Ben Beal talks creative process, college experience, career evolution and more
I had the pleasure to sit down with Ben Beal and discuss all things from influence, college, opening for A Boogie, art, and much more. Since we sat down, Ben has released singles such as "going nowhere, but not here" and "Action Figures," which are available on all streaming services now. Additionally, Ben was named to MTV's Freshman List with his track "Cardinal" at the beginning of the month.
Receiving early musical and artistic influence from his family growing up, it seems that Beal has been building his career since he can remember. From early success opening for major artists, taking a hiatus from music, and bringing it all back to hit the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 by storm, Beal is poised to have a massive rest of the year. His influx of constant content from music, videos, clips of him freestyling, and even just being who he is on Twitter has made Ben one of my personal favorite new artists. Learn more about him in our interview below:
Tell us about yourself
I'm Ben Beal. Really not much to say to my life story—I grew up in the suburbs; I was born in New York City, but grew up in a really small town my whole life. I didn't really have a lot of creative friends or opportunities to be creative, because the standards here were always sports, social skills, whatever it is. I grew up in a really musical household—my parents put me on to jazz and classic rock at a really young age, and I'd like to say that that's the reason I make a very sample-oriented, jazzy-type pop. I guess growing up in a super creative family and household just kind of molded me into the artist I am now. I went to University of Maryland. I was on a two-year break from music when I first got there because I was just dealing with being a college kid, just transitioning from mundane life in the suburbs to crazy, dynamic life in Maryland. That was definitely a huge moment in my life; I'm glad I finally graduated. I've been working on music full-time now, but, yeah—my life story is that I've always been making music.
Did you go to Maryland full-time as a student? Did you live at the school, or did you take online classes or anything like that to focus on music?
I lived on campus and I literally went through normal college all four years, but no matter where I lived, I always had my mic and my setup with me all the time. So, I literally was always recording; I was always making music. Even when I was going through a hiatus—the typical college route—it was hard to really focus and get my head on straight. I knew that the music I was making was special, but there was something preventing me from just sitting down and making sure I'd always have something else that I felt like I need to do. Once I started getting back into it, that's when I started working with this producer I met through my old manager—Produced by Jay, he goes by Big. I started going to DC pretty much weekly to record with him, and, I don't know—I guess the chemistry between his style of beatmaking and my style of rapping was just so motivating. I just wanted to be in the studio with him every week.
That's awesome. This next question... I was just on your Instagram before you hopped on, and I saw your story where you're like... “The first something someone would say is, ‘You sound like Mac Miller.’” Is he a big musical influence to you, or is that just kind of like a coincidental kind of thing?
I don't wanna say that it's a coincidence, because I was raised on Mac Miller’s music; he is definitely one of my idols and always has been. I related and connected to his music more than anyone. When I first heard Mac, I was like, “Oh shit, there are kids just like me doing this; I don't have to secretly write raps in my notebook anymore, people are actually doing this shit.” He inspired me to just express myself in whatever way I saw fit; it doesn't matter what everyone else in my town or my friends thought of it. The second I started, everyone was just like, “Holy shit!” I sounded just like Mac. I was in probably seventh grade, and everyone was like, “You have that same kind of child cadence to your voice.” Mac always sounded like a kid, even when he was 26. We have a similar talking voice; our beat selection was always similar because I really like jazz, boom-bap. I just fell in love with that style of music and when I rap, I sound like Mac. And honestly, it's a compliment—even if people are saying I'm copying him.
For me, personally; when I listened to a bunch of your music, it reminded me of K.I.D.S. It gave off that relatable vibe of being in high school and just doing stupid stuff, chilling with your friends.
