Rapper Benjamin Lerner Champions Recovery on Debut Record 'Clean' | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Rapper Benjamin Lerner Champions Recovery on Debut Record 'Clean' 

click to enlarge Benjamin Lerner - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Benjamin Lerner
"Only One Left," the penultimate track on Benjamin Lerner's 2020 album Clean, begins with a chilling intro. "I'm 27 and half of my homies are dead," Lerner says ruefully over an ascending progression of sustained piano chords. Then the song begins in earnest, and the rapper, now 29, wonders what happened to the other half: prison, rehab, who knows?

"I feel like the only one left," he rap-sings. "Maybe this shit is a dream / Maybe I never got clean / Maybe I died and OD'ed / Way back when I was a fiend."

At no point in the song, or on the album, does a beat kick in. Clean is entirely composed of Lerner's voice and piano, with no beats, samples or other hip-hop hallmarks. While that makes the record a rap rarity, perhaps even one of a kind, Lerner's fusion of classical piano and hip-hop is also a singularly compelling and dramatic listen.

Produced by Joshua Sherman in his new studio, Clean epitomizes the potential of Old Mill Road Media. Like Sherman, Lerner is a Vermont transplant from a show-business lineage: His great-grandfather on his mother's side was composer Irving Berlin. Since settling in the area, he's blossomed under the influence of an almost fraternal friendship with Sherman.

Lerner and Sherman met through a mutual friend while Lerner was visiting Vermont to work on a house in Sandgate that his father had built in the 1970s. The two connected over music, and Sherman encouraged Lerner to record a few songs at his studio on his next visit to Vermont. Those sessions laid the groundwork for Clean.

"I wanted to see if he would show up, if he would follow through," Sherman recalled, noting that he felt apprehensive about working with a recovering addict. "Not only did he show up and keep showing up, but he was prepared. And he was really good."

click to enlarge Benjamin Lerner (left) and Joshua Sherman - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Benjamin Lerner (left) and Joshua Sherman

On record and in person, Lerner raps like a man possessed — or, perhaps more accurately, like a man in the midst of an exorcism. Sober five years in June, he now lives in the house his dad built. Music has become Lerner's salvation, the vocal booth at Old Mill Road Recording his pulpit and confessional.

"I'm still a junkie," he likes to say. "I just get high off music now."

Tall, lean and powerfully built, Lerner is a commanding presence. Above his strong jaw, high cheekbones frame dark eyes that smolder with unsettling intensity. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as a child, he can seem socially reserved. But when he speaks, he does so forcefully and with deliberation. He raps in much the same way.

Lerner grew up in Washington, D.C. His father was a journalist, his mother a musician. He described his upbringing as privileged, though perhaps less so than those of his prep school classmates, the children of high-powered politicians, diplomats and businesspeople. He referred to his parents' circle as an "intellectual aristocracy" of artists, musicians and writers.

Lerner was a classical piano prodigy, though he claims he was never pushed toward music, only toward success. "It was more like, 'You need to be passionate about something, and you need to be good at something,'" he explained.

Music was a natural choice, particularly given his familial link to the "God Bless America" composer. An aptitude for words is also in his DNA: His grandfather on his dad's side was the controversial, nationally syndicated columnist Max Lerner.

Lerner never met Berlin, who died two years before he was born. Growing up, though, he said, "I felt like I knew him because he was kinda like this larger-than-life patriarch figure." He recalled massive portraits of Berlin in his childhood home and an Oscar statuette on the mantel of his grandmother's New York City apartment.

Lerner remembered drinking "ceremonially" at his parents' dinner parties in his youth. He got drunk for the first time at about 13 or 14, in a friend's basement on "cobwebbed" bottles of Samuel Adams OctoberFest.

"I knew I was an addict and an alcoholic before I even knew what addiction or alcoholism was," Lerner said. Drinking eased his social anxiety and soothed his frazzled nerves. It also unlocked something in him that he's spent the rest of his life trying to contain.

In high school, he began drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs, showing up for piano recitals and track meets drunk or hungover. He immersed himself in D.C.'s burgeoning underground hip-hop scene, where cocaine and ecstasy were often readily available.

click to enlarge Benjamin Lerner - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Benjamin Lerner

"Drinking and drugs became my identity," he recalled. They also became his artistic persona. "I thought I was a better rapper when I was drinking," he said.

At the University of Miami, Lerner began taking rapping seriously. He landed features with high-profile rappers such as Mac Miller, who died of an overdose in 2018.

Lerner didn't last long in college because, as he put it, "I just wanted to drink, get high and spit freestyle raps." He claims to have burned through a $100,000 college account his family had set up for him, on cocaine, weed and alcohol.

Having dropped out of school, Lerner returned to D.C. to work on an album. There he had drug-related run-ins with police and made grudging attempts at rehab, which didn't stick. In 2012, he moved to San Francisco to be closer to his father, who had recently remarried after divorcing Lerner's mother. While Lerner was there, his impacted wisdom teeth needed to be removed. His doctor prescribed opioids for the pain.

While Lerner described his alcoholism as a "slow descent," his experience with opioids was different. Within two weeks, he was snorting oxycodone. Within six months, he was using and selling heroin.

The following years were a tragic blur. He lost friends to overdoses. He stole thousands of dollars from his family, which eventually cut him off. He rarely ate, but when he did, it was often uncooked Top Ramen. He smoked discarded cigarettes off the street.

Lerner said he feels lucky to be alive. But the close calls never scared him. Fear didn't enter the picture until the day he shot up and didn't feel a thing.

