He is a living lesson in hip-hop evolution, but that doesn’t mean that he has changed to fit a changing genre.
He has been in the game for longer than some emcees have been alive, but he isn’t finished yet.
Skillz, one of hip-hop’s most under-appreciated yet talented lyricists, sits calmly in his dressing room with the quiet concentration of a proven battle-emcee. Around his neck is no platinum chain and there is no ice on his wrist, but in his head are rhymes and experience that far out-value such frivolous accessories.
“I’ve made money from hip-hop, but that ain’t why I do it; I do it because I love it,” said Skillz, formerly Mad Skillz, who is currently on tour with The Roots and Cody Chestnut. “I believe that I am one of the only rappers that actually know and believe that people paying me to listen to what I have to say is a blessing in itself. And, on top of that, people pay to see me say the same thing I just told them on the album.”
Though he may seem humble, Skillz is no newcomer to the industry. Releasing his last album in 1996, Skillz signed with Rawkus Records, a rapidly growing label representing such other artists as Talib Kweli and Pharaoh Monch. He has worked with Mos Def and Missy Elliot and has written lyrics for P. Diddy and Jermaine Dupree.
Skillz’s rhyme repertoire is all, but endless. He is legendary in the realm of battle-emcees having written countless rhymes filling volumes of notebooks.
Skillz’s style, despite his collaboration with some of hip-hop’s most known and popular figures, has never split from its roots. Still “an emcee’s emcee,” Skillz has yet to stop surprising crowds with his classic, quick-witted and often comedic rap commentary.
Having a “battle mentality” while he performs, Skillz said he often says things in his rhymes that others don’t. When he is on the mic, no competitor is safe.
“Nobody does that [cracks jokes in raps] anymore, but it’s still fun to me and the day I stop having fun is the day I quit,” said Skillz, whose entertaining lyrics brought resounding applause and cheers from audience members at his most recent show last weekend at Denver’s Fillmore Theater.
To watch Skillz perform, is like watching a classic muscle car beat a new car in a drag race, his style and lyrics have much deeper roots in the evolution of the genre, but they are still hot.
“I got into hip-hop by listening to people like Big Daddy Kane and Rakem; I am definitely a child of that school,” said Skillz. “Every time I put pen to paper, I think of Kane.”
Big Daddy Kane, a prevalent force in hip-hop during the mid-1980s, was a master of rhyming and a stylistic pioneer with his speed-rhyme style.
“You didn’t want to test him, no matter what,” said Skillz of his musical idol. “He could be wearing a purple-ruffle shirt with green socks, but nobody wanted to test Kane.”
Skillz has followed in Kane’s footsteps with his quick, thoughtful lyricism and in his adherence to his own individual style. Like Kane, who differed from the mainstream of his era, but remained respected, Skillz continues to evoke awe from audiences despite his classic approach.
“What Kane got ridiculed for is what a lot of people are getting money for now, making records for females,” said Skillz who recognized Kane’s ability to rhyme in conjunction with soul artists like Barry White to create a new type of rap song.
The popular reaction to Skillz’s own style may seem like somewhat of an anomaly within the world of current hip-hop trends, but Skillz, like Kane, through a deviation from the norm, proves the flexibility of the hip-hop genre.
“Hip-hop has no boundaries,” Skillz said. “People always try to say, ‘well, this track is underground and this track is commercial;’ it’s all black music so just let it be what it’s going to be.”
Skillz makes it clear that there can be no clear division in the world of hip-hop because its audience is far too varied.
“I put Missy on the “Soundbombing 3″ album and people then said, ‘oh my God, Skillz and Missy, that ain’t underground,’ but, yo, we rapped over this Sugarhill break and Hi-Tek did it, I mean, it don’t get more underground than that,” said Skillz referring to a recent Rawkus Records compilation on which he did a song with Missy Elliot and DJ Hi-Tek.
If he does a song with a “commercial” artist, Skillz said, he would put them where he wants them to be on an album with no thought as to whether their mainstream or popular status will bode well with lesser-known or stylistically different collaborators.
“I got Missy as gutter as she’s going to get,” said Skillz who is often subject to being labeled an “underground” artist due to the nature of the record company he represents.
“I get it [labeled underground] a lot because Rawkus Records is supposedly ‘underground,’ like their production is sub-par, but what difference does it make if it comes out on Rawkus; I give a f*** what’s on the label as long as the song is hot,” Skillz said.
To Skillz, hip-hop artists are appealing to audiences whose situations reflect their lyrics. According to him, the reason there are people who rap about things like money is because there are people just like them listening to the music, “people who have Escalades, but don’t have money to put gas in them.”
“There’s people just like them [rappers who rap about money], who are in the ‘hood and don’t have nothin’, but if they won the lotto tomorrow, the first thing they would get is an Escalade with some 24 inch wheels on it and paint it a crazy-ass color and not even think about where they are going to park it.”
Skillz himself even went through such a stage in his career, where the excitement of coming up from nothing meant he could buy the expensive car he had always wanted.
“I grew up in the ‘hood, with nothin’, but I’m not dumb with my money either,” said Skillz who explains, as a rapper gets older, like most people, his priorities change.
“Now, if you see me with a $250,000 car and you think, ‘oh, look at Skillz’s whip,’ when you see my house, you will really lose your mind,” Skillz said. “If I have a $250,000 car, my house is going to be bananas! I put most of my money where I lay my head and I can’t sleep in a car.”
Like his priorities, Skillz’s perception of his beloved industry has changed; he now looks upon it with a more critical eye. He has been “in the game” for a while and has watched it change and grow in popularity and size.
“This is one of the only industries where you can get into it without any prior anything; you don’t even need to know how to read, and now, it is so diluted with people, there’s hardly anybody you can find who doesn’t have a hand in the music industry,” said Skillz who is wary of the industry’s decreasing level of expertise. “My point is, if everybody is in it, then who the fuck is going to buy it?”
Skillz remains true to his roots, both in his own writing and in his ideas about the hip-hop industry and though he is critical he “wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
As hip-hop grows along with its audience, the lyrics that flow in the mainstream may drift away from their ordinary roots into a river of big rims and bright jewelry. But some rappers, even though they may be incorrectly corralled into an ‘underground’ stereotype, will, no doubt, continue to hold fast to their art’s origins, that of the lives of the average urban resident.
“I don’t claim to be nothin’ I’m not. I’m not a killer, I’m not a thug, I’m just me,” Skillz said. “I represent just the regular dudes, people that just have a love for the music.”