History is only history once it’s made. In the moment, history feels like any other day, and that naivete is what makes retrospection so endearing, or, in the case of veteran producer Ski Beatz, so humbling and jaw-clenching.
You see, long before the days of Pro Tools and automatic saves, hip-hop history was recorded to magnetic tapes: ADATs. In the early ‘90s, when Ski was working with JAY-Z, Big L, Mase, Cam’ron, and whoever else Dame Dash brought to Ski’s apartment studio in Harlem, the music was cataloged in physical form. Lose the tapes, you lose the music. Or, in Ski Beatz’ case: get rid of the tapes, get rid of the music.
“Around the time I was working for [Big] L, that’s when he passed,” Ski tells me over the phone. “Nobody heard the songs, and I did all those songs on ADAT [audio tapes]. Around that time, that’s when the whole Pro Tools and the whole computer thing started to come into play. I wasn’t even thinking about the future… Any ADATs I had, I just got rid of all of my ADATs and went into the computer world. I didn’t make [copies] of anything that we did.
“That goes for a lot of JAY-Z. Before Reasonable Doubt, we had a whole album that we did, that nobody has ever heard. I did it on ADAT, and when I got rid of all the ADAT, I got rid of all the Big L stuff, all the JAY-Z stuff. Even unreleased Camp Lo music. I wasn’t even thinking.”
Music fan outrage aside, can we really fault Ski Beatz in that moment? He says it himself: he had no idea he was making history. “I threw that stuff out,” he admits. “That’s what I did, not thinking that in the future this stuff… People would wanna hear this stuff. When you making this music, you not thinking that everybody’s gonna blow up. Now, I keep everything because you never know.”
Never know, indeed. While 2018 has Ski Beatz pivoting to a new, synth-forward sound with the release of Switched on Bap, we cannot gloss over the prophetic quality of his trashing an entire JAY-Z album. That is, you never know when you’re making history—move wisely.
DJBooth’s full interview with Ski Beatz, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: We’re talking about Big L records, so let’s start with some background. How many records did you have with him, and what years were you two working together?
Ski Beatz: Let me give you the story of how it all came to happen, first. Obviously Big L, he was from Harlem and Dame Dash is also from Harlem. Around the time Big L was making his mark as being one of the dopest lyricists in New York City, Dame had signed JAY-Z as an artist. Dame and Jay, they used to go around the city and basically battle people. Whoever was the hottest in Queens, Bronx, whatever, Dame would take Jay to these people and have a friendly competition to get Jay’s name out at the time.
Like I said, Big L, he was hot in Harlem, so Dame knew he had to introduce Jay to Big L so they could have this friendly confrontation. What happened was, Jay and Big L… I don’t know who won, I don’t know if anybody won, but I know that after that happened Jay and L became friends. They had that mutual respect for each other. Big L started hanging out with us, and while he was hanging out with us, I had the opportunity to record a couple songs with him in my crib while I was staying in Harlem. I think we did like three or four, and the year was probably ‘93, ‘94, somewhere around then.
He came to the crib and we just started recording some real, super dope music, man. Obviously, we didn’t have a chance to put it out because of what happened, but it was amazing to work with L like that.
1993… Were these for Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous?
I’m not exactly sure, I just know that he wanted to work with me and he came to the crib, and we just started recording some cool music. I don’t know what albums [it was] for, I don’t know what it’s gon’ be, we didn’t get that deep. We was just vibing and around that time he had the group Children of the Corn, which was Mase, Blood[shed], and Cam’ron. He had them, and I was recording songs with Mase also.
That whole circle… I was living in Harlem, I was living on 110th Ave, living in the same building Dame Dash was living in, so Dame knew all these people. A lot of those cats at the time in Harlem would end up in my little studio apartment recording songs. We didn’t know at the time that this was history. We just knew that we were making some cool stuff.
How would you describe the energy during those sessions with L?
It was just dope! Producer, rapper. Rapper spitting fire, producer makin’ hot tracks. The energy was there! It’s kind of hard to explain that type of vibe, but it was super organic, super hip-hop, super that ‘90s era type of energy. There was focus. Back then we was super focused about what we was doing. He came in, he was writing. I was making the tracks. He’s like, “I like that, I like this. Let me hear that.” When you working with a dope artist, there’s a back-and-forth energy.
How would you break down the sound of these tracks?
