Rap music is often at its best when it peddles in hyperbole, doubly so when it comes to songs about drug dealing. Biggie made his legend rapping about his Fulton Street exploits, but he was at his most cinematic on a 60-foot Tempest yacht. Pusha T was not actually there when Big Meech brought the tigers in, but he can still be the L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard. Even Jay-Z—likely one of the few famous rappers who moved the weight he’s bragged about—is prone to self-mythologizing; he opened his debut album in 1996 with an homage to Scarface, and when he finally scored a no. 1 single 13 years later, he was still boasting about how little he had to pay for his product.
But despite his position as one of the finest dealers turned artists working in hip-hop today, Benny the Butcher has no interest in exaggerating the role of either himself or his hometown of Buffalo in the drug trade. If anything, he says, he’s downplayed it. Take “Rubber Bands & Weight,” a standout from his 2018 breakthrough Tana Talk 3: “You know my block, did 20 grand a day,” he raps on the chorus in tribute to Montana Avenue, a street that’s been dubbed the city’s “danger zone.”
“I put the song out, and I go back to the ’hood, and they tell me I low-balled it,” he says via phone earlier this month. “They said it was about $40,000 coming through there.”
Shying away from hyperbole has served Benny well, however. Born Jeremie Pennick, the 36-year-old MC has gained a cult following alongside his cousins Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine over the past half-decade, hitting his ascent at an age when most rappers are figuring out retirement plans. The trio, which serve as the centerpiece of the Griselda Records collective, have become the most sought-after New York street artists in hip-hop, earning cosigns from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Eminem, Virgil Abloh, and Drake for their brand of gritty throwback rap. All three men play a different role within the crew framework, however: Westside is part RZA, part Ghostface Killah—a brilliant businessman who spits some of the most fantastical lyrics you’ve heard. Conway is the surgical punch line tactician who melts any mic he touches. And Benny is the audio documentarian who, at his most vivid, seamlessly mixes references about his childhood being raised by a single mother who struggled with addiction and his time in prison with some of the hardest bars around.
That authenticity is what makes him so special as an artist, says Harry Fraud, the producer best known for his work with French Montana and Action Bronson who helmed the boards for Benny’s new project, Friday’s The Plugs I Met 2, the sequel to his 2019 classic EP. Fraud likens his latest collaborator to Jay-Z and Nas—rappers who imbue their lyrics with rich details and hyperspecific stories to draw the listener in.
“Anybody can outline a picture, but unless you’ve seen what that picture is representing, you might not be able to catch the exact color of the tree or the exact color of the grass, because you never saw the grass in person,” says Fraud.
That approach is on display throughout Plugs I Met 2, which features 2 Chainz, Fat Joe, Jim Jones, French Montana, and Chinx, the rising Queens MC and close friend of Fraud’s who was gunned down in 2015. Songs like “Survivor’s Remorse” are particularly striking within Benny’s catalog: Over a haunting Fraud beat, Benny raps about a friend serving time upstate and name-checks his older brother, Buffalo rapper Machine Gun Black, who was killed in a shooting in 2006. “If this supposed be success, then why the fuck I feel stressed out and guilty?” he says. Fraud also highlights “Live by It”—where Benny tackles honor and street codes without veering into heavy-handedness—as another example of the rapper’s versatility.
“Benny often gets pigeonholed into ‘He’s a coke rapper,’” Fraud says. “To me, he’s so much more than that, and that song is a perfect example of how he can give his perspective on something very polarizing. But because he’s been on both sides of the fence, he’s able to give this supremely unique perspective without it sounding kind of contrived or preachy.”
