Nobody wants to be the least cool person in the room but I suppose it means you’re in the right kind of room. This one is a large warehouse space in Brixton: wooden floors, whitewashed walls, and around 40 very cool people having a very cool party. A temporary bar serves Johnnie Walker, countless cigarettes are smoked on the outdoor stairwell. The hope that the stairwell has been weight tested is voiced more than once. It seems to hold up OK. 

The room – the whole building – is the new headquarters of independent record label Cloud X. (Thus the neon yellow Cloud X sign hanging above the green leather sofa.) The party is celebrating the latest EP new material from local musician Santino Le Saint. He is greeting wellwishers with all the confidence you’d expect from a 6ft 2 solo artist whose friends are everywhere and whose face adorns the cover of a magazine on a nearby table. 

Santino’s managers are also the founders of Cloud X and our hosts for the evening. David Dabieh and Ben Cross are more lowkey than their star but no less striking: David wears sunglasses and a yellow bandana; Ben a long jacket and a baseball cap. Neither yet 30, their partnership has seen them host club nights in Peckham, afterparties in Cannes. They’ve worked with some of the biggest names in music. They’ve only just got started.  

Their next party will host considerably more than 40 people. Up to 10,000 revellers will descend on Beckenham Place Park for the third edition of Cloud X Festival on 20 August. “For us, this festival is a flag in the ground,” Cross tells me over Zoom later that week. “It’s the only one of its type in the UK: a large-scale platform for artists who are underrepresented – and historically silenced – to do their thing.” 

Ben Cross and David Dabieh have been doing their thing for more than a decade. Whatever lies ahead, it will be big. 

Square Mile: It’s the third Cloud X festival in August. What can people expect? 

David Dabieh: We have taken it to Beckenham Place Park, which is an incredible, magical space of its own. It’s got a lake in the middle of it, beautiful woodlands and so the setting itself is gonna be absolutely mesmerising. As always, we bring together a very inclusive, diverse and culturally progressive lineup – which is always at least 50-50 in terms of gender balance. We have such an eclectic lineup this year. Primarily R&B, soul and alternative rap but we’ve got some great DJs, we’re playing Afrobeats and really great dance music. 

We also have the Creators’ Village, which is our space to platform independent businesses. Not just the food vendors who’ll be serving up the good munch from Guadeloupe, Ghana, Italy – but also designers, tattoo artists, all locally sourced. It’s a way for independent businesses to tap into our community. Expect a lot of fun, good vibes, beautiful people and interesting conversations.

Cloud X Festival
Cloud X Festival

SM: Why did you decide to stage a festival? 

Ben Cross: It’s an interesting question. There was a natural progression: we started in live music, doing illegal raves in South London. Then we started doing more official shows by the time we were 18, firstly in London, then different places around the UK, and then we expanded into Europe and North America. We did lots of different events: for touring artists, private arts parties, our own shows. Live music is our home.

Musically, this is London’s only festival for R&B, soul, alt rap – for these music genres. And also the communities working in those genres that have been historically silenced and marginalised in the UK – whether racially, sexuality, gender. For us, this festival is a flag in the ground. It’s entirely unique. It’s the only one of its type in the UK: a large-scale platform for artists who are underrepresented – and historically silenced – to do their thing. It’s one of the few festivals that is gender balanced, diverse. It’s a good day out, a lot of fun, but it’s also urgent – artistically and politically.

SM: There’s a 10,000 capacity this year. Will the festival continue to grow? 

BC: We want it to grow, but I don’t think that necessarily just means more people. The way that we think about growth is becoming this nationally and internationally known festival. It’s not that it will be like Glastonbury – it’s an entirely different offering – but over time it can become as much of a community as Glastonbury. Become a moment in the British summer. 

DD: We’ve talked about taking the festival to Japan and to Ghana and into different territories. We’ve collaborated with a few Japanese brands and they absolutely love music and what we do. To take a handful of artists and put on shows out there could be a really interesting concept.

Cloud X
Cloud X

SM: So what is Cloud X? Or is the question: who are Cloud X?

