THE FIRST TIME BEN GOLDBERG rapped in public he was 13 years old. It was July 1, 2012, and Goldberg was behind the Middle East in Cambridge, part of a swarm of 30 or so kids who intercepted Hopsin, a Los Angeles-based rapper who had just performed on the downstairs stage, as he headed to his tour bus. While Hopsin signed autographs, Goldberg stepped forward.
“Yo, I’m going to rap for you,” Goldberg told him.
This wasn’t a premeditated decision. He didn’t weigh the consequences of embarrassing himself in front of someone he idolized, not to mention a crowd of his peers. But Goldberg, who had already given himself the stage name Token, was confident. It was as if he had spent the last three years building to this — countless hours in his room, pen to pad, constructing intricate rhyme patterns. Hopsin was known for the complexity of his flow. He’d have to appreciate Goldberg’s style. Besides, how could Goldberg not take advantage of this opportunity?
“You chumps know it is dumb. Hoping / this young Token / for fun won’t split you, cut open / I come roaming / with a lyrical gun loaded. . . . ”
The crowd fell silent, Hopsin included. It felt, Goldberg would later say, as if he were onstage.
When Goldberg was done, Hopsin offered affirmation and advice. “I see what you’re doing, and it’s sick,” he told him. “You have the techniques, but sometimes take it slower and kind of steez it out a little bit — and have some fun with it.”
It wasn’t as if Goldberg had any doubt about his path before that point, but he recalls this moment as galvanizing. “That night was the night of my life for years,” says Goldberg, now 18, leaning back in a chair in the living room of his mother’s apartment in Marblehead. But there’s been competition for that title lately — much of it in the past 18 months.
In October 2015, Goldberg’s entry to a rap video contest went viral, ultimately tallying more than 2.5 million views on YouTube. In April 2016, he had another viral hit: a six-minute-long performance on the influential Sway in the Morning hip-hop show on Sirius XM that was so powerful it moved a co-host to tears. Last September, he released a mixtape, Eraser Shavings, which reached number 3 on the iTunes hip-hop charts and made it into the top 40 overall. His work caught the attention of Mark Wahlberg, who helped him land a guest spot on a November episode of the Wahlburgers reality show and a role as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s college roommate in the movie Patriots Day, released in December.
Goldberg also had the opportunity to tour for the first time in 2016, doing several solo dates in France and Switzerland — two places where one of his viral hits got heavy play. In the fall, he played more than 20 dates in the States. This time, he was an opening act. The headliner: Hopsin.
“He doesn’t remember that night,” Goldberg says, laughing. “I reminded him many times.”
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FROM AN EARLY AGE, hip-hop was therapeutic for Goldberg. Even as a first-grader, he was getting suspended from school for yelling at his teachers and fighting. “He had this explosive anger,” says his mother, Leslie Goldberg. At home, he’d have an episode — screaming, throwing things — and then retreat, horrified about what he’d done. “He would go into his room,” she says, “and you could just see in his face that he was crestfallen. He’d ask ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ”
Goldberg went from therapist to therapist and was eventually diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He was also slow to read, and doctors identified a language disability. And, yet, as he continued to work on his word skills and composition, writing became an outlet. “When he started writing, you could see he used it that way,” says his sister, Madeline, who is five years older. “He’d blow up, try to say something, and if he didn’t have the right words, he would go to his room and write.”
It worked. “I don’t think I realized, holding this pad, This is the answer — this is the reason why I don’t feel bad anymore. But subconsciously, I knew it, and that’s why I kept going back to it,” he says. “Honestly, at some points, it felt like it’s all I had to get this negative energy off of me.”
Soon, Goldberg’s diary-like writing turned into poems, and the poems turned into raps. He started recording himself when he was 10 years old, using GarageBand and rhyming over beats playing from the computer’s speakers. They were self-therapy sessions set to music. “I was basically hiding them from everybody, because they were for me,” he says. But one day, a friend found them on his computer and pushed him to create a YouTube channel and upload them. After some protest, Goldberg relented, releasing his first song to the world — him rapping over the beat for Lil Wayne’s “Drop the World” featuring Eminem. His MC moniker at the time was his initials, BDG (Benjamin David Goldberg). “When I got my first positive comment on YouTube, I was like This is what I need to do for the rest of my life,” says Goldberg. “The fact that somebody could like something that I love to do so much, it’s like That’s it — that’s what I’m going to do. There’s no question.”
