Get 2 Know A DJ - Magnetic Man
I posted a track by Magnetic Man in January but after further listening to trio’s music as well as tracks from each of its individual elements (Skream, Benga, and Artwork) I thought it would be interesting to dive a little deeper into the story of dubstep’s first supergroup. For this, I thought a more cultivated perspective would be useful, so I’ve attached an interview conducted by Rob Fitzpatrick of The Guardian with Magnetic Man below:
“Backstage at Reading festival is not the hookers’n’ blow daydream of adolescence. In fact, backstage at Reading festival is, like backstage anywhere in the world: almost supernaturally boring. In a settlement behind the dance stage a few artists’ portable cabins encircle a patch of scrubby grass. The sun – a rare visitor of late – is a huge orange ball hanging low over the Thames valley. To our left is Metronomy’s box. They sit outside smoking the occasional gasper and not saying much. Thumbs are twiddled. To our right is Roots Manuva’s base. He makes no noise whatsoever and keeps the door firmly shut for great periods of time. Only the occasional head poking out lets us know his cabin’s inhabitants are not actually dead. Behind us is MIA-producer and dubstep musician Rusko’s cabin. He engages me in conversation about Quavers and his plans to get Americans addicted to KitKats. He doesn’t want any of the Tuborg left for him on the trestle table and urges me to help myself.
Right in front of us, though, one group is really making the effort. Their temporary home has all the lights on and is full to bursting with what can only be described as “geezers”, all of whom are clearly having a great deal more fun than anyone else on this reservation. Their fridge appears to be miraculously self-filling and at frequent intervals nearly everyone spills out on to the grass, furiously smoking cigs right down to the nub (while shouting and pushing each other), then clambers back inside to crack open more drinks. The atmosphere is definitely more crudity than crudité. This is Magnetic Man’s home for today and, as usual, the party is being led by the twinkling presence of Arthur “Artwork” Smith, the trio’s beaming leader and a man who has the beatific countenance of someone who can’t quite believe just how well everything is turning out. “It’s like this every day,” Artwork says, passing a frosty bottle of San Miguel over the head of a heavily tattooed pal. Over on the dance stage, someone drops a tune with a bassline so ferocious that all the car alarms in a 100-yard radius suddenly scream into action. I accept the bottle with thanks. Spending time with Magnetic Mac seems to buck the backstage trend: this is not boring. At times like this it’s worth remembering that Magnetic Man – that’s Smith, Ollie Jones (Skream) and Beni Adejumo (Benga) – began life as a conceptual joke, one that was later turned into a living project funded by Arts Council England. Back in 2007, the plan for the band was devilishly simple. ”We wanted to smash up Forward,” Artwork says, referring to the legendary London dubstep clubnight, which began in 2001.
“We wanted people to freak out.” And they did. The three dubstep producers – already well known on the scene for their individual music careers – hid behind a white sheet while they played, remaining entirely anonymous. “People were going mental for it,” Benga says with a smile. The decision was made to take this show on tour, an idea that coincided with the arts council looking for a new live project to give a grant to. The subsequent cheque was spent on new computers, and a short while later Magnetic Man were playing a 10-date run around the country. “Only about eight people knew it was us,” Skream says. “But when people found out who Magnetic Man were they went nuts.” A few short months later they appeared at the 2008 Roskilde festival in front of 8,000 people. By mid-2009 the formerly secretive three-piece had signed a weighty deal with Sony and by mid-2010 their debut single I Need Air had become a top 10 hit. Now they are releasing an album that contains odd, complex, challenging, head-squeezing moments strung between appearances from of-the-moment rave hitmaker Katy B and neo-soul superstar John Legend. “We could have just made bangers,” Artwork says. “But we wanted to make songs.”
