Through his ingenuity with vocoder, keys and saxophones, Casey Benjamin has lent many artists some of their most defining sounds. This GRAMMY award-winning frontman, songwriter and producer has gained international acclaim on such trailblazing records as Black Radio (Robert Glasper Experiement), We Got It from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (A Tribe Called Quest), A Seat at the Table (Solange), and more.
Between a concert at the Manship Theater with the Experiment in Baton Rouge, and teaching a Master Class with Robert Glasper at Tulane University during Jazz Fest, Benjamin stopped by Tchoup Industries. He picked out a Roulez Pack that features the artwork of local New Orleans fiber artist Daron Douglas, and he took some time to talk about his music, cars, fashion and travels.
Q: What were some of your inspirations that have helped you along the way in music, or any special mentors that you’ve had outside of music, that have helped you get to where you are?
Well it all started with just growing up in Jamaica Queens. It’s a historic town for the beginnings of hip-hop, and there are some jazz musicians who came from Jamaica Queens: Marcus Miller, Lenny White, Bernard Wright, Donald Blackmon, Tom Browne. People that, as a kid, we idolized them. You know they were like stars. They’re the creators of Jamaica Funk, which was a thing back then. Hip-Hop: A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J. That’s where it started from, just being in the neighborhood, growing up in that neighborhood, and listening to those guys was a special thing.
You were part of A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 release - was Tribe a group that you were looking up to at the time or your contemporaries?
I looked up to them. I didn’t get to know Tribe - Q-Tip in particular - until maybe about 12 years ago when we started to become friends. Before then, you know, it was always one degree of separation. Me and Q-Tip had the same mentor, Weldon Irvine, who was also another Jamaica Queens legend. He mentored the both of us. He used to have a jam session every Tuesday and Thursday like a workshop in Hollis Queens. It was all ages, and I was probably the youngest person there, and there were people in their 50s. Musicians would go there and work out stuff.
What type of music? Was it all jazz?
Yes it was straight ahead, we’d play standards, learn how to play in odd meters, and other things like that. I remember one time I was down there, I must have been 10, around the time of “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” right around that time. And Tip came down and he wanted to play flute. Tip was always into jazz music and wanting to learn. Tip always hung around jazz musicians. Jamaica Queens was a magical place back then.
Was any of the music that was in your home growing up also influential?
Absolutely. So my father was a musician, DJ, he was in the military, he built car stereos. He was one of the first cats in the 70s that built car stereos.
Is that where part of your infatuation with cars comes in too?
Oh absolutely. So my father had a ‘76 Ford Grand Torino, and he had it pimped out with speakers and it was the loudest thing you would ever hear. You know, at the time, the stereo company Fisher, they gave my father free equipment, he just had to have all the decals on his car. So he had Fisher decals, and I think A-1 Audio was the name of the shop back in the day. My father was known for this sound system. When he was an army recruiter in the Bronx in ‘70s and the ‘80s, he’d drive up to the park - this is when cats were still roller skating and stuff - and he’d just park, open his doors, with his music blasting disco or whatever. People would skate around his car and stuff - and that was his way of getting people to enlist in the army. So that’s how my fascination with cars started - with my father’s Ford Grand Torino. At an early age, sound and motion were always a thing for me. When I write music, when I create music, I always imagine listening to it in a car or driving in the car. It’s just natural.
What kind of cars are you working on right now?
I have a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am and I have a 1977 Chevy C10 Pickup Truck. I’ve never owned a car newer than 1988. [laughs]
Is that a principle you like to stick by?
Yeah, I love simple mechanics. You turn the key, it turns on, and you just drive. Those are the two cars I have. Those are my passions besides the obvious - music.
Just those two, or do you have more passion projects?
I believe in trying to stay healthy, and I’m into running. I’m also into fashion and retro pop culture, but mainly cars and music. That’s my driving force.
Pun intended, I’m sure.
