Mophono's Late Night Tales

California based artist Benji Illgen welcomed us to his universe, where he shared with us his family history, rave scene years, music influences and about how he got started. From there, he embarked on a journey creating his own imprint CB Records, developing new DJ techniques and aiming at transmitting his love of the art. Over the years he managed to work with his favorite artists like Egyptian Lover and DJ Shadow. It’s now time to change the beat...


Mophono in 2020
Mophono in 2020
 

Jon

Can you tell me where you were born and where your family is originating from?


Benji

I was born in 1976 at home in Sonoma, California. My mom is German Russian Jewish from Brooklyn, and my father is born in Oakland and he is German Scottish. His mother came from Indiana where her family ran Shirley Radiator Works. My grandfather is from Oakland and he used to worked for my grandmother's family at The Burman's tow truck company. The tow truck company would make money by bringing the cars into the shop, but because my grandfather was such an honest guy and working on cars was second nature, he would blow people's mind by fixing the cars on the road. He was the best guy on the team and was the talk of the company, so my grandmother wanted to meet the young hot shot.


Years later, they got into a mess where they broke down in Oildale Bakersfield, California, and a corrupt tow truck place was holding him and my grandmother hostage and trying to steal his tools as collateral. My grandfather went back to the place after hours, fixed the car himself, got it off the blocks and they safely left town. They both returned a decade later on the way to the Long Beach Grand Prix and saw that that same guy was still working in the oil pit...


Charles Burman's personal Peerless "Green Dragon" booklet, 1905
Charles Burman's personal Peerless "Green Dragon" booklet, 1905

Charles Burman with mechanician Bill Staring in the Peerless that won the 1905 National Championship Race in Cleveland, OH
Driver Charles Burman with mechanician Bill Staring in the Peerless "Green Dragon" car that won the 1905 National Championship Race in Cleveland, OH

Later they helped start what is known as the SCCA [Sports Car Club of America]. My grandfather was a Lead Turn Marshal and part of the first flagmen on the race tracks. He pioneered safety on the tracks by inventing a flagging technique that all race tracks still use today called the Buddy System, where you have two guys back to back. Charlie Burman was my great grand mother's brother. He assembled the first 3 speed transmission in America, and in 1904, while teammates with my great uncle and driving the Peerless Green Dragons, Barney Oldfield was the first to drive 60 miles per hour on the track (aka a mile a minute). So race car driving is a big part of my family heritage.


Jon

Could you relate to the music that was played at home when you were a child?


Benji

I think so. My father was in SF and Oakland in the 60s and was a wild hippie who was marching and speaking out as part of the civil rights movement, and all of this stuff that we are proud of in the Bay Area. He was hanging out with all of these poets and he was part of the beatniks. He and his friends introduced me to a lot of psychedelic rock and folk stuff, and songwriters that had something different to say with valuable lyrics like Richie Havens, Bob Dylan and the early Van Morrison stuff.


Richie Havens "Electric Havens" (Douglas, 1970) - Bob Dylan "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (Columbia, 1964) - Van Morrison "Astral Weeks" (Warner Bros. / Seven Arts Records, 1968)
Richie Havens "Electric Havens" (Douglas, 1970) - Bob Dylan "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (Columbia, 1964) - Van Morrison "Astral Weeks" (Warner Bros. / Seven Arts Records, 1968)

Then on my mom's side, she was embracing like Talking Heads, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson and this sort of New York art party music. So there was always this sort of real creative strand, like music doesn't really need to just be only one thing, there's a dynamic range of expression in there that it can be. My mom is a crazy creative visionary artist who's very comfortable with dark stuff, and blood and weird looking bones and muscles. She does surreal art, so she was definitely a part of introducing me to the positives and negatives of being an artist.


 Grace Jones ‎"Nightclubbing" (Island Records, 1981) -  Talking Heads ‎"Remain In Light" (Sire, 1980) -  Laurie Anderson ‎"Big Science" (Warner Bros. Records, 1982)
Grace Jones ‎"Nightclubbing" (Island Records, 1981) - Talking Heads ‎"Remain In Light" (Sire, 1980) - Laurie Anderson ‎"Big Science" (Warner Bros. Records, 1982)

But my brother too. He brought The Clash, Eurythmics and OMD home and he loved the 80s punk and synth-pop and so he introduced me to Art Of Noise and Yaz [oo] which was huge for me.


