Alt-lanta: Popstar Benny and Trinidad James in conversation

Art by Tyler Farmer.

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Two dominant forces run through Atlanta music: the streets and pure weirdness. They’ve always been intertwined–watch any OutKast video, look at Gucci Mane’s…existence–but through the 2010s, they became one.

Young Thug rapped about sticks and shells like an anemic acrobat while wearing skin-tight women’s clothing, then birthed a generation who took it a step further. Awful Records made certified-Gold Based Rap out of dirty trapspots, fostering some of the most eccentric sounds in music today, and defining what it means to be an independent rapper. Alongside Lil Yachty’s rise, three quirked-up white boys from Cobb County who went by Larry League briefly took the city by storm. Genres coalesced, with Danger Incorporated bringing together the indie rockers, the rap heads, and the skaters under one incendiary scene that lasted from around 2016 to 2018. 

Essentially, the parameters that determined who could make what type of music, and how that music should sound, were thrown in the shredder. This is in part due to stars like Trinidad James, who, in the early 2010s, helped pave the way for brash individuality in the traditionally rigid rap world. And is now exemplified by Popstar Benny, Atlanta’s chameleonic producer whose expansive discography, culminating in his True Panther debut University!, epitomizes the city’s present state. 

The two of them spoke for over an hour on a call. And it started with Benny remembering how Trinidad spoke in his college class at Georgia State University, well before Benny decided to give his all to music. – Millan Verma

Popstar Benny: You was already blowing up across the internet, across the city, across the nation. So for you to be coming to my campus, I was just like…Yo, this is crazy as hell. How did they reach out to you about that and how did that make you feel?

Trinidad James: I couldn’t give you a straight answer on that because so many things was happening so fast. But what I will tell you is because I was running the boutique that was right there by GSU called Ginza, when I was in the fashion world and a slick stylist running a clothing store, I got really cool with so many different pockets of people, one of those big pockets being GSU students. So I built a rapport with different people from that particular school, before I even touched the mic.

Popstar Benny: [That era] was a meteoric, snap of the fingers moment. It was stuff like “Yonkers,” “All Gold Everything,” “Peso.” What do you feel like was happening in the Atlanta scene for that type of meteoric moment to occur with you?

Trinidad James: I think that everybody that you named, they were kind of contemporaries in age. I look at people that are in my age group as a very powerful set of people, because of our knowledge and because of what genres and era we came up in. It was a little bit different—being able to understand the importance of James Brown, but then also understanding the importance of Gucci Mane, but then also being aware of what Dragonball Z is. If you look at the game now, all these things are different subcultures, [but] they all under the same roof. When I think about TiaCorine, I think about all those things, where she feels like The Supremes, but she also feels like Rasheeda, but then she also loves anime. 

The success of the records that you said, what it did was allow us to show our artistic vision to younger people like yourself, who were almost like a tribe. I look at a lot of things as tribes. There’s a lot of great talent that has always come through Atlanta, but my tribe is Dungeon Family, my tribe is OutKast. People who are left of center, people who understand what it is to be from Zone 3, Zone 6, Zone 1, wherever you from, and also understand the importance of the AUC and understand that it’s a big deal to go to schools like GSU and Morehouse that have so much important Black nostalgia. 

What did it feel like for you to see “Peso,” “All Gold Everything,” “Yonkers” [blow up]? How did those songs affect your passion? How did they affect your beats, your production, your outlook on music?

Popstar Benny: It was really like…I can do anything. I started making beats in middle school, 2007. I remember walking to school in eighth grade playing [them] for my homie. He’s like, “Yeah, this shit sound like some Pokemon music,” doubting it or whatever. [laughs] But I was liking the indie stuff and I was liking the trap stuff and I was trying to combine it. Seeing all y’all blow up, doing whatever left of center mix that y’all wanted to do, it was just like, Alright, let me double down

“Gold On My MacBook,” [is] a whole type of foundation to what I do. The way that the 808s paired with the extra spaced out, chilled out shit. [It was like] Okay, y’all can just go for it. It made me confident.

Realizing the melting pot of it all too, just listening to Tyler and being like, Alright, this is as much Erykah Badu and Pharrell inspired as it is Eminem and jazz. Or with A$AP, knowing the Houston type influence, but then also knowing the Spaceghostpurrp and internet influence. And with you, Atlanta on top of fucking with Fool’s Gold and all these new age type folks right now. This was definitely making me more comfortable existing in this space. I was like, Alright, I know what I want to make. 

Trinidad James: One of the key things that you said was confidence. The three songs you named, the thing [they have in] common is confidence. A label couldn’t do that. That was us doing what we wanted to do. 

