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Meet The MC: Benny the Butcher

A key member of highly respected independent label, Griselda Records, Buffalo rapper Benny the Butcher has just stepped up to the majors with his new album ‘Everybody Can’t Go’ for Def Jam. He speaks to DJ Mag about listening to his fans and mentorship in the hip-hop scene

When Benny Blanco first appears in Brian De Palma’s 1993 cult classic, Carlito’s Way, he comes with a warning. “He’s gonna make trouble,” the eponymous protagonist is told, but Carlito couldn’t care less, viewing Benny as an underdog — something his namesake Benny the Butcher, aka Jeremie Damon Pennick, has called himself throughout the years. And that’s not all they have in common; in both their stories, both the Butcher and Blanco (spoiler alert) prevail.

Pennick was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. Growing up in poverty, with seven siblings and a mother who struggled with addiction, he faced hardships from a very young age. By 14, he was selling drugs — something he still credits for giving him some semblance of financial stability. In 2004, he began working with fellow Buffalo native DJ Shay to record songs, and released his first mixtape, ‘Tana Talk’ (a reference to his street, Montana Avenue), a project that’s now considered lost media. His 2018 debut album, ‘Tana Talk 3’, produced by The Alchemist and Buffalo’s Daringer, secured his slot as one of the underground’s modern-day greats.

As a core member of Buffalo-based collective and independent record label Griselda, alongside his cousins Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher has garnered recognition as one of the East Coast’s most beloved rappers, dropping three studio LPs with the family label and a multitude of mixtapes and collaborative records.

Now, after 20 years of rapping, Pennick is making his major-label debut. Produced by Hit-Boy and The Alchemist, ‘Everybody Can’t Go’ arrived via Def Jam in January, and it might just be his magnum opus.

Photo of Benny the Butcher wearing a black t-shirt and hat with gold chains and a watch

“Raekwon told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to say no... everybody ain’t for everybody. You can’t say yes to everything.”

Known to avoid hooks in favour of pocket-hopping streams of consciousness, Pennick’s relentless style of “gangsta rap” delves into new territory on ‘Everybody Can’t Go’. With features from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Jadakiss, Babyface Ray and, of course, his two Griselda family members, the rapper provides tales of triumph over euphonious melodies that you can’t help but sing along to. On this record, he keeps it safer than usual — which isn’t a bad thing at all.

His calm, confident cadence remains consistent throughout the album, trading his normally unpredictable flows for something a little catchier. Songs like ‘Everybody Can’t Go’, ‘Pillow Talk & Slander’ and ‘How To Rap’ are easier to follow along than other songs in his catalogue, but the move toward accessibility shouldn’t be surprising, being as it is his first major label release. The once hookless emcee turns to the melodies for structure, which is partly the reason why he said this album isn’t “hoe-scaring music” this time.

“I pay attention to the women who listen to my music,” he says, sitting with DJ Mag at the Def Jam headquarters in the heart of midtown Manhattan. “I listen to the reactions of the songs they listen to. They repost and retweet me all the time — and they play the hardest shit. But I toned some of the songs down so they could get in on the fun.”

Pennick understands the value of making his audience happy. After all, he officially added ‘the Butcher’ to his name because fans kept calling him that, and because it made it easier for them to find his music. But he still has to navigate finding a happy medium between doing what he wants and doing everything the fans ask for. “It’s definitely a process,” he says. “But this is what I do. I just remember that ‘doing me’ is what the fans want.”

Surrounding himself with people he trusts has made finding that balance easier. Whether it’s working with Griselda, his management team, or even relinquishing power to his producers, Pennick is someone who knows that accepting help from others is the best way to get his story out. “I just let everybody do their job. I love working with people. I don’t get in the way of people doing their job, but if I got a vision for something, I tell them and they find a way to put it in.”

Photo of Benny the Butcher wearing a black t-shirt and hat with gold chains and a watch

Input from others is something Pennick cherishes, that’s why he doesn’t shy away from sharing the guidance he’s received from names like J. Cole, Snoop Dogg, or Jay-Z. But the best piece of advice he’s gotten? “Raekwon told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to say no’. A lot of times, as an artist, you feel like you want to do good business. But you know, everybody ain’t for everybody. You can’t say yes to everything.”

Mentorship has played a huge role in Benny’s career. Despite hip-hop having a competitive element since its foundation — and even coming up in the cypher scene himself — it’s clear that respecting his elders and giving flowers to those who’ve given him opportunities is important to him. “I think there’s a lot of mentorship [still going on in the rap scene],” he says. “It don’t always get pointed out, but when you see guys get together, that’s a part of the mentorship. It’s not about giving instructions or a rapper talking at us, it’s about somebody in the game opening up the doors for you.”

That’s also what he hopes to accomplish with his collective, Black Soprano Family. As a label, it has released music by the likes of Rick Hyde, Heem, Elcamino, King Ralph, and more. Pennick strives to support new artists just as he’s been helped throughout his career. “I want people to know I’m a good coach,” he says. “Because I came from a good coach, so that made me a good coach. It’s like I’m passing a formula down. I don’t want to hog the seat. I want to see who’s next.”

With ‘Everybody Can’t Go’ on Def Jam, it would be easy for Benny the Butcher to tell the story of a self-made, independent artist who’s finally stepped out of his underdog role. But that’s not what he wants. Throughout the conversation, he makes sure to give credit to the collaboration and teamwork that’s gotten him to where he is. From the beginning, with Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine giving him a platform on Griselda, to his team made up of managers, producers and other creative directors helping make his vision come to life, all the way to his fans continuing to support him, Pennick knows that Benny the Butcher is bigger than himself. “Benny the Butcher is all of us,” he says. “I’m just the face.”