South London rapper on dance roots, punk, and his new mixtape...

Taking his inspiration from classic soul and funk, to grime and UK hip-hop, to punk and DIY, Benny Mails is one of the most exciting and versatile rappers around – and he’s only just dropped his first mixtape.

We caught up with him the month he featured in the Great Escape’s First Fifty and released his long-awaited mixtape 'Aware'...

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You grew up in south London. What do you think of the music coming out of that area, and how did it have an impact on your music?

Yeah, for years now there’s been great music coming out of south. It’s been beautiful. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly ‘south’ about my sound, there’s not really a south sound at all really, it’s so versatile and different, from King Krule to Loyle Carner, a completely different sound.

I think the word ‘south’ gets slung around a lot, it’s sometimes used as an appraisal, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

Growing up in London was important though, it means I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and made the right friends. I used to hang out in Brixton quite a lot – but I always ventured out, into East, too – and I used to go to Ritzy [cinema and venue in Brixton]. There used to be a night called Soul Jam – such a good night – that’s where I really started my love for music.

London’s a crazy place, it really is. You can experience so much more at a really young age. It’s crazy. In London you’re always in good company.

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A lot of my output is really DIY...

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Yeah, we read a story about you working with Zulu Nation as a kid but couldn’t find any details…

That’s London for you – if you have an interest, all you have to do is go to the right places and make yourself present and things will come your way. I used to do b-boy dancing when I was younger and would go the b-boy championships in Brixton every year, which was hosted by Crazy Legs [of Zulu Nation]. My dad was good mates with the guy that ran the event, and so every year I’d go backstage from the age of 19 to 15 and hang out with them all.

For my generation it was really exciting because at the time PS2 had a b-boy game out, and one of the teachers I had – Mouse – was actually one of the characters in the game. Imagine being a kid, playing this Xbox or PS2 game, seeing this character you idolise, and then going and training with them every Saturday. It’s ridiculous.

Other than growing up in London and being in the right place at the right time, what have been the main influences on your music?

My mum was a punk, and my dad played soul and funk every day. Northern Soul has always been a part of my life – I nearly got cast as the lead in a Northern Soul film, because of my dance background and I’ve done some acting – and James Brown’s my hero, my favourite musician ever. He’s a big mixture of funk, soul, breaks…and that’s all music is.

The punk influence has had an impact on me more in terms of mental attitude, doing something just because you can do it, not because you’re any good at it – a DIY ethic. A lot of my output is really DIY, in fact I don’t really let anyone touch it. My little brother shoots all my photos, my other little brother shoots all my videos; I never have a stylist, I do my own artwork, my best friend’s my DJ.

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And then in terms of UK musical influences, I love Wiley – do you know why I love Wiley? Because I love The Police, and he sampled The Police in one of my favourite Wiley tunes… it’s a nice link up between the two – David Bowie is a huge fucking inspiration for me, he’s south London. And Slick Rick. He’s south London too. We’ve got the best music actually, we totally do.

And there are people out there that make me really excited about UK rap now. Oscar World Peace is amazing; Daestreet too, in my opinion he’s one of the most promising people around; and Cas Jones is serious.

Little Simz is great obviously, and Loyle Carner. He’s one of my best friends – all that Zulu Nation stuff growing up, we did it together – I chill with his family and stuff. The topic of discussion he’s highlighted in his music is something I don’t think has been highlighted by rappers of our generation in England. It’s interesting, it’s good.

I lack that consistency sometimes, I’m looking forward to seeing how people respond to my lack of a sort of consistent message.

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It really is a bit of a mash-up. But that’s the beauty of a mixtape.

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Well that brings us onto the mix tape. How are you feeling about it?

They say that your first body of work is like your whole life’s work, put into one. There are songs I made five years ago on it, songs I made three years ago on it, songs I made two weeks ago on it… it really is a bit of a mash-up. But that’s the beauty of a mixtape.

It’s not totally cohesive and it’s not ‘finished’ at all, but it’s finished.

A highlight for me making it has definitely been sort of learning about my own process. Now I know that I can’t just be sent an instrumental for me to write to and record on, I need to be in there with the producer or the musician. So it’s totally organic. And you can hear it – if I receive a beat and have to write over it, I’m less passionate about it.

Some songs on the mixtape only took about an hour to write, for me they’re the best songs. You capture a moment, like taking a photograph. You can’t take a photograph over the period of a year can you, it has to be all instant.

In terms of themes on the tape, I suffer from ADHD, so anxiety is a big part of that. If it’s not in my lyrics, it’s in my voice, you know what I mean? And there are lots of topics I touch on in the mixtape that I haven’t written about on songs I’ve released before.

And with the songs that are already out there, everything’s very different too. ‘Mantra’, for example, is about anxiety and having tools you can use like controlling your breathing. I didn’t ever acknowledge that it was something lots of other people go through. But when I saw the comments underneath the COLORS session, a lot of people found it relatable…which was good.

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You can’t take a photograph over the period of a year can you, it has to be all instant.

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And after the mix tape, what next?

I have a plan and I know if I stick to it, I’ll get what I want.

This is the plan: stick to my guns, and I believe the wind will take me. I don’t set things in stone. I have my beliefs and my DIY way of doing things, and I know if I continue to do so it’ll be good. I’ve never made anything that isn’t ‘me’, so if I stick to my guns it’ll work out.

I’ve been thinking how I’d like to make my own sound system, try and help bring sound system culture back. I want to become more independent too – I don’t know half the things I need to know in order to be totally, functionally, practical independent. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to use equipment, make my own music, make my own videos. I don’t want to have to depend on anyone to do my own thing.

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'Aware' is out now.

Words: Emma Finamore // @Finamoray

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