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Through Immense Loss, Benny The Butcher Focused On The ‘Level Up’

It’s a celebration for Benny The Butcher in New York’s Def Jam offices. I got to speak with the Griselda rapper in late December, the same day that the Buffalo MC and members of his team came down for a Def Jam-sponsored event ahead of his debut album with the label, Everybody Can’t Go, which was released last week. He had also just dropped “Big Dawg,” where he went toe-to-toe with a lyrically pristine Lil Wayne. For Benny, the celebration may have represented more for him than the executives and publicists who attended knew. He didn’t just deliver a major label debut, he did so while navigating several hardships over the past two years: Benny told me that while recording the album his house in Buffalo burned down, he got a divorce, and his childhood friend died. It takes someone years to come back from just one of those things; he had to navigate all of them while crafting a highly anticipated album. He says those trials variably fueled and deterred his creative process.

“Everything don’t make me want to go rap,” he says while sitting in a Def Jam boardroom. “It’s shit that make me want go rap. But there’s certain shit that I be going through that make me just chill, get back to myself, and decompress.” Benny had been known for flooding the streets over the past decade, but real life, major label red tape, and his overall creative patience made finalizing Everybody Can’t Go a more intensive process than he’s ever experienced. He says that right after signing with Def Jam, he gave himself a break from music — though it wasn’t the three-month trip to Europe his Griselda comrade Westside Gunn took last year. 

“A small break for me is maybe a couple weeks because I’m always doing it,” he says. “There’s times I’m in the studio every day. But it did feel like a break, I needed that to collect myself and put myself in a mind state that I wanted to be in to start recording Everybody Can’t Go.” But once he started getting beats from Alchemist and studio invitations from Hit-Boy, who split production on the album, he was ready to lock back in. 

The album’s first session was in Vegas, then he transitioned to Hit-Boy’s Chalice studios in Los Angeles and Alchemist’s studio in Santa Monica. He says both producers were hands-on throughout the process, offering him suggestions on his overall creative approach. The result is his most polished work yet. The gritty subject matter is still there; he calls himself “the Pyrex man” on the opening bar of the album. But Everybody Can’t Go isn’t all bars, listeners can hear the intentional thematic and sonic advances from his previous work. “Big Dog” with Lil Wayne follows in the footsteps of “5 to 50,” meshing a trap music-inspired groove with traditionalist drums. He tears through three beats on the Alchemist-produced “TMVTL.” And album closer “Big Tymers” with Peezy fits right into the playlist of the average Gen Z Rolling Loud enthusiast. Elsewhere, “BRON” is sheer lyrical exercise that doubles as a tribute to NBA icon LeBron James. One could see ESPN playing it during the playoffs — if the Lakers actually get there.

Throughout our conversation, Benny is sitting across from me at a large table, flanked by several members of his entourage on either side. These days, he’s not just a member of Griselda but has his own label, Black Soprano Family (BSF) Records, and is also co-running a sports firm that represents 8-Time X Game gold medal snowboarder Henrik Harlaut (at the agency, like in his art, snow is his business). The men he’s with are looking to him as the head of the snake, and he knows that, telling me he’s out for “real money,” eventually vying to diversify into movies and other entrepreneurial exploits. For a rap artist, that pursuit can mean intentionally making music with a broader appeal. While the boom-bap diehards may lament some of the sonic choices on Everybody Can’t Go, it’s about what Benny thinks is best for his career. As Jay-Z rapped about his glossier content on “The Bounce” from The Blueprint 2, “That’s the shit I’m sprinkling the album with, to keep the registers ringing.” Or in 2024, the stream totals pinging.

Benny the Butcher talked to Rolling Stone about his major label debut, working with Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne, and how he crafted an album amidst personal loss and tragedy.

What were the Everybody Can’t Go sessions like with Hit-Boy?
When I’m recording with Hit-Boy, it’s just me and Hit-Boy. When I’m recording with Al, it’s me and Al. They not in a room together. Those sessions are like a movie. You walk through these hallways and you see the plaques on the wall. You know who just left. You know Hit-Boy been working on it. You know Hit-Boy and Nas working on King Disease, you see the pictures of Nip in there. You in that mind frame when you go in there. Even me, I recorded Burden of Proof in there and it’s like you’re trying to create those legendary vibes when you in there. Same thing with Al. You go in there and it’s a wall with all of his plaques on there.

And he got the studios in there. I remember the first time I went in there, it was the plaques in there. It was Baron Davis in the other room. So it’s that type of feeling. We come from the street, the underground. So we smoking, I got these guys in there with me, you feel what I’m saying? And we just chilling. We catching a vibe. We ordering food, El Pollo chicken, and we just having fun.

