Skillz: Surviving The Times
Following the commercial failure of his debut, 1996s From Where???, due in part to Big Beat/Atlantic Records Craig Kallman and his ill-fated decision to release the album on the same day as two of the biggest Hip Hop releases ever (All Eyez On Me and The Score), the first emcee to put Virginia on the rap map linked up with new state representatives, Timbaland and Missy Elliot. That late 90s union seemed as though it would help push Skillz signature brand of punchline-heavy wittiness into the Soundscan stratosphere. But as he revealed during the course of his conversation with HipHopDX, the relationship between VAs finest subsequently turned sour [click to read], leading Skillz to leave that crew at the dawn of the 21st century with little more to show for his time than a few guest appearances. Unfortunately, Skillz was dealt yet another career blow shortly thereafter when what should have been his sophomore release, I Aint Mad No More, was shelved after his then label home, Rawkus Records, was absorbed by Geffen Records in 2002.
But even with all of the misfortunes that have befallen his career, Skillz has refused to throw in the towel. So although its taken over 12 years to arrive, he is finally set to release his first official full-length of all new material since his debut. Million Dollar Backpack is due July 8th via Big Kidz/Koch Records. The album boasts heavy-hitting production from ?uestlove, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Kwame, Bink, and more, with cameos from Common, Talib Kweli, Truck North, Black Thought, and Freeway.
Before he took aim at Lil Wayne [click to read] via his blog, Skillz shared some of his thoughts with DX pertaining specifically to his career, including his aforementioned new album, why hes not just the Rap Up rapper, what being one of Hip Hops most notable ghostwrites is like, and maybe most notably why hes been hangin out with Will Smith of late.
HipHopDX: Why a million dollar backpack; why not like a $50 backpack, something regular folk like myself can afford?
Skillz: [Laughs]. The [title] Million Dollar Backpack is a way of saying you really cant judge a book by its cover. Like, everything that Ive obtained and Ive gathered up through my course in this Hip Hop, its all been from an idea that came out of that backpack. So its basically me saying you cant put a price on this to me.
[The title specifically] actually came from a line from a Twista song [where] Pharrell [Williams] said [that]. It was called Lavish. And I remember Pharrell was rappin on it and he said, Big house, big car, big dreams, all that came out my backpack. The songs pretty old, but that stuck with me for awhile.
A lot of people say that I make underground music, or I make backpack music, and I think theres really [only] two kinds of music: I think theres good music and theres bad music. I dont really think theres anything else.
DX: Lets get into the album. Theres a Jeezy ad-lib shot on Sick [click to listen] and another one on So Far, So Good [click to listen]. What did Jeezys adlibs ever do to you [Laughs]?
S: Nothing, dont get me wrong, I like Young Jeezy. I think Jeezys pretty good at what he does. Its just that[Laughs]...I didnt really even realize that I said that like twice. Its just another analogy of being in the background. His adlibs are so relevant in the back. And so its just a way of me saying like, You gonna always be in the back like a Jeezy ad-lib. No diss to Jeezy.
DX: On Sick you also take a shot at L.A. Reid. So what he wore eyeliner and was in a group with a grown man calling himself Babyface, does that give you the right to disrespect him like that?
S: [Laughs]. Man, when people make mistakes I wouldnt be an emcee thats paying attention if I didnt point those things out. And I saw [and old Deele] video not too long ago. I never really knew about that until I saw that video and I was like, Wow, they had eyeliner on. Like, wow, how do you go from that to But it worked out [for him].
DX: That jab wasnt like a personal thing was it?
S: Nah, I never even met L.A. Reid.
DX: Well since you like taking pot shots at people, what do you say in response to the shot most people have taken at you over the past few years, that youre just the year end, Rap Up, once-a-year-shine guy?
S: If people think that Im a once-a-year guy, that I just make a song once a year, then youre not really paying attention. Dont get me wrong, The Rap Up is a big song, but Dont Act Like You Dont Know with Freeway was a banger too. Dope video [click to view], bangin east coast banger. Crazy World, political, got a message in the song [click to view]. Its just those songs dont get as much burn as The Rap Up does. I havent mastered how to make that happen yet. When I talk about other people you love it like, Oh my God, hes so witty. Hes so funny. That song was so on point. He didnt miss one thing. That shit was so true. Then when I say, Gas going up, country blowing up/Million Man March, niggas aint showing up.
