Ben Reilly grew up in New York on comic books and hip-hop, with lyricists like Nas and Rakim among the first artists to grab his full attention as a child. He’s always been attracted to things that take effort to dissect, and he enjoys going the extra mile to find the deeper meaning in it all. Maybe partly because of that, he never saw himself as the kind of artist who would have a viral moment on TikTok, an app seemingly designed for, well, not overthinking.
“I like TikTok,” he tells me over Zoom from his new home in Atlanta. “I hop on there, watch little funny videos, send videos to my friends and family and stuff like that.” He knew other artists were getting big breaks on the platform, but the way he saw it, at least at first: “Bro, I’m not about to do these corny dances… I take myself way too seriously as a rap artist.”
The born and raised New Yorker had been taking rap seriously since high school, but always as part of a group called Abstract Media. When the pandemic hit, isolation forced him to focus on his first-ever solo project, FREELANCE.
After hearing time and time again that all artists need to take advantage of TikTok—plus being reassured that it didn’t need to be goofy dances or viral trends—he decided to give it a shot. On a whim while he was at work, he posted a clip from his song “Maytag.” He was thoughtful about it, as he is about everything related to his music, and teased the perfect snippet of the song with a 14-second clip from the music video. The next day, it had a million views.
Despite that video being seen almost six million times to date, I didn’t hear about Ben Reilly that way. I heard about him through his manager Kei Henderson, who worked closely with Atlanta A-lister 21 Savage during his rise, before taking a break from rap. She sent over the music video for “Townhouse,” explaining that this was the artist who got her back into hip-hop. I loved it, dug into the whole FREELANCE project, and told her I’m interested in covering this on P&P. “Ben writes all the treatments,” she said. “Very hands on creatively. You’ve gotta hear the inspiration behind this project. [Ben is a] really intentional guy.”
Ben’s intentional nature is obvious in the music, and evident in every topic of conversation that comes up. He is meticulous about everything—from the birds on his project’s cover to the meaning behind his name to the way he maps out his career path. At the beginning of 2022 he wrote down his goals for the year, and in less than a month, half of them were already crossed off. After 10-plus years of rapping, things are starting to come together, and much faster than he imagined.
Still independent, Ben is now having meetings with people he never thought he’d meet, taking trips to Los Angeles (he’d never been before this year), and for the first time in his adult life, he’s not working a regular job outside of music. He’s a full-time rapper, and he doesn’t take it for granted.
“I’ve been through a lot and I know now I’ll be able to handle whatever’s thrown at me,” he says. “Of course, I know there’s going to be ups and downs—that happens, but I’m super prepared for whatever comes next.”
The first thing I saw from you was the cover of your project FREELANCE, and it makes a really strong impression. What’s the story behind that cover?
The project FREELANCE is based around the idea of redefining what freedom means. I’m playing with the word free and having fun with the word free in itself. I came up with the idea in quarantine. When everybody was locked in the house, I would still go for runs around my area. Every time I would run, I would see these red cardinal birds. And every time I seen them, I would feel at peace. I always wondered, “What about these birds is triggering this feeling for me?”
When I started to research the birds, I learned that there’s a lot of symbolism behind cardinals. They represent peace, freedom, or a loved one who’s no longer with you coming to visit and let you know that everything’s going to be fine. When I found that out, I went down a rabbit hole. I was really into it. I started researching the birds themselves, and that’s when I found out, oh, the red cardinal bird is the male, the brown bird is the female, and that’s why my project has the songs “Brown Bird” and “Red Bird.” “Red Bird” is basically a realization that I’m the bird.
As I looked more into it, I learned the longest that a cardinal has ever lived in captivity was 13 years. But in freedom, it was 28 years. I challenged myself to make 13 songs within the 28-minute mark, and that’s what I did with FREELANCE.
Have you always thought about things in this way, going down rabbit holes and thinking through every detail, or is that something you picked up when you started sharing your own ideas?
Well, kind of. I read comic books and stuff. I love when I read a story and there’s something that was all the way in the beginning that comes back at the end. It’s like, damn, if you really paid attention, you would’ve caught that. I like shit like that, so I apply that to my music. I like paying a lot of attention to detail when it comes to my music. Me and my group—I’m in a group called Abstract Media—have been that way for a while. We are very intentional with how we lay things out, even how we transition things and put certain sound effects. We’re very, very meticulous.
