Eleven years ago, Don Benjamin traveled to Los Angeles to pursue music after shelving his basketball dreams. Little did he know a decade later, after standing on the beach handing out mixtapes, he’d be plastered all over the City of Angels as one of the nation’s most-sought models.
From starring on Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model to playing in celebrity basketball tournaments alongside Chris Brown, Mac Miller and Keke Palmer, Don Benjamin has come a long way from Minnesota.
But he hasn’t given up on music.
He’s working on his debut EP and sat down with HipHopDX to discuss why today’s industry allows for people to excel in more than one art form.
HipHopDX: I don’t think a lot of people know this, but you actually moved to Los Angeles to pursue music, right?
Don Benjamin: I moved out to LA about 11 years ago just to do music and try to do some acting stuff. Originally I didn’t really know where I wanted to take it.I just knew it was a passion that I had and I knew I couldn’t do it in Minnesota, so I was like let me move to LA and see what I can get started, but yeah, when I came out here, I was printing up little CDs. I was out at the beach trying to sell my CDs for $5. I was standing outside of all the record labels trying to get my CD to like record execs and stuff. The goal has always been like just to be seen on a wide aspect. It used to be all about record deals. Now I feel like the independent lane is more available for everybody. Back then, I was like, ‘How can I get signed? How can I get a deal?’ As to where now, it’s just like, ‘How can I be successful?’ Whether it’s pushing my own music or if I team up with a label if it’s the right deal. Right now, it’s just how can I be successful doing what I love to do? Let people know this is a real passion. I’m not trying to rap to be famous or anything. That’s the key.
DX: So you can relate to the struggle rappers?
Don Benjamin: Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s no joke.
DX: And you said the independent lane has grown. How do you see guys like Chance The Rapper making moves?
Don Benjamin: I respect it so much because we have a platform, even like the social media. Social media’s a platform for us. Not everybody tries to take advantage of it, but if you can take advantage of the social media platform, you can do anything you want. People are blowing up clothing brands now. People are blowing up as artists, as actors. So really we have a platform right now to just do whatever we really have a passion for. Chance The Rapper has blown himself up as a rapper. He’s super talented. He’s like, ‘I don’t need a label now.’ He’s doing everything himself. That’s super inspirational. I’m trying to kind of follow the same footsteps. I’ve created my own lane in every other category. Now I’m really trying to get my music out there to the world.
DX: You premiered your single “Touch My Body” with HipHopDX. What was the inspiration for that song?
Don Benjamin: The inspiration for ‘Touch My Body’ was just like a fun summertime vibe chilling on the beach with you and your girl. We shot the video recently in Acapulco, Mexico. It’s a real fun party, real Caribbean type feel to it.
DX: How is your EP coming along?
Don Benjamin: I’ve honestly been working on my EP for so long, every time I feel like I have it, I’m like nah, I need to add this or I need to take this away, but I feel like I’m getting closer to where I want to be with it, probably like six or seven records just to showcase the variations of my music. I’ve got some storytelling on there. I’ve got some fun records on there. Couple dope features, so I’m excited to put it out. I’ve been getting good responses to the singles I’ve been putting out, so I’m excited to put together like a full little project for my fans.
DX: Most people know your music as more the party, fun stuff. But what do you want to present on the storytelling side?
Don Benjamin: I have a couple records. I like to put out stories giving fans a look back into my life ‘cause a lot of fans I feel like don’t really know my upbringing and what I’ve actually went through in life. They just know me from being on America’s Next Top Model. I was doing music before I was doing modeling. So back in the day, I came up on Dipset and Jay Z and Nas, all these East Coast storytellers, so I kinda like, I try to put my life into my words. So I have some songs where it talks about it could be anything from a relationship struggle to what it took for me to get this point where I’m at. Of course, the party songs are fun, they’re easy. It’s easy for people to connect with. But I want to have some songs in between those where people can kind of get to know me through my words and my lyrics.
DX: Who are some of those features we can expect?
Don Benjamin: Right now, well of course I’ve got Eric Bellinger on there, my brother Jay Oliver. I’m working on locking this record in with Jeremih. I’m working with Soundz, I’ve got a studio session tonight with Nic Nac. I’m excited about it.
DX: You’ve done a few songs with Eric Bellinger, “Jealous” and “Hit the Snooze.” What do you like about working with him?
Don Benjamin: Eric, he’s one of my favorite people to work with watching him create, he makes it look so easy. And he’s such a cool person. We both have good sense of humor. It’s fun in the studio. Nobody’s just sitting around, so Eric is my guy. We’ve known each other for a while so to be able to create music with each other is a blessing in itself.
DX: Sounds like it’s real natural.
Don Benjamin: We just go in, vibe and see what we create. Both times, I’ve loved what we’ve came up with.
DX: I know you do the celebrity basketball events. Did you play a lot of basketball growing up?
