“In the school of hard knocks, I am a true scholar/Music equipped for all whips, Bentleys to Impala/Ill Adrenaline medicine man, back again/I’ll bring the Bricks to your city,” Beneficence spits on “EZ As 1-2,” the blistering first cut off his critically acclaimed LP Basement Chemistry. From the jump, Beneficence goes heavy on the gas as only a Jersey driver can and doesn’t let up, delivering a smooth, reflective, and most definitely lyrical album that stands as one of the best to drop in 2016.
And as oly a true scholar could do, Beneficence has been paying his dues for twenty-plus years in the game. From battling Pacewon in college tno rocking shows in the Tri-State area, Beneficence earned respect and built his name the right way. There are no shortcuts or gimmicks, and that’s what makes his music truly stand out. Running his own label, Ill Adrenaline, only helps, as he’s in control of his own sound and image as few artists are or would ever want to be. Surrounded by a team of talented artists, including producer Confidence, Beneficence offers what might be his best release yet, a hard feat for a vet. In this exclusive interview, Beneficence talks about his creative process, the crafting of Basement Chemistry, the Jersey scene, and much more.
Your album Basement Chemistry dropped in February and is one of the albums that has stayed in constant rotation. I’m digging the sound you created for this. In terms of crafting the album as a whole, how did you capture that authentic boom-bap sound?
Between me and my manager, we selected the beats first. We had different producers submitting the sounds and I generally pick a beat if the beat makes me smile. If it does, then this is the beat I’m going to use because I have the fans in mind and I say, “They’re gonna love this.” I think of the concept and I meditate to the beat and I think about what I would want to hear over the beat. And then lastly, if I’m going to choose a guest appearance for the song, I’m going to think about who would sound best on that beat. When I do a guest appearance, I kind of see it like basketball. I just want to throw the guest appearance an alley-oop and he just has to slam it in with little to no work. That’s how we do it.
When you have so many producers coming together, is it easy to get the sound you want?
Yeah. I try to make sure that all the beats fit the theme of the album. With Confidence, he’s worked on my last album as well, Concrete Soul, so me and him, he kind of knows the feel that I want and it’s very easy. He can just send me a beat reel and I’m probably going to pick the first and second beat that he sends. We have a good combination going with him.
It’s amazing to me how rare it is to hear the classic boom-bap sound today.
Not a lot of people are doing this. It makes us extraordinary to be doing this in 2016.
Why is that?
There are a lot of fans who still love boom-bap and a lot of fans, they may not know that they like it until they hear it. The older fans who grew up with it, they’re going to love it. But I’m coming to find out that a lot of younger fans, boom-bap has the soul in it. It’s like without boom-bap in hip-hop, it’s kind of like reggae without a baseline. You can’t really feel the soul to it. So we focus on carrying the tradition. That’s Ill Adrenaline’s motto. We carry tradition.We make sure that every album we release has a certain feel to it and that feel will bring about the love that most true school artists felt when they first started listening to hip-hop. This is why when people hear the album that they love it so much. It should be the first feeling that you felt when you came into hip-hop and that’s what we try to bring to each album.
How do you respond to those who say that the sound should stay in the past?
Sometimes I hear it. But you know, classic is classic. Mercedes Benz is classic. Nobody’s going to say Mercedes Benz have been around for 80 years, what’s the purpose of having a Benz? A Harley is a Harley. Gold is a classic. It’s never going to play out. Money is a classic. It’s never going to play out. It has a certain quality that speaks for itself. Because something is in quantity right now, the Dollar Store still has a lot of products, and you can’t just say that you sell a lot of items. You have to look at the quality behind the item.
You’ve worked with legends like Chubb Rock, A.G., El Da Sensei, and Inspectah Deck. Do you feel like because of what you represent and how well-crafted your lyrics are that working with these guys is something easy to pull off?
Yeha. They have to respect me first. When we approached them, they always wanted to hear the music. They want to make sure that what we’re doing is official. We may send them other tracks we’ve done with other guest appearances and they make the decision to work with me after that. Nine times out of ten, it’s an easy task for us to work with each other. I really respect what they bring to the album.
