Skyzoo Discusses "A Dream Deferred," Acknowledges Missed Lupe Fiasco Verse & Spike Lee's Co-Sign
Exclusive: The Bed-Stuy emcee updates his relationship with mentor 9th Wonder, and how features from Lupe Fiasco and John Legend were blocked and gaining props from one of his biggest influences.
Born and bred in an area of Brooklyn that has produced some of Hip Hop’s most important figures, Skyzoo has assembled a catalog of music that will have listeners likewise praising his lyrical legacy, none arguably more convincing than A Dream Deferred. This upcoming album (due out October 2) picks up where his 2009 debut The Salvation left off, carefully stringing together narratives of hope, despair and truth over layered melodies. “Always said I’ll stay awake if I ever dream,” he proclaims on “The Realization.” That dream is swiftly becoming a reality.
Earlier this week Skyzoo expressed to HipHopDX in detail what his expectations were for A Dream Deferred, and why limiting the inclusion of his close associate 9th Wonder was integral to its success. No stranger to industry pitfalls, he went on to explain what went awry when attempting to secure features from Lupe Fiasco and John Legend for the album. Hailing from the same borough as celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee, Skyzoo also revealed a recent encounter with his production team that had him star struck.
Photograph by Joey Amandola
HipHopDX: When we last spoke, it was around the time your mixtape The Great Debater came out, you explained that there’s little, if any, extra records you have laying around. The exact quote was, “The thing about me, if there’s 16 songs on the project, I wrote and recorded 16 songs.” Right now you’re essentially releasing two projects simultaneously. You must have been extremely focused to execute that kind of plan.
Skyzoo: Yeah, definitely. The same rules applied. Like on The Great Debater, everything you hear on A Dream Deferred is what was written for that album. What essentially happened was I knew I wanted to put out Theo Vs. J.J. (Dreams Vs. Reality), and I had already started promoting it a while ago and let people know it was coming at some point. And I definitely wanted it to come out before the album. But then the calendar gets away from you and you start looking like, “Dang, the album’s coming in like six weeks. I don’t know if I can pull this off.” But I wanted to still get it out there for the people, to hold them over and also just live up to my word that it was coming out. Also, the project bridges the gap between The Great Debater and A Dream Deferred. It’s kind of that middle ground that picks up where everything left off and leads you into everything else. So I wound up doing Theo Vs. J.J. in like a matter of two to three weeks.
DX: Theo Vs. J.J. plays on the conceptual lineage of The Great Debater as you said. It’s sort of a look at the differences and similarities between the Huxtables’ and the Evans’. On one side you have a record like “The Ellis Wilson Painting On The Wall,” and on the other side you have “By Any Means.” Is there one side you feel you relate to more? The dream or the reality?
Skyzoo: You know, I feel like I’m smack dab in the middle to be honest with you. I feel like growing up, my life as a kid and my family and the people around me was a little more on the J.J. side. But we aspired to be on the Theo side, or at least I did. And at the same time my parents were kind of like the Huxtables’. I’m not saying we had Huxtable money at all, by any means, but they were always there for me. I was the only kid on the block that had both his parents. My pops was with me every day. Like, my father was everybody’s father on the block ‘cause he was the only father on the block. So I feel like I grew up more on the J.J. side but due to my parents, specifically my pops, I was exposed to a lot that could have played on the Theo side. I knew about Black Art, I knew about Black History, I knew about what life really meant outside of [Bedford Stuyvesant], outside of Brooklyn. And I credit that to my pops.
DX: Let’s talk about the upcoming album. In similar fashion to your mixtapes, A Dream Deferred draws on the parallels of your debut The Salvation. From a lyrical and story perspective, what do you feel listeners should pay attention to this time around?
Skyzoo: Just everything that they’ve always come to know and love about me as far as the lyricism and the storytelling. But I swear man, with this, nothing else goes where it went. Like, people know my stuff is layered, people know what I do is kind of like lyrics on top of lyrics and you gotta decipher it. At the same time, it’s not to say it’s rocket science or some math problem that’s hard to figure out. My music really isn’t that hard to figure out, it’s just lyrical so people say, “I gotta sit here and figure out what he’s saying.” It’s very easy to decipher if you listen to it. All you gotta do is listen to it. No I’m not saying “ABC / 123,” but it’s easy to comprehend if you listen to it and pay attention. I think at the end of the day my music is just about paying attention.