BC: I like that framing! In the most simple terms, Cloud X is a London-based music entertainment company that works in live music and as a record label. For me, it’s also something much bigger than that because, as I spoke about with the festival, it’s something that had a set of values and a political momentum behind it. We believe in representing underrepresented artists in the UK and internationally. Providing a platform and a space in which to collaborate for artists and individuals from those communities.

We’ve just acquired a building in Brixton. The first floor is the Cloud X office, the ground floor has our photography and music studios. And upstairs we’ve got our friends who are a team of creative directors working out of there. And so we want this space to be somewhere where people can come to it, work in it, create in it. A Cloud X Institute – I’m not sure that’s the best name for it but it’s gonna become a space for the local community and our collaborators. 

SM: You guys met at school right? 

DD: Yeah, we weren’t really friends like that to be honest, we had really different friendship groups. Ben was with the cool, druggy kids and I was more chill, sports vibes. We ended up doing a party together to bring our friendship groups together: it went really well and we enjoyed working together and we became pals from then. 

SM: Your 2014 ‘Idiot Savant’ night at Bussey Building shut down Peckham High Street… 

BC: It got shut down by the police! Somehow that party went viral. We sold tickets to just below the capacity of the venue but another thousand people turned up and they blocked the whole other high street. The police had to shut down the event. A few days after I went to the pub for pre-Christmas drinks – a bunch of people were like, ‘Are you the guy who threw that party? I couldn’t get in!’ All of a sudden I had a hundred fuming people around me. So I’m glad we’re not doing the illegal rave scene anymore. Just in terms of the sheer amount of flak that me and David used to catch because of it. 

Cloud X

SM: You had Katy B on one of the early shows. Any other big names?

DD: When we started what is now Cloud X festival, it was originally The Cookout – we did that with Jamal Edwards and SBTV. The first lineup, we had the likes of Dave, AJ Tracey, Knox Hill, Bree Runway, Lola Young – all of whom have gone on to become very renowned artists. But we’ve never been interested in the big names just because they’re big names. 

When we booked Dave, it was £250 for a guy from Streatham and we really liked his music. The next year he was one of the biggest rappers in the country, working with Stormzy. We are attracted to people who have interesting cultural stories to tell in a way that we find interesting and exciting. Really raw, honest stories. We’re just a couple of local lads trying to build something together. That’s what we care about – honest storytelling,

SM: You took Idiot Savant to Cannes as well? 

DD: Yeah we were helping out with the Oasis Supersonic documentary, helping curate the music for that and the after party. That was a great fucking experience. I remember meeting Liam, I don’t remember meeting NoeI. But I didn’t give a fuck about Oasis – it’s not music I grew up on. They were two blokes! 

SM: Other than Santino, do you manage many other artists? 

BC: Our main thing is working as a record label and working live. We don’t manage people per se: our interest is more around the creation of music and the creative aspects of it and the storytelling around it. We’ve got a development label as well, we’re still building it but we’re hoping to have five or six artists release music with us in the next few months. 

We don’t really approach artists to work with us or to sign with our label. It’s much more of an organic thing where we meet people through, like, hanging out in studios or we hear someone online that we think is brilliant and we have a conversation with them. The main thing that we wanna do with our label is platform brilliant artists who are from underrepresented backgrounds and foster their genius and help them grow.

Cloud X Festival
Cloud X Festival

SM: And there was a period you guys were hosting afterparties for touring artists? 

DD: Yeah, yeah, we did a lot of that. Some of them confidential but people like Kaytranada – that was an amazing one. We also had an amazing party at LayLow with Ari Lennox and GoldLink and a bunch of artists like that. That was pretty incredible. Some people just land in London and it’s like, ‘Yo, you guys will know where we should do this. Could you put it together?’ That’s kind of how it always happened. That was before Covid; Covid was a fuckery for us a live business. 

SM: What would you say is the most significant moment on your journey to date?

