By Marlon Regis
HHS: From your debut, From Where? released in 1995 on Atlantic Records, up until now in 2003 with your anticipated I Ain’t Mad No More release on Rawkus, how difficult have all these major transitions and changes in the market, made it for you to still have hope in the game?
Skillz: “I just been laying back in the cut, just focusing on what I want to do and how I want to get it done. I haven’t been totally off the scene, I just haven’t had a full-length LP out, yuhknowhati’msayin’? So, it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me, it was more or less, I just had to take time to get everything the way I wanted to get it. You just gotta change with the times…”
HHS: Last night (on tour with The Roots at the House of Blues in Los Angeles), after your performance, one could safely say by your confident way of rocking the mic, you’re an emcee to look up to. The feeling before, was like – I don’t know about this cat, let’s see what he got. Then, the feeling after was like – this cat is nuuuuuuiiiiiiccce! Do you constantly feel like you have to prove yourself?
Skillz: “Always. I always gotta work ten times harder than the next man. I always feel like I gotta prove myself, it’s a constant uphill battle with me. It’s always been like that – it’s nothing new.”
HHS: And how do you think concentrating on trying to prove yourself affects the time you’d want to spend creating?
Skillz: “Nah, nah, nah…. I’m always pushing the envelope, yuhknowhati’msayin’. Trying to come up with something new, something ill and a different way to do it. I don’t wanna do it like everything else. I wanna be me.”
HHS: After blessing the crowd on hand with tracks from the upcoming album, and making a definite impression on us, how do you intend to keep fans ‘on-lock’ nationwide, after the tour is done, leading up to your sophomore album release? Describe the process towards extended success.
Skillz: “I just gotta make sure that I keep on my toes, the game is gonna change, so you just gotta change with it. It’s a hard thing, but I’m up for the challenge. I’ve grown, it’s been seven years (referring to his debut in 1995). I’ve grown as a person, I’ve grown as an emcee. The world is changing, it’s a different era now. Some of the things that mattered in hip hop then, don’t matter no more. I have to still find a way to matter, now.”
HHS: In that DC-Metro area, which does include your hometown of Richmond, Virginia, many say your style is a reflection of the East Coast/NYC fundamental, together with the ingredients from the South. What would you define your own style of hip hop to be?
Skillz: “I’m definitely East Coast-influenced, I’ve always been East Coast-influenced from DAY ONE. But, being that Virginia is in the middle of the East Coast, we get that. You might get one car riding by playing Jay Z, and then another playing Outkast. It’s a difference. That definitely affects my music, and my style. It always has.”
HHS: Your passion for emceeing, where would you say the foundation of that might lie, as far as your beginning, and the defining moment of that decision to become a rapper?
Skillz: “Early 80′s maan! Hip Hop really was it for me when I heard Big Daddy Kane.. I was aware of the Run-DMCs, but it wasn’t until like Big Daddy Kane or like Rakim, that it really jumped off for me. It was around that time when it clicked. I’ve been involved in all aspects of hip hop from Djing, to Graff wiring, to Break Dancing.”
HHS: Oh, you DJ as well?
Skillz: “Maaan, I was Djing before I was writing and emceeing! But that (emceeing) was my calling.”
HHS: Without the decision of your record label, management or the secluded pitfall of the present need to have certain producers involved, if it were just up to you, how would this album beâ€¦(Skillz cuts me right off)
Skillz: “I do have total control of my album. I don’t feel like you should put out a songâ€¦.look, if you not sure about something, then don’t put it out. Like I hear people say like, ‘Ohhh maaan, I hate that record’ or ‘that record ain’t no single.’ OK then, since it’s not a single, why da fuck you put it out as one? Don’t let the powers-that-be change your vision. You know what your public wants to hear from you, and you gotta stick to that, to some degree, or else you lost! Then if the single doesn’t do exactly what you wanted to do, you sitting around saying, ‘damn, I should have put out so n’ so..’ Then, why didn’t you?”
HHS: Did you have this problem with your first release from 1995?
