The last two years have been a blur for Cole Bennett.
The 22-year-old music video director and entrepreneur started his Lyrical Lemonade company five years ago in Illinois, and he's watched it explode into a new media empire over the past 24 months. Making videos for artists like Lil Pump, Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp, and Juice WRLD, Bennett has played a crucial role for dozens of rappers who emerged from the depths of SoundCloud and established themselves in the mainstream. Not only has he provided them with memorable videos, he's given them a platform that didn't previously exist.
After kickstarting the careers of rappers like Lil Skies and Lil Xan with well-timed placements on his Lyrical Lemonade YouTube channel, Bennett's life changed dramatically. Mainstream stars began asking for videos. Labels started calling with partnership offers. He even became a celebrity figure in his own right, accumulating over a million followers on Instagram (in addition to the six million people who subscribe to him on YouTube).
Cole Bennett's personal story mirrors a larger arc in hip-hop's recent history. The quote, unquote “SoundCloud rap scene” was ignored by traditional media as it bubbled in the underground for years. Then artists like Lil Pump and XXXTentacion blew up in 2017 and forced everyone to pay attention. Before long, labels were shelling out multi-million dollar deals to unproven artists on the strength of SoundCloud buzz. Now, as 2018 comes to a close, hip-hop finds itself in a new place. The excitement of the “SoundCloud rap” era is drifting away. Rappers are leaning more heavily than ever on social media, and Spotify's new direct upload program gives DIY artists another place to easily self-distribute their music. The wild, blown-out aesthetic that defined the era is evolving as well. “I think ‘SoundCloud rap’ is essentially no longer a thing,” Bennett says.
Future and Juice WRLD's new Lyrical Lemonade video for “No Issue” represents another shift for both Bennett and hip-hop as a whole. The lines have blurred between the underground and the mainstream, while younger and older generations are figuring out how to co-exist. And Cole Bennett is now operating on a massive scale, managing to remain independent and free of traditional industry restraints.
As hip-hop sits on the edge of another transitional moment, we spoke with Cole Bennett about his thoughts on 2018 rap, his goals for Lyrical Lemonade, creating a “new MTV,” and witnessing the prodigious talents of Juice WRLD.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
In 2017, you said people often dismissed the artists you were working with and didn't take them seriously. Since then, the industry has caught up and some of that has changed. What is the biggest difference between then and now?
The biggest thing that's changed is that you can't deny it anymore. There was this long period where all of these quote, unquote “SoundCloud rappers” were putting up bigger numbers than mainstream acts who are all over the radio. The sound of it was aggressive at some times, and it had content that a lot of the gatekeepers and media outlets didn't want to accept yet. But then it got to a point where you couldn't help it anymore. You can't help the direction music goes in. You can't help what people like and what the youth gravitates to. That's just what people enjoy.
I think we're in a time where people just want to have a good time. They want to listen to stuff they enjoy. They want to hear sounds that make them happy. I think that we reached the breaking point where, like I said, the media outlets couldn't say no anymore. They couldn't ignore it. They had to pick up on it, and I feel like that happened in a lot of ways. Not only did these artists start to break out on the main Spotify playlists, but even major artists started to gravitate toward them and work with them, because they saw the influence. Kanye West and Lil Pump. That's a great example. Obviously that happened down the road some after everything broke into place, but Kanye collaborating with someone like Lil Pump is a great example of how that whole thing worked.
these artists are blowing up so quickly, and sometimes it's difficult to handle because they're not media trained. No one knows how to just be a superstar suddenly.
That transition from the underground to the mainstream happened so fast. Were there any growing pains?
This has been one of the quickest come-ups for any type of music in a very long time. I think the biggest thing is just how it can happen so quickly. An artist can literally blow up overnight, you know? It's a term that they used to say, but actually someone can really blow up overnight now. I think the growing pain that comes with that is that these are just kids at the end of the day. These are regular people, you know what I mean? They're just like you and me. So when you throw someone into fame at such a fast pace like that, it's difficult because there are things that they weren't ready for.
You don't know how to handle the media. You don't know how to handle everything. You can say one thing on the internet, and your career takes a turn left or right. The biggest growing pain for the whole new scene is that these artists are blowing up so quickly, and sometimes it's difficult to handle because they're not media trained. No one knows how to just be a superstar suddenly, you know?
