Photo by the Gentleman Amateur
Many features about Ben UFO are quick to assert “all he does is DJ,” and it’s true that famous DJs with no productions to their names are somewhat rare. But when you consider everything the man born Ben Thomson does as a DJ, from a regular show on Rinse FM, to mix CDs, mixtapes (a proper cassette, that is), podcasts, and the many club gigs, it’s clear Thomson has a much wider engagement with DJing than most. He’s also able to dig deeper than most — after falling for house just a couple short years ago he’s amassed a record collection that would stand proud with those from some of the deepest house heads. Add on top of this co-running Hessle Audio, one of the most influential labels of the past couple years, and it’s a surprise he’s able to do everything he does. One of the undisputed tastemakers of the current UK scene, but with a record bag packed for longevity instead of current trends, we’re elated to present our 115th podcast mixed by Ben UFO. LWE also caught up with him to chat about his house conversion, dance music’s political edges, and Skrillex.
LWE Podcast 115: Ben UFO (85:03)
01. Elgato, “Zone” [white*]
02. Helium Robots, “Jarza” (Theo Parrish Translation 2) [Running Back]
03. Special Request, “Deflowered” (MM/KM Remix) [white*]
04. FaltyDL, “Hard Courage” [white*]
05. Unknown, “WH” [white*]
06. ItaloJohnson, “ITJ 02 B2” [ItaloJohnson]
07. Low Res, “Amuk” (Juan’s Low Res Experiment) [Metroplex]
08. The Trojan Horse ft. Romanthony, “What $ Love (What Price Love)” (Westside Highway Remix) [Vinylmania]
09. Todd Edwards, “Look Out” (Sunshine Bros. Sunnyside Dub) [i! Records]
10. Big Strick, “100% Hustler” (Omar-S Remix) [FXHE Records]
11. Hakan Lidbo & Vincent Inc, “We Fall So Deep” (Titonton Duvante Remix)
[Big Mama Records]
12. DB-X, “Flying Saucer” [Accelerate]
13. Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion, “B2B” [Comatonse Recordings]
14. Da Sampla, “Frictional Beat #6” (KMFH 808 Dub) [Wild Oats]
15. Abstrac & Lady Penelope, “Love In Dub” [Confetti Records]
16. Sterac, “X-Tracks” [100% Pure]
17. LFO vs. FUSE, “Loop” (FUSE mix) [Plus 8 Records Ltd.]
18. DJ Milton, “Twelve Gage” [Ghetto Series]
19. Mokona, “Stewardess Rush” [Templar Sound]
20. E-Dancer, “Grab The Beat” (Joey Beltram Remix) [KMS]
21. Objekt, “Porcupine” [Hessle Audio]
22. Floating Points, “Danger” [Eglo Records]
23. Hindzy D, “Shrapnel” [Sting Recordings]
24. Shake, “Frictional Beat No. 4” [Frictional Recordings]
25. DJ Bone, “Higher” [Sect Records]
26. Arpanet, “Software Version” [Record Makers]
27. Blackstar, “African Beats” [DXP Recordings]
28. Unknown, “Ice Dispenser” [white*]
29. Pinch, “136 Trek” [Punch Drunk]
30. Plasticman, “Printloop” [Road]
31. Stingray313, “2.4 GHz ISM” [Micron Audio]
32. Roll Deep, “Roll Deep Regular” (Devils Mix) [Roll Deep Records]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
You’ve said that places like DMZ and FWD>> are big influences for you, but how did you get there? What got you to your first DMZ night, to your first FWD>> night?
Ben Thomson: I would still consider FWD>> and DMZ the real foundations of what we do as a label and what I still try to do as a DJ. I would cite the early dubstep scene as probably the single most important influence which runs through everything that we’ve done in the past four years, really. But I was interested in dance music before that; I was probably about 17 or something when I started listening to jungle and drum and bass. I think my first exposure to that was through a DJ called Bailey, who was affiliated with Metalheadz. He did a show on 1Xtra, which is the BBC’s “urban” music outlet. I found the music he played interesting, he played quite a broad cross-section of stuff but really focused on records which retained the influence of early jungle and the aesthetic of that music, and focused on sort of frenetic breakbeats and broken drum patterns… very sub-bass oriented. Hearing his show got me digging through all of the mid-90s stuff I missed out on.
