Ahead of the release of record label Hessle Audio’s compilation CD on May 16, one of the label’s co-founders, Ben UFO, talks to East London Lines about setting up the label, the fame game and his love of South London. Since its humble conception by economically inept but musically obsessed students, Hessle Audio has grown into a sustainable business with a reputation as one of the most influential music labels, known for releasing pioneering grime and dubstep.
The magazine XLR8R described it as being “on the cusp of forward thinking, house, dubstep and UK bass music scene since its inception.”
Although the record label has been responsible for propelling the careers of the current poster boy of dubstep, James Blake, and fellow Hessle Audio founder Ramadanman/Pearson Sound, it has taken a lot longer for Ben UFO, one of its other founders, to enter the lexicon of music critics.
But Ben UFO, real name Ben Thomson, doesn’t mind that his name isn’t being bandied about on the trendy streets of east London.
“It’s give and take, a certain level of publicity is necessary. Being dismissive of the press is like biting the hand that feeds you, but there’s a balance to be struck,” he says.
“I find that I’m turned off from an artist when they become too big, it’s difficult to engage with the music on its terms.”
This would sound pretentious from anyone else, but from this floppy haired, softly-spoken 26-year-old, it’s apparent that music has nothing to do with money or the fame game.
The Leeds University graduate has seen the growth of dubstep; from small clubs with half a dozen people in it, to nights being run by professional promoters.
He explains: “As the music gets bigger and money starts to pour in, nights get bigger, promoters jump in, it’s a bit dull.
“I liked the grassroots aspects of doing nights in Leeds and never knowing how many people would turn up, it was about doing it for the fun of playing records on a soundsystem.”
Ben has chosen a cosy cafe in Denmark Hill to meet, he’s a fan of the Vietnamese coffee there. On the table is a well-thumbed copy of the Guardian. We are close to where the DJ now lives in Peckham, having recently moved there from Brixton.
“South London is good for music but I love it more for the social side. There’s people in the music scene and friends who live close by.”
Apart from a university stint in the north, Ben is a London boy, having spent his childhood years in Ealing.
Although his intelligent responses and reflections betray his middle class upbringing, he downplays it by dropping his ‘t’s’ and slipping in the occasional south London street slang. And it’s the south of the Thames, with its loud sounds and mishmash of different communities, where he feels he belongs.
“I feel very at home here, west London seems alien and strange. Ealing’s a bubble,” he says.
Despite his disregard for the area he grew up, its middle class leafy suburbs were where Ben first developed an interest in music, listening to “slightly chin strokey” drum and bass at school.
“I went to a club night called Topicality, and it was different to some dnb stuff, less ravey and more focused on the actual music,” he says.
“It was very bass driven, and that really defined dubstep in its early days. Going to these dubstep nights for the first time, it felt like a new and inspiring sense of possibility, a space to explore, more so than dnb.”
Ben found his future friend and Hessle Audio business colleague, David Kennedy at the FWD clubnight, in East London.
He learned Kennedy, who would become Ramadanman, was going up to Leeds University to start his degree, so Ben, who was two years older, took him under his wing.
“I gave him recommendations on halls to stay in and music to play. He started sending me music that he was working on – it wasn’t very good,” he says.
Ben UFO found the final musketeer of Hessle Audio, Pangea/Kevin McAuley, through a friend, and the pair bonded over hours spent mixing tracks.
“Kev had turntables in his room in halls. There was no room for them so they were placed on the floor. I would always go round to his room and we’d mix for two or three hours, kneeling on the floor. We couldn’t stand up after,” he says.
At this point, dubstep was in its infancy in Leeds, a far cry from its reputation as a dubstep hotspot now.
“At the time there was only one grime night in Leeds, that was it. I joined this Facebook group called ‘If you like dubstep and grime and live in Leeds’ which had a dozen members and we went to the pub together,” he says.
“It was there that we decided to start a night where we could play records. We called it Ruffage, there were 10/15 people involved, people dropping in and out, some involved in the line ups, some in the promotion, that was it really.”
Despite the momentum that was picking up around dubstep, it wasn’t enough to get them a slot on their university’s radio station.
Although this came as a surprise (“No one even listens to student radio anyway”) it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The pair managed to bag a slot on Sub FM instead, a radio/internet station dedicated to grime and dubstep, with a loyal audience.
It was their experience of radio that led them to start thinking about setting up a record label.
