Ben Baller Marks His Comeback to the Hip-Hop Jewelry Game With Crazy Chains
With over 20 years in the culture, Ben Baller has lived up to his name tenfold. The Los Angeles native, born Ben Yang, has solidified himself as the go-to jeweler for music's upper echelon. The record executive-turned-custom craftsman has created pieces for Michael Jackson, Nas, Mariah Carey, Kanye West and more that cost as much as most Americans' monthly mortgage payments. With ties to nearly all genres of music, Baller has become a favorite among rappers who want the most over-the-top expressions of their wealth.
With continued success coming his way, news of Baller's retirement in the fall of 2016 came as a shock to the same people who had been going to him for custom pieces over the years. Telling his friends and fans on social media that he would no longer "be handling any business or creativity" at his IF & Co. jewelry brand, Baller vowed to bow out of the game while he was still on top and to focus on other business ventures, his children's clothing line Superism, his cannabis pens and the development of a Japanese whisky.
But of course, that retirement didn't last long. As Baller describes, it took a heartfelt call from an A$AP Mob member to get him back in the game. Now Baller is back to creating the flashiest celebrity jewels—but this time, with new rules. We're not even halfway through the year and Ben has already been commissioned by Drake, Lil Uzi Vert, the A$AP Crew and, outside the rap world, John Mayer and Justin Bieber.
Baller took a short break from his work to chop it up with XXL about his reignited passion, his new business practices and inadvertently adding a few lyrics to Drake's More Life playlist.
XXL: Let’s back up to last year in late 2016, when you wanted to take a step back from jewelry-making and selling. Why did you want to take a break?
Ben Baller: So, a lot of things were going on for me in 2016. 2016 was the worst financial year of my long run. I’ve had a good, seven-year run. In ‘08, ‘09, the recession hit and in the middle of ‘09 I considered completely quitting. I had done Michael Jackson at that point. Tom Cruise, the Kardashians and stuff, but at the point the recession was so bad and the first thing that’s going to hit is the luxury business. Jewelry is a luxury, it’s not a necessity, obviously. I met my wife at the end of ‘09 and then right in January 2010, things started turning around with that and with my side businesses. I had a side [hustle] with branding Diamond Supply, with my friend Nick Diamond.
So, from 2010 until now, things have really been turning around. I’ve been having a really blessed run. And I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon because it’s not luck anymore, it’s all strategy. And in the end of 2016, I started developing a clothing brand called Superism. We had a couple ideas and I went to Asia a lot and spent a lot of time there. I started developing that and I started focusing on jewelry less.
When that started coming about, a dude I grew up with most of my life, knew him from the time he was a rapper, his name is Chace Infinite, and Chace discovered A$AP Mob. He started managing them, started running with them until one day, finally, Rocky wanted to meet with him to get some jewelry made. So, I started doing Rocky’s stuff. We started connecting and whatever. And then he started chilling in the fashion world like for real for real.
Back in the day, Tupac was the only one back in the day that would even be invited to a Versace event. Now, you’ll see Diddy there, you’ll see Kanye there, but A$AP Rocky’s really been the one who’s been murdering for real it so I took note of that. We had a lot more ties than I thought and eventually, A$AP bought into Superism. Currently, A$AP is the majority owner of my clothing brand. There’s been a lot of changes because he owns a lot of companies and he’s the face of a few brands so we had to re-market everything into a kid’s clothing brand so that was an entire year developing that. So I was like, I could take losses for two years if it means if I could make the gains in four or five years potentially way bigger than what I could make from jewelry. That was a big thing I had going on.
I have an autobiography in the works. I’m working on that and then, one of my best friends Q, the founder of WorldStarHipHop, he died. That was a very big part of my life because a lot of people don’t know, but I’ve been a part of WorldStar—and I’ve never really publicly announced it—but I’ve been a part of WorldStar for almost five years now. When we had only five emails at WorldStar, I was one of them, so it’s something I’ve been doing as well, keeping my ear to hip-hop.
And then in mid-2016, I started a Japanese whisky company. And it’s a very difficult business because it’s one of the hottest things right now in alcohol. So, that’s one of the things I was developing in Asia as well. And all of 2016, I was developing my VVS pens, my cannabis pens. So I had a lot fucking going on. I was really like, I don’t have time for this shit anymore so I was trying to bring two of my guys up, not necessarily making them the next Ben Ballers but the next Scottie Pippens to the Jordan, you know?
So I was like, I want to step back, I want to collect this paper and I’m tired of coming to the hood and doing certain things. And my partner, me and him didn’t see eye-to-eye sometimes and it wasn’t like major issues or anything but I was just over it. I was like, I’m tired of dealing with rappers. I’m tired of dealing with everything. I’m over it. I’m going to take a break. That was October. Soon as I make that announcement, I get a call from A$AP. He’s like, “Mutherfucka, what do you mean you’re tired of making jewelry? Who’s going to make my jewelry? And then 10 minutes later Tyler, The Creator calls me like, “Have you lost your mind? Are you crazy? I’ve got at least another 15 years of rapping. You gotta make my jewelry.”
