Ben Thomas, a senior entrepreneurship and innovation management major, works on freelance audio engineering work in his home studio on Park Avenue near York Street on April 25. | HANNAH BURNS / THE TEMPLE NEWS
May 8, 2018
Months after Ben Thomas produced the song “Insecure” with hip-hop artists Jazmine Sullivan and Bryson Tiller, he was shocked to discover that HBO planned to use his creation in the July 2017 premiere of its comedy series, “Insecure.”
The song would be played during a couple episodes of season two of “Insecure,” which follows the lives of two Black women who are best friends living in Los Angeles. The show stars Issa Rae, who is also the writer and creator, and Yvonne Orji.
The song also ended up on the show’s soundtrack.
Thomas, the song’s audio engineer, had all but forgotten about his work on the song when he found out it was being used on the show.
“You do your work and move on with the song,” said Thomas, a senior entrepreneurship and innovation management major. “We’re not that connected in what happens to [songs] after our part is done. I heard it, and then proceeded to completely freak all the way out.”
As an audio engineer, Thomas handles the technical aspects of producing a song like using auto-tune, mixing synthetic sounds into a song and piecing parts of a song together.
Thomas’s first foray into the music industry involved making a “really bad mixtape” with a friend in ninth grade. Two years later, he went to GRAMMY Camp, a music industry camp in Los Angeles for high schoolers run by the Recording Academy, which puts on the GRAMMY Awards. After attending the camp, Thomas returned to his Germantown home eager to pursue a career in audio engineering. He set up a studio in his mother’s basement.
Now, Thomas works as the lead audio engineer for Studio Breed, a recording studio on 7th Street near Callowhill, and RECPhilly, a startup music company that provides member musicians with access to creative resources like recording equipment, merchandise and public relations services.
“A lot of time, I’m the last person in the line of people who write [a song] and make the beats,” Thomas said. “Helping people realize their vision and its fullest potential is definitely my favorite part.”
Thomas has worked with major hip-hop artists like Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Dicky and Brian McKnight. He said big-name artists are often fast-paced and highly skilled, but the work he does is no different from working with local artists.
“It doesn’t matter who’s standing at the microphone, I still press command-space bar to start recording,” Thomas said. “They’re being vulnerable to you. They’re opening themselves and their art up to you, so they just want you to treat them like a regular person.”
Last year, Thomas created music for the Class of 2017 Commencement anthem, “Soar Time.” He used to work as a campus ambassador for GrammyU, which connects college students with music industry resources and professionals. He also co-founded his own record label, nicethingsMUSIC, with West Philadelphia rapper Chill Moody.
Thomas said the two started their own company in 2015 after they realized too many local artists were leaving Philadelphia to access the distribution and development resources they needed to start their careers.
“While we had A-level talent, we had C- and D-level industry,” Thomas said. “We wanted to make it so you didn’t have to leave here to achieve your dreams.”
Chill Moody, who met Thomas at a Recording Academy event at Hard Rock Cafe, said the most impressive thing about Thomas is his versatility.
“I’ve seen him record full string sets of a full orchestra, and I’ve seen him do live sound at an event, to recording some of the most hardcore gangster rap I’ve heard,” Chill Moody said. “He fits right in, and he’s himself in all of those situations.”
Timothy Welbeck, an adjunct instructor in the Africology and African American studies department, taught Thomas in his Hip-Hop and Black Culture course this semester. He said people can tell Thomas is passionate about making music.
“When he talks about music, he becomes animated, he speaks with a level of knowledge that demonstrates a level of expertise that’s well beyond his years,” Welbeck said. “He also has a level of passion and enthusiasm for the preservation of originality and quality of music.”
Welbeck added that he hopes to see Thomas teach other aspiring producers and audio engineers about the industry in the future.
Chill Moody said he has already seen Thomas use his industry experience to guide others.
In April, Chill Moody and Thomas were at a filming of an episode of “The Vibe” — TUTV’s hip-hop culture and music TV show — on campus. They overheard a freshman saying he wanted to leave Temple to attend Full Sail University in Florida, which caters to students pursuing entertainment, media, arts and technology.
Thomas pulled the student aside and explained why working in the music industry outweighs learning about music in a classroom. He told the student he thought Temple was a better option because of the networking opportunities and on-the-job experience available.
“By the end, he had changed that guy’s whole outlook on life,” Chill Moody said.
After graduation, Thomas plans to keep working as a freelancer in the music industry in Philly. One day, he hopes to win a Grammy.
“The fact I can say I want to win a Grammy and it doesn’t feel like some far-fetched, stretched goal that will never happen, and I can see the steps that need to be taken to achieve it, that is amazing,” Thomas said.