Ben Harris used to stare out the window of his Indiana high school, watching cattle graze outside and daydreaming about performing music onstage. When he moved to Phoenix at age 16, he started rapping after school with friends who would bust out the karaoke machine and rhyme for hours. His friends eventually called it quits, but Harris stuck with it.
Now, only six years later, the Arizona State University senior -- who goes by Ol' Green Eyes -- is going to open for elite hip-hop artist Xzibit, host of MTV's Pimp My Ride.
His transformation from hip-hop wanna-be to up-and-coming performer certainly didn't happen overnight, but lately he's made a lot of progress. Thanks to a friend of a friend, he got the chance to play with T.I. at the Venue of Scottsdale a few months ago. And since December, Ol' Green Eyes has been undefeated on Power 92's on-air freestyle battles. "He has a fast-tongued flow that can attract the attention of a wide fan base," says JX3, a DJ at the radio station. "Phoenix should watch out for this cat. He has skills, no doubt."
Ol' Green Eyes
But having better flow than other locals isn't the same as stepping on stage with the stars. Ol' Green Eyes has already scored the opening slot on Xzibit's March 20 and 21 tour dates, and as one of 10 finalists in Sony BMG's national search for the next "Hip Hop SupaStar," he stands to score a new car, recording time, an opening slot on Xzibit's next tour, and a record contract with the label -- if he wins.
In January, Ol' Green Eyes got an e-mail from a Yahoo! group with a link to www.hiphopsupastar.com, where he read what Dino Delvaille, lead Sony A&R executive for the project, wants in a contestant. "We're hungry for tracks that make people laugh, cry, dance and move," Delvaille says on the Web site. "We're looking for songs that impact people's lives, not just hip-hop fans."
Looking clean-cut in a blue-striped button-down shirt and a bright blue Cubs cap, Ol' Green Eyes might be what the folks at Sony are searching for. He raps in a suave tone over danceable beats, with lyrics that focus on his love of game -- both the rap game and the game of love. His sound is surely destined for radio play. After all, he's got the ins at Power 92.
And he's set his sights higher than just stirring up Phoenix. Ol' Green Eyes wants to change some social stigmas in the hip-hop community. "There's a whole bunch of artists like me who grew up in nice, loving homes, but love rap," the 22-year-old says. "They can battle, but they're too scared to let everyone know where they're from."
Ol' Green Eyes isn't scared, though. As a matter of fact, he says he wants to be the poster boy for rappers from good homes. (Although as a poster boy, Ol' Green Eyes looks more like a model than a rapper. Wait -- he is a model. When he's not in class, he works for Dani's Agency in Phoenix.)
Growing up in rural Indiana as the son of a white mother and a black father has heavily influenced Ol' Green Eyes' rhymes. "I was the only minority, and people didn't lock their doors," he says of his hometown. "I can't talk about people having guns cocked when I grew up with my doors unlocked."
Apparently, people in high places agree with him, because a couple weeks after he submitted The Ol' Green E.P. to the contest, Andre McKinsey from Sony BMG called. "He told me he was really feeling my music," says the broadcast journalism student. "Now, he's sending me music for Lil' Flip's [upcoming] album to write verses. He's a big believer."
Of course, the big believer hasn't yet offered a deal to snatch up Ol' Green Eyes' blend of Jay-Z's flow and Usher's smooth rhythm. McKinsey's sending beats to the Tempe rapper to find out what kind of rhymes he writes. That's fine with Ol' Green Eyes, who says the connections he's made at the label are enough to make him feel like he's already won.
But sure, he'd love to be on Sony BMG. "They've even got Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears," Ol' Green Eyes says, shaking his head. "And I'm like, 'Dang! I'm talking to them every day?'"
Since label reps selected the finalists, the contest has been turned over to fans. Through April 11, anyone with a wireless phone not only can vote for their favorite contestant by text messaging, but even download the finalist's beat as a ring tone.
Ol' Green Eyes has all his family members voting, he says, and his parents are supportive of his potential rap career. "I'm really glad that they've supported me to do something that doesn't require a degree, when their degrees were so important to them," he adds. Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Kanye West may have dropped out of school, but Ol' Green Eyes, set to graduate in December, is committed for the long haul. "What I'd really like to do this summer is get [my career] big to where people know me and know that I stayed to get my degree," he says. "You don't have to be a dropout, Kanye."
Plus, a degree in broadcast journalism will put him on track for his second career choice: television. "I want to be a Will Smith, but reversed," he says. "I want to be known for music, but also do movies and television."
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Ol' Green Eyes has drawn a handful of comparisons to Usher, but he's not out to bite anyone's style. "I see a lot of people trying to be 'the next' people, but I just want to be the first," he says. Indeed, Xzibit's a pretty good role model, too.
Ultimately, Ol' Green Eyes just wants to be recognized; being considered average is one of his worst fears. But the "Hip Hop SupaStar" contest has helped solidify his confidence that he will not be tossed in the pile of CDs that sound like everything else. "I've grown, I've matured, and I feel like I'm ready now," he says. "This contest has helped me to see that. I always thought I was doing something right, and now someone sitting in the right place agrees."
That's right -- the folks in the top-floor offices see potential in a kid who saw cows outside his high school window, has supportive parents, and uses the word "dang." Ol' Green Eyes isn't your generic rap artist, and his new outlook on hip-hop just might be the next big thing.
"I'm just being myself, which happens to be . . . different," he says, grinning.