Does your approach ever change when you’re rhyming next to Masta Ace or Inspectah Deck?
The approach is always different, depending on the artist I’m working with. I try to complement the rhyme style of the artist. If the artist is super-lyrical, the artist can be conceptual. Like Masta Ace, the flow can be laid back. I try to go off of the artist’s way of rhyming and still keep the Beneficence element to it. I just try to make the song as cohesive as possible and by the time I contact them, I usually have the first verse written already because I don’t want an influence to come out from that artist. So we usually have the first verse done before we contact any of the artists.
I’ve heard of artists who redo their verse after a guest appearance and how that’s started some bad blood. Have you ever redone a verse?
No. I’ve never changed a verse on anything I’ve ever done. Once I write it, I don’t underestimate my guest appearance. For instance, when I wrote to the Chubb Rock song, I figured he would bring his A game and everybody that I’ve worked with, they’ve brought their A game so I’ve never changed my verse.
Based on what you’ve accomplished, do you ever feel like fans don’t realize the work you’ve put in over the past twenty years?
I’ve watched people who have been in the game that long like Large Professor. When Large Professor first came out, I knew he would be on slow burn and be around for many, many years. I wouldn’t mind having a career like that. Even back then I said that as a teenager. I don’t want to blow up and fizzle right back out. When I come out, I try to make albums that’s going to get people talking because that keeps your name out. Some people have their different niche. They tour, some people make dope singles, but I try to make the whole album dope so my career can’t be based on one hot song or two hot songs. I want to be known as having dope albums.
Has each release been bigger for you?
Yeah, definitely. I wasn’t really known until 2010 by most people until we released the first album on Ill Adrenaline Records, and that was Sidewalk Science. And that was with production from Diamond D. And once we took off from there, it was more motivating for me to write doper material because I knew that I would have a listening audience.
And this is to artists that are still on the come-up. Sometimes the motivation is not really there because you may put your all into an album and people might not even hear it. It kind of dampens your spirit to put your all into it. But once the evidence is there and once the crowd is there, you write your heart out and you just ride until the wheels fall off.
That makes a lot of sense. You even go back to going to school with Pacewon of the Outsidaz and ciphering with him way back.
With Pace, we went to Cheyney University together and we were in a party and I heard him rhyming and somebody had tapped me and said that he was the best rhymer up here. Mind you, we both had been at the school for maybe a month and I’m like, How can he be the best if they haven’t heard anybody else? When they heard me, they told both of us to go outside and we had a battle. We had a friendly battle and they had gotten to a point where they couldn’t decider because the styles were so different. He had a lot of punchlines and I was so serious so they kind of said it was a tie. I’ll ride with that.
But I went to high school with DJ Chaos of The Artifacts and Mr. Len of Company Flow. The three of us were very tight. We talked about hip-hop daily and we watched the art grew from a young age.
And you stayed in touch.
Oh, definitely. Chaos did my first demo, maybe in ‘90. And Mr. Len worked on my second album. Chaos has worked on every album I’ve had. And actually, actually, Chaos has worked on my first single in 1994 and his cuts on my single are the first cuts that he did on vinyl.
Is that the collector’s edition vinyl?
Yeah. That’s the “Suckers Brevity/Hostile Lifestyle” on Big House Records, which was an independent label out of Newark, New Jersey back then.
You were coming up around the same time as The Outsidaz. Did you used to run into them?
Yeah. We used to do a lot of talent shows together. I specifically remember doing shows back then and The Outsidaz would bumrush the stage. They would be holding up their press releases and posters and Jersey, we didn’t have a lot of MCs, but the MCs that we had, they made major impacts. Like the Flavor Unit MCs, Renna, Naughty by Nature, Artifacts, Latifah. There was not many of us so we all had to stick together. So we would all see each other no matter where we went.
Was there unity and respect there? It always seemed to me that there has been a strong bond between Jersey MCs.
