Duane Benajmin orchestrated and co-produced his latest project, also hiring live musicians and directing them during a live video shoot. The project happened to be “Proof” by K-Pop super band BTS. It garnered 12 million views on its first day, and now has over 20 million views.
No pressure now.
It’s all in a day’s work for Duane Benjamin, who teaches in the Global Jazz Studies inter-departmental program at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. That is, when he’s not orchestrating music for television shows like The Voice and American Idol. But Benjamin (nickname Ben-jamin’) is not just a recording producer and orchestrator. A jazz and R&B trombonist, he has also recorded with legends like the Count Basie Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stanley Clark, and Diana Ross, and contemporary artists including Justin Timberlake and Jamiroquai.
Benjamin’s latest collaboration with BTS involved a lot of moving parts. As music director, he hired the live band background vocalists, orchestrated the music, and co-produced the track at Echo Bar Recording Studios with his partner, sound engineer Erik Reichers. They shot the video at an abandoned water park in Lake Delores in the Mohave desert. The effect is mildly surreal—deep blue skies touching down on an expansive desert, stage lights set up amidst dilapidated ruins, and a full band backing up BTS.
“A lot of bands don’t use live musicians, but BTS does,” said Benjamin. “I have some great musicians and background singers that I work with. Some of them I’ve been working with for years, part of the old Motown Crew.”
This wasn’t Benjamin’s first collaboration with BTS. He was first contacted by the group’s production company, Big Hit Music, after they saw Beyoncé’s memorable headlining of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2018. Her performance featured a full marching band and majorettes as part of an artistic tribute to HBCUs. Inspired, BTS’s production company, Hit City, looked for a collaborator and contacted Benjamin’s collaborator Erik Reichers, owner of Echo Bar Recording Studios.
“I was able to hook BTS up with the Global Jazz Studies faculty and the UCLA Marching Band,” said Benjamin. “We recorded their hit single ‘On’ on their album Map of the Soul 7. We also recorded ‘Ego.’ It went over really well. It was the beginning of the relationship.”
In 2020, Hit City contacted Benjamin and Reichers again to collaborate on a new orchestration for BTS’s hit “Dynamite,” which they performed at the Billboard Music Awards. The performance required a live band, which Benjamin had to arrange remotely given the challenges of the global pandemic. Hit City now regularly works with Benjamin not just for BTS, but when they need his production skills with other artists they represent.
Benjamin brings his four decades of experience on stage and in recording studios to his work at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Among the classes he teaches is commercial music studio ensemble (CMSE for short), which will be offered in Winter and Spring 2023.
“I’m proud to work in such a versatile school of music,” said Benjamin. “What’s missing from a lot of other schools is the combination of top musical training and scholarship with the professional aspects of the music industry, like we do at UCLA.”
The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music has an interdisciplinary minor in Music Industry (with plans for expansion), which will allow for even more collaboration. Students in this program learn from celebrated faculty with vast knowledge of the music business while working closely with industry leaders. “It’s really the best of all possible worlds,” said Benjamin
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified BTS’s production company as “Hit City.” The groups production company is Big Hit Music.