 Yazoo ‎"Upstairs At Eric's" (Mute, 1982) -  Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark ‎"Architecture & Morality" (Dindisc, 1981) -  The Art Of Noise ‎"Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise" (ZTT, 1984)
Yazoo ‎"Upstairs At Eric's" (Mute, 1982) - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark ‎"Architecture & Morality" (Dindisc, 1981) - The Art Of Noise ‎"Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise" (ZTT, 1984)

Jon

I guess that it can be uncommon for a kid to listen to this variety of music, is it something that you could share with your friends at school?


Benji

Not until high school did everybody really jump into music, and by that point all the guys we related to were in bands. When I was really young, my cousin made me a mixtape with bands like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and Tone Loc, like party raps. And then I got into EPMD and the whole Eazy-E stuff. And when I turned into a teenager, Public Enemy was like my favorite thing on Earth for sure.


Jon

Usually youngsters are into hip hop or rock or electronic music, but rarely all at once because of this need to belong. And at this age, music is usually a way to identify who you can affiliate with.


Benji

When I grew up, we started going to raves and then it was crazy. Then what we realized is all of the friends we had known through graffiti culture and hip hop were going to these parties too. Everyone agreed that it was a good music thing, but with the raves it felt more like DJ culture and our community above. It was primarily house music here in the Bay, so me and my crew were some of the first people to play bigger events where we’d play hip hop or break beats and b-boy jams on the dance floor.


AIR "Casanova 70" (Source, 1996) - Funki Porcini "Hed Phone Sex" (Ninja Tune, 1995) - Junkwaffel "The Mud Skipper EP" (Cup Of Tea Records, 1995)
AIR "Casanova 70" (Source, 1996) - Funki Porcini "Hed Phone Sex" (Ninja Tune, 1995) - Junkwaffel "The Mud Skipper EP" (Cup Of Tea Records, 1995)

We were playing underground hip hop, instrumental beat stuff, Ninja Tune and Mo Wax stuff a lot, and we played a shitload of French stuff actually too, like Source [label], DJ Cam or Air. We'd have people dancing to 60 BPM stuff, like Funky Porcini's first album [Hed Phone Sex / Ninja Tune, 1995] or Shadow's first 12"s. We'd be playing a lot of Cup Of Tea [Records] that was really chilled out. They had Purple Penguin, Monk & Canatella… And even though I don't like it as much as the other stuff, their first record has a Portishead remix on it [Junkwaffel’s The Mud Skipper EP / 1995]. Pussyfoot [Howie B.’s label] had a lot of stuff that was humorously chilled out where you're like, "What the hell? So calm!"


AIR "Le Soleil Est près De Moi" (Source, 1997) - Blackalicious "Melodica EP" (Solesides, 1994) - Headz 2B (Mo Wax, 1996)
AIR "Le Soleil Est près De Moi" (Source, 1997) - Blackalicious "Melodica EP" (Solesides, 1994) - Headz 2B (Mo Wax, 1996)

But we always put something gnarly and heavy in the mix intentionally. Like "Crash" by Skull [Headz 2B / Mo Wax, 1996], EL-P aka Indelible MC's "Fire in which you Burn (Instrumental)" [Official Recordings, 1997] or Blackalicious' first EP [Melodica / Solesides, 1994] have a super slow half tempo song. Or like that Air Automator Remix ["Le Soleil est Près de Moi "/ Source, 1997]. There's so much stuff! Almost everything we got was UK imports.


Jon

Is it when you started connecting with music?


Benji

I would say when I started to connect with music was when I would be in the kitchen as an eight year old and just sitting there focusing on doing the dishes. My brother and I would mess around with him recording and things like that. So that's when I realized that there was sort of a playful integration happening. I viewed it as this thing that could be malleable or played with. But I feel like when my friends and I started scratching with Beastie Boys, Brand Nubian and EPMD records around 92, only then did I feel like it was something that I could be a part of.


Jon

How did you discover scratching?


Benji

So we were into graffiti and we were into hip hop too, and so it was like we were learning about it all. So we can DJ and do graffiti and rap and make music, and it was all kind of coming in at once. But the Beastie Boys, De La Soul's first album [3 Feet High And Rising / Tommy Boy, 1989] and all the Def Jams stuff were definitely like early on for us, because we're hearing all of these little things that were happening. That kind of only made sense with records.


