The British music scene is at its most dynamic and diverse yet, with a slew of different artists to cater to every mood, emotion and mindset. Over in South London, the talent is unbelievable, and the latest to make his mark is the rapper Benny Mails. After teasing his powers in 2015, dropping two songs on his SoundCloud and somewhat emerging with the Nihilismus collective, Mails made an even grander entrance two years later—beginning with a load of singles, and ending with his debut set, Aware, which packed tongue-twisting lyricism and vivid tales from the peripheries of the UK capital that went under the radar for many.
Brought up in the midst of London’s grime scene whilst also listening to hip-hop’s greatest, like Nas, and the discovery of the funk and jazz records vibrating through his household, Mails break-danced and performed contemporary dance from a very early age and attended the famed BRIT School. Developing an innate sense for rhythm and flow inevitably filtered into his songwriting, which now assimilates a melting pot of sounds and influences. “These Days”, Benny’s new single featuring Kasien, is a sombre reflection of an ongoing sense of hopelessness in a world where things come and go, relayed with pure dexterity and tenderness.
Though he suffers from ADHD, this hasn’t hindered Benny Mails as he continues to find his pocket and tell his story with potency and simplicity. He opens up to Complex about his come-up, dealing with the disorder, supporting two certified hip-hop legends, and the death of loved ones to knife crime.
COMPLEX: Your rapping style is quite hard to pinpoint—how would you describe it?
Benny Mails: I’m a bit manic in my head, so I never try to approach two things the same. I’m quite clinical and I try to make sure everything is pinpoint, tonally and time-wise. I focus more on that than the content in a way, because it’s very different. My first point of contact is having a topic and being free with it and saying whatever comes to my head first, then when it comes to polishing it, I think about the flow and tone when I’m recording.
You were a contemporary dancer before you became a rapper. Were the skills you gained transferable to the way you rap?
It’s given me a different sense of rhythm and, in terms of energy, the ability to dance to my own music is something really useful in a recording environment. I live off of good energy and if there isn’t good energy when I’m recording, the song won’t be good. If I’m in a studio where I’m comfortable enough to be grooving and dancing to the music, that’s useful. But [dancing] doesn’t have a direct benefit to me. It’s just a vibe thing; it’s taught me about having your own unique way to sit on a track. When I MC, most of it is freestyled then I’ll tidy it up a bit for the listener. All my songs start off as freestyles and I never jump on beats that are sent to me; I always have to be there in the process of making a track.
Was rapping an accident for you?
Definitely, but it was a perfect mistake. It was meant to happen. I was able to recite rap lyrics so well as a kid, and that stuck with me. Then I started off rapping drunk at a party, freestyling, and that turned into a career.
You went under the name of Nihilismus before—what’s the story behind that?
That was a group with me, Saddler The Kid—an amazing producer from Catford who was the first to say “come to my studio, let’s record”—and Pearl De Luna, originally, but she was distant after a while. Shae, a rapper-singer, joined after, and Daestreet. He was one of the first MCs I heard that sounded hella different. Cester, a DJ, he joined last but he never focused on being a musician. We must have made 50 tracks as a collective, certified demos, but we never really intended on having collective tracks—we wanted to be more like Dipset. It was more of a soundsystem. After a while, we had productivity issues and drifted apart, but we have no ill will towards each other at all.
“ADHD is stubborn. It’s great for freestyling because you have so many things in your head but, generally, it’s tough when I’m with a producer.”
The first time I heard of you was mid-2016, when I was at a shoot with 808INK and they told me to check out Nihilismus, but up until 2017 you were very quiet. What were you doing in that time period?
Making music and smoking weed [laughs]. I worked at Hoi Polloi and met everyone there—Wu-Tang, Jay Electronica, Will and Jaden Smith—it was a beautiful time. I preferred doing that to rapping! If you’re not competitive then someone is for you, and as long as you have that connection in the music industry, you’re always going to hear: “You’re not slowthai, or Loyle Carner!” It’s tough because I don’t want to compete with my friends, or anyone! I’ve gone into a studio before thinking I should be making a particular type of track, but it didn’t work out. I never felt comfortable doing it. If I’m not 100% loving a song, I’m not going to put my energies into selling it, and I feel like that’s been a downfall for me in a strange way.
So, how do you feel about the music industry?
There’s good in it, but when you’re a free-flowing artist making music that’s true to you, you might not be in a position where you feel you’ve made your own sound yet but fully feel you’re on the path to doing so. The industry is great for people who are in a position to rush, but I don’t have that luxury. When there’s a rush and expectation, it can lead to a misunderstanding. When you don’t hit deadlines, you come to be known as a perfectionist when, in reality, that’s not what perfectionism is. It’s more taking opportunities in the music and growing with it, and that’s what makes legends: those who take the extra time with their music. The biggest goal for me in music is to get the finished product with the most simplicity. Right now, it has so much complexity behind the scenes that it takes a lot of time, mainly understanding what I’m trying to make... I freestyled my career.
