Deviation arguably hosts the best parties in London. Helmed by Radio 1 DJ Benji B and MC Jude Afriyie, the duo have spent the last twelve plus years throwing an unforgettable string of club nights and carnival afterparties that leave crowds wanting more. Their secret to success? Unparalleled lineups, attention to detail and a strong sense of camaraderie.
Let’s take July 2014 as an example. Benji, Kaseem Mosse, Travis Scott, Virgil Abloh and Mark Ronson all featured on the Deviation bill at east London institution, XOYO. Crossing musical boundaries, each lineup is curated with precision, booking artists from the “leftfield of dance culture”.
This year, for obvious reasons, the club scene turned to live streams in a bid to entertain everyone in lockdown. Bringing the party to your living room, Benji and Afriyie launched INSIDE /OUTin April 2020, a live performance featuring Deviation’s global friends and family. Special guests so far have included Oneman, Kode9, Clipz, Martelo, Virgil Abloh, J Rocc, Tiffany Calver, Bambii, Carista and Kaytranada. That feeling of community and inclusivity present at the live shows, is echoed in this digital environment with heartwarming comments flooding in in response to soulful tunes.
Following the violent death of African American George Floyd at the hands of US police officer Derek Chauvin, the pair initially postponed their weekly INSIDE /OUT live stream, taking two weeks off from broadcasting to regroup. “Our core beliefs and foundations have always been Black inspired,” Jude says. “Both of us felt a massive need to sit down and look at what’s going on around us. It would be criminal not to do something and use our platform to get the conversation going.”
Tonight, Thursday 18th June, at 7pm Deviation will host their first online auction in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Calling upon independent labels and creatives for donations, they will be raising money for two separate causes: Inquest, who campaign for social justice, and The Black Curriculum, a non-profit seeking to diversify the British school system.
Auction items include: a tour jacket and unreleased 7inch from BADBADNOTGOOD; original poster art from legendary club Plastic People; a day in the XL Recordings studio with an engineer; rare items from designer Martine Rose and skateboarder and photographer Lucien Clarke; a selection of relevant reading material from Donlon Books and vinyl packs from Eglo Records, Defected, XL, New Groove, Apron and BBE.
“We looked at every single organisation and we both agreed that The Black Curriculum and Inquest make total sense,” Afriyie continues. “We can try and shine a light on these hidden charities and organisations. It’s not going to stop there because we have a social responsibility.” We caught up with Jude Afriyie and Benji B to hear more.
I’ve been watching some of your live streams. You’re keeping the party going. How has it been going digital?
Jude: Weird. For me it’s weird but I’ve become quite comfortable with it.
Benji: Someone called him Max Headroom the other day.
Jude: That was Tremaine [Emory]. He’s an arsehole. [Laughs]
Benji: It’s become really evident to everyone that we’re discovering it in real time. In just the same way that people’s behaviour and interaction is changing around digital media and streaming, we’re just working it out as we go along.
We just felt that we really wanted to do something during this time. There’s not an end goal or anything, we just wanted to have a presence. In the room I’m sitting in it’s been weird going from an audio music slash radio studio to basically a TV studio now. I’ve had to learn how to use cameras and streaming software but it’s been interesting.
One of the first issues we had to overcome was this latency issue. I had to look at this room and think of a solution. So I decided to use an iPad and a minijack and FaceTime Jude.
Jude: I think he called me like an hour or two before [going live] and was like “Are you gonna come over to the studio?” and I was like “No way!” He started playing around with the iPhone and before we knew it he was messing around with duct tape and shit. It’s kinda mad but it works. He figured out how to make me audible.
It’s funny how the reception to it has been really good. People have tuned in and the chat room has been hilarious. Also it’s been weird bringing news in real time, like Tony Allen and Ty passing. People have seen us react being totally glazed over but we still have to carry on and not be in pieces. We were texting each other. It happened like three Thursday’s in a row.
