Exclusive: The Brooklyn wordsmith explains the concept behind "Live from the Tape Deck," while the Jersey-bred beatmaker reveals his collabo LP with Redman.
The long lost tradition of the one producer/one emcee Hip Hop album is being revived today, (October 5th), with the release of Skyzoo & !llmind’s Live from the Tape Deck.
Hot on the heels of Skyzoo’s critically-acclaimed solo debut, The Salvation, and just a couple short months away from !llmind’s name appearing in the credits to at least two of the biggest Hip Hop releases of the holiday season (one of which is rumored to be Dr. Dre’s Detox), the poet and producer have united to do what few stars-in-the-making do as they’re about to blow, and that’s make an album sans any commercial aspirations, something strictly for the heads – preferably ones that can remember when cassette tapes ruled the day.
Yesterday, (October 4th), Skyzoo & !llmind spoke with HipHopDX about their joint LP droppin’ today courtesy of Duck Down Records, the past-meets-present concept and sonic direction of the “tape,” and how the shift from analog to digital creation and presentation of music coincided with the decline in quality Hip Hop being recorded and released. The two Brooklynites (with !llmind having recently relocated to the borough) also provided DX with a rundown of their individual projects planned to trail Tape Deck, including !llmind’s revelation that he and Reggie Noble are gettin’ “Fly” together for a whole album.
HipHopDX: I only went to community college, [Laughs] so even after watching the video I’m still lost as to what exactly “Frisbees” is a metaphor for.
Skyzoo: Well…the whole idea with that came from…throughout my career, especially lately with The Salvation…people put me in the category of one of the top lyricists out, one of the top emcees out…but at the same time, a lot of people look at it where my music goes over their heads. And I feel that way too, I feel like a lot of time I make music and it goes over people’s heads. I’ll see a reaction of people, and then I’ll also see how they grasp and understand it, and they don’t understand it the way that it’s meant to be [understood]. And I see it, where it’s like it goes over people’s heads a lot. So, I wanted to make a record that really went over people’s heads, just to kinda poke fun at it, and be a little sarcastic and just be creative at the same time… So the goal was to just make this song where it was all these bars coming at you a hundred miles an hour, like bong, bong, bong, like they just kept coming and you couldn’t catch ‘em, and it was like a frisbee, it was like going over your head like a frisbee and you had to catch it.
DX: Now going back to the genesis of this LP… !llmind, you produced the soulful, Phyllis Hyman-sampling “Dear Whoever” on The Salvation, so was it after that recent collaboration that you guys decided to unify for a whole album?
!llmind: Well, I mean, we really have to credit Dru Ha from Duck Down for really shooting the idea to me and Sky about doing a project together. It was one of those things that was just always in front of us. Before Dru Ha approached us about it, me and Skyzoo had a track record together of multiple songs – we had I think it was like six or seven songs together already. So, the chemistry has always been there. And, just the positive feedback we got from “Dear Whoever” was definitely appreciated, and I think that coupled with me and Skyzoo’s [previous] working relationship and the fact that we both have good ties with Duck Down – the idea just kinda made sense across the board. So, Dru Ha brought it up, and we decided to do it, and here we are.
DX: In the press release for Live from the Tape Deck, Skyzoo, you were quoted as saying that the album’s title was inspired by the quality Hip Hop music that existed during the cassette tape era and, “Once the option of buying a cassette in a store was gone, that’s when things changed and music got whack.” Do you really believe moving from analog to digital is the sole source of the decline in good music being made?
Skyzoo: I don’t think it’s the source of it, I just think ironically it was during that time period [when the shift from analog to digital began happening that the quality of the music began to decline]. I don’t think things declined musically, as far as the quality and what’s being presented, because of it turning [digital], I just think it so happened to be when that [decline began].
DX: I don’t remember hearing as many synth sounds on my cassette tapes back in the ‘90s, so is the overall sound of the album strategically designed to bring a past vibe to contemporary ears?
Skyzoo: Yeah, ‘cause what it is, we didn’t wanna make an album that was throwback or old school or anything like that. We wanted to make an album that was 2010 and beyond. We wanted to make an album that was forward, and we didn’t wanna go back to ’95, ’93, ’89, we didn’t wanna do nothing like that. We wanted to be now and in the future, but at the same time keeping the idea that music just so happened to be better when cassette tapes were available… It just tied in together. It was a way to bring the feeling that you had from back then to now and the future… There’s only two records on the album with samples; it’s a lot of synths… It’s a lot of just big records and big beats. And that’s now. Like, we’re beyond what once was. That’s not to knock what once was, ‘cause we grew up on it, we love it, we hold it near and dear to our hearts, but you can’t stay in one place but for so long. So, we wanted to take what we grew up on and update it and upgrade it and bring it into the forward.
