Virginia emcee Skillz has been known as many things during his career. Besides arguably being the first MC to put VA on the map, he’s been known as a rappers rapper, a member of the Superfriendz, a ghostwriter, and the MC responsible for the now famous year end “Rap Up” tracks. His ability to continue to evolve and adapt has helped keep him relevant for over a decade and showing no signs of slowing down. With a new album in the final stages of production, and a summer spot at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, Skillz is as busy as he’s ever been. Find out why the veteran MC formerly known as Mad Skillz has little to be mad about these days.
Words by DJ Sorce-1
TSS: Hello, Skillz?
Skillz: What’s going on man?
TSS: How you doing man, what’s up?
Skillz: Oh man, I can’t complain.
TSS: Good to hear man, good to hear. What are working on these days, what’s new?
Skillz: Oh man, I’m finishing up this album. It’s called Million Dollar Backpack. It’ll be out on Big Kidz/Koch records. Probably late/summer early fall. Right now we’re in the 11th hour putting on the finishing touches. A little guest appearance here, a little mix and mastering there.
TSS: Who do you have for production on the album?
Skillz: Oh man, ?uestlove is on there; I got a track from the late great J Dilla. My man Bink is on there, and my man Orthadox from Philly. My man Kolli Fari. A lot of new cats, know what I’m sayin’? Fushion is on there as well. That’s my DJ, the cat who did “Ghostwriter.” Um, you know, I just kept it real simple. I got Kwame on there. It’s kind of crazy.
TSS: Sounds good man, I’m definitely going to have to pick that up. I’m a huge fan of From Where??? That’s one of my favorite slept-on albums from back in the day.
Skillz: Oh man, thanks man. I really appreciate that.
TSS: Not enough people know about that album. I love that album. The production is off the hook.
Skillz: It was just a carefree album man. I didn’t go in with any set agenda. I was new to the game. I was fresh. I was hungry. I just went in and did what I felt, know what I mean? And that was the product.
TSS: I’m gonna ask you a couple of questions about the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival if that’s alright.
Skillz: Yeah, no problem.
TSS: Alright, cool. How did you get involved in The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival?
Skillz: I mean, they reached out to me and asked if I would be down to perform this year. It was an honor man. Just to be in New York in the summertime, and at an event that you knowâ€¦it’s for all ages. You can bring your child; you can bring your grandmother. It’s just good people, good energy, and good music. It was a no-brainer.
TSS: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of having events like this that are open to the public and free. How important is it to bring people in for events like this that everyone can afford and participate in?
Skillz: It just goes back to the essence of what I just mentioned. Just having a good time with good music and good people. There aren’t a lot of things that happen on that level any more, that are free of charge and are family related events. You don’t have a lot of that. And New York in the summertime is a beautiful place. You get so pulled away from that at all of the industry parties where you gotta be on the list, and it’s $30 at the door, and $40 for VIP. Sometimes you don’t want to be bothered with all of that. Know what I mean? It shouldn’t be that much work to hear some good music, catch some good vibes, meet some good people and just have a good time. It just shouldn’t be that much work. (Laughs.) You know what I mean?
TSS: Yeah, definitely man. I agree 100%. And that’s why I like the idea of this so much. It’s an event that’s free, and it’s open to the public. Hopefully it will get some people that really haven’t checked out hip hop like that before to come out and see what its all about. I think you can reach new listeners when they see and feel the energy of a live show. You can definitely bring in some people that might not have been into rap music before when they see it live.
TSS: Can you talk a little bit about what you bring to live performance that separates you from other rappers out there?
Skillz: I mean, lately I’ve been digging into other elements that I can create a good show around. Outside of just having a DJ, I’m doing performances with a live drummer and a live keyboard player. It’s not a full band but it’s not just an instant replay and me. There are definitely plenty of other things you can do and elements you can bring into your show. A lot of rap cats don’t think on that level. They just think, “I’m here, you like me, I’m just gonna do these songs and you’re gonna applaud.” And that’s not what it means to me. A lot of people have pulled away from giving a good show.
