On a recent summer morning in his Manhattan apartment-slash-home studio, Benny Blanco, one of the most successful producers and songwriters in contemporary music, was scrolling through his own Wikipedia page, trying to remember all the hits that he’s made.
Teeth freshly brushed, in a pajama-like outfit that doubles as his regular uniform — soccer shorts, vintage Cher T-shirt, an unruly Chia Pet shrub of curls, tangled gold chains, Fenty slides — Mr. Blanco rattled off the director’s commentary on his discography as he tried to explain how he’d gone from an anonymous teenage goofball from the suburbs to the preferred studio goofball of pop stars everywhere.
With motor-mouthed enthusiasm, he reminisced about his feel-good, hands-in-the-air Top 40 anthems under the gurus Dr. Luke and Max Martin — Britney Spears’s “Circus,” Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” and “I Kissed a Girl,” Kesha’s “Tik Tok,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” — and took special pride in his run of smashes, post-apprenticeship, with Rihanna, Trey Songz, Maroon 5 and Iggy Azalea.
But Mr. Blanco, 30, lit up most describing his left turns: championing the understated British R&B singer Jessie Ware; collaborating with the elusive-yet-ubiquitous pop specter Francis and the Lights; his fruitful BFF status with Ed Sheeran; and his recent, unlikely run of contributions to Kanye West’s five-album marathon.
“I’ve produced every song I want to produce, I’ve done it every way I want to do it,” Mr. Blanco said, “and especially now with this Kanye stuff, my bucket-list dreams are pretty much checked off.” (For years, he’d kept a computer folder labeled “Kanye drums,” just in case.)
In addition to his chart-toppers, Mr. Blanco oversees two labels, Friends Keep Secrets and Mad Love, under Interscope Records, and is just as likely to pop up in the credits of a SoundCloud rapper (6 Dogs, Trill Sammy) as with the Weeknd or Lana Del Rey.
While the variety keeps him mostly stimulated, he said, “It got to the point where I was like, ‘What’s going to make me happy?’”
The answer, it turned out, was more hits — but this time with his name in front. A decade on from his first string of No. 1s, Mr. Blanco is finally spending his cultural capital and cashing in some favors, inching toward name recognition with a run of singles credited to Benny Blanco that feature his big-time collaborators. The first, “Eastside,” was released this month, written with Mr. Sheeran and featuring vocals from Halsey and Khalid.
Other A-list cameos will follow, as will the more adventurous stuff that he’s got tucked away with the likes of Juice WRLD, Rex Orange County, Francis and the Lights, Calvin Harris (as a vocalist!) and more. This fall, Mr. Blanco will release an official album, but he plans to continue adding songs to it after the fact, inspired in part by Mr. West’s living, breathing “The Life of Pablo.” By early next year, Mr. Blanco said, he hopes to have grown the album (playlist?) to some 30 tracks, a musical manifestation of his eclectic network and rarefied behind-the-scenes status.
“I have so many friends that are artists, and I work on so many songs, and sometimes it’s so hard to place them, even at my level,” Mr. Blanco said. “Now I can be like, well, I’ll put it out, and I get to do it exactly how I want. I happen to be the label, too.”
“Every rap producer in the world does it,” he added. “Why aren’t there pop guys doing it?”
Not quite an electronic D.J.-producer like Mr. Harris or Diplo, Mr. Blanco, who does not perform live, is part cheerleader (à la DJ Khaled, but without screaming “Benny Blanco!”), part social connector and part celebrity confidante — and yet mostly anonymous.
Still, Mr. Blanco, who is decidedly private about his personal life for such an extrovert, insisted that releasing his own music was less a bid for midcareer stardom than an experiment to keep from getting bored. “I definitely don’t want to be famous at all,” he said. “I beat the system — I get all the luxuries of being famous without actually being famous!”
Born Benjamin Levin to nonmusical but ever supportive (if skeptical) parents — a father in the “intimate apparel business” and a mother who worked in assisted living — Mr. Blanco was an aspiring rapper until he realized “no one cares what a chubby Jewish kid from Virginia thinks,” and began making beats instead. He recalled spamming artists on Myspace from his school library, and weekend trips to New York, where he slept in a Times Square McDonald’s and tried to land meetings.
After graduating from high school in 2006, he moved to Williamsburg and fell in to a rowdy party scene that included the rapper Spank Rock. As a duo, they released the “Bangers & Cash” EP, a 2 Live Crew homage that caught the ear of Dr. Luke, who would enlist Mr. Blanco into four years of pop-music boot camp.
“I didn’t know anything about songwriting,” Mr. Blanco said. “All my beats were like 40 seconds long.”
Even now, he considers his arsenal of traditional skills to be limited at best. “I couldn’t sit down and play a concert for you or really wow you on any instrument,” Mr. Blanco said, estimating that “like 75 percent” of his success comes from being a good hang. “What I can do is meet an artist, know what type of song I think we should make and be their therapist, make everyone feel comfortable.” (The studio, he said, must be like a “nest for newborns.”)
