Warming to Benny Maths is easy. There’s an infectious enthusiasm in his tone which tells you why he does what he does, alongside business partner, fellow DJ and good friend Toby Hickman.
Together the pair established Black Beacon Sound as an imprint in 2016, with the tagline ‘For What We Love’. Its back catalogue is home to a wildly varied selection of artists making music left-of-centre, to put it mildly; from the futuristic, dubby breaks of Hang Syem to Black Urn’s intimidating doom metal. But when we speak on the phone, the plan is to discuss a more recent iteration of their brainchild.
“I was down at the barber’s getting my hair cut,” Maths says, his Merseyside twang matched by self-deprecating wit as he jokes this was the last time scissors met his unruly locks. “The guy who manages the [Kelham] Arcade works there. He knows what I’ve been up to from chatting, and was like ‘we’ve got space in the basement, I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a record store down there, what do you think?’ ”
“I sat there for a while telling him how it would be a terrible, terrible idea. Like, no man, there’s loads of good shops in Sheffield and the footfall isn’t great down here,” he continues, before reiterating how time can change everything. “I went away and thought about it. After a bit I started thinking this is maybe something we could make work, it’s a gamble but if it pays off it will pay off big time. So I went back the next day and said, ‘you know what, forget everything I said’.”
A few months later, during which time plenty of effort was made to dehumidify the damp cellar - “it wasn’t a very nice space to be in” - Black Beacon Sound Intl. opened doors as a small but well-stocked vinyl emporium, specializing in, but not restricted to, the electronic spectrum. Welcoming the first customers in early-April 2018, it has been a case of learning on the job for those involved, with the task of selling records en masse different to signing and releasing music itself.
“We kind of went backwards, took on the space, started with that initial idea and then worked it out from there. I’ve been going to record shops since I was a kid, and regularly since I was about 14. So it was about putting something together that I would want to go to and filling it with things that I would want to buy,” Maths says, explaining the extensive house and techno selection is supplemented by an arsenal of more obscure weapons, geared towards adventurous ears.
“[We’ve got] everything from bagpipe music to soundtracks, weird sample stuff, modular stuff. Just for those who are prepared to have a dig,” he continues, quickly citing an entire section inspired by the founding ethos behind one of the UK’s most legendary parties, and the sorely missed monthly magazine born from said session, Jockey Slut. “The Disco Pogo For Punks In Pumps section is totally stolen from Bugged Out!, and that’s the section that represents that whole vibe, in the time when you could go there and watch Dave Clark smash it out and then the All Seeing I. Less weird and wonderful than The Weird & The Wonderful section, more electronic focused, but it has a variety where, if you’re prepared to have a dig, you’ll get some gems.”
Black Beacon Sound now has more stock than it knows what to do with, or how to display. Partly the result of the place being run by two heads who approach buying in the same way they maintain their own record collections. A goldmine thankfully protected by near-fortified walls — meaning this year’s devastating floods didn’t damage the trove — recent months have seen events thrown into the mix. There’s a new weekend residency from Sheffield’s Mono Works in the pipeline— a one-man tour de force who self-describes as ‘serpent riffs meet spartan beats’ that Maths says is “a bit like Arab Strap”; employing drum machine, guitar and effects. Meanwhile, the Dig Deep sessions are going from strength to strength.
“We started off with local crews, but we’ve got all sorts of people coming up for the future,” says Maths, listing the likes of homespun players Apricot Ballroom among past guests. Sheffield BYOB techno party-starters Control will be involved soon, as will Liverpool’s Melodic Distraction team. “We invite them down, we give them an hour to dig, an hour to prep, and then they record us a mix in the shop. It’s filmed in the shop, and then everything in the mix is available to buy, obviously. Well, we say all the stuff is available to buy, but all the DJs so far have ended up buying a quarter or half their sets. Which is quite handy for us.”
With more than one collective invited at a time, Dig Deep provides a space for disparate players to meet, share ideas and hang out. Maths and Hickman are also keen for those who aren’t on the hunt for fresh sounds to feel at home in the environment, too, after observing group dynamics wherein often one or two people are digging while friends wait. The introduction of a SNES console to occupy idle hands is one idea. And this isn’t the only lesson in demographics they have learnt since opening.
“For a city this size Sheffield sustains a surprising number of shops. There are six or seven off the top of my head that are all doing their own thing and doing well,” Maths says, name-checking Bear Tree, Record Collector, Tone Arm, and new reggae and soup spot Coles Corner. “When I set this up, I thought our market would basically be me — middle aged men, with a bit of money to spend. I thought we might get down to the mid-20s and up to the mid-50s in terms of age. What’s massively surprised me is that it’s teenage-to-early-20s girls coming down and spending the most money. They spend the most time and the most money here in terms of new electronic stuff.”
Sheffield’s staunchly free spirit is world famous. From former-Lord Mayor, the revered Somali-British politician Magid Magid, to explorative musical endeavours like Cabaret Voltaire and Warp Records, it has long-nurtured and promoted independent thought. This follows through into businesses, making Black Beacon Sound a good fit.
“It’s not a problem getting people to spend money, the stock sells itself,” Maths replies when we ask about the biggest challenges in staying afloat, explaining getting people down to the premises is the difficult bit. “It’s a part of Sheffield that we took a gamble on, it was quite derelict before but has been turning around with the Yellow Arch Studios venue, The Old Workshop pub, Cutlery Works bar and food. People do come down and spend time here in the evenings. What we really need is more of a focus on retail.”
The nocturnal activity is only growing, with a slew of dining and drinking establishments open and the relatively new dancefloor at Dryad Works hosting events since last autumn. Peddler Market is one scheme looking to bridge the gap between entertainment and shopping, bringing people in to peruse clothes, art and more amid evenings of live music and eats. Black Beacon Sound has benefited, as older customers slide into the store to satisfy urges for nostalgia purchases after sinking beers.
The result means slowly perceptions of the area are changing from a DIY food and drink destination, to something more. Maths and Hickman are key faces in this ecosystem, building their address on true entrepreneurial principles — seizing opportunities, betting on outside runners and taking risks in order to create something new, in this case beneath the shadows of industrial relics. A spirit in-keeping with their approach to unearthing music, it’s easy to feel inspired by the attitude.