Saturday, March 3, 2012

Some words with Ben UFO

Chances are if you follow electronic music in any capacity -- and if you're reading this blog, I think that confirms it right there -- you've probably seen or heard about my feature on RA surrounding the collision of "bass music" and house, documenting the shift from dubstep to house, the DJs who mix everything together, and a new breed of producers who are operating in a nebulous middle ground. That middle category elicited one of the most interesting interviews I did for the piece, Ben UFO -- one of London's best and most revered DJs right now -- willing to engage on a critical and thoughtful level unusual for your regular old interview, especially a shorter one like this. I was intrigued by what Ben had to say and thought it worthy of publishing the entire unedited interview here, because for obvious space reasons the actual RA piece only included bits and bytes of our dialogue.

RYCE: How long has house music been on your radar for? Did it predate your interest in dubstep/'nuum music?

BEN: If you have even a vague interest in electronic music, or pop music for that matter, it has to be at least ‘on your radar’. How could it not be?

My listening habits when it came to electronic music weren’t exactly sophisticated when I was growing up, and I wasn’t into house music at all, but house records charted pretty regularly and you’d be exposed to them nonetheless.

I came to dubstep through a love for jungle and drum and bass which developed at school and during my first year at university. I was hugely nerdy about it, and started obsessing over digging back through the music I’d missed in the early-mid ‘90s, even at the expense of checking for new music. I did go to nights and tried to DJ where I could, but my experiences with that music were largely quite insular and detached.

When I first started hearing dubstep and started going to nights, what felt most exciting was that this was amazing sound system music that was being made now. There was a sense that anything could happen, and that there was all this territory left to explore. The openness of the producers involved and their willingness to look beyond the confines of their genre was essentially what led me to think about house music in a different way.

Did you feel like house was antithetical to the kind of scene you got yourself involved in when you started up the Hessle stuff? Did you feel any sort of barrier between house and what you guys were doing as dubstep-related/parented "bass music?"

We started the label in 2007, and whilst we had no ambition to be anything other than a good dubstep label, house music was impacting on the music in various different ways. One of the first times I saw D1 DJ, he opened with Bass Tone by Sole Fusion pitched up to 135bpm and mixed it straight into Left Leg Out by Mala; Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound and Chain Reaction had a huge impact on a lot of the Bristol producers coming through at the time, and on me as a listener; and with regard to Hessle Audio we’ve been lucky enough to have had the support of Hard Wax and a lot of Berlin-based DJs almost since the inception of the label.

When did you start incorporating outright house into your own DJ sets? Was it difficult?

There was a noticeable shift in the music a couple of years later. A lot of DJs, producers and listeners became disenchanted with dubstep, which had already developed an established formula, and were starting to look for something new. House music was being played on the pirates again, but rather than looking to the US or Europe for their records, DJs were incorporating tunes made by kids in UK inner cities which had all the traditional characteristics of UK pirate radio music.

This wasn’t music being made with the dubstep scene in mind at all, but a lot of listeners latched onto it straight away. A few DJs started incorporating it into their sets, but fairly awkwardly at first. I remember seeing DJs play out and you’d hear 30 minutes of dark UK house and an abrupt pause, followed up by 30 minutes of dubstep and grime. I wanted to find ways to bridge the two tempos naturally, and whilst the music I play has continued to change and evolve, that’s essentially the style of DJing I’m still exploring three years later.

When did you start to notice a shift towards -- I'm only using this problematic word to differentiate it from that dark UK house you mentioned -- "actual"/'traditional" house in dubstep/dubstep-related sets? Do you feel that you were one of the first to do this?

To my mind this question misrepresents what was actually going on. I find the critical fixation with “UK Funky” as exclusively HCC-related music rather patronising, and the implicit suggestion that UK producers introduced syncopation to house music in 2009 (this is something I’ve had people tell me multiple times) is patently absurd. There is obviously a direct and vital connection, but if you scrutinise the selection of UK DJs when this music was emerging it becomes immediately apparent that a debt was owed to US-based producers as well. Tracks like ‘No Hook’ and ‘Soundbwoy’ by Kenny Dope, ‘I C U’ by Karizma and ‘Don’t Panic’ by DJ Gregory immediately spring to mind as staples of otherwise UK-focused DJs, to the extent that all these tunes were widely bootlegged and sold to an audience who were more familiar with the productions of people like D Malice (who actually remixed and bootlegged various house classics early in his career), Roska and Hard House Banton.

I don’t feel comfortable with this as a descriptor of the music I play but to use your term, I have perhaps shifted more towards “traditional” house music more than most, but this is as much to do with personal circumstance as anything else. I moved into a house with old friends a couple of years ago, both of whom are deeply immersed in house music in London.

A lot of dubstep/bass music champions -- and those who might have resisted or even would still resist house's encroaching influence -- might have said that "house" lacks the rudeness factor of UK music, of UK hardcore continuum music like jungle/dnb/dubstep. Do you feel the same? Did you find it difficult to reconcile and incorporate house music with the kind of music some more dubstep-hungry audiences would have been expecting? Were audiences receptive at first or was it an over-time thing?

That kind of attitude doesn’t allow for the enormous variety found within all of that music, UK or otherwise, and it’s a dichotomy I rejected a long time ago. If you’re after aggression and propulsive rhythmic energy listen to a few Steve Poindexter records or something - and on the flip side there’s plenty of jungle releases which display all the melodic delicacy and nuance of the most beautiful Chicago records.

A few years years ago, Nick Craddock ( linked me to these cassette rips of a Spencer Kincy set at a night in Chicago called Deep in the Flowers ( – hearing those for the first time completely changed my perspective on how house music was ‘supposed’ to be mixed. His mixing style almost couldn’t have any more in common with UK pirate radio DJing - hyperactive cutting, quick blends and spinbacks… I can’t overstate the impact hearing that set had on my DJing.

You say that set had a major impact on your DJing -- how did your DJing change and what's the difference, in sort of layman's terms, between mixing for a dubstep set and mixing a house set?

It didn’t change at all; it just reassured me that I could DJ naturally and that I didn’t need to emulate any particular style just in order to play the music I like.

When you started to try to bridge the gap between house and dubstep, did you find audiences to be resistant/turned off at all?

I did, for a while. Most people from our corner of the scene will have experienced heckling from people expecting dubstep… It’s to be expected though. Music moves so quickly and scenes will always need a bit of time to catch up. If anything it’s a huge privilege to be booked to play on such a diverse array of lineups – last year I’d find myself playing back-to-back sets with my heroes from the dubstep world one night and find myself playing alongside amazing house DJs the next. I hope that continues.

You said that a lot of people were looking for something new after becoming disenchanted with dubstep... do you think there's something reductive or misled by turning to an older form of music instead of creating something new?

HCC-related music in the UK has always mined older music for inspiration. I still see what’s happening now as a route towards creating innovative new music. Listening to older records and acknowledging their influence is just another way of looking for unexplored territory, and another way of creating an interesting context for the production of new music.

Do you see yourself as part of a house scene or still the experimental, underground, open-minded scene that once birthed dubstep?

Hopefully both.


  1. Nice blog - really enjoyed that article on RA (and this interview). I've applied for a visa to live and work in Vancouver for a few months, what's the music scene saying? I'm coming from London so would imagine there's quite a difference but would be nice to know that there are some good nights to look forward to!

  2. Look no further than the "Futureproofing Vancouver" posts to get an idea of some of the best and brightest our city has to offer in terms of local talent.

    I'm actually working on a piece for RA profiling the underground clubbing scene in Vancouver, so, if you can wait till April that'll say everything nicely. ;)

  3. Thanks for all this Vancouver awesomeness!

    Just read the article about Vancouver PNE restricting their electronic music events. sad news, especially following your recent flurry of quality posts! I'd be interested to hear what you have to say on the matter...

    1. on second thought, if the highlights of this venue's events are Skrillex and Steve aoki, maybe it's not such a bad thing ? viva la underground!!

  4. It's symptomatic of a larger problem with how dance music is viewed by the mainstream and especially the media in North America, but in this particular case the loss of the venue is, as you intimated, no real skin off anyone in the underground's back.