Sophomore Ben Flores, hailing from Moscow, Idaho, may have only been seriously interested in hip-hop for four years, but in that time he has turned from casual fan to serious listener to self-made MC/producer. His beats are made from far-ranging samples: he’s drawn inspiration from Modest Mouse, nursery rhymes (“Mary Had a Big Old Motherfuckin’ Beat”) and public service announcements. He collaborates with other Yale musicians and is looking to release an album sometime this year. He talked to scene&heard about the jump from listening to hip-hop to making it, the lackluster Yale music scene and the “Fuck Harvard” controversy.
S&H: When did you first get turned onto hip-hop?
Flores: I was first turned onto hip-hop when I heard DJ Dangermouse’s “Grey Album,”…so when I was in tenth grade. I listened to hip-hop before that but strictly what was played on the radio. It wasn’t one of my favorite genres. I really liked the Beastie Boys before that, but I didn’t really have any interest in creating [hip-hop]. I’ve been in a couple bands before, so I got into it as a joke…with a couple friends, and I made a beat entirely out of loops on Garage Band and we wrote a song, the three of us fancying ourselves after the Beastie Boys. It was ridiculous. We made a video for it, my friend was wearing my fur jacket, I had basketball clothing on, my other friend was wearing a clock around his neck. We called ourselves Thug Conspiracy — just a mockery you know? As we started to do more songs which I created the beats for and did all the writing for…we started to get more creative with our patterns and what not. I was genuinely interested in the form as opposed to seeing it as an easy way to channel comedy. I started to treat it seriously.
(More after the jump)
S&H: So were you inspired by seeing white artists like Dangermouse and Beastie Boys make respectable music?
Flores: Not really — I guess…I really liked the way [the Beastie Boys] worked together as a group. If anything I think seeing the lack of [white artists] was more of a deterrent than the presence was a catalyst, you know.
S&H: What kind of experiences do you draw from when writing your lyrics?
Flores: It’s been difficult because when we started out it was posturing, right – in terms of writing mock lyrics, but as soon as I decided to be serious about creating hip-hop I shut the door on that. I guess it’s been difficult because it’s a form of art that largely belongs to the African Diaspora and the Latino community, starting in New York and I don’t fit into either one of those groups. I don’t have the background that a lot of hip-hop artist draw from and a lot of the subject matter just doesn’t belong to me. I am not oppressed, I’m privileged. So what do you write about when you’re using an art form that’s really created by a subject matter and where it came from? It’s an art form that has a memory. I draw from other elements of storytelling or fantasy. A couple of white guys that really have inspired me are Atmosphere and Aesop Rock because Atmosphere really draws from fantastic elements in his stories, and Aesop Rock just uses word play. If you can find a way to use words you wouldn’t normally use — I did a lot of my lyrics finding ways to use the aesthetic of sounds and words.
S&H: I guess that leads into my next question, which is, who are your biggest influences in hip-hop right now?
Flores: Those are two very big ones particularly Atmosphere and his DJ Ant. I recently saw the film “Scratch” and it kinda rocketed me into a new desire to make beats again, to make good beats, to make better beats. I recently got into Jay Dilla, his instrumental stuff is awesome, and I’ve always loved the Roots and how they use the fact that they’re a live band and try to get a traditional hip-hop sound out of using live instrumentation.
S&H: Do you think Yale provides enough opportunities for musicians to showcase their talent?
Flores: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a good on-campus venue for musicians of any sort other than organized groups — other than a cappella or other undergraduate organizations. I think that there’s a real lack of — for lack of a better word — an indie music scene. There’s such a talented population of musicians [at Yale]. I’ve seen a couple bands at the Women’s Center, and occasionally in larger suites [laughs]. There are bands that come through Toad’s but if you want to go out and see a band you shouldn’t have to pay 20 dollars. Where I come from it’s a small college town but there are shows all the time. Battle of the Bands at Spring Fling was great, but where do those bands play the rest of the time? I’d like to see them playing on a more regular basis.
S&H: What would you recommend for someone who is really into hip-hop and maybe wants to try their hand at it, but is just overwhelmed by the idea of making their own beats and rhymes? How should they approach the idea of making a rap song, from writing to execution?
Flores: I’d say start simple. Don’t worry about buying equipment or even creating something that other people would want to listen to — if you’re interested in writing and rapping, then do that. Find an instrumental. Bang out a beat with your hands on the dashboard and rap. If you’re interested in beats, then go from there. Put the kick on the one and the snare on the two and then put something over that. GarageBand is a really good program for beginners, too, because you can create something with almost zero musical skill, but it’s versatile enough to exploit once you get better. Most of all I’d suggest having a friend to kick the stuff back and forth with.
S&H: I wanted to ask you about the whole “Fuck Harvard” controversy. [Every fall, a group of Yale rappers makes a track dissing Harvard for The Game. Last year’s track was criticized for misogynistic lyrics promoting rape. Flores was a guest rapper on the track, although his verses were not criticized. There was a lengthy discussion about the song on IvyGate forums.] It seemed like a lot of people were responding to a broader issue of violence in rap, and also what it means for a group of relatively privileged guys to talk about violence, guns, and misogyny. What did you think about the public response on IvyGate? What do you think about violence’s role in hip-hop, and did the response to “Fuck Harvard” affect your opinion?
Flores: Before my answer, I’ll just say that I was on that track, and yeah, IvyGate’s response did affect me. I read a lot of opinions and finally came to regret doing it, not out of wanting to pander, but just out of thinking about my goals with my music…it doesn’t fit in. I think the whole “Fuck Harvard” deal was largely in response to…a couple of lines…that were violent towards women. I think that was part of the issue on IvyGate–where do we draw the line in what we accept in music and art, and why is it okay for certain artists (the Notorious B.I.G. is just that—a notorious storyteller) to pose violence and murder, and others (i.e. Yale students) not to? Ultimately, I think it’s one thing for comedians to mock hip-hop in that way, and whether that’s okay I don’t know. I’d like to think there’s no place for it. As for hip hop artists? I think we’ve got a responsibility to make this a positive art form. Most of all, we’ve got so much other shit to talk about, so why clutter our flow?
Listen to Ben’s songs at ht