When rappers refer to themselves as living legends, it can sometimes feel like empty posturing. But Buffalo’s Benny the Butcher (real name Jeremie Pennick) – who ends his new record Burden of Proof by proudly stating: “I’m a legend now” – has more than earned the right to bask in his own glory.
One of eight children raised by a single mother who battled substance addiction, Benny grew up in Buffalo’s violent Montana Avenue – an area one local newspaper still refers to as “the danger zone”. The second most populated city in the state of New York, Buffalo’s youth poverty rate of 47.2 per cent is the fourth-worst among all American cities.
Benny was dealing heroin by the age of 14. “For me and my friends, that was the only reality,” he tells me.
Having endured multiple stretches in prison (on the powerful new posse cut ‘War Paint’ he reveals: “I spent ’bout two thousand nights in the cells”) and losing his brother Marchello (also known as Machine Gun Black) to gun violence back in 2006, Benny is aware of the symbolism in him making it this far.
The 35-year-old says that people from Buffalo witnessing a former drug dealer make it out the trenches to secure a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, or hold his own on songs with rap superstars such as Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Rick Ross and Pusha-T, will inspire them to succeed too.
“I worked so hard for this,” he adds. “I did my time in the mud. Everything we did in the streets before we became popular has prepared us for this moment.”
Benny makes the kind of gangster rap that makes your face scrunch up like a Bullmastiff dog – writer Jayson Buford described it as “screwface music” – and your head swings back and forth uncontrollably. On vivid hood anthems like Scarface vs Sosa Part 2 and 762., Benny frames Buffalo like the Wild Wild West — he and his gang are the Cocaine Cowboys, trying to turn the bad hand America has dealt them into a stack of 100 dollar bills, while the police are the local Sheriff’s department, lacking in empathy for the poor and more than happy to shoot first and ask questions later.
Some critics get lost in the raw cinematics of these songs and falsely claim that Benny’s music glorifies drug dealing. But it feels as though they’re missing the point entirely. “A lot of people find it hard to empathise [with people like me],” he says of his music’s aims, “but by placing the listener directly in my shoes, I’m forcing America to empathise and understand the choices that drug dealers make.”
As a part of the Griselda crew, along with his cousins Conway the Machine and Westwide Gunn, Benny has helped bring back a style of rap many would define as “hardcore” to the edge of the mainstream, performing as a group on the Jimmy Fallon Show.
Although their music is embedded in cautionary hood tales, which rarely have a happy ending, the three leave a lasting impression due to the way they balance the light with darkness. Their bars, particularly Benny’s (“I’m on my NBA shit, I’m shooting if they foul me”, he jokes on ‘What If’), are routinely hilarious.
Like Big L before him, a lot of Benny’s power comes from finding a way to smile despite the endless obstacles placed in front of him. He has a deliciously dark sense of humour.
His new album Burden of Proof, which was produced by in-demand producer Hit-Boy, is arguably the most polished record of Benny’s career, with the artist merging his cutting style with a more soulful, sonic template. It follows the recent release of the new gritty Dipset-esque mixtape Da Respected Sopranos from the Black Soprano Family – a crew Benny helped assemble made up entirely of rappers he met in prison and on the streets.
They all finish each other’s sentences. One of the members, Rick Hyde, is sitting in on our Zoom call. Of his friend Benny, he states: “This man be on the phone 27-hours a day! He works harder than anybody else. When you come from where we came from in Buffalo, it’s like survival of the fittest. It means that Benny is prepared for anything that’s thrown at him [by the music industry]. His music has a dark bass that just hits you. It’s addictive.”
Before we chat, Benny – who is rocking a Griselda chain that glistens like a chaos emerald from Sonic the Hedgehog – shows me around his new apartment, where he is currently having a studio installed. The bed looks bigger than my entire living room.
During our interview, he discusses his humble beginnings, America’s fixation on taking down successful Black people, and why his long road to success– which dates back to 2004 with his first mixtape, Tana Talk – set him on a path for greatness.
I think there’s often a misconception that Benny the Butcher and Griselda make music that glorifies trapping and dealing. You’re forcing America to empathise with dealers, and that’s so important.
Definitely. It’s something I have to always deal with. I am not gonna lie, I take that personally. Because I don’t glorify it. I really want to show people how far we’ve come, and I go to the extremes to let them know about the kind of life we’ve lived.
I want people to know this is where we came from and this is what we faced every day! You may not understand it or empathise with it unless a rap song puts you in someone else’s shoes. It takes discipline and it takes a support system to take the other route of life that we didn’t choose. But the majority of us didn’t have that discipline or support system in place; that’s why this was our reality.
Your music often references Buffalo mafioso figures, like the Lead Pipe Joe’s and Angelo Palmeri’s of this world. Did they feel like superheroes to you growing up?