Were there any particular sessions that were more memorable than others?
I would have to say the first session with me and Hit-Boy and the first session with me and Al. The first session with me and Hit-Boy, I did four records. I know I did the ‘Back Again” record with Snoop on it, and it’s like the tip-off. It’s high energy. So as soon as the tip-off go, I’m shooting 50% from the field within the first five minutes of the game. I start my albums off fast, meaning I got my heavy records early. I’m not waiting at the end. Even recording with Al, I always got some leftover [music] there, so when we working on the new album, he’ll be like, “Yo, you forgot about this?” I’m like, “I did forget. Play that back.” 

How did Snoop end up on “Back Again?”
Snoop played a part in bringing me to Def Jam. I thought it would be a dope idea and a no-brainer to get him on the record so we could show that through music. And that’s why this song is the “we back” tone. That’s why he’s sayin what he’s saying on the record to let everybody know that this is what we doing. It was very important to get Snoop on the record. He a legend.

How did you broach the idea of both Hit-Boy and Alchemist producing on the project? What was their feedback initially?
I’ve been the most successful with those producers. It wasn’t hard for me because it’s like, okay, I’ve been this successful with Al, I’ve been successful with Hit-Boy. So now when I come to Def Jam and I’m about to get the brightest light shined on me, I’m going to go get my team. There’s other people who I could have came and got, but this was my gut feeling. This is what I was leaning towards the most.

How did “Big Dog” with Wayne come together?
Al played me a beat that he usually wouldn’t have played for me. After we did “5 to 50,” it opened up more doors for me and Al, and he knew I could handle a beat like that. So he played the beat for me and I was like, “yo, you know I need that.” The beat was crazy and I did my one-two on it, not knowing who I was going to get on the song. I [have] an extra verse on there. I did the hook and I thought it was perfect to send away. You know what I’m saying? Me and Wayne undefeated when we get on songs. For sure.

You told Rap Radar that you wanted to expand visually and sonically with the project. What did that evolution look like for you sonically?
It really wasn’t challenging because this is something that I wanted to do. So I already had this energy built up, I already had ideas ready and set for this project. It was just about me having the time and the space to do it. And my Def Jam debut album was the perfect place. I’m not trying to switch it up or go away from my roots, but I hear a lot of people say that the music is sounding the same, and some people might even think I sound the same on the record. So just to get away from that and show up and show different, I’m letting people know I got like eight different flows on this album, so switching it up.

I talked to Westside Gunn recently and he was telling me about wanting to subvert the expectation of a Griselda project. When people hear the Griselda sound, they think of a particular aesthetic, but he wants to expand that. How much of that is motivation for you as well?

That’s a lot of motivation. Westside Gunn is the architect of the Griselda sound. He built the sound, so for him to want to do things differently, that should say something. But I was the first one doing different music, out of us three. And I always say this. Conway, he know how to do all types of music anyway. He’s a big talent. So when people try to pigeonhole him into that one sound, that’s the worst thing they could do. This is year eight or nine for them. Westside Gunn’ll tell you this year 9 or 10. What else are we going to do? We’re here to show people.

Can you break down your BSF artists and their upcoming projects?
Last year, we put out Rick Hyde’s project. We put out Loveboat’s project. We put out Heem’s album. We put out Fuego Base’s album. We put out ElCamino’s album. I executive produced OT The Real’s album. We went on a clean sweep. Our numbers on our Spotify and Apple Music and everything is up a few hundred percent. That’s another way I stayed busy because I’m featuring on all of those guys’ album. I did press runs for all of them. Billboards in Times Square for all of them, listening parties.

I just signed Ari, she from Rochester. I just signed Flames Dot Malik, did a partnership with him with Sony Orchard. I’m just working. We got the BSF over at MNRK. I’m just hustling, grinding, expanding my relationships, and these boys about to go crazy. Rick Hyde about to put another album out top of this year. Our last compilation album was Long Live DJ Shay, where we had the “Times is Rough” record [with] me, Rick Hyde and Heem. The people loved that. Our first album was with DJ Drama. He’s a legend, but after we got Drama back in action, a few months later he was going crazy. He have his spurts, but we did it first before these artists, just ran back and started doing it. Just keeping our foot on the neck of these guys. Just real upstate, pure, raw shit what we known for.

What are the main traits that you look for in an artist to sign?
I need a artist to be a dog. You know what I’m saying? I need a artist to be a dog. I need a artist to think for themselves. I need a artist to understand the business. And that’s a lot, but I expect greatness, you know what I’m saying? I expect greatness from anybody who I sign, to be honest with you. And I don’t expect them to have the biggest numbers. I don’t expect that. That don’t make you great. Your work ethic, your understanding of the game, your IQ, how you work the room, those things make you great. And those could lead to big numbers. You need those first before you even get to the big numbers. So I look for artists to be a dog, to have patience. That’s what I need.