Don Benjamin: I was a top 10 scorer in the state of Minnesota in my high school, but my grades was horrible. So all the college offers I got, they were all in small town, Iowa, North Dakota and I wanted to be in a big city, so I was like, ‘Do I set my basketball dreams aside and try to chase the entertainment?’ So I wanted to play for UCLA. I wanted to come out here and play for UCLA. They told me I had to go to a junior college first and get my grades right, so I just said let me just put the basketball aside and I just started chasing new dreams. But yeah, I really played basketball. So the celebrity games that I play in are like, it’s fun, but I look at it as competition, too. Everybody’s out there really trying to show off their skills. I’m still hoopin’.
DX: Do you follow the NBA, too?
Don Benjamin: I’m from Minnesota, so I’m a Timberwolves fan. I’ve always been a LeBron [James] fan. From the minute he came in the league I like kinda, I was cheering him on to be great. I like players. I really like watching players. I love Kevin Garnett. I love Russell Westbrook. I’m good friends with Jordan Clarkson from the Lakers, so I think he’s actually coaching our game this weekend. We’re doing the Power 106 game, so he’s coaching that. I love basketball. I watch it all the time still.
DX: Are you glad LeBron is back in Cleveland?
Don Benjamin: I am. I think it’s a good look for him, honestly. And I think it was really good for him to actually win that ring. It took him to another level. Like if he had got to the finals and didn’t win it, there would have been a lot of talk, but yeah I’m happy for LeBron.
DX: This year you were in Ariana Grande’s “Into You” video. What was that experience like?
Don Benjamin: I’ve done a few, nothing as big as Ariana’s video yet. Her numbers are crazy. The experience was amazing. She was a fun girl. The chemistry was easy, easy to work with. It was a long day of shooting, so came out great.
DX: And another person who played a supporting role in a big video was Tyra Banks in Drake’s “Child’s Play.” I know you were on America’s Next Top Model. What do you think of Tyra’s staying power?
Don Benjamin: I love Tyra, man. She’s so inspirational how she keeps building. Every day I feel like she’s doing something new so it’s super inspirational for me to be able to step out and do numerous things, not just stick in one lane.
DX: Yeah, seeing her in that video was kind of random, but cool.
Don Benjamin: It was. I wasn’t expecting it, but Tyra’s funny. She has a good personality. She’s a great actress, so for her to do that, that was dope of Drake to bring her into that.
DX: Like you were saying, in today’s industry, you really can do everything, especially with the Internet. How do you use social media?
Don Benjamin: I’ve built my numbers really high. I don’t try to force things on my followers. I try to let it be organic. I feel like if I’m like, ‘Go do this,’ or ‘Here’s my song.’ People don’t really wanna deal with that. But if I put it out there for them and if they’re feeling it, then I’ve accomplished my goal. So far, when I put it out there, I’ve been getting a lot of good responses. My numbers keep building. I’m trying to figure out new ways to take advantage of social media, but so far it’s been working.
DX: What do you have going on in the modeling world?
Don Benjamin: Look out for my, I got posters in G by Guess right now. I got some Roca Wear. I’m in a bunch of magazines for Roca Wear campaigns, True Religion campaigns. I guess look out for those on the modeling side of things…. I’m just trying to build.
DX: What company do you want to work with that you haven’t yet?
Don Benjamin: I wanna work with like a Gucci or Louis Vuitton one of the really high-end brands. So that’s kind of what I’m aiming for within the next year is to work with a really high-end brand.
DX: What do you think of A$AP Rocky being the face of Dior?
Don Benjamin: I think that’s dope. I think for him to be able to crossover into that lane is amazing. I think that’s everybody’s dream is to work with a high-end brand. So for him to be a rapper and be in the fashion world and to be able to work with them is amazing.
DX: So how have you found your lane as a model, but also keeping up with music?
Don Benjamin: I feel like a lot of times, the world, we get so trapped in thinking somebody should just do one thing, but if you have a passion for other things and you’re actually talented in other lanes, it’s like why do you have to be closed into just one thing? There’s a lot of actors that may have been doing music before they were acting and just so happened to blow up with acting first like how I came out to do music and I just so happened to blow up as a model, but I feel like no one should have to just stop chasing their passion and doing what they love. It’s not like we’re forcing, like at the end of the day, if nobody likes me, you don’t have to look at me. If you don’t like me, I’m not forcing you to follow me on Instagram and look at my pictures. I’m not forcing you to listen to my music, but I’m putting it out there and showing you that this is what I love to do and I’m hoping that I can connect with some people. The actors that are trying to do it or the ball players, not everybody’s trying to be great. But at the end of the day, everybody should have that chance to pursue what they want to pursue. I would never knock nobody’s hustle. There may be five people that love a song. There may be 500,000 people that love a song. But at the end of the day, if you can connect with five people doing what you love to do, that’s better than sitting at home not doing anything, like, ‘Damn, I should put a record out.’ I feel like if you’re going to do it, just do it. Don’t worry what other people think about it.