Benji: The Tony Allen one happened in real time and we didn’t believe it because he’s such a core part of everything I’ve done on the radio. I’ve interviewed and seen Tony Allen loads of times, but I didn’t know him, I haven’t been out for dinner with him. But Ty in terms of his age and proximity to the show and personal relationship. That one really knocked us for six.
In a way, even though we’re just trying something out, we are broadcasters at that point. Suddenly we’re hosting a tribute show to Ty while still trying to hold together our own feelings. Anything you do weekly, I know doing a radio show for however many years, comes around faster that you can blink. We’ve actually played a hell of a lot of music and had a lot of guests in a short amount of time and I think the regularity and the community aspect of it is what sets it apart from an average stream.
Can you tell me the origins of Deviation? What made you start the club night together?
Benji: In 2007, I was looking to create a new club night in London, a residency where I could play every month. I wanted it to reflect the new movement of music I was playing on the Deviation radio show at the time and in my club sets around the world. When I first fell in love with club culture as a kid and I was out every night, all of the DJs I looked up to had a residency of some kind. As soon as I found the Gramaphone venue in east London I knew it was right. We wanted to bring in our own bespoke soundsystem. I wanted a co-pilot to host with me and I called Jude, setting the tone on the mic with me from day one.
We launched it on a Wednesday because we wanted to appeal to the music heads, rather than the weekend crowd. I really felt like there was a space in London at the time that was not being filled.
Jude and I are exactly the same age and we experienced that zone at a similar time. The DNA of the people we book and the club is completely our taste, but the elements of the club that people like are basically us sampling. We’re just sampling all the best bits of clubs that we loved when we came up. It’s easy to romanticise the past, but the mid 2000s in comparison to what we’d grown up with in the 90s, was not very good for clubs in London. There were obviously loads of notable exceptions to that, but there wasn’t a rich amazing scene. It was more of a specific trashy scene. When we were putting people like Moodymann and Dego or Hudson Mohawke and Kenny Dope together, these kind of combinations, no one was really doing that.
When we were doing our first night, we had Waajeeid and Skream and about 60 or 70 people turned up.
Jude: Pre internet.
Benji: Yeah, so it’s kind of built in an organic way. It was very much an exercise in visualisation as well. Once you’ve found the venue and the right soundsystem then you can visualise what it’s going to be. What’s interesting is, when you look at the lineups that we’re doing now, even though we’re doing a weird digital version of it, we have the same attitudes that we would have to a lineup in a club. Obviously we’ve evolved with time and part of our DNA is to support new artists, but the attitude is still the same as it was one day one.
How did you both meet?
Jude: We’ve got mutual friends, right. We met at Plastic People, at the institution that is Plastic People. We just kept bumping into each other out and about. Then there was a night where two of our friends hosted a party and it’s one of legends because it was in a 100 capacity basement and there was about 200 people in there. It had one escape door so if there was a fire everyone was gonna die. We put a soundsystem in there. The place got raided by the police. Luckily enough we had friends from Japan and Korea who was doing the doors, they were pretending that they couldn’t speak English, so they hid the money and distracted them from going downstairs. We could hear the police above our heads but everybody is dead silent.
Ten minutes later we heard a knock. Then the music came on, Benji played, I grabbed the microphone, the rest is history. In that basement was Floating Points, Jon Rust, Josey Rebelle… everybody who has made a career and gone on to be producers or within the the scene, we were all in that basement at the same time.
Benji: I’ve got a really shit memory when it comes to nights and what’s playing but I remember hearing Nina Simone, African Mailman.
Jude: Yeah, I remember I played that.
Benji: Did you. I thought it was me? [Laughs] We bonded at that moment a lot. It’s very rare to find an MC or host type MC that’s extremely musical. Someone that can set the tone and make people feel welcome but also get out the way of a song. The amount of MCs that talk over rapping. I instantly heard that and felt that. The first time we did it it was an experiment, but it didn’t feel like it. It just felt natural from day one.