Can you just go back to the beginning? When did you start making music, and when did you start feeling comfortable enough to release it?
I’ve always been in love with hip-hop. My mom used to rap, my pops used to rap, and I was raised in a single-parent household with my mother. She would always play old school shit, like Rakim, Nas, KRS-One, all types of stuff. I fell in love with rap when I heard Dana Dane’s song “Nightmares.” That’s the song that made me want to rap.
As I got older, my big cousins used to rap and I used to try to rap with them and they’ll be like, “Get out of here. You suck.” And then in high school, it was 2010, I was like, “Nah, I really want to be a rapper.” I started writing a lot and I ended up recording my first song in 2010. It wasn’t very good, but I feel like you could hear the potential. And then I formed my group, we got together, and we started working.
I love when I read a story and there’s something that was all the way in the beginning that comes back at the end. It’s like, damn, if you really paid attention, you would’ve caught that. I like shit like that, so I apply that to my music.
By our senior year, we put out a mixtape. It was on HotNewHipHop because at the time anyone could just upload their music, but they took it down because it was so inactive. I wish I could find it, but you can’t find that mixtape nowhere now. Everybody at school loved it though.
After 2013, we started writing songs. Around that time we were all just trying to see who had the hottest bars on the song type stuff. 2015 came along, we put out a project, and I would like to say it was in the realm of Soulection and stuff like that. We really started to hone in on the songwriting and making people want to sing along with our music and not just be super lyric-heavy. We really cared about our lyrics, so we wanted to make the verses lyrical but have the hooks be fun. Over time, we started to play with that, we started to play with our voices, and around 2015, 2016, we started to come into our voices.
We put out two projects since, in 2015 and 2017. We put out little EPs and stuff, and I would do features outside of the group, but when quarantine happened, that’s when we was like, “Okay, we’re going to work on some solo stuff.” One of my group members dropped their first solo project and then I followed up with FREELANCE last year and yeah, we up. FREELANCE is my first time doing solo stuff, but I’m still a part of my group.
Was it different for you making a solo project versus being with the group?
Yeah, I would make the song or make some hooks or whatever and I’d present it to the group like, “Yo, what y’all think about this?” When we got so isolated because of quarantine and had to really be alone, it challenged me to start writing my own second verses, and I got to start writing third verses and thinking more about things like song structure. But I found I had a lot of fun with that.
You mentioned you grew up a hip-hop fan, but FREELANCE has a lot of jazzy melodies and harmonies and all these other musical elements to it. Has that always been in your DNA or is that something you’ve discovered recently?
I’m not super well versed in all the jazz and blues artists, but when I hear good music, I love it. You know what I mean? And there’s plenty of jazz music that my family used to play that I will always be really into without even knowing the name of it. I’ve always been into how music sounds and when I hear something cool, I really take to it. That’s what I try to do in my own stuff. I try to play with my voice and I try to do a lot of different jazzy sounds. Some of the instrumentation sounds real distorted and clunky on FREELANCE and I really like that about it.
I have to ask about your name too. I know it’s a Spider-Man reference, but how did you land on that name and what does it mean to you?
My real name is Nahree. I was playing Spider-Man before I picked up the phone. I’m a super big comic book head. When I was searching for a name, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go for Peter Parker,” but I learned that that name was taken by a DJ or something. Ben Reilly is my favorite Spider-Man character anyway, so I was like, “This is my favorite version of Spider-Man. I’m going to name myself after Ben Reilly.” I did that, but over time, the meaning of it changed.
Early on, I was working at a restaurant to pay bills and to fund my music. I was serving and bartending. I was working one day, and these three ladies came in. It was a mother, a daughter, and the daughter’s best friend. I walked to the table and I introduced myself as Nahree. After a little while they were like, “Yo, what do you do? We can tell that this ain’t your shit. Burgers and fries is not what you want to do. What’s your thing?” And I was like, “Well, I make music. I’m a rapper.” They were like, “Word. Where can we hear some of your stuff?”
