The story behind Benji Wild's powerful second solo album
Cardiff MC Benji Wild is in a state of creative flux right now: With two albums, one EP and four one-off singles in the last eight months alone – and more ready and locked in the chamber – it’s the most prolific he’s ever been since he emerged as a young MC in the late 2010s as part of the Stay Tru collective.
“I’m 40 songs deep bro! It’s mad…” he pauses for a second to collect his thoughts and perhaps double check the remarkably prolific figures. “Let’s just say I’ve been clearing my mental hard drive. But I’ve got a lot of what I needed to get out and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot.”
Capacitor overload; Benji’s not just experiencing creative flux right now but a re-shuffle of life in general. Having spent the best part of the 2010s as a key member and co-frontman of Astroid Boys – a successful fusionist crew who smelted down grime, bass and heavy helpings of metal to incendiary effect – he’s toured the world, led the rockstar life and has a few scars to prove it. Rolling solo since the band imploded in 2019, he’s been discovering himself and working out what it means to be a solo artist.
“I wish we could have taken it further,” he considers. “We went beyond what was expected from rappers from Wales, but it wasn’t something I could just step into and repeat as a solo artist. I had to dig a new foundation, now it’s time to put the bricks together.”
For background on Benji, the cult status Astroid Boys had and why they’re not likely to reunite any time soon, this Central Club podcast is a fascinating insight. It’s fair to say he’s battled some demons and the turbo-charged levels of output we’ve experienced from him in the last year has been a combination of him re-finding himself again, honing his voice and fine-tuning his direction.
On a much more pragmatic level, it’s also Benji working out just how solo independent artists can operate in 2022; working out the systems and navigating the algorithms.
“You either move with the times or you stay stubborn but limit your growth, right?” sighs the MC who admits he’s happiest when he’s not contracted or committed to any stifling or limiting agreement. “I’ve been on that label journey before and there’s a massive part of me that doesn’t want to be part of the broader mainstream system. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to make music and just pay my bills and feed my family?”
Post Astroid Boys, Benji is not-so-Wild now as a responsible and proud father. But he still speaks and acts with fierce independence. “As much as I want the freedom I still have to play within the confines, so I’ve done a lot of experimenting with my music and a lot of trial and error,” he explains. “Would I release a 17 track album again? Probably not. Am I proud of it though? Yes I am.”
Skull & Bones, an extensive exploration of Benji’s psyche, his stories, his musical passions and his friends who range from the likes of unstoppable Manchester soul man DRS to rising German-in-UK D&B producer Something Something via Pengshui frontman Illaman.
It’s a bounty of ideas, tempos and genres that range from classic hip-hop to lighter-raising drum & bass. “It was my debut solo album and I had a lot I wanted to say and a lot I wanted to try. And for the first time I didn’t have to think about other band members, I could just be me,” says Benji of the album. “But I’d definitely do it differently now knowing what I know.”
Understanding how music is digested by the majority of streaming listeners, he’s since moved to smaller releases this year, but doesn’t regret putting such a large body of work out regardless of the limited response. “I wanted to have something to give. So say people hear a song they like and say, ‘This is great, who is this?’ and they check you out, you’ve got something there. It gives you a higher standing,” he explains. “Back in the day you’d have one hit wonders and you wouldn’t consider what else they’ve done. You’d have to go to a shop and ask. But at the click of a button you’re exposed now. Even down to people you’ve collaborated with or what fans of yours like.”
Or what statements you’ve made… As is the case with Welsh Grime. Dropping just half a year after the epic Skull & Bones, his second solo album is a much more concentrated and direct body of work. It’s focussed, a lot more outward looking and wrapped up in ideas and discussions about the Welsh identity, Welsh street culture and what it means to be Black and Welsh. It’s also a direct result of another intense moment of creative flux Benji’s experienced recently as he played a lead role in grime war between Wales and London.
“Wiley was on Instagram Live calling out people from all over the UK,” says Benji. “He’s saying, ‘I want to clash the best MCs of every area. Bring out your best MCs. It was healthy. Grime is all about clashing and standing your ground. He said, ‘Where are the MCs in Wales?’ He’s the godfather of grime calling us out! This is our opportunity. Within a bunch of days people were writing diss songs to Wiley and bare people were mentioning me in the comments. Suddenly one of Wiley’s friends K9 was on Instagram saying my name. I was like, ‘Okay you’ve said my name, I’m involved now…’
Benji’s response was Sheep. Laced with venom and sharp-tongued humour, it’s one of the hardest and most powerful missives of his career so far.
