Ask Ray Benzino about being in “the game,” and he’ll likely respond with a laugh.
“I can’t really say it’s a game,” he offers. “This is life…Hip Hop is my life.”
His resume supports such a claim. Benzino talks of Hip Hop’s bygone days of rocking roller rinks and pre-Serato deejays carrying crates of vinyl. There was his renowned—or infamous, depending on who’s telling the story—run as CEO co-owner of The Source. Volatile beefs with Eminem and several high-profile magazine editors have played out in the public eye. And yet, Benzino is still very much intertwined with Hip Hop music and culture.
He’ll be back making weekly appearances on VH1 when Love & Hip Hop Atlanta resumes on March 8. He and Dave Mays are back in familiar territory, as copies of Hip Hop Weekly can be found on shelves everywhere. And his Crushed Ice mixtape along with a new deal with AMS Music Entertainment for his “Kiss Me Like You Miss Me” single completes the three-pronged foray into Hip Hop media.
The beefs are non-existent, and locking down regular appearances on a love-themed reality show make it tempting to use the phrase “rebranding.” Benzino calls it evolution. And if we’re buying his explanation of Hip Hop as not just a field of occupation but a life, then there was really only one alternative. Those who can’t adapt or evolve are destined for a death of irrelevance. With 30 years in and no signs of stopping, Benzino explains fitting into a life of Instagram selfies, accountability and the consequences of living a life in Hip Hop that has had its share of ups and downs.
Benzino Explains Working With Swizz Beatz And Teddy Riley
HipHopDX: Crushed Ice seems to be pretty heavy on the club offerings and love-themed songs. That’s an interesting direction, since you’ve been getting production credits since back in the days when you went by Ray Dog…
Benzino: That’s very true, and I think our biggest credit is on the Stillmatic intro. We used that Stacy Lattisaw [“Let Me Be Your Angel”] sample, and it was our biggest as far as garnering attention for the beats and the production. We’ve been working with a lot of people, and I’ve been able to work with a lot of people as an artist—the Teddy Riley’s of the world and people like Mario Winans, Scott Storch and Swizz Beatz. I can go on and on and on. It’s a list of very credible people. When you have a chance to work with all these different producers, you get a chance to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. I’m like a sponge when I get in the studio—whether it’s somebody rhyming or producing—I just soak up what’s going on. To me, you’d be a fool not to. The great thing about music is that it has so much influence, you can basically sponge it all up and use it within your own creative self.
DX: How does the stuff with The Magnificent 757’s and the live instruments factor into that?
Benzino: We’re actually previewing some of those songs on the Crushed Ice mixtape. That stuff is incredible to me. Last night, I was actually watching James Brown: Live In America. I’m definitely an older cat, and I come from that band era. When I was in middle school, I used to play on the trumpet. I have a collection of 10,000 albums in storage. I’ve always been a fan of just good music, so my knowledge and appreciation is deep. I have a lot of respect for musicians that came from that era—the 60’s and beyond. A lot of these guys are unsung heroes because they weren’t upfront singing or in the spotlight. A lot of the guitarists, keyboard players, horn players and drummers lived a rough life. But those are some of the most incredible compositions that will ever be made as far as I’m concerned.
DX: You’re being introduced to a whole new generation that didn’t know about Made Men and Almighty RSO. How do you balance your love of that big band era with catering to a younger fan base?
Benzino: Well Hip Hop has kind of done it. Hip Hop has bridged that whole gap between old and young. Old is just a word; it’s just a perception as far as I’m concerned. At the end of the day, you could be 15 years old, and something unfortunate can happen and you’re not here anymore. Or you could live to be 100 years old. That saying about age is just a number really is about how you feel and how you take care of your mind, body and soul. Certainly what is 40 today wasn’t 40 back in 1960. Hip Hop has created an understanding between the old and the young.
I stay in the gym, eat the right foods and take the right vitamins. I’m definitely taking care of myself, not necessarily to look young, but just to live longer. A lot of minority men have the problem of living shorter than everyone else, so I’m trying to extend that. But you don’t have to be an athlete to do music; you can do it until you die. As long as your able to get on that microphone, project what you’re feeling and hold that note…and in Hip Hop you don’t even have to hold notes. Look at the older cats like the Rolling Stones. They’re out there pushing 80 and still touring.
So the culture of Hip Hop has kept me young. I really love it, I stay current with it and I really understand it. A lot of older artists are stuck in their old ways and don’t want to evolve as artists. That’s fine too, and no one says that you have to. But I’m just someone that definitely loves to keep evolving and evolves as Hip Hop evolves. I go with where the music is going and still keep my creative side.
Benzino Talks Growth; Says The Source Firing “Tainted” His Name
DX: That’s kind of a double-edged sword. You’ve recently talked a lot about not wanting to hear about the old Benzino. But a lot of us only know the old Benzino—and, for what it’s worth—the old Benzino made some notable contributions to Hip Hop. How do you balance those two elements?