And then, if it weren’t for Rocky, I wouldn’t know who Lil Uzi Vert is. Rocky told me that Uzi was part of his family. [Rocky] has this company called AWGE which is A$AP Worldwide Global Enterprises. So, without AWGE, I wouldn’t have known Uzi. A$AP really connects me to all the young cats. I don’t really know the young cats like that. I’m more familiar with the OGs and stuff.
So was it more personal or more professional?
Well, so, I also started realizing at 28 you’re considered old in hip-hop. When the fuck did that happen? I know when N.W.A was young, they were a few years older than me. I had to think about it like that. No, if you’re 20 years in, you’re kind of strong in your career. I had to think about it a lot. Like, Drake just turned 30 and we were talking at his birthday and he was like, “Bruh, I’m old. They called me the boy and stuff because look what I’ve done in my career. Like look at how many albums Dr. Dre has had, Jay Z has had and I’m 30. I’m still going hard. I just gained all these perspectives.” And I’m like, “I’m 44, mutherfucka and you know, I can hang with you guys and stuff for a little, but I’m washed. I’m so washed up. I’m in bed by 11 o’clock."
What was the trigger that brought you back into it?
Well, while all these changes were happening, around Christmas I was in Vancouver and I got a call from A$AP Ferg. Ferg was like, “Yo, dude, I need to ask you a favor.” And we had a long, long talk. He broke down some crazy shit about MySpace and how he used to look at my page and he was like, “When I’m famous I’m gonna fuck with this dude Baller.” And he told me the story of A$AP’s world. And he was like, “Yams was your boy.” And I said, “Yeah, he was. I wasn’t super close with him but he was my boy. And I’m really close with Rocky.” And he’s like “We got Yams Day coming up.” I was like, “Cool, what day? I’m in Canada right now.” And he said he had an idea for a special Yamborghini piece. I was like “Cool, I’m gonna give it to my cousin.” He was like, “No I need you, man.”
I told him, it ain’t gonna happen, I got too much shit going on. So, I had this long conversation with Ferg and he was like, “You going to be Nigo, I’m Pharrell. I mean like 2006 Nigo.” He was like, “Let me handle all your fashion shit. AWGE will handle all that. I don’t know about your other shit. Just make this one piece for me.” I told him I would oversee it. He was like, “Naw, you ain’t gonna oversee shit, I need you.” And he was just real convincing. Ferg was real convincing, so I started the piece.
The artwork for that shit was fucking crazy. There was a lot going on. This bull was carrying a little uzi in its hand. Ferg wanted different colors, this and that. I told him, “You got this whole piece trippin'. You got a lot of money right now. If we coming back, we gotta come back hard with white on white! Let’s make this shit all white, cocaine white. This is Harlem.” And I’m from L.A., but no other borough in New York do I fuck with more than Harlem. I’ve told everybody that. I told Jay that. We were doing the 20th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt because I was the A&R at the label at the time. We were doing interviews at the time and I was like, "I always relate to Harlem." So I told Ferg, “We gotta keep it white on white, keep it gangster. Bring it back to 2001. R. Kelly, Diddy videos, white on white.”
And I’m getting more and more into this project, so I’m fully back in the game. This is like the fourth of January and I’m like, “I’m back in the fucking game. I might as well get all the way back.
So when we were at Madison Square Garden, about to do the Yams Day, I blasted the piece out and people lost their minds. My cousin called me right away like, “Yo, you’re back?” And I decided there like, “Yeah, I’m back.” But there, I decided to have a stipulation. I’m only doing one client per month—usually I can do five clients per month—but I’m limiting it now to one a month and it’s a $75,000 minimum. I don’t give a fuck. If they don’t want to pay me, we don’t have to do it, it’s cool. $75,000 minimum and you gotta give me a non-refundable deposit of $50,000.
That’s still your policy as of now?
That’s the rule as of now and I’m booked until September. So, I’m doing that right now. As soon as I dropped the Yams piece I get a text from Drake like “Motherfucka, you got to be kidding me! I need something.” I was like, “You’re not a jewelry cat. I know you’re on the watch and stuff like that, but you’re so weird. I know you.”
Drake showed me the Stone Island piece he wanted. He was like, “You know Stone Island right?” I know about Stone Island but a lot of motherfuckas don’t realize this is like the Moncler of Europe but even higher. This is a very high-end brand in Asia and Europe. So, I was like, "Why Stone Island?” And he told me, “I’m the first person ever to be endorsed by Stone Island on a rap level. They endorsed the entire Boy Meets World Tour.” So I was like cool, I got started on the piece.
