Benzino can hardly believe it himself, but somehow he’s become the voice of reason. The 47-year-old rapper and publisher (he and business partner David Mays formerly ran The Source, now they run Hip Hop Weekly based out of Atlanta), is finding some newfound fame thanks for a hit VH1 show called "Love and Hip Hop Atlanta".
He can barely walk through an Atlanta restaurant, grocery store or his son’s pee-wee football game and not be noticed. He gets dap from fans of the show – men, women, old and young – and those who saluted him the day we hung out with him all expressed an appreciation at the balance he brings to the show. The first of a two-part reunion special airs tonight on the network. Here, Benzino talks about his failed proposal attempt, his beef with Eminem and his good friend Stevie J.
EBONY: Last time I talked with you, you were angry about Eminem …
Benzino: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a whole different vibe.
EBONY: But back then, you weren’t living in Atlanta; what made you come to Atlanta?
Benzino: I’ve probably been here like seven months, and I was living in Miami for like six years and after the whole Source situation, me and Dave (Mays), when we started Hip Hop Weekly, we just felt that it would be better (in Atlanta). But music is my first love. Me and Stevie had already been doing songs together, I’ve known Stevie for, like, 10 years and about a year and a half prior to me moving here, we had went down to Orlando and rented out a house and just started doing some music. It was really, like, performance-driven music, and we just came with the name The Magnificent 757s as a band-driven type of music.
EBONY: OK. There certainly is definitely a strong hip hop presence here in Atlanta, too, so I would imagine that made it a little bit easier to make the move here …
Benzino: Definitely. I’ve never really lived here, …. But I have my three kids living with me now. My oldest son is 19, he’s gonna be going to college, his first year of college. My daughter is 15, she’s gonna be running track for Campbell, and then my youngest son he’s starting his first year of football, pee wee football, in the area and they promoted him to quarterback. Its just really good fit to raise kids and, out here, you know, it’s like trees, it’s like secluded, so I like it.
EBONY: So what made you say yes to the reality show?
Benzino:I had been doing music with Stevie J. and then when I came up here, he was telling me (about the show) and I was like, ‘OK, that’s hot.’ I figured maybe they would catch a side of Stevie and the band. At some point they had asked me to do a car scene with Stevie to talk to him about what he’s going through, and I agreed.
EBONY: Was there any fear with doing a reality show? Especially this one?
Benzino: I wasn’t going into it with a female! Initially, I’m with my man, this is cool, you know, I could be the band, just do a little thing on it, a little rapping, they would see me rap and that would be it. And that’s when I met Karlie (Redd), man. She was coming out of one of the scene with Stevie, where she was doing the ‘Louis, Prada, Gucci’ song. She asked me for my number, and then we went on a date like the day after. And the day after that I got a call from (executive producer) Mona Scott saying, ‘Listen, if you’re gonna be dating anybody in the cast …. we’ll have to have cameras.’ So then I was a little bit hesitant. But I talked to Stevie and he convinced me.
EBONY: And you went through the beginning of a relationship, the relationship and then ultimately the break-up of one all on reality TV …
Benzino:I’m gonna be honest, people don’t understand, doing a reality show, with cameras all the time in your private life, it’s not easy. But strangely enough, I got used to the cameras. So if you kinda block the cameras out you can go about your daily routine.
EBONY: The last time we saw you on camera, you took back your engagement ring. “We ain’t rocking no more,” you said …
Benzino: We had been fighting it the whole time. We were going through things towards the end of the relationship, which lasted about five months. And all the way up until I seen her I was like, ‘Well, let’s see how she feels, because I hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks.’ And then when she came out and was like, ‘You never loved me,’ I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t do this,’ because it was like I felt that I had showed everything. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but at the end of the day, you know, you move on. You know what I’m saying? I mean, Karlie, I have nothing bad to say about Karlie, and who knows what the future holds?
EBONY: Are you guys still talking?
EBONY: OK. So it could happen?
Benzino:Yeah. I think we moved fast anyways. And then with the cameras it was like … I mean, look at all the relationships that are put together on TV, it’s not easy to keep ‘em together. And then with the cameras, it’s an added pressure.
EBONY:Love and Hip Hop Atlanta is like a soap opera. And the ratings were just astronomical for VH-1. Did the success of the show surprise you?
Benzino: Oh definitely. It still hasn’t sunk in. I go to Krogers, this girl fell out on the floor and rolled around and the guys there were helping her up and she’s panting. Or I’m in New York, girls are crying, taking pictures, running in the middle of the street while I’m in the cab trying to take a picture. Then I’m noticing older women, 50s, 60s … I mean, it’s just surreal.
EBONY: The market is flooded with reality shows. Why do you think this one has resonated like this?
Benzino: Well, first of all, Stevie brought a situation to reality TV that’s never been on reality TV. He brought his triangle, his love of two women.
