Jarren Benton remembers the time he almost gave up rapping forever. Back in 2007, Benton and his management team stood in the New York office of Island Def Jam Records' then-chairman L.A. Reid. Thanks to a few pulled strings, Benton had been given the chance to perform for the legendary Atlanta music mogul, an opportunity most up-and-coming rappers spend their whole lives chasing.
Benton blew it. "They were just kind of staring at me," Benton says of the room full of "industry dudes." "I didn't get any feedback during my performance. I didn't know if they were really feeling it, so I'm jumping on the fucking table in L.A. Reid's face. He got pissed off and that shit just went sour from there."
Benton's manager at the time, Jahmal "Slow" Pryor, was also pissed. In fact, Benton's entire team had nothing to say to him. The Decatur kid full of quick wit and clever wordplay was left speechless. Eventually, they all went their separate ways. Benton returned home to his family.
Seven years later Benton has carved out his own musical niche as an independent artist. He's put out two well-received digital releases, (2011's Huffing Glue with Hasselhoff and 2012's Freebasing with Kevin Bacon) one official album (2013's My Grandma's Basement), and has spent the time in between playing regularly in Atlanta and touring the country relentlessly, including rapper Tech N9ne's Independent Grind Tour in Santa Cruz, Calif., this spring.
The time spent touring means Benton hasn't had a chance to soak in the news of being tapped for XXL's coveted Freshmen cover. Every year the world's most influential hip-hop publication puts out its list of the culture's next great music stars. Everyone from Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar to J. Cole and Wiz Khalifa has graced the cover. The list of alumni reads like an all-star team of rap's new generation. Benton is the People's Champ, the one artist chosen by fan vote and not the magazine's staff. Rich Homie Quan is the only other local talent in the publication's much-debated 2014 issue. Other up-and-comers for this year's edition include Chicago acid rap ambassador Chance the Rapper, thug&B crooner August Alsina, and Taylor Gang upstart, Ty Dolla Sign.
Unlike many of his peers in the Freshmen issue, Benton doesn't get much radio airplay or have an industry cosigner, but that's also what makes him stand out. What Benton lacks in mainstream hype, he makes up for with a meticulous dedication to the art of rhyming. His encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture fused with a cadence that shifts from Twista-fast to a T.I.-like love for single-word annunciation, is more throwback than a new wave.
While taking a second to think about what making the XXL cover might do for his exposure, Benton's careful not to get ahead of himself. "I still feel like nobody knows who the fuck I am to be honest with you," he says. "Regardless of XXL, regardless of if I get a fucking No. 1 hit, the main thing is just that I'm blessed to do something that I feel I can do well."
Chances are most Atlantans didn't realize Benton was even a local until his face hit that front page. To be fair, his sound isn't exactly Atlanta; it harkens back to the glory days of early '90s East Coast rap (his influences include Redman and Wu-Tang). So by industry standards he's viewed as different, but then again, so was OutKast, and like the "Two Dope Boyz," Benton won't compromise creatively.
Benton knows that he's something of an enigma to the casual Atlanta hip-hop-buying public, but insists that despite the lack of local references in his music, his story is something every local kid has experienced. He's persistent about making his case that he's one of, if not the best, lyricists the city has yet to get behind.
Depending on whom you ask, this year Benton had the best Freshman freestyle, a rite of passage for all of the artists involved. Here's a sample:
"I wish a motherfucking hater would,
It's Mr. Benton baby, there goes the neighborhood,
Don't make me put this heater in your mouth,
Fuck eggs, I'll throw Justin Bieber at your house,
I'm Dr. Malachi Z. York eating pork with a metal fork,
Make it hard to pop for you niggas like a metal cork,
Throw a bucket of piss at the judge when I'm in court,
Nigga fresh to death when I hit the morgue,
"XXL, XXL!" Mr. Benton on this bitch I bet that cover gon' sale,
Tell Lucifer step aside as I hover through hell,
Make a sweater out your face like I'm Buffalo Bill."