Benzno: Omar, I appreciate you saying that. It means more than you know. I have to look in the mirror and look at the stuff I’ve accomplished that’s great and also at all of the mistakes and change myself. That’s what evolution as a person is. I have three kids, and I’m trying to teach them right from wrong. To me there’s no grey area, so it has to start with you. No one’s gonna change you but you.
I think I was more misunderstood back then. If people were to get to know me a little better—who knows? Social media wasn’t around back then. So, I really don’t know. I do know that Hip Hop has always been the first love. And I know that hooking up with Dave [Mays], our relationship and everything that happened at The Source kind of tainted the name of Benzino. But in retrospect, if you look at a lot of the things people complain about, like me putting ads in the magazine—anybody that owns a business pretty much promotes what they’re trying to do within the brand. It’s just good business sense to do that. That’s just how it is.
As far as my relationships, I’m someone that fell in with a Jewish kid from Harvard that was my partner. He still is my partner. Me and Dave have been through the ups and downs, and we’re still partners. So any positive light people can take from me is a good light. There has been a lot of negativity thrown at ‘Zino. But I’m in a happy place right now. The whole Love & Hip Hop thing is taking off right now, and I’m feeling really good right now. Hip Hop Weekly is doing well, so I don’t have nothin’ to complain about.
DX: You were one of the most outspoken black executives. I’m curious about how some of the conversations between you and J. Prince went?
Benzino: I’ve had a lot of respect for J. Prince just as a black man, an executive and as someone who pioneered the whole independent distribution [of Hip Hop]. So he’s always been one of my heroes and one of the guys I looked up to. To be signed to Rap-A-Lot was such an honor. I moved down [to Houston] in ’96 along with the whole [Almighty] RSO so we could really get into the whole vibe of what was going on down there as far as the music and the sound.
So J. Prince is definitely someone I look up to. I see his son Jazz is following in his footsteps; he’s the one responsible for finding Drake. So the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I was in Houston over the weekend, but I wasn’t able to stay. I saw Jazz, and it was good to know that the legacy is moving forward.
How Boston’s Racial Divide Fueled Benzino’s Depature
DX: You’re in Atlanta right now, but what are your thoughts on the Boston scene since you helped put it on the map?
Benzino: I’m disappointed in Boston. Boston never really had a chance to showcase themselves as artists. The powers that be in Boston really suppress any activity by African American and Latino people trying to get into the entertainment business. Look at club promotion, and nothing’s really changed. To be honest, it’s gotten worse after I left. I was up there trying to make it pop, and it was like, “Forget about it.” To even throw a major Hip Hop concert, you have to go to Providence, Rhode Island. I definitely think Boston is still stuck in the past when it comes to the black and white dynamic. That said, there’s still a lot of talent up there. Unfortunately they have to go somewhere else to make it happen.
DX: How much of that would you attribute to The Racial Imbalance Act and the bus crisis from trying to desegregate the schools?
One day, I plan on writing a book about this. But if you look at it, Boston wasn’t really meant to be for a black man. It’s as simple as that. Black people get a raw deal up there. There are a ton of people on welfare, they can always find a reason to take a guy’s license and make it easier for you to get locked up. Then you can’t get a job, and you can’t vote. Everything started from Boston. All that money, land and everything up there is old school. It has lots of history and discrimination behind it. The radio station and the Hip Hop vibe up there shows that.
I tell a lot of people that Boston can be even worse than a lot of Southern states when it comes to racism and inequality. A lot of our councilmen and officials were getting busted for tax evasion, taking money and things like that. You really have no leadership up there.
The Source was about the politics of Hip Hop, and I was outspoken because I didn’t have anyone to answer to. But I learned the hard way. I’m not as outspoken anymore. You have to play this political game in order to get by.
DX: Aside from Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, you appeared in the 2005 drama, Bloodline. How much of an interest do you have in acting?
Benzino: I’m really starting to get into that. I’ve probably been in front of cameras for as long as I can remember doing videos and stuff. When you’ve got five cameras in your face and there’s no script, everything is live and it’s basically on you. I think that I might have a little something. It actually got me more interested in acting. I got my feet wet with Bloodline, and there’s actually gonna be a Bloodline 2. I’ll have a bigger role with that, and you can definitely expect me to get involved with that more. I went into casting for a couple Tyler Perry sitcoms and stuff like that.
DX: Your Rap career started off with a lot of controversy due to “One In The Chamba.” Given how police brutality hasn’t really stopped since then, how do you think people will look back on that song and its message?
Benzino: I think I’m definitely more responsible as far as going out there talking about cops and shootings. There just has to be more dialogue and more sensitivity, because not all police are bad police. With any area of life, you’re going to have some jerks and you’re going to have some good people. I just don’t have tolerance when I see someone with a badge taking advantage of people just because they have that badge. If you’re doing wrong, you should pay the consequences. But police are here to protect and serve. We’re basically paying taxes to support them and their families. With civilians and police—it goes for both sides—as long as everybody’s on the up and up, I think everything should be okay.