Crucially, he added, “I’m good at knowing when something’s really good.”
A gregarious Super Ball of energy with sparkly painted toenails, Mr. Blanco has an interpersonal genius that’s immediately obvious, and he exudes the easy intimacy of someone who’s rarely disliked. “I don’t have any burned bridges with any artist,” he said (though he lamented that he barely knows and has never recorded with Drake).
In fact, “I think maybe once or twice in my career, maybe, I’ve done a song with someone who’s not my friend,” Mr. Blanco said. “I’ll have made a song with an artist, and we’re just hanging out with another artist, and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I’ve always wanted to work with you!’ And then we’re chilling, and it happens. I don’t place songs through record labels — everything’s really organic.”
Take, for example, Ed Sheeran.
The two were set up on an industry friend-date just before Mr. Sheeran’s career skyrocketed, and they bonded immediately with “fart jokes on the email,” Mr. Blanco said. “We chilled all night, got wasted, had the best time. At some point, it was like, ‘Dude, we should try to make a song,’” and the result was “Don’t,” which would go on to become Mr. Sheeran’s first Top 10 single in the United States.
Some months later, Mr. Blanco said, Mr. Sheeran called him out of the blue — intoxicated “out of his mind” at a festival — just to talk. “After that, we became so tight,” Mr. Blanco said. He often joins Mr. Sheeran on tour to write and served as an executive producer on the singer’s outrageously popular third album, “÷.”
(The origin story for “Love Yourself,” the Grammy-nominated Justin Bieber single written by Mr. Sheeran and Mr. Blanco, is similarly sloshed, involving the release party for Drake and Future’s “What a Time to Be Alive,” a stop at the Canadian border and bad pizza.)
Mr. Blanco has a million of these — “stories from every artist that are the craziest story you ever heard.” Like the time he lived in the Hamptons for a month with Jay-Z and Beyoncé (and his frequent collaborator Sia), writing for Beyoncé’s self-titled album in between family meals and games of “Would You Rather?” that featured questions like “diarrhea or constipation for life?”
It’s these experiences — and the way he relays them with genuine wonder — that make Mr. Blanco’s existence feel like the music-industry equivalent of a ’90s kids movie (think “Blank Check” or “Rookie of the Year”) that trades on unbridled wish fulfillment. But for an Everyman, he’s also slyly savvy, gossiping like the consummate insider, but giving only enough to prove he’s plugged-in without betraying anyone’s confidence (or violating any nondisclosure agreements).
Working with Kanye West, for instance, was “crazy,” “incredible” and “inspiring.” “Everything you want to believe about him is true,” Mr. Blanco said — “in the best way possible!” To listeners, they may be cipher-like stars, but to Mr. Blanco, they are all homies, or buddies, or just good dudes.
What Mr. Blanco is not, however, is a hanger-on, or a name-dropper with nothing to back it up. In an effort to bolster his credentials (and assist in the journalistic process), Mr. Blanco solicited testimonials from his colleagues, insisting: “I can hook you up — I’ll get everyone.”
Mr. Sheeran came through, writing in an email: “Every time we work together on something, we write a song completely different than the last song we wrote,” and adding, “We are both as weird as each other.”
Mr. West, in a text via an associate, called Mr. Blanco “an amazing talent” who “brought in awesome, weird and aggressive sounds and concepts.” (The ka-ka-ka-ka drums on “Feel the Love,” from “Kids See Ghosts,” are Mr. Blanco’s.) Halsey, who is beginning work on her next album with Mr. Blanco, added: “Benny is hands down the most tremendous human I know. Everything about him personally and professionally is so refreshing and unique. He has a way of really connecting with his artists and pulling out the special elements that make the songs one of a kind. His ear is unbeatable, and he can always predict a hit.”
John Janick, the chairman and chief executive of Interscope Geffen A&M, said: “There’s nobody on the planet like Benny. And I can say that without hesitation.”
Somehow, though, Mr. Blanco remains humble, or at least self-deprecating, unable to forget his days of Myspace hustling, sleeping on couches and pretending to be Jay-Z’s lawyer to get on the phone with label execs, only to be hung up on anyway. He credited his longevity in the upper echelons of pop to “collaborating with other people who are much better than me,” as well as “staying young, staying fresh and always looking for new talent.”
In his latest role as a trusted curator, both for his labels and his own songs, Mr. Blanco is proving nimble and adaptable, and hoping to avoid the cold gusts of irrelevance that have suddenly struck many producers and artists as streaming shifts the center.
“This is like the first time — and I’m not going to say names — but the biggest pop artists have put out records and a lot of them flopped in the last year or two,” Mr. Blanco said.
“When we were kids, we were fed the single, we were fed what they told us to listen to, and you either didn’t like it or you heard it so many times you began to like it,” he continued. “Now, you put out an album, and the kids decide what the big song’s going to be. Things are getting big that wouldn’t have gotten big four years ago — two years ago, even! It’s crazy.”
Instead of threatened, he seemed thrilled.
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