Benny the Butcher is in the first half of a long tenure in hip-hop. Specifically, it's "year three, in the beginning of a 10-year run," as he declares on "One Way Flight," the fourth track on his new album, Burden of Proof, released on October 16.
In 2018, Benny gained attention with "'97 Hov," telling the story of an up-and-coming artist with hustling bona fides, at a point where "one hit" would have him "set to go." Best known for his depictions of street life on sample-heavy production, the 35-year-old rapper's life is more luxurious now, and his bars reflect it. Two years and a Roc Nation management deal later, "One Way Flight" finds Benny inside Jay Z's house, identifying Kerry James Marshall paintings adorning the walls.
On the aptly titled "Thank God I Made It," the clattering of his gold chains reminds him of a fork hitting a pot, a sensory memory from his previous life in illicit chemistry. The track also references his brother, Machine Gun Black, who was killed in 2006, in an emotional eulogy that created an intense moment in the studio. (Hit-Boy recounts Benny crying during the making of the song, saying that's "real gangsta shit if you ask me" on Instagram.) This summer, Benny suffered another difficult loss: the death of DJ Shay, a producer at independent label Griselda Records—home to Benny and several of his collaborators—and the person to sign Benny over ten years ago to his own label, Buff City Records. (Shay died of complications after contracting COVID-19.)
"I know he's smiling down, because this is all he wanted," Benny told VICE. "He had the most faith in me. He gave me this confidence I still have today."
Burden of Proof, executive produced by Hit-Boy, is a concise, 12-track project that combines two massive orbits: that of one of the busiest producers in 2020, and one of the most prolific collectives of this year, Griselda Records. Benny and Hit initially set out to record one song, but ended up recording an entire album's worth of material, adding to the half-dozen-plus albums released by Benny's label mates: Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and the newest signee, Armani Caesar.
VICE spoke to the Buffalo-born rapper on release day to discuss Burden of Proof, working with Hit-Boy, and who's got the best ad-libs in hip-hop right now.
VICE: The Griselda output this year has been crazy, but people were waiting for a solo album from you. How did you feel making Burden of Proof?
Benny the Butcher: Honestly, I just wanted to get it perfect. Take our time on it and make sure everything is in place. Like you said, a lot of people were waiting on it. I was still getting my burn on those boys' albums, so I wasn't missing anything, but I wanted to give the world that solid project.
You started off rapping about still being in the street, but now your day-to-day life is probably more focused on the music industry. Has that changed your mindset about making music?
We're gonna continue to evolve as artists and as people. The thing fans don't understand is you're evolving twice: as a man, and as an artist. My content is going to constantly change because I'm seeing different things, but I'll never stray away from being who I am, Benny the Butcher from Eastside Buffalo. Montana Avenue. That'll never change. I'm finding different things to talk about. I'm pulling inspiration from everything.
How did you end up locking in with Hit-Boy to executive produce Burden of Proof?
Man, Hit-Boy just reached out to me. The first song we did was "Legend." After that, we just decided to keep going. We looked up and we had a dope-ass project. It was like, we need to cross our T's, dot our I's, and take this to the next level.
What's the difference between locking in with one producer and piecing together a project from different ones?
It's different, but it's not as different as you think. When I dropped my last project, it was Crowns for Kings, and I had three different producers: Daringer, Alchemist, and DJ Shay—rest in peace, DJ Shay. All of those guys are like my producers, I got a relationship with all of them. I carried it the way I carried it with Hit-Boy. When I did that project with them, they all worked together with getting the samples, picking the order of the songs. I'm always fucking with people I'm comfortable with, so it's not that hard.
The Griselda sound is a very specific one. It's gone from you being the go-to guys in Buffalo to a recognizable sound in hip-hop globally. Does that change how you approach making music?
See, this is the thing: What Griselda does, we're known for bringing a vintage style back. That's the same thing I did on the Hit-Boy thing. That's what we do. From the skits with The Madd Rapper and Pain in Da Ass, to the samples, we brought the style back. More specifically, if people are just talking about production, the Griselda formula is two things: production and the music. The bars are as big as the music. Whatever you hear me on, whatever you hear Conway on, whatever you hear Westside Gunn on, it's gonna be Griselda.
With Griselda albums, you can connect the dots between the features and the producers: Alchemist is in the mix, Freddie Gibbs is in the mix, and it's the same with Hit-Boy. The albums he's produced this year, you can click from feature to feature across the albums. How did that affect Burden of Proof, having Hit-Boy's orbit and Griselda's orbit colliding?
That was the whole plan. That's why you could hear some different type of production that you probably don't hear often from Hit-Boy. You got me bringing Freddie Gibbs, Westside, and Conway. It's a collaborative album between me and Hit-Boy, basically. We're in there working together, putting our brains together and using both of our teams.
All the Griselda artists have their signature ad-lib. What rapper has the best ad-lib right now?
I like 42 Dugg's ad-libs. I listen to Money Man all the time. He's catching my attention with the shit he says on the ad-lib track. Of course, Westside Gunn, he's got some fuckin' crazy ad-libs.
Back when Westside Gunn and Conway signed to Shady, you said you felt they were on fire in a way that you weren't yet. How do you feel about where you're at, and where Griselda's at now?
When I came in, I wasn't passed the baton yet. Everything is timing. I didn't come in to get the ball and just run away with it. I had to learn the formula, I had to watch, I had to check the lay of the land out, so I can excel. I've just been passed the baton. As you can see, we pass the baton to each other all year.
You make it clear you're still unsigned. Locking in with someone like Hit-Boy, who's been outspoken about the downsides of signing bad record deals, did he give you any advice about that?
I watch and learn from everybody I come across. Especially a person like him. Record deals, they're for some people, but they're not for everybody. They can be tailor-made to fit you. It's a case-by-case scenario. Of course we all want a record deal, get the big check, and all that, but it might not be good for you in the long run. You just really gotta take your time and see everything. Don't just see the advance. Don't just see which label it is. Don't be blinded by the perks without seeing the other side of it. That's important. I'm thinking everything over, that's why I haven't done it yet. Once you cross that line, it's done.
Where do you think Burden of Proof puts you now in terms of leverage for a deal?
They're gonna need a key to the big vault if they wanna talk business.
I was trying to keep track of your names, you've rapped as 2 Chains Benny, Benny Best Ever, and Benny I Wonder… Did I miss any?
[laughs] Those were like nicknames. I went by Benny Montana before briefly. My name's always been Benny but [there have] always been nicknames—even Benny the Butcher [started as just] a nickname. Once fans started calling me Benny the Butcher and I put something on iTunes, they were like, 'You gotta change that to Benny the Butcher because that's what they know you as. Your name is Benny the Butcher.' I was like, You're right. It's probably some other guys named Benny, but those all just started as nicknames as Benny. Benny the Butcher just took over.
People might not know that 12 years ago, you were talking about getting surgery for polyps on your vocal cords [which can happen from over-exertion]. What are you doing to make sure you can continue having the longevity you've had so far?
First and foremost, we're taking precautions with COVID-19 and everything that's going on. Also, I got asthma, I'm keeping up with my asthma, I got my doctor on speed dial. It's just learning new things, man. Staying hydrated. Trying to put the right things inside our body, because we're smoking, drinking, putting other shit in our body, so we gotta put some good shit in there, too. Looking out for each other, trying to stay healthy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
'Burden of Proof' is streaming on all platforms now.