The nine-track project caps off what’s been the biggest 12 months of Benny’s career. 2020 saw him release both an installment of DJ Drama’s famed Gangsta Grillz mixtape series and October’s excellent Burden of Proof, which was produced by Hit-Boy and featured Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Big Sean, and the Grammy-nominated Freddie Gibbs. The latter, in particular, rose Benny’s star, as it drew comparisons to Jay-Z’s early work because of its skits—performed by Pain in da Ass, the same person who did the Scarface impersonations on Jay’s first few records—and ability to blend street rap with more commercial sensibilities. (Benny says that Plugs I Met 2 is an attempt to get “dirty again,” while Fraud says that the goal was to “make him the grimiest, fucking darkest, craziest shit in the world.”)
Benny also grew outside of the music world in the past few months: He started a sports agency, Big Sports Firm; recorded “Bills Mafia Anthem,” the official hype song for the AFC East champs; and executive produced and starred as Nick in Conflicted, a straight-to-streaming street movie produced by Griselda Films—similar to how Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella made forays into film with State Property and Paid in Full. Alongside his run of success, however, he suffered a setback: In November, Benny was shot in the leg during a botched robbery attempt outside a Houston Walmart. Unable to walk in the immediate aftermath of the attack, he was initially prescribed a wheelchair, from which he recorded the song “3:30 in Houston” about the shooting. He says he’s since mostly recovered thanks to physical therapy, which he does three times a week. “I’m just nursing myself back to health, and just get it back right,” Benny says.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Ringer this month, Benny discussed the whirlwind of the past few years, his approach to making Plugs I Met 2, his recovery from the incident in Houston, and why he still feels like the underdog despite being one of the hottest commodities in hip-hop.
I was watching Conflicted this morning—I love it. You star in it, you executive produced it. Were movies always in the plan for you?
Not always in the plan. It’s just something that I had the opportunity to do. Shout-out Duece King, my boy AK Reed, and Stover, who really put that pain in behind that camera, and they gave me the opportunity and I just dove in.
What attracted you to the project?
Oh, man. The role spoke to me. That was my situation before. I saw some of myself in that character, and I felt like I could bring it to life.
Is acting a natural fit with rapping? Did you feel like you had something to build off, with so much experience making music?
It definitely plays a part in it, but it’s just different. It’s different. I think the acting is more therapeutic. Going to the studio every day and getting behind the microphone, I get a lot out of that. Just imagine acting these things out and not just saying it. Imagine how that feels.
Conflicted came shortly after your album Burden of Proof, your biggest release yet. Has that album opened any new doors for you?
I would say yes. Not directly, because you know how this industry is. Everybody sees you, everybody sees you up against your next opponent—your projects being your opponent. People want to see if you win or lose. If you win, they’re going to congratulate you. There’s some people who want to congratulate you now, but they can’t until you reach a certain level. I feel like with Burden of Proof, I proved some things to some people. A lot of people acknowledged what I was doing before that, and it’s all love. But you still got people who’re waiting to see what you’re going to do, waiting to see whether you’re capable of putting another good album out. I’m pretty sure in a way it opened some doors for me.
To me it kind of felt like you had always been like ... you know the line: your rapper’s favorite rapper. For people who really check for lyricists. But with Burden of Proof, it was like, “Oh, Benny can be a star.”
People want to say that the album was more commercial. I think I’m a star without that. But I definitely understand what people were saying. I feel like Hit-Boy brought out that side of me, and I feel like he seen it from jump, when he seen me on Instagram before he even hit me up. He was like, “Watch this, I can do this with this guy and make it glossy.” Shout-out to Hit, because he did that.
A lot of people compare the album to an early-2000s Roc-A-Fella release. How much did you court that?
I’d be lying to say that wasn’t intentional. “Burden of proof” is another name for “reasonable doubt.” Plus, with the Pain in da Ass skits and Hit-Boy’s close relationship working with Hov. [Young] Guru mixed it. It was intentional. I wasn’t trying to be like Hov or nothing like that. I felt like I was telling my story, but just narrating it kind of the way he narrated his.
You have a relationship with Jay these days through your Roc Nation management deal. How’s that been going?
Been going dope, man. I’ve been learning a lot, and a lot of new relationships. I’ve gotten my hands on a lot of new tools.