Yeah. I feel like those guys built something with their friends that lasted for years, and it was always about furthering their families. There’s a lot we can learn from that. That Robin Hood mentality; to steal from the rich and feed the poor was their reality. The mob guys come from a long line of that. That’s culture to them. That’s heritage to them. I take what I can and learn from that. Some of those guys are special. To be honest, I learned business moves and things like that from those kind of dudes.
At the end of the day, family is all you really have in life. Your relationships with your friends and family are everything. After the money fades, after your beauty fades, and after your health fades, you still should be able to have that relationship with your friends and your peers. Gangsters taught me so much about loyalty.
The TV show The Sopranos obviously made a big impression on you. Which character do you most identify with?
I think the Black Soprano Family (BSF) is a gang full of Tony Sopranos, man, as we all bosses. To be a boss, you’ve got to be a leader, we all hold the responsibility for our own future. We built our empire up so strong and so crazy that no one man could divide us.
If you go on the airplane there are usually two pilots, right? Well, BSF is a big ass 747 Jet with a whole group of friends in the cockpit, all calling the shots. The fact we’re making music shows that gangster movies can have happy endings.
I know you once said of rap music: “You gotta dumb it down. Like moving down the prices.” Have your experiences trapping perhaps made you more prepared for the music industry?
Having a good relationship with a plug [someone who regularly supplies a dealer with large quantities of drugs to sell] prepares you, for sure. I hope people listen to this part of the interview as this is real shit: some people have never met a plug, fuck, most people have never met a plug!
When you meet a plug and someone who can change your life, they like to get money with people that they like. The fact I work with Roc Nation or Hit-Boy, or Russ reaches out, or I have all these labels wanting to sign me [Benny is still independent] is down to the fact the street taught me the power of leaving a positive impression.
You recently tweeted about a fan getting stopped by the police in Buffalo for wearing a Black Soprano Family t-shirt. That’s censorship, surely? Does it feel like the police are trying to silence you from revealing your truth?
It feels like they are trying to keep us in our place. The Buffalo police department are familiar with us way before the fame and money. Like, if you listen to the music then you know who we was into. In my opinion, they are like: “Fuck, the nerve of these kids to be so successful!” The nerve of us to talk the way we do on these tracks. They want to keep us in our place.
They wouldn’t even let me do a show at home! I had all sorts of red tape just to put a show on for my home supporters, my family and the people I went to school with. It upsets them that a young black man turned nothing into gold. The police think we have this audacity to be successful. They feel like we should still be on street corners and in a position where they can lock us up. America doesn’t want us to let its secrets out.
In many ways, you are the personification of the American Dream. But do you believe in it? Or is it a concept weighted too much in helping white faces?
The American Dream is a company line. It is a real thing, true, but they don’t tell you how to achieve it if you’re Black. They give you mixed signals. We was taught to stay in school and stay in college. But I dropped out of school in the 9th grade and I’m now sitting down having conversations with billionaires.
I built a million-dollar empire all by myself! Sometimes the system teaches us how to be robots so we gotta climb out that box and figure it out ourselves. America was built on entrepreneurship, yet we was taught to get a job and a 9 to 5 that makes no money!
It is all about ownership, but no one teaches you that. They don’t teach financial literacy in school. We never knew about credit. No teacher ever brought up credit to me, ever in my life. I’m teaching young Black kids who have nothing how to win, and maybe that’s scary for some people.
What was it like growing up on Montana Avenue? And how did it shape the man you are today?
Man, it shaped my mind to think the way it does. On my block, $20,000 to $30,000 came through on hand-to-hand drug trafficking every single day. I’ve seen it. I watched it as a youngster at 7 or 8 years old, but I looked up to those guys.
Not because they were selling drugs to make money but because those were guys who gave us rides to school. They bought us shit from the store when we had no money. They were our only role models. They were the guardians of the neighbourhood so we looked up to them.
Being from a neighbourhood is like being part of a family. We took on the burdens and responsibilities of our neighbourhood just like they did.
We wanted to be the next generation of the dudes getting the money. I am a hustler and I will always find a way to win.
You have defied the odds.
Definitely. They had the war on drugs. It was set up against us. Remember, we are products of that. My moms did drugs for 20 something years. She’s clean now; shout out to my mom! But that shit scarred us.
It is like PTSD, almost, and that’s what haunts my music. People don’t always understand that shit. This is why we think the way we think and act the way we act.
But even though we came from all that struggle, we’re still winning. That’s what makes me a legend.
Benny The Butcher & DJ Drama Presents: Gangsta Grillz X BSF Da Respected Sopranos is out now on Black Soprano Family / EOne
Follow Thomas Hobbs on Twitter.