Anderson Street Projects Chats with Worldtown SoundSystem
A couple of weekends back, we had the awesome opportunity of covering The 10th Annual Jazz on the Ave festival in North Philly. Unfortunately, a mini-hurricane ensued and we didn’t get the chance to see our friend Jeff Bradshaw and his friend Kim Burrell tear the house down. We know. Big bummer. But hey, there’s always next year. And to be honest, we still had an amazing time because we got to see and sit down with Worldtown SoundSystem.
Worldtown Soundsystem is an international House music band that is led by two Philly residents (and former Temple University students) DJ Ben Arsenal and Femi. When we say international, we really mean INTERNATIONAL! The band includes members from Brazil, Nigeria, and of course Philly and all of these references are reflected in their unique sound and performance style. Their high-energy, high-impact songs are enough to brighten any gloomy day.
We got a chance to talk to Ben and Femi their international and local inspirations, Philly’s under-discussed Disco history, and why some things in Philly should remain a secret. Check out our in depth conversation below!
Anderson Street: How did you develop your sound?
Arsenal: When we put our first mixtape together, I was actually studying abroad through a program at Temple in Brazil. So, I went and learned a lot more about House music as opposed to Electro. Then we started finding these tracks that we were both absolutely crazy about. They were on the soulful side, funky, and kind of break beats, but with Brazilian breaks. As we’ve developed a sound, we’ve definitely honed in. You know, a little less Big Room (House), sort of like EDM. We were spinning EDM before it was EDM and that was at the grimy, underground sweat boxes.
Femi: We were able to experiment with like boomba tone (a Kenyan style of hip hop), dancehall, crazy Baltimore club and everything in between. I think that side has gotten much more finessed over the years because it’s like, ‘Oh, alright, you know, he (Ben) will show me a few songs, I’ll show him a few songs,’ or find a good way to meet in the middle as far as what we’re DJing at parties. And then, when it comes to the band, that’s also a very interesting growth of music because we’re coming into it from the House end, and then you have different live sounds that then contribute to what the end sound is like. What excites me the most is the band—it’s something new. For me, listening to it, it’s something new. It embodies the mission. From the gate, we were all about bringing sounds from around the world into the club and I think that drives our sound the most.
Anderson Street: So, you have this really international-sounding focus. What about Philly inspires your sound?
Arsenal: It’s a huge part of it. A lot of the international side is kind of in the drums and in the vocals but then Philly has, obviously, some amazing musical history. And we’ve definitely tied in some of those disco vibes and soulful vocals.
Femi: Not to mention that Philly, as far as Northeast cities go, is one of the most diverse. At Temple, our friends were from literally every country in the world. Like you go to Northeast to eat Brazilian, you go to West Philly to eat African, or like Arabic of different countries, so I think that’s really what also inspires it. This is a place where there are people from everywhere, and you can break music like that, because the culture here is more accepting to that. The culture is more tolerant. So, current Philly really contributes to our vibe in that sense. We can be in the same room with people from 50 countries. That is a reality in Philadelphia right now and I think that is a big part of the music.
Arsenal: And part of Philly that has definitely rubbed off on me, you know, personally, anyway, is that they don’t take any bullshit. If you’re playing some wack stuff, you’re going to get some looks. So it’s been a huge part of learning how to select music, and a big part of writing music, too, because it’s not like Berlin, Germany—not to diss Berlin at all, because I have huge respect for what they do, but Philly is like, ‘Give us some real music.’ They want real music. That has definitely shaped the band. It’s very fast-paced. It has solos, and real instruments, and depth, and textures. It has definitely been tough at moments but in the long run it has been awesome to have that musical filter.
Femi: Not to mention that with both DJs and the band, you’re in Philly, we have a lot of artists. The bar is a little high here. You’re never DJing to a room full of non-artists. That never happens. That reels you in. It keeps you honest and it reflects when we play other places. There’s an instant connection. I’m proud to be in this city.
Anderson: We’ve been trying to figure out, why, when we talk about the disco era, we talk about certain cities, we talk about New York, we talk about Paris, but Philadelphia is never in the conversation. And it kind of started here. Why do you think that is and what do you think storytellers like us and you guys can do so people know that it’s based here?
Arsenal: I feel like there’s a big respect for it from the outside. And I’ve been here for 10 years now so it’s kind of hard to say, because I’ve literally been here, so to know what other people are saying, I’m not sure, but New York is just such a big name to be namedropping. It’s so automatic. And Chicago, you know, Chicago House. But it’s not like Philly Disco.
Femi: First of all, I think it’s because Philly’s rep comes from the soul era. And when it came to Disco, the imagery and the scene was New York and Paris. That’s what people were seeing on TV. Like Studio 54 and celebrities partying together. I think Philly gets the “Rocky rep.” It’s not the underdog but like the underground. It’s raw here. It’s not prissy, overproduced, or pretentious. You know what I mean? And I think that reason, especially when it comes to Disco, Philly won’t get the love. But musically, I don’t think Philly loses a step. I think Philly, as with art in general, Philly gets its due credibility. You got Jazzy (Jeff) when it comes to DJing and people are like, ‘Oh, he’s from Philly?’ As far as hip hop is concerned, we’ve gotten our greats who come out of here. We always seem to have people that are around like the creation of different parts of it. If we don’t get love for disco, I’m not mad, because I think disco is a flash in the pan situation. I like to think of Philly more like I did before I moved here 10 years ago, because I knew this was a place where my artist soul was going to be nurtured.
Anderson Street: Did you know that before moving to Philly?
Femi: Oh yeah like I had been here, and I lived like 2 hours away in central Jersey, and a couple of my friends told me that I could move to Brooklyn, and I really wanted to—I was just making beats at the time—and I really wanted to move somewhere that I felt like I could really work on myself as an artist, and not like be worried about being in the scene, or having the latest gear or whatever. I think the first night I moved here, I was at Fifth and Cecil B. looking at graffiti on the walls, thinking ‘yeah I made the right decision,’ and these two hippie looking dudes hopped out of a car, banging on some bongos, and I was like ‘Yeah! This is where I’m supposed to be. This is where this shit is real,’ You know what I mean?
Arsenal: Yeah, there is no better place in the world to grow as an artist.
Femi: But don’t tell anyone.
Arsenal: Don’t tell anyone.
Femi: Keep it a secret.
Anderson Street: No, that shouldn’t be a secret.
Femi: I know, like, that’s the problem, they’re just going to flood this place, dude.