“The only problem was,” Skream nods, “we had no idea if we could even do that.” Artwork is showing me around the band’s specially built stage set. “Everyone wants to know how we do it,” he says. I promise not to let on too much, but it looks like a fairly simple set-up of three Mac laptops, a Korg synth and a digital mixer, all housed inside a frame that I am told cost £750,000. Two huge flightcases are needed just for the brain that runs the LCD electronics. The set has two walls – which thrust forward toward the crowd – made entirely of lights that are run, off-stage, by a chap called Elliott. He receives an audio feed, which he uses to programme the lights however he fancies. They can mimic a vocal line, illuminate a bass rumble or mirror a drum pattern. Each show is entirely different. Even in the half-light of a soundcheck, it looks amazing. ”You know how if you’re on a bit of drugs and you close your eyes and see shapes?” Artwork inquires. “That’s what we were going for.” It is, in all honesty, a brilliant invention, and the lunatic ambition of it all makes Magnetic Man perhaps the closest thing dubstep will ever have to Funkadelic. Which, of course, brings its own problems.
“Everyone thinks we’re making loads of money,” Artwork says as we climb down the scaffolding around the stage. “But we’ve invested so much we actually lose money doing these shows.” What the band need to make money is a big tour and a string of main stage festival appearances. The big tour is happening in October. The rest, surely, will follow. Artwork doesn’t appear worried. But then, Artwork doesn’t ever appear to be worried about anything. Back in the cabin Skream and Benga are getting ready for the show. For Skream that means changing into black jeans, black T-shirt and black Raybans. For the spectrally relaxed Benga it means wearing the same knitwear and denim ensemble he turned up in after playing at the SW4 event on Clapham Common this afternoon.
“We were just whippersnappers when we met Arthur,” Skream says. “My brother worked at [hugely influential dubstep and garage shop] Big Apple records and I used to walk past with my mum and sometimes have a look in. The first time I met Arthur I was maybe 12. He had a studio above the shop where he made garage tunes. I was a little bastard kid, DJing in my bedroom, but I ended up working there. Before there was such a thing as dubstep we were listening to Hatcha play garage like Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers. I didn’t have the skills to make that, so I just made dark, bassy music. The production was awful, but the tunes were heavy.” Benga’s brother always visited the shop on a Sunday and when Skream told him he was making tunes on his PlayStation, he laughed and said his little brother was doing the same thing. “He got me to call him,” Benga says. “But we didn’t know each other at all. We would play each other tunes down the phone for an hour without speaking, just holding the phone up to the speakers.” That was 10 years ago. Artwork, some nine years older than Skream and Benga, became their mentor. Benga even did work experience in the studio above the shop. What’s most touching about spending any time with the three of them now is how supportive they are of each other – especially as Skream and Benga’s solo careers become ever more stellar. When I ask Benga about Magnetic Man’s initial inspiration he laughs and says “we wanted to be friends!” as if that was the only reason anyone would ever form a band. “Well, Artwork has a get-things-done nature,” he says. “If it was left up to me and Skream, none of it would ever happen. He’d go out and get pissed and I’d be sat in the studio on my own.”
The crowd are spilling out of the edges of the tent as Magnetic Man prepare to go on. I ask Skream if having a big hit means they’re pop stars now. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “We’ve said from the start we’re not doing straight-up dubstep. I’ve got no problem with pop music. We’re so used to hearing shit on the radio that we think that’s what pop music is, but it doesn’t have to be.” ”We’re trying to put emotion into this music,” Benga says. “It’s not about club smashers or just dubstep fans, this is for a much broader crowd.”
The first thing I think when I see the band piloting their electronic warship right into the heart of the throng is that they didn’t waste their three-quarters of a million quid. Magnetic Man are a stunning live experience, inhabiting a place where a wig-shaking odyssey to the outer limits of bass like The Bug can bed down comfortably with an anthem-ready, hands-in-the-air scream-up like Perfect Stranger. Skream and Artwork stay caged for the majority of the show, but Benga has his own mic and makes frequent visits to the lip of the stage to double up as hype man. When Katy B comes on dressed like the star of an advert for a Back to 91 rave compilation, all three join her in front of a packed, steaming tent and it’s a genuinely moving moment, like the realisation of a dream. Within minutes of the gig ending the band are preparing to move the party on elsewhere. Artwork is beaming with happiness as he climbs into a car driving him back to London. “You think that was good,” he laughs. “You wait ‘til next year.”