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With his album set to catapult Benga to the next level, Mixmag joined dubstep’s most rock ’n’ roll star in Ibiza for "a lovely fucking time".
Words: Damien Morris
Photos: Marc de Groot
I’m gonna go to Vegas,” Benga tells us, savouring the prospect. “I’ve always wanted to get a private jet all the way over to Vegas and go to a table and just put down fifty grand: bang.”
One-third of dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man, one-half of Radio 1 DJ duo Skream & Benga, and 100% Beni Adejumo, hit producer for Katy B and now solo star, he leans in, eyes sparking, mind fizzing. “Yeah! I’ve seen it so much in films and I’d love to do that. Red or black? Red today. Win, then watch the owner come up to me – ‘Sir, we’d like to take you upstairs to our presidential suite that nobody gets’. And just live like that for the night, and say, that was my birthday.”
Last year Benga’s 25th birthday was spent in Ibiza, DJing at Ibiza Rocks Hotel with Magnetic Man, Skream (Oliver Jones) and Artwork (Arthur Smith). Benga hadn’t planned to celebrate his quarter-century there. He was supposed to be at his favourite London club, Soho’s notorious The Box, maybe checking out one of their extravagant sex shows. Fortunately, from what he can remember, Ibiza was an excellent place to recreate The Box’s epic debauchery. Not that it matters where he is. Fun follows Benga around like a lost puppy.
While he’s so affable and laid back that ‘Beni’ could be short for ‘benign’, he’s also incredibly passionate about two things. One: being successful. “I don’t know if it’ll ever backfire on me,” he thinks aloud, “but I said to my producer at Radio 1, I’m going to be the first Radio 1 artist to have a number one, am I making history here?” Two: having ‘a lovely fucking time’ (swap the last two words, if you like). The gig he’s playing tonight is a new Friday evening weekly called We Are Rockstars. To Benga, those three words aren’t a title, they’re a motto.
At Benicassim he streaked across stage during Temper Trap’s set after Skream bet him a grand he wouldn’t. “He got out of paying, somehow,” Benga huffs. Recently, he played Croatia’s Hideout festival and went for a quick bungee jump before his set. “When I got down my adrenaline was so high,” he boggles. “Never had it like that. I was like [pants feverishly]. Some girl comes up to me and says ‘how was that for you?’ I was like, ‘That was fucking amazing, but now I need to have sex’. She takes me round the back of the stage and gives me a blow job! The Sun found out and printed it. Luckily, there were no names involved. Well, my name was involved...” He chuckles ruefully.
Plenty of trad rockers play Ibiza Rocks. Kasabian reckon it looks like a prison, but it’s actually an impressively chic (by San Antonio standards, anyway) five-storey hotel with an imposing live stage for 2,500 people in its outdoor central courtyard. We’re two floors up in a lavishly appointed dressing room overlooking the stage, where Benga’s mate Joker is warming up the rapidly growing sunset crowd. Once, this teeming rave palace would’ve been anathema to Benga, who was quite shy until his late teens until he ran with a new, more extrovert crowd. “I hesitate to say it,” he says, “but they were such pimps! So charming, so forward.” Beni became the entertainer of the group. “You know you see people sometimes, standing on tables, being complete pricks, and you think ‘Oh, what an arsehole’? But we’re not actually being arseholes. We’re just having a lovely fucking time,” he explains patiently.
Before then, he’d been a school-swerving bedroom producer/DJ, playing parties or raves whenever possible and standing on a crate to reach the decks aged 13. He’d never been a clubber or a holidaymaker. He rarely spent any money unless it was on music or graf, spraying with his crew DLB (“Dirty Little Bastards!” he cackles). And Ibiza was for house-heads. Why bother? Obviously, once he went in 2010 he was hooked – he’s been back ten times since.
Tonight he’s sporting a casual-luxe look, gym-bunny physique rippling out of T-shirt and shorts, his once wild Afro managed into a rust-coloured flat top. He’s far more honed and toned than the softer, rounder features of his youth, when he emerged with 2007’s devastating, boundary-challenging ‘Night’. Skream (no-one calls him Oliver) buzzes past, explaining why he called a grindingly brilliant new tune ‘Vacillate’ (“it means wobble!”), itching to get playing although they’ve just finished a three-state American mini-tour, including a 15,000-sized stage at Lollapalooza.
“People can say fame’s great, and having girls want to suck your dick is amazing,” Benga says conspiratorially, “but being able to go home and lie in my bed and eat ice cream at any hour of the day and listen to my surround system, that is the best feeling by far. Scrap going out! That’s when you actually sit back and think ‘I’ve achieved a fair bit’.”
Beni only moved out of his mum’s a couple of years ago. He bought a place in Crawley with a studio attached so he could climb inside a beat day or night. He listens to each finished tune at least 100 times. Rarely, if he’s having downtime – or feeling down – he retreats to bed for chocolate and Entourage. Mostly, though, this summer’s been about prepping the release of his immense third album ‘Chapter 2’, which repeats Magnetic Man’s trick of credibly merging professional pop songwriting with club bangers and bass attitude.
