Over the years. South Carolina has seen it’s share of talented rappers. During those days, rappers like Pachino Dino, Marley Mar and Mista Taylor roamed Carolina streets like titans.
Fast forward to 2015 and meet Benjamin Starr, a leader of the New SC. Just as mainstream rappers like Drake, Kanye West and J. Cole have ditched gangsta rap for a more civilized approach, Ben Starr isn’t “addicted to murder” or trying to “shoot a f*cka right now.” Instead, Starr’s music is filled with the lyrical consciousness of Kendrick Lamar, the poetic grander of Langston Hughes and the revolutionary spirit of Marcus Garvey.
On the heels of his new album, Free Lunch, the 26-year-old MC went one on one with RandyRoper.com to discuss life as a rapper and black man from SC. Read more below.
RandyRoper.com: For readers that aren’t familiar with you, who is Benjamin Starr?
Benjamin Starr: Ben Starr, I’m a hip-hop artist, musician, an aspiring activist, man, just trying to be a symbol for progress, freedom, and I’m using every medium that I can to do that. Whether it be music, whether it be lyricism, whether it be the power of my voice, the impact going around speaking to children and adults. Being an activist in my own community, spreading awareness. That would be me in a nutshell as an artist.
You’re from South Carolina. What part of South Carolina are you from? And explain your background.
I’m from a small town in the Lowcountry in South Carolina in Berkeley County, like on the other side of Moncks Corner called Pineville, SC. A really small town. My background—my mom raised me. I was raised by my mom and my grandma and my older sister. My mom worked three, four jobs. She worked a lot of years substitute teaching. She worked for a shelter for kids, and she ended up working for the Department of Social Services. My grandma was a school teacher, and my sister was a poet. So, it was that influence from those three different generations of black women in the home that inspired me a lot. There was a lot of music, a lot of creativity going on within the home. That had a big impact on me growing up.
You’ve released four projects, but it’s been a couple years since you’re last project. What have you been up to in between your last project and your new album, Free Lunch?
I had to step back and really think about…cause I was putting out projects at that point, like every year. My first one, 2011, was The Experience. And then 2011 was The Scorsese Sessions. 2012 was Guns-N-Roses, then 2013 The Souloist EP. Making music to me is easy. It’s just cause I have that in me. The type of music that I create, a lot of that was put into me, that soulful sound was put into me when I was younger. I took a step back because I wanted to not just be churning out projects. Even though I believe my projects are high quality, but at the same time, I really had to sit back and realize what I wanted to say, and speak with authority. I had some things going on in my life at the time. I wasn’t really satisfied with where my career was at that moment. I know it’s a grind and everything, so I really had to sit back and get lost in the music, decide who I wanted to be as an artist, tweak and apply some precision to my brand and everything like that. So, it ended up being like a year and a half, almost two years, since I put out a project. But, I feel like this is my best work, and I was focused. And just with everything going on from Trayvon Martin to Anthony Hill to Mike Brown, it seems like the last few years it’s really been an awakening. And I tried to capture that artistically, coupled with the things that were going on in my life, as a young black man still trying to make it. Take my own adversities I had to climb over, and try to couple all that together to try and speak on it, and not do it in a cheap way. Not exploit the sensitivity of what’s going on, but I wanted to do it with taste and artistically, and it ended up being this Free Lunch project.
Why’d you name it Free Lunch?
I got the Free Lunch concept from the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. The free breakfast program that they started in the ‘60’s, where they would feed kids breakfast before they go off to school. And I just kinda immersed myself into why they developed those programs and the purpose of it. I felt like breakfast, lunch and dinner in the span of a day, but relating today to our struggles or journey as a people, we’re not quite at the beginning of it, but we’re not near the end. So, I wanted to kinda interject this moment in between, where we’re somewhat of a distance from slavery and we’re somewhat of a distance from civil rights, but we still have so far to go, and it’s a lot of time ahead of us. So I named it Free Lunch.
You’re a real socially conscious artist and an activist. Where did that inspiration come from? I know you spoke about your family but where exactly did that come from, and what makes you want to put that in your music, especially in this day and age where people aren’t rapping about that kind of stuff?
