Music News

Virginia native becomes an in-demand producer at 22

NEW YORK (Billboard) - For someone who wasn’t much interested in making pop music, Benjamin Levin, better known as Benny Blanco, has quickly earned his place atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

At the age of 22, the writer/producer has had a hand in such smash singles as Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK,” 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me,” Britney Spears’ “Circus” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”

Since contributing a clumsy hip-hop beat to a softcore porn movie as a teenager, Blanco has found a life he didn’t know he wanted. “I was completely happy making songs with underground artists,” says Blanco, seated in his New York apartment’s recording studio, which holds more than a dozen keyboards and a full-size bed. “It’s weird how quickly everything got fast-tracked.”

After abandoning his dream to become a rapper and learning how to make beats, Blanco started taking five-hour bus rides from his native Virginia to Manhattan, where he would meet with record executives and sleep overnight in his friends’ cars. Blanco later landed an internship with producer Disco D (David Shayman), during which he had water bottles thrown at his head but picked up scraps of music knowledge.

After Shayman’s death in 2007, Blanco teamed with eccentric rapper Spank Rock and released “Bangers & Cash,” an EP built around 2 Live Crew samples. The record led to a meeting with Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, who clicked with Blanco and started grooming him as a pop producer. Blanco’s string of high-profile singles will continue this summer with Justin Bieber and Sean Kingston’s “Eenie Meenie” and “My First Kiss” by 3OH!3 and Ke$ha.

With long curly hair, an unshaven face and a precocious grin, Blanco looks more like a college cut-up than a top songwriter/producer, but he turns serious when discussing his music. “I don’t want anyone to ever sound like me,” he says.

Billboard: Where does the name Benny Blanco come from?

Benny Blanco: I was a white rapper. I was horrible. I was in the studio one day, going through names like Lil’ B, Short Stuff ... I was Benny Bounce for some time, and then I was like, “I’m white!,” and I was studying Spanish at the time, so I was like, “Blanco!” I was just going to be Blanco. A friend said, “You should be Benny Blanco, like in ‘Carlito’s Way.’” All my other names sucked, so I didn’t really have a choice. I just went with that one.

Billboard: When did you decide you wanted to be a rapper?

Blanco: When I started getting into music at 5 years old, the first tapes I got were Nas’ “The World Is Yours” and “Sweet Potato Pie” by Domino. Rap was all I listened to. So I was going to be a white rapper. This was before Eminem. Then he came out and I was like, “See? He’s a white rapper, and I can be a white rapper.” But then I thought, “Except I suck, and I’m short and Jewish, with curly hair.”

Billboard: What happened that made you go from rapper to producer?

Blanco: I was watching my friend make all these beats, and I had a Casio that I would mess around on. I didn’t really have any gear, and I just started making beats here and there. They were so bad; very elementary. I was 15 years old, and I had no concept of songs or anything.

Billboard: How did one of your beats end up in a porn video?

Blanco: Jonathan Shecter, who started the Source magazine, wanted to sign me to a subsidiary of Columbia. He wanted to put one of my beats in this softcore porn he had, called “Hip-Hop Honeys,” and I was like, “Yes!” I remember getting a copy and showing it to my friends every day, and my mom would come home and turn it off. I was so excited. I kept setting all these milestones for myself, and that was my first one.

Billboard: How did you come to intern with Disco D?

Blanco: When I was 17, I’d hit up everyone on MySpace: Polow Da Don, Jimmy Iovine, whoever I could find. I got an e-mail from Disco D, and I went to his penthouse in Brooklyn and asked if I could work for him. He said, “I’m leaving for Brazil next week, and you’re going to come and fill the studio for me. If you book someone to work at the studio every day of the week, you’re hired.” I scrambled around, had it booked the whole time, and he came back and that’s when I started working for him. I’d come up every weekend from Virginia during high school, and then I enrolled in a New York school called IAR (Institute of Audio Research) and worked with Disco D every day. It was so intense.

Billboard: How so?

Blanco: One time I played him all my beats, and he highlighted my whole hard drive and pressed “erase” on everything I had done. Or he would take my CDs and throw them out the window. He said, “I want you to get better. You’re only going to get better if you start over.”

Billboard: So what did you learn from him?

Blanco: One hour a day he would show me all this stuff, like how to layer drums, and I didn’t know anything like that. He taught me pre-chorus, verse, chorus, everything. He taught me that my beats have to be a musical experience.

Billboard: How did you start working with Spank Rock?

Blanco: Spank Rock was friends with Disco D and my manager, James Johnson, so when D passed away (he committed suicide at age 26), Spank came over to James’ house and we all just cried. We started freestyling over this beat that D did. D was doing all these crazy, weird beats, and I decided to do something like that and carry on his legacy. I stepped away from hip-hop and was working with weird bass sounds, and I felt like Spank was the only one who could do it justice. I decided to sample 2 Live Crew songs and begged Spank to do it. We did one demo in James’ loft, and Spank shopped it and had a deal for “Bangers & Cash” the next week.

Billboard: And the opportunities started coming in from that?

Blanco: Yeah. I was slowly making the rounds and doing remixes, and I got offered my first publishing deal, and I was like, “What’s a publishing deal?” I started getting offers from everywhere, and around then, somebody introduced me to Dr. Luke.

Billboard: Was 3OH!3 your first pop project?

Blanco: It was my first pop thing outside of Luke. I had learned so much from Luke, and from my manager, and from D, and it was time to use it all. I only came there to help them add to one of their songs, but we started a new idea, and it just grew overnight. We were in a room yelling at each other, getting drunk and making music.

Billboard: When did you first meet Ke$ha?

Blanco: I first met her when she came over to Luke’s house. She started talking to Luke about her record and I thought, “This girl’s a star.” I knew it from the second I saw her. We went to Sweden to work with Max Martin and (Karl) Johan (Schuster). And then in New York in my apartment, I did “Blah Blah Blah” with her, 3OH!3 and Neon Hitch. We were all sitting on my bed singing, with my mic that didn’t even have a stand. We drank and hung out, and we went uptown and Ke$ha and Neon got tattoos. And after that we wrote “TiK ToK.”

Everyone always asks if I knew it was going to be big. No idea.

Billboard: Has being such a young producer ever been a problem?

Blanco: I was always scared, because people would say I’m so good for my age, and I thought, “What’s going to happen when I grow up? Will I be terrible?” I wanted to do this my whole life, but I didn’t think it was going to happen when I was 22. But when you step in the room with musicians, everyone’s equal. If I think something’s not good, I’m going to tell someone. I don’t hold back.