So Everybody Can’t Go took 19 months. Do you feel like you’ll have that kind of pace going forward?
No, fuck that. It’s over. For the next three years, I’m drilling shit. I can’t wait to start working on my next [project]. I really got songs for it now. I got a whole bunch of songs that I had, but I wanted to take the approach of working with Al and Hit-Boy on it. But I got a whole bunch of records that I got, that I know I’m going to be able to use for my second one. So I’m going to say in everybody’s face, “I ain’t doing that shit again.”

“Trust More Valuable Than Love,” is three beats in one. How did that come together? 
Uncle Al. I’m in a studio working closely with these guys when I’m in here. I’m not just throwing shit at the wall. We’re here working closely. So I did the first one and he brought the idea up like, yo, you know what? I’m going to switch the beat. So as soon as he say something like that, my gears is moving and I know what time it is. And I felt like that created a moment that I know the fans going enjoy.

I’ve heard Nas discuss how hands-on and collaborative Hit-Boy is in the creative process. How hands-on were Hit-Boy and Alchemist with you in that regard?
I like when I get direction from the producers that I work with and they really don’t got to tell me much. They could just give me a hint on what they’re looking for. That’s what I like. They made the beat…and we’re not talking about Basement guys. You’re talking about people who play this game at the highest level. Once I get their input, like, “yo, remember how you went on this? And yo, this sound like X. Remember what X dropped that,” both of those guys do them type of things. Once somebody tells you that, that’s all you need to hear. We could be listening to another artist and he could say a line and we could turn that to a song.

Did you consider yourself an underground artist before the Def Jam signing? You’ve always been indie artists, but you’re also liable to be on a song with anybody. How do you consider that dynamic for your career?
I’m definitely underground. I sold my CDs outside of gas stations for years. I put out 30 mixtapes before 2017. Which [some people] deem as some of my best work.  I’ve definitely come up from that era, putting my first mixtape with Griselda out with Green Lantern and when I do get distribution, it’s through Ghazi. It’s with Empire, [but] I’m like a little before the Empire boom.

That’s where I come from. I’m a major artist now, but that doesn’t mean I’m a major artist. It means that I’m an underground artist sitting in the seat at a major label. That’s what it means. Griselda, we came in wearing chains and shit. I know it’s cliche, but it’s real. We got street backgrounds, we gangsters. Backpacking underground guys wasn’t known for that, but we are. think that change is the dynamic about us and everybody else is doing their own thing. And we did our thing in the middle of a storm of people chasing hits and trap music and dance music. We’ve done what we’ve done.

So to come in under Shady Records, that’s another thing too. It’s a lot of different dynamics that make us underground and a lot of different dynamics that make us not underground, but I’m keeping my roots. This is for those people. This is the level up, from being an underdog to the big dog. 

So like you said, coming from a certain lifestyle and having a sound that people in the streets really respect. How much do you look at yourself as a flag bearer for the streets?
How could I not? That’s what people say when they see me, “[you] bringing rap back.” What they mean by that [is I’m] bringing the street underground to the forefront. They mean get a nigga like me at the Grammys. The [sound] that this was built off, that made the genre so strong in the nineties, get one of those guys back in the front row. That’s what they mean by that.

How do you feel about fame?
Money over fame. Fame is a tool that you could use. Fame is a drug that you could use. I like it. I could still walk outside and be who I am. Ain’t like I’m like Michael Jackson or Chris Brown or crazy shit like that. But it is definitely hard dealing with. But I’m not going to sit up here and say that I’m annoyed with it. I used to do some crazy [things]. We all did coming up. So from that to this, it is really nothing. I really never turned nobody down for a picture. Sometimes the staff and people around me hate that shit, but know what I’m saying? It is what it is, man. Especially, I’m famous for my words.I take that as a compliment. So I love it.

I’ve heard you reference the “new levels, new devils adage.” What were some of the biggest challenges for you within this period of transitioning onto a major?
In the middle of working on this album, my house burned on fire.  I was living in hotels. I was living in Airbnbs. Nothing was stable. In the middle of working on this album, I lost somebody I knew since I was a child. A lot was going on. I don’t know if people realize that life is still happening. And just taking those experiences motivated to make the music. With everything going on, you want to get away. You want to get to the studio, you want to get into a spot where you’re not thinking about nothing but the music with so much moving around you, you want to take a break and focus on creating.

How difficult was it for you to focus on the music at those times?
It’d be hard. I can’t lie. When shit like that going on, the last thing you want to do is to make people feel like the music is more important than them. You don’t want to run back to the music because it’s like, man, I don’t care about nothing. You got to give certain things attention like that. I don’t like going to funerals. I don’t like doing none of that shit. It was a process when my house caught on fire.