De La Soul "3 Feet High And Rising" (Tommy Boy, 1989). Design by Toby Mott & Paul Spencer (Grey Organisation)
De La Soul "3 Feet High And Rising" (Tommy Boy, 1989). Design by Toby Mott & Paul Spencer (Grey Organisation)

And when you think of graffiti we weren't 18 yet. We didn’t have money, so my buddies and I are getting into stealing, honestly like a bunch of shit! We’re stealing tons of paint cans, that was really easy. It wasn't about the expenses, it was about the size that you could fit. So if we could go for paint cans we could also shove records or tapes.


We were little kids and we were trying to branch out and do something new. So it's like "How do we do this?" And later on my buddy and I got arrested so it was like "We're either thieves till the end through and through. And everything is just stolen and that's how the fuck we live, or not!" So we realized we had to make a decision… And that same year my buddy got a job and then I got a job too, and we all started to realize "You know what? We're not thieves, we're just fucking around!"


Jon

As a teenager did you have access to MTV, or maybe specialized magazines like Dave Paul's Bomb Hip Hop Magazine?


Benji

We didn't really see all of that until later. [In fact] I associated rap with New York because when I was a kid throughout the 80s, my mom would take me there almost once a year. I was exposed to breakdancing and b-boy culture at a very young age, I was seeing boomboxes and all of that. And so to come back to the Bay and have nothing like that around except for electro breakdancing, I was pretty aware of the East Coast style also.


In the Bay Area, we had Too Short, breakdancing and popping crews, but the sound of Souls of Mischief, Hiero and Solesides wasn't really available over there before 92.


DJ Benji live mix in 1996 (age 20)
DJ Benji live mix in 1996 (age 20)

So not until later on did we start seeing it on television and start going to graffiti conventions or meetups, and connecting with all the local dudes. But it took a while for all this to start settling in or becoming available in California. It wasn't very easy to buy rap records in stores, because it was full of classic rock, and then the rap section would be extra small. It would be mostly some kind of goofy commercial stuff and disco raps, like Sugar Hill Gang.


That summer there was a general sentiment from a lot of our friends, "We don't want to hear any of that party shit, we want that underground sound!" Like all that Souls Of Mischief, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Gangstarr... All that stuff was just exploding in our brains and that's all we wanted to hear.


Jon

Before you became a DJ, I guess that you were appealed by a certain aesthetic of sound, so what was it for you?


Benji

One of my first favorite songs when I was 8 years old was “Egypt, Egypt” by Egyptian Lover [Freak Beat Records, 1984]. His tool the [Roland TR-] 808 is legendary, it's a really powerful machine with a distinct sound. I've always loved electro and old school rap from when I was really young. Stuff like that where if you get a feel for it, it's unmistakable and it's also undeniable.


2nd pressing of "Egypt, Egypt" by The Egyptian Lover (Freak Beat Records, 1984)
2nd pressing of "Egypt, Egypt" by The Egyptian Lover (Freak Beat Records, 1984)

When I was young, I realized that producer DJs were integral in the sound that I loved most about hip hop. Like Dust Brothers with the Beastie Boys, and DJ's like Prince Paul created De La Soul's sound. With all of these weird samples and cool ideas, they sort of entered an alternate universe. I think that kind of created my attraction to sample music and sample culture, and that also dictated my approach and my value system.


It’s not just, "Okay, I want that to happen," and you just go do it. I think anyone who tries to make music finds out very quickly that it isn't really that cut and dry. You start really getting into this world of like, "What is that?" And the answer to that question is where it becomes a personal journey. And that's why I think I don't like talking about equipment too much, because the answer to that question is everyone's own personal journey.


My personal journey started with my friend Shoam and I. We had an 8 second Roland sampler and we had a [Boss] DR660 drum machine. The hi-hat and the kick were alright, but everything else was terrible! And so I learned how to make samples last, speed them up and then slow them down in the sampler, things like that… And I learned really quickly what was valuable and how to process things so that we could make what we wanted to make.


But when it came to my own studio, the real beginning of the larger creations was after I left my little sampler on my DJ Mixer and bought the MPC2000. It had just come out [1997] and had more sample time than just 8 seconds, so I thought “This is the one to get.” I struggled, struggled, struggled and finally bought it, then started digging super hard for records and drum breaks, sampling and making beats. And it's been nonstop since then.


