On 'Plugs I Met 2,' Benny The Butcher Is Saying The Quiet Part Out Loud, Up Front
Just a few short years ago, Benny The Butcher was the underdog of Griselda, the Buffalo, N.Y.-based rap crew that was, at the time, decidedly underdog itself. The group's upstate New York home town has little-to-no hip-hop history, especially compared to its bigger cousin, New York City, about a six-hour drive south. Griselda member Conway The Machine had already built a rep for his sinister rhymes and brilliant punchlines, and label founder Westside Gunn had already earned a fan base with his distinctive voice, textured production and astute branding of the crew's aesthetic. But with his 2018 breakout album, Tana Talk 3, Benny (born Jeremie Pennick) carved out his own lane within Griselda, through his blunt, direct rhyme style and vivid portrayals of street life, with less emphasis on punchlines and more on details and believability.
Griselda has become one of rap's most impressive newer groups for helping revive the street rap of the '90s, particularly on the East Coast, and Benny began to stand on his own. He announced a management deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation in August 2019, and lyrically sparred with Jadakiss, Black Thought and Pusha T on 2019's The Plugs I Met. Then, in 2020, he strayed from Griselda's grim sound and connected with producer Hit-Boy (Jay-Z and Kanye West "N***** In Paris," "Clique" by G.O.O.D. Music) for Burden of Proof, an album that garnered critical acclaim and comparisons to music from the golden era of Roc-A-Fella Records.
Benny also began to make moves outside of his career as a solo artist, launching his own label, Black Soprano Family, to be distributed by Entertainment One, he appeared in Griselda's film Conflicted, became a celebrity spokesperson for his hometown Buffalo Bills football team, and he started his own sports agency, Big Sports Firm (clients include Buffalo Bills tackle Dion Dawkins, Winter X Games gold and silver medalist Henrik Harlaut, and BMXer Brad Sims, a two-time bronze medalist in the X Games). "I landed in those spaces in a better position than somebody who wanted to be in a movie their whole life, or someone who wanted to start a sports agency their whole life. With that power, I had to move on it," Benny tells NPR, during a phone call on the way to a meeting with Roc Nation. "Anybody who works with me, I would like to say that they know that I'm a boots on the ground type person, and I take responsibility in getting my boys to the next position."
In November, all of this hard work was jeopardized: News headlines circulated that Benny had been shot in a botched robbery attempt outside of a Walmart in Houston. Fortunately he survived, but was unable to walk as a result. He was initially prescribed a wheelchair, and later transitioned to crutches, doing physical therapy three days a week to regain motion in his foot and build strength in his ankle and leg.
"I had to take the time off, and it was good for me. But a part of me was feeling like 'yo, you gotta get back', cause that's just my hunger," Benny said. "It's like an athlete being away on an injury. He wanna get back and help his team, get in a game and put up those numbers, but he gotta fall back and get healthy." Benny has had to dedicate time to recovering, but fortunately, he had extra music in the tuck: he recorded all but one song from Plugs I Met 2 with producer Harry Fraud, at the same time that he created Burden of Proof. Plugs 2 features appearances by the late Chinx, 2 Chainz, Jim Jones, French Montana, Fat Joe and Black Soprano Family signee Rick Hyde, and is slated for a March 19 release.
In an interview with NPR , Benny spoke about the biggest challenges in his endeavors, the responsibility he feels to tell the real stories that other artists glamorize, and how he's been recovering from the attempt on his life.
William Ketchum III, NPR Music: So what was the mission for Plugs I Met 2?
Benny The Butcher: The mission that I had with this one was to give the other, darker side of the game. On the first Plugs, it was like getting into the game. On the cover of this one, it's Tony [Montana] and [Alejandro] Sosa [from the film Scarface] shaking hands. So it's about the other side of the glamor of the game, that's why the beats are dark and my temperament is like that. These dudes never give you the details about the dark side of the game. They get on here and talk about "money" this, and "the plug" this, and "I bought my girl a Birkin" this. They don't give you the other side of the game, and I feel like that's the most important part because that's where the lessons are.
Yeah, this had initially felt more like another installment of Tana Talk 3 to me. What would you say the theme is to the Tana Talk series compared to this one?
The theme of the Tana Talk series was I wanted to let everyone know who I was. I wanted my authenticity to show through my bars. So I was going out my way to say stuff like you had to be there to know. Everybody expected me to be the little cousin of Westside Gunn and Conway; I wanted to let people know who I was and what I was. That's why I named it after my block. Even though fans at that point hadn't even heard the first two, I just wanted to let 'em know that I am somebody.
