Newport Market is a good place to shelter from the rain on a wet Wednesday morning. A grand, cast iron structure built in 1854 to house local produce from butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and the like, it underwent massive regeneration in 2022 and is home to a series of artisan bakeries, coffee shops and art galleries.
Right now, with employees setting up for the day and a smattering of elderly locals enjoying cake and a natter, it’s quiet and peaceful. At least until… “Beep beep! Welcome to Newport!” shouts Benji Webbe, Skindred singer and unrelenting hype man for his hometown, as he careers towards Hammer on a lowrider bike. “You found it alright, then?” he says, loudly. “Come on, I’m going to take you round my ends!”
You’d imagine the arrival of this ball of energy clad in a leopard-print tracksuit would prompt looks of disapproval from the pensioners in the vicinity, but apparently not. “Morning, Benj!” is the general reaction, followed by a smile and a wave.
This is a good time to visit Benji on his home turf. Not only are Skindred about to release their new album, Smile (the first since 2018’s Big Tings and their eighth in total), but 2023 also marks their 25th anniversary. The band that started in a rehearsal room underneath a boxing gym - which we’ll visit later today - have gone on to become one of the UK’s most unique and adored bands.
Throughout it all, they’ve been intrinsically linked to this city of 160,000 in South Wales. If Skindred have a fifth member, it’s Newport itself, which is why we’re here to get a guided tour of the town from its unofficial Mayor.
“Newport’s the first place Joe Strummer picked up a guitar,” says Benji, name-checking the late Clash singer and punk icon as Hammer attempts to keep pace with his lowrider on foot. “They say that him going to Notting Hill was what inspired The Clash to explore reggae. I don’t think so, I think it was him going to the gigs around here. That’s why this place is important to Skindred, we’re part of that legacy.”
Our first port of call is Kriminal Records, the shop where Benji bought his first ever records. Unsurprisingly, store owner Dean is more than familiar with our host. “Oh, fuck me, here we go!” he says as he opens his door. “Shut up and get the kettle on!” says Benji, winking.
It must be cool to have a proper rock star coming into your shop, Dean? “I’m his mate, I’m not his fan!” Dean chortles, before looking over at Benji, who is thumbing through some CDs. “If you want respect, you’ve come to the wrong fucking shop!”
The two men crack up. Music was always playing in Benji’s house when he was growing up. Both his parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by his older brother, who had control of the house record player. “Until one day, my Auntie Maggie from Coventry gave me a tenner, my first ever tenner,” he says. “I came in here and bought my first record, Loonee Tunes! by [80s Two-Tone jesters] Bad Manners, and a pasty and chips, which I ate waiting for the bus home.”
Bad Manners’ larger-than-life mix of ska and punk was a precursor of the music Benji himself would make as an adult, but his reggae-loving brother was less keen.
“I got home, walked up to that stereo, put the record on the turntable and put that needle down. It started playing and my brother walks in and goes ‘RRRRIIIIPPP’ with the needle across the record. ‘That’s not real reggae,’ he said. I stood up and went, ‘What do you mean, not real? I like it!’ Later on, he came back in and said to me, ‘Yeah, fair play.’ Ha ha!”
Benji soon began attending gigs in Newport. His first was reggae duo Clint Eastwood & General Saint, but he soon moved on to punk rock shows with his friends. He was the only black kid at those gigs, but he bats away the idea that it was an uncomfortable experience.
“I was just me,” he snorts. “I’m hardly shy, am I? If I went and stood in the back and was like, ‘Oh, should I be here?’ then maybe I’d have felt it, but I bowled in there like I am now. I can honestly say the community here, they just accepted me, and that’s why I never wanted to leave.”
And he hasn’t. Benji has remained in Newport his whole life. Except, that is, a short period in the 90s when he moved to Los Angeles. “It was about some girl,” he says. “You know how it is.”
Before we know it, he’s back on his bike and we’re heading out of Kriminal Records toward Le Pub, the venue where Skindred played their first show. As we trundle through the streets, people wander up and greet Benji like a mate, and he’s got time for all of them. One gentleman is wearing a Skindred patch on one arm and on the other a patch of Benji’s first band, ragga metal outfit Dub War.
Which one does he prefer? “Stone. Fucking. Roses!” he barks back at us. “That’s not a bad answer, that!” Benji replies with a grin.
Dub War were Benji’s first crack at fronting a band. They released a pair of excellent albums on Earache Records, 1995’s Pain and 1996’s Wrong Side Of Beautiful, supporting the likes of Manic Street Preachers and The Stone Roses along the way. Newport itself became a mid-90s music hotspot, dubbed “the new Seattle” by the The New York Times. It was centred around iconic local venue TJ’s, sadly now closed.
“It was exciting times around here back then,” says Benji. “Dub War, Feeder, [indie punk outfit] 60ft Dolls, we all played at TJ’s, which was round the corner. Great scene.”
Benji pulls his bike over outside Le Pub. An unassuming-looking venue, it’s advertising upcoming shows by the likes of Cancer Bats and South Wales band Himalayas, who have just been confirmed as support for Foo Fighters on a handful of dates of their UK stadium tour. Benji proceeds to tell us a story about the night of Skindred’s first gig, where members of various Welsh bands turned up at Le Pub to see his new project. One of these was the now-disgraced vocalist of a Welsh band, who Benji overheard saying that Skindred would “never be as good as Dub War” as he was coming down the venue’s staircase.
