Album review: Dub War – Westgate Under Fire
Benji Webbe returns to his first love as Dub War return with their first album in decades…
Benji Webbe is on a tour bus. If he’s not in his native Newport, recording in his studio or in the hot tub his mates helped install in his garden using a digger to the bemusement of his neighbours, he’s generally on tour. It’s where he loves to be, which is lucky really, because fronting two bands it’s where you’ll more than likely find him. “I love it,” he says of life as a road dog.
For the uninitiated, Dub War – today completed by guitarist Jeff Rose and bassist Richie Glover – was Benji’s band before Skindred. They originally formed in 1993, split abruptly in 1999, reformed in 2014 and have just released their first album of new material since 1996. “We’re not after anything apart from being able to express ourselves,” says Benji of the impetus to come back, before explaining his initial concerns with balancing two projects. “I didn’t want Dub War to be swept under the carpet and forgotten about and I didn’t want to be pulled in different directions.” Thankfully, both bands have the same management and are on the same label, Earache Records, which makes things more straightforward. “It means I can do this comfortably, and have these two beautiful bands in my life,” explains the frontman, before sprinkling in another benefit of everything being under the same umbrella. “At some point with Dub War I’d like us to support Skindred and blow those c**ts off the stage.”
He’s joking, of course, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t make for a fascinating bill — albeit an exhausting one for the man who’d be doing a double stint. “It wouldn’t be too tiring,” laughs Benji. “There’d be a DJ in between, though that would be me as well.”
Fundamentally, the difference between Skindred and Dub War is that the latter are punkier and more overtly political in their music. Case in point is the title of the new record, Westgate Under Fire, which is inspired by an armed protest that took place in 1839. The Newport Rising saw a crowd of around 10,000 march upon the town in search of social reforms, culminating in a gathering outside the Westgate Hotel, during which the outnumbered militia defending the hotel fired upon the crowd, killing 22 demonstrators and injuring many more. “Us proud Newport boys are acknowledging the most important event that’s taken place in the history of our hometown,” says Benji. “For many years afterwards, the town chose to forget these bloody events. And it wasn’t until well over a hundred years later that people recognised that the true role those people who marched, the Chartists, played in transforming democracy in Britain.”
Believe it or not, Kerrang! played a pivotal role in the creation of Blackkk Man, Westgate Under Fire’s incendiary opening track. It might seem immodest to point this out, but Benji suggests it’s important to acknowledge the genesis of an idea. Back in June 2020, with the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement precipitating vital conversations in all areas of society, with governments, individuals and organisations asking themselves difficult questions about everything from police brutality to white privilege, allyship to the immovable bloodstains of slavery and colonialism. K! embarked on a series of interviews and facilitated conversations with several black artists at the time, providing a platform to explore notions of bigotry, inclusion and representation.
In one piece, Loathe vocalist Kadeem France described finding himself the only black fan at shows in his formative years, resulting in a drive to ensure his band’s shows are a safe space for people of all colours and creeds. In another emotionally-charged article, then-Neck Deep drummer Dani Abasi, alongside a fan-turned-friend named Alex, discussed the latent anger born from a life of racist encounters, as well as the duo’s desire for open-mindedness in the predominantly white pop-punk scene.
Like Dani, Benji grew up in a particularly white part of Wales. Unlike Dani, however, Benji is a man in his 50s – a father and grandfather – so an example to new generations of family and fans. His perspective is therefore a fascinating one. Outspoken and gregarious by nature, when it came time to chat to K!, Benji, who lost both of his parents by the age of 8, was uncharacteristically vulnerable as he recalled uneasy exchanges with the police, and visiting the homes of white childhood friends whose fathers would greet him with suspicious looks and loaded remarks. “It made me angry,” he said at the time. “It was something that kept coming and coming, so I had to quash it. Along with the black kids I hung around with back then, we made a stand early on that we weren’t going to take it, by displaying strong attitudes and showing no weakness.” And he was true to his word; this is, after all, the man who, when asked once about his love of Star Wars, said he was drawn to the character of Darth Vader because he was “the baddest, blackest motherfucker in the galaxy”.
Our conversation stuck with Benji. These were thoughts and feelings that had percolated in his mind for years, of course, but rarely had there been the chance to let them coalesce in such a focused way. “It really made me reflect,” he admits quietly. So much so that when he listened to the music Dub War were working on – specifically a lurching tune with mischievous guitar and basslines – Benji was struck by a profoundly sad idea. “There’s a line in the song, ‘No-one chooses the skin they’re in,’ that I feel particularly strongly about. Should the skin you’re in dictate how people look at you and see you? In the song I also talk about the fact that as a black man, I get followed around shops, and I’m a law-abiding citizen, but while I’m getting followed around shops, some black people are being killed by cops.”
Not only does Dub War’s music allow Benji to rally against societal ills, it also allows him to plug listeners straight into his reggae and ragga influences. On Westgate Under Fire, this is done most explicitly on War Inna Babylon, a cover of a song by legendary Jamaican singer Max Romeo. It’s also the final track to feature Ranking Roger, singer in the influential ska band The Beat, who died in 2019. “When I used to watch Top Of The Pops, I saw this band who looked like they grew up on a council estate, so they felt tangible to me,” Benji says of the appeal of The Beat. “It felt like music I could do. Plus, I always wanted to make music that brought black and white people together, which is what they created.”
Benji would eventually find himself coming face to face with Ranking Roger in the dressing room of an unnamed venue. The two men discussed their favourite records, at which point War Inna Babylon came up in conversation, with both agreeing they’d love to put their own spin on it. Years later, when Benji and Richie worked up a version of the track, they reached out to Roger, who was impressed by their efforts and lent his vocals to proceedings. “It’s an honour to have him on the track now that he’s no longer with us,” says Benji of the bittersweetness of sharing the track three years on from Roger’s passing. And there’s a host of other guests on the record too, most of them drummers, including Faith No More’s Mike Bordin, Stone Sour’s Roy Mayorga, and In Flames’ Tanner Wayne. “Having that many artists I respect wanting to be involved with what we’ve created is a very big deal,” the frontman beams.
Despite Benji’s many accomplishments and his brazen boldness as a performer, there’s a residual humility to him that means no accomplishment or compliment is too modest. Perhaps it comes from being in two bands with two entirely different levels of success that means he’s able to achieve goals on multiple levels, keeping his feet planted on the ground of intimate venues, and a fist in the air above some of the world’s biggest stages. One recent piece of acknowledgement, he suggests, made a particular impact.
Don Letts, the film director and DJ whose endeavours as a musician include Big Audio Dynamite alongside The Clash guitarist Mick Jones, made a last-minute alteration to his playlist when he heard War Inna Babylon. “That was a big deal,” reveals Benji of its inclusion, before allowing a little self-deprecation to creep in. “I know it was because of the Roger connection, but I want people to know that Roger was in good company with us.”
Benji takes a deep breath as he reflects upon the unbreakable bonds that music engenders. “It’s always been about family,” he says of the kinship that continues between his bandmates, collaborators and fans. “We do this together. No matter the colour of your skin or your sexuality, you’re welcome to this party.”
On the evidence of Westgate Under Fire, which brims with tunes, attitude and righteous indignation, it’s not a shindig that’s going to be boring.
Westgate Under Fire is out now via Earache
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