Talking Hip Hop (and Phil Collins) With At the Movies' Ben Lyons
By Brandon Perkins
Perhaps if Ben Lyons' movie chops were as obvious as his hip-hop track record, then sites like StopBenLyons.com wouldn't exist. Ever since the E! personality took the helm of the Siskel, Roper and Ebert's beloved At the Movies, Lyons has been berated with more thumbs down than a rookie gladiator in the Colosseum. Whether it's deriding his "frat boy good looks," MySpace photographs with the movie stars he's guarded with critiquing or calling I Am Legend "one of the greatest movies ever made," the critic's critics are numerous.
And while there are no judgments on his film reviewing prowess here, it's official that dude knows hip-hop. He's homies with world famous DJ Clinton Sparks. And working with Duck Down Records, a staple of New York's grimy true lyricism schism, carries a legitimate case of cred among "real" hip-hop heads. Of course, now that he's getting a little older, he's just trying to discover what's the hullabaloo over this Bruce Springsteen guy.
LA Weekly: I'm a little hung over this morning, went to a bunch of R&B shows last nigh. What's the most banged up you've ever been at a show?
Ben Lyons: I went to that Fade to Black show that Jay-Z did at [Madison Square] Garden, the one they shot the film about, and I had an apartment across the street. I lived on 30th and 9th...kind of a weird part of town. But that Jay-Z show was a big deal for us, that was a tough night.
Was that the best show you've ever been to?
In terms of just getting really siked up for one show or a stadium show....but I saw Kanye West at SOBs, this little Brazilian bar that holds maybe 300-400 people. He came through one night, about three months before the first album dropped, and that was a dope show. He brought out Pharoahe Monch, Mos Def, Posdnuos from De La....everyone was showing Kanye love in the beginning. I used to work for this label Duck Down Records in New York when I was in high school and college, for Buckshot and Black Moon, Smif & Wessun, and all those dudes, so I was running around with them in New York back then. In terms of LA? I saw a really good Genesis show at the Hollywood Bowl. Lasers and shit.
What was it like rolling with Duck Down?
It's kinda crazy. I produced a couple music videos for them. My cousin Ricky grew up in Westchester with Dru-Ha, Drew Friedman, the dude who runs Duck Down. So he linked us up when I was in high school and I would do street team stuff, website stuff, and then I kinda just always hung out with them and found ways to make money. Drew ended up directing a Bone Thugs & Harmony video I produced, we did a Wordsworth video, a Tony Touch video. My mom used to do the catering for all these videos. When Duck Down did their deal with Koch, they were one of the first and Koch didn't have a lot of money, so we used to these videos on the side for $10,000-20,000. Bone Thugs & Harmony is a group that won Grammys and did half million dollar videos with Phil Collins. And my mom is doing catering and driving them to the set in a minivan. It was kind of a labor of love with lots of crazy stories.
To really prove the chops, who's the greatest of all time?
Notorious B.I.G., of course, coming from New York. What Biggie represented at the time and the transition of New York hip-hop, bringing it from the Native Tongue era to more of a street thing and then a blinged out era. He pretty much started the champagne rap. Biggie just meant everything to New York.
What'd you think of the movie?
It is what it is. It's cool. It's as good as it could've been, for that story. In a weird way, it's almost a successful comic book movie. You know how those movies have to cater to the hardcore fans and passionate fanboys...then cross over? I think that's what Notorious did, it catered to people who really know that story and loved Biggie and knew all the players. "I saw Charli Baltimore in the back of the car or Mister Cee or DJ Enuff...so I wasn't mad at that Biggie movie." But yeah, he was the greatest of all-time. He had every type of record: party records, street records, storytelling. In just a short period of time, too.
What would've happened if he survived that shooting?
I'll tell you one thing, he wouldn't be using Auto-Tune too much. I'm sick of that shit. I think Kanye freaked it out, the album grew on me a little bit, but it's just got to stop. For me, it's overkill right now. Everybody uses that shit on everything.