!llmind: And as far as sonically, the way that I approached the beats...I think the album is really a good definition of where I’m at in my production career as well. Obviously I started from the school of sampling and chopping records…which I still do to this day, but over the years I’ve built up [my production] techniques and…playing more instruments… And, we really don’t want people to get confused when we say that there’s more synths on the album, and [only] two or three of the tracks are sample-based… I think people get a misconception when they find out that something has no samples, ‘cause then immediately they think…it’s something that might be Top 40 or something that’s real synth and bright-sounding with handclaps in it. But it’s not that. The nature of my production is still that feeling you get when you hear a great sample, that feeling that you really can’t describe but it’s just that thing about it [that makes you love the track]… And that was my approach with the album. I definitely went back and used old synthesizers that came out in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to maintain that warm analog feel.
DX: Speaking of indescribable dopeness, why is “Speakers On Blast” so dope? Is it the thumping 808, the spacey-sounding keys…? What is it that I’m hearing that makes me so happy? [Laughs]
Skyzoo: I think it’s all of the above. I don’t think its one thing. I think it’s what !llmind did as far as the beat – as far as the 808, and as far as the drums that he used, and as far as the way he put it all together. And then I think it’s the hook and the flow and the lyrics. I think it’s just a great combination of all of the above that just made a perfect marriage.
!llmind: Right. I think “Speakers On Blast” is a good example of that “feeling” I was talking about. When you hear a song you don’t really quite know what it is about the song that you like so much, but you just like it overall as a whole. And the way I like to approach my production is in that way. Like, if you strip the vocals and just listen to the beat, you groove with it because of the 808 and because of the congas and because of the little change-ups in there, but it’s really not a super-duper complex beat when you hear it. But then when you couple that with how Skyzoo flipped it, and the way his voice sounds on it and the lyrics that he’s kickin’ on it, and then the way the hook comes in and the way the hook is arranged, all those little details when you’re putting a song together, they all count. Skyzoo is another instrument for the song. And when you put those two together, something magical happens. And I think that’s what we captured on the song.
DX: “Barrel Brothers” is another superb selection from the Tape Deck, this one featuring y’alls fellow Brooklynite Torae. I wanted to ask you about something you spit on that joint, Skyzoo: “Paper Mate veins, my father already wrote this.” Translate that line for me.
Skyzoo: I was just saying that it’s instilled in me, what I do is instilled in me. So it was just a way to flip a line and make a metaphor hit even harder. People who know me, and know that I’m a lyricist, one of the things about being a lyricist is being witty. That’s what makes lyricism what it is. You gotta be witty. It’s what you’re saying and it’s the way you describe and the way you say something… Instead of saying it was raining outside, he said it was whatever whatever. That’s all lyricism is about. It’s saying something [in a] more complex [way] than it normally is [said]. And with that [line], it was just saying, “Paper Mate veins,” like Paper Mate’s a [brand of] ink pen. So it was like, “Paper Mate veins, my father already wrote this,” [and] so it was kinda like if the ink was already in my veins… So, it was just a fly way to flip [saying] I was born to do this.
DX: I love the back-and-forth rhyming y’all are doing on there. We gonna get a whole album of Skyzoo and Torae doing the Run-DMC thing?
Skyzoo: Aw man, I don’t know. It’s something that we never really talked about. And me and [Torae], we’re like family, we’re like brothers, but we honestly never talked about it. We got so many records together between the two of us, being on each other’s projects and then other people’s projects where somebody will wanna do a record [and] they’ll want both of us on [the] record. They’ll be like, “Yo, can I get you and Tor to do a verse for me?” Or, “Tell Tor, yo, can I get with you and Sky to do a verse for me?” So, there’s a lot of feature and collabo records that we’re both on as well. There’s a ton of records with us that you could probably make a Skyzoo/Torae mixtape. If you Google us online, there’s probably like 30 records [with us together]. But, I don’t know [about a duo album]. It could be something that happens. I’m definitely not opposed to it, definitely not against it, I just know what we have going on individually [is a lot already]. Tor’s working on two projects right now, me and !llmind are droppin’ this one, and then I’ma be working all over again on something new. But you know, if time permits it’s definitely something that could happen.