“I called it Sheep because that’s what they were saying. You know, the classic…” We both sigh this time. Outside of the motherland with a Welsh accent, you’re never more than six feet away from a tired old sheep shagger gag.
“There were a few back and forths and they invited us to Mode FM for a cypher and I had a face-to-face clash with K9. It was good vibes, it was healthy, it was for the culture and art. It was great. We were at the table with the guys who’d inspired us.”
The cypher is a joy to watch for fans either side of the Severn channel. Benji and fellow Welsh MCs such as Yagz,ManLikeVision, Sickoff, Big Dex and Livewire go in against the London MCs in a vibe-heavy session that reflects the true spirit of grime and MC culture. Big energies, savage bars but total appreciation and respect for each other. “It was a moment,” Benji smiles. “There’d been some tension, but in that cypher we all came together and I want there to be more than that. So that’s where I’m coming from on Welsh Grime. I’m making a statement of it. We have grime culture in Wales, we have urban culture in Wales. We should be proud of that and it should be recognised.”
Following other prominent Welsh MCs like Local, Mace The Great, Tiny Skitz and, on more of drum & bass tip, Mr Traumatik, Benji explains how his contribution to Welsh grime culture is literal. “It does what it says on the tin.” Eight potent tracks over ice cold beats, produced by prolific beat maker Dubzta, it’s a rich experience for any MC fan, but the references are extra spicy for anyone who’s grown up on the same streets and knows the places and faces.
“I’m living in urban Wales. I see things day to day. That’s my grime. We have our own streets, our own culture, legends, stories and history,” says Benji. “It’s great to be inspired by places and styles, but you have to bring your own flavour, stories and pride to the limelight when you’re being an expressive artist. And I feel a responsibility to do that; I should be putting myself on the line and represent my country for the next generation to follow that benchmark. My generation didn’t have many people to look up to from my area. We had Fordy, Johnny B and Keltech but there weren’t many black artists to look up to here and not many people have gone above community level to break out of the scene and show us the way and the blueprint to make a success.”
The finale track on the album – Black & Welsh – captures this ambition and identification. Sharing powerful bars with fellow Black and mixed race Welsh MCs Smxk3, MANLIKEVISION and Truth, it concludes the album with a call for more recognition of real Welsh city life. “I’m constantly meeting people who are shocked we have Black culture in Wales. They think it’s all rural and white. But we’ve had black communities in Wales for as long as any other city. It’s about being proud of your identity. I’m Welsh but not Welsh like someone from the Rhondda might be. I am a different breed of Welsh and there are many people like me.”
Three years, a global pandemic, the birth of his daughter, 40+ released songs and one turbulent but worthy inter-country clash into his life as a post-Astroid solo boy, Benji’s foundations are complete and the bricks are piling up thick and fast. He explains how he’d love to be part of a larger movement that puts Wales on the Black music map full stop.
“One of the biggest compliments for me was when I started to run an event called Heatup earlier this year,” he says. “I got these guys from London chatting and they didn’t take us seriously at all but they came around slowly but surely and eventually were saying, ‘Looks like Wales is popping, I might come down.’ That was amazing because it felt like I was highlighting how attractive this country is. And that’s what we all need to do; celebrate Welsh urban culture. Maybe like a carnival vibe. Leeds, Notting Hill, St Pauls. Wales needs something like that to really celebrate what we have and what we come from. There are many of us are out there doing it and we want it to grow.”
With that our call is over and Benji heads back to the studio. As Welsh Grime starts to simmer on all streaming platforms (following an exclusive month on Bandcamp as part of his independent solo artist experiments) he returns to the melting pot to work out what’s next to fire out of his armoury.
Don’t go expecting a Welsh Grime part two quite yet, though. “Nah I’ve cleared that off my hard drive, I got other plans now. I want to work on styles. I’ve just linked up with this classically trained trumpet player and the beat he’s sent me? Bro, it’s so sick I’m not ready to write over it!”