I would agree. I agree. I’ve hung out with myself, El Da Sensei, Treach, and Wise Intelligent. We all was up in the club one night in VIP, just hanging out, chilling. That makes me proud because there’s no egos. There’s no beef going on. There’s not that many MCs in the first place and I have yet to see Jersey artists who have beef with each other. Everybody can get into the same cypher and we rhyme and we just do what we gotta do and we all support each other.
Why do you think there was more unity in the mid-90’s?
I think because we lived so close to each other. We really got to know each other. In New York, you can live in one of the five boroughs. I would say in Jersey, all of us lived within thirty minutes of each other. If you had a name for yourself as an MC, there was only a few places you could go to rock and everybody knew your name and it was respect because we would all see the familiar faces. We all supported each other.
I think because there was so few of us, we had to make sure that we didn’t sound like one another because instantly, that would be biting. And because there wasn’t a lot of us, we could easily come up with a different sound. And if you take a look at the artists, even the artists’ beats and rhymes, none of us sounded like each other. Artifacts beats and music didn’t sound like Redman. Redman didn’t sound like Naughty by Nature. Naughty by Nature didn’t sound like Latifah. Naughty by Nature’s albums didn’t sound like Lords of the Underground’s albums. If there were fifteen prominent acts out of Jersey, you had fifteen different sounds.
How have your priorities as a person and artist changed as you’ve grown?
Well, I kind of felt like I had a late start because I put out the singles first and then I went to college. So while I was spending some years in college, I watched my counterparts do their thing. When I first started doing shows, I would do shows with dead prez, Mos Def, and The Roots. And then you go to college and you see these guys take leaps and you say, “Wow, am I in the right place?” I knew when I came out I had to stay humble and I knew when I came out that I would start an independent label and put as much people on as possible. I’m never in a rush and I try to stay sharp, just to stay fresh. I know that I can come out years later and still put it down and still create classic material and you know, sometimes a lot of material that we write, it comes with age, it comes with experience, and it comes with traveling, and that stuff takes time and that time I’m willing to wait on.
How are you able to keep getting better and stay sharp? We’ve all seen the legends we love sometimes fall off or drop music that’s not as sharp as it used to be.
I agree and I hear it a lot. But I’ve always patterned myself behind the Kool G. Rap’s and behind the Rakim and KRS. When your models are some of the greatest of all-time, this is what you put yourself against when it comes time to write an album. When I write, I have to believe in my heart that this is my best work and I try to come hungry every album. One thing about true school hip-hop fans, they will analyze and critique every word and every paragraph. If there’s some slacking in it, they will pick up on it instantly. Other genres of rap music, you get a pass. You get a pass on lyrics and you get a pass on hooks. Even if you do a light album, you get a pass. For what I do, I don’t have time for putting out a semi-good album. That could be my downfall.
What albums do you see yourself competing against today?
Just the classic albums. If you look at the list of top 100 hip-hop albums of all-time, it’s the Public Enemy albums and I’m a fan of just dope album. Some songs are cool but I really like A Tribe Called Quest album, something you can put on and play from start to finish. Every song I’ll go over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that this song is dope and then we move on to the next one. I try not to put any fillers on the album because it’s not necessary. I’m putting out my own album on my own label. There shouldn’t be any pressure for me to put a filler song on the album.
Do you work one song at a time or are you laying down ten songs at a time?
I kind of treat each song as a single. If this had to be the single, is it strong enough where it can hold its own weight? I don’t make a bunch of songs at one time because you have to put your best foot forward so that you can keep making dope albums. I don’t have a lot of songs to waste. After I’m done with an album, there’s not twenty-five more songs that I didn’t put on the album. Everything that I wrote goes on the album.
I don’t waste songs and verses. It’s a lot of science put into songs, a lot of concepts. I really try to put something dope otuto the people and because the market is so dry right now with true school hip-hop, it feels really good to release a product that everybody respects and everybody says, “Wow.” I tried to make something pop each time I come out.
I’ve seen great feedback and the album pop up in my Facebook feed. Have you felt the love for Basement Chemistry the way you hoped to?
