If commitment made record contracts, MC Beneficial would be rich by now.
The young rapper's first CD dropped last week. Called Great Expectations, it took a year and a half to put together. And with all that work, he made sure it looked and sounded right.
"A lot of people, they just record in somebody's attic, burn it to a CD, make copies of it, make a bootleg little cover for it, and sell it for $3," Beneficial says. "We're just trying to make the music and the presentation --- how professional it is --- speak for itself. When you're trying to get your point across, sometimes seriousness is the best way to do it."
At first blush, seriousness is what this rapper is all about. He's lived in the Lyell Avenue neighborhood all his 20 years. And he's been mining all his experiences for lyrics he's been writing since ninth or tenth grade. He made a decision three years ago to stop "cussing," and has kept to it, despite temptations, because he thinks his words will have more power that way. (There is a parental advisory for explicit lyrics on the CD that covers other language besides technical "cusses.")
And though his songs have some of rap music's requisite boasts (lyrical prowess, ability to please the ladies, etc), Beneficial raps about a life less glamorous, complete with poverty, teenage pregnancy, and violence.
He raps about his hometown, with a lot of honesty and lot of pride. Listen to the album's first track, "Welcome to the ROC," to hear something you may never have heard before: things like Six Flags Darien Lake and Irondequoit Mall memorialized in a rap track. It's a strange feeling, like all of a sudden seeing your house on TV.
"I want everyone to know I'm from Rochester and I'm proud that I'm from Rochester," Beneficial says. "I just want everybody to know this is how we do it."
Was it a conscious choice to paint Rochester in all its colors --- mentioning the Susan B. Anthony House alongside homicide rates?
"If you don't relate to it it's just something you haven't seen yet," he says. "Like, seeing the 'ugliest prostitutes you've ever seen in your life' on Lyell --- anyone from anywhere in that area will tell you so quickly that line is just the truth."
Beneficial (real name Ben Perez) works days at AT&T and nights and weekends at a bowling alley. But he's been writing all his life.
"The raps probably grew from poetry," he says. "When I was younger I used to write all the time. In second grade I had a notebook full of stories I would just write for no reason. I wasn't graded on it; the teacher wasn't collecting it."
He prides himself now on his lyricism, and thinks his wordplay and literary techniques are what he brings to the table. "Not to brag or anything, I'm a smart guy," he says. "I do a lot of thinking. A lot of people mention that I use a lot of big words in my raps. That's the way I talk in real life."
"These are the types of poems I write now," he says. "I know a lot of people don't even consider rap music at all. But to me it's more than music, it's poetry."
Great Expectations (so named, he says, because he doesn't want to let anyone who listens to his music down) is full of precise, tight raps. His voice is much older than he is --- you'd think for a second you were listening to Jay Z --- and from a 20-year-old, you'd expect to hear a lot more silliness and bravado.
But the raps are well sewn, the lyrics are thoughtful, and the production is high quality. Hooky beats complete a sophisticated package --- one that would drift easily onto the radio. (He credits the beats to local producer Slim Chance, and all the mixing, mastering, and recording to Dan Whittemore and Matt Overlen of local band Out of Line).
He doesn't freestyle much, except when he's hanging out with friends. "If I have to make something speak for me, I'd rather have something like this [album], where it's something I put a lot of thought into it."
But when told he seems serious, he's a little surprised.
"I wouldn't consider myself a real serious person," he says. "He firsthand will tell you." He gestures to his manager and longtime friend, Brandon Barend, who drives him to interviews.
"He's a clown," Barend says.
"Well, clown's a bad --- that's a strong word," Beneficial says.
"He's my boy," Barend says. "Not to get sentimental on him or anything, but I've known him for a long time. When he wakes up the next day he's still the same person. And what he tells you is the truth."
And apparently he doesn't dream of gold and mansions.
"CDs paying the rent is a dream come true," he says. "If I could ever get to the point where I could put a roof over my head and feed my children with music, that's just a dream come true."
MC Beneficial doesn't have any live shows booked yet --- but they're coming. Check www.purevolume.com/beneficial for gig information, downloads, or to purchase the CD.
The band is the pistol-packin' ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it.