I don’t know if Bailey is playing that kind of music now, or if he still does radio. I’m not really sure, but through that show I started going out to some nights. There was a night called Technicality that was run by a label called Inperspective and a night called Bassbin, run by the label of the same name. They were both in the same venue, a place called Herbal. I’d go down to these nights — they were mostly, like, mid-week, and I’d be the youngest person there by a stretch. It was mostly slightly older heads who had been into the music since the 90s. I was around all these people who were very knowledgeable about different strains of electronic music, and I really value that as something that helped spark my curiosity. People were starting to document dance music quite thoroughly online, so I was quite lucky in that respect to be able to dig through decades worth of music. Maybe not as easily as I could do now, but far easier than it would have been 15 years ago.
And then it was just a natural progression to end up at FWD>> and DMZ?
I guess — I was first exposed to dubstep through the people I was hanging out with at those nights. There was a point in early 2005, or maybe slightly before, when it was starting to pop up on people’s radars a bit, it was starting to get more coverage online. People were talking about this “interesting new genre.” I checked out a few records — you know, at that point there were maybe one or two releases every couple of weeks or something. I checked out DMZ 002, which included “Horror Show” by Loefah, this sort of seminal half-step track. I remember checking out a couple of the early Tempa releases. But what really sparked my interest were the Toasty Boy records I heard. I can’t remember what the 12″ titles were, but I connected to them straight away through of the use of breakbeats and the slightly busier drums — it was an aesthetic that I was more familiar with. So I latched onto that side of things, and I was excited enough to want to go down and check out any nights where those people were playing. And as soon as you get down to FWD>> or DMZ, suddenly those records that didn’t really make much sense to me in my house made perfect sense on a dance floor with a good sound system. Everything suddenly snapped into focus. On a track like “Horror Show,” for example, which in my house just sounded really empty and quite cold, when you hear a bass line like that on a system that’s capable of reproducing it, it sounds alive. Obviously the use of sub-bass doesn’t differentiate dubstep from other forms of UK dance music, but it took listening to the music on big sound systems to lift dubstep out of that sparseness for me. It really made me value that sound system culture that runs through the music.
As a DJ you’ve done festivals and intimate club gigs, podcasts, radio (both internet and FM), commercially available CDs and cassettes: how do you approach each of these situations?
There are loads of differences between those different formats. Even the transition between internet radio and FM radio… there’s a big difference there in terms of the wider significance of playing on FM radio when it comes to UK music.
I first started to DJ regularly on an internet station called Sub FM. I ran a show called the Ruffage Sessions with David [Pearson Sound] and Kev [Pangaea], and we then went on to form the label. It was my first experience of playing regularly anywhere, and my first experience of feeling pressurized into really digging for music that other people weren’t playing. You know, what’s the point of doing radio if you’re just presenting the same material every week? And not only that, but if you’re presenting the same material as everybody else as well. That was a real issue at one point — like I mentioned before there just weren’t that many records being released. So I guess that’s something that carried through to the Rinse shows. I don’t like to repeat myself too much, and I think doing something like radio for two hours regularly is a really good testing experience. It forces you to look slightly harder than you might do otherwise, and to dig slightly deeper than you might do otherwise. So I’ve taken that from radio into playing in clubs. I’ve kind of forged my reputation off the back of being able to draw together loads of disparate styles of music from different territories and different eras. I think it was down to radio that I’ve been able to do that, because that was what got me digging in the first place. That’s why I have those records.
I guess I still think about doing Rinse in the same way that I thought about doing Sub FM, but I see it as something more explicitly tied to what I do now. I mean, Rinse has a really strong presence on the Internet, and that kind of dwarfs their presence on FM radio in London, but there’s such a strong history and such an embedded culture of FM radio transmission in London and that was probably the most crucial in element in shaping dance music here. For a lot of people it was where they experimented and where they formed their ideas about where they wanted music to go. It’s where people bounced ideas off their peers. I don’t know if it’s necessarily to do with the format or if it’s something that just comes with getting a little bit more exposure and having a larger audience, but on FM radio I definitely feel a pressure to live up to the standards of the past.