Yeah, definitely. I was just on Twitter today and somebody tweeted the album to Michael Rappaport and told him that it’s a must that he hears this album. And stuff like that makes me feel great about what I’ve done. Nobody has to do that.
And when I do put out an album, I know that there are thousands out there that are dopping that year and I know for a fact that no one, I mean, I know what it is to put out an album and for no one to hear it. It basically means that you have to step up your game. I’ve put out two albums that a lot of people didn’t hear. And that just means that there’s a lot of albums out and once your stuff gets dope to a point, the people will hear it and the people will begin to brag about it without you promoting it. It will speak for itself.
You’ve got a nice, organic buzz that wasn’t created with smoke and mirrors.
And that’s the best way. That’s how it should be. I remember when Slick Rick’s first album came out. I just so happened to walk by it in the store and I had a few dollars in my pocket. I didn’t see a lick of promotion about it and I said, “You know what? I’ve only heard three songs from Slick Rick in the past and I really hope this album is dope.” And it was one of the best albums I heard in my life! (laughs) And to me, it felt like I discovered a jewel. I woke up the next morning and I went up and down my block and I took it to each friend’s house and I took my radio and told them that each song was phenomenal. And I’m sure that my word of mouth only helped to make his album a classic. I didn’t see any videos. I didn’t see any of that. I just said, “Slick Rick is out. His album is banging. We need to support it.”
And now they’re doing that for you.
Yep. And it feels wonderful.
Is any of that surprising? With how easy it is to make music, is it ever a concern that you need to stand out?
No, it’s never a concern. When I work on new material, I probably won’t finish a song if I don’t think that that song is going to make an impact. Like I know I don’t have time to make mediocre material because it wouldn’t be worth my time. I would be wasting the fans’ time and I would be wasting my time and I’m not the type of person who has yes-men in my ear telling me everything I do is dope. I have some good trustees who I can come to when I do material and they give me the okay and we put it out. I know I have to drop stuff where it won’t be second-guessed.
Is it hard to find those honest opinions?
No. The only person that really hears my material is my manager, who runs the label with me. And between my ear and his ear, we’ve done some pretty amazing stuff, even with the other releases on Ill Adrenaline. I think we’ve put out maybe thirty-eight releases, but the entire label, we’ve put out boom-bap material and we’ve become synonymous with true-school music.
How do you balance running the label versus being an artist yourself? Does the balance ever get difficult?
It’s very challenging. You know, I recently read Barry Gordy’s autobiography and it gave me some peace in running a label because he wrote the same stuff, he went through the same challenges that I went through, finding talent, putting it out. There’s no part of the label that I haven’t done. I’ll write press releases. We book producers. We do everything for the artist and there’s no room for hate or anything because I want the label to be successful. So we have to listen to producers’ beats, not only for my album but for other people’s albums. I’ll ship out stuff. Whatever it takes. There’s no limit to anything that I wouldn’t do for the label because that’s what it takes to be successful.
How often is Ill Adrenaline looking for new talent versus cultivating the talent you already have?
We’re always looking for new talent, just something that’s going to keep tradition running. We are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to boom-bap music. If people have something, we’re always listening. We get stuff from the younger dudes as well as the vets. And actually we’ll be working with Phantasm from the Cella Dwellas soon. He’ll be releasing a single with us and then hopefully I want to do a Basement Chemistry tour with the Cella Dwellas while they do their twenty years of Realms N Reality. And actually Chaos put me down on the Cella Dwellas back in the day. Chaos is actually responsible for a lot of artists that I had never heard of before. He put me down with MC Eiht. He was the first one to let me hear MC Eiht. When I did the guest appearances, I said that I have to get Chaos to do the cuts on the artist that he introduced me to, so everything came back around. And I remember one time he was just like, What are you doing tonight? There’s a new group out, the Cella Dwellas, they’re dope. And we’re in the club at two o’clock in the morning. They didn’t even have an album out. They had a single out, “Land of the Lost,” and I thought they were dope.