Popstar Benny: I’m not gonna lie, that confidence is crazy. Because of course, back then it was like, All right, these new cats doing something cool, doing something hard. But it’s really knowing who y’all become. And then when you go back and watch all three of those videos, it’s like, y’all not up and coming! The Tyler in that video is the same one who’s world touring, and the [Trinidad James] is the same one giving game to me. Rocky felt like he could get Rihanna in Peso!

Trinidad James: Speaking guaranteed facts. I remember being on a tour bus one time with another artist. And I remember him saying that either me or Rocky, that’s the only type of guy that Rihanna likes. 

Popstar Benny: [bursts out laughing] 

Trinidad James: Bro, people can label you a weirdo all they want. But if you putting it down and if you’re doing your thing, and especially if success comes from it, ain’t shit nobody can do about it because, shit, we all still here, we all still as weird as we were then. So I come to GSU, I say my piece. It sticks with you to a certain extent. When [does music] start making an actual difference in your life for you?

Popstar Benny: So 2013-2014, I was a freshman. I started DJing around 2014 that summer. I started DJing art shows and different performances, showcases around the city. And then over that next year, I was doing my thing a decent bit.

I started DJing with Larry League and they started picking up in the city. They had a show, it was Pollari, Larry League, and Lil Yachty headlining, and it was Yachty right after One Night had come out and started doing its thing. That was the life changing one. It’s a whole packed out crowd and we’re here just on some literally all underground lineup type shit. After that, I was like, Ok, we can really be in it, we can really do this.

[Ed note: For more on Popstar Benny the DJ, peep his interview for our series What’s On Your USB? And listen to his mix for our NTS show.]

Poster for that show. Back when he went as Benny Jetts.

Trinidad James: Trust me, it’s the same thing that happened with me when Two-9 brought me in.  I was already in the underground world, like the Two-9s, RIP Grip Plyaz, people in that world of music, the Tuki Carters, Corey Davis, those guys, Greedmont Park.

Popstar Benny: True…true! Greedmont Park was on it. [laughs]

Trinidad James: Those are the things that really mattered.

Popstar Benny: Exactly! I would be in my dorm seeing all this. 

Trinidad James: Dreamer!

Popstar Benny: Yeah, were they in Hollyweerd?

Trinidad James: Hollyweerd, there it is!

Popstar Benny: Bruh I love Hollyweerd! [laughs]

Trinidad James: Of course. Things like Hollyweerd, things like Two-9 and Creamo and Greedmont Park, those were things that allowed me to find a connection the way that I did. Shoes helped me make friends in Atlanta outside of the friends I grew up with. And that didn’t happen again until music, because it gave me an underground identity to things that wasn’t mainstream. I’m always gonna love T.I., Jeezy, Gucci, Shawty Lo (RIP), D4L. Ludacris came to my middle school when I was on the West Side. I was like, I want braids like Luda!

Popstar Benny: But that’s the full circle! Somebody that was poppin’ came and did something cool, and left something pivotal with you.

Trinidad James: All those things ties back to that confidence that we speak on. Certain things was inevitable. I was gonna do things and gonna say things to myself and to others that would make a difference, period. And it did, and it still does, according to what I’m doing. But what matters the most is that we’re still very true to ourselves, true to the cause.

Popstar Benny: Nah literally, that makes the difference, man. I mean, that’s why people fuck with y’all how they fuck with y’all. It’s like, these people are doing it for the greater push of the culture.

Trinidad James: Do your art man. As a young black kid, I came up as an immigrant. Neither one of my parents are artistic, they didn’t get none of that type of stuff. So anything that I’ve ever been truly passionate about been things that they were anti about.

For me, [it was] understanding that life is truly about gaining your own emotional freedom, your own actual financial freedom, and then doing what you want once you get that chance to do it. That’s what I locked in before music even came about. I just took the formula from life that I was already living and brought it to music. Music didn’t give me a formula, music showed me its way.

Popstar Benny: Yeah it is the “as above, so below” type thing. It’s like if you round it out in your life, it’s gon carry over into all the different facets of it. Sometimes I feel like people get so in their head, but if you baseline there, then everything else gon’ really follow.

Trinidad James: Give yourself a chance, make a real foundation. The thing about Atlanta… you go through your Larry League phase, 2014, 2015. I leave Atlanta 2015 because I go through a weird depression. I realized that what’s holding me back is I’m pigeonholed, I’m hitting the ceiling in Atlanta. I moved to LA 2015 to just change my lifestyle, give us a bigger opportunity. Do the things that I was passionate about but nobody else around me in Atlanta was passionate about.

I wasn’t being a good leader. A lot of times in life, the leader role has came my way and I pushed it away because I don’t want the responsibility of another nigga.

Popstar Benny: But that’s the thing too, the leader role keeps coming. I feel like sometimes life be summoning you.

