Jarren Benton Conquers His Stage Fright
It's a muggy Thursday night and Jarren Benton, sweating in red leather pants and a black t-shirt that says "Dope" in scarlet letters, is on the sidewalk killing time before his headlining performance at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. As a nervous fan spits rhymes to him, Jarren nods along in encouragement and flashes the same impish smile you may have seen at the beginning of the insanely violent (and popular—over a million views and rising) video for his song "Skitzo." When the fan finishes freestyling Benton drops a brief, joke-y couplet about wanting to get a bagel in Brooklyn—and then he's gone.
Sitting at a small table in a dimly lit bar nearby, he says he's only now getting used to having fans who are so excited to see him that they push their material on him. He's sympathetic to their plight because he used to be that guy. He annoyed Puff Daddy at a mall in his home state of Georgia when he was 15. He did the same thing to Raekwon at a concert in Atlanta when Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... first came out, only to be scared away by Inspectah Deck. As he sips a cranberry vodka, Benton remembers the pain and embarrassment of that moment. "That fucked me up," he says. "I don't wanna be a dick about this shit. I understand you can get your feelings hurt—your dreams get crushed."
Dreams have been coming true lately for the 31-year-old rapper. After toiling in obscurity for years—working odd jobs as a dental assistant and as an exterminator—the married father of two is enjoying a modicum of mid-level hip-hop fame. Off the strength of gross-out videos for tracks like "Skitzo" and his vividly titled 2011 mixtape Huffing Glue With Hasselhoff, he signed to Hopsin's Funk Volume in 2012. The collective has been compared to other ascendant California hip-hop groups Odd Future and T.D.E., but in the last couple years they've carved out a distinct niche by mixing hard-hitting Eminem-esque lyricism with the independent-minded business model of Tech N9ne. In June, Benton released an album, My Grandma's Basement, and in September he'll play Rock The Bells with labelmates Hopsin and Dizzy Wright before heading out on another tour with Strange Music affiliate Rittz and rising female rapper Snow Tha Product. Things are coming together.
That doesn't mean Benton feels particularly comfortable or economically stable at his current level of success. "I'm 31," he says, "That's a lot of time in the rap world." But Benton doesn't sound too nervous. "A lot of niggas in the game are popping in their 30s," he notes. "What's Rittz? 33 or 34? Danny Brown is 31." (Rittz and Danny Brown are actually both 32, but you get his point.)
Funk Volume is particularly known for its commitment to its fans, fostering an intense sense of community by interacting online and at shows, and Benton proudly carries on that tradition. Despite citing a fondness for confrontational shock artists like Marilyn Manson and introverted bands like Portishead, Benton is first and foremost a people-pleaser, the class clown who decided to run for student council president. While grabbing a Red Bull and a 5 Hour Energy at a bodega after leaving the bar, he recruits a couple of curious tourists from Florida to come see his show. He says he'll put them on the list. "When I do a show I feel like we're at my personal party and I just want to get fucked up and party with the people who came to fuck with me," he says. "I don't even feel like they're fans."
The line between fan and artist tends to get blurred wherever Benton goes. As he sits backstage on a worn-down couch in a small dressing room space, various friends, collaborators, well-wishers and gatecrashers pass in and out fluidly. None of this bothers Benton, who is mostly trying to get hyped up before the show. He orders shots of Patron for everyone in the room and pounds his energy drinks as the 11:15 set time approaches. On My Grandma's Basement single "Razor Blades And Steak Knives" he raps, "I'm nervous, drink is stopping the stage fright," and when he talks about his recent string of tour dates in Australia he regretfully says he drank himself into oblivion every single night. But if he's actually crippled with anxiety, it's hard to notice. At 10:20 he holds an empty cup in his hand and says, "Write this down: I'm on my level now."
The crowd has grown since earlier in the night, and they rap along to every word of Benton's lyrics, which combine bits of scatological ultraviolence ("I can shit a hand grenade and piss out a missile") with winking references to broad pop culture touchstones (Napoleon Dynamite and Macaulay Culkin both get name-checked). Benton stalks the stage like a stand-up comedian, grabbing props like a can of PBR before performing "PBR And Reefer" and bantering with Kato like he's more of an Andy Richter-style comic foil than a DJ. The front row primarily consists of white kids with experimental facial hair and cargo shorts who are way too comfortable shouting the n-word along with Benton after he gives them the temporary permission to do so. They're in awe.
By the end of the show the line between performer and audience has completely dissolved—Benton gradually pulls more and more people from the audience and backstage into his personal space until the stage is packed. With a coon-skin cap on his head, Benton controls the chaos, sharing the mic and cheering on the crowd now cluttered around him, who are mostly concerned with snapping pictures and taking videos, to dance and sing along to a song called "Shut Up Bitch." He's the center holding it all together, the joyful ringleader of a rap circus, the Jack Nicholson of this schizoid hip-hop Cuckoo's Nest. Judging from the grin on his face, he wouldn't have it any other way. —Dan Jackson