AKAI MPC2000 sampler (1997)
AKAI MPC2000 sampler (1997)

Jon

How would you determine what you were going to put after the sample that you’d just entered in the machine?


Benji

We would be looking for something that had an energy or a vibe to it, something that would click. It would always be a CTI record [jazz label] when I was younger. And it was more often the way you heard it than what it actually was, so you don't really know what it is that's going to do that or why it's going to do that.


We'd be picking through, picking through, picking through, "Oh my God, there it is!" And it's like, "Okay, what does that have in it? How do we use this?" We would both agree, then throw it in the sampler, start choppin' up, truncate, get rid of everything and then it's like, "Okay, now we have this moment." Then we would loop it or trigger it and just add drums. And if you had a nice sample with some drums that had a little bit of bass in it, then you're pretty good.


When I got my MPC my process became much more in depth. I was like, "Okay, you can do this sort of programming," but for the most part it was like finding a little musical loop. And for us back then, it was always beautiful acoustic/analog sounds. Because of the texture, this indescribable chemistry would happen, and then we’d drop some drums over it.


Jon

Would you say that you had mentors or people that galvanized you when you started to make music?


Benji

So I think of my old partner Shoam. It was the two of us and the act of us experimenting and being genuinely excited to create something new, and not be fearful. Just pushing the boundaries as far as we knew, as far as all of our friends knew, and as far as anyone we knew had seen or shown us. And push it to that place where we knew we were finding something cool, new and interesting, unique and uncharted. So more than a person as a mentor, it was that actual act that represented a mentor to both of us. We then created a crew together called ARM [Ace Revolution Mechanics] and slowly added our peers who were the most talented DJ's with the highest musical standards in the Bay Area, at the time.


Mista S.C. (Shoam) Meets Centipede (Benji) "Night Predators Vol.1" mixtape (ARM, 1996) and flyer. Sleeve by Shoam
Mista S.C. (Shoam) Meets Centipede (Benji) "Night Predators Vol.1" mixtape (ARM, 1996) and flyer. Sleeve by Shoam

Jon

You have released a mixtape called Mophono in 96 [under his name Benji] where ARM is mentioned and there's this sort of mecha on it. Were you into Japanese culture at the time?


Benji

Oh yeah, so that was the first mixtape and it's kind of an interesting story behind the cover art.


When I was a kid, I would save up all my money and buy Lego. So when I was about 8, my first large purchase was like 100 bucks, which is a lot of fucking money as a kid! I saved up my money until we went to this wonderful place called Mr. Mopps in Berkeley. It's a really cool toy store where you could find toys that weren't usually found in the Bay Area. There, I found this big ass box of Japanese robots that you could all stack on top of each other. So I'm like, "This is the shit!" I bought this thing called Blockman [In 1985, Takara sold the license of Combination Warrior Blockman to Revell in the USA which they rebranded Robotech Robolinks].


The Blockman C Series was the visual inspiration to create the 1st Mophono mixtape (Takara, 1984)
The Blockman C Series was the visual inspiration to create the 1st Mophono mixtape (Takara, 1984)

Later on, when I started going to parties I remember going to this guy. I was like "How the hell did you make this fucking flyer for this party?" And he's like, "Kinkos!” My buddy and I were like, "What the hell is Kinkos?" And then we went there. It is a self-serve copy place where they used to have these counter cartridges that would count your copies. So you'd walk in, grab a cartridge, plug it into the copier, copy, and then you'd bring the cartridge up to the register and pay. After a little bit of time we realized how to rig the system. We just stole one of those cartridges. So you'd go in, you'd grab a cartridge, plug it in, put like 10 copies on it, then secretly put the stolen cartridge in and put like 100 copies on, then put their cartridge back in again, and then do another 10 copies, and pay for 20 copies. It's fucked up, but it made it so that we could just give mixtapes out and make flyers and everything super cheap!


There's a whole bunch of tapes that aren't up on Discogs. One of them was Mista SC meets DJ Centipede. [At the time] my buddy was like, "What's your favorite video game?" I said “Centipede" [shoot'em up released by Atari in 1981]. He's like, "That's your DJ name!" I'm like, "What the hell?" That’s where I got the DJ Centipede name, and so that was the very first time I used the name DJ Centipede was on that mixtape.