The amount of memories I have listening to K.I.D.S. in high school and even college... just listening to K.I.D.S. during smoke sessions in my friends’ backyards. It was a soundtrack to high school; I think the first song I ever heard from Mac was “Knock Knock,” and I think that's most people's first one, unless you became a fan of him the past three years. I was at summer camp, and my counselor was putting me on to Kanye, Biggie; it was really the first summer that I buckled down and listened to hip-hop music, and Mac Miller would just always come on shuffle. I was always like, “Well, what the fuck is this... This is crazy; this dude sounds so different from everything else,” and I remember I used to steal his iPod whenever he left the bunk, and I bumped every Mac Miller song in his library. I was also listening to Biggie; he put me on to Mos Def. Eventually, they became my favorite rappers, but just hearing Mac for the first time was just the craziest experience. When I fully took a listen when I got home, I felt enlightened.
Do you have a favorite album, song, or bar by Mac?
Yeah, probably “San Francisco.”
“Yeah, welcome to the dark side of my bizarre mind
I’m trapped inside of this amusement park ride There's an atom bomb inside my hard drive I'm holdin' the apocalypse (Apocalypse)
Let's take a ride and get lost in this Metropolis”
That's the first couple of bars of “San Francisco,” and that song really made me think of Mac differently. I always knew he was this really upbeat artist, then when I heard Faces, I was like, “Oh fuck, there's some shit going on in his head that I don't think people understand.”
Looking at your Instagram, you have a very creative aesthetic. I saw you have a collection of a bunch of different art containing a lot of pop culture references and crazy old clips. What made you develop that?
That’s a great question; people ask where I get all those old VHS clips, or why do you think that’s synonymous with your music? I like to say that I'm very, very influenced by Adult Swim, and I grew up just binge-watching every single weird, gritty animated show on Adult Swim. Just watching their commercials where you have no idea what the fuck is happening. It's like a bad acid trip; they're called Adult Swim bumps, and it put me on to this whole type of gritty, alternate dimension-type aesthetic where it's just a combination of crazy colors on poor camera quality or VHS style. A lot of visuals that people think are obscure now because they're so old, I just love seeing them twisted and sampled as if you were sampling a beat. So, when I make visuals with an old VHS or cartoon, it's always because the lo-fi music has the same sort of feeling. I like connecting an Adult Swim aesthetic to lo-fi music, because I feel like they're the most like-minded combination of visual and sound that I could possibly think of. They’re two of my biggest influences, also, so I love combining the two. I'm always watching TV; I was always watching movies. So, the pop culture references just come naturally. I'm a very obsessive kid, and when I start a show or movie, I dive into that world for a bit and it becomes all I think about. I guess it just goes hand-in-hand with the music-making process; I just love the visual aspects.
Do you make all of the visuals on your own?
I do it all on my own. I have a lot of producers that I work with that make the beats, and I wouldn't be anything without those producers. But in terms of branding and marketing myself and picking my aesthetic, my visuals... Everything's always been just me. Now, I finally have a team, but it's taken eight years to get here.
Just a question off of that: do you have a top three list of movies?
Damn, that’s a hard question. I need one second because I have an extensive list. Alright. The Town with Ben Affleck where they're robbing a bunch of banks in Boston. Spirited Away is one of the biggest staples ever; it's one of the most feel-good movies I've ever seen. The Shining; my dad put me on to Stephen King when I was young, so I've always had the biggest obsession with the old scary movies.
I picked three of your Instagram posts and want you to explain some of the videos.
You chose my favorite one so far; this is an art piece that I commissioned for my song coming out soon with Mick Jenkins and the producer Swung. This couldn't be a better collaboration, and Mick Jenkins has always been one of my favorite artists, so everyone should be super excited for it. This piece was done by the artist Rudemanners; he makes these crazy 3D animation pieces where he starts with nothing and then molds this sphere of nothing into this.
I have no idea how he makes it; it's the craziest art style I've ever seen, so I've just been commissioning a ton of different pieces from him because I'm just so blown away. I love claymation; it's so trippy. I just love seeing myself in alternate universes like this... We're literally action figures. This song is coming soon, and will probably be my biggest release so far.