When his Marblehead schoolmates eventually found the song, the reception was universally negative. Some kids taunted him in the hallway: “Yo, BDG, rap something for me, bro.” Others — in that hyper-aware stage of youth when all actions are classified as either cool or weird — dismissed it as the latter. “I had friends, close friends, who were like ‘Yeah, man, I don’t know why you would do that. It’s not going to work.’ ” He got it. What he was doing wasn’t normal. “It was different, but it’s what I had to do.” He stayed on the fringes, hanging with an older crowd. “He would rap for them, too,” says his sister. “He told me later on that they would make fun of him for it. I mean, he was this big Jewish white kid. But he just kept going.” (His stage name is less of a play on his race, he says, and more of a nod to a general sense of otherness. “The whole idea of Token is being ‘the only’ — it’s about feeling different,” he says.)
Size had become a personal struggle, too. When music proved an insufficient salve for his frustrations, there was food. By the time Goldberg was entering the fourth grade, the year his parents divorced, he weighed 140 pounds. His doctor told him he was shocked that he didn’t already have diabetes, a disease his father suffers from. The visit shook him: He hated watching his dad inject himself with insulin. Already unhappy with his appearance, he began sneaking away from his after-school program at the YMCA to run on the treadmills. No weights. “I would just run,” he says. Halfway through fifth grade, Goldberg had dropped 50 pounds.
It was a critical lesson about the fruits of discipline. “That really helped with the music, because it showed me that if I put my mind to something and I go full-fledged with it, I can make anything happen.” Recording became more frequent and more fervent. His mother watched the transformation in awe. “Feeling that empowerment of ‘I decided to do something and I achieved it,’ I think that gave him a lot of confidence that he had the drive.”
Still, classmates tested his confidence. In the sixth grade, he started collaborating with Colin Mitchell (now known as Composition), another local rapper a year older than him. They would record songs on Goldberg’s Mac, burn CDs, and distribute them around town — only to find them stuffed in trash bins. Mitchell says people were harsh. “People literally made fake Twitter pages and would fake Tweet about it.”
One of those CDs, though, found its way to Jon Glass, founder of Glasshouse Productions. Glass got his hair cut at Pringle’s Barber Shop in Salem, where Mitchell, also a patron, had left a CD. The barber, aware of Glass’s production work, passed it on. It stayed in Glass’s car for a month before he played it — he didn’t expect much. The first song featured Mitchell and Goldberg rapping over a beat from a song by Slaughterhouse, a hip-hop supergroup that records under Eminem’s Shady Records label. It was a respectable choice, Glass thought. OK, they have a good ear. And while they were rough around the edges and he thought their youthful delivery resembled “rapping chipmunks,” the content was there.
Glass became a mentor. Nearly every weekend, Goldberg and Mitchell would go to his studio in Danvers and learn about songwriting and structure, engineering, and recording software. Glass held them to academic standards, too, threatening to cut studio time for poor performance. He’d dole out personal advice about, say, what to do when someone cut a diss track aimed at them. “They were kids,” says Glass. “They were growing up.”
And while Goldberg wasn’t getting much local love, his expanding online presence helped him make inroads elsewhere. He was making his own music videos, using a friend’s camera and teaching himself to edit them. He experimented with marketing, launching a couple of regular video series (T.O.K.E.N. Tuesdays, Freeverse Fridays) on YouTube. His mom helped him build a makeshift recording studio in their apartment, securing their landlord’s permission to add a wall to create a room off the kitchen. By the time Glass found him, he already had a healthy fan base online. “The first time I went to Glasshouse Productions,” Goldberg says, “it was a meeting of everyone in Glasshouse, and then me. There’s a bunch of 20-plus-year-olds and then a 13-year-old — and I had more fans than all of them,” he says with a laugh and a wave of his hand, delivering the punch line like an onstage one-liner.
In October 2015, he released a video as part of an online contest called No Sucka MCs. He had written the song in a day and recorded the video — just him walking through a Marblehead neighborhood, rapping at the camera — the next day. He checked the views before he went to bed: 7,000, a pretty standard count. When he checked again the next day, he was in his second-period pre-calc at Marblehead High: 115,000 views. He pulled up Twitter and saw that his mentions were flooded. As class got out, he rang Glass, waking him up. “Dude, I don’t know what’s happening,” Goldberg said. The numbers would climb to more than 500,000 views in three days. Within a few months, they would top a million.
Among those who watched the video that fall was Fred Durst, frontman for Limp Bizkit who has also directed several movies. Durst e-mailed Goldberg, and the two began talking. Soon after, Mark Wahlberg called Durst to talk, and Durst told him about Token. Wahlberg decided to get in touch.
