Ski Beatz Breaks Down Improvisational Approach, Avoiding Roc-A-Fella Breakup
One of the busiest producers in Hip Hop explains how DD172 business leads to serendipitous music-making, and why moving to North Carolina in the '00s kept him cool with Dame Dash and Jay-Z.
For a 20-year veteran, Ski Beatz speaks with an enthusiasm typically found in new Hip Hop artists. It's little wonder how the North Carolina native who found critical and commercial praise with the likes of Jay-Z, Camp Lo and Fat Joe 15 years ago connects so well with emerging talent like Freddie Gibbs, Stalley and STS.
Once a producer who shopped his beats throughout the industry, in addition to piloting projects at the gone-too-soon Roc-A-Blok Records, Ski today is a fixture at Damon Dash's DD172 studio compound in Lower Manhattan. It seems that whomever Dame is talking to upstairs on the business and personal side affects the work Ski is doing down in the lab. With his second 24 Hour Karate School album in as many years, and fourth full-length project since 2010, the sample-inspired Ski Beatz isn't slowing down. In a recent interview with HipHopDX, Ski explains his serendipitous approach to making music in the last several years, the raw talent of Pacewon and the Outsidaz, and how taking a break allowed him to avoid the biggest industry break-up since Dre and Suge.
Ski Beatz On Constantly Releasing Music
HipHopDX: You're a veteran of this industry, dating back to the early 1990s. Back in the day, it used to be two, three years between albums. Now we're at multiple projects from artists each year. Last year, you had your version of 24 Hour Karate School, then there was a U.K. version, Curren$y's Pilot Talk I and Pilot Talk II, and now so quickly into 24 Hour Karate School, Pt. 2. How have you adapted to the change of pace?
Ski Beatz: I don't know. It didn't really seem like a challenge or anything. I just turned it up. When I was recording with Curren$y, for example, when we did Pilot Talk, we had so many damn records that we almost had Pilot Talk II when Pilot Talk was finished. All we did was add on - same with 24 Hour Karate School. [As a] matter of fact, I had records that I did [on part two] that was ready when I finished the first one. It's just that we kept pumpin' stuff out. Me, personally, I'm just so conditioned to [constantly] recording. Like, I got a project with Locksmith that's comin' out entitled Embedded. He's here [at DD172 studios]. He's been here for the last week; we almost have another project done that's ready to come out right after Embedded. We just keep recordin', and it's fun. [Laughs] Really, it's just fun.
DX: Thus 24 hours. 24 Hour Karate School feels more than just a project or a compilation, which is what used to happen 15 years ago. Each of these voices and beats are very specific in their sequencing. Tell me how volume two evolves from last year's volume one...
Ski Beatz: The difference, besides the different artists that we used, was that volume one set the tone. How I got into even dealin' with live instruments at all was 'cause of volume one. What happened was, I had sampled all these records. Us being independent, we didn't have any dough to clear the samples. [Laughs] That caused me to go find musicians and just re-play and recreate everything. So in volume two, we got deeper into that, on the creative side of live instrumentation. We got more creative with the artists too, from Stat Quo to Cassidy to GLC to people like Stalley, who was on the last one. It was natural. It just happened.
DX: You always hear stories of people working in different rooms at a studio, which leads to collaboration. How much of this personnel has to do with that right-place-right-time, and how much has to do with specific selection on your part, say as "Stat Quo is who is right for this record"?
Ski Beatz: Damn. [Sighs] When I reach out for a Stat Quo, I really didn't have a beat in mind. I just reached out 'cause I love Stat Quo, love how he raps. [He said], "Yeah, when I come to New York, we can connect." Then, when he came through, and had Creative Control [filmmakers] with him, it just so happened that GLC just walked into the studio. [Laughs] Stat Quo's obviously heard of GLC. Stat was like, "Wanna get on this record?" GLC was like, "Yeah, I'll write somethin'." "You Already Know" just happened like that.
When we did ["Majesty"] with Cassidy, he was like visiting Dame [Dash]. They was havin' a meeting upstairs. I saw Cassidy. I said, "I know Dame is gonna come downstairs and tell me to record with this dude. So let me go down there now and start workin' on a beat." So when he came down, I already had the beat halfway finished. He heard it, said "this is dope," and started writing. I never really, actually ever call an artist and say, "Yo, come to the studio. I need you on this track." It never happens, with none of the records I ever did.
DX: How much of that has to do with the vibe you guys have created with DD172?
Ski Beatz: It's 100%, man. It's all off vibe. "It's not contrived, all of vibe." [Repeats himself] I like that. [Laughs] It's all just natural.
DX: That has to be fun for you. As a veteran, how do you like the mode of improvisation?
Ski Beatz: I like it, 'cause there's really no time to think. It alleviates all the pressure of trying to come up with some incredible [product]. It's not what's on the radio. I just drop a needle. It ain't nothin'; it's just Hip Hop. If I like it, then that's that.
DX: You were very much a part of the Roc-A-Blok Records movement. That was 10 years ago, when the Internet was a different animal. However, while you guys were aggressive with vinyl and CD singles and marketing, DD172 seems to rely heavily on Internet consumers. From a label perspective, how's that been for you?