Skillz: “Not as far as the single, but on the album I did. I didn’t have a lot of direction with that album. I always tell people, be careful of what you ask for, because when I did that album, all I really cared about was people knowing I was from Virginia, and knowing my name. And basically, that was all I got from that album. Recognition and a stake in claiming as far as VA hip hop is concerned. With this one (I Ain’t Mad No More), I wanna sell 10 million records, if it ever happen, or I could get 5 million.”
HHS: Well, after the show, I definitely saw you and your man trying to get the start on that, selling right from the palm of your hands, CDs in boxes to the exiting fans. I had to do a double-take to see if it was really you.
Skillz: “Nowadays, I don’t let any opportunity pass me. It’s really about me getting the music out there. And I’ll do what I gotta do, and don’t nothing sell music like music. We out there last night swinging CDs for $5, for like two. That’s like $5 for like 25 songs! Out of 25 songs, you gonna like something. It’s definitely something I keep abreast of, and I just wanna stay on my ground with that. And the best time to sell them is right after they see you perform. And I’m signing ‘em too. I wanna be accessible to the people. There wasn’t nobody else out there last night. To someone, that actually might make a difference,” he says referring to the fact that he was out there in the flesh. “That might mean something. I don’t ever want to be unapproachable.”
HHS: Your fortÃ© is lyrics – witty construction, tons of metaphors; similes galore, etc. The process towards putting this all together to make sense for the listener must be a fascinating one. Share with us a little of this process and also the mind’s matter when getting into a freestyle?
Skillz: “Sometimes it just comes to me, there’s really no set agenda. And sometimes I sit down and have an ideaâ€¦it might take me forever. I always want to have a meaning to it though. I wanna evoke a certain emotion. I wanna make you feel sad, I wanna make you think, I wanna bring the shock value out – I can’t believe he just said that, REWIND – I’m always thinking in those terms. I do that for lyrical purposes, but when I make records, I always think DJ firstâ€¦.If the DJ gonna play this? When could he play this? If he was in the club, how he gonna play this? I appreciate what the DJ does, I’m a DJ’s emcee, they kinda take to me, I take to them.”
HHS: Do you see certain emcees, or a certain type of hip hop almost being impossible to market under the present circumstances presented by the powers-that-be, governing and determining the recipe for success today?
Skillz: “They gonna get tired of all that other shit, because it gonna be so watered down. Everybody has their time, and maybe when I first came out, it just wasn’t the ‘nice-emcee-type’ time. But we’ve been through the ‘bling’ era, we’ve been through the ‘thug’ era! When we get back to the ‘OH-MY-GOD-HE-SAID-THAT’ era, I’ll be a superstar! (we both laugh). I’m running in the front of that! I don’t sacrifice my music, I do what I’m good at and I know what people want to hear from me.”
HHS: With so many personalities shaping the hip hop nation, do you see any other emcee, similar to yourself and career path, that has broken through successfully to a place you haven’t yet achieved?
Skillz: “I always had that Big L comparison because of our voices, because some of the witty lines, and that’s cool. I knew that from day one, we put metaphors alike together. I got the Eminem thing, because we’re both like emcee emcees. We pay so much attention to detail and words, or throwing something in there that you might not catch until after the 30th time that you done heard the song. We also got that shock-value factor. His worked a lot better for him because he’s white.”
HHS: Time has it that, in the past emcees were really comfortable being considered ‘underground’ but now that tag isn’t swallowed as easily as before, unless one is unsigned and just confined to their neighborhood, or local area. In 2003 and forward, how is Skillz supposed to be defined?
Skillz: “Just as an emcee. I let people define it as they must, but if I make a song with fucking Mariah Carey, say me and Mariah are best of friends, and I ask Mariah to sing the hook, then that’s just my dawg. She just happens to be Mariah. But if in reality I do a song with Mariah, people flip out just because it’s on Rawkus. Like Rawkus is probably the only label I know of that has fans that down the music because of who’s on it. I remember when Mos (Def) did the song with Nate Dogg – like niggaz thought that was the END of the WORLD! Saying shit like, ‘Oh My God, Mos Def and fucking Nate Dogg, what are they thinking?’ And that turned out to be Rawkus’ biggest record. You have to have an open mind…. that’s why I identify with Rawkus, they have to keep proving themselves.”
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