That’s me and my girlfriend Emma Watson. My dad has this crazy camera because he's a videographer and he does a lot of stuff in photography. I've been quarantining with a few friends; the same people I've been with since the start of this. My dad texted me, “Hey, you could use the camera, but if you scratch the lens, I'll kill you.” One day, we were all drinking in the basement, getting fucked up, and we set up some lights and did a whole shoot. I ended up grabbing the first props we could find, so that doll was probably left there the night before by my sister. I don't know how I came up with the idea of having Emma Watson pointing at me screaming; I just remember being so excited when I finished Photoshopping that. Most importantly, I wanted to show off my “Fuck the Police shirt with the Frog and Toad children's book graphic.
It all just kind of came together. I was probably drunk when I thought of Emma Watson pointing at me, but I think it's hilarious. This is completely my sense of humor, and, I don't know; the pictures are sick, too. My content is all over the place; one day, I'm super serious and trying to fit my brand’s aesthetic, and the other day, I just try to make people laugh.
Do you ever do any video work with your dad?
Yeah, he helps me a lot. Every single question I have in terms of editing. We haven't done a music video shoot or anything like that, but I've been begging him and it would be so cool. He’s a little above my pay grade, though; he does movies and stuff. I feel kind of stupid asking him to do a three-minute music video.
So, here’s the last pic.
That one? Yeah, this is a legendary picture. This was junior year; I just moved into a new house at school and I was with the six of my friends. It was a little house in the suburbs, College Park, and this was right before a party or something... We were gonna go out for the night. I feel like every big university has their specific type of plastic vodka; their handle that comes in a plastic bottle for like $3 for a handle. So, we get a bunch and then everyone has their own handle and blacks out. It's horrible, but it was right before that party; we were probably pregaming or something. This kid had his camera on him at the pre-game, and at that time, I was trying to get a new Spotify picture or something. I'm like, “Yeah, come outside. Take a picture of me real quick.” I had the whole set up ready, and I literally grabbed the first three things from the kid whose room I was in: a bottle, mug, and a switchblade.
I ended up doing a bunch of different poses with all the things. I ended up pouring the vodka into the mug, which I ended up drinking disgustingly. We got a perfect shot of me holding the knife, looking like I'm threatening someone, yet elegantly pouring vodka into the cup. I always love this picture because there's no context whatsoever; the background is so sick. This was before the Birdland drop, so it was a cool aesthetic leading up to that release. Connor killed this edit.
You obviously have a bird theme going on. Where does that come from?
My house is surrounded by woods because my dad always was into nature and he just loved the idea of being surrounded by nature at all times. When I was growing up, my dad would take me to the Audubon, which is this bird sanctuary close to my house. We would go all the time; I just loved hiking. My dad put me on to birds and field guides and snakes, and we would literally go four times a week just to find birds, county eagles, or hawks that would fly over. It was an amazing pastime when I was a kid. Because I was so ADHD, I was all over the place. But when I was in nature, I was just calm. I guess it was the only time I could actually be calm. So, Birdland was a testament to when life used to be that simple; when all that really was on my mind was if me and my dad were going birdwatching at the end of the school day.
My mind's always racing; I'm always panicking. That's how it's been my whole life. I have so much anxiety, but there's something about the tranquility of just having nothing on your mind. Looking for a bird in the woods, you're listening to the bird calls, and that always eased my mind. Birdland was the perfect lo-fi, chill culmination of all those emotions from just being in nature my whole life. Now, life is not that simple, and it's back to the anxiety because there's so much business going on and now my name is a company. So, Birdland is just an escape to when it used to be easy.
Has the past year really ramped up for you work-wise?
Yeah. I got serious this past year because the break I took kind of fucked me over; I feel like all my old fans forgot about me, and then I had to start over. I’ve always thought the music was special; it was never a worry whether I'd have people liking it or hating it, because I knew that there was something about it that just resonated with me.