At this time, I didn’t have any solo music out, but I wrote down my stage name on the receipt: Ben Reilly. I wrote down my Instagram and my Twitter, and I wrote down my group name: Abstract Media. I handed it to one of the ladies, and she looked at it and she was like, “Who the fuck is Ben?” And I was like, “That’s me. That’s my name.” And she was like, “But you just told me your name was Nahree,” and I was like, “Yeah, no, Spider-Man ...” I went through the whole spiel that I just gave you, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m not going to lie, bro. Ben is a corny ass name.” And then she was like, “Nahree, what’s your name?” And I was like, “Nahree.” And she was like, “What’s your name?” I’m like, “Nahree.” It wasn’t clicking with me.
And she said, “Look, I’m going to be honest. This name ain’t it, but your name—your actual name, Nahree—is a beautiful name and I’ve never met another person with that name. Your mother gave you that name and you should embrace it.” And she kept saying, “Be Nahree, be Nahree, embrace Nahree.” It started to resonate, but at the time I was like, “Damn, I still like being called Ben.” They left me a $200 tip, which was a lot, and then I went home and I meditated on it. I thought about it, and I was like, “Damn, maybe I should change my stage name.”
But over time, I started to realize, “Nah, I’m going to stay Ben Reilly, but what if I change the meaning behind it?” Ben in itself is B-E-N, and the N is for Nahree. It stands for “be Nahree.” It reminds me to embrace myself and take pride in myself.
A lot of people heard you for the first time through TikTok. Your song “Maytag” had a big spike on there. How was that experience for you, especially as someone who thinks so much about the deeper meaning? Was it strange knowing millions of people heard it out of context?
I like TikTok. I hop on there, watch little funny videos, send videos to my friends and family and stuff like that. But a lot of people will always say like, “Yo, artists need to really take advantage of TikTok.” I’m like, “Bro, I’m not about to do these corny dances.” I can dance, don’t get me wrong, but I take myself way too seriously as a rap artist to be just sitting there doing little cute dances. But a friend was like, “Just post clips of your videos or whatever,” and I thought, “Okay, I could do that.”
One day, I was at work and I posted a clip of my “Maytag” video, and I was very calculated with how I posted it. I was like, “Oh, well I’m going to post just this much of it,” so that, when it dropped, they’re going to be like, “Damn, I want to see more.” I thought it might do something, but I didn’t think it was going to take off as quickly as it did. The next day, it had a million views. I woke up to almost a million views the next day.
Did that moment happen before the whole project was out?
This all just happened like three weeks ago, and the project was out last year.
You mentioned earlier that you’re going through some major life changes right now. What are those changes?
At the top of the year, I wrote down in my notebook [holds up notebook]… I wrote down my goals that I wanted to achieve this year and in less than a month, half of them were already marked up. Now I’m at a point where I don’t have to work my regular job anymore and I’m super appreciative of that. Now I can focus on my music and really go hard with my music. I’ve been rapping for 10, 12 years, and it’s nice to really, really see it all come to fruition.
I just went to LA for the first time, I’ve never been to LA. My life is changing and every day. I was on a billboard last week in New York, my hometown, and I wasn’t even able to be there, but that’s my hometown and it’s like that’s insane. And I’m still unsigned. Yeah, it’s a lot of different revelations, a lot of different phone calls that I’ve been getting that I’m like, “Damn, I’m really on the phone with this person right now?” It’s crazy.
I know it took time, but are you glad that it happened when it did? I hear from a lot of artists that maybe it happens too quickly when everything starts working and they aren’t ready for it yet.
I’m super appreciative. For me personally, I feel like if it happened earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I’ve been through a lot and I know now I’ll be able to handle whatever’s thrown at me. Of course, I know there’s going to be ups and downs—that happens, but I’m super prepared for whatever comes next.
What else can you tell me about what’s coming up for you? What is the plan for the next six months or rest of the year?
I already got a couple videos. I just dropped “Townhouse.” I got a visual for “Finsta” on the way. And then I’m working on some videos for “Ace High” and some other stuff for the project. I got a B-sides version of FREELANCE that I’m working on too. It’s a lot more cockier raps on there, but I’m having a lot more fun with it. I’m looking to release that this summer, and merch and some visuals for that project as well. I’m having a lot of fun with these shows too.
Is there anything else you want to talk about or tell the new listeners?
Stream FREELANCE, go crazy. That’s really it.