Respect the Hustle: Ben Baller Talks New Reality Show, Working with Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Drake

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  • Ben Intro
    Ben Baller Talks New Reality Show, Working with Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Drake
    Before the jewelry, cars, and sneakers, Ben Yang was just a kid who loved hip-hop. Hailing from Koreatown, Los Angeles, Ben (who'll eventually grow up to be Ben Baller) found himself using turntables at merely seven years old, which eventually led him to become a full-time DJ. After successful club gigs in the Los Angeles region, Ben became an acquaintance to Dr. Dre in the mid '90s, and entered the music industry, working with prominent acts at Priority Records including Jay-Z and Master P. <br /><br />Not long after he parted ways with the music game, he became a household name, as his newfound occupation as a celebrity jeweler took off, earning him an enviable clientele, which includes West Coast rapper Game to the late Michael Jackson. On his extensive list of achievements, he now adds a self-titled reality show to the résumé, as LOUD's weekly YouTube special <em>Ben Baller</em>, documenting Ben's dealings in the jewelry trade, has recently premiered to much fanfare. <em>XXL</em> sat down with the DJ-turned-record executive-turned-jeweler on his journey into the music industry, working with artists such as Dr. Dre and Drake, and molding his lane in the jewelry business. —Words: <em>Jaeki Cho</em> (<a href="http://twitter.com/jaekicho">@JaekiCho</a>) Photos: <em>13th Witness</em> (<a href="http://twitter.com/13thwitness">@13thwitness</a>)
  • On Having his Own Reality Show
    On Having his Own Reality Show:
    <object width="620" height="400"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/9Xek9NILzzw?version=3&hl=en_US"/><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"/><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"/><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/9Xek9NILzzw?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="620" height="400" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"/></object><strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “When we started doing this, they wanted it to be a lifestyle show. But I wanted it to be more individual, more character driven. Married and being a father, you know it’s different. I have to protect my family so I can’t have too much out there like the Kardashians do. It’s learning how the process of jewelry being made, the time line. We’re on the Internet, but we have to clear up that we’re shooting this full production in TV quality. Same people that made <em>The Biggest Loser</em>, <em>The Office</em>, VH1’s <em>Mob Wives</em>, <em>Fashion Star</em>, you know a whole different demographic. So now they have seven shows. You know, I don’t actually want to speak about one of the shows on my channel because I had no idea. [Editor’s Note: Ben Baller’s referring to the controversial reality show <em>K-Town</em>.] And the light they show Korean people is not the [right] way. Especially if you’re from my neighborhood, you feel me? If they make a show about Flushing you ain’t gonna let somebody from Jersey, Philly or Manhattan [portray it]. It ain’t popping off. I was raised [in K-Town] you feel me, that’s my hood. So to have these corny people make something up that’s very dear to my heart, how my city is represented, how my culture is represented…<br /><br />“The show has been going really well. Google has about 100 channels, and we’re one of the hundred. There are seven or eight shows on LOUD right now. I had the biggest debut in the channel’s history, so that’s pretty good. Especially because the other show had Tyrese and TMZ [backing it up]. I just had it organically, people tweeting for me, from Khalifa to everyone. So the show is going real well and the support I’m getting from OGs like Ice-T, all the way down to all the youngsters like Casey Veggies, Tyler the Creator, and Dom Kennedy. We did six episodes and I’m hoping there are a lot of positive responses. Major, major people like Oprah has shown interest. Maybe, the next season won’t go online, but to a major network. <br /><br />“[Initially] I didn’t want to do it. But I realized that each 10-minute episode is a commercial. So every quarter million views that I’m getting are 250,000 people learning about my business and becoming more aware. This is a commercial promoting my own business and it’s gonna be on a bigger level than anything I’ve ever done. People say, ‘Aw, man—well you’re not on MTV.’ Well, World Star Hip-Hop gets more traffic than MTV.com. And I don’t want people to look at color or anything else because I’ve been involved in this shit longer than anyone who’s black or Mexican or anything else. I’m an OG in the game—period. I don’t look at the color, ever. But if that ever came to be an issue, I’d go toe-to-toe with anybody else on some OG shit. You’re talking about some new stuff like, ‘Oh man—you know about Schoolboy Q’s raps?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know anything about that dude, I don’t really care, does he want to buy some jewelry? Does he have money to pay for it?’ That’s all I want to know. A lot of rappers right now are wearing fake shit and that’s got to stop—it’s bad for business. But if that’s what these cats want to do, that’s cool. That’s not what I want to do because at the end of the day I can’t go to sleep if I do that.”