— Jarren Benton, XXL Freshman 2014 freestyle
Saturday mornings growing up, while other kids watched cartoons, young Jarren was on a heavy dose of "Yo! MTV Raps" and BET's "Rap City." Born and raised in Decatur and Stone Mountain, Benton only ever wanted to be a rapper. His mother would always complain about how he was "'obsessed with these goddamn rappers,'" but they were filling a void in her son's life. "I grew up in a household where there was really no father figure, so I feel like rap raised me," says Benton, who also spent late nights listening to 88.5's Rhythm and Vibes radio show while writing raps on his notepad.
Like many young kids growing up in Atlanta in the mid-to-late '90s, Benton viewed OutKast as local heroes. But he found that, aside from his undying love for Andre 3000 and Big Boi, he was more into East and West coast artists. The second album Benton ever purchased was Redman's Whut? Thee Album. The combination of the New Jersey MC's in-your-face delivery and ridiculous visuals (Benton cites the video for "Time 4 Sum Aksion" as huge inspiration) had the Southern boy's attention. By the time he got to Stone Mountain High School, Benton and friends were making tracks to rap on by looping eight seconds of their favorite songs with a Gemini sampler.
Before any album titles with outlandish names were conceived, reality set in for Benton when his first child was born in 2004. He spent time "in the streets," he says, getting hired and fired from jobs in the same week, and ultimately found himself depressed, far from the kid who'd walked, talked, and dressed like his favorite rappers since elementary school.
"I think when I had my first child life just kicked me in the fucking face, and I got scared," he says, adding that both his and his wife's families were skeptical about his potential to be anything but a statistic.
He started questioning whether or not being a rapper was worth the stress he was bringing his loved ones. "My worst fear was to chase something and it not happen and you look back like, 'Where did the time go?'" he says.
Then Benton met Pryor, known around town as Slow. Pryor, along with a few others, started managing Benton and introduced him to the industry side of music, eventually landing him deal on DJ Eddie F's (Heavy D. & the Boyz) Untouchable Entertainment imprint, where he would spend the next couple of years stagnant.
"Their whole thing was, 'Let's make a smash [hit] and image,'" he says of management. "They would always put that in my head so much that it kind of took away the fun of it."
All the fun came to an abrupt halt when Benton's team brought him to the Def Jam offices for that failed audition. After that, Benton was on his own.
The first in a series of breaks for Benton came in the form of a production partner. Funk Volume's in-house producer Kato says he can't quite remember the first time he met Benton, but the MC had already been a fan of Kato's production work with rapper Elz Jenkins. Benton and Elz had been friends and collaborators for years so linking with Kato was a natural progression. Eventually, Benton started recording for fun in the north Atlanta townhome of Kato's father.
Benton seemed to have found a musical soulmate in Kato, who is still his go-to producer. "Dude was clearly talented, that's why I started working him in the first place," Kato says.
Soon after, Benton reunited with Pryor, after two years of not saying a word to each other.
The next big break came in the form of Aleon Craft's "Back to the D.E.C.," originally featured on the first installment of Solar Hop Chronicles. Benton was recruited for the extended version and joined by Playboy Tre, Grip Plyaz, and Tom P. The 808 Blake-produced track was Benton's intro to production and artist development house SMKA and co-founder Mike Walbert, who convinced the MC to join forces with 808 Blake for the EP Huffing Glue with Hasselhoff.
Released in 2011, Huffing Glue with Hasselhoff was probably best known for spawning Benton's "Justin Bieber" single. Riding his aggressive flow over a bouncy Southern bassline, the chorus — "I got hos on my dick so they call me Justin Bieber" — though catchy, was easy to write off as another in the wave of Lil B-inspired celebrity-named records.