What inspires you to run these nights?
Jude: For me, it’s the ever changing landscape of the UK. I always call it the number eight, right? It just keeps on changing. When everyone gets comfortable, something will change. We are probably one of the only countries that create genres through social and economic change, racial tensions etc. Genres are born out of a reaction and how we’re feeling. Both of us are obsessed with that and have been together so long. We probably started going clubbing at the same time. There’s a synergy there and the fact that there’s an energy and a passion for what’s around us and clubs of the past. We should have hung our boots up ages ago. But for some reason when it’s a passion…Benji’s been doing radio since he was what, 16?
Benji: I’ve been in the radio studio since I was 16. I’ve been doing my own radio show since 2002.
Jude: We’re both in our forties now and we’re still energetic. It’s a sore point for Benji but do you know what bruv, embrace it!
Benji: There is a myth around expiry in all youth culture for relevance. If we were two people who had similar reference points say we both loved jazz and that was all we’re about, that’s an expiry point in itself because you’re not growing. But, I think that when you come from a place of hunger around new music that’s not at all based around “what’s hot”, and more about navigating your sound within what’s coming out, we’ve always done that.
What I’ve become known for with my radio show is new music. Jude and I have very similar reference points in the sense that when it comes to digging for records and 12 inches, we can do that all day, but we’re not only about that. We understand the roots of everything we’re into. If I ever felt that hunger going for new music, then that’s the time to look at it. As soon as the authenticity goes it’s not just obvious to you, it’s obvious to everyone. I’m lucky because I still have that hunger and excitement. I’ve stopped listening to mediocre music in order to make way for some gems.
Another important thing to mention is the science of the nights. The more experience you have the better. We both have a deep understanding of if someone puts their foot on the gas too early at 10:30pm it could kill the party. All of the attention to detail is not something that you’re born with, it’s something that we get right over time so in a sense there is a science to putting parties on.
Jude: It’s all about the minute details from the incense to the red lights. Lighting guys hate us.
Benji: Lighting guys want it to look like Christmas every day.
How do you select the DJs you collaborate with?
Benji: There’s so many different ways, there’s no one answer to that. We have broken this rule, but the rule should be that we only book people that we’ve heard play. I have to admit that we’ve rolled the dice depending on a record that we’ve heard or a reputation. There’s a mirror sometimes with what I’m playing on the radio at the time. If I didn’t have the radio every week I’d be way less on the ball. I’d still be super informed and nerdy and OCD and have a record collection and go record shopping every week but I wouldn’t be as informed as I have to be doing a two hour new music show. And what comes out of that is knowing who’s good. Jude will discover new talent he’s heard and bring it to the fore. The key is about the curation.
Jude: To note, we have to give props to Zainab Jama who is on the creative council for The Face, right?
Jude: Zainab was instrumental because she managed the night for 10 years. She’s a ninja so you never really hear about her but she was such a key instrumental player in all that. From programmes to club nights, she made it very easy for us.
Benji: From at least year two to year nine, Zainab was instrumental in the shaping of it, deciding DJs and the floating of ideas for DJs as well.
How’ve you seen the nightlife in London evolve over the years?
Benji: It is just so cyclical and it will circle back as venues close. Look at New York, it used to be the Mecca of the world, then it went through a shit time but it will come back. In the natural order of things hopefully spaces will come back or a new version of that for a new generation. Those are the people I wanna hear from, those are the parties I wanna go to.
If someone said to me in 1998 that in 10 years there’ll be no smoking in clubs and in 20 years the clubs would be on your iPhone, I’d be like “What?!”. With some of the clubs that I went to as a kid, they used to have a sign outside saying “sound provided by Eskimo Noise” or XY Noise and that was really where I got the idea for us to do our own soundsystem, apart from the fact that the soundsystem in the place we rented was shit. I think it’s very important that we credit our OG’s with that influence because we didn’t invent any of that, we borrowed it.