My wife was there, I wasn’t there. I was in LA. My four dogs was there. Everybody made it out safe. She usually never wakes up in the middle of the night. When she’s asleep, she’d be asleep and she usually never there by herself. But she was there by herself when it happened. So for her to wake up and get everybody out and call the fire department, that was a blessing. So that took attention. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable before I got back to work. And she was staying with me a lot when it happened.

When artists are creatively fueled through a traumatic or stressful time, for others it’s like, “Fuck, I don’t want to create shit. I’m stressed out.” Where are you on that spectrum?
It’s both. Sometimes I’m dealing with shit where I don’t want to be nowhere but the studio and then sometimes shit is too deep for that. I’m not a twenty-year-old kid. I got kids that’s around that age so it’d be real shit going on. Working on this album, I went through a divorce. Paying alimony, crazy child support. Everything don’t make me want to go rap. It’s shit that make me want go rap. But there’s certain shit that I be going through that make me just chill, get back to myself, and decompress.

I know the Drake song leaked. Are y’all going to hook up something else together?
We should, but it was a dope song. You know how this business go. This business, just the business. But I know the fans would like to hear that. It was a dope song.

As an MC and a fan of hip-hop, is there a such thing as a perfect verse to you?
Of course. Yes. 

What are the factors of a perfect verse?
A good example of a perfect verse is rhyming a 16-bar verse with at least three-syllable rhymes all the way out. You keeping the same rhyme scheme all the way out. I’m not saying that you have to do it, but that’s one of my favorite examples of a perfect verse. At the same time, keeping the people’s attention, sharp, witty, hard punch lines. And then the second one is when every line was dope. And you delivered. Your delivery, your voice is right because some people spit dope [but their voice isn’t great.] [If] somebody else’d spit it, it’d be better.

More conviction.
Exactly. You know what I’m saying? When you got that voice and when every line is on time. 

Do you remember the first verse that made you feel like that?
What was my first verse that made me feel like that? I can’t remember the verse, but I was 14 and I recorded over “Quiet Storm.” That was my first time in a professional studio in Buffalo. And I like to say I wrote a perfect verse.

I know you had some comments on Twitter about fan feedback that were controversial a little while back. Have you ever cared about fan feedback? How much has that ever factored into your creative process?
I care about fan feedback. I don’t care about critic feedback. People who just comment to criticize, people who never support it. And when they get on there and make a fucked up comment, they just show more signs of not supporting. So why do I care about you? If you bought every one of my albums and you listened to my shit countless times and you like, “This ain’t it,” of course I care. But if you’re not a supporter, if you don’t pay my bills, I don’t give a fuck. I’m saying what is that input about? A lot of people got these podcasts and these mics in front of them and their opinions don’t come with no credentials. And they’re weaponizing their opinion to speak about an artist who they probably don’t like. To speak about an artist who they probably really never listened to. 

Do you view music objectively? Every listen is a different experience for the listener, but some people rank music almost like athletics. How do you evaluate art?
I would say [it’s about] if enough people like it. You can’t be lost in the echoes of people saying they don’t like it. You can’t get lost in the echoes of people telling you your shit sounded the best ever. You just got to take the general consensus, the ratio of who’s saying they fuck with it, who said they don’t. And look for the signs of people fucking with it. You know what I mean? There are signs like how long did this album live? Are there multiple songs or is it just one song on here that people like? You feel what I’m saying? It is ways to know, but I go off how many people is happy with it.

Can you speak to me about your endeavors with your Sports firm in the past year?
Yeah. BSF sports firm. I’m partners with Jacob Amankwaah, Christopher Calla, and my boy, City Boy. Henrik Harlaut, the most successful snowboarder in the world is a client of ours. Chris just closed a monster deal with Dion Dawkins. Thomas Bryant, he’s another client that we work for with the Miami Heat. We looking to get more into street sports. We all fans of sports. We just staying around the sports and just building relationships with brands and players. Music and sports always mix together. 

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How did the partnership with Henrick come about?
He was a big Griselda fan. He won at the 2021 X Games and named a trick after us. The Griselda triple flip. He got in the camera live on ESPN and did the Westside Gunn ad-libs. He’d been showing us support since then. Once I seen what he was doing, I automatically showed him the same support. Later on down the line, we was in a position where we probably could help him out with some things so we did that.

Is there anything else that you want to say that I didn’t ask?
I want people to know that I don’t feel sorry for being in the position I’m in. I don’t feel sorry for being the leader or the new school-old school shit. We work hard for it and we here to create history. We here to create moments that people going to talk about from a long time. There’s nobody like me where I’m from. There’s going to be more. But right now I’m the only one. So I want people to know that.

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