“We had people listening, and they started sending us music. We realised that people were sending us really good stuff but they had no outlet for their music, so we decided to start the label,” Ben says.
“In hindsight, we were very lucky. It was at a time when distributors were building up, but now the scene is completely saturated. It was a case of being in the right place, at the right time.”
Despite the success of Hessle Audio, Ben UFO is very realistic about the industry he’s working in.
“Music can be quite cruel, people who were in vogue a few years ago are suffering now. It’s difficult to keep up a consistent level, you can be up one day and have nothing the next day,” he explains, gesticulating vigorously.
It’s unclear whether his experience in the music industry has jaded him slightly or whether he’s always had a propensity to over analyse.
Considering he did a philosophy degree it’s probably the latter.
In the shop, the coffee machine whirs away against a generic lounging soundtrack, muffling Ben’s soft voice.
The lanky, dark-haired DJ, whose name is inspired by an interest in extra-terrestrial life, looks young for his age, dressed in a dark t-shirt and hoody, and is unassuming despite his widely respected reputation within the industry.
I doubt many in the cafe would realise the amount of exuberance he can create with his music mixes – heavy basslines that can convert an empty room, to a pulsating sweaty mess of joy.
Although he appears nervous and even shy, everything he says is carefully weighted and pondered upon.
He is concerned with the way some dubstep musicians produce their music.
“Manufactured pop music can be more honest than underground music in that it’s very open in how it’s manufactured, in a very transparent way,” he says.
“But sometimes for more independent music, promoters use the same techniques as commercial music but they cover it up, knowing that their reputation is built on being independent. Being closer to music production means that I can see how that happens, and I find it pretty bleak.”
He adds: “The more hype there is about something, the less hyped I am about it. I like going into things with no preconceptions, and I find it irritating if the way you interpret music is predetermined.”
To Ben UFO, music, especially dubstep, is more than just something to rave to or rave about. It provides a sense of community, but this has been difficult to maintain as it has grown in popularity.
“It’s difficult to generate the same level of enthusiasm for music when it had that sense of community. How can you have that same level of interest when people you see, you’ll probably never meet again?”
Ben becomes animated when he talks about a visit to an exhibition documenting the wave of immigration to Southall, and he marvels at the different cultural communities in London, from the Afro-Caribbean population in Ladbroke Grove to the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets.
“It’s amazing how these communities are so entrenched in the area and have such strong roots,” he says.
Ben UFO seems to crave for this sense of community again in dubstep. He’s in two hearts about the state of dubstep; its rise has helped his record label, allowing him to reach new audiences, but the growth of the industry has been troubling him.
He explains that ‘dubstep’ now comes to encompass more than it did when it was a bass-driven, stripped down sound:
“Now if you say dubstep to people, what they say is the kind of thing that pops up on Youtube when you type ‘dubstep’. What we put out and what we DJ doesn’t have much in common with what dubstep is associated with these days.”
Dubstep has even managed to cross over into the political arena. Paul Mason from BBC’s Newsnight described the student protests last year as the ‘dubstep revolution’, a term that annoys Ben UFO.
“Mason’s latched onto a word that he’s heard young people use. I mean from what I know, there were all sorts of things being played, dancehall, dnb and garage,” he says.
“There were kids trying to get their message across and making up their own rules. Laurie Penny in the New Statesman called dubstep ‘the soundtrack of this organic youth revolution’ which I found a bit cringey, it’s like she trying to keep in touch with the youth, but not really examining what she’s saying.”
Ben calls it a ‘semantic qualm’, the way in which dubstep has come to encompass so much that it seems almost foreign to him. But he is also grateful to it.
He sees the success of Hessle Audio protégée James Blake, whose haunting vocals have sent shivers down the back of music critics, as a boon.
“People now have a reference point for what I do. I hated having to endlessly qualify what I was doing. Whereas people would ask before what kind of music I did and I’d be like ‘It’s a bit like this, a cross between that’, now people can latch onto it more easily,” he says.
He has recently been working with musician Kassem Mosse on the Trilogy Tapes, cassette tapes which capture the graininess and aesthetic of the tape as part of their music.
Ben explains that “back in the day” cassette tapes were big within the London pirate radio scene, with people taping shows and swapping them.
“It kind of made sense to do them, although it’s just pointless nostalgia.” Maybe pointless for other people, but not for Ben UFO.
Ben may look back to nostalgic memories of dubstep in its underground days, but his music, through his own DJing and with Hessle Audio, act as a pioneering and fresh force on the dubstep scene.