Just getting back to the question, this goes where nothing else I’ve ever done goes. This really goes there. Every record has a purpose on the album. There’s no filler. Even the records that are going to be singles, they all serve a purpose as far as telling the story of A Dream Deferred. And the album really hones in on that concept. It’s a really beautiful project from A-Z in my opinion.
DX: On A Dream Deferred, you have !llmind playing a very integral role on this project. Of course he contributed about a third of the albums’ beats, but he also mixed and engineered the entire process, to which you’ve made the comparison to a Drake/40 tandem. How do you feel your guys’ relationship has matured since Corner Store Classic?
Skyzoo: It’s matured extremely. Through the roof, I think a lot of it is because [!llmind is] close by. He lives two blocks away. When we worked on Corner Store Classic as well as other stuff like The Salvation for “Dear Whoever,” he was still living in New Jersey. So he’d make the trip all the way out here and come to the studio and all that. But once we started working on Live From The Tape Deck, he had made the move to Brooklyn. He’s like, “I moved to Brooklyn.” I said, “Where?” “Bed-Stuy.” And when he told me the street, I was like, “Dude, you’re two blocks away from me,” and that was it. [Laughs] We started hanging out every single day, and it turned into us being like best friends.
With that being said, we just worked. He records everything in his crib, where he’s turned one of the bedrooms into a studio. And that’s where we recorded the entire album. I would go there every day and we would work, and I told him the vision I had, and the thing about him is that he gets it one-hundred percent. I feel like we’re so like-minded because everything I want to do musically as far as the way I write is what he wants to do musically as far as production. We’re in the same boat as far as where we are, where we’re trying to get and the way that we want to get there. If I say I need something, like an 808 or a club feel, he got it. If I need something reflective and heart-wrenching, he got it. Whatever it is, he can do it man. I’ve never went to a producer that had as many weapons at one time on hand as him.
DX: On the flipside, whereas 9th Wonder had five beats on your debut The Salvation, he only has one here with “Jansport Strings.” Obviously you guys have a very strong relationship dating back to Cloud 9. What’s the story behind his reduced role?
Skyzoo: With that, there’s a couple reasons. One is because I’m up in Brooklyn and he’s in North Carolina. Also, he’s really focusing on the artists that he has on his label and putting out their projects, specifically Rapsody’s [The Idea Of Beautiful] which I believe is a really great project. Her new album is really dope. But he’s been working hard on that.
He did the beat for “Jansport Strings” a little while ago and I held it. I told him this was a beat that was for the album, and it would be called “Jansport Strings.” I hadn’t even written the record yet, but one thing about me is I name my songs before I even write them. I have folders full of song titles before I even write the record or have the beat. So when he made the beat, I told him what it was gonna be about, and he was like, “It’s yours.” After that, I had hit him up about doing another one on the album, and he said he didn’t have anything that fit the mode. He said, “I don’t have anything that feels like that at the moment, but you know who does have about a hundred of those is Eric G.” So I called him, and [9th Wonder] was right, he had it. He sent me two beats, and one of them was it. I was like, “You don’t gotta send anymore, this is it.”
But just getting back to 9th Wonder, it was more about me being up here and being hands-on with !llmind while 9th was working on the Rapsody stuff. So that’s all it really was. On top of that, even more so, it’s just the maturation of the sound that I really wanted to make. I felt like if I did another Salvation sonically, what would be the point of buying A Dream Deferred? You already have The Salvation. Every record was a soul sample, and it would just be the same album. On The Salvation, there were three beats on that album that weren’t samples. With this one, it’s reverse. There’s only two or three beats that do have samples and everything else is original. I did that on purpose. I wanted the sound to grow, I want the audience to grow and I wanted the music to have a bigger landscape. I felt like I just wanted people to see more in the music. It’s funny, I was with 9th last week and I played him the album. I told him the same thing as far as the sound, and he got it. He said, “You definitely set out to do everything you explained to me. The sound is just so huge.” That’s what I was going for.
DX: That’s dope to know you guys are still talking and figuring out stuff for the future. But I thought that you were also a Jamla artist. You’re not a part of Jamla anymore?