EBONY: Which was pretty bold and brazen for him to do that …
Benzino:That’s what I’m saying! It really hadn’t been done, but at the end of the day you’re gonna deal with what comes along with that, on and off the camera. I think Stevie being the colorful character that he is … was just a great character for the show. I think Mama D and Scrappy and Erica, I think their situation was a great situation, especially being that they’re from Atlanta. Of course, Kirk and Rasheeda, just to show that bond of marriage and what they go through as far as manager and his artist. Even the situation between K. Michelle and Karlie, that’s just nonstop energy. And I try to give my voice of reason.
EBONY: I’ll give you that. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’d expect from a rapper …
Benzino: Or Benzino!
EBONY: Or Benzino! Tell us about this side of yourself. Last time we talked, you were pretty angry. Not reasonable like you are today …
Benzino: I just evolved as a person. I was angry. I probably didn’t express myself all the time in the right way. My mother and father raised me well. Granted, I had my little revolutionary side, my angry side, and I look back at it now and a lot of it was unnecessary. I just evolved as a person and I learned. I learned that I’m not the only one on this earth and the things that I do and say affect other people. I was ashamed of myself looking back. I can say that. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m on a whole new path, a whole new outlook on life.
EBONY: Any reason for the shift?
Benzino: No, it’s just a natural … just me naturally evolving as a man and as a human being that wants to coexist with other human beings without violence, without fighting, without arguing, without negative energy.
EBONY: Tell me something about your friend Stevie J. that isn’t so obvious to us from watching TV.
Benzino: That he’s a God-fearing man. He comes to his family’s church, because his father, I think, is a preacher.
Benzino: Yeah! He’s a great father to his kids, a terrific father. He’s a really good basketball player. And he plays every instrument – guitar, keyboard, bass, drums. Of course he came up in the church playing music. He’s basically a genius when it comes to the music side. As far as what you see with the faces and everything, like Stevie, yeah. He believes that sometimes that he was anointed, you know what I’m saying? That it’s all about him. He’s a star when the cameras are off.
EBONY: Is that right?
Benzino:Yeah. But he’s a good dude, man. He’s a great dude, a positive dude. He doesn’t really like a lot of negative energy. I know what people see on the camera could be deemed as negative energy, but it’s just a man that fell in love with two women. As bad as that might sound, it happens a lot. And I’m sure there’s women that fell in love with two men. We are human beings and we are programmed to love. If you’re at home with your spouse and you’re going to work every day and you’re spending eight hours with somebody at work and maybe y’all develop a relationship and you’re working there for 10 years, I mean who knows? I feel like that could happen. It’s not out of the ordinary. I know nobody likes to think or talk about it, but that’s why I think what Stevie’s done is so groundbreaking, because it really provokes thought and conversation on a subject that everybody looks at as taboo.
EBONY: The Monday night Facebook conversations are real, that’s for sure.
Benzino: I think people, when they say something about Stevie, Joseline and Mimi, I think they really venting somehow, some way, about their own situation or something that they went through. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. They’re all great people, all of ‘em. I mean, I’ve pretty much gotten close with the whole cast now and they’re all really, really great people.
EBONY: Are you gonna come back for season two?
Benzino: Guess what? They just told me yes!
EBONY: Yes? Oh good. Congratulations. Is the whole cast coming back?
EBONY: That’s fantastic.
Benzino: Yup. I guess they figured if it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?
EBONY: So how soon will you guys go into production for it? People are frothing at the mouth for more of this show…
Benzino:I think we start shooting at the end of October. They’re already shooting New York.
EBONY: One reason this show is so good is because 90 percent of the people, we had no idea who they were before airing…
Benzino: No one!
EBONY: That’s probably why it’s so good, no one really had much to lose, so they could put themselves out there.
Benzino: Yep. Instead of a cast member that you might’ve already known or heard recordings, it’s like you now are a part of this person from the beginning. People really gravitate to the characters because it’s the first time that everybody is really kind of seeing these people for the most part, so it’s like you can grab some type of relationship with them from the start.
EBONY: Seeing you on the show was a shocker, though.
Benzino: I think all the controversy has overshadowed a lot of things. I can take responsibility
EBONY: Last question: thoughts on the Love and Hip Hop Atlanta parody video?
Benzino: Honestly, it’s like South Park. I cry tears, literally. They’re super amazing.
EBONY: So you’ve got a great sense of humor, then.
Benzino: You know what? You have to. It can’t be all serious all the time. When I look at some of my old interviews, I was just angry. I was angry and I didn’t know how to express my anger other than lashing out. That whole Eminem thing … I basically already went on MTV and apologized. I thought some of the shots I took at Em and maybe his fam and his daughter was definitely out of order. You know? I would love to personally apologize to him. Because he’s an incredible lyricist, he’s a great influence on the culture and he should be able to express himself the same way anybody else should. As time goes on, you look at things different, you start looking at things through your kids eyes, and like I said, you just start really appreciating your surroundings and understanding who is around you and just because you feel that way, you don’t have to be Paul Revere and scream it out to everybody. And some things are just best kept quiet, unsaid.