Centipede arcade game's marquee on Atari. Design by Dona Bailey & Ed Logg, 1981
Centipede arcade game's marquee on Atari. Design by Dona Bailey & Ed Logg, 1981

Eventually, my partner and I had made a bunch of mixtapes. I was like, "Okay, this one's gonna just be me, it's gonna be my first mixtape." I put all this energy into that mixtape and I dug that back out, so the cover is actually a Kinkos scan of the [toy box] cover. And then I had hatched together on top with scissors, I repurposed it so that it did not say "Blockman" but "Mophono" because I just thought that would be the name of the cassette. I put my pager phone number on it and I recorded it in three takes. I did the first take, didn't get it, did the second take, messed up, and then the third take is the one that the mixtape is from all the way through.


[Benji shows me this huge pile of stickers that you put on cassette shells]. All of these are unused and come from the mixtapes that I made in the 90s and gave away or sold. Whenever I mark a record for the DJ stuff, I use one of the label stickers that came with them. So that's a lot right there and of the Mophono [tape], I easily did more than 500.


Benji's first solo mixtape under his Mophono moniker (ARM, 1996)
Benji's first solo mixtape under his Mophono moniker (ARM, 1996)

Jon

That Mophono tape is essentially a mix of Ninja Tune and Mo Wax tracks. Back in 96, both labels were already famous all over Europe but maybe not in the States, so how did you discover them?


Benji

Well, they were a little bit bigger than the rest of the stuff that we got. When we started record shopping we were playing dance music, and I remember the last time I went record shopping for dance music and this was a big memorable moment.


It was at Tweekin Records about two blocks from where I live now. They had a little back room where they had all the imports and that's where we'd find Cup of Tea, Ninja Tune, Mo Wax, Wall of Sound, Pussyfoot, Warp and all the crazy shit. Basically, I listened to like 150 dance records and didn't buy any of them. Palm Skin with the Autechre remix, was the best thing I found and I ended up buying this record only [he shows me Palm Skin Productions ‎– The Beast (Remix) / Mo Wax, MW029R, 1995] and a repress of Tribe Called Quest. It was very apparent that all I wanted to hear was abstract experimental and downtempo music.


Palm Skin Productions "The Beast (Remix)" (MW029R - Mo Wax, 1995). Graphics by Swifty. Scan by Rob
Palm Skin Productions "The Beast (Remix)" (MW029R - Mo Wax, 1995). Graphics by Swifty. Scan by Rob

When I had a landline and this came out [he shows me RPM – 2000 reissue / Mo Wax, MW018, 1994], I bought it and I called Mo Wax. Because I'm like, "Okay, these guys are the best. Maybe I can tell them how much of a fan I am," cuz I loved their records and I was just starting to see things happen. but I think I just ended up leaving them a voice message [he laughs].


Jon

What's the meaning of the Mophono moniker?


Benji

So it's a lot of records like this and you will like the French stuff too [he shows me a bunch of records including La Funk Mob, Mighty Bop, MC Solaar, DJ Cam, Source Lab, Daphreephunkateerz...] and Mo Wax, Digable Planets and Jazzmatazz, you know what I mean?


There was this whole movement with jazz and hip hop, and all these beautiful designs and labels. It was like an attitude and a whole mindset, everybody put "Mo" in front of everything and I decided to add "Phono" for that mixtape. So I just put Mophono as kind of an expression of what it is: more records.


And only in 2000 did I come back to the name of that mixtape. I wasn't really releasing music under my own name so then I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna put my record out, what do I call myself?" Shadow actually has some early demos of mine that I gave him before I used Mophono, called Phono Constructions. There's some stuff in skate videos with those but they don't have that early name, it's all just under Mophono.


 La Funk Mob ‎"Casse Les Frontières, Fou Les Têtes En L'air" (MW023 - Mo Wax, 1994). Grafix by Swifty. Photography by Will Bankhead. Scan By Rob
La Funk Mob ‎"Casse Les Frontières, Fou Les Têtes En L'air" (MW023 - Mo Wax, 1994). Grafix by Swifty. Photography by Will Bankhead. Scan by Rob

Jon

What's the difference between Mophono and DJ Centipede sonically?


