Matthew Bento has just come from an impromptu interview with Bermemes when I meet him for coffee on a dreary Saturday in early January. He’s home for the holidays and just extended his return flight to London by a week. In between our patter, his phone sparks to life intermittently with bongs and beeps that he apologises for but examines nonetheless. Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. It was a casual Saturday afternoon, yet Bento’s phone was unleashing a grand, choiring shout of social affirmation.
He’s always been a musical kid, he tells me once we find a place to sit and talk, and once his phone dies down. But he doesn’t have to. I’ve known Bento since our schoolboy days at Warwick Academy. Though our social circles overlapped, we never did—until several enthusiastic beverages at Docksiders on a weekend afternoon this December. And now here we are. A couple hours later, our interview will end when a beautiful girl joins him at the table.
He still sounds Bermudian, emphatically drawing out his vowels for certain local phrases and mixing up his subjects and verbs, but there’s a cosmopolitan English twang to his voice that belies his efforts thus far in the UK. He’s been working hard; after the last year, those efforts are starting to pay off. His songs on the music-streaming service Spotify have been played more than a million times. Tens of thousands of people have used Shazam to identify tracks of his used in advertisements around Europe and even a few Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows. Until recently, Bento had considered his own music as a hobby. He made his money as a producer, as a songwriter, but now, he tells me, “the hobby is paying as much as the job.”
He works under two names these days. There’s Bento BDA the producer and songwriter, and there’s Matthew Bento the artist. He’d never counted on his own career taking off—“Coming up with a career like that, it’s like a lottery ticket”— so it came as somewhat of a surprise when things started taking off as they did.
“I was thinking Bento BDA was the thing, but it turns out Matthew Bento was the thing. I wouldn’t have seen that coming, and that’s just in the last year that’s really happened,” he said. His rising status in the R&B/hip-hop community is, as are all creative endeavours, largely down to luck, but at the same time, luck had nothing to do with it at all.
His father, Joe, was a natural entertainer, and as a child Bento followed suit. Soon, his parents couldn’t get him to stop singing if they tried. “Music was always playing around the house,” he says, “Whether it was the Beatles, Bob Marley, anything, I just was singing it.”
The singing at home eventually translated to singing in primary school. He sang so much his teachers had to put him into his own little boy band, forming a presumably adorable duo with another student prone to melodic outbursts, Jesse Seymour. They would send the two boys around the school performing for other classes.
“We was like eight years old and doing tours,” Bento says. “We were running it. I remember the routine, like [breaking into song], “Until the walls of inequality come tumbling down… bwaow!” By thirteen years old, he was creating his own music.
“My momma was working, and they got the whole company new iMacs. They had an extra one or something like that and an iMac appeared at my house one day, in the living room. I was looking around on it and I see GarageBand. I’m like, ‘Okay so this is recording software… Okay I can make songs!’ And all of a sudden the kids I was rapping with and singing with in school, it was like, yo, let’s do something. And we did.”
Between the years of 13 and 18, Bento estimates he made more than 800 recordings. And he still has every one. A request for such a song was politely declined.
“I can listen to them,” he says, asked if he encounters the existential dread this writer finds in reading his older work. “I don’t mind it ‘cus I knew what I was at that point. Some I like more than others, knowuddimean? Some tunes I listen to and I’m like, ‘Holy f**k, what the f**k was I doing?’ But everything is made in the time you make it. That’s how I look at it.”
As happens, Bento’s fascination turned into a phase, which turned into an obsession, which has now turned into a career. While he always dreamed of working in music in one form or another, he credits Thaao Dill as his catalyst.
“[I knew I really wanted to pursue music] when I got a little celebrity and this when my songs went on the radio. When Collie Buddz’s tune ‘Mamacita’ came out, I was in first year of sixth form, 15-16 years old, and my song had just come out [too.] And Thaao Dill liked it and played it on Hott 107. At that time they had a Top 10 Pepsi Countdown or something like that, for all the world’s tunes or something. So Collie Buddz was number one of course, but I was number three. And everything from then I was dropping was going through Thaao. Then Power 95 got in touch. Mix 106 got in touch. And then they started playing my songs. So for a while there I was going around doing gigs everywhere. I was doing cup match, HSBC parties, teen summits, Jazz Festival… I was doing everything you could think of. So from then I knew that’s what I wanted to do. In some capacity. And I wanted to pursue it properly.”
