Benji Webbe of Skindred:
Reaching for Babylon
By Andy Kaufmann (August 2003)Sometimes it's hard to believe that there will ever be another musical rebirth on the level of jazz or rap. But when a group like Skindred makes its presence known, it's obvious that there are, in fact, unrealized sonic realms remaining to be explored. Taking the attitude of punk, twisting it around the apocalyptic ethos of metal and then lacing the end result with the unity-minded bounce of reggae, this Welsh outfit proves that the mainstream media are missing the creative pulse of the music industry.
One glance at the quartet's name reveals plenty. The first half of the name, "skin," implies a sensual element, just as much as it hints at the band's multi-cultural make-up. The second half, "dred," literally infuses one of the group's most prominent visual aspects, namely lead signer Benji Webbe's dreadlocked mane, into their title. The word also can be taken to mean "dread," an adjective that aptly fits their metal style. Finally, the word "kindred" emerges from between the two halves, expressing their Marley-esque sense of peace, love and unity. And all of this comes from one, two-syllable word. It's direct, yet deeply layered, exactly like the band itself.
The group begins and ends, ultimately, with Benji, the act's dynamic frontman. Benji's passion for music began early on, as he was raised by a highly musical family. "When I started singing all them Motown songs as a kid, the real soulful ones like 'I'll Be There,' Michael Jackson, when I realized I could get cigarettes off girls from singing them songs, I thought, 'Shit, this is where I want to be for the rest of my life,'" remembers the Welsh Rasta.
His father, who hails from a small island in the West Indies a few hundred miles off of Puerto Rico, actually made steal pan drums. "My father would find an oil drum, saw the oil drum in half and make it from scratch. So you must know I've got music in me." That isn't to state, however, that he loves Caribbean music. "I'm not too hot on calypso," Benji explains. "'Hot Hot Hot' is a song that I turn off every time. I like the reggae dancehall thing but the Caribbean calypso thing I run from. I think that's the worst music in the world."
His mother's influence will surprise you. "My mother was really into old musicals like West Side Story. She used to make me sit down and watch them programs religiously. But saying that, I really thank God for my mother making me watch it, watching Natalie Wood sing songs like 'I Feel Pretty' and all that. The lyrics in that movie are amazing as well. As a man now listening back and watching them with subjects like 'I Want To Live In America,' with things like that, the lyrical content was so heavy, but yet they delivered it in such a light way that it's only when I reached manhood that I understood what they were talking about." While a passion for musicals may be unexpected, consider that his mother's father was a sailor from Philadelphia, "who'd sort of done some shit and escaped to Wales." With such a mysterious heritage, it's no wonder he's fallen into the renegade lifestyle of a rocker.
Regarding his hybrid style, Benji has always been interested in blending punk with reggae. "That's something I've done since I was a child. When I went into town, I'd always buy a punk rock album and a reggae album. That was the biggest part of me. I mean, the first album I bought was Bad Manners. And also The Specials and The Clash. I think reggae and punk's always walked hand in hand, the same cry."
The War Begins
Benji first grabbed the public's attention as lead singer for the band Dub War. Though they were more laid back than Skindred, the elements of punk, metal and reggae were already set in place. The band, which lasted for three years and released three full-length albums and one EP on Earache Records, causing waves and generating interest in their unique sound. "That was the time Cypress Hill was rocking, Fear Factory were at their height and we fit in really well and we played with a lot of them bands," Benji explains. "It went down really well."
Before long however, the label ran out of money and they were dropped, which ultimately resulted in the group disbanding. Benji doesn't hold any grudges, though. "In this business, as much of a shame as it is to say, it is about money as much as it is music. I've got no bad feelings toward Earache. If I was in a room and the guy at the other end was from the record company, I'd just offer him a drink and be positive about it all. He tried. But what can you do when you've got no money?"
Luckily, the best was still to come. "Just before Dub War ended, I was told that Max Cavalera was a big fan of mine. He was in Sepultura and Soulfly," the singer reminisces. "Max approached me through a very mutual friend and asked me to come and perform on his first album, Soulfly. So I went over to work with him in the studio in Los Angeles with him and (producer) Ross Robinson, which was a great experience, because he had just finished the two Korn albums and he was going on to do Slipknot, so I caught Ross at a great time in his career." It was a step up, a whole other level of the music game. "For me, as some little kid from a small town in Britain, working with these metal giants was amazing," Benji gratefully acknowledges.
His work on two songs from that album, "Prejudice" and "Quilombo," were enough to earn him a golden opportunity: the chance to tour with Soulfly, including an appearance at the L.A. leg of the notorious Ozzfest. It was an experience he describes as, "Great. I mean, we played in a tent and it held about eight thousand people. That tent was absolutely jam-packed and the crowd went crazy. We bounced high. The more we played, the more buzz I got." But Benji still felt the burning desire to express himself on a more personal level. "I wanted to do something which was strong and powerful, which represented sort of what I was about." That realization began to take form when he met bass player Dan Pugsley, cementing Skindred's core duo.