Benji

Ten years ago if I did a Mophono DJ set it would primarily be really obscure, awkward, crunched out, aggressive, fucked up and definitely not in the main stream. Whereas nowadays, if I'm playing even slightly left of center shit, a lot of people act like I'm a weirdo!


But it's also sort of contextual. Like, for example if I'm playing at a Z-Trip or at a Cut Chemist show and I go into an original breaks and beat set, that's not really going to turn any heads per se because people would probably expect that sound from me in that setting... But each show has a space where if you try, you can really stretch out and take people with you into a different world.


So it's kind of like, with DJ Centipede, I pay a little bit more attention to the job of the DJ. It’s full freedom, play anything whatever the fuck it is, have a strong effect on people and really have some motion in the crowd. But If I'm doing a DJ Centipede set and no one's dancing, I'm like, "Let's break something out to really make a move."


Mofoko: first ARM weekly @ Your Mama's Cafe, Oakland, 1996
Mofoko: first ARM weekly @ Your Mama's Cafe, Oakland, 1996

Whereas with Mophono, I'm not really gonna meld directly into the listeners comfort zone like people in their 30s or 40s and play exactly what makes them fucking dance... I'm not going to do that. It's more like, "Come on, look at what I'm doing!" I'm going to do something that no one else can do on the planet, and I'm going to try and enrich your life with something that hopefully isn't too far from your musical spectrum. But also bring something really entertaining and interesting either on just the turntables or with a full live analog performance with drum machines and synths and crazy skipping records and weird noises, you know what I mean? So that’s kind of the difference.


Jon

To me the Bay Area is more of a hip hop music incubator, and when it comes to the electronic music revolution it’s more the likes of Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Moroder or Vangelis who are all from Europe. So what can you tell me in terms of electronic music acts over there during the 60s/70s?


Benji

That’s basically the question that I asked myself early on in my career. "Was the only way to party in the 60s to play in a rock band?" And I slowly found out that it wasn't. There was this guy Don Buchla who created the Buchla Box in the 60s, which was this gloopy thing that he could play with at parties where everybody was doing drugs and hanging out. And so I also got answers finding out about people like the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a super important hub of experimental music from 62-66, with people like Steve Reich and Terry Riley.


Don Buchla (1937-2016) in the late 60s and a price catalogue of the Buchla 100 Series modular synthesizers
Don Buchla (1937-2016) in the late 60s and a price catalogue of the Buchla 100 Series modular synthesizers

And then it was like, "Where does psychedelic music and electronic music cross paths?" Because I was kind of caught up in a lot of that. And I realized that there was more to this Bay Area electronic scene of music concrete and weird experimental stuff. There's this guy [Stan Shaff and his partner Doug McEchern] that ran this place called the Audium with this surround sound system with like 60 speakers, and there he would play weird tape music. You'd go in a circle, you'd sit down, close your eyes and listen to the music concrète as a sonic musical art piece.


So there was a lot of experimental stuff going on in the Bay Area obviously, especially when I was a kid. And my mom often took me to crazy art shows, cool performance art shows and a lot of museums too. That was my main outlet until I really started experimenting on my own as a teenager, partying and doing acid, and throwing my own events and art shows.


Jon

Did you take piano lessons as a kid or are you mostly self-taught?


Benji

Definitely self-taught. I think I always approached it from a sort of experimental place, and I learned early on that there is something that occurs when you're just playing around. But there's also a value to understanding the musicality and how things go together, and understanding context and composition.


So I am basically constantly learning, which also creates a little bit more of a timely process. Sometimes I'll learn a piece upside down before I actually perform it, and it's helped when I've worked with other musicians in terms of really appreciating their craft. Because just having another person sometimes can act as a counterpoint or re contextualize a piece. And transcribing an otherwise simple part can completely come alive, and that is a huge value as well.


Audium theatre in San Francisco. Photography by Joe Fletcher, 2014
Audium theatre in San Francisco. Photography by Joe Fletcher, 2014

When I work with other musicians, I always learn new things. It's almost like this discovery thing where we learn about what we gravitate towards and I'm always like, "Why do I like this so much?" My buddies Joe Cohen and Young Aundee are musicians that spend a lot of time in my studio and often help build some of these killer compositions.