How do you want Deviation to connect with its audience?
Jude: We just want it to be an experience you know. Everything is about experience for us. I’ll use Fabric as an example. I hate Fabric. It’s like airport security, you get frisked heavily and that puts you already in a bad mood, so for us, little details like speaking to security and telling them to be polite, be respectable but yet firm, that’s fine. We’ve only used a handful of door people for the past 10 years because we know they can do a good job.
The science is once you’ve gone through those you’re at ease as soon as you walk in. We want you to walk into the place and not even have to go to the bar, you can go straight to the dancefloor. Whatever stresses you had that week, you should be able to just let that go when you come to our night. There will be points the next day when you think, “Ah shit, that’s exactly what I needed.” The foundation of what Deviation is built on is you will come in there assuming you’re going to be listening to one thing say hip-hop but maybe walk away and be into Underground Resistance. It’s a continuous cross-pollination.
Can you recall a highlight from the last 13 years?
Jude: Ah that question! For me, it’s got to be the fifth birthday party when we had it in the Pentecostal Church. The reverend had a Goyard bag and drove a Mercedes, it was incredible. It was in Hackney Wick and we had a great line up. We had Dâm-Funk and Nudie Man brought J Dilla’s mum to the event and as soon as I saw her I was like the omens are speaking to us, this is going to be an amazing night, and it was. The highlight for me was five minutes before we were meant to knock off the whole thing. I looked up to the mezzanine and the pastor was hunched over and he made a gesture telling us to keep it rolling. That will always be a stand out point.
Benji: You took the words out of my mouth. After that night, that was the only time when I’ve ever said, “That was perfection, if I could do it all again I wouldn’t change one thing.” Just to set the scene for you, this was not Hackney Wick 2020 people drinking fucking craft beer, this was the old school industrialised Hackney Wick. We got persuaded to look at this church with gospel choirs on Sundays. There were two points about that pastor that made me really laugh. Right in the middle of the night he was in there on the mezzanine that was like a viewing gallery and someone said to me, “He wants to meet you.” I was like, “Oh, shit” obviously because it’s a rave. So I walk up to this super big guy and he had this blank expression and he just opened up his arms and gave me the biggest bear hug. He said: “This is beautiful, the way you’re bringing people together. The vibration in here is very high.” He gave me this whole speech about how this should be what people coming together is like. This was at the same time as Moodymann was playing like Jack Your Body. [Laughs].
We’re guilty for milking it a little bit. I remember someone came up to us and said ‚“You’ve really got to turn the music off now” and we said, “Come on, one more tune.” Turned out it was 6am and Sunday school started in an hour.
One of the greatest bits of feedback for us is that we’ve always looked out into the crowd and seen the following things. A crowd that ranges from 18 or 20 through to 40, there’s always been this big arc. It’s good to have that breadth. Also, crucially, we’ve always looked out onto the dancefloor to see musicians and producers who are there in the booth. If we list all the people from James Blake to Floating Points to Joy Orbison to Sampha the list goes on. That’s always the highest compliment you can get.
In October we did a party with Moodymann and everything about it was pretty amazing: the vibe, the crowd. We had an outpouring of love the next day and were inundated with messages but actually it only existed for those 1000 people. It would be understandable if you lived in San Francisco, Brooklyn or Tokyo that you question what Deviation is exactly. So this more recent digital experience that’s been forced on us with this lockdown has probably helped people understand it outside of the raves.
From the pandemic to the protests, how has this year impacted you both?
Benji: I probably have to look at both of those subjects in isolation because one pandemic is four months old, the other is 400 years old. I don’t want to roll both diseases into one. I think to answer how the pandemic has affected people in the creative arts, the answer is, radically. There’s zero income and no clear idea of where that income is going to come from until at least October/November, probably more like 2021. For creative people across the board, especially young creatives. We need to keep an eye on not losing our creatives because there’s people who aren’t in fortunate situations or might be put off being a producer or DJ because of this situation because they can’t physically do it.