I remember sampling this one record, it was a song called “Dune.” It was this crazy, bluesy piano riff that I had caught for one of the records that we did. It came on and instantly: drums, sample, the whole beat dropped, bass line, everything was hard. Fresh off the SP-1200. Eight bars in, L just came in with his verse. I wish I could remember some of the things that he was saying, but the verses was obviously crazy. It was punchlines, but deep [laughs] it was Big L!
Aside from Big L's tragic passing, why did the records never come out?
Around the time I was working for L, that’s when he passed. Nobody heard the songs, and I did all those songs on ADAT [audio tapes]. Around that time, that’s when the whole Pro Tools and the whole computer thing started to come into play. I wasn’t even thinking about the future… Any ADATs I had, I just got rid of all of my ADATs and went into the computer world. I didn’t make [copies] of anything that we did.
Is that what’s keeping the records from dropping today?
Yes. If those songs were around, somebody would hear ‘em. That goes for a lot of JAY-Z. Before Reasonable Doubt, we had a whole album that we did, that nobody has ever heard. I did it on ADAT, and when I got rid of all the ADAT, I got rid of all the Big L stuff, all the JAY-Z stuff. Even unreleased Camp Lo music. I wasn’t even thinking. When you’re in that moment, you’re not even thinking that all of this is gonna be history. It’s like, “I don’t need this! Let me get rid of this! I got the new Pro Tools. Let me just record everything here.”
That is crazy…
The only way I could save it if I actually kept the ADATs. All that stuff was bulky, and it was taking up mad space. When the whole computer era came in, I was like, “Man, I don’t need all of this,” and I threw that stuff out. That’s what I did, not thinking that in the future this stuff… People would wanna hear this stuff. When you making this music, you not thinking that everybody’s gonna blow up. Now, I keep everything because you never know.
Is it humbling to know that people are fiending for music you didn’t think twice about at the time?
Wow, you can’t even imagine. It’s one of those feelings I can’t really explain. I remember Jay pulling me to the side one day saying, “Yo, man, I’m about to make you famous,” but I didn’t pay attention to that. But then, years later—not even when the music was out—everyone’s like, “Aw, man, this is the best album. This is classic!” You never would’ve thought that. We was just grinding, making music.
A lot of the songs that we was making, it never made it to the radio. It never got the attention that these kids are getting now. We took it like, I might’ve put a song out with Jay that didn’t have any commercial success at all, then 20 years later people are like, “This is a classic! This is my song.” You’re like, “Wow, people are just now catching on to it.” It’s amazing.
Do you ever get bitter, wondering where people were when it dropped?
No. Not at all. That’s just timeless music. The thing about music, man, you can make it and it’s in the ether forever. They’re gonna get it now or get it later, but it doesn’t matter when they get it. It’s even better now! For me, being a producer, now I got a younger generation that’s listening to stuff that I did way back, and I got more fans now than I did back then when I was making the music. That’s crazy!
What’s the biggest song that you’ve gotten rid of?
Wow… I probably had some crazy big songs with Jay that never came out. I’m pretty sure that Big L music would’ve been something special if people heard it. We was in rare form when we was creating that. All we was thinking about was hip-hop.
Now you’ve got your new project Switched on Bap, which is more electronic and experimental than your prior work. Why the change?
Well, as you know, I’m a sample-based producer. That’s my claim to fame. I’m one of those guys that crate dig, chop it up, make beats. I still got love for that, but I’ve been doing it for so long, I needed a change. I needed a new approach to keep my interest. A lot of people say trap music all sounds the same, but then I listen to sample-based producers, and even that music is starting to sound the same to me, too. Y’all might be flipping it differently, but when you use a sample, it still has that sample feel you can’t escape.
So I wanted to get into something that will keep my interest, so I got into the whole modular synthesizer thing. That took me down this crazy rabbit hole because there’s limitless ideas and bottomless potential for all types of things. Plus, it’s like an upgrade to boom bap. I knew I wasn’t going to be making trap. I had to add something to the hip-hop that I love, so the synths came right in time, man. That’s how I created the Switched on Bap album. It was just a drum machine and some synthesizers. No computer, I just went old-school and just used those two elements.
I love that you went old-school to move music forward.
Thank you! That was the idea, man: keep the boom bap, but give them frequencies they might not be familiar with. You can feel the timeless essence of the ‘90s era somewhere in there, you can feel it, but it doesn’t sound dated.
If these Big L tracks were to come out tomorrow, would you make any changes in the vein of Switched or drop them as is?
No, I would leave them just as they are. Just like that, it’s perfect.