S: Right, yeah, Borrrring. Ah God, another [But] who would I be to have a voice and not speak up on some of these things? I feel like Im one of the last real voices left. So, for you to wanna take a pot shot at me and say the only time you hear from me is The Rap Up, that means to me you aint listening.
DX: Well for todays short attention span fans you gotta be dropping new material constantly, so why have you taken so long to get the actual album out?
S: Because perfection takes time. The last album that hit the marketplace [2005s Confessions Of A Ghostwriter] was really just a collection of the old Rawkus album that never made it to the shelves. Half of that was I Aint Mad No More. Well, 75% of that. I dont think I recorded anything new for that. All of the material was dated.
I been recording this [new] album for like two-and-a-half years, but its got to be right. It has to represent me. And its gotta feel good to me. Like, I cant put out material thats two years old and expect for people to feel a certain kind of way about it. Thats like me saying you in the back like a Jeezy ad-lib in 2010. Thats why I have to leak music, cause it doesnt resonate if you hold it too long.
DX: On Where I Been from the new album you note that youve been spending time of late, In Miami doing it up with Will. Is that Will Smith you speak of?
S: Yeah, thats a good friend of mine. He taught me a lot. The lessons that Ive learned from him, its not really to where I could put it into words. Hes a real deal dude. If he says hes gonna do something, you better believe it.
DX: So should we expect Skillz in like the next Will Smith blockbuster movie or something? Like, what are you guys talking about when youre together?
S: Well I was just with him the other day. We were talking about working on some music for his movie Hancock. I went to the screening for that and hung out for awhile. And we just tossed around some ideas me, him, Jazzy Jeff. Those guys are Hip Hop royalty to me. So for me to just be in the same room with both of them its amazing. I never thought a little kid from Virginia would be on a movie set with Will Smith.
DX: Now on that same song you also note that your time is often consumed just out ghostwritin these flows, but I thought your ghostwriting days were behind you?
S: I mean, Im never gonna stop songwriting. I always write songs. [And] sometimes those songs are not right for me. Ive made a lot of money, and made a lot of connections, from songwriting. I wouldnt even call it ghostwriting now because a couple of the people [I write for] are cool with it. But I dont wanna ruin any of those relationships by saying, Oh, I wrote so-and-sos song. Like, thats old to me. If you do your homework you know what I wrote. But Im not gonna ruin the relationship for saying in an interview, Oh, you didnt know I did so-and-so? And then that person is like, Aww damn, I thought we was cool on that?
DX: But we need that, man! Thats what we feed off of. Cmon, give me some names, please [Laughs]?
S: Nope. I aint doing it. A good ghostwriter never reveals his clients. I learned that after I leaked names.
DX: You didnt initially in the song [2000s Ghostwriter], you just said some names live if Im not mistaken?
S: Right, I threw out a couple live. And that came back [to me]. But Im cool.
DX: [Laughs]. Whats it like I guess, just describe what its like to actually be a pen-for-hire; whats that life like?
S: I mean, it shows that people respect your mind, respect your talent, and anythings possible behind that pen, man. Ive done a lot of things behind that pen that got me to a lot of places that I never thought I would see.
DX: But does it ever feel weird watching somebody out there doing something you created like, Damn, that shouldve been my hit record?
S: No, cause I was compensated for it. It was my hit record. [Laughs] Like, I dont need to be in front of the camera all the time. Im cool. I wanna show other people that its okay. Im a songwriter. You dont always gotta be in front of the camera. Its okay to look up to people like me, Sean Garrett, Harold Lilly these are peoples names that youre gonna see on a lot of credits.
DX: And howd you first get into ghostwriting? You just kinda stumble into that, or?
S: Yep. I damn sure did. It was a situation where I was in a studio and another guy was in the B studio working on some tracks for a compilation with a couple artists. And he came in and heard some of the stuff I was doing and was like, I wanna give you some tracks so you can write to em. I did like four songs and he took like three. So after that my name started traveling around.