This past year, I really put my foot on the gas; I released a bunch of crazy songs that I don't think anyone was expecting. And now, the numbers are just quadrupling. I don't really look at my stats that often, but it’s astonishing to see how many people are fucking with it. I just went viral on TikTok the other day, which is funny because I hate TikTok so much. It just seems like people are starting to take notice. My friends always thought there was something crazy about the music, but it's cool to see that everyone else is reacting to it now. I don't even want to think about where I’ll be in a year.
Also, I saw you play guitar. Have you always played, or was it something you picked up to help produce music?
Well, kind of both. Guitar was the first intsrument I learned; like I said, my family is crazy musical. My uncle is a professional drummer, and my other uncle is a professional guitarist. My dad is the most insane piano player and singer. So, I had to pick and choose what I wanted to do; I knew whatever I chose, I'd have a lot of support and free help with. I just idolize guitarists because I was the biggest Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin fan; I was a huge fan of jazz guitar and classic rock guitar. I gravitated toward guitar; I got really good, really young.
When I started producing around sixth or seventh grade, I completely stopped and I started trying to learn every instrument at once to make myself a better producer. I ended up losing all my chops to guitar; I ended up wasting so much time trying to learn keyboard and drums that I ended up just wasting my strongest talent. It's like trying to learn three languages at once. Since the music has gotten progressively bigger and I have to be a lot more conscious of who I'm working with, I wanted to start doing everything myself again. Recently, I've been having a lot of fun relearning guitar. I'm picking it back up pretty quickly, but I feel like I was rusty when I picked it up. Everything is slowly coming back to me, and I'm having so much fun producing a bit more. There’s definitely gonna be more self-produced songs in the future.
How did opening for A Boogie come about?
I was signed to a manager who had a lot of friends at Paradigm, which is a pretty big agency. It's funny, because my new management is also super close to them. I got booked to Paradigm for three shows; two were A Boogie (both pulled out 2,000 people), and the third was MadeinTYO, which was also really cool. That was at the Fillmore. But, I wasn't really making much music at the time since it was during my break. I didn't feel like I put on my best show; I don't think the crowd liked it that much.
It was obviously a crazy experience, but I don't think I was ready for that big of a venue yet. I am now, but I really don't think I was when I did it. I was in a frat and I was pledging, and I had to go back immediately after the show and clean a room. I don't know, it was just bad timing. The shows are an amazing memory; I got to show all my friends where this music shit can take us.
I actually wish I didn't do it, because I know that shows like that are gonna start appearing again more and I'll be a lot better at performing. I have more confidence; I wasn't confident at all back then. Since the last Fillmore show, I’ve probably done like 30-40 shows, which is crazy. I'd always been doing 2-3 shows a year, and then all of a sudden, every venue started DM’ing me in D.C. and New York City; I’ve probably hit every small to mid-capacity venue in New York City and the DMV. I have the most fun on stage, honestly. When I can see a personal reaction to my music, I love it.
I never really have stage fright or any sort of nerves or anxiety before performing because it's literally like a drug to me; the adrenaline feels so good. I have a lot of energy when I'm on stage. On stage, I'm like a different animal and... I don't know, there's just something about it. I can't wait for this pandemic to end and get back on the road. I was supposed to go on tour; given the circumstances, I'm not sure if this will happen, but I'm probably gonna go on tour with a bigger artist and finally see the world.
Is there anything else that you would want people to know about Ben Beal?
I honestly appreciate the recent support so much; I'm just so excited that people are having positive experiences with my music. I'm gonna be here for a while. Also, I have a song coming called “going somewhere, but not here.” It's one of my favorite songs I've ever done. The music video is premiering on Rap Nation; I edited it. Big, big year. (Disclaimer: Since the interview "going somewhere, but not here" has been released as well as "Action Figures." Go stream now!)
Follow Ben Beal