Benny Blanco Talks Being Inspired By Nas, Working With Wiz Khalifa and Advice to Producers
Benny Blanco’s fame came at a price; but he’s paid the cost and is reaping the benefits. The 24-year-old is currently one of the most sought-after producers in music, crafting hits for the likes of Wiz Khalifa and Maroon 5, whose song, "Payphone" is currently No. 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart for the third consecutive week.
But don’t get it twisted, while the majority of his roster consists of home run records in pop music, the Virginia-native’s talents are rooted in hip-hop. His work on Trey Songz "Heart Attack" has garnered him a Top 10 spot at urban and rhythmic radio, while Wiz Khalifa’s “Work Hard, Play Hard” continues to impress in the Top 3 at rhythmic radio. VIBE had the opportunity to catch up with Benny Blanco to talk about the inspiration Nas had on his craft, his first recording session with Wiz Khalifa, and the advice he has for budding producers.
VIBE: You started out in the music business by scrubbing toilets and making tuna fish sandwiches, all while going to high school. How did you first get noticed?
BENNY BLANCO: I’ve been making music since I was kid so it just kind of happened. When you want something that bad, you’re not going to stop at it, you know. So if someone asks me to scrub some toilets, I’m going to scrub some toilets. I just feel like the harder you work the more chances you have to be lucky. I was hitting up people all over Myspace, right when it got big. I would hit up everyone like Jimmy Iovine, Polow Da Don, and I would cold call people and pretend I was a lawyer. They would pass me through and I would be like, “Please let me play you my demo.” So I just did a lot of wild shit to just try and grab people’s ears.
What was the turning point of your career?
I feel like there’s a bunch of turning points. When I was younger, I was reading my first mentor, Jonathan Shecter, who started The Source Magazine. Then I met up with Gamble and Huff, so that was another turning point; and then I started working with Disco D. Spank Rock was probably the first time the world heard me. I was producing these guys’ album, and I’d never done anything like that in my life. I was 18-years-old, dj-ing, having the time of my life. The other turning point would have to be when I met Dr. Luke and he was like, 'Yo, you should be making pop music. Why are you making this indie-hip-hop stuff. It’s cool, but you could be making really great pop songs.' So, that was probably like the biggest turning point.
Nas’ Illmatic classic, “The World is Yours” was a part of your first musical experience. What drew you to that particular song?
Me and my brother used to go to a tape store—a cassette tape store—near us and we used to walk there every afternoon. I was 5 or 6 and he was 11 or 12, and I remember that they would never let you buy parental advisory, songs that had curse words in them, but my brother knew someone there so they would always hook us up. I just remember I was walking down and my brother was like, this dude Nas is crazy good, you have to listen to him. So, I picked up the new Nas one and he was like, 'You also have to listen to All-4-One.'I got both of them tapes at the same time. I was instantly hooked. I went back there every week. There was just something about it. I thought the musicians did everything on their own. I through they produced their own songs, and they recorded it all. I thought Nas did that part in the song where he scratches the records, and it’s like, “It’s yours,” I thought that was him scratching with his mouth, so I tried to do that. I didn’t know other people went into it. I was just naive.
What was the moment when you realized you really hit the mainstream?
I think the first time was Britney Spears. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. This is real.’ I remember they were like, ‘Alright, you’re going to work with Britney Spears today.’ And I was like ‘What?’ That was pretty crazy or surreal. And my first No. 1 record… it’s always surreal. Every time I listen to the radio and hear one of my songs, I feel like a little kid.
Is there any particular artist you especially enjoy working with?
I mean, I just like working with any artist who’s really talented. At this point, I just want to work with anyone who’s really dope. I don’t want to work with someone who’s like ‘Fuck it,’ I want to work with someone who has ideas. Everyone I’ve worked with, I’ve had a pretty enjoyable time – they’ve been a blast to work with, and I’ve had some really good writers.
What was your most memorable recording session?
I don’t know my most memorable, but I can tell you the first time I recorded with Wiz was the most awkward recording session of my life. I got to the studio, and I’ve never worked with him before, I’ve never met him before. I got in and the dude was smoking so much I couldn’t even see him and I was a foot away from him. It was just, like, awkward. There was no talking whatsoever. And I’m a goofy guy, so I’m making jokes and we’re just not connecting. Then, he asked if I had any beats for him, and I was like ‘No, I usually just make them on the spot.’ So, I started making a beat, and he was just sitting there, not saying anything, and I was like ‘Do you like this?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you when I don’t like it.’ He was just messing with me. There was a point where I walked out of the studio and was like ‘This can’t be working.’ So, I called his A&R and asked if he was usually like this, and they were like ‘Yeah, you just have to get in with him.’ Then, by the end of the session, I loosened up a little bit and he was totally cool. But, the first part was just totally awkward; there would be times where we wouldn’t speak for like 30 minutes. But now, he can’t get us away when we get into the studio.
From whom do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from everyone. I listen to every type of music. I try to expose myself to 10, 12 new artists every day. I’m listening to everything from Beirut to Wiz to Yo Yo Ma to Arcade Fire. I try to spread it around because you never know. There could be something in one of those songs that gives me an idea to do something like this or something like that.
As a frequent guest lecturer at NYU, what advice can you offer to budding producers looking to break into the industry?
Here’s the thing… when people start making music, they start borrowing styles from other people, because that’s what you do. You start by recreating hip-hop beats you’ve heard from other people or you start mimicking other people or you’re just listening to stuff. For me, when I did that stuff, no one ever picked up on it, and no one liked it. But then, I found my own style and just really stuck with it. Even though, in the beginning the songs you’re making are going to sound weird to other people’s ears, but as least it’s your own style. At least, they’ll say ‘This shit sucks, but I haven’t heard anything like it before,’ or they’ll be like, ‘Oh wow, this is great! This is so innovative.’ That’s what people are looking for the most. They’re going to get a million beats that sound like a Kanye beat or a Timbaland beat, but then, if they hear something that sounds even just a little bit different, their ears perk up and they get interested. Always be different, don’t follow the rules. Don’t do what anyone tells you. Don’t use the same sounds as people; don’t use the same drums as people.
Photo Credit: Justin Hogan