Benjamin Wesley Lerner who had made names for himself from Skinny Berlin, to Sober Skinny to Skinny Triks — and everything else that made him recognizable to the other rappers – was hungry to make an impact through rhythm and poetry. Over the course of a decade, these hip hop pseudonyms earned this rapper over a quarter of a million combined streams and downloads from DatPiff to Hot New Hip Hop.
He now dons a different hat when giving talks at Narcotics Anonymous. Benjamin Wesley Lerner openly discusses about how he made his various names; whether it was through smoking crack cocaine, shooting heroin through increasingly decaying veins, or dosing himself with mind-altering substances; all with the hope that it could help him forget his problems. Rather than trying to forget, now he openly writes about his past in verses that are both poignant and provocative.
A trained classical pianist, he composes his current music in styles that make the drug hype look like trash. He writes anthems like “No More Lil White Pills,” to talk about how far he’s come, and how much further he has to go. He tries to connect with his prior followers and producers as well as fellow rappers and junkies he’s made friends with.
What was your goal for initially wanting to get into the music industry?
I was a somewhat delusional pot smoking, binge-drinking 18 year old who romanticized hip hop culture in the same way that a basic girl would fetishize American Indian culture at Bonnaroo. Except the difference was – I didn’t wear it for the night to then take it off. I wanted to become it. I had distanced myself from my wealthy Harvard educated family – and made cocaine and drugs my identity. It made it easy to justify my poetry in self defining myself apart from my family.
The music itself just happened without me even wanting to. When I smoked and drank – I could give verses without substance – no pun intended. I cared about being seen as a rapper who did drugs. I wanted to be like the same rappers I saw growing up. “
In 2010, Benjamin had gotten a feature with Mac Miller, now dearly departed, and was trying to rise as a young rapper. In the video, as he muses — “I was messed up and so was Mac.”
What was it like to work with the late great Mac Miller?
My friend went to summer camp with Mac’s manager. I met Mac and was stoked to get a feature, some shots of us together and to party with him. At the time, even as a DatPiff rapper myself – I knew he was going to get famous. I opened for him in Virginia, and he remembered doing the feature for me a while back.
Mac was super humble and chill, and honestly, I expected it to wear off when he got famous.
Following Mac’s videos on YouTube was like following an addict’s path. I knew what it had become because I was one – I was too, an addict. It became clearer to me when I became sober – I would watch these videos and saw the vulnerability that he had. I had them as well and I knew that.
It was hard for me to watch this kid. Looking at this half-Jewish, rapper, stoner kid who gets his heart broken by the rap industry – it would have been the same way I would have gone out. I was jealous of his fame but grateful that I didn’t become a casualty of that lifestyle. It was crushing to see that. It showed that all the things that I dreamed about – it can’t buy you inner peace, but sobriety keeps you alive.
What made you want to get clean?
A lot of people talk about a sky opening up moment. And there were a bunch of times where I was dope sick or I would be having a seizures in the hospital. There were even times when I would be looking my dad in the eyes as I was high on heroine. I wasn’t even disgusted at myself when I had another person shooting me up. All that generic gross junkie shit, I did it. I did it for a long time.
Of course, I escalated to more and more drugs – from free basing, to smoking crack, to black tar heroin,to shooting up Fentanyl. I even scammed my family and got a seedy motel rooms to blow through $500 worth of dope and crack. Then, it just didn’t work anymore. I was shooting half to full grams of Fentanyl heroin, and am surprised I’m alive today. It wasn’t doing anything anymore. I was chemically and emotionally high, but I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
And honestly, after some time, it didn’t give me the escape from self bondage as it used to. There was a spiritual dimension that I tapped into with these chemicals — that I was scared — and they made me feel great about myself.
For the first time in my life, I said, “I can’t get high anymore, I can’t get sober – what do I do?” I was scared, honestly. I was scared in relation to the fake spiritual solution drugs provided me. And then when it stopped working, I was scared because I had to confront my problems and my prior solutions stopped working.
