When I worked at James Street Gastropub in 2016, I requested to work a show in the speakeasy because I knew the headliner, Mars Jackson. As a big fan, I looked forward to the show that first introduced me to an artist then known as Sir Courtesy. Little did I know that that introduction would bring me closer to someone I now call a friend. Sir Courtesy after a few silent months brought himself back to my attention under the new stage name, Benji.
Ian Benjamin Welch, a local hip-hop artist, is about to take Pittsburgh by storm with the release of his newest album this month. If it wasn’t for a supportive retweet of some of my photography on Twitter, I don’t know if I ever would have realized that the dance-enticing jams brought to my attention first by Sir Courtesy had been rebranded by this new, more personalized version of the same artist, now known as Benji. (The period after the name is important!)
The name Benji. stems from his middle name, and is taken from the nickname his mother had always called him growing up. He claims he always hated it when he was younger, but with his parents, especially his mom, being huge inspirations in his life, he felt it right to change the name to something that felt true to him, simply explaining, “I’m a momma’s boy, so what that really meant to me was everything. Why wouldn’t it be my artist name?” His parents are both preachers, which he references in his song “My Thang” from a previous project titled Uptown, and both taught him music growing up. His brother, Christo, also plays a big part in all parts of his life, especially music, as he is a producer and DJ signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville record label. When he first got into hip-hop and rap, he started with Lupe Fiasco, then made his way through the greats: Kanye, Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar. He makes quite a few Chance and Kendrick references in the new album, and though he does say his inspiration comes from those artists, his real inspiration is mainly derived from 1970s and ‘80s funk music. “I’m an old man at heart,” Benji. jokes, reminiscing about listening to that style with his family while growing up.
Though he rebranded his persona, Benji’s style certainly didn’t change much. He describes the transformation as a way to expose him and everything about him. The style he has under the new name is the same as Sir Courtesy, just more confident, and he says that he’s not scared to just be himself. “This album is a glass house, and I couldn’t do that as Sir Courtesy. Sir Courtesy is not a real person, it was just a name I came up with in college when I thought I was being clever.” Putting the right name with the right face, it’s safe to say that this city will know just who Benji. is, this year, if it doesn’t already. Benji. trusted me with a pre-release of the album, and my main take away is that this is an artist’s album, not just a compilation of an artist’s songs. This album tells a story, his story, so well that you will feel like you know him after one listen. As Benji. says, “The greatest way to reach a core audience is… tell them who you are.”
However, releasing this album was not easy for Benji. In fact, it almost didn’t happen. Due to a string of unfortunate events in November, a lot of recording work that he did all month with a group of his friends was almost lost for good. The day before Thanksgiving, they had been recording prior to an event at Spirit that they were planning on going to. Instead of running all of his equipment back to his home on the opposite side of the city, he decided to leave it right where they were working, as he knew everyone who had a key and fully trusted that it would be safe. However, when he returned after Thanksgiving dinner the following night, he came to find all of his recording equipment, his laptop, his hard drive, everything was gone; three years of all of the work he put in, all of the work that made him Benji., had been stolen. Over the course of the next week more and more life-changing bad news, one event in particular that plays a major theme in some of the songs on the album, continued to be thrown at him. When he thought all might be lost, he found new hope in an attempt to find Chap Stick in an old backpack (one of many identical ones) where he instead retrieved a flash drive. Curious, he plugged it into his computer, only to find the newest versions of every song he had recorded for the new album. “That flash drive is going in the Hall of Fame, because that’s what sparked my newfound happiness again. All was not lost, I didn’t have to start all the way over again,” Benji. fondly recalled.
When he was telling me the story of all of the struggles he went through prior to this album, one phrase came to mind, which, when shared with Benji., he instantly says relates to it all: “You have lived through 100% of your worst days.” He says that phrase describes the lessons that he wants the album to teach. When asked what he wanted listeners, new and old, to take away from the album, Benji. explains, “You’re going to go through something 100% of the time, and if you don’t, you’re living life wrong. While you’re going through that stuff, realize that you’re even alive to go through something and even better your situation. Also realize that I make good music! It’s all spectrums.”
Benji. also hopes to revamp the face of local hip-hop with this album. “Hip-hop music is missing authenticity, transparency. We’re missing real people.” Wanting to bring a fresh sound, he details in third-person, “Here comes Benji., who can play near every instrument and produces his music as such. He may not be the best lyrical wordsmith, but he knows exactly which right words to put together to make his point, and isn’t afraid to bare himself.” Benji. is a fairly introverted person, but it’s clear that the confidence he developed shines through when you talk to him about what he loves.
The new album, titled "Smile, You’re Alive!", is Out Now! Listen below! I promise, if you like hip-hop, this album will be on repeat for months. Although Benji.’s favorite song is “Show Me Love,” I feel confident in predicting the song, “C.U.E.U.P..U.” featuring Mars Jackson, will be Pittsburgh’s summer anthem. To keep updated on the release show, as well as other upcoming shows featuring Benji., follow him on social media by the handle @avatarbenji. Happy listening!
Photos by: Nicolette Kalafatis