Joe Cohen recorded with me for definitely more than 10 years, and he'll come over and I'll show him something that I'm playing with and I'll be like, "I don't know where to go after this. I keep going to a happy place but I don't want it to be happy, or vice versa." And he'll show me different ways or we will play with some cool ideas, and I'll modify them. I usually say things like, "Let's slow it down a little bit, or find ways to parse ideas into compositions or flip things around and just have fun.”


Jon

That's interesting because I think many artists keep their work for themselves, they don't really share their compositions before it's done.


Benji

When I was a kid, DJs would bring their records out, but they would have them covered up so no one could read the labels and find out the songs. And so I'm also definitely of that private and secretive old school ilk.


But I've seen so many artists who create something and it never gets seen by anyone else, and I don't want that to happen to my music. Every time I change into a different kind of technique or new style, it takes a little bit and then I completely understand it, and it's not about me anymore after that's done. I really want to have it be seen and I'm not making it for myself because I know what I can do, I'm making it for everyone else, like DJs and lovers of the art and music.


Mophono in the mix, 2010
Mophono in the mix, 2010

I think somewhere about 10 years ago, it was like I wanted to create something that may change people's ideas, like chemistry. My utility isn't just "I want people to dance, I want DJs to play it, I just want to have music that people can sit and listen to." Because if it was the only focus, I would definitely make different stuff [he laughs]. What I feel is more important than just filling the void or demand, is to have an effect and to curate some sort of value in my community. My hope is that if it affects them, it will then affect everyone else. So it's this ripple thing that goes out.


Jon

So basically, you don’t like to have unreleased tracks?


Benji

Yeah, it's really hard for me because it feels like I'm not keeping my word. I feel like I owe it to the art, I owe it to the voice of the piece that I create, and I also feel that I owe it to the people that support the art, you know? Not just because they support me, but also it's like I have the luxury to create and put all of this time and energy into it. In a sense there is that process. Whatever happens after it is released is not really bad, because I know that I gave it the best shot at being seen and heard. The most important thing is I really want it to have an effect on people.


Jon

As one switches between styles, I feel like to master them you have to follow a process. Maybe tryouts and sketches are a prerequisite until you feel comfortable enough to release the track that you wanted, having learnt from your previous mistakes?


Benji

It's a good point, from one thing to the next. What I think you're uncovering is this idea that "Is everything worth presenting?" I mean, the tragedy of not releasing it comes from the fact that everything I release right now, I have about 10 times that that I'd like to release! Every release kind of represents a variation of the best I could do at that expression.


CB Records logo (Benji's imprint)
CB Records logo (Benji's imprint)

What you hear a lot in my music are these moments where I fit a lot into one little piece, and what that references is that I have so much more to say in these releases… I feel like it is a real shame to have tons of finished material and it's all ready to go but no one ever hears it. I think that part is the hard part.


Though I would agree there's a lot of ideas and sketches that I have recorded that kind of takes me from one place to the next, I wouldn't really quantify that as finished material that should be seen.I think it's more like "Listen to this idea." And I think there's ways to share that, it comes across when you see things like those beat battles or those how-to videos. I think things like that where people share their process are really interesting.


Jon

Is it not a pressure for an artist to have their studio at home?


Benji

It's actually a question in my life for the first time in 28 years, is to have a studio out of the house or not. And there's been times in my life where I've seen a real benefit, like when I was part of bands or when I was working with a bunch of different artists and we'd go to a place, make music, then go eat and go home.


So a big part of what I do by collecting all of these records, there's so much in it that's personal. And I'm like, "There is a level of it in physicality. Right now I can record it, I can have the waveform, I can have the lossless, I can even probably find an original recording of the digital and have it be even more crystal clear. But it's not the same!" And so that's the hard part. And this very physical thing, that's what I associate with having an effect. So there's some part of it that I appreciate so much. And to act like that doesn't exist, I think is also a pretty hard one for me too.


There's this Buddhist mentality where you don't have desires and people say "Oh, it's unconditional, everything can come and go," but I'm not into that.


My early career started in chill rooms, in raves, and our best sort of use and utility for me and my DJ crew was to basically make it easy for people to chill out. So scientifically the most chilled out thing unfortunately would be to have no music on, and then you would have zero effect, in other words pure silence. So it was probably 94-95 when I realized, "I don't want to be background" and it's problematic because then it's conditional.