A Walk Around a Nightlife Graveyard with Benin City
How the multigenre group turned the sound of London's changing club scene into an effervescent album.
All photos by Anko via PR
On a cold, damp evening, stirring a cup of tea in an east London cafe-cum-Indian-canteen opposite Shoreditch overground station, clouds are running through Joshua Idehen’s mind. “I'm seeing a lot of the touchstones of the most important part of my life, my twenties to my thirties, disappear,” he says. “I’m watching them just totally vanish.” Poet/rapper Idehen makes up a third of London-based indie-electro-afro-pop group Benin City with vocalist Shanaz Dorsett and the multi-instrumentalist Tom Leaper and is telling me about how in the tailend of summer 2016, he saw Passing Clouds, a Dalston venue he loved, fall by the wayside – another casualty in the city’s market-driven war on nightlife.
“I remember reading about Babylon, which is now Iraq, and what the barbarians did there,” says Idehen, as the cafe starts to fill with early-evening punters. “They didn't just want to destroy the Persians; they wanted nothing left. So they salted the river. They burned everything to the ground. They made sure nothing could grow. We've taken this, and you can't have it back – even when we're done with it. And that is what the property developers are doing.”
Benin City’s forthcoming album on Moshi Moshi, Last Night, sees the trio drawing on their experiences as ravers, bar workers and observers of what nightlife in the capital was, is, and could be. The record’s three singles to date give a good indication of where Benin City’s sound sits today. Brighter and brasher than anything of the group’s debut LP, 2013’s brittle Fires in the Park, “Final Form” (which we're premiering below) is a big, blocky, indie-club ready tune inspired by dirty dancing and Dragonball Z. Meanwhile “Take Me There” and “All Smoke, No Fire” demonstrate a kind of lurching-into-sobriety seriousness that sounds like a night out ending abruptly. The whole record teeters between those two extremes, just like any good night out should.
Given that the UK’s nightlife crisis has been both well-documented – figures show that in London alone, 50 percent of nightclubs were forced to shut between 2012 and 2017 – it is somewhat surprising that to date, artists have been reticent to directly explore the changing face of the British night out via music. Not Benin City. Idehen and Dorsett took me – a former editor of a nightlife and club culture website during that tumultuous time when it looked like all hope was lost and London would turn into a branch of Clas Ohlson – to a few former venues that have now fallen foul of skyrocketing rents, mistrust on the part of local council licensing boards and the knock-on effects of austerity.
Quietly wishing that someone had had the foresight to pack a brolly, we start on the eastern end of Brick Lane, a few feet down from the twin bagel shops that divide Londoners like little else. “I used to perform here when I first started, like a lot of people did,” Dorsett says, as we peer at what was once the Vibe Bar, which closed in 2014. It is now home to Interxion, an ‘interconnection hub for the world’s leading businesses’. In a piece for VICE, former owner Alan Miller, who now heads up trade organisation the Night Time Industries Association, stated that his venue, and the nearby Old Truman’s Brewery were often seen as “case studies of urban renewal and regeneration,” and those nebulous, loose, often unhelpful concepts are on both Dorsett and Idehen’s minds. “London is being cleansed,” Dorsett says, matter-of-factly. “Everywhere I go now has that "Don't make noise, respect our neighbours" sign because everywhere is residential.”
What seems to have happened, the pair suggest, is that we’ve swapped everything that makes a city innovative, exciting and rewarding – the very things that make a city liveable – for a renewed and regenerative concept of the place that replaces pubs, clubs and live music venues and community-orientated spaces with flats and, well, more flats. Experience has become residence. We already know this: it’s the story of London as we edge further into the future. The thing is, knowing a story doesn’t make it any easier to read the second time around.