The thing is, you just gotta try to keep yourself fresh and make sure that you stay on top of everything. Even though we do true school music, we still have to keep a creative edge to it. We put new science behind the tracks and new wisdom behind the tracks. You can’t just look at what we do and say that what we do is old school music and everything we do is old. It’s just not true. It’s like Guru said, “We update our formula.”
I think that’s important to point out because it’s easy to categorize any kind of music without looking deeper into it. What I like most about your music is how it builds off of music that has already been done, which is how music should travel, instead of a cheap replica.
You should know the difference between someone who is trying to sound like that and someone who is actually there and just trying to do something regular and this is the sound that is given off. You know, like my pops, he grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can’t look at him and say he’s trying to act like he’s from there. He’s going to act like that regardless. It’s natural. He was there. I don’t have to act like I’m trying to rhyme in the ‘90s. I was there.
Baseball’s known for having unspoken rules. Do you feel like the unspoken rules of hip-hop have changed over time?
Yeah. There’s a lot of biting now. A lot of artists, they just copy what they see other artists do and it makes the quality of the game go down. But this is more so from commercial artists. But you know, we have to keep it moving and push forward. It’s a handful of us who are the leaders of the art and we push to make everything moving and we keep everything moving. We bring the consciousness of the music. We try to push everything positive in hip-hop to the forefront. And the artists, who are the pillars of hip-hop, these are the most intelligent artists to do it. So I know that for me to make some type of impact on the game, I have to keep my integrity, keep my intelligence, and keep everything moving. And at the end of the day, I’ll be respected for that.
You’ve talked about how your songs come together, but I’m also interested in your writing process. What’s that like?
I try to construct an album and I’ll make sure that it has all the ingredients for a classic album in there. A classic album will have a story and some street joints on there and they have a conscious joint. I’ll make sure that once you turn it off, there’s not anything you can point to and say, “Ah, I wish this album would have had this. It didn’t really have that boom-bap flavor and maybe it could have had some cuts in it.” I try to make sure everything is in there and it has all the elements to it. By the time you turn it off, you could say that this was a genuine, true hip-hop album and if it doesn’t have that, I’ll keep writing until I get that song that’s missing.
Do you ever rewrite your verses or scrap them?
Rarely do I scrap it. I’ll keep writing it and working on a song until I feel that it has something special in it, until the lyrics really pop and the lyrics have some type of wow element to it. If it just sounds okay, then I know I have more work to do.
Is there a time or place where you do your best writing?
Not necessarily. I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past twenty years. Any song I’ve ever written, before I even start the song, I put where I am, what time of the day it is, what state I’m in, exactly what I’m doing, because I’m trying to look for a pattern. Sometimes I’m driving in traffic and I’m jotting lines down here. There’s a song “E-Z as 1-2.” I wrote that song in the middle of a wedding. It just popped out and it’s a very street, hood song and I just felt like I had the beat in my head and that I could get some writing in. But there’s no rhyme or reason to a pattern of writing. I can write on the plane. I can write on the beach. It doesn’t matter.
Does pressure ever affect your writing?
I think that I write better under pressure. If I have a deadline, then it comes out very passionate. Sometimes when you have all the time in the world, you may not be all that excited about what you’re doing. But if you’re working on an album and the pressure is on, then that’s when you do your best. Floyd Mayweather probably fights better under pressure and his best highlights come out when he’s under pressure.
Being that you run Ill Adrenaline, how often do you want to drop a Beneficence project?
I have to think about what I want to do and make sure I have some more experience first. I don’t just want to drop an album next year to try and capitalize and say I did it again. I’ll try to come out every two to three years. I want to make sure that when it does come out, that it’s something special.
What do you want to accomplish with your label Ill Adrenaline?
The motto for the label is that we just want to carry tradition and just give the people something that they’re missing. A lot of people are like, ‘Thank you. I’ve been looking for this.’ If you look at a lot of the YouTube comments ,they’ll say, “My faith has been restored in boom-bap music” and it’s a wonderful feeling. We want to do a non-profit for summer camps. We want to come out with Ill Adrenaline Kids soon. Me and my manager are working on that and a couple of other things, but the label will be going strong for a while.