Benjy Grinberg has a California address but a Pittsburgh heart
If Benjy Grinberg’s sentiment was a song then the chorus would go something like, “I know where I’m from and have appreciation.” After a few moments with the Squirrel Hill native, that simple sense is detectable even to a musical tyro.
Grinberg is founder and president of Rostrum Records, an independent label heralded for its early workings with local talents Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. Since those partnerships, Grinberg and Rostrum have collaborated with various artists including Mod Sun, BRÅVES, Vali, Mike Taylor, The Bird and The Bee, TeamMate, Toothless and Juliann Alexander.
Each of the aforementioned acts offers distinct genre-bending sounds. But while Grinberg has an ear for talent, hearing him offers its own auditory journey.
“When you’re a kid your surroundings are your whole world,” said the now-West Coast denizen.
Countering a bit from the lights of Los Angeles, the “world” that Grinberg recalled is strikingly familiar: school, services, the JCC and summer camp.
Between kindergarten and eighth grade, Grinberg attended Community Day School. Those years granted a social and academic boon, he said. “I made great friendships and had great teachers, and it set me up for success in high school and college.”
After CDS, Grinberg went to nearby Taylor Allderdice (now Pittsburgh Allderdice) High School and then the University of Pennsylvania. But CDS provided a “great Judaic foundation for me,” he said. “To be at services every day, I really learned a lot about being Jewish.”
Such instruction was reinforced by Grinberg’s involvement at Congregation B’nai Israel, the now-defunct synagogue whose iconic East Liberty building was designed by esteemed architect Henry Hornbostel in 1923.
As a child, Grinberg and his family participated in congregational life.
“The services at B’nai Israel were very active,” he said. “My grandfather and my grandmother were very active there as were my parents. Learning from my family and the leadership’s involvement in the synagogue was an important thing for me to witness.”
As formative as those experiences were, furthering Grinberg’s mold was the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, where he played basketball, participated in the theatrical productions of “Grease,” “42nd Street” and “Gypsy” and attended the Emma Kaufmann Camp.
Between B’nai Israel, CDS and the JCC, “my childhood was really founded by these Jewish organizations and community centers that helped to guide who I am as a person,” Grinberg said. “And it was great. [They were] a large part of my world growing up.”
Since that time, Grinberg has achieved much success in the music industry. He served as Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s assistant at Arista Records for three years. Then, in 2003, with knowledge and experience gleaned, Grinberg founded Rostrum Records, which has subsequently sold millions of albums while providing a self-described “artist-centric approach to developing talent.”
The label and its founder have notably garnered great applause. In 2011, Vibe called Rostrum one of “The Top 5 Hip-Hop Record Labels to Watch in 2012.” And, in 2013, Grinberg was named one of Billboard’s “40 under 40.”
While work has required a mostly California residency, Grinberg and his wife Ellen Goldberg (another Steel City native), maintain a strong Pittsburgh presence. Currently, the duo are actively aiding some recognizable locales, including CDS and Pittsburgh Allderdice.
“With CDS, we’ve been trying to help build up its music program,” he said. “And at Allderdice, we’ve supported the building of a recording studio on site so that students are able to stay after school and work on their music in a safe environment.”
“Arts education is a key feature of any quality educational program, and it is very meaningful to us at CDS that Benjy has chosen to give back and invest in this generation of CDS students the way that his family and others invested in CDS for him and his brothers years ago,” said Avi Baran Munro, CDS’ head of school.
“Over the past four years he and Ellen have become patrons of our school’s instrumental music program, donating funds that have enabled us to grow our band program and music department to unprecedented levels of participation.”
For the two Pittsburghers near the Pacific, boosting familiar causes comes from a combination of place, purpose and identity.
“Pittsburgh is always with us. It’s part of who we are,” Grinberg said.
Their decision to return home last summer during Ellen’s third trimester made that clear.
“We wanted to have the baby in Pittsburgh,” Grinberg said. “It was important to be back in Pittsburgh because that’s where most of our families are. We wanted to be in familiar surroundings and to be around loved ones and have the support of our loved ones.”
Coming back was beneficial. “We’re really happy we did that,” he added. “We’ll see what happens with the second child, God willing, and see if we can do something similar.”
Looking even further, “hopefully it’s kind of a dream of mine and Ellen’s to one day get back to Pittsburgh full time,” he said.
For those familiar with the Steel City, it is pretty easy to understand the music executive’s rationale.
“Pittsburgh is part of what molded my wife and me into the people we are,” he said.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.