work. I understood that this world that I was into, DJ nightclub, musical production, broadcast, all of that, there wasn’t a course at university for that. The course is experience. And so I definitely missed out on the whole social education side of university but in terms of the education that I needed in my field of work, I was in the best school that I could be.
Finding an alternative family outside of home. I recently spoke to Blondey McCoy who told me the same thing.
There was a certain point between 16 and 18 specifically that my kind of musical and social interests weren’t reflected by people my age in school. So my family became a lot of music and club people that were actually quite a lot older than me. When you're that age and you go to clubs in the UK, you know the legal age to go to clubs is 18 but we all start going out at like 15-16, it wasn't hard. So pretty soon you get adopted into a kind of family. You go to the same nights a lot and see the same people, and I owe it to a lot of those people for creating such a warm and beautiful welcoming energy in the club world to a young kid that would go out on his own just to hear music. So I definitely had an element of family that was provided from nightclub culture for sure. That’s really my greatest educator in terms of people, culture, music, spacial awareness, and so many other things.
You would also go to those nights to hear a certain sound. People still seek that curation.
Yeah. And I mean I understand why. I never ever thought to myself I was going to become an encyclopedia on music. It just happened. You don't always realize what you're going to put your 100,000 hours into until you look back and realize you've done it. And so when I walk into a room and a music supervisor for a film says, "Okay, we're looking for something that's a bit like Massive Attack, but it has to be from Chicago and it also needs to reference such and such thing." I don't even need to look at my computer. It comes into my head already. But I didn't like set out to have that, which is the same reason that when I work with creative directors, I just listen to them talk and then try to translate that language into a musical language, which sounds a bit pretentious, but it's actually what I do for a living is like.
Someone can come into this room, tell me a mood board of like loads of shit that they want to communicate verbally and then they can give me some musical examples of stuff that they're into personally. And my head can create this rabbit hole of musical reference points. One thing will lead to another and then I'll usually end up with the perfect song or sound based on a spider web of different references.
There’s a power in having an encyclopedic knowledge.
It’s not about the owning of 10,000 records that's important, it's about what's on the records. That's where I'm different. These [Undercover x Nike] sneakers I'm wearing now will never be put on ice. I'm not a hoarder of things. Shoes are for wearing, records are for playing. And so I don't collect things for the sake of collecting them. If anyone is listening and fancies a job archiving a very chaotic record collection and digitizing a lot of it, shout at me. I did some work at Rick Rubin's place, Shangri-la, and it's one of the most inspiring places that I've worked, just because of how it makes you feel. And in there, they have an archive, and I haven’t archived anything, so it suddenly made me realize art's actually important because what's happened with my record collection is that, as the online world becomes more formalized with Spotify, Apple music, YouTube, there’s I'd say at least one third of recorded music on the planet that is going to go extinct because it doesn’t exist on those platforms. It doesn't matter whether it's a jazz record from the 70s or a gospel thing from the 80s or a drum and bass thing from the 90s, those things are not on those services. They're just on wax.
Do you think that music and fashion cultures are crossing over more and more?
I think that you can only talk about your own experience, but it would be inaccurate to say anything other than music and fashion have always been totally connected. They've always been crossing over. If I say to you, "Hacienda Club," you have a picture of what people are wearing, more than even what the record is. If someone said, "Hacienda," I'd be like, "Okay, the guys are wearing bucket hats and Lacoste polos." It's like there's a reference point to everything.
How is it creating music for fashion designers?
When I worked at Céline and I did the music for Phoebe Philo, the culture there was more that it wasn't spoken about, it was more in the back room and really what was focused on were the clothes and the show. I totally respect that. Then obviously working with Louis Vuitton and Virgil, Virgil is a master communicator. He’s a very close friend of mine so it's only natural that he'd want to shout about the work that he does, not just with me but with anyone that contributes to his amazing team of people. He celebrates their input and that's his style. So in a sense it's really about just doing the work and not really worrying that much about whether the mouthpiece is broadcasting it loud enough not, because if you do good work for long enough, after a while it will just be for yourself.