But as far as a group goes, I was too young to see Run DMC rise, but for me, Wu-Tang Clan is just the greatest story of, like, it's the American Dream in every weird way. Those guys had an amazing run in the '90s. They're just awesome. They could rock the Hollywood Bowl, it'd be a little bit grimy, maybe they'd need the Roots there to keep it cool.
I don't think they could even fill the Bowl at this point in their career...
Seriously. I forget that all the time and that's the thing about getting older, you just stay on your shit and think that certain things matter more than they do to other people.
How have your run-ins been with the rapper set?
In terms of music, you never know what you're going to get with somebody. I used to produce this syndicated show in New York called Hip Hop Nation and we'd crash video sets and do interviews and stuff. Some of the rappers, it just depends on what side of the bed they wake up on that morning. But getting more established and working for E! now, they kind of recognize the promo opportunity and get a little slick with it. I was told that I had six minutes with Kanye West and we ended up doing an hour and fifteen minutes. Akon is another one. You know who's really nice and genuine and actually used to be a ball-boy for the Chicago Bulls? Common. And he's kind of made the transition to being an established actor on films and he hasn't really shown the chops yet, but he's certainly established.
Which rapper do you think is the best actor?
Mos Def was an actor first, as a kid, and then got into music. In terms of just acting chops, I think Mos Def is the most talented of the bunch, if you want to include him. I think Ludacris has done a good taking on interesting projects, same with Common. Cube, obviously on a business level, might be the most successful one. I don't think he's really brought it, in terms of acting, since Three Kings -- I thought he was really good in that. And I was having a conversation the other day with someone, I think the best movie starring a rapper is probably Three Kings; I can't think of another one. I wish T.I. would do more. He only did American Gangster and ATL, but dude has some other things on his plate.
Going the other way, what do you think of Joaquin Phoenix's career shift?
I hope it's genuine, I hope it's for real. I hope he's not on drugs. I don't think he is, but it's something you think about every time you see him...he lost his brother. I hope he is giving music a real shot, why not? I hope he comes back to acting. I just saw his new film, Two Lovers, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and he kills it. He's really, really vulnerable, it shows an adolescent quality to him, and it's just a cool New York love story. If he has ten more movies in him like this, as a fan of film, I hope he's not done with it. I heard Diddy is working on the album and if they're in the studio drinking Ciroq, why not? Go for it.
He was on a flight with me, I flew to New York over Thanksgiving, and it's kind of weird because I think he was wearing the same thing he wore in Vegas [when he fell off the stage in the infamous YouTube clip]. He had his little video camera with him and he was interviewing everyone on the plane -- the stewardesses, the passengers -- and it was the red eye, so everyone wanted to sleep. It was a little weird. I know Casey Affleck is doing something with him, so I just hope it's genuine, I hope it's not some 'Ahhh, we pulled a Borat on you!' I don't want to hear that shit.
So is it only rap and Genesis in your iPod?
It's so funny, we got caught up talking so much about hip-hop and that's kind of what I've always listened to and grown up with, but I am getting at an age in my love where I'm in a love-hate relationship with it. The monotony of it is a little cumbersome to my everyday; it's not conducive to being an adult sometimes. I'm on a Bruce Springsteen kick. I was late on that, but I don't know about dude, so I'm trying to listen to him a little bit more these days. Classic rock never goes out of style, so I'm trying to catch up.
Over the holidays, you, the critic, became part of the story, especially after the LA Times article. How'd you respond to that when word first came out about the story?
I was actually in Shanghai with some friends, celebrating New Year's Eve over there, my friend Clinton Sparks was DJing. It kind of put it all in perspective, when you see news like that in a foreign country with your friends, over the holiday and in a new year. I criticize people's work for a living and if they want to criticize me, then so be it. I love movies and it just comes with the gig, I suppose.