Like a You've Got Mail for the SoundCloud set, producers Benjamin Levin and Benjamin Ash were simultaneously friends in real life and mutual admirers online — without ever putting the two together. Levin, a former Dr. Luke protégé who has made hits for the likes of Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Maroon 5 under the name Benny Blanco, had grown friendly with Ash after meeting him through a girlfriend while living abroad in London. Some time later, he fell in love with the work of Two Inch Punch — a relatively obscure electronic producer and early collaborator of Sam Smith's — not realizing that it was actually Ash working under an alias.
"I didn't know it was him because I would just listen to [the music] on blogs," Levin says. "I was like, yo, this shit is amazing, I have to talk to this guy, this is fucking incredible! But I couldn't find out who it was. Then one day Two Inch Punch started showing up randomly on my Twitter and I was like 'Huh?' I realized that it was [Ash] who had changed his name."
The social media meet-cute was the beginning of a fruitful partnership between the two Benjamins, who, recording together as BenZel, were responsible for some of this year's most seamless and satisfying musical collaborations. They produced the majority of Jessie Ware's luminous sophomore album, Tough Love, including the title track and towering single "Say You Love Me." And in November, the duo released the first project under its own name, the Men EP, which offered more sublime R&B cocktails featuring the likes of Ryn Weaver, Cashmere Cat, and Juicy J.
On a recent afternoon in Blanco's colorful sixth-floor apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, which doubles as a recording studio, both men lounge lackadaisically on a floor-level mattress and brown comforter. Day-Glo illustrations by the pop artist Todd James, who does all of BenZel's artwork, adorn the walls. A stuffed zebra wearing a fez cap and several of Blanco's BMI songwriting awards around its neck sits by a yawning window. Fresh off a happily frictionless week of work, the Bens say a follow-up EP to Men is already nearly finished, with a full-length BenZel album planned for summer.
"This is a passion project — it's our way not to have to work for anyone or be on anyone else's timeframe," says Ash. He's the taller of the two, reserved and rakish — a Bert to Blanco's fuzzy, mellow Ernie. "We just wanna have fun with it, and we get to call the shots."
If fun is the objective, there are times when BenZel may have been too successful. Perhaps inspired by their early experiences with the slipperiness of identity online, Blanco and Ash at first went out of their way to obscure their involvement in the project, spending over a year masquerading as two Japanese teenage girls named Umi and Yoko. Thanks to fictionalized social media accounts, journalists fell for the ruse, a mistake Blanco and Ash giddily left unchecked.
"When we were putting out the music, we wanted to create like a false reality around it, a whole fantasy world," Blanco says of the duo's early material, which included a 2012 cover of Brownstone's "If You Love Me" featuring Ware. "But we didn't think anyone would actually believe us. When no one questioned it, we were like, wait, what?! And so we just kind of ran with it."
It wasn't until promo began for Tough Love that the mask began to slip. Ware was less than enthused about sharing credit with "Umi and Yoko," forcing the Bens to come clean. But the tension between playfulness and professionalism, nonchalance and ambition, is still present for BenZel. Listening to their growing catalog — marked by complex textures and careful R&B reference points rendered with obvious care — makes it clear that Blanco and Ash are deeply sincere in what they're doing, all pranks aside.
Before he was recruited by Dr. Luke to join an informal cabal of super producers led by the Swedish legend Max Martin, Blanco made a name for himself whipping up bombastic booty bass for the Baltimore rapper Spank Rock. Since their zeitgeisty 2008 collaborative EP Bangers & Cash, he's proven to be an adept studio confederate, working with other producers to bring what can seem like ineffable magic to a lengthy list of Billboard Hot 100 number ones, including Kesha's "Tik Tok," Perry's "California Gurls," and Rihanna's "Diamonds."
"I was just a guy who made beats before I met them," Blanco says of Luke and Martin. "They know how to write great pop songs. They taught me how to turn [my beats] into melodies and really understand symmetry and how a song works rather than just throwing a bunch of shit on a track and hoping it works out."
In Ash, a second-generation musician who grew up on everything from Desmond Dekker to Keith Sweat, Blanco found a foil who shared his obsession with R&B music. Their work together often casts the earnest sentiment and clean vocal style of vintage Whitney Houston or SWV against bleeding edge electronic backdrops, threading the needle between Top 40 and the Boiler Room.
With artists like Ware, Smith, and Grande, the duo has helped inform R&B's latest surge in the mainstream with a true believer's attention to detail.
"I think listeners are more willing to take chances now with so many different ways to discover music," says Blanco. "It doesn't matter where it comes from or what you label it as; at the end of the day, good music's gonna win."