I'm incredibly proud to do the work that we do at Louis Vuitton, and what better situation to work with than someone who is as much of a music fan and for whom music is absolutely at the very core of who they are, as with me.
Music on the runway has its own power to it. I love watching runway videos on YouTube and listen to the soundtracks because of the way it makes me feel. Some powerful moments are Raf Simons’ last Jil Sander show, the models were crying and “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins played. Or Alexander Wang playing Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says”. Or Phoebe Philo’s last collection for Céline where she played Mary J Blige and Method Man. It says something about the time and the direction that culture is moving in.
Music can make or break a show for sure. But then again, I am dialed more into music than most. It can really elevate an experience or spoil it. Music, like everything, is just about context. The context of a runway show changes music and music's meaning, and music changes the show. The context of why Badbadnotgood, in that moment for Virgil Abloh’s first Louis Vuitton show in summer, and who was there, and with a [Kanye] record that had only been released the week before, all really draws on the experience. Both as a curator and as a DJ, it’s just about energy. All you’re doing is directing different energy in different ways. And if you can start to understand that, then you can really elevate the experience into something very special.
So the reason that you connected with that Smashing Pumpkins moment was because of the authenticity that you felt represented the person who was behind the collections. It tapped into an emotion within you that was like, "I feel like I'm getting to know you through this song." So the lyrics are less important than the emotion. Other times, a song is not really about the fact that it's like the creative director's favorite song. It's more about what the song is saying, and if that was an authentic thing, you'd tap into the words more.
Context really is everything.
It is, which is why for this [Louis Vuitton] show last June, when we knew that it was going to be in a real square in Paris, with real cafes and in a real setting outdoor in the shadow of Notre-Dame, it was like, well how do we DJ this? Let's DJ with it with an orchestra. And I love working with [Virgil]. I love his creative process. When you work with someone for long enough, after a while, it's just a case of trust. The process is always private, that’s for him to reveal, not me. But certainly, I can tell you that being in the Vuitton office the night before a show isn’t similar to being in any other company I've ever been the night before a show.
The vibe is amazing. Everyone is smiling, no one is stressed, no one's yelling at anyone. No one's crying or melting under the pressure. It's a vibe. Music is playing and everyone there is happy to be part of the process, the conversation, happy to be able to contribute, and happy to be around good energy. I respect people that can broadcast good energy. Virgil broadcasts nothing but good energy to the people around him. If you need proof, just look at the people that are working there or what comes out on the runway or out of the speakers.
One of my favorite moments of the process is actually turning up there the night before and playing the [runway] music as it stands. And you’re not playing it on a small speaker, you get to play the music in a serious Hi-Fi situation, almost like a club. This one was extra special because often I have to collaborate with an artist, which is an amazing experience in itself. But this one was basically a blank canvas for me to do what I wanted, using an orchestra.
What’s the power in that?
I never want anything to turn into novelty or repetition. It's always good to have the freshness of excitement and genuine wow factor. And so, this was the same thing but different, because I didn't want [the orchestra] to play over me DJing, so I basically found one of my favorite drummers that I knew could replicate all of the songs live. Even Ghetto Kyote, he played it live off the pads. I knew that the rhythm section would do justice to the sort of beats and baseline, which for me and Virgil and pretty much all of our generation is crucial. Then I managed to do music by by Nick Drake, Arca, Slum Village, and Max Richter. And then of course we did the IGOR's Theme as well. And we had to throw in a Kyote for the Grime heads.
To your point about music for runways, it's like 13 minutes can feel like three minutes or 30 minutes depending on if you get it right. And it's not about how many songs you can fit into 13 minutes. Sometimes it's just about one song.
