An orange round highlight bounces back and forth across a hazel brown table. A leather strip stretches the width of the table’s middle creating a net. Two Asian guys wearing glasses match each other in ping-pong. Tall green plants with wide leaves like a Philodendron or Fiddle Leaf Fig line the fresh space with light hardwood floors and cushioned wooden bleachers sectioning off a cafe space. Soon, the floor would fill with bodies sitting on tapestry rugs and the bleachers with cross-legged onlookers ears open.
The audience sings back to the performer repeatedly as he strums a bass line. “Show me love on the way down.” The lyrics were meant to be sung at Benji.’s funeral as they lowered his casket into the dirt. Going through a period of suicidal thoughts, Benji. can smile now because he’s alive.
Top left: Slim Tha DJ, Benji., Julz Powell, and Redd | Top right: Slim Tha DJ and Julz Powell | Bottom left: Julz Powell, Slim Tha Dj, and Benji. | Bottom right: The audience for Benji.’s performance at the Navy Yard WeWork facility for SoFar Sounds D.C. | Photos by Alex Young
Benji. (don’t forget the period) plays a show for SoFar Sounds in Washington, D.C. at the WeWork shared workspace. His bandmates Slim Tha DJ and drummer Julz Powell join him in front of the engaged crowd. “This is a place that knows music,” Benji. says about the D.C. audience. “They can easily offer honest critique… If they don’t like it, I’m not going to quit, but there must be something wrong. It’s almost like an audition.”
Two months before he worried about what the District thought about his music, Benji. was selling out the iconic Mr. Smalls Theatre, a venue in Millvale, Pa. a few minutes from his native Pittsburgh, along with fellow musicians Clara Kent, Isaiah Small, and Mars Jackson. The four-pronged bill created an atmosphere unmatched for the “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” concert showing strength in the city’s music community. Benji. dove from the stage into the swelled crowd. Redd, the photographer named Randall Coleman tasked with making Benji. look as good as possible, says that was one of his favorite moments of his friend. Or when Gucci Mane reposted Benji.’s song “Mimosa” to his SoundCloud. Although, that night in February was a watermark for Benji.’s success. “I had confidence that at some point I would’ve sold a venue out,” Benji. says. The show at Mr. Smalls “acted as a launching pad,” Redd adds.
“I sprang into action to work harder,” Benji. says. Consistent performance opportunities outside of The ‘Burgh presented themselves after his local success. He traveled to New York City for SoFar Sounds shows there. Following D.C., Benji. hits Chicago. In May, he’s part of the Rhythm N Blooms music festival in Knoxville, Tenn. In June, he joins Reviving Real’s music festival called The Block Party in Youngstown, Ohio. Benji. took to Twitter to announce he’ll be in Los Angeles in July. He offers advice. “If other Pittsburgh artists would learn how to present themselves in other capacities… it’s so easy [to perform in other cities].”
All it takes is preparation. “You gotta be a student of the game. You gotta be a student of yourself,” Benji. says to ITR before performing at SoFar Sounds D.C. “Oh, man. We watch game tapes forever. We watch game tape, bro.” Watching old show footage, Benji. and his bandmates pick up ways to improve. “We have a level” they always need to be at to present themselves properly Slim Tha DJ says. “Be honest with yourself. Would you be ready to literally blowup over night,” Benji. asks the music community.
Using music to help other areas of his life, Benji. spreads his message across the map in 2019. He’ll be ready to follow up his uplifting “Smile, You’re Alive!” album with his “Water Cup” record in September.
Read the full conversation ITR had with Benji. moments before his performance in D.C. below.
InTheRough: What do you add to Benji.’s performance?
SlimThaDJ: The Band, Julz, both Joshes, and I, we have a level.
ITR: How many shows have you guys done outside of Pittsburgh?
Benji.: This will be our fifth total and then Chicago in two weeks will be six.
ITR: You’re going to Tennessee too?
Benji.: Yeah, that’ll be in May. That’s going to be crazy.
ITR: Why do you say that?
Benji.: First off, we get to play with Tank and the Bangas and that’s one of my favorite groups. We’ll be in a new spot for the first time and actually play like a big festival, you know what I’m saying, a festival that actually means something to the community. It’s called Rhythm N Blooms. We’re playing in Knoxville. It’s kind of like South by. A bunch of venues in one little area. A bunch of shows going on at the same time. I’ll be playing all three days, so I’ll probably be at three different venues. There’s a main stage too. It’ll be good to really get out there and spread. Youngstown in June.
