Rhythm Nation Part 2: Benga

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Deep, dubby, cheeky, metallic. For the next several weeks, XLR8R will profile eight young DJ/producers exploring different facets of dubstep, the low-end sound of the London underground. We profile Benga this week, a producer who leads dubstep’s pack into electro territory, 250 tunes at a time.

“My tunes are all about bass, rolling beats, and hooks… and they have to sound original,” says 21-year-old Beni “Benga” Uthman, who is sitting in front of me in a cozy café in San Francisco’s Mission District. As befits his genre’s mix of reggae bass and rave abandon, dubstep’s electro warrior is rocking a red Diesel t-shirt with “Benga” emblazoned on the back; around his wrist is a bracelet of tribal beads, and a wild shock of hair juts from his forehead. At his side is 26-year-old Hatcha, a fixture among dubstep DJs since the early days of the scene, and the first to give Benga a break.

The pair is taking a day off during a U.S. DJ tour, which will see them stopping in Chicago, Dallas, and points beyond. It’s a testament to how far dubstep has evolved over the past seven years, going from an obscure U.K. garage subgenre to a global music phenomenon. Now it’s not uncommon for German techno DJs and Ibiza party jocks to incorporate dubstep’s bigger tracks into their mixes, and crowds from Burning Man to Berlin love it. But few realize the influence that this suburban London teenager with Nigerian roots has had on dubstep’s expansion.

Night Moves
It’s October when we speak, and Benga’s track “Night”–produced with Coki from the DMZ crew–is the biggest-selling dubstep single of 2007, embraced by a wide swath of DJs from the BBC’s Mary Anne Hobbs to Pete Tong to François K. It’s broadening dubstep’s audience to the same degree as “Midnight Request Line,” the groundbreaking 2005 single from Benga’s best friend, Skream. Like “Request Line,” “Night” features hypnotic synth pulses, roaring bass, and galloping beats that rumble like an elephant stampede across the African plains. “Me and Coki created ‘Night’ as a dubstep record, but now it’s an everything record,” explains Uthman.

“Night” is a good example of Benga’s style, with its clean synths and ample space between the beats. He incorporates techno, rave, and electro influences into tracks that don’t exactly sound like any of these things–more akin to a crunked-out Kraftwerk playing through multiple bass cabinets. Uthman finds influence everywhere. “I start with a blank [computer] screen, and I can hear literally any sound, and it makes me go off into some next world,” he explains.

Uthman lives in these next worlds, producing full bore; he reckons that he’s made close to 250 tracks in the last year alone. Following releases on Planet Mu, Southside, and Hotflush, he releases his sophomore full-length, Diary of an Afro Warrior, this month (his first album, Newstep, came out in 2006 on his own Benga Beats label). The album covers myriad styles, from soul to techno, avoiding half-step tracks in favor of bouncy, dark-edged and electro-saturated beats that swivel and crackle with crisp synths and flanged mid-range bass.

'Ardcore Youths
Benga’s destiny was partially determined by his youth. In 1991, Uthman’s family moved from the Springfield estate in Hackney, East London to the calmer suburb of Croydon in South London. There the young producer laid awake at night, scanning the airwaves and soaking up the sounds of pirate radio. “I could be listening to happy hardcore or heavy metal and I’d like it,” he explains. “I’m not really a genre fan, I’m a music fan.”

Uthman was advancing in pre-teen soccer leagues, but quit to do music. He even skipped class to make tracks on his PlayStation.“I had my own mind [made up] from quite an early age,” he reflects. “I knew that music is what I had to do. My mum was always like, ‘What are you doing?’ Any good mother would tell you to go to school, innit? But I knew what I had to do.”

Uthman became a fixture at Big Apple Records in Croydon, where his older brothers (MCs Alphman and Flash B in the jungle and U.K. garage scenes) would buy their music. Hatcha, who was a clerk at Big Apple, would let the preteen Benga use the store decks to practice mixing. Ollie Jones (soon to be known as Skream) also frequented the shop, and the pair began creating and sharing their nascent beats. “Me and Skream would make, like, five tunes a week and we play them for each other down the phone,” says Uthman. “But we wanted to hear what they sounded like, so we’d go [to the shop].”

Both barely 15 years old, the two would bring tracks recorded on Sony PlayStation MiniDiscs down to the shop every week. “Every day they came in[to] Big Apple they’d have a new track,” says Hatcha. “I was the only one at the time playing [dubstep] on radio, so I was loving every minute of it. At 14 or 15 I could already see the [talent] they had; they were hungry for it.”

Benga’s solo effort, 2002’s “Skank” on Big Apple Records, showed how far Benga had progressed, from producing on a PlayStation to using a PC with Fruityloops to mastering Logic software by the time he was 17. It also arrived at the height U.K. garage’s excessive, blingy, champagne-fueled So-Solid stage. Not only was the programming on “Skank” radically different–switching back and forth between a choppy soca beat and a half-time rhythm–but its production aesthetic “broke down the whole garage thing that you had to record in a $20,000 studio with the best equipment,” says Uthman. “What mattered [to us] was the riffs and sounds in the tune.”

Next Man
Indeed, it’s the sound of the tracks and a desire to push forward that still drives Benga. “I still like to see what I can come up with next,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll listen to a whole set of music, like [a DJ set from] N-Type, and I’ll ask myself, ‘What is there I can add to that?’” Uthman’s quest for what he hasn’t done is the common thread he returns to over and over, as if there’s still a part of the curious schoolboy in him, experimenting with beats on the PlayStation.

And his friendship with Skream hasn’t changed much either; though the two criss-cross the globe on DJ gigs, they still call each other every day. “One of the reasons we’ve stayed friends so long is we’re never too serious,” says Uthman. “We always joke around and play pranks on each other.” Benga knows all of Skream’s secrets but, like a true friend, will only reveal that “he doesn’t drive and he’s a Kid Robot crackhead! Send him something Kid Robot and he’ll gladly give you all his dubplates!”

More importantly, the friendship continues to drive both producers. “I still like the thought of sitting down and making something original,” he emphasizes. “That’s what drives me to make music. That… and the fact that Skream’s always making new music.”

Rhythm Nation
Part 1: Skream
Part 3: Caspa & Rusko
Part 4: Pinch & Distance
Part 5: Cluekid & Cotti