Skyzoo: Naw, because the thing with that was when it originally started, 9th asked me to help him pop the label off. He called me while we were working on The Salvation and he was like, “Hey man, I’m trying to start this label, it’s going to be called Jamla, and I would love for you to be down. I got a couple artists, but obviously you’re already out there moving. If you could help me, I’d truly appreciate it.” I responded, “I’m here and you’re fam, let’s do it.” I’m not gonna say I’m the sole reason for Jamla’s success, but I felt like I did my part, and I got the label to a certain point whether it was with The Salvation or Live From The Tape Deck. You know, when “Atypical” was on 106 & Park I remember Khrysis being in the studio saying, “Yo, it says ‘Jamla Records’ on 106 & Park on the TV screen.” I feel like I did my part to help get the label where it needed to be, and what I wanted to do after that was build my own Jamla and do my own thing. So that’s all that really was. Nothing about personal stuff or not being cool like most people are these days. 9th Wonder is my brother for life, and I’ll never be able to repay him for the way he looked out for me in the early days. I felt like me helping pop off Jamla was just a small part of me beginning to repay him.
DX: Earlier you talked about going in a different direction sonically with this album. You mentioned that there’s not as much soulful records and there’s less sampling. One of those records is “Range Rover Rhythm,” which I would also like to make it known is a certified banger from Jahlil Beats. Honestly, I could see Meek Mill jumping on that remix. I’m no A&R, but I think I just gave you a new business endeavor to pursue [laughs].
Skyzoo: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m definitely trying to make that a real nice remix. I got a couple names on the table that I’m working on getting in touch with to make that happen. Nothing’s in stone yet, but I got some names, and Meek [Mill] is definitely one of them. I’m gonna talk to Jahlil [Beats] about it and see if it’s something we can put together. It’s just that type of record. But the thing about that record that’s so dope is there’s a story behind it. It’s not just a dope beat that I’m gonna spit on for the club to get ratchet. It’s not that at all. It’s one of the more gritty story records on the album. Like when you hear the way I start it, I play off the Jahlil tag. I didn’t even know what I was gonna say, but !llmind had it looping in the studio. The tag came in, “Jahlil Beats, holla at me!” and I just go in:
“Holla like whatever, all we needed was a reason / All this money they been showing, they got reasons through the ceiling / All we wanted was a part, all this seeing is believing / From the jump it’s from the heart, pardon we wit all this breathing.”
It’s kind of like another “F.G.R. (First Generation Rich),” which Jahlil did also on the mixtape. It’s like, we here to get it, but when are we gonna start getting it? That’s the tone of the record, and a lot of the album as well. That one, “Steel’s Apartment” or “Rage Of Roemello,” those are the type of records that are saying, “Let’s go man, what’s up? We came here to get it and ya’ll ain’t playing fair.” That’s the tone of the album, and that’s why it’s called A Dream Deferred.
DX: Now when the album comes out I can already tell that the record “How To Make It Through Hysteria” is one that many fans will be flooding your Twitter about. As a time saver, can you briefly break down that record here?
Skyzoo: That’s one of my favorite records man. The way that actually worked out with the ending of the record, it’s a funny story. Lupe Fiasco was supposed to be on that record. What happened was, me and Lupe are cool, we text and talk and all that, and I’ve known him for a while. Not cool like hang out at each other’s house, but on a really chill level. I think he’s an awesome lyricist, an awesome emcee, and he feels the same way about me. So I reached out to him about jumping on the record and he was like, “Yeah, just send it over. Once management and the [Atlantic Records] figure out what they gotta figure out, let’s do it.” But the management and labels got crazy with his fee. His fee was like through the roof, so I had to leave that alone. [Laughs] And I had two verses done, with the third verse supposed to be him, and once he wasn’t able to do it…Like he was super down. But management was like, “Yo, we need this.” And there was no way in the world I was gonna be able to afford that.
So once that happened man, I didn’t want to cut the record to two verses. I didn’t want it to be just a two-minute record, but at the same time I felt like from an emcee standpoint I said everything I wanted to say. I’m not about rhyming more ‘cause we have to or let’s just milk it. I take the David Simon approach. He said he didn’t write a sixth season of The Wire because he said everything he had to say. HBO threw him all kinds of money and he turned it down because he said he wasn’t going to ruin the integrity and the legacy of the show just because. The story is told, there’s no more to say about this story.