You have really good chemistry with Harry Fraud, you have good chemistry with Hit-Boy. With this being your second one-producer album in a row, do you like that way of working versus having multiple producers on an album?
It's 50-50. I definitely like working with other producers but I'm definitely in love with the one-producer albums. Tana Talk 3 is all produced by Daringer and Al. Plugs 1 is produced by Daringer, Al and DJ Shay. Now when I do have a team of producers working like that, they work as one producer. When we picking the flow of the tape, they're picking it together. The overall feng shui, who's mixing and mastering and who's doing this and who's doing that, those are decisions that are made collectively. So on Plugs 1, DJ Shay and Daringer and Alchemist all worked together. On Tana Talk 3, Alchemist and Daringer was basically helping me and came together as one producer to get the project done. Even if I'm using five different producers, I don't like doing that cause I'm all over here all over there. So I like to keep everything under one roof.
What made you decide to work with Harry Fraud? Did you guys already have a relationship?
Yeah. Me and Harry was kicking it before Tana Talk 3 even came out. We had just linked around that time, did a couple songs and said "man we should keep going." And it wasn't like we were breaking our necks to get in the studio with each other because he was busy, I was busy, but over the time we kept adding on and adding on. When we figured we had something good, I said yo we should call this Plugs 2 and put the finishing touches on it. So me and Harry been kicking it for a few years now.
And you made this album at the same time as Burden of Proof, right? Those records sound completely different – so how difficult is it to go from one zone to another?
It's really about my settings, my surroundings and my train of thought. We go to Cali, we working at Chalice, we on the West Coast, all that type of s***. We working on the Plugs 2 with Harry, it's a little cold and s***. We on the East Coast, we recorded a joint in Brooklyn. It's just different vibes and different feelings. I might got my LA crew with me when I'm recording with Hit-Boy. I might got my New York crew with me when I'm recording with Harry. So it's just different vibes and different moods. I really can't explain it. It's just the vibe.
Are you always making multiple albums at once?
Hell yeah. I'm always working on something. I'm working on some things right now. Like if I'm working with Harry for a couple days and I leave, that don't mean I'm stopping. I'm still working on something else. I'm at the hungry stage in my career, I'm trying to do anything and everything.
My favorite song on the new album is "Overall," your record with Chinx. [Ed. note: Chinx is a rapper from Queens, New York who was shot and killed in 2015.] How were you able to get a verse from Chinx?
I did that record, I'm kinda rapping on it, and... it's some crazy s***. Harry didn't know I had a song with French Montana and Chinx from back in the day, like before I got on. Them dudes came to town, and I paid French for a verse. Chinx was there and he called me in the corner, like, "Do you mind if I get on the song?" I said, "Hell nah, get on the song!" ... I was just telling Harry about that, cause that's his guy. I was telling him in the middle of one of our sessions that I had a verse. He was like, "You did? How do you feel about putting him on this?" So that idea came from Harry and it worked out. I can't wait for people to hear it, I'm just happy Chinx is on the album. Harry already had the verse, but we definitely reached out to the family first to make sure everything was cool and they okayed it. 'Cause that's what they want most importantly, for his name to live on and his legacy to live on. Plus there's gonna be a few streaming dollars from it too, so it all works out.
You also have a record with Jim Jones and French. You already had a record with Chinx and French, but what was it like to have a record with Jim and French? Those are both New York legends right there, and they had just announced last year that they connected to squash their issues.
What's crazy is I get to do this with them as peers. I was on Jim's s*** and I was on the Coke Boys album. They did this song right after they spoke to each other as men, and got over what they had to get over, so it was right in that time. That's why it seemed like a good idea. I had French on there first but then I said "let me reach out to Jim," and him and Harry were working on a project, but he came through and knocked that s*** out. He killed that s*** too. It's dope cause it's like a moment in hip-hop, these dudes was beefing with each other for years and then they just come together on my song. I just think that's dope.
Same with Fat Joe on the album... a theme with Griselda, whenever OGs get on songs with you guys, they really snap. It's like you guys take them back to where they were when they started.
I agree with that. I do feel like people get on songs with Griselda and go extra hard than maybe people are used to hearing them. ... But I think that's a good thing. Some rappers might be offended, but I think that's a good thing. Conway definitely brings the best outta me – 38 Spesh brings the best out of me. That's natural. So I think we do have that effect on guys when they come get on our songs, and that's dope. Because sometimes you're waiting on a verse from someone and you don't know what you're gonna get. But I pretty much know that when I send a verse for somebody and they're getting on a song, I know that they know what time it is. They know, "Bro needs me to talk my s*** so let me get in my bag." Same thing with me. Conway just sent me something yesterday and told me, "I need you to do your two-step on this." I know what he means, he needs me to go crazy on it. I know exactly what time it is.