In regards to the events of the last two weeks it’s been a window of opportunity for discussions around awareness of something that didn’t start or end with the tragedy around George Floyd. Even though it’s clear that the predominant feeling in the world is one of pain and anguish, there is also a sense of optimism. For the first time in my lifetime, we can see change, not because of legislative change only, but change within some people that didn’t know that they needed to. That is the key. Opening up the dialogue.
Tell us more about the fundraiser you’ve organised for this Thursday.
Jude: Our core beliefs and foundations have always been Black inspired. Both of us felt a massive need to sit down and look at what’s going on around us. It would be criminal not to do something and use our platform to get the conversation going. Club land institutionally has problems. Black DJs, female DJs, there’s always been conflicts and we’ve always been aware of this and tried to rip up the rule book. We’re very conscious that when we look at a lineup that it’s not too male orientated. This has really kicked us into looking at the current situation and seeing who has profited from black culture and who is remaining silent hoping it will all blow over. This is not what we’re about as a club night.
Me and Benji spoke and he echoed the same sentiment that I did. If we can kick start other people as well, to get involved and use their platform to start a GoFundMe or start a dialogue, it all helps. We sat down and we thought, we’ve got this community around us, so let’s utilise that. It’s not about a corporate company getting involved and cutting us a cheque. We’re very much an independent-minded outfit.
Everybody who is involved has the same ethos as us. We’ve managed to pull in from Martine Rose to Lucien Clarke and small record labels like Apron Records. They also now have the responsibility to do something on their behalf too. COVID-19 has knocked out a lot of people, we know people are financially struggling and we don’t expect people to make big donations, but at the same time this is something that we need to shine a spotlight on.
We looked at every single organisation and we both agreed that The Black Curriculum and Inquest make total sense. As you know, the curriculum at the moment doesn’t touch on [Black history]. Black History Month is not doing anything, so how do we approach that? Let’s talk about how we can implement the Black curriculum, let’s support that because that’s how it starts in the home. That’s how children can educate themselves. That’s the basis. School’s don’t touch on it and I get mad. We can try and shine a light on these hidden charities and organisations. It’s not going to stop there because we have a social responsibility.
Benji: 100 per cent agree with all of the above. As I was saying to Jude at the time, I was trying to think of the word for the feeling I was having at the time and actually that word is just “action”. In terms of action for me and my radio show, it was very straightforward. I went straight deep into music and used my platform but in terms of this platform we felt very clearly in our hearts that the right thing to do was not to broadcast for a couple of weeks. We’ve used that time to think about how we can push forward so we’ve made a T‑shirt collab with Mr. Saturday and all funds will be going to Black Minds Matter. Hopefully that will launch this week as well.
We’re not a company with millions or lots of staff to make something overnight so we thought about how we can make something authentic to us. We’ve reached out to artists, DJs, labels and designers. Labels like XL Recordings will be donating a day in their studio free of charge with an engineer and AK Paul and Jai Paul are donating original art that they’ve signed. BADBADNOTGOOD have donated one of ten tour jackets and a record that was never released. We want people to bid for the things that excite them.
We’ve never done anything like an auction before. It will be interesting to see how things turn out but it’s a little bit of action that is authentic to what we can do.
What’s next in store for Deviation?
Jude: I think everyone’s got stream fatigue, so we were always mindful of that. We’re watching at the moment and seeing how it plays. We were going to can [Inside/Out] and chill for a bit because the lockdown was easing up a bit and the engagement wasn’t really there, but then on the other hand people hit us up and told us to keep going.
The main motivation is for us to do this fundraiser. We’re urging every platform that supports us to share it. We’ll keep rolling with it until we hit a decent amount.
Tune in tonight via instagram.com/deviationmusic