|Label:||Big Kiidz/eOne Music|
|Next Project:||Million Dollar Backpack (July)|
|Twitter:||Skillz on Twitter|
Old school hip hop heads know him by the stage name, “Mad Skillz,” and new school hip hop heads know him as “The guy who does those year end ‘rap-up’ songs.” No matter how you were first introduced to the Detroit born, Virginia raised Skillz, there is no disputing his uncanny ability to pen a lyrically vibrant record.
Over the past twelve years, Skillz has been signed to several labels, including Atlantic, Rawkus and Sure Shot, but none of them were able to provide a commercially-viable platform for his music. This July, however, the emcee is set to release a new album, entitled “Million Dollar Backpack,” via the ever-growing distribution home of Koch. The project is led by the current Common-assisted single, “So Far So Good.”
In an exclusive interview with DJBooth‘s DJ “Z,” Skillz steps inside the booth to talk about the contents of his backpack, the industry becoming flooded with rappers, the many dangers of blogging, and touring with The Roots this summer.
Listen to the Interview
Skillz Interview Transcription
DJ Booth: What’s goin’ on everybody? It’s your boy “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is a Detroit native, Virginia resident, with a Million Dollar Backpack. Set to release his new album this July, please welcome the mastermind behind the hilarious year-end Rap-Ups, Skillz – how you doin’?
Skillz: Yeah, yeah, what’s good, Z?
DJ Booth: What’s good is summer has finally arrived, which means two things: extraordinarily hot temperatures, and hopefully good music. You’re gonna provide one of those two, correct?
Skillz: Definitely. I might provide two; like, the music might be the cause of the heat risin’- you never know with me, know what I mean?
DJ Booth: That and global warming.
Skillz: Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. [laughter]
DJ Booth: [laughter] On your MySpace page you have a quote that reads, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” So, did a knock start your career, or did you have to build that door to get to where you are today?
Skillz: There’s been times in my career that I had to build a door, and there’s been times that it was a knock. I also have another saying, “when opportunity knocks, don’t be prepared to open the door; be prepared to have a party.” I live by that, so I’m just tryin’ to stay busy and stay focused, man.
DJ Booth: Now, clarify this for me: is there a million-dollars inside this backpack, or is the backpack itself worth a cool mil?
Skillz: You know what? What’s in the backpack is what make it worth a cool mil, at least.
DJ Booth: At least?
Skillz: At least.
DJ Booth: Okay, so let’s delve a little bit further into this. Of course, Million Dollar Backpack, the title of the new album – what can people expect if they unzip this backpack?
Skillz: You can expect good, classic hip hop music. I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, I didn’t step outside of the box too far; I felt like that’s something that was missin’ in the game in a mass amount, and I wanted to be one of the contributors to try to bring it to the forefront. I’m not sayin’ [I’m] tryin’ to make it popular or whatever; this is just a strong dose of Skillz, and what my life is like, and how I get down. It’s more than the wrap up and things of that nature, so if you ever have an interest in me I want to be able to present my music in the right way; that’s exactly what this album does.
DJ Booth: Lead single off the project, So Far So Good, featuring Common – it’s an interesting perspective, Skillz. Many artists that I’ve spoken with, they’ve claimed that the success they’ve seen thus far in their career [is] never good enough, [they] always wanna do better, but you’re sayin’ in this song, to this point you’re pretty content with how things have gone?
Skillz: Definitely. Hip hop is an art form, it’s a culture, and it doesn’t have to be good to any of us. It’s not guaranteed; just because you do it doesn’t mean you’re gonna be successful at it, and I realize that I’m blessed that people wanna hear what I have to say, people think enough to come and see me at shows, they think enough to download my mixtapes or play my songs on the radio. I’m definitely blessed. I’m not one of those rappers that feels like just because I walk out on stage you’re supposed to bend over backwards for me and the sky’s supposed to open up; I’m just into this hard work to keep your attention, and to keep you listenin’. I appreciated that. I don’t take my listeners for granted at all.