Ski Beatz: I adapted pretty well, man. When we was doin' Roc-A-Blok, I was pretty deep into the Internet, when it was comin' up to what it is now. I always had my fingers in the Internet, in learning how to maneuver the technology. So when it was time to do things, I was already halfway there with it. I didn't feel left behind, or that any of that was a challenge for me. With the Internet, we're connected to the globe. Back in the day, we'd drop a record and you'd have to get it played on the radio stations. If they saw HOT97 playin' it, then maybe North Carolina [radio] would start playin' it. If somebody saw that the biggest station in North Carolina was playin' it, a station in L.A. might start playin' it - but it takes a minute for the record to start bubblin'. With the Internet, you can just hit everybody at the exact same time. If they know the address, they know how to get to your music. You reach your fans automatically, and you get to really know your fans, 'cause they're right there.
DX: You performed with Curren$y at the 2010 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. It was ill too, 'cause you had two computers on your deejay coffin, and it was raining. The set-up looked wild, so as you describe the Internet knowledge, have you always been a tech-savvy person?
Ski Beatz: Definitely, man. I've always been into gadgets and just new stuff...new things. I feel like every time I got a new piece of equipment that I got more creative. If I'm on an [Akai] MPC for a month, I'll get bored. So I need to grab a [different] machine. Do a month of that, get bored, and then jump back on the MPC or jump on Ableton. I'll always try new programs and new pieces of equipment that people are talkin' about - just to learn it, boom, keep it movin'. I pretty know how to work any piece of [studio] equipment. That's kind of crazy; I never thought about that.
DX: You worked with Guerilla Black and Funkdoobiest - west coast acts. Tell me about working with Murs on your upcoming project...
Ski Beatz: I met Murs through Tabi Bonney. Me and Tabi was working on [24 Hour Karate School, Pt. II]; Murs came through and laid a verse for Tab. He said, "Yo, what up. My name's Murs from the west coast." Cool. Murs came back a couple months after that and had a meeting with Dame. They was like, "Yo, we want to do this tour. But Ski should produce your project so we'll have something to promote." I was like, "Cool." I was not familiar with Murs at all, so I didn't have no type of expectations or anything. I'd never heard his music, honestly. When we hooked up, it took us a minute to get to know each other, but once we got into the groove, he's a real funny, cool person. We got creative. With his music, it's not really... it's different for me and it's different for him. It's definitely not the traditional Murs album. It's what we came up with. We had fun when we was creatin' it.
Ski Beatz On Not Being Caught Between Jay-Z & Dame Dash
DX: In the early 1990s, you and Dame worked together in Original Flavor. All of these years later, what's it like to still be a team? What do you think that teaches or says to Hip Hop?
Ski Beatz: To me, that's my friend. We had incredible times, when Roc-A-Fella [Records] was doin' its thing. We're havin' cool times with this BluRoc [Records] thing now. It's very important to me. In Hip Hop, you see a lot of crews come and go. You see a lot of friends become enemies in this game. I think it's very important that if your friend is your friend, you shouldn't let anything come between it - especially business or money. It's not worth it. I'm glad [to be here]. What happened to me was, when I was in New York doin' Roc-A-Blok, I moved back down South for a few years.
DX: I remember that.
Ski Beatz: I wanted to get away from the scene for a minute. I went South for my mom, bought a house, got married, all kinds of crazy stuff. I was livin' a regular life. I wasn't makin' beats for a second. I'm glad I did that, 'cause I didn't get to experience the fall-out between [Jay-Z and Dame Dash]. I didn't get to see it. I don't even know if I could have handled that, to be honest with you, 'cause I'm so close to Jay and I'm so close to Dame. For me, it hurt me when they parted ways. For me, I'm never gonna break my loyalty with my friends; if you're my friend, you're my friend.
DX: To this day, you don't feel in the middle of that. Obviously, you work with Dame, but on the other side...
Ski Beatz: Nah, not at all. I work with Dame. And if Jay wants me to do some work with him, I'll work with him too. And if he wants to just hang out, I'll hang out with him. I don't have no problems with anybody.
DX: We've talked about "Dead Presidents" in interviews before. Most people do. I want to ask you about a record that I really love, and rarely gets talked about. The Outsidaz' "The Rah Rah" is just so energetic. You do a lot of mellow joints on Karate School, even more so on Pilot Talk. "The Rah Rah," That's a fighting song...
Ski Beatz: The Outsidaz was one of the best Hip Hop groups around back then. They shoulda been so much larger than they are. When I had Roc-A-Blok, I had Pacewon; he was signed to me. I was in the studio and I was just makin' beats. I made "The Rah Rah." Pace heard it. It was just a simple chop, chopped it up and threw some drums on it. The record he made with it was just so dope. They just went on the road with that fame, it was dope. I remember the video with the big tour bus and all that. Crazy! [Laughs] They actually used that on [Night Life EP].
DX: People still trip over the beat to "I Declare War." Sean Price, Asher Roth, everybody's using it...
Ski Beatz: All I did for that...I didn't even do anything! All I did was connect two turntables and start scratchin', back and forth. [Pacewon] just rapped. [Beatboxes] I said, "Yo B, let's just do it like [the Hip Hop pioneers] would do it the park." On the beginning, that's me scratchin', and just him rappin'. It was dope. The Hip Hop vibe. Pacewon is a Hip Hop artist.
DX: Last question, the artwork on BluRoc projects is amazing. Tell me about the artwork inspiration on 24 Hour Karate School, Pt. II...
Ski Beatz: We have a very artistic person at BluRoc and his name is David Barnett. He comes up with these incredible covers on Pilot Talk and 24 Hour Karate School one and two. He'll just sit with you, talk to you. You give him the music, and it's his vision. They let me go with my vision on the music, I let him go with his vision on the art, [and Creative Control] with the video. Everybody just stays in each corner and trusts each other. He always comes through with the incredible covers, man. You should see the cover to... wait, you'll see it. [Laughs]