In the past, you debated over whether you were going to do a “Rap Up” or not. This year you didn’t seem to have that debate.
Yeah. It was definitely a calculated move. That was on purpose, like it wasn’t by accident. I already knew what was going on. I knew when I was shooting the video. I already had those things in mind. The “Rap Up” was definitely going to happen. There was no question about that.
Your “Rap Up” has become a staple in hip-hop. What do you think of that?
It’s just became a staple not just in hip-hop but in pop culture. Every year, I don’t think that it can get any bigger or any better and it does. People like previous ones and they have their favorites and say one wasn’t hotter than another one. You know, I do them because the people want to hear them. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s all he ever does.’ I only do this once a year. That ain’t true. My other songs don’t have the impact that a “Rap Up” does. You can hear me spitting about something else, but it’s not going to be getting played on Howard Stern. The “Rap Up” gets national attention, so I would be dumb not to do one.
You went with an original beat this year for the “Rap Up”. Why did you go that route this year?
This is the second time that I used the original production. The first one was in ’03 but it was a sample so people probably thought I jacked an old EPMD joint. This year, I just knew. It was already calculated and it was already in the works that I was doing the video. I was going to do it over Kanye’s “Good Life” but if people were going to download it and buy it…I was approached by iTunes. It didn’t make sense to rap over Kanye’s “Good Life”. I’m definitely not trying to pay Kanye no money, not that he needs it! (laughs)
How much attention do you pay to the fans’ feedback on your various “Rap Up”’s?
I don’t, man. When I put the song up, I didn’t even go online and check out anything that the people were saying. When I put the video up, I would check for that. Hate is the new love, man. I’m just happy to be making the kind of music that I love and doing what I want to do. And this year was a great year. I dropped a joint with Freeway that was an official, street-heavy record. I shot my own video for that. I went on tour with the Roots for the Hip-Hop Honors Tour. I headlined the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. I’m cool, man. I wrote a couple records that charted real good on the ghostwriting side. I’m cool, man. I love what I do. I don’t punch a clock every day and I’m appreciative of that.
What made you want to shoot a video this year for the “Rap Up”?
My whole thing is that if you’re going to keep doing it, you have to take it to another level. I wanted to do it big. A video for the “Rap Up” has never been done and I had never done anything of that nature. I got with a Hollywood film director. This isn’t a guy who just shoots videos. He shoots movies. For me being on the set with Chris Robinson directing the video because he is a fan of the song, it’s crazy. I would have been crazy to pass that up.
I also take it for granted that people in hip-hop know who I am but that’s not always the case. This week, because of the “Rap Up”, they made me a MySpace featured artist. There’s people hitting me and sending me messages like, ‘I had no idea you used to be named Mad Skillz’ or ‘I had no idea that you were the same Mad Skillz from Virginia. I was like, ‘Wow!’ We take it for granted that we send the song out and it goes on the radio and think the song did what it did. If I could show you some of the messages that I’ve been getting from people, it’s just crazy. The traffic on my page has quadrupled and people are like, ‘I had no idea that you were signed to Rawkus back in the day.’ You didn’t? Did you just start listening to hip-hop? I think we take it for granted that everybody knows about the “Rap Up”. People email me like, ‘I love this song. You should do it every year.’ I’m like, ‘Wow.’ It’s amazing, man.
When looking at the feedback you get from the “Rap Up”, can it be a gift and a curse in that it exposes you to a huge number of fans but at the same time, they may only want to hear you rapping about current events?
That’s one facet of what I do. I’m having fun in hip-hop. I’m not killing anybody or beating up anybody. I have fun with what I’m doing and that’s going to come across in my music. That’s who I am in everyday life. I’m just that type of person. I like to have fun. It’s definitely going to come across in my music. People can call it a gift and a curse and you might expect me to always make that kind of music. There’s more to Skillz than the “Rap Up”, but if that’s all you know me for, I’m fine with that too.
How far can you take the “Rap Up”?
I’m going to do “Rap Up”’s as long as people ask for “Rap Up”’s. I have songs that are more important to me. The “Rap Up” is just something funny. It’s just something that I do that’s turned into something else. If you’re going to listen to the “Rap Up”, that’s fine. I don’t have any problem towards anyone listening to the “Rap Up”, but listen to “Crazy World” and dig into the Mad Skillz catalogue and you’ll find that that’s my humor and that’s my wit.
Do you have a favorite “Rap Up”?
I like ’06. I definitely like ’06 because everything lined up perfect. ’06 was pretty good because I used the Jay-Z “Lost Ones” beat. I would also have to say that the first one in ’02 is definitely my favorite.
Crooked I has been doing the “Hip-Hop Weekly” freestyle series. Do you think your “Rap Up”’s inspired him to do that?
I don’t know. Does he have a content that he talks about every week or is he just doing a freestyle every week?
It’s a little bit of both.