There's already another generation that's coming behind guys like X, Ski Mask, Lil Pump, and the whole “SoundCloud rap” wave. How would you describe this new era? How are things changing?
I think SoundCloud rap is essentially no longer a thing. Unless you want to put a label on people who actually blew up from it over the past couple years, but I don't think anyone coming out now is a SoundCloud rapper, so to say. I think SoundCloud is getting used less and less every day because of how easy it is to get your music on Apple Music and Spotify. Anyone can do it now, so I think a lot of people are taking that route and just skipping over the whole SoundCloud step. They also upload their music to SoundCloud, but it's not as much of a thing as it used to be. And I think it used to be such a big thing just because Spotify and Apple Music felt inaccessible to some of these younger artists.
In terms of where everything stands right now, it's kind of hard to put your finger on. There's not a clear distinction of what can make or break an artist right now. The way people are utilizing Instagram is almost as vital as how people were using SoundCloud two years ago. It's really about social media as a whole. It's about just coming up with your own creative tactics. Everyone has their own approach. I think using the internet in your own creative ways is better than having some marketing budget behind you. Someone like Ski Mask or Pump could literally have a video recorded on a phone of them playing a 30 second snippet in the studio, and that's all they need to hype up a song that may end up being the next “Gucci Gang” or “Catch Me Outside.”
That's all you need to do: just interact with your fans. There are so many different creative tactics you can use now. Someone like 6ix9ine, just trolling—look where it got him. Obviously people have to like the music too, but you need to get creative with how you use the internet. Then there are situations where you just make such good music that it speaks for itself, and you might take a different approach. There are so many different ways, I could go on and on, but you've just got to find your niche. It all comes down to social media in a lot of ways.
That moment when guys like Lil Pump and Ski Mask were blowing up felt like a game-changer. What do you think that movement will be remembered for? What will the legacy be?
It was so powerful. That moment will be remembered forever because it shifted the way that people look at music. A lot of people didn't want to see it happen. The kids were loving it and the internet was fully behind it, but it seemed like everyone else—the whole opposite side of the internet—didn't want to see that be a thing. No one wanted to see Lil Pump have a top 10 Billboard hit record. A lot of people didn't want to see X make any progress. People didn't want to see these artists succeed for various reasons, and the power of the internet and their fan bases just overpowered everyone. They pushed and they pushed until no one could do anything about it. Now there are talks of X possibly getting a Grammy. That's crazy. Lil Pump has a fucking song with Kanye West. People didn't want to see these guys win. They really didn't. It's a cliché thing to say, but they were definitely the underdogs, and they didn't give a fuck. And it worked out. I think that that moment will be remembered forever. It changed so much.
You recently took your name out of your YouTube channel title, so now it's just “Lyrical Lemonade” without “Cole Bennett.” Why did you make that decision?
I came to an understanding that the brand is bigger than just me at this point. I think that was an important move to make because it lets this become an empire. You can only ride your own name for so long. There's just a lot of different things that come with your name being your brand. As much as I think branding Cole Bennett was an important move, I know that's not what I wanted in the long run. Lyrical Lemonade is something that I can stand behind, something that I can curate, something that can be the mind of myself as well as others. I just want it to become an empire—more of a collective effort and just pull away from it being centered around myself.
Do you still direct and edit every video yourself?
Yeah, I direct and edit every project. I'm going to do that for as long as I can—plenty more years. The advantage with that is that I'm one person, so I can only direct and edit so much content. I can only get behind so many projects, so that forces us to be exclusive, which is one of the powers of our curation. We’ll only pump out like three videos a month—sometimes more, and sometimes even less than that. I think that makes it even more exclusive and puts us in higher demand. It makes it even more difficult to get in touch, and then with everyone who we do work with, there's such a strong relationship we build. It's a very personal and fun experience, so I'm gonna try to do that for as long as possible.
You still make an effort to work with small rising artists, even though I know you’re always getting hit up by labels to work with their big stars. Why is that important to you?