Club sets are really great and definitely different to radio. I guess primarily because in a club you’re getting constant feedback from people every time you look up. To see a room full of people moving, one way or another you’re always gleaning information about what they like. Every time you look up and see how people react to a certain track, and that feeds back into the set. I really like the immediacy of the response that comes with DJing in that situation. I’m interested to find out how playing out informs what I play on the radio, because I think the more you play in the clubs and the more you play to an audience, the more difficult it is to know the extent to which you’re playing for yourself. If you DJ for a living, which I’m lucky enough to be able to do, you know, people’s self-esteem is tied up in what they do. It’s pleasing to see a room full of people having a really good time, enjoying your music and enjoying what you’re playing. If you see a room full of people having a great time, you’re more likely to have a great time yourself. So I’m interested to try and figure out the extent to which my enjoyment of DJing is bound up with other people’s enjoyment of what I do. I don’t know if it’s possible to separate the two things, and I think that’s something that has only come as a result of club DJing, as opposed to radio DJing. With radio DJing, you’re in a room by yourself playing records and you could have thousands of listeners or you could have 10. In a club, you’re hyper-conscious the people around you and whether they’re having a good time. Or at least I am, anyway.
So would you say that doing the radio show shapes the contents of your record bag?
Yeah, definitely. One hundred percent. All the radio shows are archived permanently, so if people like my DJing — two shows a month isn’t really that much — they could very easily listen to everything that goes up on the Rinse site. I know most people won’t do that, but I would be disappointed in a DJ I rated if I downloaded two radio shows in a month and the selection was largely the same. There will be stuff that I play repeatedly, particularly stuff that I’m in a position to promote, where other people maybe aren’t — so new music from the UK — but generally I won’t play something more than two or three times because at the moment I don’t find it difficult to find music I like enough to want to play. I get bored easily — I like switching it up, and I like the idea that someone could see me play in London in January or whatever, and then come and see me six weeks later and see a completely different set. I want to give people a reason to keep listening to what I do. That doesn’t mean I value the records any less, it just means that I enjoy the spontaneity of DJing with a different record bag from night to night slightly more than sticking with the same thing.
I haven’t messed around with production enough to know whether or not this is true, but what I suspect to be the case is that with production, you spend a long time perfecting something, and it’s presumably hugely satisfying when this thing you’ve worked on for weeks or months gets played out and you get to see people react to it for the first time. But I really love that feedback system in clubs that I was talking about earlier, where you can feel people’s reactions more or less immediately, and constantly, and I think those moments of spontaneity and adaptability which I value so much are facilitated by having different record bags from night to night, and having a wider selection to draw on.
With all these Rinse shows archived, how do you then make something like a podcast or a mix CD stand on its own?
A Rinse set will be totally off the cuff from start to finish. I’ll be a little distracted by trying to interact with my listeners, which is something I think is really important. I think I’ve generated a fairly loyal audience, and I would guess that the level of interaction on the show is a big part of that. People know I’m reading what they say because I shout them out and I try to communicate with them. I like that feeling that anything can happen, and I think a lot of the best mixes come out when you’re just playing records and letting inspiration come to you. But it’s difficult to recreate that with a podcast, so I think quite carefully about each one I record. I try and make sure it flows as perfectly as possible, and I try to just make it something that would stand up to repeated listens. I don’t want to saturate the Internet with studio mixes, so when I record something like this I have to feel like it’s an accurate representation of what I do. I mean, in an ideal world I guess everyone would listen to each radio show really attentively and get really immersed in it, but realistically if someone wants to know whether or not to come and see you at a party, more often than not they’ll just Google your name and check out the first thing that comes to hand — in my case, that’s normally a podcast.
On the Rinse show and with Hessle Audio, you’re able to break a lot of music that gets sent to you, and you’ve also been able to introduce the bigger dubs of the day, such as “Sicko Cell” or “Swims.” How do you see your role in shaping what’s going on in this scene?
