“When I walk into a room I want people to think – ‘who the fucking hell does he think he is?’” Skindred’s front man Benji Webbe has never quite fitted in. Growing up as a black kid in Wales wasn’t especially easy for him either, but Webbe thrives on this feeling of difference.
Back in the mid-90s, Webbe was one of the driving forces of the rock explosion in Newport (which Spin Magazine consequently dubbed as ‘The New Seattle’) when he created Dub War. Bad Brains may have done something similar in the 80s, but Webbe didn’t just bring punk and reggae together, he also threw some metal, jungle and dance music in and created something that was not just innovative, but something that people loved.
Their record label thought otherwise and wouldn’t allow the band to record. Dub War were forced to disband, but out of their ashes came Skindred. Still brandishing Dub War’s ragga-metal ethos, over the past ten years Skindred have released four albums. Their debut Babylon charted No.1 in the U.S Reggae Albums Chart and their most recent offering Union Black has been voted in the Top 10 albums of the year in both Big Cheese and Metal Hammer magazines. They’ve also toured worldwide to sold-out venues and played the main stages at the likes of Download, Sonisphere and Boardmasters. Alongside this, they’ve recently been recognised with the “Devotion Award” by Kerrang, and were also awarded as “Best Live Band” at Metal Hammer’s ‘Golden Gods’ earlier this year – the ultimate middle finger to their former record label.
“I get my inspiration from the Pope, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson”
“With or without them arseholes I’d still be doing it” Webbe lilts in a soft Welsh accent. “God Bless record labels, but you know sometimes I just think they’re a bunch of buffoons who can’t even tap in time.” I get the impression this is one of his well-rehearsed lines that he uses down the pub, but I don’t mind. Webbe is friendly and talkative and without him, I’m not sure Skindred would be as successful and likeable as they are.
With a sound made for partying, Webbe and his band really come to life on-stage. “You know what makes Skindred’s gigs is the people” he says firmly. “I come with the intention for people just to forget about their bullshit lives for ten minutes and really tune into the energy that’s Skindred’s creating. It’s not just about playing, it’s about me as a frontman freeing people’s minds and once their mind is free their ass is gonna follow, and after their ass it’s gonna be legs and then pits [mosh, not arm] and dancing and shaking and moving.” Webbe also provides visual entertainment, and relishes his role as frontman in some very bold, not to mention unflattering outfits. Squint and it could be Will.i.am. “I get my inspiration from the Pope, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. They dress outrageous and they have a pretty cool message. The Pope? Some of his outfits are ridiculous!” Webbe describes earnestly while I try my hardest not to laugh. “I just think if you’re a frontman going on stage you have to bring something different you know – a t-shirt and a pair of jeans? I wear that going to the corner shop.” He is so sweet, but I wish he knew how easy an inappropriate paedophile joke would be to make at this point.
More than his ridiculous clothes and his band’s unique music, what really strikes me about Webbe is how honest and kind-hearted he seems to be. While Skindred’s music has often been upbeat and light-hearted in topic, their latest album Union Black, exposes Webbe’s concern for those around him. “Well when I go to the pub, and I go to the pub quite a lot, I listen to a lot of conversations and that. I mean, the world’s got all this madness, but I’m just more into writing about my street – like the woman down the street whose husband has been abusing her for thirty years. Maybe she’ll never hear the record, but it’s just an outlet. I sort of channel out things that upset me through Skindred and it’s an amazing outlet to do that. I’m inspired by everything: I’m inspired by movies, by talking to an old lady in a shop about how things used to be, from Mozart to the Sex Pistols. If it’s got attitude and a message then I can be inspired by that” Webbe chatters. “I mean, I’m not scared to write lyrics like ‘shake ya ass cos it looks good’, because it’s all about the party at the end of the day. But say for instance if someone found a Union Black booklet and picked up and started reading the lyrics, even if they hadn’t heard the music, I’d love the lyrics to push them through whatever they’re going through, you know.”
Having recorded their first three albums in the U.S. perhaps the more serious topics come from being grounded in Britain and the community he grew up in. “It was nice to be in the studio with a producer who was from England. It was nice to be in a room with people all from the same culture” he explains. “I mean I live in Wales—when I say I live in Wales, I don’t mean I live on a farm with sheep and stuff—but I live in a small city and going to London for me was amazing. Believe it or not I enjoyed getting on the tube every morning,” laughs Webbe.
Union Black also seem to be more patriotic as a result – opening with a heavily vocoded dance version of the national anthem which old Lizzy would surely give the thumbs up to. “I wouldn’t say I’m proud of being British” he muses. “But I’m very happy of my father’s choice to step out of the West Indies and I’m very glad he came to the UK and that I grew up here.” I ask Webbe how he feels about growing up in Wales. He cuts me off. “I don’t do Wales, Scotland and Ireland, I just think we’re all British. I don’t do all that and a lot of Welsh people don’t like that I say that, but I can only be truthful and I don’t care.” Webbe is a man with strong views and a strong presence, but in spite of the this the band still work as a collective. “I know people say I’m the face of Skindred, but this band is a 25% split all the way down.”
Even so, Webbe is undoubtedly the most intriguing of the bunch. A veteran of the genre, Webbe is also now a DJ and working on his own reggae and Bluegrass albums. “People are going to be like ‘what the fuck, Benji doing Bluegrass? I’ve got to listen to that’ which is awesome” he laughs. “I’m just excited by being able to do all of these things. There are a lot of musicians out there who would love to be in the position we’re in and I don’t take for granted where we are.”