ITR: Reviving Real?
Benji.: Yeah, The Block Party. That will be fun as hell.
ITR: How does it feel to be sitting in Pittsburgh and then you get booked for a show in another city?
Benji.: It feels great. I love to travel. It reminds me of college traveling over the weekend for a track meet. It was something to look forward to; something to anticipate; something to get ready for. As soon as we get the booking, call all the guys and prep. Get my mental ready to see what it will look like and feel like.
ITR: What’s involved in that prep?
Benji.: Kind of like some Dr. Strange shit. Thinking of all the possibilities and outcomes and scenarios trying to produce the best possible one. First and foremost, I’ll figure out can I bring the band up. If I can bring the band, we’re prepping for a whole different kind of show. If it’s just me and Slim, it’s bro and bro. It can go from that to going over my music or looking at old show footage.
ITR: Oh, you watch film?
Benji.: Oh, man. We watch game tapes forever. We watch game tape, bro. Hell yeah. Especially this past one from Mr. Smalls. I watched that one the next day.
ITR: So what do you takeaway from that?
Benji.: Everything. You gotta be a student of the game. You gotta be a student of yourself. Period point blank. What I look for is, first and foremost, what I did wrong. How long can I go until I notice something that could’ve been better. Did it feel right? I try to watch it as a fan. Did it feel like a show? Did it feel like you did your best and you put on a good performance? If you can say, “Yeah,” then great. If not, then back to the drawing board. We watch mad game tape of everything. Events, competitions, when Slim deejays.
ITR: Drummer vs. DJ?
Benji.: Yeah, we watch all that film. We watch mad Instagram videos. We study. There’s a lot that goes into this prep. It’s not really preparation. It’s a habit. It’s a ritual. It’s something we do because we all want to get better. We don’t wait for an opportunity to get better. We just continue to get better every day. When someone asks us to come up, we’re already there. It’s just a matter of getting us to the venue where we gotta go.
ITR: What’s something after watching the footage from the “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” concert at Mr. Smalls that you don’t want to do today?
Benji.: Crowd surf [laughs].
ITR: Yeah, this would not be the optimal place for you to do that considering there’s no stage for you to jump off.
Benji.: Yeah, I’d be jumping into people.
Benji.’s stage dive during the “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” concert. | Photos by Matt’s Music Mine
ITR: What’s something that went well at that show that you want to keep doing?
Benji.: Control of the audience.
ITR: How do you do that?
Benji.: First off, making sure that we’re on point trying to lock in as soon as possible. Really just making sure everyone is comfortable. How we present ourselves as soon as we sit down and get ready to play. How I speak. How we introduce ourselves. Make sure that they know we’re cool. We know that they’re cool. Try to make sure we’re on the same page energy wise and go from there. Foot on the gas. We prepare our show but everything is still in the moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen when we start going. It’s really reactionary. We’re preparing for the worst with what we’ve prepared. Controlling the atmosphere. It’s our first time here. We want to make sure they know where we come from. At the same time, we have to be mindful. This is something to be proud of.
ITR: What’s something D.C. has to offer you in this atmosphere?
Benji.: This is a place that knows music. They have a culture of music, especially live music. So they know music. Coming to a place like this, it’s almost like an audition. They can easily offer honest critique. They could easily offer a good opinion. If they don’t like it, I’m not going to quit, but there must be something wrong. They definitely have wisdom of music. D.C. has a lot to offer. The texture of this setup having congas, a bass guitar, and a regular guitar. Already that’s authentic. They know exactly what music is all about.
ITR: NPR is based in D.C. and I saw you reached out to some people there to come to your show tonight.
Benji.: I Tweeted at them and she responded. I just shot my shot and she responded. I don’t read much into it other than if she shows up. It’s as simple as that. If you just gotta Tweet at somebody, shoot your shot. She responded and I took full advantage of that. I don’t want to have any expectations of where it might lead to, but it’s an audition.
ITR: How do you control that when something doesn’t go the way you want it to go? How do you control not getting your hopes up?