On "Plugs Talk" from Plugs I Met 2 you say, "people think I'm glorifying this street s*** but not at all." And you mentioned that on this album, you wanted to showcase the darker side of the game. What's the line between sharing that darker side and glorifying it? It seems like a lot of artists don't know the difference, or fans for that matter.
I feel like you can't glorify it if you haven't been in it – a lot of these dudes haven't been in it. So if people hear what I'm saying on a song and feel like I'm glorifying the game, I tell 'em, "Ask my daughters if I'm glorifying it," because they're the ones that had to spend time without me when I was in prison. Or ask my homies that been around me, that shed blood over this s***, if we're glorifying it. Or ask the plugs that I probably still owe money, or the ni***s that I robbed or whatever, if we glorifying it. These are real stories. I talk about it just to show how far we came from that s***. I be like, "Yo, I used to live in the projects four years ago," or, "l really did this" or "I really done that," because I want people to know you're looking at someone who did that.
And I know all these guys get on these songs and say that they've done that and this and that, but I feel like where I draw the line at, and I'm not glorifying it, because I'm giving the dark side of the game. They're not giving the dark side of the game, they're talking about what they've done and just making everything sound like a party. And I feel like you gotta let people know what's going on because it's really a myth. It's really a myth that you get in the game and you make all this money and you good. Everybody ends up dead or in jail, literally.
How are you able to get athletes to trust you, since your agency is so new?
It's simple, you gotta get 'em the bag. You gotta get 'em some money. ... You gotta do the right thing by a person, and they're gonna tell everybody. We're bringing commercials to the table. We're bringing meet-and-greets to the table, where people can bust a move and put some paper in their pocket. And bigger opportunities. So that's it, just get 'em the bag and show 'em that you're serious.
What's been interesting to see with the label, Black Soprano Family, it seems pretty clear you're willing to take the long game instead of going for overnight success. What kind of approach do you take to signing and developing your artists?
I show 'em the ropes. Cause everything you just said is what I've done. I can only speak about what I know, and that's how I build my fanbase up, nice and slow. So just show 'em the ropes, show 'em how to network, who they need to be talking to, show 'em how to be an artist, how to be impressionable. Just lead by example. The output of music you should be having, how many times you drop a year. Just the connection you should have with people in this industry. Not even saying like the media or the record labels, but the DJs and the blogs and certain people who are gonna help you take it to the next level – you establish your relationship with them, because those are the people that's gonna come in handy, and you're gonna come in handy to them. One hand washes the other and both hands wash the face. So that's what I try to show them, instead of running around chasing these artists.
I know a lot of guys that come in the game and pay artists for a whole bunch of features, and sometimes that works, but a person like me, I don't have a platinum plaque, I don't have a gold plaque, I don't do all them big streaming numbers and all that type of s***. But a person like me who builds a firm and steady fanbase, I'm able to build these businesses off of my name and my presence ... instead of just going out there and trying to get it quick and feel like I'm competing with a thousand n****s in their lane instead of being a leader in my own lane.
What would you say have been your biggest challenges with Black Soprano Family and the sports agency?
My biggest challenge with BSF is getting people to believe that we're serious. Because everybody comes out here and starts these labels, but I wanna show people that this is the next thing. And when I say the next thing I'm not tryna say we're the next Wu-Tang or the next Griselda or the next Dipset or nothing like that. People react to the music that we put out, they react to our movement. This is a big movement, and it's been that way before anyone outside of New York heard of us. Ask n****s, BSF been running upstate music for about a year or two before people heard of us, we were all over. The family thing that we bring to the game and people like how we move, we're militant, it's a hundred of us and everybody do their part. And we inspire people. When they see me come through with my man City Boy and my boy Tony Dinero and they see, like, "Damn, these boys working like a well-oiled machine." When people see that, they respect us. ...
Look at Griselda, like I said – we don't have a platinum plaque. We the biggest f****** thing far as hip-hop, when you speak about hip-hop. The culture hasn't embraced nothing else like us. We're not from LA, we're not from New York City, we're not from Atlanta, we're not from no popular city. And still all the OGs f*** with us. And people don't realize what that means when all the OGs f*** with you. That's the passing of the torch. Nobody has seen the OGs pass the torch like they did with Griselda. They probably f***** with a few people, but when you see the OGs f*** with us, it feels like a passing of the torch. It ain't just like oh he's on a song with him, he's in a picture with him; you know what that means when you see that, that's the passing of the torch. It's not always a number thing, because you can't buy that. So it's hard to get people to see outside the numbers.
