Benny Blanco says he's not the type to seek out opportunities to appear onstage in front of tens of thousands of people.
But that's exactly what the producer and songwriter did last December at the Rolling Loud festival in Los Angeles, where Blanco — known for his behind-the-scenes work with superstars such as Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Halsey — took part in a kind of public memorial for his friend Juice Wrld just a week after the singer and rapper's death at age 21 from an accidental drug overdose.
"It was overwhelming," Blanco, 32, recalled of the event that had him leading an enormous audience through shout-along renditions of several of the throbbing emo-rap songs, including "Roses" and "Black & White," that he helped create with Juice Wrld. "Juice moved so many kids with his music — with the things he needed to get off his chest. And that night they were hurting.
"I just wanted to do my best to support them and to support his legacy."
A year later, he's still doing that: To mark what would've been Juice Wrld's 22nd birthday, Blanco dropped a new track called "Real S _" on Wednesday showcasing the rapper's yelpy flow and frankly confessional lyrics. It's the latest in a string of posthumous releases for Juice Wrld, whose blockbuster 2020 LP "Legends Never Die" propelled him to No. 1 on Spotify's list of the year's most-streamed artists in the U.S.
Blanco discussed his late collaborator — and Juice Wrld's vexing absence from last week's Grammy nominations — in a phone call Wednesday afternoon.
Q: You wrote on Instagram that you knew Juice Wrld "was going to change music forever" the first time you met him. What convinced you?
A: I work with some of the most talented people in the world, but I'd never seen a person with my own two eyes do what he did. We'd make six or seven songs a day, and I don't mean we made six or seven ideas and two of them are good. He'd go in the booth and the first thing that came out of his mouth was the chorus — melody, lyrics, everything all in one, right off the bat. Then he'd do the same thing again (over the same beat), but it would be a completely different song.
Q: Would he have stuff written down?
A: No. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think it was just channeling through him. Look at everything he did in a year and a half, two years. He had thousands of songs, and the quality was so good. I knew from the second I heard him in my friend's car that I needed to find this guy.
Q: What song did your friend play you?
A: "Robbery," which he put out later in his career. That was the thing — he had so much material that sometimes he'd put out a song that he made the week before, sometimes an older one. But above all that, he was such a good guy. Artists can be difficult, but he was so easygoing, so considerate and respectful. It's rare for someone to find success that fast and not be a d — .
Q: Lots of young artists have emulated Juice Wrld's style in the year since his death.
A: He created a sound. But he's the pinnacle. To me he's one of the greats. He's up there with Lil Wayne and Eminem.
Q: Where do you think he would've gone musically over the next few years?
A: Across all genres. He could do a hard-ass rap song, then go make a song where he's in his feelings, singing. If he wanted to, he could've made a whole pop album.
Q: What's it like to work on a song that comes out after an artist's death?
A: There's such a different meaning. He was so happy during the time we were making it, but it's hard to listen to now. You listen to the lyrics — you try to decipher things and see if he was saying something.
Q: Do you have more songs you made together?
Q: Think they'll come out?
A: I have no idea.
Q: What was your reaction to Juice Wrld's not being nominated for a single Grammy Award?
A: I don't look at that stuff. I mean, Grammys are cool, but that is definitely not how I measure success. I measure success by the influence that someone puts on the earth and their legacy. And he wins all the awards in my book.
I don't understand why people put such importance on what such a small group is deciding. Who makes them the authority? They're always gonna make someone mad, but it seems like more often than not, especially of late, they're missing the mark.
Q: Does the Recording Academy's judgment seem particularly off regarding hip-hop?
A: Of course. But look, if I asked you right now how many Grammys Prince won, would you know? Do you know how many Grammys Marvin Gaye won? No. But you know how wildly successful Prince was, and you know most of his songs. And you know that Marvin Gaye has been influential on your life. That's all that matters. The Oscars, the Emmys, it's such a little club — it's their friends, and they're scratching other people's backs. It's all part of playing the game, and I don't believe in it.
Q: One more thing: Your song "Lonely" with Justin Bieber is the rare ballad to break through this year. It's just his vocal and your keyboard. Was it hard to resist adding anything else?
A: I made the song thinking, So many people are making songs with lots of drums that it's becoming monotonous. I want to write a beautiful song where there are no distractions. You're just hearing everything as it is. But yeah, it was hard. I did a version with drums.
Q: Is it as good?
A: It is not as good.
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