Now, this was a fucking nightmare from beginning to end. One, I didn’t want to do this fucking piece. Two, this is my second comeback piece. You know, green diamonds aren’t exactly easy to get. All the colors don’t flow well on jewelry. It’s different having it on a shirt or graphics than having it on jewelry. And Drake’s always been tricky. You know, everyone’s wearing Cuban links. It’s a staple. I gave Tyler [The Creator] an Hermes link like two, three years ago and then Ferg listened to me and that’s why we got an Hermes link of the Yamborghini piece. And that’s why on the Stone Island piece for Drake, we did the Hermes link and this thing was fucking huge. I was like, “Are you sure you want it this big?” He was like, “I want to start a museum in my house and have display cases for [my pieces.] I’m gonna put my Big O piece, my Stone Island piece all that." I was like, “Alright, dude.”
It was 14 hours before my flight to Europe and he hits me like, “Yo, Baller, can I see a picture?” I was like, “Dude, I could not get the green right.” There’s a process called rhodium where you mess with the colors. There was an issue where I couldn’t get the green to contrast properly against the yellow. Green and yellow diamonds can look really similar. So I was just tripping, like, this is a fucking nightmare. So I’m sitting there with my boy and finally we get it right.
So I got to bed and I wake up and almost every first class flight is delayed because of weather in New York and Europe. So, my first class flight was canceled, there was a flight where there was only a coach seat left. I haven’t flown coach since 2007. But I was like, Fuck it. I just went, bought the ticket, was a trooper, flew to New York then from New York, I caught a first class flight to Manchester. We do the movie, the whole internet goes wild. That was my most viewed video on my Instagram alone, just that video of me giving Drake the chain. Insane. So then Drake goes, “Ben, I need three more pieces.” I was like “You gotta be kidding me.” And then as I’m in the dressing room with Drake backstage, I get a FaceTime from Justin Bieber and I get a FaceTime from Uzi and they’re both like, “Fuck the bullshit, I need a chain.” And then Drake hears Bieber’s voice and he’s like, “Whatever you get, I’m paying for it.”
So Drake had to give me the mold like the perfect owl. Because he had three jewelers working on the owl chain. And I think Drake was trying to find someone in Toronto to put on because he always tries to put Toronto on. And like, I don’t really care, there’s no loyalty in the jewelry game. So, when Drake showed me the piece, I was like, “Cool.” It was pretty raw. He gave it to me and he was like, "I need you to make a bunch but then I need you to completely ice one out for my boy. And then I need you to make a miniature Stone Island piece for the CEO of the company. And then I need you to make this owl and we need to make it colorful."
So for that I went through like seven to 10 renderings and I was like, You know, I’m going to force myself to like this. And it didn’t work. Two weeks later, I still hadn’t figured it out and Drake was like, “Can I see a rendering?” I was like, “Yo, bro, you stressed out worried about your show. Don’t worry about what I’m doing. I do what I do. I ain’t going to tell you how to write your rhymes.” And then finally I stuck with the combo of canary yellow and white and light ice blue diamond eyeballs. When I was in Manchester, he was still finishing More Life and when we were talking about the Hermes link, he was talking about “Gyalchester” the song.
He wrote those lyrics based on the chain rendering you sent him?
Yeah. He was like, “That’s off the chain you made me, bro. Straight up.” So, you know how every time you say what up to someone? Every time I would text him or he would text me, we would start off with “Hermes link” and the other would finish off with “Ice blue mink.” So when I busted that [piece] out in March, people went crazy. So we had Ferg in January, Drake in February, Drake in March and then Uzi in April. For Drake, I did the miniature Stone Island, another owl I didn’t post and the ice blue eyes one.
And when did Uzi come to you with the idea for the Marilyn Manson piece?
While I was still with Drake, Uzi’s like, “I have the idea that’s going to shut everything down.” And Uzi’s so crazy and so confident and such a weird little kid, so unusual I love it so I’m like, “Alright, fuck it.” He wanted to start right away and I’m not, “I cannot! I’m already committed to Drake’s other pieces."
For Uzi’s piece, when he sent me the picture, I literally died. I was on the plane going back from London to L.A. dying laughing like, This little motherfucker! I told him Terry Richardson shot that picture. He was like “I don’t give a fuck who shot it. N-word, we’re doing this.” I was like, “Alright, let’s fucking do it. What kind of chain are we making?" He’s like, “We’re going to make a bike chain like the rockers. You know, old school.” I was like, “Like Hot Topic?” He goes, “Yeah, dude, a bike chain with spikes on it.” And he wanted the whole thing iced out. The spikes iced out too. I said, “Uzi, that’s 150...maybe even more than that just to ice out the chain alone.” He was like, “I don’t give a fuck what it cost. We doing it.”
