Benji B and Stwo Discuss DJ Sets, Virgil Abloh and BACARDÍ's Sound of Rum

We caught up with the producers backstage at their Lowlands Festival performance.

Presented by BACARDÍ
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One of the indisputable highlights of August’s Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands was BACARDÍ‘s Hacienda House. Located in a huge pop-up club that was dripping in the rum brand’s Cuban heritage, the venue — a tribute to BACARDÍ‘s admirable quest to unite the diverse musical roots of the Caribbean, something very much intertwined with the culture, under the umbrella of the ‘Sound of Rum’ — was packed with revellers, mojitos and music.

The line-up of DJs played throughout the weekend also reflected BACARDÍ‘s diverse, Caribbean-inspired sound, with everything from dancehall to soca to hip-hop and grime — something documented in the brand’s new four part documentary ‘Artist Series’. The first episode (out later this year) entitled ‘Dancehall Kings and Queens’, uncovers the beginnings of dancehall and seeks to understand how the colour and expression of the islands has brought the Sound of Rum to the mainstream.

Taking the stage on the first night of the festival were London’s Benji B, and Parisian producer Stwo. We sat down with them to discuss their thoughts on the current state of club music, upcoming collaborations and what it’s like being compared to Anna Wintour.

How did you approach your set tonight, what did you think would go down well?

Benji B: To be totally honest, when I approach a set, it’s all about the start of the set and your first tune or first couple of tunes and then from there you just jump off that ledge and then you’re flying and it’s a freestyle. Sometimes you go into a place and you want to reset the vibe and do your own thing or sometimes you really want to complement the DJ that’s been on before you and what the room is feeling like. I turned up tonight straight off the plane, straight in there, and walked in and they were playing some really good house music. I know what groove I’m gonna start and build it slowly and then right at the end they just switched it and played two Drake tunes. So then suddenly it was a switch for me so I started with some Giggs, ”Whippin Excursion” to reference that.

To answer your question, it’s really about reading the room. The reason that my set might have felt quite varied tonight was because I was trying a lot of different things to see what people really wanted and to try and catch the vibe. The room tonight was quite bright and that affects the way that I play. Lighting in clubs is such an underrated element of the experience and tonight was super bright so it’s harder to set a groove or to play deeper so I naturally started playing bigger tunes and then got into a bit of the South African house stuff which I’m really loving at the moment. Towards the end, I was able to play a bit deeper and then I came out into some London classics.

I was going to ask about that, the grime at the end, obviously in the UK, that’s a pretty safe bet, but I wonder how you feel that goes down in the rest of Europe?

Benji B: I find that Amsterdam can really play a very London style because people are really open to it and they know what’s up. Also it was a bit of a warm up for [Notting Hill] Carnival so I thought at the end, I’m just going to play some carnival tunes and it was kinda cool because, when you’re in a festival situation, sometimes there’s not a lot of room to go subtle, you have to just go rowdy so I played a bit rowdy and suddenly I was playing a D Double E tune and he just popped up. He was in the booth, I had no idea he was there. He was chilling, he did something yesterday, came out to chill today, he heard the whole set then he heard the tune and popped up and obviously for me, he’s a total ledge. 

I thought he was gonna pick up the mic, like a secret guest thing.

Benji B: You know what, I’ve been in those situations so many times and that’s not a moment you force, that’s a moment that either happens or it doesn’t. Tonight it was like, he’s off duty, let him chill. I love him though. But in Holland, it always goes off. I probably play here more than anywhere else in the world. In Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, at least 10-15 times a year so I have a lot of friends here and I love it.

With regards to BACARDÍ and rum’s musical heritage, a lot of US rappers have adopted a dancehall/reggae influence, calypso dance and stuff. Where do you think that’s going – why do you think it’s so popular right now?

Benji B: As far as rum goes, that’s always been the drink that’s on my rider for the last 15 years [laughs]. Rum is my first alcohol of choice. I probably wouldn’t be able to reference that unless it was. I’m definitely a big rum drinker. In terms of the Caribbean influence, it’s impossible to talk about the UK without talking about the Caribbean influence. It’s not something at this point that’s even just explicit, it’s something that’s in the DNA of what we do. Not only in the DNA of how the music sounds, it’s in the DNA of how we talk, in the DNA of how we select records, how we play records, soundsystem culture etc. If you grow up in London as I have been lucky enough to do, it’s a part of your culture whether you know it or not. It informs so many things and I think it’s really important to always recognise that, that influence.

