Mr Benn

Mr Benn’s Rising Star 12” has been one of my favourites for some time now and so I’ve been very much looking forward to his debut album Shake A Leg. Recently, Nice Up!’s Shepdog sorted me out with a promo of what seems to be one of the most entertaining albums of 2013 so far. While Rising Star had a slightly dark vibe to it, the rest of the album is packed with uplifting UK dancehall goodness combining some of the best old school and new school vocalists.

When I think about UK music, I tend to think of London. Unless I’m thinking about Bristol, that is. This may not be fair to Mungo’s Hi Fi and a few others but you get the idea. Since I’ve never been to Bristol, why not start the interview by talking about Bristol for a minute.

Bristol is great! I grew up here and there’s always been a really strong reggae scene in Bristol. There’s just a massive history of reggae based music that’s mainly due to there being a large West-Indian community. Then you got St Paul’s carnival which was my first introduction to the whole sound system thing: it’s like a much smaller version of Notting Hill carnival, really. Sound systems, thousands of people on the streets, Red Stripe, jerk chicken and reggae, basically. I think there is definitely a vibe about Bristol! The bass heavy sounds seem always to come out of Bristol. I’m not sure why that is.

Massive Attack and Portishead put Bristol on the map years ago in terms of being recognized globally. It’s really nice to have that kind of history of recognition. A lot of the dubbier sounds often come out of Bristol. Does my album sound like something that has come out of Bristol to you?

It definitely sounds like it’s coming out of the UK but it lacks the dubbiness of Dubkasm or RSD or whoever. So my first association wouldn’t be Bristol.

I think that’s what I’d say too. I guess the dubby sound is the common thread that runs through a lot of Bristol-centric music.

The album got that kind of uplifting jump up vibe to it that makes it hard for me to sit still while listening to it.

That’s great! Like I said, I approached it from the dancefloor kind of view. I was always into hip hop and ska as well, all that jump up party music. Rather than the deeper moody stuff. i like that too but where I come from is the jump up party point of view. I used to play in a ska band which was just loads of fun. I walways wanted to have that uplifting kind of party vibe.

Since you mention the “dancefloor kind of view”, the album sounds a lot like a dj album to me – not that that’s a bad thing!

I’ve been djing for close to twenty years now. And I always try to make the kind of music that I’d want to play when I dj. So all tracks are aimed at the dancefloor, they’ve all got a strong beat and bassline. But, also, I hope that it’s stuff that people would listen to at home as well. The tracks are not banging dance music, I think there’s a bit of crossover.

What I was really thinking about was how you would tour that album. You’ve got so many different vocalists…

It would be really difficult to try and pull together everyone who’s on the album. There’s eleven tracks with eleven vocalists. I think it would be a bit of a financial and logistical nightmare at this stage. My plan is to do some shows with just a few of the vocalists. A dj set with a few of the vocalists coming in so that you can still catch the vibe of the album and have a live element but at the same time it’s not gonna be through the roof cost wise for a promoter to book. People like Top Cat, Tenor Fly and the Ragga Twins obviously require quite a substantial fee to perform…

How did you go about recording the album? You’ve got people from all over involved. How did that work?

As I was making music, I started approaching people I liked and I wanted to work with. I think the oldest tune on the album is the one with the Ragga Twins. Initially, I made that with the intention of putting it out as a single. Then I thought I’d rather do an album than trickling out a series of singles. So I started holding everything back which is a really difficult thing to do. When you’re making music, you want people to hear it! Especially with the internet it’s so easy to get instant gratification and response. You can post it up and people will comment on it in seconds. So it’s hard to not put it up when you’re really pleased with something and you want everyone to hear it. I just about managed to…

With the majority of the tracks on the album I’ve sent out an instrumental and they’ve recorded the vocal and sent it back to me. Mainly that has been for logistical reasons – it’s much harder to get studio time with people when I’m in Bristol and a lot of them are in London, Mad Dog is in Jamaica, Zulu is in Chicago… When I give an artist a track, it can be in quite basic form. I always find that when I get a vocal back from somebody it just triggers off loads more ideas.

I was in the the studio with the Ragga Twins. Eva Lazarus is Bristol based and so she just came to my house and we recorded it here. She’s versatile and really talented, she’s really easy to work with! Nãnci Correia came down here as well. I kind of wrote that song that she sings. I wrote most of the lyrics and when she came down, she sort of added to it. That was really nice! I prefer working like that rather than sending someone something and them sending me something back, to be honest.

I think it can really make a difference when you are in a studio with someone and you can just bounce ideas back and forth.

Yeah, totally! I think from now on, I’m gonna try to work like that a bit more.

When I look at the list of the vocalists you used, I see some of my favourite old school UK vocalists which makes me think that we must have grown up listening to the same records.

The Ragga Twins… When I was about eleven years old my friend used to have Reggae owes me Money and he recorded that onto tape for me. I used to ride around on my bike listening to that on my headphones constantly. I totally loved that album!