So just getting back to it, I felt the same way. But I’d wanted to do a spoken word thing for a while. I’ve never done that before, I’ve never done spoken word poetry. I always felt like I could because I’m a writer first and everybody knows that’s my rapport. But I never attempted to do poetry or spoken word and I just gave it a stab. And !llmind pushed me to do it. I mentioned the idea to him and he flipped out. He was like, “Yeah, that shit would be amazing.” And I was like, I don’t how people will feel about it, I don’t know if people are gonna think I’m trying to be this person or that person or whatever. But he was like, you gotta do it. So I sat there in the studio and it took me about 20 minutes to write that piece at the end. I laid it down, and if I was ever a little shaky on something it was that as far as the reception. But !llmind was like, “Dude, this is amazing. I swear man, you have nothing to worry about.” And after giving it a good listen, I felt like it was good. [Laughs] I also sent it to Torae and he was like, “Man, I’m blown away by that.”
DX: You mentioned that possible Lupe Fiasco feature that unfortunately didn’t work out, but this time around, as opposed to The Salvation, you do have features whereas on the debut there were none at all. You got Freeway, Talib Kweli and even DJ Prince dropping a few bars. What was the decision behind that?
Skyzoo: It was something I felt needed to be done as an artist, especially in this climate where the norm is to have 13 out of 15 records with features. [Laughs] But also, you want to collaborate with people whether you’re an up and comer or someone who has been in the game forever. I feel like anyone you collab with is someone you at least respect, if not are already a huge fan of. I always want to collaborate with people, and with this project, it made a lot of sense. I felt like doing another album without features would be just like The Salvation. I really wanted to just expand it. The people I worked with were people who were fans of mine. Like Freeway, he shows a ton of love and his team even told me, “Freeway is a huge fan of yours and he’s hyped about doing this.” So we were able to work and knock out that joint. And I’ve been a Freeway fan forever, since the ’01 Roc-A-Fella [Records] days. Even before that with “1-900-HUSTLER.” That was definitely somebody on my bucket list for a long time. So that meant a lot to get the Freeway joint.
The Raheem DeVaughn feature is a funny story too. He came through for me in the ninth inning. That joint “Drew & Derwin” was actually a record with John Legend originally. The home girl Jessy Wilson who’s on the record before that one called “The Knowing,” I grew up with her. She’s a writer with John Legend and she goes on tour with him. She’s written tons of records, like 80% of Keyshia Cole’s new [Woman To Woman] album coming out and she’s written for Mario and Fantasia. She’s got Grammy nominations back and front. But I’ve known her since I was 13 so we’re like family. So we were working on the album and talking about features, and she mentioned John. I said yeah I’m down, so she hit John, he said he was with it, and we went to the studio the next week.
We wrote the record together, me, him and Jessy. I wrote the bridge, and he was in the booth while I was throwing him ideas on how to sing it. It’s all perfect and we got it all on video. He loves the record, everybody loves the record so it’s a go. But six months later, when it’s time to put the album out, the powers that be get involved and won’t clear him for the record. So at the last minute I call Raheem who came through like a trooper. I sent him the record and just asked him to re-sing it as is and just knock it out. He did it within a weekend and sent it back to me, and he was awesome for that. I will forever be indebted to him for doing that. But originally it would have been John Legend. And I think that would have blew people away, like how did he get John Legend? But the powers that be…It wasn’t on John. He was with it, but the labels wouldn’t clear it so I had to flip it.
DX: The track you did with Talib Kweli, “Spike Lee Was My Hero,” is also an ode to one of your major influences coming up. What do you think Spike Lee would say if he heard that record?
Skyzoo: Aww man, he’s heard it.
Skyzoo: Yeah, we actually shot a video for it about two weeks ago, and I’m real cool with Spike [Lee’s] assistant Jason. Their offices are about 15-20 minutes from my house in walking distance. There right over in Fort Greene which is not too far from me. So I went up there to the 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks building and they all showed tons of love. They gave us shirts and posters and jackets and hats, all types of memorabilia to put in the video. Me and Talib [Kweli] shot it with my man Alex Ghassan who has a company called A Nu Day Media. It came out great man, it’ll be coming soon. And Spike told us he wanted to see it, he wanted the first view before it went out. I learned through my team that Spike was a fan, so I was like, okay, I’m good. I don’t have to do anything else in life ever again. [Laughs] But yeah, he heard the record, and he’s a big supporter of it.