Bacardi and Lowlands Interview Benji B and Stwo

Of course there are reggae and dancehall selectors where the connection isn’t as direct but even in house music, if you look at all of the musics of London, let’s say, whether it be jungle, garage, funky house, grime, dubstep, rave – all of this era of music owes so much to the influence of Island culture, obviously Jamaica but all of the islands as well so it’s impossible to talk about music in London without talking about that influence and it’s something that I’m grateful to have grown up with, in and around.

So do you perhaps think that London has facilitated the way that the Caribbean sound’s influenced US music? It’s definitely been present in Canadian music, with Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR, for a while.

Benji B: There’s a very significant thing to observe here which is Toronto is the one city in the world that is similar to London in terms of the Jamaican influence, the Jamaican community there and their carnival. It doesn’t surprise me that that influence is in Toronto. I think it’s completely genuine. It’s not a commodification or culture vulture, in Toronto, that influence is real, shout out to Oliver and Drake and those guys. Their music is influencing the entire US and therefore the entire influence of popular culture, not just specialist culture, not just music heads but mainstream music as well. It stands to reason that massive tunes came in to the palette of mainstream culture and right now mainstream culture is super open to that groove and that beat. The important thing to recognise also is that when something is a la mode or when something’s in fashion and very current – we saw it in the late 2000s with Sean Paul and Elephant Man when that was really popping. Obviously there’s also Rihanna’s influence, as she’s from Barbados so it’s very natural. But the important thing when something’s in fashion like that and everyone’s making 105 BPM Island inspired music is when that fashion stops and when the top 40 stops loving that music, we’ll still be over here liking it. It’s not something to me that I notice a really big difference in because we’ve always loved that groove. But it is really positive that that music is seeping into popular taste and long may it continue, it’s cool as far as I’m concerned.

Virgil Abloh recently called you “the Anna Wintour of music.”

Benji B: [Laughs] He did say that. He said that many times, that’s a pretty heavy thing to live up to.

I was wondering what your reaction to that was and what you think he meant by it?

Benji B: My reaction to that is that it’s a very hard thing to live up to. Obviously I’m very flattered by that because I know what he means by that. Virgil obviously is a close friend of mine, I love what he does, I respect so much his respect for art forms in design, in architecture, in fashion and obviously in my area of music. Virgil is someone who really understands the power and the art form of curation. I think what he meant by saying I’m the Anna Wintour of music was that the taste level and curation and what it can mean to put together potentially quite different things and make them make sense together because has a Virgil very, very high level of music taste. He appreciates everything from Radiohead to Lil Silva, even the London street music through to, well everything really. He’s a music head. He’s a kindred spirit. All music heads around the world are to me and so I take it as a massive compliment and I think that what he really means by that is I have good taste and I’ll take that.

One thing that’s really important is that I do not see myself as a gatekeeper at all. If anything, I see myself as a conduit for spreading and sharing music – I’m basically the opposite of the DJ that’s covering up the label. I’m the opposite of the guy who spends hours searching for music and then won’t tell you what it is. I spend two days every week listening to two days worth of music in order to find three hours of good new music to play on the radio and then as soon as the show’s over, I put on the website exactly what it is, exactly where to find it and exactly what label it’s in. I think that the new era of culture is all about sharing. It’s all about spread the information, extend the knowledge, pass it on. It’s about keeping an open mind, it is still tribal to an extent but people are way more open minded than they were 20 years ago.

I think if you go up to a Hypebeast kid, let’s say in their teens, that looks at Hypebeast as a bible and is in the drop for the new Palace shit or the new Patta shit or queueing up for Supreme or whatever it is they’re doing, if you asked that person 20 years ago, what music they were into, they would have said hip-hop or they would have said punk, or they would have said jungle – relatively the same person. It was much more tribal then. Now if you ask someone that question, they answer with artists. What kind of music do you like? Oh I like Drake, I like Kanye West, I like Lil Silva, whatever. What that signifies is a real opening in the tribalism in music, people are way more open minded. What’s really important though is that in the Hypebeast era of everyone consuming the same scroll of culture is that people maintain an open mind and don’t go to a club expecting to hear the same seven artists because that is a thing I’ve really noticed recently. The best way I can sum it up is obviously everyone loves to go to a club and hear their favourite tune, that’s always been the case, that’s never changed. The difference is when I first started going out, I used to go to a club specifically to hear shit that I’d never heard before. That was the reason to go, was to go and wait until the lights come on and hear a DJ play something you’ve never heard before – that was the whole point. Now I find that the culture has kind of switched where people want to hear the exact same song that they were listening to in the car on the way here and if you deviate from that path, then people look at you a bit funny and it’s our job to always introduce new music as you said, not in some chin stroker, high brow educational way but just in a way of loving music because it’s really important we don’t all become these sheep that are only subscribed to these 10 things or 20 ideas because you’ll find that the people who are creating those ideas are the most open minded creative people ever and they love everything so I think that’s an important point to make.