"I knew I had three choices," he said. "I could intentionally try to OD and die, which I had tried a couple times. I could keep using and hope that the feeling would come back. Or I could try to get help."

Lerner did seek help, landing at a treatment center in Pennsylvania. In sobriety, and with Sherman's help, he found purpose: helping others attain the same freedom he has.

Getting clean "gave me a feeling that nothing had ever given me before, which was responsibility," Lerner explained. "And it was a different kind of feeling than getting approval for being smart or being Irving Berlin's great-grandson or being articulate or being good at playing piano or being a good rapper."

Clean hasn't been a commercial success, partly because of the difficulty of promoting music during the pandemic. Lerner's Spotify page averages just 17 monthly listeners. But the album's impact can't be measured by traditional industry metrics.

Most artists' press pages highlight choice quotes from media outlets. Lerner's is different: His testimonials are from doctors and addiction specialists in Vermont and beyond.

Among them is Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. "Benjamin Lerner's ability to articulate his life struggling with addiction — and the challenges of recovery — is truly remarkable," his testimonial reads. "I am inspired by his commitment to sharing his story and advocating for those engaged in the same struggle."

Lerner's mother, a recovering alcoholic, sings on a track on Clean called "I Surrender." She refers to her son's friendship with Sherman as a "father-brother relationship."

Indeed, the two sometimes joke and tease each other as brothers would. They even kind of look alike, thanks to their long, straight hair. But there's also a paternal quality to the duo's partnership.

"Everything that happened to me really was because I was lucky enough to be embraced and encouraged by people older than me and more experienced than me," Sherman said. Of his mentor-mentee relationship with Lerner, he added: "We're in this journey together, and we'll see how far we can get."

Through Sherman, Lerner has found platforms on which to advocate for recovery and destigmatizing addiction. He hosts a weekly show called "Clean Jams" on Manchester radio station 102.7 WEQX-FM. The hourlong program, which Lerner tapes at Old Mill Road Recording, centers on his two passions: hip-hop and recovery.

Lerner is also a staff writer for all of Sherman's publications, penning a newspaper column called "Clean" that appears weekly in the Vermont News Guide. Sherman is actively shopping the column around for syndication in other publications, including this one. Starting this week, "Clean" will appear on Seven Days' website. At left, read Lerner's debut column from February 3, 2020.

In his columns, Lerner writes plainly and candidly about his addiction and recovery. As in his music, his openness is sometimes jarring, and that's precisely the point.

"Anonymity has been such a core value of addiction and recovery," Sherman said. "And it certainly has its place. And it is a big part of Benjamin's recovery. That said, we're trying to sort of adjust that, tweak that and say, 'You don't have to hide your past. You don't have to hide your family. You are not alone.'"

Whether the column is bruising or uplifting, Lerner always signs off with the same three lines, a mantra of sorts: "Keep moving forward. Run toward the truth. Don't quit before the miracle happens."

Clean: February 3, 2020

By Benjamin Lerner

It was a hot and muggy day in the mountains, and I had my bags packed and was ready to go. The cab was on its way. The train tickets were booked. I had successfully manipulated my family into sending me hundreds of dollars to pay for the trip home.

I was two weeks sober at an inpatient rehab center and had fallen head over heels in love with a girl I had met there. We were involved in a rehab romance together.

Unfortunately, a rumor had been started about me that made her not want to talk to me anymore.

After finding out that one of the kids whom I considered to be a friend had spread the rumor (out of spite and jealousy), I decided to do what I did best: leave.

Leave the treatment center before I had to deal with any complicated feelings or confront any problems head-on.

Leave, because I wasn't capable of dealing with any emotional stress when I was doing drugs and alcohol — let alone when I was sober. 

Against all the advice of the counselors and treatment staff, I remained stubbornly determined to leave. I was charting a full-speed-ahead course toward my inevitable relapse and self-destruction.

Underneath all the layers of smirking late-adolescent bravado, I was scared, weary and on the verge of a mental breakdown. I was heartbroken and confused, grasping at straws for any type of emotional or physical distraction to fill the emptiness I felt growing inside of myself.

As I sat in the treatment center office and waited for them to call the cab, I thought about all the times in my life that I had been in the same situation: lying to myself and manipulating everyone around me to justify abandoning my commitments.

The clock ticked. The counselor looked straight at me with the same skeptical half-lidded-eye look that countless other treatment counselors had given me before. I saw my reflection in a small glass mirror on the desk. As I looked at myself, I saw a vision. Actually, I saw two separate and distinct possible visions for my future — each based on whether I decided to leave or decided to stay. One was alive and sober, and one was dying from addiction.

I realized then and there that it was going to be harder for me to run from my problems than to confront them head-on.

I told the counselor to cancel the cab, I grabbed my bags, and I walked back to my room, knowing that whatever petty drama I would have to confront was not worth the price I would pay down the line for leaving rehab.

That was the most important day of my life. It was the day I made the decision to stand and face my fears and not run from them. From that moment on, I made the decision to work every day to confront all my problems with honesty and patience, and I have lived by a simple philosophy that has kept me clean and sober through the darkest times:

Keep moving forward.
Run toward the truth.
Don't quit before the miracle happens.

"Clean" by Benjamin Lerner appears weekly at sevendaysvt.com/clean, beginning this week. To read his previous columns, visit benjaminlerner.com/columns.

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About The Author

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Bio:
Dan Bolles is Seven Days' assistant arts editor and also edits What's Good, the annual city guide to Burlington. He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his coverage of the arts, music, sports and culture. He loves dogs, dark beer and the Boston Red Sox... more

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