So those are the cars you have and are working on right now. What about music you’re working on? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Yes, I’m working on my debut solo album. I’ve been working on it for quite some time now, and I’m hoping to be finished by early summer. Over the years, I’ve worked with Q-Tip and I’ve been part of his production team. I’m one of his principle keyboard players. I’ve been working with him for some time now. Over the past 12 years we’ve worked with everybody from Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Anderson .Paak, Nas, Common, Arcade Fire, Beyonce... a lot of stuff. I’ve been getting my resume up these last 10 years.
What kind of music are you working on in your new project? If you’re at liberty to describe it.
It’s Hybrid Electro Modern, so it has overtones of the classic sounds we grew up listening to and loving. Stuff from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I’m very interested in the mix between disco, R&B, and soft rock - what people call yacht rock now. I’m intrigued by that mix. Practically the entire album is influenced by that. It’s classic songwriting, and it’s very personal. It’s probably the most honest piece of art I’ve ever made in my life.
I’m really excited but scared at the same time.
It’s probably pretty vulnerable.
How long have you been working on this project?
I’ve been working on my album... [laughs] THIS particular album? I have other albums that I’ve just never released. This album, about 3 to 4 years. Some of the material is much older. There are songs on the album that I wrote 10, 12 years ago, and there are songs that I wrote half a year ago, but it’s all consistent.
Now I’m curious about the albums you’ve been hiding from us!
At some point I’ll release that. It takes a lot of courage to put out art for me. You have to have a lot of courage, and sometimes I lack the courage. One of the reasons it’s so personal is because it’s about my own personal growth as a man, and it’s not really common for a man nowadays to really be completely open and honest with his feelings. And also to be open and honest about his shortcomings, things that he’s not good at. For me that’s been a lesson, and this album reflects a lot of that. It’s really personal.
Do you have anyone else working with you that you would go to for advice about it, or who helps keep it real with you about the way it’s sounding?
Yeah, my songwriting partner Nicole Guiland. She’s also the lead singer of a group we have called Heavy. She did some of the co-writing with me on this album for the lyrics. She’s been a really great asset because of our friendship. We went to highschool together. She knows me.
That’s important. It’s sometimes hard to create something with people that you still have to get to know.
If I’m trying to evoke or explain a certain feeling in a song that I’m working on, it takes her all of [laughs] one second to get it! That type of person is an invaluable person to have by your side. The other person is Q-Tip. I ask him for advice. Not a lot of people know but Q-Tip is an amazing DJ, and his broad knowledge of music - I’m not just talking about how much music he knows - but, how it was recorded. Why it was recorded. Why it was recorded that way. I mean he’s special. He’s nerd. He’s a music nerd. I bounce a lot of ideas off him as well. He’s like my older brother. Also Blair Wells who’s an amazing engineer, and Keith Lewis, a phenomenal producer and engineer. Keith has been a great asset to me. I have a pretty solid team.
Earlier, you mentioned popular culture and fashion - what are some pop icons or pop culture references or fashion icons of yours?
Morris Day. The Time. Rocky Balboa - the character and the stuff he wore in those movies. I think that look is probably pretty close to my style. I believe in classic, clean stuff, with a little bit of flair. I believe that fashion is only partly the actual clothing. Mostly it’s the swag behind it. You can see someone dressed head to toe in Versace or Pierre Cardin, in high fashion, and you go [sighs] “I don’t believe it.” Then you can see someone wearing a white T-Shirt, and a pair of jeans, and some Chuck Taylors, and be like “Damn. They are wearing the hell out of that,” because it’s the person that’s behind the clothing. Always been a fan of classic stuff.
I wanted to ask you about how you stay healthy, mentally, physically, spiritually, while you travel, especially because you travel for such long periods of time on tour.
I like to run in every city that I go to, and get a feel for the city. Getting sleep - which is hard to do when you’re on the road - but if you can get sleep you get it. It ties everything together. But most of staying healthy is mental. And having fun is important. On the road, it’s not always fun. Try to make lemonade out of lemons: crappy flights, sh*tty accommodations, or, the sound at the show is terrible, or somebody in the band is getting on your nerves. You always have to remind yourself that, hey, I could be doing something totally different, something that isn’t as fun as traveling the world.