So it’s all about deviation?

Benji B: Kind of, yeah. It’s also about being the thumbprint that you are. You’re a unique thumbprint of your influences and the way I am, I could never be you, you could never be me, in the way you’ve grown up. Do you know what I mean? Someone who grew up in New York in the ’80s is different to someone who grew up in New York in the ’00s, they have a different set of reference points. That is something that should be totally celebrated because the context of all of our different reference points is so important, I can bring the experience of 90s club culture, what it was to go out in that and the DJs that I looked up to. Someone from New York can bring something different, someone from London from the 2000s can bring something different and it’s important that we’re all open minded to the unique experience that we’ve all had and we can all share that instead of trying to funnel it into one common denominator.

What are you up to at the moment? Are you still doing OVO stuff?

Stwo: I’m not signed to OVO but I’m signed to 40’s Club Machine agency. I still work with them. I love working with him [Noah Shebib, aka 40], he’s such a genius. Every time I make beats, I send them to him and he does whatever he wants with them and I also work on my own stuff. For now, I’ve been kind of quiet on the music side because I was working mostly on their stuff but I have my own new music coming out soon which I’m super excited about. And then I’m going on tour with Snakehips in October, doing the US tour together which is funny because we had our first ever tour in the US together three years ago so it’s like we’re doing the second round. I’m just working on ideas, I used to love planning like I’m going to do all this stuff, but I just go with the feeling now.

The stuff you’re working on yourself, how’s that sounding, what are your influences?

Stwo: I feel like there has been a lot of people making the same kind of music in the last few years, I got really inspired  because I like to listen to a lot of stuff and then take inspiration from it and then make my own stuff, but I felt like nothing was fresh so I was just focusing on rap type music because I feel like it’s really easy for me, because I don’t have to think too much so I was focusing on that but now I want to make music for me. Without saying too much, because I want it to be a surprise, I’ve got a really big song with a big artist coming soon and I’m super excited for it. I can’t say who the guy is, it’s exciting for me because it’s a big artist and the way it sounds, it’s obviously R&B but I’m trying to go a little further. For this song I was like, ‘I’m going to do me’ and the artist really liked it so it worked out and we’ll see how this song goes. After that, I’m probably going to drop a little project because I have a lot of music but I’m waiting for that song to drop first and then I’ll just go with the rest but I can’t tell you the name but it’s a big R&B singer.

When you remix popular tracks, it seems very much like you’re trying to break down the conventions of it. Obviously hip-hop is quite formulaic and it feels like you’re trying to push the sound further. 

Stwo: I try not to think about it too much. Every time I drop something I feel it needs to break boundaries. Because I came up in the Soundcloud era, I felt like the music was so redundant and every song sounded the same, every remix of new songs sounded the same. I felt that it got really boring so every time I’m putting out stuff, (and I’m trying to not put out as much), every time I’m putting something out I want it to be interesting – a bit more than a song you like for a week and then you can go to somewhere else. For the 21 Savage remix, it started as a joke, I never thought I was going to release that. Obviously I got the acapella from his manager and then I was like, okay, I’ll mess around with it. I made the song and I posted it with the clip on my Instagram, thinking people are going to be like “what the fuck is this?” and then everybody was like “yo, this is sick” and my manager was like “you should drop it” and my girlfriend was like, “you should drop it” and eventually I just put it out and it worked out. People liked it. A lot of my stuff just happens because I start out not being too serious and then people are like it’s cool and then I’m like ok, I guess I’ll drop it then. I hold onto a lot of my music and never use it.

Is there going to be a B-side of all the unreleased recordings?

Stwo: I would love to, the record that I would love to entirely remix would be the Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge’s NxWorries album to me is one of the best albums that came out in the last few years. I’m always up for anything and that’s the thing too, I don’t want to just make rap music or just R&B, if tomorrow I get a really good country acapella, I’ll do something with it. I’m always out to do everything.

BACARDÍ have had a busy summer. Check out our coverage of the latest No Commission event in Berlin the rum brand held with Swizz Beatz, and of course the Sound of Rum party that took place in Miami back in May.

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