DX: And speaking of that new project you’re working on, not to get ahead of the Tape Deck, but can we get an update on A Dream Deferred?
Skyzoo: A Dream Deferred is really gonna pick up where The Salvation left off. So, it’s kinda gonna go back to everything that you felt on The Salvation. With Live from the Tape Deck there isn’t a lot of reflectiveness, there isn’t a lot of me in the mirror having conversations. All of those things were on The Salvation – all of the personal stuff, all of the deep undertones, the stories. With Live from the Tape Deck it was more so just about beats and rhymes. And you have your [more reflective] moments [on Tape Deck] like “Langston’s Pen” and “Krylon” and “Kitchen Table,” where I do get into those types of things, but there’s only a few [of those songs]. For the most part it’s just dope beats and dope rhymes. But with A Dream Deferred it goes back to what The Salvation was about. It goes back to the storytelling, back to the reflectiveness, back to being really personal and really deep. But it’s just gonna be on a bigger scale. I always wanna make the music more advance than the last time. So, it probably won’t be as much samples. It will probably [have] bigger production and bigger orchestration than before, but lyrically it’s gonna be everything you’ve come to love and know and appreciate and expect from me.
DX: And !llmind’s doing half the album. [Laughs]
Skyzoo: He’s gonna be all over it. We already got joints. I haven’t recorded anything for it yet, but we already got joints that I think – I heard joints when we was working on Live from the Tape Deck and he would play me beats and I would say, “Yeah, I’ma hold this one for A Dream Deferred.” And he’d be like, “Alright, cool.” So, we got about two or three of those already that I put aside like, “I don’t even wanna touch that yet, that’s coming next year.”
!llmind: I already got my folder set aside for Sky for the next year, so…
DX: And !llmind I just wanna get some updates on what you got going on post-Tape Deck. I understand you’re lacing Reggie Noble with some more “Fly” tracks for his new album?
!llmind: Yep, we just dropped the single, “Fly,” which is the official first street single for [Redman's] Reggie album, which I think has a street date of [December] 7th if I’m not mistaken. So yeah, we’re still working on that album. The album he’s coming out [with] on December 7th is his official follow-up to his last album on Def Jam [Records]. And then next year sometime me and Red are gonna get together and really go a 100% on me and his [collabo] project. It’s really still too early [with that one], as far as when that’s gonna happen, when we’re droppin’, what label it’s droppin’ on, but it’s definitely in-the-works. Me and Reggie have a good handful of records already for it. So I’m definitely excited about that. And coming up actually, in November I’m droppin’ my first official instrumental album on Nature Sounds Records called Behind the Curtain. And that’s an album that I been working on for about 10 years. It’s an album that I been wanting to do for a real long time but never really felt that there was a good time to do it, and right now everything’s kinda come together to the point where I could put it out. It’s really a spectrum of music that I been making [over] the past ten years – really layered, a lot of different stuff in there but still Hip Hop… And, I’m doing a bunch of other things too, man – a lot of indie stuff, there’s a handful of artists that I’m working with right now that I’m developing. And then, a lot of major stuff too. I really can’t drop names yet, as far as whose albums I’m getting on in the future, but there’s a good handful of big things in-the-works that I’m really excited about.
DX: And I guess I’ll just wrap this quick Q&A up by asking how do I explain to my 15 year-old niece what a cassette tape was? [Laughs]
Skyzoo: Aw man, that’s a good question. I would try to link it to a video cassette. I think kids remember video cassettes quicker than they remember audio cassettes. I would try to link it to the idea of a video cassette and saying, “See, when they say I wanna tape something” – even if you have a DVD player and a DVR at the crib, we still call it taping something. Everyone does, even kids, they say, “Oooh, I wanna tape that.” So it’s like, “Well this is where that [saying] came from.” I guess that would be the best way to describe it.
DX: I just can’t believe there’s a whole generation now that never stuck little crumpled up pieces of notebook paper into the top of their tapes to dub.
Skyzoo: Yeah! I have a nine year-old brother and I don’t think [he had] ever seen a cassette tape until he was in the “Frisbees” video. [I] was like showing him how to use [that] Walkman.