DD: One of the biggest moments was meeting Jamal Edwards for the first time. We’d been doing a lot of parties, working with artists in a certain type of way. He said, ‘I wanna do something live and I love how you guys are doing it. Come up with some ideas and then let’s make it happen.’ We put together this magazine of what we thought would be our perfect day-out and handed it to him. We had an idea and made it into something physical. Seeing that turn into something in real life was really beautiful.

He literally invited us to share his office for a whole year. We learned so much from him and the team around him. He was such a star and an icon in underground music but also one that was rubbing shoulders with celebrities and royals. That was a really formative period – we were 22, 23 at the time. 

BC: We’d never had a job and suddenly I’m travelling to Oxford Circus every morning. While we were in the office, the Brexit referendum happened and we started doing live streams on Jamal’s Instagram and SBTV’s channels: me, David, Jamal and Isaac Densu talking about it. 

It gave a really interesting insight into what people were thinking but it also gave me a really interesting insight into how someone can – and I believe should – be using their channels to engage a community and to represent people, as well as allowing them to represent themselves.

DD: He knew what he wanted to do, which was support a certain culture and scene. We’d be in the office and Ed Sheeran or David Beckham would call him on a normal one. But if he was doing what he was doing, shooting some 15 year old on the staircase, he was never breaking sweat. He had a mission, he had a vision. Seeing somebody stick to it and flourish was inspirational.

Cloud X Festival
Cloud X Festival

SM: Any ‘holy shit!’ moments? 

BC: We’ve had a lot of those. I feel like anyone’s journey in life, whatever you do, is basically a series of holy shit moments. When we first got the keys to this building in January: me and David were just walking around and it felt like the culmination of so much of our work. 

It feels like a place where we can really grow. For me that was a really quiet and cold ‘holy shit’ moment – rather than a holy shit of seeing some celebrity or being at one of our crazy parties. It was like a quiet moment where I was like, ‘Fuck. We’re here.’

DD: Mine’s probably a bit more childish. The second SBTV Cookout, my mum came. She was like, ‘This is OK but there’s more to be done. You got more work to do. You’ve done all right but you can do better. Keep going.’ 

SM: Ben, what does David bring to the business? And vice versa?  

BC: What does David bring to the business? Money and good looks! 

DD: That’s not what you’re gonna give me. People will start thinking I’ve got money, which is the biggest fabrication! You gotta rerun your answer, Ben.

BC: Right, you first.

DD: He’s very patient. He’s got a great way of editing things – I think that’s like your best skill set. You see something and you’re like, ‘These are all the ways that we can make it better.’ Where I see things and I’m like, ‘These are all the ways that it’s terrible.’ I feel like that balance works. You’re very empathetic, and you’re patient and kind in a way that I’m not. 

BC: I think you are those things. If I was gonna give a more serious answer, I would say that there are all the obvious things that people would say about you, David – you are charismatic, you are good looking, you are well dressed. And while those things may or may not be true – I’m not trying to gas you up here – you also have a cultural intelligence as well as an academic one. You have an ability not just to conceptualise ideas but also execute them and bring them to their life. You bring artistry in the way you can be a lighting rod for culture.

Ben Cross [left] and David Dabieh

SM: In ten years, what would you both like to have accomplished? 

BC: I would like to have created a space and a series of things for the community that we come from and work in and care for. And I’d like to be able to pass that on to other people. I’ve been talking to loads of friends about this idea of legacy. I think a lot of that stuff is frankly nonsense and people worry about it too much. Get on with your life and enjoy it. However, I do think there are some really interesting ways to reimagine this industry. 

For example, creating a label where every artist on that label owns part of the copyright of all of the records. So it’s a record label owned by artists, for artists and anyone who’s on that label becomes part of this thing. So you really create a group of artists who are truly collaborative. That’s just one of many ideas of how you could reimagine the way that this business and our society is structured so wealth can pass between people and between generations in a way that isn’t quite so elitist. 

DD: I wanna write a book and live in Ghana. 

SM: What kind of book? 

DD: A novel. About the human condition.

SM: I look forward to reading it.

DD: I look forward to writing it! 

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