As you know, I loved your mixtape Aware. What were the main aims and aspirations behind this particular project?
I just wanted to show why I’m different, why I’m me. Who I am. I felt like it showed people that I’m not a grime MC and that I don’t make “old school hip-hop”, and that this was something new. It’s not for me to pinpoint what it is. Wiley didn’t create the term ‘grime’, Kool Herc didn’t create the term ‘hip-hop’. But I stuck my name on my billboard—that was it.
Your style sometimes is quite urgent, which to me sums up the urgency and never-ending vibe of London itself. As a Londoner, do you feel living here can be quite draining to the mental sometimes? Do you feel you want to get away? I get that when I listen to your music…
100%! And I see that more every time I leave London. It’s so draining in terms of its size, its dirtiness—shit’s in the air! Pollution will make you tired and we have it worse here than anywhere else. That changes your music, and you can see it. When you listen to Young T & Bugsey, apart from their accents, you can tell they’re not from London, even though they come from a place with its own downfalls. I spent time in Sheffield when I was younger and it was mad, but bassline came from that. Same way dubstep supposedly came from Croydon, you can tell in some ways that it doesn’t come from London.
“My life goal is just to make art.”
You have ADHD also—how much does that affect your ability to create when in the studio?
ADHD is stubborn. It’s great for freestyling because you have so many things in your head but, generally, it’s tough when I’m with a producer. I hear a lot of opportunities for instruments so I always end up with really full tracks, but then having to strip them back is nuts. Then you start writing and four bars later, you’re writing a different song and you don’t even realise you’re doing it! The topic never changes, but it gets to a point where people don’t understand what I’m saying. I guess it’s stream of consciousness, but I’m kind of oblivious to it. For me, I feel like people listen to my music for the beats and because the bars sound so good, but I’ve never had a conversation with someone who understands that my lyrics are vague and vast but still make sense. I understand that, but sometimes you need that reassurance.
You lost a loved one to knife crime too, didn’t you? Sorry for your loss. How has that impacted your outlook on life?
You get shocked and that shock changes you physically, mentally, how you look at life, how you walk down the street, the way you talk to people, the way you care about your loved ones. Lewis was technically my step uncle, but he was my cousin because I spent my whole childhood with him. He was road, but such a safe guy at the same time that it’s like, you’re smart enough to not be in a dumb situation; he was rapping as well but we never connected in that way.
As a white rapper from South London, we’ve all experienced white rappers using ghetto experiences or trauma as clout, and I sat on that experience for so long and I didn’t talk about it in my music for a good two years. I didn’t want it to define me because if that becomes the main thing of my career, that would be horrible. There are things you’ve just got to block out in life, and Lewis isn’t coming back, so you should move on from it and celebrate his life when the time is right and show your love to his family. I wore his t-shirt during my Colors Berlin session and his family appreciated that. I never want to experience that ever again but its changed me for the good.
How does it feel to be mixing with the likes of legends such as Raekwon and Ghostface Killah so early on? Does that kind of validate you in a way?
Not at all, it’s another part of the shit side of the industry [laughs]. Everyone has expectations in life, and when you open up for Ghostface and Raekwon you expect the hip-hop community to embrace you. I didn’t expect that at all. I’ve met Ghostface before though—I even turned him vegan when I was working at Ace [Hotel]; I took him to Cook Daily and he said he was vegan 20 years ago, but it was a bit mad, so I said he should try again and by the end of it he says I turned him vegan again. But when you’re opening up for someone, you’re just performing in front of 300 people who don’t know you. But often, the really amazing things in life are the things that you don’t expect.
Is the sky the limit for you?
100%! I’ve just got to find my way to it and once I do, I’m going to work my fucking arse off! I don’t know what the sound is yet. I don’t know if it’s rapping or singing; I can’t sing to save my life [laughs]. You can’t change your method of output, but I would never stop creatively. It’s like going down a long road that has loads of twists and turns, but that can be a downside because you could find something and you might be stuck—and unless you’re Frank Ocean, you can’t take two years off to go and find a new route. When I came into this game, I had four tracks, dropped them all in one year and then had no more tracks because I wasn’t really making music. Now, though, I’m in the position where I have loads of music so that doesn’t happen again.
What do you want to achieve before the year is out?
I want to get to a point of fluidity and consistency where there is more of a snowball effect. I feel I’ve been a bit stagnant recently and, yeah, the industry hype has increased, but I need a cult following and I want to build that. But that comes from me working myself. My life goal is just to make art; I want to make enough money to do that with no limitations. I want to be in a position where if I want to paint a whole van, then I can buy one and facilitate it. Financial freedom but not excessiveness.
Catch Benny Mails live at Borderline in London on June 20.