BEN THOMAS FELL IN LOVE WITH THE VIBRANT CULTURE SURROUNDING THE PHILADELPHIA MUSIC SCENE SHORTLY AFTER MOVING HERE FROM NEW YORK IN 8TH GRADE. SINCE THEN, THOMAS, NOW 20, HAS STAKED HIS CLAIM IN THE REBIRTH OF THE LOCAL INDUSTRY, PRODUCING AND ENGINEERING MUSIC UNDER THE NAME BSIDE MUSIC FOR THE LIKES OF CHILL MOODY, THEODORE GRAMS, ASAAD, AND MANY OTHERS. IN EARLY 2014, THOMAS FOUNDED AFTER5 STUDIOS, A FULL-SERVICE RECORDING, PRODUCTION, AND MIXING STUDIO WITH A COMFORTABLE, LAID-BACK VIBE. SINCE OUR CONVERSATION, THOMAS HAS ENTERED INTO A PARTNERSHIP WITH PHILADELPHIA MUSIC INCUBATOR REC PHILLY AS AN IN HOUSE ENGINEER AND PRODUCER. WE SAT DOWN WITH THOMAS TO TALK ABOUT HIS INSIGHTS ON CREATIVITY, LIFE, BUSINESS, AND MUSIC IN PHILADELPHIA.
How would you describe who you are and what you do?
My name is Ben Thomas. I am a producer and engineer, I’m a music lover, really, a small business owner. I’m a lot of stuff. I make beats, mix, record, all that good stuff. And, really, I just try to help people get their ideas out, and that is really my favorite thing about this, just helping people get their ideas out.
What makes you different than the normal producer/engineer?
I have a different perspective because I like a lot of different types of music, I’m not really stuck on one. I listen to everything so I don’t really have a specific sound or specific style, so one day I might make a trap beat, the next day I might do some Kanye-type soul sampling, the next day I might be working on a pop song.
With all those different styles to draw from, are you intentional about what you make on a given day?
It’s really all about how it feels, if I hear this sound or I hear this sample, I’ll just think, like, I need to flip this, or I need to do this to that, it’s totally random, there’s usually no plan.
Going off of stylistic diversity, can you speak on your CD collection?
I’m not even going to lie, 78.63% of that is my mom’s, no that’s a lie, I lied. more like 98.1%. I’ve thrown maybe 6 or 7 into the 200 or 300 that are up there. [laughs] But yeah, the CD collection is a real source of inspiration. It started off as just a way to divide the two spaces down here, so that it didn’t feel as big, but it’s really turned into a source of inspiration, where I draw for most of my sampling.
What about Philly really influences your work and inspires you?
I love it here, that’s why I chose to stay even though I’m not originally from here, I’m from New York. There is just so much creativity here, there are so many different types of artists that are just really hungry, that just want to work. And there is just such a rich history here in Philadelphia, going back to Gamble and Huff and the Philadelphia sound and how this was the place to come to make music. And I want to be part of it becoming again the place to come to make music. And it wasn’t just one person making the original Philadelphia sound in the 70s, it was a group of musicians, they all worked out of similar studios, but it was a group of people that were responsible for that.
Who in Philly have you really been working with, what projects?
I’ve been working with Chill [Moody], we just did a single the other day. I did the arrangement and the engineering on his “Thank You Alchemist” track which actually ended up being picked up by Chevrolet, that was a good look right there. I worked with Theodore Grams on his mixtape and some songs he’s recently been doing, he’s a really good friend of mine. Asaad, this year we are planning on dropping 365 songs. [laughs] Which has truly been a life experience, I’m not doing all 365, but I’m definitely doing at least half. I just finished up this mixtape with a good friend of mine Ronnie Riggles, he’s an up and coming artist from around here, we just dropped his mixtape. A bunch of my UArts homies, a dope artist named Cesar, another artist named Marquise Miles, they’re really dope, Fawk Samuel. I like to work with my friends, I mean I like to work with everybody, but I like to work with people I can really spend a lot of time with. If I have to spend a lot of time with you that vibe has to hit right or the product is gonna be trash.
We’ve been talking a lot about your creative work, about what you do with art and making stuff, but, like you mentioned, you’re a small business owner. You’ve started After 5 Studios, what is your experience with that?
See that’s the part that they don’t tell you about. You think, “I’m opening this studio, it’s gonna be lit. We’re gonna be up here all day making beats, making music,” but it’s not. [laughs] It’s amazing to work and make your own music but the running of the business part, keeping track of your financials, the marketing, managing clients, managing time and managing projects, that part is a learning experience. I’ve learned a lot doing it, being able to dictate what I want to do, who I want to work with, what projects I want to take on, what projects I don’t, it’s been really good. Not really having to take on this project because this is what “we” have to do. It’s just a lot of organization that you don’t expect.
