On New Year’s Eve Benji Boko looked out over the expectant crowd, peered down at his mountain of complicated equipment and pressed the start button on what was the most important set of his life so far. His NASA space station-like concoction of laptops, samplers, sequencers, foot pedals, keyboards, midi controllers and turntables meant that, although he was able to take apart every tune he played and rebuild them in a unique way, he could also royally fuck things up.
So what, you might think. No big deal. Yeah, maybe – if he wasn’t onstage at the O2 Arena playing the midnight set to 17,000 people. Yep, the zeros are all correct in that figure.
“It was mental,” he says, reasonably. “The most ecstatic moment of my life to date, no doubt about it. So ecstatic that I fell asleep as soon as I came offstage. It had built up to that point and then I was done, despite the loud rocking sound of bass in my dressing room.”
That bass was coming from Deadmau5 and Justice, and Benji’s warm-up man for the night was a fella called Calvin Harris. It’s a gig of a lifetime, but then Mr Boko’s live remix show is something very special. Zane Lowe and Rob Da Bank have declared themselves fans and one of Benji’s heroes, DJ Yoda, announced that, “Benji is the future, his show is frikkin’ mega!”
All the technology allows Benji to be completely free with the type of tunes he plays. He can really mix things up, from The Prodigy to music from Thomas The Tank Engine, from Nirvana to The Simpsons theme via Snoop Dogg. ?”Everything is in there,” he explains. “It’s this journey of TV, nostalgic music from the 30s to now. There’s dubstep, drum’n’bass, hip hop, everything. The set up allows me to totally improvise. I never play the same tune the same way ever. I get bored otherwise.”
But playing live isn’t all Benji does. His debut album, ‘Beats, Treats & All Things Unique’ has just come out on Tru Thoughts and it’s a jaunty little affair. Taking his spontaneous, magpie-esque approach to playing live and applying it to production, he’s come out with a LP that crosses the classic jazz-ed out Tru Thoughts sound, smoky trip hop, bass-heavy instrumental hip hop and reggae. Never staying still for a heartbeat, it reminds us of the eclectic age of big beat, where the idea was to make every track stand out. It also shares that genre’s sense of humour.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” he explains of the wall-bouncing, genre-hopping. “I just made music all the time. It’s a schizophrenic mishmash of styles. I like to experiment with genres, samples, sounds, vocal artists and instrumentals and see what comes from it. The album’s a melting pot of everything, hence the title.”
Probably the standout track is ‘Where My Heart Is”, a melodic, low-slung, head-nodding hip hop track with Faithless’ Maxi Jazz on the mic. It’s a collaboration that was a long time coming. ?”I supported him DJing in Leeds when I was at university and gave him a CD of a track that I thought he’d be really good on,” Benji recalls. “He said, ‘Great, I’m totally up for it and I’ll call you next week.’ He didn’t, obviously.”
After about a year of talking with Maxi’s agent, his manager and his PA, Benji got a call one Friday night asking, ‘Can Max record it with you in the morning?’ ?”I thought; I can’t turn down this opportunity, so instantly said yes and rushed up to London to hire the best equipment possible,” Benji says. “We recorded it that morning, done, and two years later it came out.”
Another thing that’s been a long time coming, but for very different reasons, is the visuals for Benji’s live show. One day in the SOURCE office he showed us early versions of some of the animations that will accompany the tracks that he plays. We have to say it’s a bit of a game-changer.
“I’ve been describing it as a Pixar movie, live,” he says proudly. “I have this alter ego, this purple monkey that I wanted to evolve into music videos and animations. I can’t say too much but it’s going to be the live remix show with visuals. Think Soulwax meets a Disney film. At the moment I’m coding software, and getting animations done, but it’s a long process.”
In the meantime you can catch his visual-less show at the Playgroup Festival and find out why 17,000 people went crazy on New Year’s Eve. Benji has a long-running relationship with Brighton’s premier party crew and it’s easy to see why they’re such a good match. Despite taking things very seriously behind closed doors, both put a massive emphasis on having fun over being sulky and cool. Benji loves cartoons and TV themes (“I feel more inspired by TV sometimes than I do by records,” he admits) while Playgroup love fancy dress and crazy happenings. Basically they’re all big kids.
“I think I’m doing the main slot on one of the stages on Friday night of the festival,” he says. “Playgroup fit well with what I do in terms of being very liberal with their approach to dressing up and themed nights. It goes with what I do perfectly. I hope it will be a long relationship.” We can’t see why not. Because with his NASA space station set-up Benji is shooting for the stars, and we all want to go with him.
ALBUM: ‘Beats, Treats & All Things Unique’ Out Now
LIVE: Playgroup Festival, Fri 5th-Sun 7th August
PHOTO BY KEVIN MASON FOR GARAGE STUDIOS
ASSISTED BY ZOE BAKER