Years from now, when fans look back at 2017 hip-hop and try to make sense of a raw underground scene that bubbled up from SoundCloud pages to form massive followings and shake up the industry, there's a good chance they'll come across one of Cole Bennett's music videos.
The Illinois native has shot and edited videos for some of the scene’s most successful artists, including Ugly God, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, Lil Yachty, Famous Dex, and Xavier Wulf. Along the way, his YouTube page has transformed into a platform that’s helping break new artists faster than traditional media outlets can keep up with.
So, how did he do it? How did an outsider who grew up in a rural area outside of Chicago that he describes as "a really small town with cornfields" become the go-to videographer for some of today’s fastest rising rappers?
"If someone calls me and says they want to shoot in 30 minutes, I can make it happen," Bennett tells me over the phone, hinting at one of his biggest strengths while editing a video for Lil Pump and Famous Dex that he shot on the fly at 2:00 a.m. in less than an hour. "We can shoot in a basement or a fuckin' alley or wherever it may be and we can turn it into something fun and make it pop with an extensive editing process."
When I was starting off, I wasn't getting crazy budgets or anything like that, so I figured out how to use my creativity and computer to take things to the next level.
Building on the raw, improvisational style of Chief Keef's A Zae Production-directed videos and other YouTube clips that helped put Chicago's drill scene on the map, Bennett's run-and-gun energy is paired with playful animations and a unique self-taught editing style that separates him from his peers. And it all began when he was still in high school.
"When I was getting started, everyone was shooting these little videos here and there and just throwing them together in 45 minutes, even with the editing process," he says. "I thought there was an opportunity to take an extra step and have some more fun with it. When I was starting off, I wasn't getting crazy budgets or anything like that, so I figured out how to use my creativity and computer to take things to the next level. I didn't have crazy sets or anything, so I had to figure out another way to make things special."
At 21 years old, Bennett has an advantage over more established directors when it comes to seeing eye to eye with the artists he works with.
"I’m still young, so I can relate to the people I'm working with," he explains. "I'm able to have that perfect blend between professionalism and being able to relate with these artists. I'm really good with being around all different types of people. I think that stems from where I grew up, because I was from the outside looking in. Being young definitely helps, but I wouldn't say it's age as much as it's a mentality."
As we talk, he keeps bringing up how much fun they’re having with all of this—and it shows. His videos are held together by an improvisational, off-the-cuff style that matches the loose, youthful nature of the music itself.
"What draws me to the whole scene that I've been working with is, it's just fun. We have fun together," he says, before adding, "Life's short. So let's just do what we want. And if it works, it works. If it doesn't it doesn't, but we're going to do it how we want to do it."
He pauses to make it clear there’s more going on here than just a bunch of kids goofing around, though. Taking on a more serious tone, he tells me, "It's funny that people call it ‘SoundCloud rap’ and think of it as something so lightly. It’s a widespread thing that's talked about, that ‘SoundCloud rap’ is put together quickly. In some ways, yes, it is, but I think it's deeper than that. It's really a passion for people.”
“A lot of people view it as a joke and they view it as something that's not realistic and don't think it has longevity," he adds. "People don't understand that Lil Pump isn't just fuckin' taking Xans all the time or whatever it may be. He knows how to market himself. He's going to make a million dollars by the end of 2017. These are real entrepreneurs. People don't see that, and that's what frustrates me. That's why I'm excited for this to get bigger. I want to see more types of music and I want to see it grow and evolve in different ways. I want to see progression."
People don't understand that Lil Pump isn't just fuckin' taking Xans all the time or whatever it may be. He knows how to market himself.
Beyond his music video work, Bennett has actively supported the scene by building a platform for the artists he believes in. As a senior in high school, he started a blog called Lyrical Lemonade that has grown into a popular media, events, and merchandise company.
"I knew that I could only do so much with just videos when I started out," he says. "I wanted it to be bigger than that. So I made the blog lyricallemonade.com and I would come home from high school and just write like five to ten blog posts a day and do interviews here and there. Then I threw my first show in the city—a free show—like 100 person capacity show."
When he realized that show promoters and venues in Chicago weren’t booking his favorite artists even though he had seen there was a market for it, he did it himself.
"I saw there was room to bring in some of these underground guys," he explains. "And I realized there was an audience for it.”
The audience showed up, and he's sold out nearly every show he's thrown—booking a long list of acts including Ugly God, Famous Dex, Ski Mask the Slump God, Lil Uzi Vert, MadeinTYO, Xavier Wulf, Smokepurpp, Lil Pump, Playboi Carti, Warhol.ss, and more. These one-off shows have led to two annual Lyrical Lemonade Summer Bashes and a tour is now in the works.
From the beginning, Bennett made the decision to upload all the videos to his own YouTube channel, which has transformed into a discovery platform for fans, as it collects more followers every day (the channel has 390,000 subscribers as of early August).
"Beyond the videos themselves, people want the platform and a way to get heard," he says. "I was in New York a couple weeks ago, visiting with some labels, and they told me they were keeping an eye on my channel because we were breaking new artists on there. That was crazy to hear."
As the plays on his videos keep climbing (over 100,000,000 views and counting), Bennett has noticed that this "underground" scene we keep referring to might not be so underground anymore.
"People are really tuned in to the underground so there are artists who aren't 'famous' or making big money off music that have huge fan bases," he notes. "It's crazy. Some of these younger guys are getting way more recognition than guys who have been around for years and are making millions of dollars from royalties and streaming."
As he looks into the future, Bennett is open about his desire to move on from his one-man operation and work with a full production crew and bigger budgets at some point. He's already worked with labels and more established artists like Migos and Riff Raff—and more of that will come—but for now he’s happy with his role in a movement that he believes will be remembered for a long time.
"Right now, history is being created," he explains. "This new wave of hip-hop is something that will be remembered as a shift in the rap scene. Just the idea of everyone putting out multiple videos every week. In the early 2000s, there wasn't a platform like YouTube where people could do that. So now, these underground artists have tons of videos out and they're getting tons of views. They're just pumping out content. It's incredible. It's history. It's a turning point in the music scene, completely."