Ben Sims Doesn’t Trust DJs Who Can’t Dance
"If you've never lost yourself on the floor then frankly, you shouldn't be up there."
On Wednesday nights, the digital radio station NTS turns its knobs away from standard, linear mixes and on to Ben Sims. The decades qualified producer is known for his expertise on dance music's underground bloodline and his corresponding outputs of no-nonsense techno—ones earmarked for London's grittiest club chambers. His radio show on NTS, Run It Red, is a blissfully disjointed three hours of everything you weren't expecting, but everything Sims was. "I'm a DJ first and foremost," he says, clarifying from the get-go. "DJing drives me, production is secondary. If I wasn't DJing, I wouldn't be producing."
Sims has always aspired to be a DJ, trading his Tonka toy trucks for his first set of decks at 10-years-old. His initial exposure to DJing started at a young age also, back when the late British DJ, Froggy, played Sims' school discos in England. But Sims' end goal was never to be a club DJ. In his career's formative years, he hosted some of London's earliest pirate radio in the late 80s disguised as "Ben S." A club DJ has an obvious obligation to its dancefloor, but with radio, Sims was able to steer his sets in a personal direction. "Radio has always been important to me and Run It Red is a continuation of that interest. The theme of the show is simple: it's not a straight mix, it's a showcase of music—across all genres, but mainly house and techno—that I've been sent or bought in the month since the last show."
Unlike the hammering techno Run It Red radiates, his early pirate radio days were, at times, the ABC's of hip-hop—Sims' first love. "There's a rawness and an energy to hip-hop that resonated with me when I was growing up. I prefer the faster, rougher, and more impact driven side of hip-hop," he says. "Give me Big Daddy Kane aggressively rhyming over a heavy Marley Marl beat, with a side of savage scratching and I'm happy."
We're still talking about a techno DJ, here. Yes, the same one that evenhandedly encapsulated Detroit and Chicago's rich techno and house history in a mere hour with his close set at Movement Detroit this year. But just one play of a Run It Red episode is enough to prove that Sims doesn't DJ by any kind of rules. His cheeky song selection jumps from reggae to stripped back minimalism and has kept his peers side-eyeing his record collection for over two decades. "I still collect a lot of records and listen to a variety of genres on a daily basis. For me, it's all part of the same passion and obsession," he says. "Although techno is a big love for me, it's not the only love. I'm likely listening to a 70s roots reggae track or an 80s hip-hop classic as I am a fresh techno release. Since I'm not only exposed to one thing or one sound, it sneaks into my sets both consciously and unconsciously."
His own productions came later in his career, though not as an afterthought, but as the glue holding the pieces of his own DJ sets together. "The ultimate goal was always to have my own music on wax so I could DJ with it," he explains. "Now, I tend to do a day a week in the studio. I make notes on sets from the weekend or listen to recordings and try to create the tracks I felt I needed or were missing from a DJ set."
"I'll hear a bassline or a drum hit in a disco track or funk cut and automatically think of how I can make it my own," he explains. "I think that's a hip-hop or house mentality more than a traditional, techno producers way of thinking. I'm often more influenced by old records that I've collected than by machines."
Sims' meticulous blend of vinyl, CDs, and software has mesmerized crowds around the world, with Fabric London, Berghain, and Atomic Jam being just a few notches in his bedpost. Even in the dizzyingly modernizing world of music, Sims has kept up without having to rewire himself. "I'm primarily a techno DJ, but I've been a house DJ, a hip-hop DJ and more over the years. So all of those influences in sound and of playing music are still very music a part of what I do. Focusing purely on new music or purely on old music doesn't work for me—I need that balance and I can't do one without the other."
Although unwilling to debate the pros and cons of the social media beast on music, Sims claims he's happy with the changes in his techno realm. "People are really getting into the scene more and have a proper heads-down vibe on the dancefloor. Previously, I never felt that techno was hugely appreciated or at least regarded as the quality end of things, but there's a lot more interest in it now." He recently went as far as comparing the vibes at Stereo Nightclub in Montreal to that of Berghain, further validating his own pride and that of every Canadian ever. "I used to come to Canada annually in the early 2000s, then the music kind of changed and there wasn't the demand for what I played. So I stopped coming. But from what I saw at Stereo in Montreal recently, it certainly feels like the Canadian crowds are far closer to what I'd expect these days in Europe—far more party hardy and musically savvy than before."
At one point, Sims was juggling five labels—Hardgroove, Killa Bite, Native, Symbolism, and Theory, the latter of which he recently laid to rest. "I'm really proud of Theory, but it has run its course," says Sims. Since its establishment in 1997 alongside Tony Dax, Theory has had over 40 releases call it home before its closure in 2014. "Labels that are around too long can lose people's interest. There are exceptions, of course, but for me, I'm always looking for something fresh." To Sims, freshness is about revival rather than regrowth. His label Symbolism, which hosted dozens of techno classics throughout the 2000s, has been silent for the last nine years—that is, until now. "Symbolism is something I was happy with but had ceased releasing on due to distributors going bust. I still really like the catalog, so it made sense to see where I could take it."
You'd think that the end of Theory would be a welcome alleviation to some of his workload, but as one project closes, Sims opens another. His new party series, Machine, is in collaboration with Kirk Degiorgio and focuses on showcasing new techno in the UK. There are plans for expansion, including showcases in France. "If new music or talent doesn't come through and connect with people on dance floors, then scenes slowly die."
That ability to connect to the dancefloor is fundamental in most dance music scenarios. With Sims, it goes so far as the ability to dance itself. "You need to have spent time on the other side of the DJ booth to understand what being a DJ is about," he says. "DJing the music or technical skills is only part of it. If you've never lost yourself on the floor then frankly, you shouldn't be up there."
"You can't trust a DJ who can't dance."
Ben Sims new EP 'Crisco Disco Biscuits Vol 1' is out now on Karlovak Recordings, from their new series KRLVK. His new 'Run It Red' radio show archive can be found here. Catch Ben Sims at a Kabuki party in London at Dance Tunnel on June 12.