To what extent is working with creative directors in the fashion world different than working with musicians? I take Kanye as an example who I know you did Sunday Service with for Coachella.
I see more similarities than differences. It's just that the discipline is slightly different.
With [Kanye’s Sunday Service at Coachella] my focus isn’t really on where you're standing or what the environment will be like. It has way more to do with what the music is. And what music will be sampled, covered, created, what the track listing will be, how it should feel. I've done a lot of work with him over the years. He’s without question one of my favorite, if not my favorite person, creatively speaking on a musician level because there's no cap. I have so many good things to say about the creative process of working with that person. He is wide open to creative suggestions and musically speaks a similar language. But again, there's a sort of code to the studio thing. Like I spent four weeks on it in April pretty much day and night. In studios, hotel rooms, cars, whatever. But what goes on there is more for him to speak about if he wishes rather than me. The work is always very intense, is often one-on-one. It's like a small studio as big as this. Going through ideas, references, samples, chopping things up, ideas of things to cover. Why, why a certain track should or should not be included. Like intense musical discussion.
To go back to your point about the track list, in a way it’s the ultimate curation. It’s what can create magic.
I've done a lot of tracklists [and] it’s just a DJ set. Years and years of DJing makes you good at that. So for example, like I've done track listings for concerts and it's pretty intense because it usually happens 10 minutes before the show with a Sharpie. But everyone works in different ways. For certain creatives, things only reveal themselves when the thing itself narrows into view. For other people, they can work four weeks out and know what it's going to be. And neither is right or wrong, but it's like some people have to be still sorting the music out as they're pinning looks behind the runway. And some people like to have it as a finished wave mixed, mastered and on their desk two weeks before. And I've worked with both characters.
I can feel that the passion runs deep with you.
I love that I'm still a music nerd, like my appetite for music is insane. If I'm on a plane for 10 hours and I feel like I'm not either sleeping or listening to new music that's coming to my inbox, I'm wasting my time. So it's like, yeah, of course I'm going to be able to tell you whether we should do sample Larry Heard for this or whatever. But I'm also going to be able to tell you about whether the new Arca album is out or not. So [making] Yeezus was an amazing time for that because a lot of the music that was being listened to backstage or in a car or on a plane, ended up being [sampled] in the records. Because it's just part of the consciousness. So like “Fade” is just that. It's just playing.
I'm interested to hear your opinion about the way that DJ culture now has infiltrated fashion to the next level. It's people like Peggy Gou, Honey Dijon and yourself. Do you think it’s a good thing?
I think it's great. Obviously the world that I've naturally inhabited of what is commonly referred to as streetwear and skate and all those influences that we've all grown up with from day one, that all stems from sort of like Shawn [Stussy] really, and the culture that has come down from that. Hiroshi, Nigo, James, all are relevant because it’s my generation. You know, the hysteria around the pendulum swinging so far towards streetwear culture is interesting, but it will still be here when that swings away again.
Someone like Peggy starting her own line is natural. You know, she's a creative, she's a producer, she's a DJ and she's also an illustrator. So for her to have the chance to do some design is perfect. Honey, Peggy, myself, the thing that we’ve got in common is that we are DJs first and we’ve dedicated our lives the craft. Us bringing that into the world of fashion and create nice experiences that aren’t just about having a glass of champagne with someone playing the Top 40 hits, its beautiful to be able to do. It’s never about forcing something to happen.
To round things off, what's one old and one new album everyone should listen to?
Jesus Christ. I really don't know how to answer that because it’s just so infinite. One old album that I always go back to when I'm traveling is “Inspiration Information” by Shuggie Otis which in a way is the pinnacle of Californian, sort of what I would call like soul and folk music. I don't even know how to describe it. It’s where the surfer meets folk meets jazz meets soul. And then I’m still listening a lot to this new Tyler record. I’m also listening to this new Baby Keem album. That’s a good mix right?
We discussed it all. Thank you Benji B.