DX: Compilation. That was Diddy. That was for that No Way Out album, right [Laughs]?
S: [Laughs] No comment.
DX: Does it, or did it ever, lessen your appreciation for artists that dont write their own shit?
S: No. I mean, because if it did This is business. Now this is a business. Back in the day, yeah it mighta mattered a little bit. But now, its a business. Like, do I really care that Mary J Blige didnt write No More Drama? Does somebody really care that Alicia Keys might not have written Teenage Love Affair? I dont know if she did or not, Im just saying like
DX: But youd be fucked up if you found out Freddie Foxxx wrote I Aint No Joke or something.
S: I mean, hey, he wrote Baby Boy. And I think he Its like, you just get into that mindset that theres so much more that I can say in a song, that I couldnt say in a rap song. Like, can you imagine me rappin Irreplaceable?
DX: [Laughs] Maybe.
S: You think that would fly though?
DX: Not the way you do it, no. Thered be a whole bunch of L.A. Reid and Young Jeezy disses.
S: Exactly. I cant rap Irreplaceable. But Beyonce can damn sure sing it. You feel me? So, its a business, man. And the sooner you realize that the better off youll be in this game.
DX: I dont really know how to frame this question, but do you think your solo shine like got sacrificed to do that? You think that had any impact on why Skillz didnt become a multi-platinum superstar?
S: I think everything happens for a reason. And I dont know if I would wanna be a multi-platinum superstar right now. Because when you get to that height where else is it to go?
DX: And the Feds are setting you up in Walgreens parking lots and whatnot.
S: Basically. I mean, I want a career. I wanna be in a position where when you see me in a certain situation youre like, Aww shit, thats a good look for Skillz. I saw him on so-and-so. I never thought I would see Skillz on so-and-so. Thats a good look for him. Then if you start seeing me in places that you expected, theres nowhere else to go but down. I dont want the Million Dollar Backpack to do [big] numbers out the gate. I really dont. I know that sounds crazy, but that would hurt my career.
DX: Speaking of the album, Be Alright is a It Was A Good Day type record, feel good music as you call it, but Crazy World is some socio-political type stuff that coulda been on the new Roots album. So is the whole album a mixed bag?
S: Definitely. Where I Been is more like explaining exactly where I been and what I been doing. Dont Act Like You Dont Know is a straight up east coast banger. So Far, So Good is that raw feel good Hip Hop. Crazy World is like you said, real political, social commentary. I got a song called Preaching To The Choir thats deep, last song on the album. Its more like a story, kinda in the same form as Imagine that I did a video for on the Rawkus album. Be Alright, Yeah Ya Know It, My Phone is a real crazy song that my man Fusion [produced].
The album is just like a real good Hip Hop album. If you looking for anything else, then you looking in the wrong place. I just made what I would like to call a really good Hip Hop album. Like, if me and Koch could have agreed on that title thats probably what I would have named it: A Really Good Hip Hop Album.
DX: Anything else on your plate for 08 besides the album and the mixtape [click to listen]?
S: I got a movie that Im working on later on this summer.
DX: Like a big Hollywood movie?
S: Nah, just something Im doing. Film is like my second passion. I been fucking around with film for like the past couple of years. A lot of the money I make Ive spent that on film equipment.
DX: Is it about a rapper that ghostwrites for Diddy and hilarity ensues?
S: [Laughs] Nah, its not. And when I was with Will the other day talking about pitching it, and them checking out the script
DX: I love how you can just casually drop that: And when I was chillin with Will Smith yesterday... [Laughs]
S: I mean, like, dude hes such an influential figure that between him and Jazzy Jeff, like I told you, theyre like living legends to me. Ive watched their whole career, and Ive watched it blossom into what theyre doing now. And just to be a part of it Like, I helped write some stuff on his last album. And to just be a part of that is a beautiful thing because it definitely inspires you. I dare anybody to spend five minutes around Will and not get inspired.
DX: And the final question I have for you is arguably the most important I have to ask: Will you ever be mad again?
S: [Laughs] Professionally, probably not. But on the microphone, every day.