I think that all stems from the time I did a Migos video and it never came out. That was such a difficult moment for me when I realized that it was not coming out after how much time I spent on it, and how much back and forth there was. It was like I touched the ceiling very briefly and then I fell back to the ground. That moment really opened my eyes to what I have [with Lyrical Lemonade]. What I really love doing is working with these artists. For me, working with new artists is so much fun because you get to grow with them. You get to really build with these people from the ground up, and you share the same goals and the same aspirations of wanting to make something special.
It becomes less about money and all these different prizes, and more just because you love doing it. The passion of these newer artists is the same passion that I have, so it's a seamless collaboration when we work together. I had said I either want to work with the younger guys, or I want to work with like OG's and people that I've looked up to for the longest time. So that was the thrill that I got out of working with someone like Wiz and Gucci and then collaborating those two forces together. There's Wiz and Skies, and then there's Future and Juice. That was so important for me to bind those two.
Based on Future's tweets, it looked like that whole collaboration with Juice WRLD came together really quickly. How fast did you have to put that video together?
It moved very quickly behind the scenes. I was actually supposed to have done multiple Future videos before that, and there was always only a 3 to 4 day notice. I'd have to tell them I either had something going on or it was just unrealistic. For this, when they called me and wanted to shoot, it was like 3 or 4 days away. Then we went out there and we did the video. It was a very quick thing, though. Just as fast as the album came together, was the same way the music video was made. And that was only one of three videos that they filmed that week. They released three videos in the same day as the album, including the “No Issue” video. It was very late notice.
Juice WRLD IS in place to be a superstar, a legend, to be remembered forever.
Juice WRLD seems like he could be the biggest star in the world if he wants to, but he's still kind of mysterious given how big he's getting. You've worked with him a lot. What are your thoughts on Juice WRLD?
Juice WRLD is one of the most talented people I know. The way he works is crazy. That whole Future project, he freestyled. Almost every song that comes out, he freestyles. Even songs that he puts together with a hook and a bridge and a full layout of what a song should be, he freestyles. The way he comes up with things and the way he works is just unbelievable. The thing about Juice WRLD is he always wants to be in the studio. He's addicted to working. And I think that's why him and I get along so well. He just always wants to work.
When we were in Europe a couple of weeks ago, we'd go to the studio every night and he'd make like five to seven songs a night. And it's like “Okay, on to the next one.” I don't really know how to describe it. I feel like how quick he came up and his whole storyline so far was no coincidence. What he's going to do moving forward is unreal. I mean, some of the features that he has ready to go, they go way beyond hip-hop. Juice WRLD is in place to be a superstar, a legend, to be remembered forever.
But these things all fall in the artist's hands. It's up to Juice to turn this legacy into what it could become. But I have no doubt that he'll do that, because he's in love with working. He doesn't really fall into all the extra shit that comes with being a huge artist. He kind of keeps to himself. He does what he enjoys.
You've been using an MTV-referencing “Lyrical Lemonade TV” logo lately, and I know people have been saying that Lyrical Lemonade is the new MTV for a while. What do you think of that?
I was a bit younger when MTV was in its prime with music in the late '90s, early 2000s. I remember I would see it on the TV, and I would just love watching all the music videos. I always loved how MTV blended so many different things, from cartoon shows to music to the videos to everything. It was this melting pot of so many different interesting things that intersect somehow, some way, without having any face value similarities. So with Lyrical Lemonade, I think that there are a lot of similarities. Lyrical Lemonade takes you back to the roots of what MTV once was, in terms of the music and the videos and people falling in love with all these different factors that go into the music. I feel like that's what Lyrical Lemonade is bringing out. The whole LLTV was kind of just a fun spin off of it. It was more so like a—not a joke—but it's just something fun we're playing around with.
Lyrical Lemonade takes you back to the roots of what MTV once was, in terms of the music and the videos and people falling in love with all these different factors that go into the music.
You've already achieved a lot of the goals you originally set for yourself. As we're heading towards a new year, what are your new goals?
It's crazy. Everything that I once set out to do, a lot of it has already come true. So I couldn't be happier in that sense. But it really motivates me to make new goals and reach to do different things. With the lemonade coming out, I'm super excited about that, just because it's such a different avenue and it's so different than anything I've ever done before. You know, it's the beverage business. I think that will be cool.
