Along the ride, Skillz has been blunt about the BET Cypher and his disappointment with some of what he witnessed. The car stops, and he exits and scurries out of the rain into one of his favorite restaurants in New York, Red Rooster. Skillz settles into a secluded booth in the corner of the room and grabs a menu. “Music today is like this menu; it’s a bunch of sh*t in front of me, but all of it isn’t good,” he says. He talks about technology and how the business has changed right before our eyes. “Like who’s that kid, Tyler The Creator? What’s the name of his group?’ he asks. Odd Future.
“Yeah…yeah…that’s them, I wasn’t familiar with his music, but I watched him win a VMA, for a video that MTV couldn’t even play. That’s the definition of a Odd Future! I went to YouTube and looked at his video, and it’s been viewed 27 million times! MTV could never play a video 27 million times! If that’s not a sign of the times, then I don’t know what is. I read a writer say that he’s the Black Eminem. That’s gotta be the dumbest statement ever. There will never be a Black Eminem, because Em is white,” Skillz says adamantly.
“Black people accept a lot of things in music, but we don’t accept crazy. That doesn’t compute with us. I saw his video, and he hung himself at the end of it. You’ll never see that on a network, so the Internet is the perfect platform for something like that. You’d never see a Black rapper on TV shoveling dirt on a grave saying, ‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ because we don’t view our mothers that way…even if we did grow up in a crazy environment. Then I listened to their music, and it wasn’t that I couldn’t relate to it. It wasn’t good. I’m surprised they made it this far. But with a buzz anything is possible, I guess.”
A buzz is something that Skillz hasn’t had a problem creating. From his “Rap Up’s” to his web series, Hip Hop Confessions, he manages to keep people talking. Consider earlier this year when, less than 24 hours after Jay-Z and Kanye West – The Throne – he dropped his own “Otis,” a back and forth boasting session complete with a stripped down sample of Otis Redding ad-libbing over a soulful break in one of his songs.
In less time than a day, Skillz had already written, recorded, and released via Twitter his own version of their song. What followed next was an Internet frenzy that had sites and bloggers alike scratching their heads and listening. “I did that because I was inspired; I was inspired by their song. I mean I loved the track,” says Skillz. “I wasn’t too crazy about the actual song, though. But isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Inspire each other?”
The other “Otis” was a blazing barrage of punchlines, wordplay, and what some took as shots at two of Hip-Hop’s heavyweights. According to Skillz, “I mean I can see how some people may have taken that freestyle as a diss, but it was far from it. I honestly believe that I’m the furthest thing from Jay and ‘Ye’s mind. I mean why would they be thinking about me?” The fact that Skillz chose to rename the freestyle as “Yeah…So What (Otis Freestyle)” didn’t help either. Some Hip-Hop fans took to the web and cried foul, even speaking to Skillz directly via his Twitter account.
“Some people went out of their way to let me know how they felt, and some we’re feeling it. I mean it was fun to me,” he said with a grin. What wasn’t fun was a certain blogger making it known that he wasn’t feeling the fact that Skillz had released his version of “Otis” in such a quick manner that it didn’t allow The Throne’s version to flourish.
“Now that was funny. Picture me stopping them from shining, like how ridiculous is that? A lot of these bloggers feel as though they have the power to dictate what we do as artists. They don’t. Well, not me anyway. Try that on one of these new artists. But please believe, I’m gonna rap over what I want to rap over when I want to rap over it,” says Skillz. “Blogs have, in some sense, become the new record stores where artists and fans meet. We have come to a point in the music business where these two entities need each other. Whether or not we want to accept it, the music business has changed…forever.
The Throne opting to not release physical CDs until after they released their project digitally shows evidence of this new day in the game. “I feel like that was a smart move. When you have a project of that magnitude, then it makes total sense to go digital. That’s how most people were going to get the album anyway. I know it pissed off retailers, and it should have, but things done changed. I even feel that Jay and ‘Ye somewhat got over on us as fans as well, because I haven’t listened to that album since the day it came out. It wasn’t that good of an album in my opinion.”