Most of the time I’m not able to predict what those big tracks are going to be, so I don’t approach playing a tune like “Getting Me Down” by Blawan or “Sicko Cell” any differently than I would any other unreleased track I get sent. If I like it, I play it. With “Getting Me Down,” I played it on radio and someone ripped it and put it on YouTube immediately. I try not to dwell too much on whether or not a tune is going to blow up like that, because a lot of the time it’s not really in the interest of the tune to get such a huge amount of hype before it’s been released, so I don’t consciously try to generate it. I guess I’m just lucky, because at the moment it feels like I’m still shaping my own personal project rather than any scene in particular. It’s almost like I’ve been able to more or less ignore it completely, and I know that doesn’t sound like a particularly charitable thing to say, especially considering the fact that I am into the scene that surrounds this music: I like the people involved and the people who listen to the music. We have a great audience, but I’m not consciously catering to anyone when I DJ.
On Twitter you’ve made much more explicit remarks about the politics involved in dance music — and in this scene in particular — than others. For example, you remarked on tracks going up on YouTube and the visual being akin to soft porn. Most people turn a blind eye toward these things, but what makes you speak up about it?
I wouldn’t say anything were it not for the fact that a certain amount of people follow me now. I didn’t consciously plan to generate that, but I think given that I’m potentially speaking to large amounts of people it’s worth speaking up about things I feel strongly about, and I don’t think those things are completely disconnected from the way people experience music at all. Music is a really integral part of the way people live, especially now. Dance music is about commonality, in essence, and about the way people interact with each other, so I don’t think it should be a surprise that people involved in that music should be interested in speaking out against things that they think are shit.
I hadn’t seen anyone mention those YouTube rips you’re talking about, and it was something I’d noticed happening more and more regularly. It felt absurd, given the places a lot of this music has borrowed from. It started a bit of discussion, which I think means it was hopefully a worthwhile thing to have done. Of course 140 characters isn’t a lot to express a detailed critique of “gender relations in post-dubstep,” and I definitely wouldn’t be the best person to do that even if it was; but it’s enough of a platform to start a conversation, even if I’m not capable of finishing it.
Do you think those conversations have really happened?
I think they’re in the process of happening. They’re not limited to music, by any means, but things like the article Angus [Finlayson] wrote in The Quietus is a direct result of all that. I’m wary of sounding self-important but it’s so easy to communicate now with the people who are listening to what you do. People are tweeting constantly, they’re on Facebook constantly, and people have access to so much information about the musicians they’re interested in that it doesn’t seem sensible to hold back. I’ll hold back information about what I’m having for lunch or whatever, but if I see examples of harmful, damaging stuff seeping its way into how the music I love is promoted or advertised, then why not talk about it?
Do you think that dance music has lost a bit of the political edge that it used to have?
It’s an interesting time — it seems like people are becoming politicized very quickly. Essentially, I think music’s political implications are shaped by the physical environment the music was made in and listened to and danced to. I think if things carry on going the way that they’re going in the UK at the moment, with massive youth unemployment and austerity cuts hitting education and welfare programs really, really hard… I would be surprised if music didn’t represent an outlet for people.
You’ve spoken before about context in how we digest music. How do you try to shape that for your listeners?
I see that as being the main function of a good DJ, to try and shape the context in which people listen and dance. What I would ideally like to be able to do as a DJ is what my favorite DJs did for me, which is to inform me about the music and to present that music in an exciting way. Like the jungle sets I heard by Randall [McNeil] in the mid-90s — they still blow my mind. With him, it was about the way he would pace his sets and the way he built them up. When I was starting to go out there was a DJ called Equinox who I used to see at Technicality a lot, and the energy with which he used to mix these crazy jungle records was totally infectious — it would help you really lose yourself. The experience of listening to those DJs played a big part in shaping the music I like now and the music I like to play. Maybe the potential DJs have to shape people’s tastes like that might have been lost, to an extent, with things like YouTube becoming such an integral part of the way people consume music. I hope it’s still possible — I still respond better to an exciting DJ than to a good playlist.
