Feature: I.B.E & Benzilla

words by Eamon Whalen

photography by Austin Fassino

 

“It means nothing’s bigger than the next thing,” said Ibrahim “I.B.E” Oduniyi as he milled around his kitchen fixing us lunch whilst explaining the philosophy behind his debut album “This, That & The Third” with producer Ben “Benzilla” Haarsager. It was three years after “Ib” passed me one of his mixtapes during my varsity basketball practice at Minneapolis South High, where he had also attended school and played ball, and three years after I wrote about him for my high school newspaper. Writing about him for Greenroom only seemed right.

 

After forming a partnership that grew out of mutual respect for each other’s craft and only strengthened after discovering a cultural connection, “Ib” (26) and “Zilla” (29) have delivered a debut album that tells the stories of their community as much as their own. “When you understand different languages and how people interact, you end up seeing the similarities between us all,” said Ib.

 

In 2008 Ib became one of Rhymesayers Ent. artist I Self Devine’s hype men, eventually touring the country and playing mega-rap festivals like Rock The Bells and Paid Dues with his mentor, who he affirms influenced his social perspective as much as his rhyme style. As a first generation Nigerian immigrant and a Black man in America, Ib attained a cultural fluency, or as he calls it, “speaking they language, and they language.”

 

Around the same time he met Zilla, who he’d soon find out had a perspective that reached far beyond their Minneapolis hip hop community. Originally born on the east side of St. Paul, for six of the first fourteen years of his life Zilla lived in Sudan and Kenya while his father worked in humanitarian causes during the Second Sudanese Civil War.

 

“When we first met each other there was definitely a big connection, I really like who he is and what we stands for, and it’s likewise with him to me. You know, I’m not African, I’m European-American, Norwegian but I know he still respects and appreciates my experiences,” said the reserved, yet confident Zilla as he sipped a beer on Ib’s couch a few weeks later.

 

“You can hear all of that in the way he puts his beats together, even kicking it. It makes [our collaborative relationship] all the sense in the world even though I never thought about it,” said Ib, who happily recalls waking up to his father playing Highlife music, an upbeat horn and guitar heavy West African genre, as well as iconic Pan-African musicians like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley.

 

Not only did they have a cultural connection and an appreciation of each other’s work, but they both were holding down jobs at the mall, and would kick it on their lunch break. “He’s a little younger than me and I saw that he needed a solid producer. I really liked his style and I’ve always wanted to produce a full length for somebody,” explained Zilla.

 

In 2009, “Zilla” joined BK-One to co-produce Radio Do Canibal, an album featuring solely Brazilian sonic “inspirations.” Vocalists on the album included Rhymesayers artists like P.O.S, Brother Ali, Slug and I Self Devine, as well as hip hop legends Scarface (Geto Boys), Black Thought (The Roots) and Raekwon (Wu Tang Clan).

 

Zilla developed the sound of This, That & The Third over the four years it took to complete the project, including leftovers from Radio Do Canibal. The result are instrumentals that showcases a diverse approach to crate digging, leaning on funk and soul breaks while also incorporating the global flavor of his past work with noticeable elements of the reggae and highlife music Ib grew up on. The contribution of New York via Minneapolis producer Mike Swoop on post-production gives the instrumentals a layered texture to support Ib’s vocals, which are as influenced by the lyrical miracles of Nas and Common as they are by the melodies of Pimp C or Nate Dogg.

 

A youth worker in downtown Minneapolis by day, Ib presents himself as the South Minneapolis every-man; wearing his headphones, scribbling heartfelt rhymes on a crowded city bus, learning from his mentor as they compare ideas and flows. Trying to help a friend get back on his feet who’s hit hard times, telling the stories of what happens when tormented and abused children reach their breaking point. He’s critical and honest but never overbearing, and unlike a lot of rappers that might be slapped with the “socially-conscious” label (he did just finish a tour with Immortal Technique and Brother Ali after all), he’s more than capable of having a good time.

 

With a refreshingly earnest perspective, This, That & The Third reaches into the cracks and crevasses of his city to shine light on those forgotten and to see the world through a critical yet connective and communal lens, because after all, nothing is bigger than the next thing. As we sat down to lunch Ib said, “That’s what the project is really about, an understanding of how much community creates everything we have.”