Honestly, I grew up without my dad around. It was a single parent home, and besides the financial aspect of it, because we struggled, there are insecurities you deal with sometimes. You deal with anger, insecurities, you deal with all these things growing up without that father figure there. Then you have the older guys in the community, they’re trying to be that big brother influence on you, and just the way a lot of these things are portrayed in the media, it’s not always that way. I had guys who were around the way dudes, who were involved in all kinds of things. But the way they took me under their wings, they guided me in a totally different direction. They guided me away from that. I learned that I could be anything I wanted to be if I really focused and locked in. I learned that from my mom and family, but I also learned that from people out in the street, who would pull me to the side and be like, “look man, you don’t gotta do what I’m doing.” It kinda messes you up mentally when you’re trying to reconcile all of that when you’re young. So, that’s my part. That’s the part that I have to play with these young kids, these young women, letting them know they’re beautiful, self love, black love, knowledge of self, caring about your community. That’s in my soul to do that. So, that’s what I’m going to do until I’m not here anymore.
You’re born and raised in South Carolina, and you’ve made songs like “Charlamagne Tha God” and “Seventh.” Do you go out your way to make those songs about SC or does that just come natural?
It comes natural because I love here. I love where I grew up at. It’s like self-love. If I don’t love myself and see something amazing in myself, it’s going to be hard for me to look at my brother or my sister and see something amazing in them. So, I don’t understand how people hate where they’re from, or are scared to represent where they’re from. Or think they can go somewhere and find the beauty there and it’s going to be some reciprocity there. It doesn’t make sense to me, so when I write, things that inspire me are things that I grew up around, things that I relate to. So when I write a song called “Fish & Grits” a lot of people in South Carolina immediately recognize the connection. When I write a song like “Charlamagne Tha God,” I see somebody who looks at himself like, “I’m from South Carolina. I love where I’m from.” I like his honesty in a lot of situations, and he’s a part of where I’m from. Seventh Woods, too. He’s younger than me and I’m looking at him like that’s inspiring. You can’t imagine the pressure these guys have on them. But at the same time, they’re still going out and being great, and they’re seeing the beauty in where they’re from. It’s no different than Jay-Z writing a song about “Empire State of Mind” or Kanye West “Homecoming” talking about Chicago. I like to include things like that in my writing because it’s real, it’s genuine love.
In your opinion, why hasn’t a rap artist from South Carolina blown up yet? What’s holding rappers in the state back?
Honestly, you look at Atlanta, you look at our places, Chicago, New York, LA, Houston. You look at Charleston, it’s a unique place where you can get a glimpse of city life or a glimpse of country life. At the same time, I think guys had to grow and be themselves. I used to love the generation that was Pachino Dino, Marly Mar, we grew up listening to that. My sister used to pump that a lot. Now, I’m a part of this generation of hip-hop artists, and I’m looking around at a lot of guys that I’m fans of, they’re original, they’re them. They don’t look at it like they have to have a particular sound to sound like South Carolina. I think that now, more than any other time, we have a lot of artists making great music. Now the other part of the equation, the marketing, things like that, it’s about putting the right team around you. I think it’s a matter of time. I don’t have a pessimistic view about it.
I think that covers everything. Do you have anything else you want to add?
I just want to say, man, for the people like you, Tasha at Shebloggin, it’s a lot of DJs, I can’t name them all, but the people that actually love the culture and music scene here, and encourage dope artists that I listen to like the Matt Monday’s, the Mantiz’s, the OxyMoron’s, and Niecy Blues, 808 The Click, it’s so many different artists. It’s really like a whole scene of people that really care, and they put a lot of great energy into South Carolina. And I just want to say thank you them. Thank you to the artists, thank you to the people like you, like Tasha, thank you to the DJs that show us love. And thank the people of South Carolina, the fans. They are really pushing the envelope right now. They’ve been showing us a lot more love. So I want to say thank you to everyone who supports independent artists. It’s much appreciated.
Listen to Benjamin Starr’s Free Lunch album here.