Anybody can walk back and forth across the stage and hold they jock. Know what I mean? But can you entertain? There definitely has to be an entertainment value added. I feel like if these people are here, and they want to be entertained I gotta bring the elements out that can put forth a good show. I understand the importance of a good show. If you have a good show nowadays, you don’t even need a record and you can still get shows.
TSS: Definitely. A lot of people that are coming into the rap game don’t really know how to put on a show properly. They don’t know what kind of fundamentals and things you can do to really get the crowd on your side and build some energy. What are some of things you think are important while your performing live? What are some of things you should do while you’re one stage?
Skillz: You should definitely be aware of your crowd. You should make sure you have some sort of showmanship, and that you’re sure of yourself and your material. Nobody wants to see anybody on stage that’s not even confident. But confident without being too cocky like, “ya’ll don’t want to applaud, then fuck all ya’ll.” Nahmean? You can’t do that. You gotta be aware of your surroundings.
I think you just have to be cordial. People don’t ask for much when they come to a show. They want to be recognized, they want to be entertained, and they want to enjoy the music. They don’t want to be offended. It’s basic rules man. I think a lot of rappers don’t have those. They never really do shows or put on an actual performance or tour. So they don’t know what it takes. And I’ve toured a lot man, with the best of â€˜em, and the worst of â€˜em. I picked up a little something from everybody. I’ve toured with 50 Cent and The Roots, to R & B acts like Music Soulchild, to Jurassic 5 and Xzibit. I’ve been on the road with a lot of people man.
TSS: I actually saw you perform, I think it was about three years ago; you were doing the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour. And you rhymed on stage with O.A.R. I was really impressed because before you came out with them you got on the mic and talked about what you’d pulled from them while you’d been on tour. You were opening up to this group that a lot of hip-hop fans probably wouldn’t feel. And you really talked about the elements of live performance that you’d taken from them and learned from those guys. I thought that was pretty cool.
Skillz: Yeah man, those are great guys. We were on the road for like two months, two and a half months, and I just found myself on the side of the stage checking out their shows. I wasn’t familiar with them before Sprite Liquid Mix. But we became friends, and next thing I know they’d be on the side of the stage checking out my show. They were like “Yo man, we really like you. You maybe wanna come out during our set and do something together?” I didn’t have a band at that time, and they had a full band. We rehearsed and rocked out and it worked. I love those guys; we still keep in contact to this day.
TSS: Yeah, that’s great. I thought that was one of the show highlights when you came out and did something with them. I really enjoyed that part of the show a lot.
Skillz: Yeah man, you live and you learn.
TSS: You’re on the road so much, it’s been eleven years since you put out your first album, and you’ve been touring all the time. How do you prevent yourself from getting completely burned out with live performing? Obviously you love the music, but how do you keep your energy level high? What sort of thing do you do that get you excited to go out and perform for people?
Skillz: Something I learned from The Roots is when you get bored with a song is to do it another way. Especially when it’s one of those songs that your core audience knows, it’s a no brainer, you gotta do it, and people come to hear it. Just try other ways to perform it. Change it up a little bit. There’s a way to pull off everything. You just gotta be accessible and be knowledge about what’s going on in pop culture and hip-hop. You have to intertwine that in what you’re doing. I can understand performing the same song the same way every nightâ€¦you’ll get sick of it. It’s almost like you’re doing it in your sleep. But what I learned from The Roots, ?uestlove and Black Thoughtâ€¦those are the guys that turn around and flip it. They do it another way, like a reggae version or a rock version. They take it to another level.
TSS: I think that’s really important. Trying to change up your material a bit from show to show. .
Skillz: Sometimes you gotta dig a little deeper and be accessible to different ideas. Try it out. It might not work, but give it a try.
TSS: Do you mind if we talk a little bit about Virginia, and what it’s like coming from Virginia?
Skillz: Yeah, that’s fine.
TSS: Can you tell people what part of Virginia your from?
Skillz: I’m from Richmond. Coming from Virginia was a blessing. I’m an artist that was heavily, and still is heavily east coast influenced, but I wasn’t from New York. I think that helped me. I think if I’d been from New York I’d have had a way harder time making it.