“Between 2010 and 2016, there's been a LOT of disappearances,” Idehen says, as we shuffle toward Curtain Road, edging away from the curry houses and two-for-one cocktails that dominate much of Brick Lane’s tourist-dominated thoroughfare. Idehen carries on, justifiably angry at how nightlife has been eroded in the city he moved back to after emigrating to Nigeria. “It feels almost personal, as if someone's gone ‘Ah yes, let me look at Joshua's history and just fucking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind it. Where's everything I held dear?”
It is a question that most of us can ask ourselves. If you’ve lived in London in that time, you’ll be able to think of formative nights out that aren’t possible now. Tech-house parties at T-Bar in Aldwych maybe, or even grubby gigs at New Cross’ Montague Arms, which was sold off in January this year. It could be the Astoria, the End or Turnmills, Bagley’s, Cable, or the Joiners Arms. Wherever it was, it now just lives in memory, and memory is where it will remain. This happens in cities. Nothing can remain permanent, and no one can expect it to. But we shouldn’t expect it to happen so rapidly, so readily.
Given their weariness regarding the situation, you’ll be glad to hear that Benin City’s music avoids the sort of mopiness that usually attaches itself to narratives of loss and decay. For all the mild melancholy that infuses Last Night tracks like “Double or Nothing” and “Long Way Home,” the record never slides into total despair. While it might not sound like the kind of music you’d hear on a busy Saturday night in Oval Space it is demonstrably an album that’s soaked up all those feelings that come with spending evening after evening in company of warm bodies and loud music, aware of that instability of it all, and the desire to make each moment a memory.
“We've explored anger and frustration, but also – and not to be cheesy – hope and resistance too,” Dorsett says, before Idehen adds, “We've been using music as a means of consciously pushing messages that are supportive of London's nightlife and London's culture, the idea that celebration is a protest.” More than anything, Last Night feels like a journey home rather a club record. Far from the doof-doof that circulates around room one at XOYO, there’s a pensiveness to it – that kind of creeping dread that comes with accepting that not only is tonight nearly over, but tomorrow’s nearly here too. “I heard it online somewhere,” Idehen sings on the album’s languid closer “Not the End”, “it’ll be better in the end / in the end / If it’s not better now / it’s definitely not the end yet,” his voice worn by hope.
Detoured from ending at what used to be Passing Clouds, our evening stroll culminates outside one of the most revered of London’s ex-clubs: Plastic People, shuttered in 2015. Now occupied by a subterranean cocktail bar, the smell of burnt ends and brisket wafting over the road from the restaurant opposite, our conversation turns, almost inevitably, to loss. “There was a time where you could go Passing Clouds and if you got bored of Central African music, there’d be dubstep waiting for you at Plastic People,” Idehen says. “If you got there and realised you wanted jazz, the Bar Music Hall was opposite. Fancy indie? Old Street is begging for your attention. That’s not the case now.”
That isn’t to say that rigor mortis is rolling from Canning Town to Camden. “In Deptford there's a place called Buster Mantis, and its got a little gallery/multipurpose space,” Dorsett says. “BBZ started there. So many people I know have done events there that have grown, because it was affordable enough to try something. We need multipurpose spaces, and business owners need to welcome art, not just welcoming exhibitions. if you've got a space, welcome music.”
And that’s the thing: any conversation about where nightlife in major cities is heading is, implicitly or explicitly, also a conversation about how most of us are subject to forces beyond our control. Those forces affect where we live and how we live there. They affect the coffee shops and bars we think we can and can’t get away with sitting in. They affect whether or not we feel safe at night. They are things we cannot stop entirely, cannot curb fully. But they are things that have happened before and will happen again. And they are the things we try and escape, when we find a club that’ll have us. A club that’s ours, even if it’s just for now. And even if it’s in the nether reaches of Zone 8.
“Life,” Joshua tells me as we make our separate ways through the chewing gum and drizzle, ”isn't just about a paycheque. It’s what you do between them that matters.”
Benin City's album Last Night is due out on 15 June via Moshi Moshi Records
You can find Josh on Twitter.