The biggest challenge that I had with the sports agency is people might look at me as a threat. When you get to this point now where they see I did the deal, they see my album did good, and then they like, "okay, sports agency." So now they're keeping an eye on me. I was at a point where everybody was helping me do things, and now when I'm doing s*** like this it's, "keep an eye on that kid, he could be up to something."
Do you think that you've learned a lot from people, like Gunn and Jay, by seeing them run Griselda and Roc Nation?
Definitely. I've learned a lot from Gunn and a lot from Hov, everybody already knows that. And I use a lot of them in what I do today. But definitely learned a lot from DJ Shay – rest in peace DJ Shay. I learned even more from DJ Shay because we worked up front and up close personally. So before I can even be around Hov and learn from Hov, I was using DJ Shay's formula. Before Westside Gunn put me in position to do what I was doing, I was using DJ Shay's formula. Free Doobie, Daryll Green, Sly Green's nephew. I learned a lot from him. I was around him when I was 15, 16 years old. He was orchestrating his label, I was signed to his label. He made sure the artists was fresh, we was always in the studio, he was always putting out mixtapes. We was always busy. Always staying busy as artists. That's what I learned from him. I learned my work ethic and I learned my foot on the gas from those type of dudes.
One of the more reflective songs on the album is "Survivor's Remorse." You speak about all the s*** your homies have been through, and how they're either dead or in jail. And in your music and Griselda's music you guys speak all the time about losing Chine Gun, and your man Black, who's doing 20. We hear artists speak about survivor's remorse in the context of making it out, but I haven't spoken to artists about that mindset after they almost have gotten shot. What kind of thoughts go through your head after November, when you're that close to losing your life?
To be honest with you, we come from such a f***** up place, that me going through that as a rapper is different from me going through that being in the streets every day. It's serious but... if that happened to me because I was in the streets every day, that means some guys were trying to kill me and I've got a situation going on. But I gotta move a certain way because I'm a famous person now, and I'm successful. I could be moving all around and doing what I'm doing but I understand that if I don't put myself in no positions like that, I can avoid s*** like that. When you're in the streets, it's unavoidable. You can't avoid that, it's gonna happen; it's just a matter of time, when it's gonna happen and who it's gonna happen to. So it was really something that just happened. It don't be on my mind like that a hundred times a day.
So the survivors remorse just comes from making it out. 'Cause like I said, I was in the streets for years, I was in the streets for half my life. And I've done everything. I done took dope from n****s, robbed n****s, we done did everything you could possibly do in the streets. And it never happened to me, nobody ever touched me. So I had to become a public figure for people to see a certain way for that to happen. S*** is crazy.
I almost don't understand it; being a rapper is dangerous, but it's not as dangerous as being in the streets everyday.
Do you think there's a balance between moving practically while still staying connected, or do you think you'll stay connected regardless because of who you are and where you're from? Is that a pressure that you feel at all?
Now, of course I'm gonna always be connected. I point this out to people, I didn't get on as far as being successful financially, legally, until I was in my 30s. So I'm already who I am. I'm not a n**** who got on when I was 22 or 24 or no s*** like that. I'm a n**** who's basically had to live my whole life until I got to where I got. I am who I am. I'm my momma's son, three felonies, East Side Buffalo. All my homeboys is still around me. So I'm gonna be me. But I dont gotta stand on the street corner in the hood to feel like I'm connected. You don't gotta be in them areas. My situation happened with me going to Walmart. Some n**** jumped out of a tree to make that happen, for whatever reason. It's people, places and things.
I'm not standing out nowhere I ain't supposed to be at four in the morning just to prove a point to n****s. If you're a rapper and you feel like you gotta be somewhere dangerous to prove something to somebody, then you're a dumbass. And anybody who sitting around you tryna make you feel like that, they dumber than that. Because if you're the one who makes it successful, people are supposed to guard you and protect you so you can go further. Nobody supposed to put you in a dangerous situation and jeopardize what's going on so you can prove something to them – that's backwards. You gotta stay connected to the people who help make you who you are, because you are them and they are you. ... me being the dude with the sports agency and the dude with the deal and the dude who can rap his ass off, my friends and my family made me that person. So I can never disconnect myself from them. Some of 'em get the f*** on my nerves, but I'm not gonna go down Montana like 12, 1 in the morning at night by myself with all my jewelry on just to prove a point.
Some people have told me I'm too famous to go to Walmart. That's what I've learned from the situation. I've learned I'm too famous to go to places I thought I could go to. Like damn, a motherf***** can't even go to Walmart. I learned that too.
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