Lots of the guys who found their roots at FWD>> and DMZ, like you and your Hessle cohorts, Scuba, Peverelist, have been really embracing house in a big way for the past year or two. Why do you think that is?
This is going to sound funny, but it’s less to do with house music suddenly becoming awesome than it is to do with a desire to get away from what dubstep has become. For me that’s the case, anyway. I still have a lot of love for that music, and it’s still the defining influence in terms of music I play, but by and large it’s lost what it was that I was excited about in the first place. It’s become something quite different. Searching for that same feeling I got from listening to old dubstep records is what led me to play the kind of music I play now. A lot of people who were gradually losing interest in that music leapt quite quickly into listening to the emerging house scene in London and on the pirates around 2008/2009, and like a lot of other people I started listening to the music that people like Marcus Nasty and Mac 10 would DJ. They started playing this bass-heavy, stripped-back house music with MCs, which really felt like a part of the trajectory of London-based dance music, especially given that both of those guys used to DJ with grime crews.
You’ve said before that you see a lot of people around you making house music without much knowledge of the history. It seems like that’s sort of the position that you found yourself in. Can you expand on that a little bit?
I’ve talked about that before in the context of the producers making the sort of early UK funky stuff, people searching for an atmosphere they’d found previously in other musics and weren’t currently hearing, whether they’d been into grime or garage or whatever. For me, what made a lot of it exciting was the lack of reverence, I guess. Those producers revered other styles, but not necessarily house music, and I think it resulted in a lot of interesting ideas which might not have occurred to people who were so totally and completely immersed in house music.
That’s one of the great things about house; it’s this huge thing with an immense, enormous, rich history that it’s possible to get immersed in and consumed by. But when music inspires that kind of passion, it has the potential to kind of blinker you at the same time — to narrow your vision a bit. I would back that up by pointing towards the perfectly acceptable, but kind of unambitious, tributes to old Chicago house and Detroit house I see popping up in record shops every week. And so I guess that’s kind of what I was trying to get at: the fact that people were making exciting, interesting music, and the only perceived restriction they had was tempo.
I guess that comment was more relevant a few years ago because since then, a lot has changed. The connections to the house scene have strengthened a bit, and you can see that in the kind of line-ups I’m playing on now. I think it probably was more the case a few years ago because people were making music I would consider house music, but without any connection to the established scene at all — you know, without even the idea that DJs in that scene might play it, because there was community in London that was supporting the music. But yeah, things have definitely changed.
What’s your digging process like? Unlike older DJs, you’ve grown up with the Internet; how does that influence how you’re looking for records?
It just means I’m able to do it more or less constantly. I use Discogs and YouTube a lot, and that’s awesome, but I’m a shameless trainspotter at the same time — I’m always paying attention, trying to find the tracks I love that I’ve heard DJs playing. By and large that’s a lot more fun than using Discogs and YouTube. Interacting with other DJs I respect and having that level of personal interaction is really fun. I’m in the immensely privileged position that I get to travel a lot to play, and when I’m in a place for slightly longer, my go-to method for wasting a few hours is trying to find a record shop in town. I guess the only difference is that even when I don’t have a record shop to go to, I still feel able to just go onto the Internet and listen to tracks. And it never stops. Now that DJing is, like, a full-time thing, it means I can always be working. I can always be digging. I definitely feel like I should continue doing it as much as possible — I still have a lot to learn. There’s hundreds and thousands of records I’ve not heard yet.
Where is Hessle’s A&R mind at? For the most part, it seems kind of like a family affair, but the most recent 12″s by Peverelist and Objekt have been label debutst. Are you guys generally looking to expand your roster or expand the sonic identity of the label?