Admittedly terrible at checking his voice mail, Goldberg didn’t listen to the message for 10 days. “What’s up? I’m looking for Token. This is Mark Wahlberg. I got your number from Fred Durst. Don’t give my number to nobody. Call me back.”
After Goldberg finally called, he and Wahlberg struck up a friendship. They talked about music, their Massachusetts upbringings, Goldberg’s hopes. Soon, Wahlberg began inviting Goldberg out to his house in Los Angeles. He remembers that one of the first things Wahlberg asked him after he arrived was whether he was into shoes. “Looking at it now, I don’t know if it was a test. He was probably going to pull out some crazy shoe — and I was like, ‘Nah, man.’ I think he liked that.” Wahlberg probably appreciates his work ethic, he figures. “Last time I was over at his house, I met with him at 10 a.m. He had already gone to the gym, played 18 holes, and had two meetings. He is insane. And he recognizes that I’m working super hard for this.”
Wahlberg helped set Goldberg up with the audition that landed him the part in Patriots Day, and the experience rekindled an affinity for theater. In the summer after fifth grade, he had attended a camp called Rebel Shakespeare, ultimately landing the role of Speed in a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The experience helped him build his stage confidence. “I don’t know why or how, but I’m comfortable up there. There’s not much I like to do more than performing in front of people.” This is evident: When Goldberg raps, it is a total physical investment. His whole body beams when he delivers punch lines, it scowls when he’s pulling from deep within. His motion is constant but calculated, timed sharply to the tempo.
He’s not really focused on acting right now, though. He’s interested, but not pushing. Things will happen naturally, he says. Mostly, he and Wahlberg talk about business, which is new for Goldberg — this homemade art therapy project increasingly becoming a profession. He’s learning to be more strategic about decisions. Like doing guest spots on other rapper’s songs (or features, as they’re known): When he was 14 or 15, the $50 he would make for a feature spot would feel like a lottery win. “Then I realized I was doing all these features and I wasn’t growing. I wasn’t making my own music,” he says. “Now it’s more than 50 bucks, but I know that’s not where I need to be spending my time.”
Major labels are calling, too, says his manager, Marcus Siskind, all promising that he’s going to be the next big thing. “And he loves it and appreciates it,” Siskind says, “but he understands that he has a plan and he has to build this thing.”
Social media remains the catalyst, with Goldberg releasing everything from lo-fi videos recorded in his home studio to highly produced music videos on Facebook and Twitter. But Goldberg knows the importance of personal interaction, too, inviting fans to rap with him before shows in informal cyphers — providing them with the same kind of idol access that propelled him five years earlier.
But beyond making connections, Goldberg is investing more time in his craft. More pen to pad. The success might be recent, he says, but it’s the result of years of work. And there’s more to do. “I want to be the best,” he says. “That doesn’t feel close.”
GOLDBERG ISN’T OVERLY concerned about the perils of young fame. For one thing, every European tour or trip to Mark Wahlberg’s house in LA ends back at his bedroom in his mom’s place in Marblehead, where the downstairs landlord will punch the ceiling if Goldberg is playing music too loudly. He’s still finishing up high school, taking courses remotely. (When his aunt, a college professor, saw him perform solo at the Middle East, she hugged his mom after the show and told her: “Don’t get hung up on college. He’s on a different course.”) And his friends keep him in check, chiding him for, say, constantly demanding to ride shotgun on car trips. “He always asks us how he can be better,” says his sister, Madeline. “He wants us to check him.”
At the same time, he’s aware of how all of these experiences have changed him. In January, he filmed a video for a new song called “Doozy” — something he wrote after Eraser Shavings — and released it online in February. “Honestly, the songs off Eraser Shavings, I appreciate them, but I can’t even listen to them,” he says. Eraser Shavings had been in the works for a while, and things got real different real fast. “I really want to talk about what’s happening now.” It’s been a sea change for Goldberg: His writing used to be backward-looking, focused on his childhood, hung up on the past. “But right now, so much is changing that I have so much to write about,” he says. “I know so many people now that I didn’t know a couple years ago, even a few months ago. It’s just so much fuel to write about.”
The muses vary. There was the girl he met on his US tour. There’s the darkness he’s begun to see in people — hangers-on, aspirants, and industry types who want a piece of his fame. But the effect is the same. In his mother’s living room in January, he tells a story of a recent Saturday night that involved some unspecified drama. He came home heated and immediately wrote a song, recording it the next day.
“When I finished writing that song, I was completely fine,” he says. “I was pumped. I just wrote an ill song, and I was over it. I was over it. Literally, I use it like medicine.”Dan Morrell is a writer in Needham. Sends comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.