I told him, “Yo, let me slow down for a second right quick. Let me be DJ Drama and Don Cannon for a second. That’s a lot of money, bro.” And he was like, “I’m fully aware and I’m coherent of what you’re saying. I got it. I need this chain.” I took a liking to Uzi so he’s like, “I’ll send you a hundred up front and let’s get started. And I thought, Okay, if he sends a hundred upfront then we’ll talk. Literally 24 hours later, 100 grand. It was just fucking insane. At that point, I had four diamond setters setting all these stones at one time to make this deadline of Coachella.
How long did Uzi’s chain take to make?
I would say about a month. So crazy pieces, I could do it in two weeks. So with the deadline, we were getting down to the wire and it was getting really crazy. I also tried a couple different things. I tried doing enamel on the face and he looked like the ghost from Scream. I was like, that ain’t gonna work. So I decided to do enamel on the eyes and enamel on the lips, and I’m going to do the fucking brightest white diamonds on the face. I looked at it like, This shit is insane. I remember holding it in my hand, even before I did the rhodium and the polish, I was like, This things is a masterpiece. This is insane.
When we finished it, I didn’t realize the Sunday he performed at Coachella was Easter Sunday. So before we even booked the piece, we booked my son’s Easter party. Easter is as big of a holiday as Christmas. My kids are addicted to Easter eggs in September and December, let alone Easter itself. So Uzi was set to go on stage at 4:30 p.m. Their party ends at 1:30 p.m., so I was like, literally, this is virtually impossible. If you’ve ever been to Coachella before, once you get within a mile of the stadium, it takes like 45 minutes to an hour to get into the place. Just with security check, there’s this and that.
So I was like, I’m going to just tell Uzi that I’ll meet him near, I’ll drop off the piece and I can’t miss my kids’ party. Me and my wife are going to fight again, we’ve been fighting for the last month. She’s pregnant, she’s emotional. But the day of, my wife is going through some shit, but around 12 o’clock, my wife’s like, “Why don’t you just have an omelette, go do what you gotta do and leave.” So I rush over there, get my passes, all that. Uzi ended up having problems getting his team in so Uzi was 45 minutes late to his set. If Uzi wasn’t late, I wouldn’t have made the delivery on time. We literally both walked to the stage together with five minutes to give. So Uzi pulls me on the side of the stage and he says, “Bro, just listen out for your name.” And it was a huge sea of people and I was like, Holy shit, this kid has arrived.” Even from the music executive A&R level, I’m like, This cat is it.
So, into the set, he screamed my name probably three, four times and I think on the fourth time I finally heard it. A$AP Bari was like, “He called you.” And he didn’t get down from the rafter thing, he just kind of left me down on the stage while he was, he just put me out there by myself while he’s on a riser like 20 feet above [laughs]. But yeah, again when I gave him the chain it was fucking crazy.
And you said it was your top three pieces you’ve ever made?
Honestly, to tell you the truth, it has to be top two.
So what’s your No. 1 right now?
It’s a mixture of the Jonas Bevacqua piece. Jonas, rest in peace, he was the founder of LRG, my best friend in life. I’d made a few several pieces for Jonas and it’s still my all-time greatest. And there’s different levels of qualities you can do. To tell you the truth, let’s say there’s five levels of quality for diamonds. I’d say .01 percent of rappers have never gotten to the top two. The average is third level. Some might get to the second, no one ever gets to the first level. This was at the first level. It’s the best of the best possible that you can go with. But Uzi, just as far as creativity and stuff, he’s definitely top two up there, over my Cali piece, over my Marilyn Manson piece. That was like breaking out the arts and crafts.
John Mayer was like, “Congratulations, this is the craziest fucking piece of jewelry I’ve seen in my life.” And this guy’s got $6 million in watches. John knows quality. I got crazy rock white boys telling me this chain is fly. I’m touching up his other piece just because he wears it so much on stage. And I’m in the process of finishing another huge rapper's chain.
You said you're booked until September. Who else can we expect to see your chains on this year?
I'm going to do a delivery so I can get started on the May piece but the thing is I can’t tell you who the guy is and when I dropped that piece that’s going to be. And then after that, I got Justin Bieber after. So then after Bieber, there’s a huge reggaeton artist J Balvin. The morning after Coachella, he hit me with Nicky Jam, he’s even more OG than J Balvin—he’s ordering a piece with me right now.
Once I started looking through my emails and everything else, Rich The Kid hit me up about a few things, Lil Yachty FaceTimed me three times. I feel bad because Yachty’s been someone I’ve been trying to keep up with for five months now and on top of that, he’s such a nice, respectful kid. He’s always so respectful and so cool. So, I’m just trying to juggle this and figure this all out. So, pretty much can’t think of absolutely everything, but yeah, I’m booked until September. Everything's just going really well right now.
See 40 Hip-Hop Albums Turning 20 in 2017