DJ Booth: One of the reasons a lot of people suggest that the industry is like that is because there are too many rappers – the industry has become flooded. Could the industry benefit from, let’s say a draft, and only the first five hundred or so got into the industry, the rest had to just find a new career?
Skillz: Yeah. I believe it would. I definitely feel sometimes like there’s more rappers than there are fans, and that’s definitely not cool, ‘cause when you get to that point, who’s left to buy the music?
DJ Booth: Yeah, the rappers themselves? Their labels, possibly? [laughter]
DJ Booth: And that’s already happening. Members of our site, Skillz, while completely entertained by everything we’ve featured from you over the past few years, have also been critical of your rapping style. They say, as a listener, they feel sometimes you rap too slow. Are they being too critical?
Skillz: On the Rap-Ups, I have to rap slow, because I want you to get the point of what I said. Imagine me doing a Rap-Up fast – it takes away from the sting of the punchlines and the things that I poke fun at. I couldn’t do a Rap-Up, say, as fast as Planet Rock, because by the time I said something that you’re laughing at, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh, yeah, I feel like that too,” I’m already on the next thing, if not already past it. So if you’re judging me on the Rap-Ups then yeah, those are definitely slow, but that’s definitely on purpose.
DJ Booth: I’ve always said it’s more about what you’re saying than how fast you’re saying it, anyways.
Skillz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s definitely the content that matters.
DJ Booth: The GM of Koch Records, the distributor for your new project, Alan Grunblatt, said of your signing, “Skillz is one of the greatest MCs in the country, and is the spearhead of our burgeoning hip hop roster.” Hefty words from Mr. Grunblatt – do you agree or disagree with his assessment?
Skillz: He said that? I didn’t know that. [laughter] That’s news to me. If he feels that way, then I definitely look at it as a plus and a compliment from a man who’s worked with so many different artists and has such a long career in this business. For him to say that about me and to push me to the forefront of their progressive hip hop side – oh, man, that’s amazing! I just wanna make sure I carry that torch and represent everybody in the building the right way, as well as myself.
DJ Booth: Let’s go from flattering compliments to unflattering comments. Two weeks ago, Lil’ Wayne made some very moronic comments, which could basically be summed up by him saying, “F*ck all mixtape DJs.” Now, subsequently you released a statement saying how blatantly disrespectful this was to the essential foundation of our whole industry. In your mind, what could possibly possess an artist to do something like that?
Skillz: I guess he’s at a point in his career when he feels like people were takin’ his music and profiting off it without acknowledging him or without, you know, cuttin’ him in on the deal. I don’t really know. First off, let me say, I didn’t release a statement. I put up something on my blog about how I felt about what he said, and people took it off my blog and started posting it in other places. I’m pretty new to blogging, for some reason, I don’t know why, I just thought that I’d type something on my page, and the couple of people who come through it read it and that’s it. I didn’t expect it to be taken off of my page and posted on other dot-coms; I really gotta be wary of that. I don’t have a problem with what I said; I stand behind what I said. A lot of people were sayin’, “Skillz Responds to Lil’ Wayne.” I didn’t respond to Lil’ Wayne, because Lil’ Wayne wasn’t talking to me, right? So there was no need for me to respond to him; he probably has no clue who I am. I responded to what he said on my blog. I feel like the DJ is the cornerstone of hip hop, and without the DJ a lot of these artists wouldn’t be half as popular as they are, so I don’t understand somebody bitin’ the hand that feeds him. And if you say it’s not about the money, then why do you care how much money they make? ‘Cause you claim that you’re makin’ sixty, seventy thousand a verse – they definitely ain’t makin’ that on the mixtape, so why are you cryin’ about it?
DJ Booth: Do you think, as an artist gets more successful in the industry, they’ve obviously taken the time to hone their craft, make connections, and get a good label situation, they take for granted all the small people in the industry, DJs included, who really did get them to that point?
