Derek Watkins, better known as Fonzworth Bentley, is the true definition of a Renaissance man. The former maître d’ of a chi-chi New York restaurant, he gained notoriety in the entertainment world when he started popping up in paparazzi photos holding an umbrella over rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ head.
His stint as Puff’s personal assistant (or “manservant,” as the magazines liked to snicker) led to appearances in music videos – most notably OutKast’s “The Way You Move” and “Roses” – and on albums such as Kanye West’s chart topping “The College Dropout.” He briefly starred on his own MTV show, “Borrow My Crew,” and had small roles in films “Idlewild,” “Honey” and “Fat Albert.” This year, Bentley is set to explode: his debut album “C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” (which stands for “CoolOutrageousLoversOfUniquelyRawStyle”) will hit stores soon, as well as his book on etiquette called “Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence, and Style to Get Ahead.”
And if anyone has swagger – it’s Bentley. At a recent Temple panel discussion the “Game Behind the Game,” he arrived rocking slippers and a cashmere sweater, shaking hands with anyone and everyone who approached him. We sat down and talked fashion and hip-hop – two of his passions – over Starbucks caramel macchiatos, his favorite drink.
The Temple News: You’re known for your unique sense of style. What’s your fashion philosophy?
Fonzworth Bentley: I’m really big on symmetry. Wearing a big, baggy sweatshirt with skinny trousers – I’m not into it. I do stick to a lot of the kind of rules to style, but I don’t think about it too much. Actually, I guess my philosophy would be, really, “cool, outrageous lovers of uniquely raw style.” And I admire a lot of the greats: everyone from Duke Ellington to Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly.
TTN: Speaking of “CoolOutrageousLoversOfUniquelyRawStyle,” what can we expect to hear on this new album? What does the music sound like?
FB: One of the terms I really like is “fresh.” I think my music is fresh. There’s only one sample on it, and that’s the sample by Kanye, and there’s a lot of instrumentation. I love instrumentation. It’s an opportunity to bring music to life. You can have people on guitar, people on piano, someone playing drums … and that person on percussion, their heartbeat, their own personal metronome, it becomes a part of a real piece of work. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve got a lot of different stuff going on on this album, a lot of different styles. Every song is like a different color.
TTN: What have you been listening to lately?
FB: I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz as of late, because it offers me peace of mind, and also to free my mind. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Musiq Soulchild, old Tribe Called Quest albums, and the Wu-Tang Clan, because it’s difficult to stay inspired with hip-hop. I’ve been listening to the second OutKast album a lot, too, which is the best OutKast album in my opinion.
TTN: Your “Do’s and Don’ts” video has become quite popular on the Internet. Can you give us a “do” and a “don’t” about college life?
FB: First of all, I’ve seen that, but I could only watch a few minutes of it. I recorded it, and the people who recorded it said that they would edit it, but it ain’t edited. It’s straight-down ridiculousness.
Anyway, a “do” and a “don’t” about college life. Do: After you take your notes, read over your notes really well in one week; that way, when it actually comes time to know the material, you’ll be good. Cramming – don’t do it. I did it, and I was not scholastically superior to my colleagues.
And don’t: Don’t limit yourself to taking courses within your major. Don’t take the classes just to take them and get out. I really wish that I had taken more history classes. I love history, and I love the History Channel. Whenever you start to talk history, people stop to listen, because that’s real knowledge. Learn some history and you’ll always look like a fairly smart person. I try to do things just to be a better me. Take some classes just to be a better whoever you are.
TTN: You’ve done so much, from acting to recording to producing to writing a book. Which project was the most difficult for you and which project are you the proudest of?
FB: The book was the most difficult. Random House wanted me to write something about taking yourself to the next level, since I come from humble beginnings and all. But I wanted to write a book on etiquette, because I feel like that’s something the community needs. Let me tell you, sitting your butt down and writing is not easy. It has to be a certain number of pages, you have a contract – it’s a pain. Plus, etiquette is etiquette, you can’t get it wrong. If I didn’t have my mother to help me with it, I would’ve never gotten it done.
And I think I’m really most proud of this album. Kanye saw something in me and we made this happen. I’ve been able to work with some of heroes. I told them, going into it, that I would only record it if I could also produce it. I didn’t want anyone else telling me who I am, what I sound like, who I can work with. This album really represents me. It’s going to give people a glimpse behind the umbrella.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.