And his opinion is important to him – and it probably would still be if no one else cared. As he thumbs through his iPhone, he shows me the people whose music he has paid for. All sorts of artists from Talib Kweli, Trey Songz, Coldplay, The Jonas Brothers, Adele, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West are all holding space in his phone. “I’m a student of music, I love it. I learned at a young age that words are powerful. I know that I don’t have to buy this music at all. But I also know that some of these people need me to pay for their music in order to be able to continue to make it,” Skillz remarks.
“Some people are honest in their music and some aren’t, I just want it to be good. I’m not really concerned with the content. I’m on both sides, so I see it a different way, I’m a songwriter. I’ve seen cats ball out, and every time I look up, they spending like crazy in this economy. Well, at least they want me to believe that they’re spending money like that. But when me and the producer have agreed to a price for a song that they want to buy, all I hear is them crying about the price. My fault I just saw you online in the strip club throwing money. I thought you had it,” he says laughing. In a world where the economy is struggling and the rich get richer as the poor get next to nothing, Skillz is concerned.
“Man, we in rough times right now. Anyone who tells you any different is lying to you.” Everything that Skillz speaks about is a passionate topic to him. His eyes light up when he talks about music and his life. A child who lost both his parents to heroin somewhat feels like he escaped a trap that he was most destined to get caught in. “I could never sell or use drugs because I’ve seen firsthand what it does to the Black family, I have to look in the mirror every morning. I’ll work at McDonald’s before I do that,” he says like he means it.
A 15-year career of countless touring and songwriting has taken him to a point that hopefully he will never have to work at Mickie D’s. When I ask him what is he most proud of since the day his debut dropped, he responds, “Relationships…. I would have to say the relationships that I’ve built. That means more to me then anything in this game. One relationship that is prominent and important to him is the one he shares with one of the greatest DJs known to man, DJ Jazzy Jeff. Jeff and Skillz have toured the world for the past eight years as a party-rocking duo who have taken the DJ/MC experience to a place where few thought it could go back to.
“They are the best doing it,” says Vince Sterling, owner of StarNight Bookings, a company that books DJs all across the world. “Those two are so in sync, I think they’re the same person. Skillz as a host doesn’t just talk over the music; he talks at the perfect time. Jeff cuts at the perfect time. He changes the record at the perfect time. It’s definitely not just a guy on the mic shouting out the DJ. I don’t dance at all. Jeff and Skillz started at 11, and I started dancing and looked at my watch and it was two a.m.! That’s how much fun I was having!”
Listen to Skillz explain it, and it’s just as much fun for him, too: “Me and Jeff practice, we have routines. We discuss what we’re going to do. That’s why our chemistry is the way it is. The MC is there to keep the crowd involved and entertained. With Jeff, it’s easy for me, because he’s that good. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s an amazing DJ and person. I look up to him. He’s shown me a lot, and I’m still learning because my mentor and friend is still learning and is always more than willing to teach me. And I’m not just talking music. I’m talking about life too,” he says.
As he finishes the smallest salad ever, Skillz grabs a lemon and squeezes it into his water, covering his hand as to not squirt lemon juice on the tape recorder. What’s in his future? “This album may be my last; I’ve been milling around with that idea. I go back and forth with it. I still have a passion for the music. But maybe I’ll just be a full time songwriter. I don’t have to be an artist,” he says. Skillz has penned songs for a number of artists and wrote a film that is currently active on the film festival circuit.
“I did that because people told me I couldn’t. I always thought you needed money to make a film. I’ve realized that a good idea can always make you money.” As the waiter brings the check, he has decided that he’s done talking for the night and looks at his watch and reminds that he has a session he’s late for at Daddy’s House, which is two blocks away. He asks if there is anything to discuss that he hasn’t spoke on. What about the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher and which rappers couldn’t recite their rhymes from earlier? He sucks his teeth, looks at his watch again, and calmly asks…
“How much time do you have?”