Have any of the tools come directly from Jay? I read not too long ago that a few years back, Jay suggested you turn down the XXL Freshman Class list. Was that the right move?
It was something I already was skeptical about, because I didn’t want to be put in that box. I didn’t feel like it was something that I needed to do. Some people do it because they need to do it. I wanted the people in jail to see me on a magazine. I wanted the people to be proud of me. But Jay just echoed some thoughts that I already had. It was like a no-brainer.
I get a lot of direct advice from him, from him telling me that I shouldn’t do that, to me sending him a song and him telling me he can hear when I punched in and I need to fix it. We definitely tapped in.
You recently launched an agency for athletes, which is something Jay’s been successful at with Roc Nation Sports. What made you want to launch Big Sports Firm?
Having relationships with college and NFL players, and having relationships with brands where I could help market these guys, and having different agents that I met from standing close to other agents—I just had a lot of ingredients lying around, and I put them all together when they were lying in front of me. If you look in the fridge, it’s just stuff in the refrigerator, but if you put it all together and cook it, it’s a pie. I just took everything that I had standing around and was like, “You know what? I’m going to make this work for a situation.”
How are you feeling after the incident in Houston last November?
I’m feeling good. I’m almost back to 100 percent. I’m walking. That type of injury, it’ll take time, but I’m getting back. I’m all right.
How is rehabilitation going?
I’m at therapy three times a week when I’m in town. Shout-out to my therapist. He’s doing a great job. It just is what it is. I’m not sitting over here crying about this shit.
What do they have you doing?
Just keeping my ankle flexible, moving my foot around, and strengthening it. Getting more strength in my leg so I could walk better. That’s what it’s really about right now, getting the power back.
You’re getting back there physically. But how are you feeling mentally?
I’m in a good space right now. I got a lot of things going on for myself. You can’t let these things take you out the game, and you can’t let these suckers trick you out the streets, because they would. This is a real-life chess match, and I’m good at chess.
Has it changed your perspective on anything?
It definitely opened my eyes and let me see that people view me as a threat. It definitely let me know people view me as a larger figure than I even thought myself to be. I got to look in the mirror and realize who I am and what I am—the power that comes with it, and the negative things that come with it, as well.
I’m glad to hear that you’re bouncing back physically, and I’m happy that you’re prospering right now, despite all that. I want to talk about something good that happened this year: You got officially involved with the Buffalo Bills this year with “The Bills Mafia Anthem” and some exclusive merch. How did that come about?
Oh, man. Well, shout-out my boy Tony DeNiro. He had a relationship with the team, and he connected the two dots. They was hip to the movement and what we was doing in the city, and they wanted a collab—put it together with what they was doing in the city. So, we did the merch piece, and we did the song. It was big for the city. They just like to see the team collaborate with a homegrown brand. It just gives hope. I used to work in that stadium, on parole and shit.
What were you doing at Bills Stadium?
I just cleaned the bathroom there. I used to clean the sinks in the bathroom. What’s that little fucking mechanical vacuum thing that keeps people’s floors clean and shit? Honestly, it was real easy work because you just vacuum it like 20 times a day. You don’t let the floor get dirty. I was on parole. My girlfriend at the time, her brother was supposed to do the job. He didn’t make the interview. I’m like, “Yo, I could do it.” She didn’t want to look bad in front of the people, so she was like, “Could you do it?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Fuck it.” I didn’t mind that job. It was OK for that time.
What year was this?
So, seven, eight years later, you are doing the theme song for the team when they’re in the midst of their best run in two and half decades. How do you reflect on that?
That’s just hope, man. That just let me know hard work really can take you wherever you want to go—hard work, network, and relationships really could take you where you want to go. It’s humbling. I want people to know that I really used to work in there, and every game I go to now, I’m going to be in the suites.
So I have to ask, because we are a sports site: Should Josh Allen have been MVP?