My family didn’t believe I would change, but they were afraid of me dying. They wanted me to do rehab again. I didn’t think it was going to work. I had no doubt I would do it again. Like the first time I went to rehab, I wasn’t ready. I just thought I had to gain trust – just to do what I had to do – to then just get back to using again.
They didn’t believe it until I got off of a drug. I got off of VIVITROL® –it’s a drug that makes it so your opioid centers can’t get activated. It’s a fail-safe against getting high. It makes you sick. So backtracking to this point in time – I was only a couple months sober, and I actually found a bag of dope that day. I was randomly cleaning my car and forgot I hid it there. I wanted to throw it away. I showed it to my mom, and we flushed the dope down the drain together. I refused the last VIVITROL® shot that day.
You’re obviously a different person now that you’re sober, what are some accomplishments?
Two years down the sober line; I worked 70 hour weeks as a sober bartender, I have a car, a job, thousands of dollars saved up – and of course my family is still scared. The trust may not come back fully from my family – but I trust myself. I trust myself for today, and I trust myself to not trust myself too much. I don’t want to get egotistical like those junkies that have said, “I got this.” I don’t’ want to get completely flattened by my own bullshit.
The inner most part of my brain craves the past instant gratifications I loved. The inner junkie in me craves to shoot up, steal from my family and that probably won’t ever change. The difference is that I’m aware of it now.
Would you rather be that numb again?
No, sobriety is a drug in itself. Stable sobriety is complete lack of filter of everything around you.
I was blissfully unaware of a lot of things when I was using. I wouldn’t care to shave or change my socks, and I wouldn’t care because I was high. When I used to get scars of my face from picking at it numb from when I was using – I would now look at a pimple and think that I’m ugly and marred.
Often, as listeners we never really think about what an artist is going through when they’re using. Hits have even been made when an artist hits the highest of highs. Where do you think your music is going now?
Music used to be pure recreation for me, and now its experience. It’s like surfing – the sound waves would create pictures in my head that I would kinesthetically weave a tapestry of imagery that reflected my addiction. I got off that people got off from the intricacies of rhyme schemes – but at the time it was, of course, fellow addicts and party kids.
It’s hard for me to detach from music. I freestyle when I have the time, it’s for recreation. What I do now – most of it goes into preparing myself to be objective as possible.
I want to work with better and better producers. I am a composer, arranger, artist, and performer. I want to work with someone who will let me be me. I don’t want a filter, or to be sold.
That’s usually not in line with what a lot of rappers want for their future. Tons of artists want fame as their end goal. What makes you want a different path?
I’m not a rapper; I don’t want to be a rapper. I’m a sober kid who wants to be a drug counselor who happens to be okay at rapping. If I happen to become a rapper because my music touches people, that’s great. I would rather watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and people who love me – then rather die living a life I didn’t really want. I would rather have live in Carharts than die in a $10 million mansion with a rig in my arm. No matter how big the paycheck is, I wouldn’t give up sobriety.
Understanding that following a dream may have led you down a dangerous drug path, what keeps you clean now?
I’m scared of going back to way I was. I’m not scared of dying, but I’m scared of being who I was. When you crave death – not to underscore suicide – but addiction is like an excruciating pain – you are never scared of death again. To me, no junkie craves death. I was afraid to consciously kill myself – but I was afraid to not get high again.
If you offered me a junkie by saying, “take this hit and it might kill you – or don’t and survive” – that junkie might pick death. Heroin gave me a numbness and lack of humanity that felt great to me honestly. The lack of equilibrium and lack of consciousness about life while being dependent on some chemical piece is the definition of death.
It was never the rap game that led me to drugs, it was me know how easy it was to score in the game. And it will be me still following that music to keep me clean.
The same way I’ve chased death – the peace of chemical tranquility – I now chase life.
What are your future projects?
I have now taken an artist’s residency in another state to work with a Broadway producer. Stay tuned.