I was really shocked when they agreed to do a track with me. I was like “Wow! I’ve been listening to you guys since I was a kid!” So I was really honoured to have them on there. Tenor Fly and Top Cat too! I discovered them through all the Congo Natty stuff when I was about sixteen, seventeen. When that first Congo Natty album came out, the first album Rebel MC put out as Congo Natty rather than as Rebel MC, he had these tunes with Top Cat and Tenor Fly on there. Like Champion DJ with Top Cat. That was the stuff that I was playing when I first started djing when I was sixteen. All that kind of ragga jungle that was around in the mid-nineties. I approached these guys thinking that it would be amazing to do tracks with them. I knew somebody who had done a track with Tenor Fly and he gave me his contact and then Tenor Fly linked me up with Top Cat. That’s how that all worked. It’s amazing to have them on there, they are genuine legends of the scene!

Could you name five albums from the top of your head which influenced you?

I used to have a casette which I used to listen to constantly when I was younger. On one side it had Live & Direct by Aswad. That was Aswad live at Notting Hill Carnival in 1985 or something. On the other side it had Three Feet High And Rising by De La Soul. Those are still two of my favourite albums. The first Congo Natty album was definitely a massive influence. Public Enemy’s It takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and the King Tubby and Yabby U album on Blood & Fire, King Tubby’s Prophesy Of Dub.

If you wanna add one more in there, add The Special’s first album.

Whenever I come to people’s houses I can’t help going through their music collection. I think a music collection is saying a lot about a person.

I love looking at people’s music collections. It’s totally a reflection of them.

Kind of like reading a diary.

Yeah, totally. It was actually quite nice when me and my wife moved in together and we combined all of our music. The combined music collection was suddenly diversified massively. I just found out that I love the stuff that she likes too,  stuff that she bought and that I didn’t know about. So now we’ve got Ian Dury next to Shy FX next to the Mamas and Papas next to Public Enemy. We’ve got a big wall of cds in our kitchen and whenever anyone comes around they are always kind of instantly drawn to it.

I’ve got all of my vinyl upstairs which is another thing…

You’re still collecting?

I am. Since I got a laptop and started using Serato I’ve eased off the vinyl buying quite massively. Now I tend to only buy things that I really want on vinyl. I worked in a record shop for a few years and I ended up with so much stuff… I actually sold a lot of records recently. Partly to make room for the baby we just had and partly because I realized that I had a lot of stuff that I never listened to. I had to be quite brutal because we were rearranging the rooms in our house to make room for the baby.  It was difficult at first but it became quite liberating after a while.

I’m so pleased that Shepdog wanted to release my album on vinyl. It’s great to be working with a label that appreciates and values vinyl. I got the test pressings the other day and it was so satisfying to put that on the turntable and listen to it. Listening to how it sounded and thinking “this is how it should be, this is what it’s all about!”

I’m really excited to get the actual copy of the album with all the artwork.  I can’t wait. Have you seen the artwork?

I have.

It was done by this guy called David Cox and the picture that you see on the front is an actual piece that he made. I think it’s about 18 inches square. It’s all constructed out of painted cardboard and littlle pieces of wood.  It’s a very beautiful piece. David Cox is a massive reggae fan. He’s a massive music fan. I’ve known him for years as he’s a friend of my parents. He makes loads of phantastic work based on reggae – reggae and soul, really. I am really pleased with what he did for the album cover. It totally captures the vibe of the music.

You mentioned playing in a ska band – so your background in music is djing and playing in a band?

I’ve been playing bass guitar since I was about fourteen and like millions of teenagers I was in various bands playing all sorts of different things. My older brother had a set of decks and I started buying records to dj with when I was about fifteen, sixteen. I was buying lots of jungle and then I was buying lots more hip hop and funk and from there I moved on to lots of reggae and ska. I did a music course at uni which is where I formed the ska band. I’ve always been doing music, really. My dad’s a musician and so I come from a musical family.

What kind of equipment do you use and how did that change over time?

When I started making music, I used to use an Atari ST, an Akai sampler and a keyboard. It was a long, drawn out process but I’m glad that I started on that level before all the audio software like Logic was around, because it was a good way of learning how it all works instead of just pushing buttons on a computer. I put my old sampler up in the attic a few month ago which was quite a significant moment for me. It was me finally admitting that I didn’t actually ever use it anymore.

Now you got some software and a midi keyboard?

Pretty much. I use Logic on my Mac and I’ve got a midi keyboard and a mixing desk and various mics. Then I’ve got guitars and basses. The core of the studio is the computer, definitely.

I find it quite impressive how hardly anybody needs to use big studios anymore.

It’s amazing! What’s great about that is that it gives lots of people the opportunity to be creative and make music that wouldn’t have been able before, because you would have had to have access to a decent studio to be able to put anything together. Now you just need a computer and a bit of software and away you go.

You might want to add some decent monitors to that.

Yeah! When I go away to dj, I take my laptop and I sit on a plane working on beats and stuff. It’s great being able to do that. You can make good use of travel time which is generally really boring. You could either watch a crap movie or read the inflight magazine or you could make a new tune. I think when I got my laptop, the way I made music and how I progressed came on in leaps and bounds, really. Also, the sending people stuff, being able to email people a track and they can email you back the vocal whereas before you’d either have to go and see them or you would have had to put a DAT tape in the post. It just speeds up the process and it has opened up so many possibilities with being able to work with people all over the world at minimal cost.