Yes. I’m biased, of course, because Josh Allen is Buffalo, you know what I’m saying? We know A.R. had a great season. He ended up getting it, right?
He got it, yeah.
Good. Congratulations to Aaron Rodgers, man. Not to say that he didn’t deserve it, but I feel like it’d have been good for Josh Allen to get it. But it’s political.
Did you ever expect Josh to be this good?
No, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t. I hoped he would be this good. His other two seasons, I was right behind him, because we were always optimistic about how the season was going to play out. But I saw flashes of greatness. He really didn’t turn the ball over. He didn’t make dumb mistakes with the ball. He wasn’t throwing them silly passes or dumb fumbles. He needed to get accurate. I knew he had a big arm. He went out, and he got accurate, so you can’t ask for nothing more than that.
He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot, but I do have to bring up that time in the playoff game against the Texans when he just lateraled the ball backward. Do you remember that?
Yeah, I remember that. I don’t know why you brought that up. But I remember.
Well, I’m a Pats fan.
Oh, man. Y’all got bigger demons to fight.
We’re trying. But fandom aside, you’ve got such a connection to your city. How does being from Buffalo—specifically the east side of Buffalo and Montana Avenue—influence you and the music you make?
My neighborhood had a lot of pride, know what I mean? A lot of pride, people getting money, tough guys, things like that. We bring those things up not to glorify or nothing, but in some crazy way, them things make us who we are.
Being from a neighborhood like that, with them type of characters you’re around, you want to go out and get some bread. Everybody ain’t sell drugs. There are people who was doing other things to get bread, but hopefully, you always got the underdog mentality when you come from there. You’re defensive when everybody bring the city up, because people don’t have a lot of good things to say about the city. We got a chip on our shoulder. We got a lot to prove. So, we might be a little extra at times.
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but all these trap rappers, I guarantee I sold more dope than all of them. Not to glorify those things, I’m just saying, little old Buffalo, we the ones you got to look out for.
Did you feel like you had options beyond that when you were growing up?
Yeah, I did. I’m not going to lie. People hear my story, but people don’t understand, man. I never had nothing. I never had a pair of Jordans until I sold drugs. I never had nothing. I mean, my mom, she fought her drug addiction. I was her second-oldest. She ended up having eight kids. There was times when the younger kids under me needed to get fed, and I wasn’t even thinking about making a plate out of the pots that was on the stove, because I know they had to eat. I was even an underdog going to school. People always looked down on me. Everybody always had everything. I never had nothing. The thing about me is I always had a conscience, though, so I didn’t ever want to do those things. Trust me, I didn’t ever want to.
I moved to Atlanta for a couple years. I moved back in 1999, and my friend pulled me to the side and he let me know, “Yo, your mom, she’s not doing too well. You going to have to take care of your family.” I wasn’t ready for that conversation. I wasn’t thinking I was moving back to that. He told me where I could buy a double-up from, and start having money, and start doing this.
I tell these stories about that because that’s where my ambition come from. I’m acting in movies, sports agency, my own label deal. I’m running my career independently. That’s where that hustle came from. That’s what it turned into. I’m nothing without that ambition. I’m nothing without that hunger. I’d still be back in the trenches.
How did you realize you could get out of those trenches?
Westside Gunn and Conway paved the way [with music]. When it came time when I figured out “Well, OK, we can get money like this,” Conway told me, “Go get you a PayPal card. You need to do like this. Post this.” When I seen what he was doing and he told me it was foolproof, and West was fucking with me, and I saw what they were doing, I stopped. I didn’t need to no more. I’ve been getting money off music ever since.
Your older brother, Machine Gun Black, was killed when you were barely 20, while you were serving a sentence. How do you process that, when you can’t even be around for your family?
The counselor at the prison denied me a funeral visit. That tore me apart, not being able to go to the funeral and then having to do my last 90 days with that on my mind. Then I had to come home and deal with it. It was like I dealt with it twice, because I dealt with it in prison, then I had to come home and realize he’s not there. There’s people who haven’t seen me, or we haven’t had the conversation yet, so I had to go through everything again.
You had only 90 days left, and they wouldn’t let you out?
That’s crazy, right? But they said I was a risk to the community.
That’s brutal. But you, Westside, and Conway make it a point to keep him part of everything that you do. You named the Griselda project What Would Chine Gun Do. Why does his presence still loom so large?
He was a big part of this scene. We were just trying to show people that. He would have been standing right here. He would have been having a phone interview with you and shit. It’s just a way of bringing him along this journey with us, because he would have been right here with us. He would have been all over.
What was his style like?
He used to scream in the mic—loud, tough, aggressive, heavy, that type of shit. Like M.O.P.-type shit, almost.
Do you find yourself asking “What would Machine Gun do?” in key moments?
That’s my big brother, so I’m always moving under the watchful eye of my big brother, thinking, “Would he approve of this, or would he approve of that?”
What’s the typical answer to that kind of question?
He’d disagree with a lot of the things I do. He was a real street guy. Almost a hothead type of person. I’m not like that. I’m a cool-headed type of guy. Me and him, we had a lot of going back and forth because of shit like that. But that’s my big brother. That’s just how he was.
This week, you come out with Plugs I Met 2. What does 2019’s Plugs I Met represent for you now?
Me coming into my own. I did that independently. I’m always Griselda—always. But I had learned a few things by then, and I did that independently. I got my own little distribution deal for that, and I put it out. I did everything for that project—setting up the recording sessions and reaching out to the artists, the features, then setting up the press runs and setting up the tour. I set up all my own personal tours. For it to come out and for it to be a dope project, that meant a lot to me.
Why did you feel it was time to revisit Plugs I Met and come out with Volume 2 right now?
Because I met new plugs. I wanted to tell a story about it. Then, to be honest with you, I felt like a lot of people was going to need this after I did Burden of Proof, for the people who was thinking Burden of Proof was some type of commercial thing. I felt like the streets needed this, so I’m going to get dirty again.
What is it about Harry that made you want to work with him?
Harry got that dirty sound. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to lock in with one producer. We already had a mutual business partner, and he already was kicking it, so we were just going strong, building off of it.
You were recording Plugs I Met 2 at the same time as Burden of Proof. How did you balance the two?
It really ain’t take that much balancing. It’s like breakfast and dinner, you know what I’m saying? When I was recording Burden, I was on that wave, out in L.A. When I was recording Plugs, I was on that wave in Brooklyn.
The difference in collaborations between the two feels intentional. Burden of Proof had Rick Ross and Lil Wayne on it. On Plugs I Met 2, you’ve got some legendary New York rappers—French Montana and Chinx, Fat Joe, Jim Jones.
I got relationships with these guys too, but Harry’s bringing his relationships to the forefront the same way Hit-Boy did. So it’s almost a collaborative project between me and Harry, because these producers got a lot of input on these projects.
We’re about the same age, so I wanted to talk to you about really blowing up a little bit later than a lot of rappers do. You really got on in your 30s. What kind of perspective does that give you that you might not have had, had that happened 10 years, 15 years earlier for you?
It let me know that you really control your own destiny, man. People put too much emphasis on what somebody else can do for them, and what you can’t do for them. I didn’t sit around and wait for somebody to bust these moves for me. A lot of this shit I had to do myself, so if you’re invested in yourself, time as well as money, and you got some talent and you know how to act, this shit going to go far. When I say “know how to act,” you can’t be an asshole, because people don’t like working with assholes.
Do you think if you had blown up when you were 20 that you would have been an asshole?
Maybe. Maybe I would have felt some type of entitlement to something, or I would have been used to it. I’m still used to the trenches, and used to a regular life. This was all new to me. I might cherish it a little bit more, maybe. I don’t know. I can’t really speak for them dudes, but I would say maybe I cherish it more than a 20-year-old Benny the Butcher would have cherished it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.