"Special Relationship" isn't just a label for the cute friend you go home with sometimes. Presidents and prime ministers have referred to US-UK ties as such since the end of World War II. The Anglo-American connection is just as strong for club kids, especially those living in the dance music capitals of London and New York City. Both metropolises are financial and immigrant hubs, as much populated by breathtaking diversity as by douchey bankers. These sister cities have pioneered enormous swaths of contemporary club music, from disco to funky house, hip-hop to grime, electro to acid house.
Both cities have also suffered their nightlife ups and downs—a topic that London luminary Benji B is well-versed in. The weekly BBC Radio 1 host who took over Mary Anne Hobbs' coveted slot in 2010 made his first pilgrimage to the Big Apple over 15 years ago, and has a nightclub CV that begins in his teens. On the occasion of his club night Deviation coming to Brooklyn tonight for its first run at Output, we jumped into his cab ride between a studio session and sound check to talk about the state of today's UK versus US club culture.
THUMP: We've been reporting on the current crackdown on British nightlife by the Metropolitan Police, including the near-closure of Fabric. What is your take on the current state of UK clubbing—is it under attack?
Benji B: [Club] shutdowns are a legitimate concern but not a new one. New Yorkers know that feeling better than anyone on Earth—when Giuliani went to attack nightlife, [shutting down clubs is] literally what he did. We're in a real golden age of clubbing at the moment in the UK. It remains me of the mid-to-late 90s golden era. In terms of the music, nights, and DJs, it's anything but dry. Clubbing is alive and kicking in the UK.
So reports of a nightlife crackdown are unfounded?
The number of venues [shutting down] is a slightly different thing. If you move into an apartment above a nightclub, you can complain about the noise beneath you. It's just mad. If I wanted to build Fabric or Ministry of Sound underneath your apartment, that's a legitimate concern. But if you move in somewhere that a club already exists, how is [noise] a legitimate complaint? I had a problem with that during my Deviation party after Notting Hill Carnival—the neighbors tried to shut it down. Five minutes before doors, I didn't know if I was going to have a party and there was a queue around the block.
I'm glad you brought up Notting Hill Carnival. In London, it's the place where jungle broke out in the 90s, and later grime, dubstep, and funky house progressing into the 2000s. We have a version in New York City—Brooklyn's West Indian Day Parade—but it doesn't function the same way. It's strictly a celebration of Caribbean culture and you only hear soca and dancehall music. To what extent does Notting Hill Carnival still drive London's music culture?
It's generally acknowledged that the best Carnivals are Rio, Trinidad, and then Notting Hill. The first time I ever saw a DJ in my life was at Notting Hill Carnival because my dad took me there when I was 6 or 7 years old. I've only missed one since I was about 12.
Musically speaking, one of the most significant moments was the year they decided to allow static sound systems, and not just the ones on floats. Those systems play a lot beyond roots reggae, dancehall, and soca, but it's important to recognize that all of the music that you hear is street music. I'll play a lot rowdier at my Carnival party than when I play at Output on Thursday. I'll play garage, funky house, bashment, rowdy hip-hop.
Radio is another feature of London's music culture that isn't the same as New York. Your public radio (BBC) and pirate radio both drive the music scene forward. Here, public radio is definitely not the place to find cutting-edge music, and dance music-focused pirate stations are more rare. In a digital era, does radio remain important to London's club scene?
Radio is such a core part of who I am because I couldn't go nightclubs when I was 10 years old. So my education on the latest from Chicago or New York, rare groove tunes, or electro was from pirate radio. Daytime radio in that era was mainstream pop. That's why the dial would come alive at nighttime and on the weekends with pirate stations. Radio and club culture have always been inextricably connected. Back in the day, that's the only way you even knew where the raves were, and all the adverts for clubs were on the radio.
Is it still relevant? The mode of access has changed. As choice increases, curation is even more valuable. Now, massive tech companies and major record labels are scrambling to have their own playlist, streaming, or curated services. It's amazing how the pendulum of influence has swung back to the way we, as specialist curators, felt it has always been: the power of selection. Radio has always been that filter for me.
In America, mainstream radio has always been bad—that separation of stations into rap, rock, country, whatever. The only place to hear interesting music was college radio. New York City has an incredible radio history just in a slightly different way. I have to pay respect to East Village Radio—it's in the spirit of pirate radio. New York City radio also had one of the most exciting eras ever: don't forget Marley Marl, Kool DJ Red Alert, Stretch and Bobbito. The influence of these DJs on my youth in the UK is seismic, massive, and legendary.
What about New York City's musical legacy most captivates you?
If you gave me a time machine I wouldn't go see dinosaurs. With my fantasy period, I would 100 percent choose the Lower East Side around 1982. I have this vision of Afrika Bambaataa in the back room and ESG in the front room.
And what do you think about the present state of clubbing affairs in the US?
When you grow up in London, you [go to] club nights. You're not going to Vinyl the club, you're going to Body and Soul the club night. There is less of that culture in New York City now, and more of a culture to have a one-off party.
I believe in regular nights because they create community and give birth to genres. Like any brand, it's about trust. With [my party] Deviation, you might come liking house and realize you like hip-hop too. Output has such a great sound and is at the forefront of everything I care about with clubs. Until them, Cielo had the best sound in the city. But it seems like some really good stuff is coming to NYC.
The challenge if you believe in club culture as I do is to push it forward and to create the next space. If you don't see the club night that you want, create it.
You've clearly done that with Deviation. What keeps you motivated now that you're into your eighth year of the party?
My only real mission is to cater to whoever the 16 to 20-year-old version of me is right now. The worst possible thing is to sit there and moan about how kids are only into shit. People can only pick from the options they have; don't underestimate the taste of your audience. When I was 16 to 18, I had phenomenal taste. I didn't grow up knowing who Carl Craig, Frankie Knuckles, and Larry Levan were. I learned through the lineage of going to clubs. The first time I heard Kenny "Dope" Gonzales play had a profound effect on me.
DJing off an iPod over shitty sound is not club culture, but somehow that has seeped in. It's time to take it back to when DJing was pressure. Producers would slave all week to finish one track so they could cut them in time for the club. People should be taking the culture seriously. Club culture is an art.
When I started Deviation, I remember the idea was to have a monthly in London and a quarterly in New York. That didn't quite happen for various reasons. For me to finally have a presence in New York and have a Deviation vibe here, well—the first one in the big room at Output should be special.
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Win two tickets to see Benji B Presents Deviation with Benji B, Jay Daniel, Skepta and Martyn at Output tonight, July 30, by entering the contest below before 6PM EST. You can also get tickets here.