Pursuing it properly meant going to school for music. So he did. With help from a few local scholarships and one from the school, he was accepted on a full ride into the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. But Berklee felt like a “school school,” as Bento puts it.
“At the time I wasn’t really liking Berklee. Something about it weren’t right. So I moved. I transferred over to the UK. I went to Point Blank College, which is a music school out there. I did three years there, working in-between—making connections, performing here and there, always in the studio just making beats and making beats. Working on the craft side of things.”
After Point Blank, he told his parents he’d be staying in the UK and living in London. He got a job bartending at TGIF, as struggling artists are wont to do. But it didn’t take long before he fell in with a new musical crowd.
“I remember when I first came to London, my first week, my boy Scotty Simmons was there. He was like, ‘You gotta come to this Bermudian party. It’s a Chewstick spinoff called Spread Love. They play reggae, this and that.’ I was like, ‘OK cool.’ I come there, they already know I’m Bento and do that music stuff, and they were like, ‘Look, we do performance stuff too.’ I ended up performing with them every time they had an event.”
It was while performing with the Spread Love crowd that he was spotted by Matty Roots, a manager who has also produced for the likes of Justin Timberlake and Natasha Bedingfield. They took an instant shine to each other and the collaboration flowed. In Matty Roots, Bento had found a manager, producer and the record label to which he is currently signed—Otherway Records. But there was one more piece missing.
“Roots messaged me one day saying he’s got a session with this guy Bluey Robinson when you get back. Bluey had just left Sony so me and Roots did a song with him—two songs—one of which he chose as his single for his mixtape. So there was a music video and all that, I performed with him at gigs, so I got a lot of love off of that.” The song was a Bento and Roots original, which they offered to him in exchange for Bento featuring. “Bluey came in we were just playing some stuff for him and he was like, ‘This is fucking dope.’ So I said we could turn this into your tune and I’ll just do a feature, and it just went from there. After that we worked with him on an exclusive project after that mixtape, which is when Bluey introduced me to Zeeko.”
With the trio together, The Bento Project was born in 2014. “We were working on a lot of music. We put out videos; nothing really happening. Did some performances; nothing really happening.” And then Bento released his first album, The Deep.
The album’s single, “Personal,” was picked up by BBC Music Introducing, a programme focussed exclusively on discovering the UK’s hidden talent. Bento was their Artist of the Week in December that year. “From that, because of the BBC’s push on the radio, other companies hear what’s happening and want to get involved, this and that, and we started building from there. It took a while to get that leverage, but even then it wasn’t really leverage. It was just something to put on the CV. Now the leverage is there because of the label stuff. Once you put a label behind your name, people take you a bit more seriously it seems.”
Bento was speaking professionally, of course, but there’s another side to his comment about legitimacy, one that harkens back to a question critics have always asked of artists. The very nature of being a musician invites judgment from people, and it’s often undeserved. I’m reminded of the opening lines in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Conundrum of the Workshops”:
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
Kipling goes on to show us that there will always be a devil asking such things. In fact, the poem was a direct response to Oscar Wilde. It was the height of the Aesthetic movement in Victorian England. Wilde had just published his most famous work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and famously summarised the principles of aestheticism in the book’s preface. He declared that art, in all its forms, “is quite useless.” More to the point, art was useless in developing our social and moral identities, that art shouldn’t even attempt such things. Art should only, and can only, be enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment. Any implication of broader influence was bunk.
The whole idea was nonsense of course. Aestheticism was a decadent rebellion against the sententious moralising of Victorian art. In the light of today, it seems ridiculous to think that art cannot shape society. If we appreciate it, we encourage it. In turn we receive people like Matthew Bento. But Bento didn’t get to where he is today alone. Encouraging creativity is a community exercise, a collaborative effort. And out of that encouragement comes culture. Footsteps are followed.
As it so happens, a local champion of this idea strolled past us as we sat with our coffee. Tan Zaoui, a longtime friend and employee of the Chewstick Foundation pauses mid-stride as he’s walking by, having noticed Bento. They slap some skin and exchange the usual pleasantries.
“What’s happenin’, bredrin?”
“Ya mon. Cool.”
Zaoui begins to step away, but I jokingly protest before he does. “I don’t get a hello?”
“No, no,” he explains. “You’re not an international superstar. You’re local.”