Ten minutes to stage time, as the sun collapses into the sea, tonight’s dozen-strong entourage heads out. With Skream & Benga’s fissile pre-set excitement bouncing off the narrow walls, it’s like joining a ring walk with a pair of title-fight boxers. Luca ‘Drop The Lime’ Venezia, who’s known them both for years, is here, as is Benga’s youngest brother Fola, who now helps run the reawakened, sub-troubling Bengabeats label and is Beni’s gym wingman. “It’s the Peter Andre Project,” Benga laughs lustily. “Gotta get them Andre abs!”
Tonight’s promoters aren’t anything like Bobby from Leeds’ Bigger Than Barry, who made the mistake of challenging Benga to a vodka-off recently and ended up ruined, wrestling his star DJ to the floor before stripping off and throwing all his clothes into the crowd. “He was fucked,” says Benga. “Mental. Good crowd there, epic. Don’t know where he gets them from, it’s like they’re all his friends.”
As ever, Skream & Benga play back to back, three tunes each. Within seconds of seeing his third tune (Sub Focus’ ‘Falling Down’) safely into the mix Benga is off, cavorting in front of the decks between MCs Youngman and Pokes, dancing, jumping on tables, blowing kisses and striking poses for the young, mostly British crowd. Skream stays behind the decks, hunched over the controls: crouching tiger to Benga’s Tigger.
They relish jamming garage and moombah into 130bpm house and classics like Gabriel & Lighter, rubbing unreleased exclusives up against retooled vintage rave (‘Plastic Dreams’, ‘Move Your Body’) that’s older than the girls pressed up against the crush barriers waving their cameras.
A 90-minute set feels like three hours compressed into 30 minutes. “We come off when we want to,” laughs Benga. “We’ll be playing, like, four more ‘last ones’. Me and Oli can be a little ghetto, and it’s like, come near the decks? Do you like walking? Just stay away from the decks then!” He cackles. “Like that!”
As tonight’s headliners, there’s no need to get ghetto. The pair hug, then have a fist-bumping dance behind the decks instead, a proper little bro-ment. Tracks from Benga’s new album rip through the soundsystem, before they sign off with a huge Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine double-header. Benga’s putting together a concept-driven live show to promote ‘Chapter 2’ for the spring, followed by an Ibizan residency next summer.
“For me to call it a success,” he says, intently, slowing his syllables down, “it has to be a number one album. I think it’s a game-changer; I’ve put my fucking heart into it. I haven’t just thought, ‘I’m gonna make hits’. I fell out with people over this album. It’s deadly serious.” He’s convinced that everything he’s had to do to get here, everything he’s had to learn and go through to make this third album happen is going to be worth it.
“My choice was,” he tells me, “do I crawl underneath the Magnetic Man thing and put out an underground record, or do I man up and be a star, put out some game-changers, be ready to take a fall, be ready to win? I thought, I’m gonna go with the latter. I’m never gonna crawl underneath.”
“A lot of my childhood I sacrificed,” he continues. “I stopped doing football; while everyone was out on road, chirpsing girls, whatever everyone my age was doing, I wasn’t doing it. I stayed in the studio, wrote beats, didn’t sleep.” He stops dead and thinks aloud again. “You know what, I probably didn’t make as many friends as I should’ve. The more I think about it, I don’t know how many really close friends I’ve got because of it. I definitely sacrificed having a girlfriend.”
Family is massively important to him. His eldest brother Alpha is hiring a private jet to take his friends and family over to see Magnetic Man play in Europe in September. Beni’s mum worked stupidly hard just to buy him and his brothers treats like the occasional Nike outfit. Now, “she doesn’t work any more. She’s driving around in flash cars, having a lovely time. She came to my Koko show and was bugging out! I was like, ‘I wanna send a big shout out to my mum who’s raving up there’ and she was like, ‘Brap! Brap! Brap!’ It was emotional.”
Skream’s playing the afterparty (“Disco. But not wedding disco. Proper,” he croaks) at Ibiza Rocks Bar. No-one knows where Beni is. Perhaps he’s found the bungee at San An port. By the time he emerges with a cheeky grin and the words ‘she is so fit’ – with seven syllables in ‘fit’ – Skream has had to jet. Some head with him, others to Space for Luca’s set, while we drive to the ultra-glam, baroque Ibiza Rocks House where Benga is staying for some drinks and a photoshoot.
He high-fives everyone he can find on the way, then jumps out of his seat and on to the convertible’s window ledge, drumming his fingers on the roll bar and singing along. He’s an enthusiastic hype man, taking care to make everyone around him feel good. What can seem arrogant is usually either honesty or comedy (he joked to Channel 4, ‘I hope everyone I touch faints and I feel like Jesus’) but he’s self-aware and engaging eye-to-eye.
By 6am, Radio 1’s most rock ’n’ roll DJ is sitting by the pool back at the House trying not to wake all the guests up, holding court with the remains of the party. Benga’s taxi to the airport is in an hour, and there’s someone who accepted one of Beni’s dares, naked in the pool. Whatever they’re paying his tour manager, it’s not enough.
“I had these crazy goals: I must buy this house, I must earn that much, but the more I think about it I think my key goals are to inspire people,” he beams. “I want to change music in the world. I don’t want it to be dominated by JLS, I want it to be dominated by people who put soul into their music. Not only make millions, but change the way people look at pop music.”
Whatever time he gets to bed, that sort of ambition never sleeps.
Benga’s new single ‘Open Your Eyes’ is out now.