One of the most respected, influential and successful artists to have emerged from the original Croydon dubstep scene in the early 2000s, Benga’s return has been highly anticipated; not least because the last time he was in the spotlight he’d broken the seal on a serious topic that needed to be addressed: mental health. After 18 months away from the DJ merry-go-round Adegbenga Adejumo has just released his first single in two years: the gritty, four-to-the-floor banger ‘Psychosis’.
In late 2015 the 31-year-old artist revealed in a high-profile broadsheet interview that he’d been experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder since 2013. Exacerbated, he believes, by an intense party and touring lifestyle, his behaviour let him to be sectioned [committed compulsorily to a psychiatric facility], and his recovery took two years. When he returned, he wanted to help others living with similar conditions, show that there can be consequences of not looking after yourself, and break down the taboos surrounding mental health.
His honesty hit home: in the years that have passed, more DJs have felt comfortable discussing their health publicly, and have explained why they’ve taken time out from touring. The whole dialogue about partying in general, how fragile our minds are and how we perceive people suffering from mental health difficulties, has certainly matured. For Benga, however, the last two years have also presented a lot of challenges. Right now he’s more positive and focused than he’s been in years, he’s packing a new label called Illuminate, he has a vision and exciting creative plans. But he knows that his recovery is ongoing – and the next low could be just around the corner.
New single ‘Psychosis’ captures the essence of these lows. Raw and off-kilter, it takes off where his ‘Future Funk’ concept EP left us in February 2016 but hits with typical intensity and honesty. Here’s how he arrived here…
Welcome back! This is a comeback, right?
I’m back. This cements things in my mind: there’s no going away from it, my next decade is all about putting out records and touring music again.
It’s been a few years since you had a lot of media attention regarding your health. What’s happened since then?
Unfortunately I did the Guardian interview and got ill again almost straight after. I didn’t get sectioned that time, but I went back on the meds and that slowed things down.
Was that due to the sudden blast of activity and change to your routine?
No, I don’t think that was the reason. If I can be completely honest, I played a festival and lived my old life for a bit. It was my own fault. I didn’t take my recovery seriously enough when I should have done.
That must have been a wake-up call?
For sure. I thought I could take a couple of risks, but that wasn’t the case. It was up and down for a while. I played fabric and did some small tours and I thought I was going to keep it going from there. But I had a few altercations with people, I’d switched managers, things kept dragging and I kept on getting unwell. Musically, I had a vision of what
I wanted to do with my future funk concept, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. Then I got sectioned again last November and once I came around and got stable I thought to myself, ‘I need to make music, I need to put it out, I need to go with this.’
Is music a source of stability?
One hundred per cent. It has to be.
You must have had some touching moments from people who were also suffering when you spoke out
about mental health...
Oh totally. It was incredibly gratifying. The whole reason I brought it up was because I felt I owed it to people. I was smashing drugs, drinking loads and acting like I never got affected. I could have easily stayed away, not said anything and come back pretending it never happened. But then people would look at that lifestyle and think there are no consequences.
Do you feel we’ve progressed in how we understand and discuss mental health since then?
There’s been progression, but people pick up a lot of information and it takes time for that information to settle. Once people have accepted an issue and got to grips with it, it’s in their psyche and eventually becomes normal. But normal doesn’t come around the next day. It takes time.
Your new track ‘Psychosis’ feels like a very honest reflection of where your head can be during an episode...
Oh, one hundred per cent! I’d be writing down what I’d go through during psychosis, and those vocals were so pure in how it came together.
Aesthetically it’s gritty machine funk; it’s raw as well as honest.
Definitely. That was the original idea. The kick doesn’t sit perfectly in the groove and it feels jolty and mechanical. ‘Psychosis’ was also the first tune that really hit the nail on the head about what future funk was all about. It was a fresh page, which is what I needed: when I came out of hospital I realised I’d lost a lot of music because I’d decided to delete it all during psychosis.
Yeah. Everything. I came out of that and was like ‘Okay, I know future funk was too closed.’ It wasn’t open enough. So I’m tying everything I do at a tempo. All at 136. Some tunes are broader, some are breakier, some are half-time. But it’s all at a tempo where I can roam wild and live at.
You went on record about production when you released the ‘Future Funk’ EP and stated that it’s up to the artist to decide when a track is finished. Not online commenters. I think that’s
Yeah, when I first uploaded a few tracks in this style there were comments saying they felt unfinished or needed production. But that was where I was at. We forget how much production can ruin an idea. Sometimes the production standard has to be lower in order to be creative. So many ideas get lost in the fight against the mix. That’s what [new label] Illuminate is all about: bringing great ideas to light.
Have you signed artists already?
I’m still collecting and looking for artists. I want to launch this now, and show people I’m out here and looking. I don’t care if it’s finished; I want to help and encourage new ideas and hear what people have to offer.
Benga is open for business!
Yeah! I’ve got a few of my own records ready to roll out while I’m building up the collection and I want anyone who feels they have an idea to send me demos! I’m listening. I want to push music forward, I want to help people.
You mentioned 10 years at the start of the conversation. Does it feel like 10 years since ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’?
Not at all! It’s still inspiring for me to this day.
Do you still listen to it regularly? Some artists can’t listen to their albums because they’ve been so deep inside them they can’t get the distance...
I guess for a few years I didn’t check it. But even during the Magnetic Man album I was listening to it for ideas. I’ve always gone back to it. It was a very honest moment in time. It reminds me what has always inspired me: innovation. That’s at the core of what I do and where I want the label to be. I want it to be free, to take you to places and to think differently.
‘Psychosis’ is out now on Illuminate Records, with a follow-up planned for June