Benji.: Continue to be realistic. Shoot for the stars, but you also have to know what game you’re playing. If you’re really trying to pop real quick, there’s a game for that. If you’re playing the longevity game, there’s a game for that too. You gotta know exactly what your goals are. Then, just be realistic. What can you do now if someone were to call you right now. What would you do? Be honest with yourself. Would you be ready to literally blowup over night? If not, don’t even think about it. Prepare what you are cable of doing and then learning and teaching yourself new techniques. Acquire new knowledge. Acquire the game. It might come time for a little heat check. Let me shoot my shot. See what I’ve really been doing. Apparently for her to respond to me she might like something She might have done her research. She’s not coming blindly.
ITR: What was it like to taste your first batch of success?
Benji.: When I changed my name, I got better offers and shows. I was making better music easily because I felt more like myself. For real, the moment was “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” and how that went. To be honest, it was a great show for us, but we fucked up a bunch. We were so in the moment in terms of how it turned out that we had to deal with it. We still want bigger shows. After that, the response we got from that from out of town venues it’s like we’re doing it.
ITR: The out of town success came from “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” indirectly?
Benji.: Indirectly because now I can do that in my city. I had confidence that at some point I would’ve sold a venue out. From there, I sprang into action to work harder. How can I grow my pull to get people to travel to Pittsburgh to see me instead of going out of town? We’re making opportunities happen. We’re trying to meet with NPR. I was already on NPR so I already had a little pull there. I’m trying to maximize my potential of meeting people kind of using the little bit of clout I’ve gained with these publications.
ITR: There’s a positivity to clout. People use it in such a negative way, but inherently it’s not a negative word. It’s influence.
Benji.: Exactly. For me, I’ve done some things and gotten somewhere. This isn’t part of being cool. I’m not sweating it. I’m going to keep driving until I end up somewhere.
ITR.: While I was listening to your interview by WYEP that aired on 90.5 WESA, NPR’s station in Pittsburgh, after the “Pittsburgh’s Very Own” concert, the interviewer asked if artists strive to get on magazine covers like Rolling Stone. What value do you see in a big media outlet recognizing your talent?
Benji.: For me, I’m trying to use music as a spring board to help in other areas of my life. If Rolling Stone were to put me on the cover, I’d feel really good about it. It’s not something that’s a direct goal. You just want to be recognized for what you’re doing not really for who you are. Yeah, that’d be tight to be on Rolling Stone or GQ. Especially, GQ because I’m not really a fashionable guy. If GQ puts me on the cover, I made it somewhere. At the same time, success is relevant. The Grammy’s don’t matter anymore. Success is not really defined by any of that. It’s like what Drake said in his Grammy speech. If you got people singing your song, if you got people buying your ticket to come see you, it doesn’t how many, if someone is buying a ticket, you won. You made it. That stuck with me. At “Pittsburgh’s Very Own,” I had people singing my song. In my mind, I’m successful. Now, I’m trying to be more successful. I want my guys to be successful.
ITR: Now you’re in D.C. for a show.
Benji.: That’s just my path. Hopefully somebody goes to Philly next time. Somebody goes to Seattle next time. I’m making my blueprint. You can follow it if you want to. I won’t steer you wrong because I’ll fail first then tell you not to do it. Or you can make your own.
ITR: Okay, your family is having a lot of success too. Your mom received her doctorate. Congratulations. And, obviously your brother Christo with J.I.D. How does your family’s success keep pushing you?
Benji.: Our family has been through a lot. We lost our house in 2003 to a fire on Christmas. My dad had just got his pastor license. The day after the fire he had to go get ordained. We were moving around. We didn’t have money. My parents only having one kid go and finish college. Two dropouts and one who didn’t go ‘cause of teen pregnancy. Everyone just figuring it out for themselves. We’re a family of go-getters but how we want to go get it individually. My siblings are very successful in their own right. My mom got kicked out of CMU to graduate at Robert Morris to get her doctorate at Duquesne. She has the same PhD as my dad. Seeing how they fuel each other, that energy is crazy. When I see my brother being successful and having fun after watching him struggle, when I see that man smile, I work harder because I want to smile too. We just feed off each other. We keep in contact. I’m a big family guy. I love that we’re competitive with each other in that regard, like I want to make my siblings proud and they want to make me proud. We want to start that big family of go-getters and successful people. I love it.