  • Getting Into the Music Industry
    Getting Into the Music Industry:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “It has to go back to 1981. First hearing ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in 1979. I was six years old and I remember that song—that song was like eight minutes long, you know? Learning that and then getting my first turntables in 1982 and learning how to DJ. Man, I wanted to be Slick Rick when I was a kid—he was so fucking fresh to me. <br /><br />“When my parents first came out here no one else came out here, you know what I mean? Then they brought the family out here. So, you know, my mom obviously didn’t speak very much English. She spoke a lot of Spanish because she was working in the garment industry. My pops got his PhD at International American University—but it’s just different, you know? Their interests are totally different from my interests. <br /><br />“If it wasn’t for break dancing, doing graffiti—really being in that shit. Back then it was just a fad. No one knew what it was going to be billions and billions of dollars made off hip-hop. So that motivated me to meet Dre, and I met him maybe three or four times before I <em>met</em> him. But breaking into the hip-hop business was DJ’ing, the right connections, some people I knew that were in there—it was all a chess game. <br /><br />“I had to be smart about it and put myself in a position to meet Dre through my skill and my craft of DJ’ing. Once that happened then it was a wrap. I started going to Death Row studios, started doing some scratching here and there. [Dre and I] became friends; he was my boss, my mentor—the whole nine. He said some very inspiring things to me and he also said some things that crushed me. And when I say ‘crushed me’, he didn’t say it in a bad way, he said it to let me know, ‘Motherfucker—I expect a lot more of you,’ you know?<br /><br /> “Someone made introductions before that and he owns a nightclub—that’s my boy Nick Adler. He was a partner with some major people like Denzel Washington and things like that—and this dude was my age. So, at 19 years old, a dude owning a nightclub is crazy—his dad was rich. But at the same time, I wasn’t knocking him. If I could use that network, I realized that that was one piece of the puzzle. I knew I’d get next to Dre, who introduced me to the president of Priority, Bryan Turner, who was a pioneer. The say Jerry Heller is, but fuck that. Bryan Turner was the pioneer of gangster rap. He gave birth to N.W.A, Eazy-E, Master P, he did the Jay-Z record—all of that. So just from there and throughout that whole journey so many people hated on me. But I just got used to it. People would be like, ‘Man—fuck that Chinese mother fucker,’ or, ‘Fuck that Japanese dude.’ It was never Korean—finally got the Korean when <em>Menace to Society</em> came out like, ‘Oh—it’s the liquor store.’ It was just stupid; I didn’t even pay attention to it. I’ll laugh at Asian jokes if they’re funny.”
  • Working for Priority Records and Pushing <em>Reasonable Doubt</em>
    Working for Priority Records and Pushing <em>Reasonable Doubt</em>:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “[Priority] was the corporation I came on as an A&R manager. For me, that was the bottom of A&R. But I came in with an R&B group—the first R&B act they ever signed—I had Missy [Elliot] singing, co-writing, co-featuring—she didn’t even have a deal yet. I had Missy before she was discovered. I had Faith Evans as a co-writer and as a fucking vocal coach. So I was killing them. I see Faith ever so often and she married to a homeboy of mine that I went to school with. You know, I got to meet B.I.G, hung out with ‘Pac—I had some amazing experiences during that time. <br /><br />“With <em>Reasonable Doubt</em>, that was through [Priority Records]. Biggs and I were really close. Jay and I were probably the least close out of the crew. Dame and I had [a lot of] mutual friends. Dame was hanging out with a lot of rich white kids and I knew these kids because I was DJ’ing at the clubs and they were hanging out with super models and shit. So I was kicking it with all these kids and Dame and I became real close. I had a Roc chain; I had one of the first <em>Streets is Watching</em> letterman jackets. Going in there, this dude named Dave Weiner—he ran distributed labels under a dude named Mark Cerami, who was the co-CEO of Priority Records. We had ridiculous shits. Master P put a record out every week for 52 weeks. <br /><br />“I remember hearing ‘Dead Presidents,’ and they had shot the video and everything—they were doing everything on their own. We were doing press and distributing so we were doing a little bit of marketing for them. I didn’t know if people even really know about Bay Area rappers from way back in the day—like legends. People know about Mac Dre but they don’t know that there were other people like JT the Bigga Figga, who was on our label. I remember taking Jay-Z, we went to a mall in L.A, and he’s wearing some Jordan 11s, some Phat Farm jean shorts and a JT the Bigga Figga shirt, knot of fucking cash in his pocket—and just going shopping and stuff. But I wasn’t so involved in the studio part. But Ras Kass, Westside Connection, Ice Cube, been to a few Master P sessions, Boot Camp Clik—I was definitely more involved in those things. But my platinum recognitions came from the <em>Friday</em> soundtrack and <em>Rhyme & Reason</em> soundtrack.”
  • Joining Dr. Dre’s Aftermath
    Joining Dr. Dre’s Aftermath:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “So, you know, that’s how I got next to Dre. He came to see me DJ one night and it worked out. And from there we just built up. When he started up Aftermath he gave me a job. And then from there we were just signing artists. I went from a huge corporation to where everybody in the company flies together. We all got cars, we all got Rollies but we didn’t have an office. That was kind of irritating. I wanted an office but he just didn’t believe in it—we got a studio. And he was paying a shitload of money to have it. This place had R. Kelly and Michael Jackson recording out of it—Dre had that studio. It was this dude Mike Lynn, one of the head A&Rs and I. To tell you the truth, after I left I honestly didn’t care what happened. At the end of the day, I wasn’t trying to be the next Dr. Dre—I was trying to be the first Ben Baller. I was involved in a lot of projects and I’m very thankful to Dre. I don’t see him very often but he hears about me, he knows I’m doing my thing.”
