How Benga’s ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’ Shifted The Perception Of Dubstep

Words: Son Raw

2008 saw a changing of the guard. Dubstep, long regarded as a niche concern for the overly stoned, had burst from the pirate radio-fuelled underground to become the soundtrack to countless student raves. From dub-techno leaning aesthetes like Appleblim and 2562, to raging wobblers by Dub Police and Jakes to “wonky” leftfield favourites like Zomby, it seemed like dubstep offered something for everyone, all of it fuelled by a new generation of inventive producers nicking cracked software for cheap laptops. Yet much like jungle before it, dubstep’s relentless reinvention also threatened to tear it apart. The bangers were getting louder, the experimental tunes weirder, and with the sound splitting into subcamps, the genre needed a unified statement—a guiding north star able to bridge the gap between the critics who’d discovered Burial through his Mercury gong and the lads who’d discovered Caspa and Rusko through their FabricLive mix. Enter Benga, with Diary Of An Afro Warrior.

The album title alone was a necessary corrective to how dubstep was portrayed in the media. With interest in grime waning due to shifts in music consumption, racist policing via Form 696, and a temporary flagging of creative energy, the music media swung its eyes towards dubstep, often framing it as more accessible to trendy (read: white) listeners. This was flagrantly false given the multicultural makeup of the genre’s founding class, but dubstep, as presented to outsiders, kept its Blackness at a distance—classic dub samples being less threatening to the establishment than Dizzee’s bars about being a problem for Tony Blair. Diary Of An Afro Warrior put that chat to rest before you even dropped the needle on wax. Here, Adegbenga Adejumo—a Black Briton of Nigerian descent, who’d done as much as anyone to take dubstep from garage variant to its own genre—defiantly foregrounded his Blackness, telling the world that dubstep was anything but chillout music for those scared of grime’s rudeness. In a scene that mostly avoided the spotlight and made a habit of portraying its creators as reclusive, underground figures, Benga’s clear statement of identity went beyond the personal to present dubstep as a music and culture stemming from lived experience of multicultural London.

Musically however, Diary was less concerned about politics than about simply ‘avin it. In the 20 years after rave’s “second summer of love”, UK dance music had fractured along tribal lines into an increasingly niche collection of subgenres, but you’d never know listening to Benga’s classic “Night”. Produced in collaboration with Coki, its descending bassline and stepper’s rhythm sent everyone from crustpunks to champagne room ravers into hysterics. While it retained dubstep’s now-signature 3rd beat snare, everything else about “Night”’s drum pattern feels uptempo and DJ-friendly, earning it a home in the record bags of adventurous techno DJs, open-minded grime collectors, and even the emerging UK funky scene, who battered Geeneus’ house tempo remix. Receiving massive support from Rinse FM and at clubs like Fabric and Matter (R.I.P), it’s an absolute banger that stands proudly next to cross-generational anthems like A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” and Shy-FX’s “Original Nuttah”.

And yet, it’s hardly the only hit on the album. “26 Basslines” might be even crazier, somehow colliding dubstep’s morphing LFO basslines with trance’s melodic leads to form one demented whole. “Crunked Up” does away with the neon synths, setting a synthesised glitchy dentist drill to a haunting steppers’ dub. “Someone 20” even tries bleep techno over breakbeats—an olive branch to more traditional dance music. Mostly however, Diary Of An Afro Warrior sought to prove that dubstep’s nocturnal moodiness need not appeal solely to the spliffed-out Croydonian producers who made it—it could be straight-up sexy too! Tracks like “Pleasure” and “Loose Synths” combine ethereal pads to the kinds of swung rhythms that made Benga’s garage forefathers proud, turning down the testosterone but retaining all of dubstep’s inventiveness. These moments are a far cry from the aggressive peak time tear-out tunes that would soon hamper the genre, but they’re no less commercially viable, aiming to expand dubstep beyond the tight confines of FWD’s dark room to festivals and beyond. Soon, everyone from acolytes of Ed Banger bloghouse to D&B ravers to IDM chin-strokers were cottoning onto the sound of 2008.

This wide-ranging appeal ensured Diary Of An Afro Warrior’s impact would spread far beyond its home genre. Over the next few years, artists influenced by dubstep would file themselves under more amorphous and decentralised names like ‘post-dubstep’ and ‘bass music’, freeing themselves from self-imposed creative limitations. This had its pros (everyone was tired of wobblers and the sombre vibes got to be a bit much) and its cons (“wonky” was the worst genre tag since “urban”). Nevertheless, Benga’s dance-friendly drum patterns and embrace of neon synth lines paved the way for this bass-centric renewal of dance music, a revival that had the entire world looking to London for the day’s most exciting sounds.

Sadly, things got a bit out of hand, both for dubstep and Benga personally. Ravey tunes attracted a ravey audience, and the moody sexiness of Benga’s production would soon be left by the wayside, as producers continually upped the ante in search of ruder, gnarlier basslines. The intense maelstrom of an unforgiving tour schedule, meanwhile, would lead to Benga stepping away from music for the good of his mental health. Yet, as a dubstep raver and DJ, it’s impossible to look back at Diary Of An Afro Warrior and feel anything but awe and pride. At a time when dance music was at its most fractured and cliquish, Benga not only produced an album that appealed to practically everyone of clubgoing age, he did so while remaining true to his roots and artistic vision.

Coming from a hip-hop background, I can personally attest to being suspicious of dance music, particularly the stuff pushed by mainstream outlets. Diary Of An Afro Warrior (along with The Bug’s London Zoo and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles that same year) did a lot to correct my perception that this was music exclusively by and for bald guys in black turtlenecks, connecting dance music’s Black roots to its Black present while also positioning it as an inviting scene, welcoming to anyone ready to lose their mind to the right drop.

Posted on May 31, 2022