TSS: So it helped separate you from the heard basically? You had a unique aspect about you that some other rappers didn’t have.
Skillz: I mean I started out as your regular battle rapper who was clever and witty. I used a lot of metaphors and similes. But if you dig deeper into the music and some of the songs I’ve made, I actually put thought into them. I knew when I first came out a lot of people would consider me a rappers rapper. You know, I was in the same vein as the Common’sâ€¦real witty with wordplay. And I’m cool with that. But I was never just that. I’ve always had a fondness of wanting to tell stories and trying to do something that hasn’t been done and reach those boundaries. Coming from Virginia helped; cuz there’s definitely something in the water here man.
Skillz: That’s how you get Missy, Timberland, Pharrell, and Clipseâ€¦people of that nature. We knew we had to do something that somebody else wasn’t doing.
TSS: You kind of helped me segue into my next question. You were talking about The Clipse, Timberland, and Missy. All those names are so huge and instrumental in rap music right now. And they weren’t so much a decade ago. How do you think the VA scene has changed over the past ten years? What are some of the differences you’ve noticed, and how have you been able to adapt and stay a part of it?
Skillz: We all have a bond of just being in uncharted territory. There aren’t a lot of us that made it to a national level. When you say Timberland, you say Missy, you say The Neptunesâ€¦they’re huge. These are people who’ve affected hip-hop, pop, soul music, and R & B. They’re responsible for a lot of different things. I think we can keep pushing the envelope and keep changing. The music has changed a little but, and the state of it has changed. But some of these artists, they don’t have to change who they are to stay relevant. Missy makes ill, weird recordsâ€¦and people expect it. You don’t expect Missy to just make something regular. When she gets with Timberland you expect her to make some off the wall kinda shit. You expect it. So, I think they’ve carved a nitch for themselves. Pharrell can pretty much go in any direction he wants to. He’s carved a nitch by saying ‘I do music. I don’t always label it. Ya’ll can call it what you want. I can turn around and do something for Jay-z. And I can turn around and do something for Britney. I just love music.’ I think that’s from coming up and being influenced by different kinds of sounds. Like I listened to a lot of 80′s and pop music when I was younger, and god knows Pharrell did. But you know, we both were very A Tribe Called Quest influenced. So was Timberland. So, you know, we on that shit. We on that shit.
TSS: Just before we go, I got two more questions and then we’ll cut it. Is that cool?
Skillz: Yeah that’s fine.
TSS: Alright, cool. If you had to name an MC and a producer that had the biggest impact on you when you were getting started, who would you choose?
Skillz: Rakim would be the MC. Without a doubt. I don’t even have to think about that. Producer, hmmmâ€¦I don’t’ know. It’s kind of hard to say. I’m a fan of a lot of people, and a lot of people who may not be as popular now. I would never say Dr. Dre or anybody like that. I was definitely a Premier fan, and I still am. The Beatminerz. Definitely fans of theirs. Is there anybody else I can think of? Not really.
TSS: We touched on your upcoming project earlier, but do you have anything else you want to say about it that we can put on the site before we wrap this up?
Skillz: Just look out for it this summer. The Million Dollar Backpack in stores. It’s thoughtful, good hip-hop music. I’m back in a big way. It’s gonna have all the year-end wrap up’s on there as bonus tracks. Anything else man, hit me at Okayplayer.com. Shout out to my Okayplayers. Also check out www.myspace.com/skillz.
TSS: Thank you so much for the interview. I really appreciate it.
Skillz: I appreciate you having me man, thanks for the opportunity.
TSS: No doubt, be good.
Skillz: Take care.
For more info on Skillz, visit www.okayplayer.com/feature/skillz
We’ve got some goodies courtesy of the event that we’d like to give away to THREE lucky people.
Prize packs include…
CD copies of Ghostface’s More Fish, Tanya Morgan’s Moonlighting & Consequence’s Don’t Quit Your Day Job
“Afro Samurai” DVD
Scarface Video Game for PS2
Name the headliners from the previous two Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festivals.
Send your answers to [email protected]