  • Departing from the Music Industry
    Departing from the Music Industry:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “Well, I was a famous DJ—I was a pretty big DJ in L.A, so I DJ’d until 2004. For five years, I was DJ’ing as a livelihood. I would make my money and I was buying and slanging kicks and that’s how I afforded to get into business. People don’t know—like, ‘How you got money to buy sneakers?’ Psshh—DJ’ing, dog. My lifestyle was just different. I tweeted about this the other day. I was like, ‘My whole rent was less than my electric bill this month.’ I called up one of my boys that’s been had money for a long time—he’s a very respected DJ named DJ Homicide. In fact, he was the Alkaholiks first DJ. A lot of people—you know—Koreans be like, ‘Go to Korea—become famous there.’ They say that shit and I’m like, ‘Fuck that,’ you know? People are like, ‘Oh—I’m gonna go to Korea and become a pop star,’ and I’m like, ‘Man—fuck outta here.’ So I was DJ’ing and my bills were low—I had roommates. The Internet was just starting to pop, but I put my money into shoes and shit. That shit afforded me a whole new lifestyle. I mean I did get lucky—it’s like a stock. So yeah, I have no interest in getting back into the music game at all whatsoever. The last thing I did was some tiny bit of sequencing to help coordinate Drake’s <em>So Far Gone</em> album.”
  • Working with Drake
    Working with Drake:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “When I met Drake, it was so organic and weird. Met him in the fucking Apple store. I was like, ‘Ay, man—I know you from somewhere.’ He wasn’t even famous then. I mean he done been on <em>Degrassi</em> but he didn’t think that I would know that shit—I never saw that show before. He just looked familiar. And then he goes, ‘You’re Ben Baller, man, I go on your MySpace page every day,’ and I was like, ‘Word? Cool.’ I have no idea why. He was with someone that I knew—this dude named Jazz Prince, J. Prince’s son, who got Drake his deal with YMCMB. I don’t think Jazz missed one tour of Drake’s. Jazz and Drake were together. Dude, [Drake] gave Jazz a Lamborghini for his birthday at a concert. He made a rap about it, I don’t know if you remember, but that he gave Jazz the keys. <br /><br />“You know people started to recognize [Drake] as he put songs out. Then he did the song over Santigold’s ‘Unstoppable.’ And then he did the ‘Ransom’ thing with Wayne. He started to blow up. So then he was working on this album and said, ‘Come through, help me out.’ He needed a car, I got him a car. You know, whatever he needed. Jewels, whatever. I took care of him. I just believed in dude. I hadn’t heard anything like him in a minute. You know I was like, ‘I’m really fucking with you.’ And he was showing me love. That was the last project I really got involved in.”
  • Making the Transition into the Jewelry Business
    Making the Transition into the Jewelry Business:
    <strong>Ben Baller</strong>: “From May 2004 to February 2005, I took a year off and just chilled. I was flipping some kicks on a major level, but I was traveling, trying to find myself. I almost got married and things just didn’t work out. And so I was going through a lot of soul searching in my life. I caught up with some old people. I was talking to my uncle, who’s been in the jewelry business and wasn’t really around anymore. So my cousin was like, ‘Man, let’s do some shit.’ So I said, ‘Man—number one, I don’t want to be a salesman but I want to be a partner. Number two, you need to teach me the craft and show me some shit. Let me see how you’re doing this—at least the basics so that I understand what I’m doing,’ you know? So we worked it all out. <br /><br />“It was around for a while and then shit just took off. Back then people were like, ‘Oh—it’s that DJ dude that’s doing jewelry.’ Now, it’s, “The Jeweler”—you know what I’m saying? So, my uncle’s not even involved anymore he has his a little bit of ownership—we break him off or whatever. <br /><br />“We’ve had some very talented people around me jeweler-wise. There are things that I do that I can’t do alone; I have to have a team. Ralph Lauren ain’t doing no clothes—those fucking clothes are made in Sri Lanka. It’s the same shit. I’m a jeweler—that’s what I am. I sell, do the marketing—you know? If I have to put fire to something, I’ll have someone else do it. I don’t need to do all that shit—I don’t set diamonds. We’d never get any work done if I did—you know? That’s where I’m at. I can do this until I’m 60. I’m just so sick of dealing with people—even though I’m a people person. I’ve been around so long that it’s tough to just sit there and, ‘Oh—I want a chain,’ and I’m just—out of about 100 inquiries, three or four go through. <br /><br />“When a rapper hits me up now—honestly—90% of the time I don’t want to deal with them. Like, they’ll hit me up like, ‘Oh—I want to do this.’ I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? Fucking tripping man.’ I’m doing jewelry for Dr. Phil. I got Oprah Winfrey hitting me up. I’m not saying I’m too good. I’m just saying that I know what I need to do. I don’t need to chase around someone who ain’t going to pay me.”