Firing the Love
After a few "false starts" with different musicians, Dan and Benji hooked up with guitarist Jeff Rose and drummer Martyn "Ginger" Ford. After passing their demos on to Northern Music Management, who quickly took them into their fold, they found themselves touring alongside heavyweights like Fishbone, Fear Factory, P.O.D., System of a Down, Crazytown, Disturbed, lostprophets and Tool. With that sort of exposure, it's no wonder they gained plenty of interest from record labels. One of those labels was RCA. They signed up with the industry giant and whisked off to L.A., where they recorded their debut album, Babylon, under the guidance of Howard Benson of P.O.D.
Amazingly, the label pulled the album from store shelves after only 35 days. The band was essentially asked to look for another home. How could such a talented group get paid to record an album, only to be unceremoniously dumped? "I think what happened was the people upstairs who signed the checks moved on. That's what happens in this business," the singer states with characteristic humility.
Luckily, it wasn't long before their manager, Per Kvimen, flew to New York, where he met with A&R man Jason Bieler and his brother, owners of the MCA subsidiary, Bieler Bros. Records. The siblings couldn't believe that RCA was willing to transfer the band. It was a task Per was more than happy to fulfill; he wanted to see Skindred succeed. "He's a diamond, mate. After he told us (RCA/BMG) didn't want the album, he sort of lost faith in the whole BMG thing himself and he's no longer with them. He really believed in the band, but the label just didn't." All told, though, it was a painful experience that he'd rather forget. "I've got to put away RCA and just scratch that out of my life. That whole thing, it was not devastating, but it was a bit naughty. So the way I look at it is we got signed by the Beiler Brothers in January. That's the only way I can deal with it, you know what I mean? I don't recognize the earlier part of the band, because it's now that's important."
In addition, being on a smaller label has its advantages. "If I'm going to be on a label, I want to be on a label that's into me, not just waiting for JLo's album to come out. There's one thing I want to be and that's on a label that digs the music. Because I know what it's like to be on a label that just can't wait for you to go out of the room. I prefer to be on a small label that's got the spirit than a massive one that's just a ghost."
Yet before long there would be even more changes. Jeff and Ginger were traded for guitarist Mikey Dee and drummer Dirty Arya in December of 2002. Though their manager found the new additions, Dan had been a friend of Mikey's for years, which helped make the transition as smooth as possible.
When it comes to writing, the band members all contribute. Describing the studio process, Benji explains, "We go into a rehearsal space and we make 'nuff noise. And usually what comes out of that noise either becomes a verse or a chord or a bridge. So what I like to do is discuss what the song is going to be about. I really believe that, when you hear music, the lyrics and the melodies are already there, but you've got to pluck them out of that music. Different people in the band write at different times, you know? And what I try to do is, no matter what the subject is, I want their opinion as well. So it is a team effort."
Though it hasn't been an easy journey, Benji has fashioned a life around his two favorite genres, punk and reggae. That being said, he approaches music as that of a sonic omnivore, all genres being equal, so modern influences such as Helmet, Roni Size and '90's jungle further enhance the Skindred sound. "We just sort of make music for us first and foremost," remains his ultimate philosophy. "When I go to rehearsal, I want to go home singing the song first in my mind and thinking of how killer that riff was..."
It's tempting to try and equate the band with Bad Brains, but people shouldn't make that mistake. "I've got to say I think Glassjaw and the Deftones vocally sound more like Bad Brains than I do," Benji proclaims. "It's not fair and sometimes I feel like stamping my feet and saying 'piss off.' That's not my thing. I was probably listening to the same stuff that H.R. (of Bad Brains) listened to as a kid, you know?" So many people made the comparison, in fact, that he eventually relented and stuck a Bad Brains patch on his jacket. "I do think people need to stop looking at me as a black man with dreadlocks," he continues. "One of the first interviews we ever did was with a magazine called The Enemy. They said we sounded like Killing Joke with Barrington Levy and that was the closest I've ever heard in a review. Everyone sort of drums up the assumptions of Bad Brains, you know, the really easy ones, but no one ever thinks about it."
Benji's frustration at being lumped in with other dreadlocked, reggae-minded punk bands becomes even more comprehensible when considering his philosophy of music as an attitude. "For me, Mozart, the (Sex) Pistols, Nirvana, Bob Marley, it's all about attitude, bro. It's the same blood and the same spirit that runs through every one of them bands that I just mentioned. People say, 'Mozart? How does he fit in there?' But it's attitude. He was the punk rocker of his time, bro. You know, you've got to check what was going on in that place and at that time. He was a rebel. It feels like, in times like this, that we're more rebel than anyone else. A lot of these punk bands, because they've got black nail polish on and eyeliner, you think that makes punk? That don't make a punk rocker. I know guys who work in an office with a suit and tie and they're more punk rock than a lot of these bands you see on MTV. It's about a spirit, bro. It ain't about dickey shorts and a Mohawk and a couple pieces of silver and the thing hanging off your wallet. Punk rock's more than that, man. I know you're thinking, 'Shut up old man,' but I'm sharing my heart. I just talk what's inside me. I'm not playing this game to try to be some sort of rock hero. I just play music out of which I love."
Also see the Skindred website
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