Trinidad James: Yeah, for sure. And it took me a while to just really accept it as it is because for me, it’s hard for me to see myself as a leader when I’m still a student. 

Popstar Benny: But even if you feel earlier in your path, that “early” might be lightyears ahead of what other people even know. That’s what I be having to remember.

Trinidad James: So, the Larry League situation—you realize that you got a community, you have a tribe that will adapt to things that’s inside your head. Now where do you go next, who do you meet next?

Popstar Benny: That transitioned into meeting Tony Shhnow—

Trinidad James: Tony!!!

Popstar Benny: [laughs] 10Dunkin, 645AR and them. Larry League and them, they were from Northern Cobb, so it was just people that went to school with them and mutual people were homies with Tony and 10k and all of them. Tony just called me out the blue one day. I don’t even know how he got my number.  

Trinidad James: He pulled some Rick Ross shit on you! Rick Ross did that to me when I dropped “All Gold Everything” video. I was in New York for a press run or something and then the next day, I woke up to him on my phone. I was like, How this nigga get my number? Crazy shit! Anyways.

Official cover art for Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota,” by Popstar Benny.

Popstar Benny: [laughs] Exactly. [Tony’s] like, “I be seeing you doing covers.” Because as much as I was DJing and making beats, I was doing cover arts too. It was a couple of months of me literally just pulling up on him to get the cash for the covers. But then I was hearing the songs for each cover.

So that transitioned into me starting to go to the studio with him, just locking in. It’s me getting into my zone, finding a little community of artists to directly work with. That’s when I kicked off Popstar FM. 2016, 2017, just being in that little circle with Tony, 10k, all them. We’re just having these sessions, making a whole bunch of songs. It might be like two or three crazy songs that we just all been texting each other for the past two or three months. I’m like, “Bro no one ever is gonna hear these,” because we just keep making more songs. 

I saw it happen in 2015. I don’t know if you ever listened to Danger Incorporated, they got some really crazy kind of synth pop, R&B leaning type of stuff. They were kind of like later generation Awful Records. They had a song that went crazy, but it was just a secret SoundCloud link that was getting passed around a couple months before it even came out. They would be at shows like performing it, and everyone in the crowd was knowing it, anticipating it, but it hadn’t even dropped yet. Within the scene, I feel like we were having all these secret songs.

Trinidad James: I love that. If you know you know.

Popstar Benny: Exactly. And that’s how I really feel things started picking up. I did a compilation tape that had Tony, 10k, RobOlu, Lil Wop. Just on some, this is the new Atlanta, what’s happening, type thing. And then we ended up on the crazy A3C stage that year. That was helping create a little mystique in the city. 

Trinidad James: The things you and Bear1Boss do, Tony do, all those guys are new people that I’m finding out about, and I always love that, because it remind me so much of that scene that I came up with. It’s just like, “if you know, you know” guys, and somebody’s gonna pop, somebody’s always gonna pop and change the dynamic again. They know we’re talented, but importantly, we have a certain type of swag to our confidence. And that is what people really get into.

Tony is consistent with his music. But if the stars align, people are going to really gravitate to his demeanor as an artist. That’s what people gon’ really like. That’s a certain type of consumer’s favorite type of rapper. 

Popstar Benny: I know exactly what you mean.

Trinidad James: That’s a fan base. I think that’s really, really dope. I think that Bear1boss is the star, I really do. And you gotta find your Dr. Dre, you gotta find your Quincy. Or the Dr. Dre or the Quincy gotta find their Michael, gotta find their Snoop, gotta find their Eazy-E. So however it works out, you on your Professor Xavier shit.

Popstar Benny: That’s appreciated, my man. I gotta ask—of course the internet helped, but what do you feel like helped locally in Atlanta with your come up?

Trinidad James: In high school, I went to a different school every year. I went to an all white school and an all black school. That helped me to understand the duality of culture, from a race thing. And then coming up in Atlanta and understanding the AUC and understanding the trap, it gave me the perspective of two different Black men, but it’s still Black men. I was getting the full experience of the Black diaspora from Atlanta, GA, from these different types of Black people or whatever.

And I know how to communicate with people and talk to people. When I come into the room, no matter who it is, Jay Z, or anybody else is not Jay Z, no matter what level they’re on, I understand how to speak their language. That goes a long way with people.

Popstar Benny: Even just in our first session, I know you done met everyone in the world, but it’s like, Alright, cool, I’m locking in with Popstar Benny today. And it’s the same level of excitement and treatment. I could definitely understand how that could carry. Everyone at their different levels are used to just everyone treating them weird probably. 