Around 2012, Benton dropped the follow-up, Freebasing with Kevin Bacon, which proved to be sharper and more coherent than its predecessor. For the folks perhaps put off by the lack of lyrical prowess on "Justin Bieber," Benton's "Skitzo" was like a rap revelation.
"I'm so extraordinary, sleep in the mortuary,
Wake inside the cemetery, dig up every corpse that's buried,
This is so unnecessary, voices inside my head, they're scary
Sick of being crazy, God I want to be ordinary."
— "Skitzo," Freebasing with Kevin Bacon
"Skitzo's" vivid imagery and twisted wordplay drew comparisons to early Eminem and Redman, a rare comparison heard around these parts. The video for "Skitzo" was littered with stabbings, a Michael Jackson corpse, and Benton rocking a Davy Crockett raccoon cap. It solidified him as an entertainer, in the vein of his aggressive, shock-rap forefathers. Benton's presence on the mic is magnified on stage, whether he's stage-diving, chugging beers snatched from audience members, or just freestyling. Benton says he's always considered it a requirement for the best artists to be masters in the booth, on wax, and on stage.
"When you listened to rappers back when I was a child you felt inadequate," he says. "Back then you would hear a rapper and think, 'Goddamn I fucking suck.' You weren't on their level. I come from that school."
Aside from the obvious forebears of Atlanta hip-hop and a few short-lived solo success stories, the city is lacking a shining rap star of today.
"L.A., they say Kendrick Lamar is the dude. That's their dude they can look up to that can spar with the best," he says before asking, "Who does Atlanta have? I ain't talking the T.I.s, the Ludas, the Jeezys, and 'Kast. [In terms of new artists], like if you're just going for lyricists who can hang with the fucking best?"
"I feel like Atlanta doesn't really fuck with Jarren like they do a lot of mainstream artists you hear on radio here," Kato says. "I see his success outside of the city and it's so much bigger than Atlanta. Why worry about one city out of the entire world to support his music?"
Kato's sentiment aside, Benton wants his fellow ATLiens to believe he can be the city's best MC, but says the average Atlanta DJ — with the exception of DJs Jelly, Drama, Cannon, and Greg Street — are "burying true talent by cosigning bullshit."
He admits that maybe the shock-rapper shtick that's prevalent in his music might put folks off, but his outrageous song and album titles, and equally wild live shows and videos, are just his way of having fun, he says. "I didn't want to be serious anymore," Benton says of his earlier raps that bordered on emo. "I was like fuck it, let's make the most dumb shit I can fucking think of."
Maybe it's the anything-goes approach that keeps Benton from being fully embraced. He's not the safest bet, but Atlanta used to pride itself on backing artists a little left of center.
"I just wish some of these DJs would have the fucking balls to stand behind some of the niggas coming out of the A with a little bit of something different," he says. "I feel like in Atlanta it's like the same circle of people and they only stand behind the same exact shit. ... The city's got to do a better job of getting behind us and letting the world know we fucking exist."
One of the staunchest backers of Benton was Pryor, who died suddenly last October from complications with diabetes. Were it not for Pryor, Benton probably would still be a mad rapper focused on what he didn't have versus how far he's come, he says.
Benton wants to represent Atlanta. He aspires to be the local hero he saw in early Andre and Big Boi. "I grew up in the same way most of the inner city kids in our city grew up: fatherless child, parent struggling, going to Atlanta bullshit public schools — I'm that kid."
Whether or not his hometown, L.A. Reid, or XXL readers see it, Benton believes he might be the city's best rep. "When you watch sports you want a good [player] representing your shit. You want the best," he says. "I may jam a different sound, but I'm still Atlanta."
3 people apparently love handing over an extra 40% in fees for nothing in return…
Dang. I thought they would name some actual headliners.
Forgot to mention that Iggy did a stellar show @ the Agora in the spring…
Their fees were onerous, to say the least. $16 per ticket for "convenience," and it's…
That poster is for the Iggy Pop show on March 11 1983 @ 688 club…