Skillz: Definitely. I believe that it takes a team to make something happen. I can do a lot of things, but I can’t do it all by myself. You have to have people on your team that have the same vision, and they like your music, and they want to support you. I don’t believe in bein’ around people and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s your job to do this.” I want your input, I want you to tell me what you think, I want you to tell me what you feel about what we’re doin’, ‘cause that’s going to make the project a hundred times better. When I’m up there gettin’ that award, wherever I’m at, just realize that it’s way more than me – it’s a whole team.
DJ Booth: If only these award ceremonies would allow speakers to engage in five-minute conversations with the audience, then everybody would know how many people it really takes to be successful…
Skillz: Yeah, definitely, ‘cause it’s not easy, and it’s not one person that just makes it done right. You gotta appreciate these people, ‘cause they could be doin’ something else. They don’t have to do this…
DJ Booth: Exactly. So many people across the country just assume that Mom, Dad, and God somehow got the artist [the award]. They don’t know that so many people really were involved. Let’s switch gears. You’re currently set to join The Roots on some upcoming select dates this summer, and I just saw the group in Chicago a few weeks back. It was one of the best, if not the best live hip hop show I’ve ever seen. So when you perform, Skillz, what do you do to make it more than just your average, run-of-the-mill concert with an MC and a DJ?
Skillz: I try to incorporate different things in my set. I’ve been using a live drummer, a live keyboard player, the DJ is equipped with a beat machine, he’s equipped with the DJ tools as well. I try to put the crowd into a mindset of what I think and how I do, and I try to set the songs up to where they’re thoroughly entertained, and you’re actually listening to what I’m sayin’. I have a lot of people come up to me after shows, and they say, “Yo, I was back there eatin’ a hot dog, but then by the time you was doin’ that second song I really listened to what you was sayin’ – that song was kinda deep!” I try to just pride myself on bein’ clear, bein’ concise, and I know that me just walkin’ out on stage, goin’ back and forth across the stage with me and my DJ, is not gonna cut it.
DJ Booth: Two of my biggest pet peeves in the concert world are when an MC is trailed by six or seven hype men on stage, and/or they don’t complete an entire song – they’ll do one verse and maybe a hook or a bridge from a popular song. If you’ve paid your hard-earned money to go see this artist in concert, you wanna have them perform an entire song, by themselves, without a barrage of people following them around on stage. What are some of your biggest pet peeves when you’ve seen shows yourself, not as an artist but as a consumer?
Skillz: That they don’t put anything into the show. They believe that just ‘cause they’re on stage, they’re gonna get a crazy response. They don’t pay attention to sound, they don’t even think to pay their own personal sound man to make sure that they sound [correct], they’ll just get the house sound guy who’s gettin’ paid for the night, and the bottom line is he’s gettin’ paid for the night; he doesn’t really care if the music sound good or not. They don’t use the tools they’re given’, they don’t utilize the lights. There are small things that you can do nowadays that’ll make your show stand out. You can get a lot of this equipment and a lot of these things for relatively cheap. One of your shows could pay for everything that you need at your next show, to give a good show. If you’re an artist with a hot record right now, and you got a good song on the radio, and people are payin’ you to come through and do a show, one of your shows could pay for the next fifteen shows, and nobody thinks about that. They just believe that they can get on stage and say, “Ho!” and “Throw your hands in the air!” and that’s it. I can’t understand that.
DJ Booth: Me neither. Well, clearly, not many artists in the industry have the business savvy and understanding that you do, which is obviously going to take you a lot further than a lot of the run-of-the-mill artists having day-by-day success. Give a website, or a MySpace page, so our audience can find out more, of course, about the upcoming release of Million Dollar Backpack this July.
Skillz: Yeah, it’s out in July, it’s got Common on there, Freeway, Black Thought, it’s a classic hip hop album. You can check me out on myspace.com/skillz. You can also peep me out at okayplayer.com. I’m around. Check your boy out – I’m here.
DJ Booth: I appreciate your time, thank you so much for joinin’ me inside the DJ Booth, and I wish you nothing but the best of luck, my friend.
Skillz: That’s what it is, man – I appreciate it.