Benton James’ carload of talent

by Brian Clarey

At a long table in the back of the Green Bean, Benton James tries to explain to me the subtle difference between rap and hip hop.

‘“Rap used to be the DJ, turntable kind of thing,’” he says. ‘“These days hip hop is more pop. Rap is real street.’”

He offers a primer: the Fugees are hip hop. The Wu Tang Clan is rap.

Benton James and his band, the Urban Sophisticates, live on a different plane, unbounded by labels and tricky to classify. Benton raps. His brother Aaron sings like a giant, dreadlocked angel. They play live, replete with horns and guitars. They dig jazz and rock and Latin tempos, things that make themselves known in their tunes.

‘“Label it what you want,’” Benton says. ‘“I tell everybody that we’re a live hip-hop band, but there’s so much more to us if you listen.’”

Right now he’s testing the limits of the stool that’s propping him up ‘— Benton is a big man and he makes the thing look like it belongs in a first-grade classroom. He’s sensitive about his size; the opening lyric of the title track on the band’s new CD, Coward’s Anthem makes that clear: ‘“I know I’m not the handsomest/ and the car that I drive ain’t the fanciest/ but if I took a couple inches off the waistline/ would it be enough for you to want to be mine?’”

After the refrain brother Aaron comes in with the bridge, singing sweet like Nate Dogg with brass accents in the background: ‘“I’m not lazy won’t you please believe me/ I’m just a brother that likes to chill.’”

‘“It’s a song about having feelings for a girl and not having the courage to say it,’” Benton says.

He came to Greensboro via Southwest Philadelphia after leaving Eastern University, where he played basketball and is still in that school’s hall of fame for blocks per game (5) and per season (40). But then his mom got remarried, he got out of a long-term relationship and his basketball career began to unwind.

‘“I wanted to do music full time,’” he said. He knew of Greensboro because several of his family members went to A&T, and it seemed like a good place to get it done.

He slid me an early copy of the disc at the office earlier in the day and it spent the rest of the afternoon making my head bounce.

The CD represents nearly eight months of recording, writing and mixing ‘— Benton himself worked on it with the dedication of a legionnaire, spending more nights on the studio couch than in his own bed.

‘“I was just trying to get noticed,’” he says. ‘“We’re gonna make the big Christmas push, see if we can’t sell some of these records.’”

There are no bitches and hos here. No references to firearms or violence (except in the tune ‘“Fake Gun Hands,’” a kind of indictment against street crimes that begins with a plea: ‘“Somebody call an ambulance right now’”). No scratch DJ, save for a cameo by DJ SK on ‘“Kaos Mathematics.’” No ‘N’ word, no benjies, no dubs and no playas.

Well, maybe a couple of playas, but also well-crafted, self-revelatory lyricism from this guy who’s insecure about his size, unsure about women, still mourning the death of his father and trying to make it in a confusing business with nothing but a carload of talent, a trunkful of ambition and a really killer band ‘— Tim Hooker on guitar, Romondo Jessup on drums, bass player Ricky Nxumalo and a horn section consisting of Jeremy Denman on trumpet and Sal Mascali on trombone.

‘“I didn’t really get into hip hop until maybe four or five years ago,’” Benton says. ‘“I was into Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, all these angsty artists with all these deep meanings’… rock lead singers have a way of getting this vibe across. My style is trying to get a feeling across with some metaphor, but also trying to get a story across.’”

The work is rife with witty metaphor (Benton proclaims, ‘“Let’s take it back like Cosby sweaters,’” in ‘“Coward’s Anthem’”) and artistic flourish ‘— in ‘“Breakups,’” brother Aaron sings a capella, ‘“A treasure chest of memories plays like/ old vinyl singles’” with just a second or two of needle hiss and pop in the background.

Another great cut, ‘“Soul Crime,’” is a short, slow-funk lament sung by the trumpeter’s sister, Mary Nicole Denman, understated and minimalist with a modicum of distortion on the mic, way different from the others

It’s good stuff. And Benton believes it can get better.

‘“This is like a sophomore effort,’” he says. ‘“I don’t think we’ve defined our sound all the way yet.’”

Benton and the rest of the Sophisticates will hold a CD release/ listening party at the Lager House on Tate Street sponsored by YES! Weekly on Monday, Nov. 28. The listening party runs from 8 until 10 p.m. by invitation only. The after-party is open to the public and word is there’s going to be a jam.

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian at