Local hip-hop artist reminds listeners to Smile, You’re Alive! | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local hip-hop artist reminds listeners to Smile, You’re Alive!

Smile, You’re Alive isn’t just a collection of songs. The album tells Benji.’s story.

Local hip-hop artist reminds listeners to Smile, You’re Alive! (3)
CP photo: Jared Wickerham

One year ago, Benji.’s life was in dire straits. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, the local hip-hop artist was forced to start a new, life-altering chapter. The events of which are chronicled in his May 2018 album, Smile, You’re Alive!

In the summer of 2017, Benji. — who went by Sir Courtesy – met Livefromthecity and Clara Kent during The City Music Festival at Spirit. Slated to play at the event, the three became fast friends and soon after started to work on music together at Flow Lounge in Oakland. 

“They had their own recording equipment, I had my own recording equipment,” says Benji. “So we all brought our stuff together, and those were some of the best sessions in my entire life. Lots of space, nothing but friends, and good energy.”

The day before Thanksgiving, Benji.’s brother, who is currently the primary producer and touring DJ for rapper J.I.D., was in town for a show at Spirit, a rare occurrence due to a hectic tour schedule. 

“I was being really lazy, and I wanted to just go see my brother immediately,” says Benji. So he packed up his possessions as usual and put his stuff in the Flow Lounge’s storage area. But when he returned the next day after dinner, all his equipment was missing. His speakers, desktop computer, and hard drive: gone. 

“My hard drive had seven years of work on it. That hurt me more than all the recording equipment.” 

Everything from the very first beat Benji. made when he was 18, to all the sessions they had recorded the past month — he was left with nothing. 

The week before that, a DNA test showed that the child Benji. was expecting with his girlfriend was not his. 

“I was in this entirely weird space. I thought [for months] that I was going to have a kid,” says Benji. 

He moved in with his current DJ and roommate, Slim the DJ. Three days later, a friend of Benji.’s committed suicide. 

“It was a terrible straight two weeks. Moving on after that was super difficult. I had to basically start over.”

Graciously, Benji.’s mom bought him a new laptop, which gave him a place to start rebuilding his catalogue. From there, he was able to buy and rent new equipment and purchase mixing software.

And then, as Benji. puts it, the craziest thing happened. 

“I was unpacking some things in my new room, and one of my old track backpacks had this flash drive. I loaded it up on the computer, and literally, the only thing on the flash drive was Smile, You’re Alive! It still doesn’t make sense to me at all. I was thinking it was maybe the first rough draft of it, but it was the finished album.”

The blue Adidas Duquesne track bag was one of the first bags he got as a freshman. “It made no sense,” says Benji., but he didn’t question the discovery. He went to work finalizing the album. 

To make Smile, You’re Alive! a true reflection of his life, the Pittsburgh native cut a few songs and replaced them with ones about what he'd gone through in the last year. 

“I had to put that on the album because that would have wrapped up what the album meant,” says Benji. 

Smile, You’re Alive! isn’t just a collection of songs. The album tells Benji.’s story. He holds nothing back, resulting in 42 minutes of fluid, raw emotion. 

“I've been depressed for a while, but now I smile through the fog 'cause I won’t be here long / I’ve been patient with the waiting 'cause I been that strong,” Benji. raps on “Zola Rose” before getting candid about what happened with his thought-to-be child’s mother. 

The added songs brought the entire meaning of the album full circle — how starting over isn’t the end, how the worst thing can be a blessing, how, even when circumstances seem dark, to smile because you’re alive. 

But what really bought the album together was the cover art: it was drawn by Benji.’s friend who committed suicide. 

Two months before releasing the first album, Benji. dropped the Sir Courtesy handle and adopted his new moniker. Up until that point, no one called Ian Benjamin Welch “Benji” except his mother. But since he was starting anew, he decided to do a complete rebrand. 

“It was one of those other things that was nagging me for a while,” says Benji. “Then I was like, I’m going to make a change. Why not start completely fresh? So, when I dropped the album, I had just changed my name to Benji, and it was like a breath of fresh air for me. Everything that had happened was just done. It’s been crazy since then.”

After the release, Benji.’s notoriety quickly skyrocketed in Pittsburgh. He opened for Joe Kay of Soulection Radio, performed at WYEP’s Holiday Hootenanny, and played in venues all over the city. Most recently, Benji. had his first headlining show at Cattivo where he experienced for the first time the entire audience singing his lyrics along with him. Nine of the crowd members drove from Virginia just to see him perform. 

“That’s what I won’t forget about that show. That people actually traveled,” says Benji. “After everything, I didn’t think this would be a thing again; it’s cool that people are noticing what’s going on. I’m really excited about the next year because what we were able to do from where we came from in the past year, with everything, and we ended up at this moment. And we still have one more thing to do. We’re doing NYE at Spirit. It’s a great way to close out a good year.”