“I just said, ‘Yeah, they’ll be shit, won’t they?’ as I passed him,” laughs Benji. “He bricked it. I think when Dub War ended and I started Skindred, there were a few people that I had to prove wrong. They maybe thought I’d had my shot and I should give it up.” He pauses to buzz the venue’s intercom. “Open the door then!” he hollers, but no one answers, so we head to the nearby McCann’s Rock N Ale Bar instead.
As we get comfortable in McCann’s, Benji hands out some Skindred branded beermats for the venue, who pour us some complimentary pints of Iron Maiden’s Trooper Beer in return. Talk turns to Skindred’s new album.
Smile might be the broadest album the band have ever made. It still features their signature reggae/punk/metal mash-up, but it brings more contemporary and even pop elements to the party.
“I don’t mind that at all,” says Benji. “I think the pandemic gave us a lot of time to think and to agonise over what we were doing. If we’d had to put it out like normal then we might not have made this record, it might have just been another Skindred record. But we want to reach people, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do – spread positivity through music. Yeah, this has some new flavours on it, but we got new people we want to reach.”
Pints downed, Benji hops back on his bike and guides us through Newport’s main high street. Once again, he’s stopped multiple times – everyone from middle-aged men who’ve known him for years to young lads who see him as a local legend and want to look at his bike. Even a postman grabs him for a chat.
“He really is the Mayor of Newport,” the postie says. As he wanders off, he bellows: “Benji for Prime Minister!” Benji erupts into laughter. “See, I told you,” he says. “These are just good people. Normal, working class people. My kind of people.”
Newport itself is a proudly working class city and, like all working class cities, its history has been a rollercoaster ride. Its proximity to the River Usk meant it became an important transport hub for coal and iron during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a time of great growth for the town, but there was unrest too.
“This is where the march happened,” says Benji, pointing towards the now-empty Westgate Hotel. He’s referring to the Newport Rising, the largest armed uprising in Welsh history, which saw 4,000 sympathisers of the working class Chartist movement march on the town in 1839 in an attempt to effect social change.
“They were protesting because they wanted the vote,” he says. “They came down that hill and soldiers started shooting at them from the hill. They killed 22 people.”
Newport was redeveloped in the 1960s and 70s, and the uprising’s leader, John Frost, was commemorated with a square in the town centre. Yet Newport suffered in the same way that many other former mining communities in Wales did, another victim of the decline of British industry.
The local music scene became the main source of pride for the town during the harsh years of the 1980s and 1990s. Newport was awarded City status in 2002, the same year Skindred’s debut album, Babylon, was released. Since then it has refurbished many of the classic buildings, and hosted golf’s Ryder Cup and the 2014 NATO summit.
“I remember all the old places,” says Benji. “I like the new ones, they’re nice, don’t get me wrong, but those old buildings had character.” He nods towards the Westgate Hotel. “Look at that. Beautiful, innit.”
There’s one important stop-off left on our guided tour of Newport: Skindred’s birthplace. We head over to St Joseph’s boxing gym. Underneath is a small studio run by the singer’s old friend, Jamie, who is here to meet us. “The first time Skindred ever played was in that room,” Benji tells us as we walk into the studio, pointing through to a tiny area filled with vinyl and a mixing desk. “It was me, Dan [Pugsley] on bass and Jamie scratching over us.”
Jamie nods his head and puffs out his cheeks. “That was a very long time ago.”
Just as Dan’s name is mentioned, he appears. Alongside the singer, he’s the longest-serving member of Skindred. He was still in his teens when the pair met and began creating music together. “This brings back so many memories,” he smiles as he looks around the room. “I just wanted to make music with Benj, and so I upped sticks from Southampton and we made it work. I lived in Newport for about 10 years.”
We’re soon joined by guitarist Mikey Demus and drummer Arya Goggin. Both joined Skindred in 2002 and had their stints living in Newport, before the trio all relocated to various parts of the country. “I still love coming back here,” says Arya. “It’s got a lot of amazing memories for all of us. I can come back having not been here for years and people still think I live here. ‘Just got back from America, have you?’”
We head upstairs to the gym, and the members of Skindred get in the ring for a photoshoot. Halfway through, gym owner Joe wanders in. “Bloody hell,” he exhales, before greeting the band. “What a blast from the past! You boys been up to much?”
“We just did Glastonbury,” Benji replies.
“Not bad going,” nods Joe. “Hold there Benj, I got something for you.” He nips into his office and comes back with a laminated Skindred poster from the band’s earliest days.
“Look at that,” marvels Benji. “We hadn’t even got our fucking logo sorted out at that point. I’d never have believed it would be 25 years of this if you’d have told me back then…”
With the shoot over, we head to our final stop: Benji’s favourite Indian restaurant, Punjab Tikka. It’s an unassuming little gaff, but we’re assured it’ll be worth it. “I always looked at this place and never thought to go in,” he says, as we settle in and place our order. “Then one day, after a few beers on a night out, it was empty and I decided to give it a go. It’s beautiful! And I’ve never gone anywhere else since! It just goes to show, you don’t ever judge a book by its cover.”
He gestures towards the guy who is placing a series of massive plates filled with various curries and some naan breads in front of us. “He used to work in a big restaurant and one day he’s had enough. He just wanted his own little place. It might not look like much, but he’s happy.”
Fair to say you’re the same, right, Benji? You could have stayed in LA or moved to London, but you chose not to. “And I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. “Sometimes you just find your place, and this is my place. Yeah, it’s not the most glamorous part in the world, but it’s exciting to me. I love the people and I don’t think Skindred would sound like we do without Newport. And we don’t sound like anyone else, so it’s given us a lot to be grateful for.”
The Mayor Of Newport has spoken.
Skindred's new album Smile is out now via Earache. The band are on tour in the UK in October, for the full list of dates visit the band's official website.