I'm also working on a documentary that I'm really excited about. I really want to work on different types of visual content outside of just music videos, but present them in the same type of way—you'll digest them very similarly and everything's cohesive and connected. I don't want to steer too far away from the content we've done in terms of how people receive it, but I want to dive into different pieces of content like documentaries and short films. But I want to incorporate all the people who I've worked with, and still keep that home-grown feel to it.
Lots of kids look up to rappers, but there aren't many behind-the-scenes role models for those who want to do things like become a director. You recently tweeted, “It doesn't happen overnight. Good ideas take time. You're doing just fine.” That seemed like a clear message to those people. What did you mean by that?
Sometimes, when I say stuff like that, they're just notes to myself. But I understand that they can also speak to people beyond me. Sometimes I place stuff like that on the internet just to put it out in the world and remind people. Sometimes it takes one simple reminder. You need to see something to push you back on your path and what you want to do. And it doesn't happen overnight. You really have to stay along for the journey. Sometimes things seem to happen so quickly. I mean, just now we were talking about the music industry, all these artists, and how the whole style of music itself is so quick. But the reality behind these things is that these people have been working for such a long time prior to that. There's a build up to these things. There are a lot of things that take place to get people in these positions before we ever start seeing it. You just have to stay on track. If you really want it, and if it's supposed to be, then it's going to happen. That was what that tweet meant.
In terms of what I am to the kids and the youth—if that's even a thing—I'm realizing more and more that I do have a voice in some ways. Sometimes it's frightening. We're all young. We all make mistakes sometimes. So it keeps you on your toes a bit more. You have to be more responsible. Me being 22, it puts everything in place and it kind of opens my eyes. My voice is power right now, so I need to use it the right way. It's a good feeling, but I'm trying not to fall into that. I try to just do what I've been doing. It's worked so far. Hopefully people can use that as an outline and motivation.
We're all just messing around and enjoying life. And we get to be creative and productive with it at the same time. What a blessing.
You recently directed the “Reboot” video, which featured Chance the Rapper. I know he was a big inspiration for you, coming up in Chicago. What was that moment like?
That was a really surreal moment for me because Chance was one of the reasons I started in the first place, if we're being honest. But beyond just Chance, guys like KAMI and Joey Purp, I was listening to them when I was a freshman in high school. Those were my favorite rappers. Literally all those guys. To be able to work with any of them was super crazy for me.
It was one of those things where you do it, it happens, you go home, and you have that moment where you're like, "What is life, what's going on, this is amazing, I can't even believe it." And then you snap into and you're like, “Okay, this is happening for a reason, I'm supposed to be here.” And then you just get back to it. You always remember what that felt like, and then you try to find feeling again. But yeah, I'll never forget that. That was a huge moment in my career. What it meant to me personally, you just can't beat that.
You have said that the reason you like working with all these younger guys is because you all have a lot of fun together. What's the most fun you've had making a video in 2018?
I think when I did the Wiz and Skies' video, the "Fr Fr" video. There's a scene during Skies' verse where they had a food fight—they're throwing fucking flour and rice and beans and shit. So, I had made a little casting flyer and I threw it on my Instagram, and all those kids in the video showed up anonymously from the internet. We had them email a private email and they all came out. These are all regular kids. They weren't part of a casting agency or anything. They didn't even know who the video was for, so they were super stoked to be a part of a Wiz and Skies video.
For that scene, we were going to have a food fight, and then Skies was going to fall into the food fight. I remember someone was like, "Oh, I don't think Skies wants to get his hair dirty.” And I was like, “I know Skies, and Skies is going to be excited to do this.” So Skies is like, “Yo man, we're going to do this shit. We're going to have fun.” I remember this person actually threw flour all over Skies' head—like all over it. And he just started laughing and jumping and we were all having so much fun.
We're all just trying to have fun. I think that's what I share with all these artists. Skies could have been like, “You got it all over my shirt, all over my hair. That was not part of the plan.” But he was having fun, because we all having fun. And we're always laughing. That was a moment where I was like, “This shit's so awesome.” We're all just messing around and enjoying life. And we get to be creative and productive with it at the same time. What a blessing.