We’re not planning any radical changes in the way that we work. The release with Peverelist was something we’d been wanting to do for a really long time, and we’d actually asked to release a couple of tracks by him that ended up on his album. We’ve always loved what he’s done, and we felt a connection to what he does with Punch Drunk and what he does as a producer and DJ. It just felt like a natural thing to do, especially when those tracks came along, because they’re just so great. I’m really proud of that one. And with TJ [Hertz, aka Objekt], it was similar in that we got to know him a bit first. I think I met him in Berlin when me and Jackmaster played for Modeselektor, and he’d sent me the first couple of the white labels, which I was really, really into. It felt like a good thing to pick up “Cactus,” just because there wasn’t any obvious place for it other than Hessle.
By and large with the label we’ve always been keen to release stuff that might not have a comfortable home elsewhere, which is why, I guess, we’ve ended up releasing a lot of debut records. That is something I’m definitely keen to continue. I think the individuality of a record label comes through doing things that other labels might not want to do, or things that might not come naturally to other labels. I think the way the label works will remain constant. I hope so, anyway.
I can remember two periods where Hessle was pretty silent: late 2010 between Hessle 09 and 10, and then after 116 and Rising. Is it fair to say that you guys don’t really care a whole lot about release schedules?
Yeah, I think it’s probably fair to say that. We don’t really have a release schedule — we’ve never announced a release without first having a good test pressing for that release. The only exception to that being the compilation, because it was such a big project and we needed a slightly longer lead-in to do it justice. But it always wound me up immensely that labels would announce reams of really exciting-sounding stuff and then completely fail to follow through. That was a real problem in drum and bass. I remember labels announcing, like, seven releases over the course of an 18 month period, and then maybe getting around to releasing one of them. So we probably overcompensate for that by being fairly quiet. I think it’s worked in our favor.
The reason for the periods of silence that you mentioned would be that in 2009 we were planning double-packs by Kev and David, the first projects like that that we’d done, and we wanted to get them right. Similarly, in the second half of last year we had just released 116 & Rising, which was a huge project for us — putting it together, sorting out the artwork, trying to get it the attention that we felt it deserved.
I think as a label, because none of us rely on it for our income, we’re in a position to have a pause like that if we feel like it’s worth doing. I think it tends to have a negative effect on the way that music is consumed when labels have such a high turnover that things don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s a shame, but unfortunately the way music is presented does have an impact on the way it’s listened to. If single “xyz” on a label is released at the same time as two albums and three other singles, or in the same six week period or whatever, then it’s not going to be an event in the same way. That’s another thing that’s carried through from the days of going to FWD>> and DMZ I think. I remember the excitement of going to DMZ in three days but still not knowing what the line-up was going to be, or the thought that a new DMZ record was coming out in one day still having no idea what the tracks were going to be. It’s the same with all kinds of music, like, I get excited when a new Sound Signature record comes out and I’m not expecting it. Or when Honest Jon’s put something out and takes everyone by surprise. It’s amazing; it’s great, and it has an impact.
I think that all of the Hessle records are still in print except the first two. Is there a reason behind that?
I think that’s right, yeah. The main reason is that the metalwork for the first two records has been lost. We used to use a pressing plant based in Nottingham, and when they shut down in huge amounts of debt all of the metalwork that they had at the plant was sold for scrap — that’s what we were told anyway. We’d have to re-cut those records to get them repressed, and we just haven’t got around to doing it. It doesn’t really feel like a priority.
Having said that, you’re right; we do tend to keep most of our records available and in print, because it feels like a cop-out to me, running a vinyl record label and not making things available for the people who want to buy them. These days, when record buyers are few and far between, it feels like a mistake to press up a limited 200-copy record and then tell the Internet all about it, you know? To deliberately under-press a record seems so contrived and ungrateful given that there are comparatively so few people willing to spend money on a record now –- those who are left really care about it, so they deserve to be catered for I think. The first two Hessle records may not be available at the moment, but at the time, they were available to everyone that wanted them.
Skrillex won a Grammy; thoughts?
[laughs] Good for him. Yeah, I feel absolutely no connection to that music anymore. That’s just a successful musician winning an award. It’s cool.
What about him shouting out Croydon?
[laughs] That was really cool. That was really nice. I watched the video; it was pretty surreal. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was from Croydon, but probably pretty hyped. That’s probably the first time Croydon has been shouted out at an awards ceremony ever, so yeah, big up Skrillex.