If you had to pick one phrase, one quote or a mantra that you live by, that you apply to your personal life, your music, your business, what would it be, do you have one?
I don’t really think I have one but I saw this quote the other day that said, “you can push against a brick wall all year but that brick wall isn’t going anywhere even if you’re working hard. But, if you make some connections and get to know this person and that person and this one person might have a crane and be able lift you over the wall.” You still worked hard, but you worked smart, I guess that’s something that I try to apply.
If you had to choose 3, maybe 5 things that you use on an everyday basis, that you couldn’t live without, what are those things?
Yeah, this right here, this Iphone that barely works. It’s an Iphone 6, the gold one, cause you know me, I’m about that life. The screen is trash, I need to get it fixed, but this is my lifeline, my entire business is run off of this thing. Every referral, I get a lot of referrals off of social media, so my entire business is run off of here. That’s 1, my hard drive that has most of my stuff on it is definitely 2, well it’s like 1 and 1a, the phone and the hard drive. All of the software, that can come later, the phone and the hard drive. I always have my headphones, my Beats, they’re around here somewhere. I always have them with me, not necessarily for work but I like them, they’re comfortable, they’re my earwarmers when it’s cold. I use my beat-making software, my drum machine, everyday, but really it’s the phone and the hard drive. You said 3 to 5, but it’s really just those two. If I have those I’m good, I can jump in anywhere as long as they have logic, even if they don’t have my plugins I can jump in and do some edits or whatever as long as I have the phone and the hard drive.
So, I’m not gonna push it off any longer, I see you have the Yeezy’s on. The Pirate Black Yeezy 350s. So style and clothes, do they play a big part of your life?
It used to be, I used to be so into fashion and clothes until I saw a Mark Zuckerberg article when he was talking about how his employees at Facebook would ask him, “Why do you always wear the same jeans and shirt every day?” He would say that it was because he was so focused and busy on other things that he didn’t have time to think about fashion, and ever since then, my fashion game has completely changed. I probably wear these jeans everyday because I don’t care anymore. I care about music and working, not about clothes. It’s good to have a couple things that you can wear but, I mean these Yeezy’s are the only thing I’ve bought related to clothes in the past 6 months. I just rock these Kanye jeans and these Yeezy’s or Jordan 1s everyday, if the weather permits.
Has that worked for you, having a uniform? Do you feel more focused?
Oh yeah, I mean it’s just something that I don’t have to think about. I just pick them up off the floor and put them on, it saves time. There is no need to flex. You should flex with your work, you don’t need to flex with your clothes, you don’t need to flex with all of your credits on social media, flex with the quality of the work that you’re doing, that’s what you flex with. You don’t need to flex with money, with cars, females, males, whatever you’re into. You don’t need to flex with that, flex with your work, that’s what we flex with now.
The last two things I wanted to ask were, first, where did this all start?
In the bedroom, with the futon mattress. [laughs] Shoutout to my man Eric, one of my best friends who I started doing music with, he goes by Cesar and he is a junior who goes to UArts, he’s a rapper/singer and we went to middle school together. We wanted to start recording, this was in 2010-2011 so we jammed a futon mattress up in the corner of my room and threw a mic in front of it and some blankets and pillows and we made it work. We recorded there from 2011-2013, we made an entire album when we were 15 years old, but that’s where I learned how to produce, producing is more than just making records. It’s about crafting records and helping the artist get vision, and that’s where I learned all of that in the bedroom on the futon mattress, that’s where it all started and we’ve come a long way.
And for the future, where is this going? Even since I’ve been here I’ve seen it grow.
Well, I’m finally starting to build out a team right now, it’s always been just me but I’m bringing on a good homie of mine who goes by Beats by Dave, an amazing producer. I’m bringing on a songwriter, Marquise Miles who just graduated from U Arts, a very talented guy, so we’re starting to expand the team. The immediate future is just building out here, but 6, 9 months from now I don’t know where we’ll be.
Alright, so last question, top 5 producers?
Whoo, I can give you two, I don’t have top 5. Kanye and Ryan Leslie are two, that’s it for me. I draw from them the most, there aren’t really a top 5 for me, I get down with a lot of producers. I like Metro, I like what he’s doing. Hit Boy was definitely a big inspiration. But Kanye and Ryan Leslie are where I pulled from the most, but since I inspired so many sounds, I think so many people are amazing like Timbaland, The Neptunes, and Large Professor.
Advice to the kids?
[laughs] This game has nothing to do with talent, well it has something to do with talent, but it’s mostly about who you know, so never shun anybody. You never know who the next opportunity will come from. When you meet somebody in music, or anything in life, and you want to work with them or you want to be in their position start that conversation by seeing what you can offer to them not asking them to listen to this or that but what you can do for them. And also, enjoy it, have fun. If it stops being fun stop doing it, life is too short.