Trinidad James: With a session, you only have that day to do it. Whatever else is to come, we won’t know bro. I might leave the studio that day and die. We only got that session to make it count, to treat you the way that I actually feel. If I don’t treat you exactly how I feel, I might not get exactly who you are in that session. And I want you to come to that session and give me exactly who you are, because this is what I’ve already observed and want. Today’s the only thing that can matter. Who you gonna be or what you’re gonna to be or what is to come from what we do is not promised. What’s promised is the time that we finna spend right now in this session. I don’t want to waste it being too cool.

Popstar Benny: Even just coming to hang out at you and Tony’s session, that was the same thing. That’s why I feel like you got a really, really crazy verse locked down [from him].

Trinidad James: When I found out about Tony, he took me through a time warp. I was like, Damn, this feels like when I met Curtis the first time, this feels like when I met Wiz Khalifa, and then [Wiz and I] went on tour in 2013. Two tours! We did the Under The Influence [Of Music] tour in America, and then me and him hit it off so well, he was like, “Bro, come overseas with me.”

Popstar Benny: You gotta talk about that! [laughs]

Trinidad James: All Gold Everything dropped 10/17/2012. I’m a big Gucci Mane fan so that’s why I dropped it on that day. And things started going. We dropped the video, I’m working with TIG, it was a lot happening for all of us. I definitely hadn’t experienced success in music. That was my first music! Boom, this person calling me, this person, this person, we pulling up on Diddy, I get to meet Jay Z. Everybody that’s coming to my train is really excited about it.

In the midst of that, they got me as support for Wiz Khalifa on the Under The Influence tour. So it’s Wiz, me, A$AP, Joey Badass, Tyga, Ty Dolla Sign, and maybe somebody else I can’t think of right now.

Popstar Benny: That’s a crazy ass tour.

Trinidad James: Bro it was crazy. It’s absolutely crazy. Trust me. It’s where the “Work” remix came from— 

Popstar Benny: Yoooooooo!!!!!

Trinidad James: That’s where me and Wiz hit it off. I was the lone wolf. I’m cool with everybody but I’m doing my own thing, I’m to myself. For me I’m always big on like, if somebody here is the boss, that’s who I want to talk to. And [Wiz] was the boss. This who Imma be cool with. He put me on my first DAB and-

Popstar Benny: [laughs] Nah that’s history, bro!

Trinidad James: Straight up bro opened my mind up on some mushroom journey type stuff, even though it wasn’t mushrooms. Just a completely different idea of any type of associate or friend that I had in the past. And we also have this far apart synergy because in 2010 when he drops, Cabin Fever, it’s a mixtape—

Popstar Benny: That’s one of my favorite Wiz projects ever. The camo shorts were hard!

Trinidad James: Bro, I burned [that tape] out in the store I ran that I pushed my mixtape out of. I pushed his mixtape out of it. I sold a quarter million dollars in camo shorts to Atlanta because of Wiz. 2010 summer. 

Popstar Benny: Bro, niggas walking around with that patch. He needs to know!

Trinidad James: And he knew that! He wasn’t from our city, but he knew. That’s what taking over is: when your style takes over shit too. Being like Wiz in 2010 was the most affordable that you could have ever been after the Dickie suit era from NWA. Cause it’s camo shorts, white tee, Chuck Taylors. That cost us $100. 

So we have conversations about that. And then, when we were done with the tour in America, he was like, “Yo, I’m about to go overseas—Paris, Germany, all these places. Come, bro, we rock with you.”

You been telling me you gon’ do a worldwide tour, man!

Popstar Benny: Bro that’s literally the only goal that I have left. I feel like I’ve hit every little thing that I’ve kind of listed out over the years. But the tour, that’s kind of where I’m stuck at, for real. I feel like it’s really just a matter of setting aside that time for it. I can either really lock in, executive producer mode and keep running that, or like take a little DJ tour quest saga. That’s kind of what it’s looking like. It’s definitely on the goal list, but also I feel like traveling be exhausting. I’m like, Can I do it? But it’s only one way to find out.

Trinidad James: That’s very true. The sacrifices you make now, they grow the things that you really want to grow internally. What you see for your label, what you see for yourself—making those sacrifices now, there’s no better time to do it. Because the older you get, or the longer you wait to do ‘em, the less motivated you feel to do it. I don’t think that you need to do every single thing or every single idea or every single gamble that’s in your head right now, but it’s obviously important for you to gamble on yourself. Why stop now? You already got this far, you literally got a billboard in the city. There’s artists that ain’t never had a billboard in the city.

Popstar Benny: That’s actually factual.

Trinidad James: These are the sacrifices that make the biggest difference. And that difference doesn’t always necessarily pay you off the fullest, but it pays the game that you’re playing off the fullest. Everybody that’s in the underground wave with you. Everybody that comes to your parties who wants to see more, and don’t want to be like, Oh, yeah, we had a few years where we was tight. Nah, bro. Make sure that somebody solidifies that with some type of success, plaques, makes a difference. And that could be you.

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