Then yeah, that’s definitely something that might have come from my idea, but I ain’t tripping over that. I remember Crooked I from back in his early Death Row days. I always thought he was dope. I didn’t even know he was doing that. I think if Crooked I is putting out freestyles every week to get his name out, I might check out those freestyles and fans might check out his freestyles and maybe they’ll dig back in his catalogue.
Everybody can’t be Jay-Z and Akon and be in your face all the time. I’m cool with the type of fame that I have as a backpacker. Mainstream success might have eluded me for now, but I can think of a whole ton of rappers right now that wish that had started the “Rap Up”. I can think of a ton of rappers that would be wanting to get calls from the E! Entertainment Network and get played by Howard Stern, who doesn’t play anybody but 50 Cent. I’m cool, man. I’m doing what I do.
Do you think you’ll be working with E! in the future?
There’s another rapper and I’m sure that idea came up from my idea, so, like, I think they have him on there. I was laying in the bed one day and I saw the “Hollywood Weekly Rap Up”. My man looked at me like, ‘That’s your shit!’ I spend a lot of time in L.A. so I pay a lot of attention to the entertainment business. From what I’m hearing, my lawyer says they are trying to contact me to do it because they found out I was the original guy. They came to me, I didn’t come to them.
What was the best moment of 2007 for you?
I would say doing the Hip-Hop Honors Tour with Big Daddy Kane, the Roots and MC Lyte. We went on a two and a half month world tour. We started in San Francisco and we wrapped up in New York. I had been on the road, man, with artists I was fans of, doing classic hip-hop songs. I’m on tour with the Roots and Big Daddy Kane and MC Lyte and we’re not doing any new material. We’re all covering classic hip-hop songs.
So me and Black Thought are on stage doing Run-DMC. We’re doing N.W.A. We’re covering Gang Starr. I’m standing around like, ‘I’m getting paid to do this? You have to be kidding me. I would do this for free!’ The Hip-Hop Honors Tour was definitely a highlight for my year. Doing the “Rap Up” was good and doing shows and showing people my other material was good. I’m happy, man. I can’t complain. I’m living it up right now.
How’s your album The Million Dollar Backpack coming?
We’re mixing it right now. I got Freeway on there. I got my man Common on there. Me and Common did a song. Producer-wise, I got Bink on there. I got Questlove. It’s a crazy album, man. I’ve been working on it for the past two years. People have been wondering where I’ve been. I have over 300 songs. I understand how people get to that point where they make so many records, but I finally got the songs that I like and I’m going to put it out this year and get back on the road and hit people with a dose of Skillz. Even though I’m putting to the album this year, I’m going to try to put out another one. That’s all I love – making good hip-hop.
What’s the concept behind the title The Million Dollar Backpack?
The Million Dollar Backpack is another way of me saying that I have dreams also. Just because I make what people tend to call “backpack music” doesn’t mean that I don’t have dreams. You know how they label music as “oh, that’s commercial, that’s underground.” I’ve been rapping for 10 years professionally. Everything that I have obtained has come out of my backpack. Any idea or any rhyme or any verse that I sold to another artist that got used and sold a million records came out of that backpack. The house that I built from rhyming came out of that backpack. This is another way of saying that just because this is the kind of music that I make doesn’t mean that I’m stuck in this mode.
A lot of artists make what is considered “backpack” music but they’ll switch up the formula at some time to make more commercial music. How have you been able to stay making the music you want to make?
I think if you love what you do, the money will come. That was told to me from Will Smith. Will Smith told me that a long time ago, just if you do what you love, the money will come. I honestly believe that. I honestly believe that. I believe that. If you do what you love, you’ll get there. You’ll make it. Sooner or later, you’re going to make it.
Was the story about the male groupie in “Noupie” a true story and was that your worst experience with male groupies?
That’s a true story. That was it. Ol’ girl came to the room. She was hanging out. She came back like, ‘I want to bring my friend.’ I was like, ‘All right, cool.’ Her friend gets there and it’s a dude! I’m not saying that I can’t walk the streets without the fans mobbing me, but this dude had to be the biggest Mad Skillz fan ever! If there was anybody that was a bigger fan of me than him, then I want to meet that person because he knew every verse. “Oh, man, I got your joint with Mos Def back in the day!” He knew everything!
And I’m sitting there like, ‘All right, man, that’s cool. I appreciate the love, but it’s 6:30 in the morning. I have to get ready to go.” “I just want to talk hip-hop with you, man.” I’m a hip-hop head and I love talking about the music I love and this hip-hop culture that we are submerged in and we live, but I don’t want to talk to you about why EPMD broke up at 4:30 in the morning! There’s a time for that shit. And she was beautiful! I’m trying to tolerate homeboy, but I couldn’t do it. I had to kick both of them out the room. They were going in the mini-bar and getting candy bars and soda. They were chilling!
Did that dude ever get back to you after “Noupie” leaked?
I haven’t heard from him, but I’m pretty sure I will. He’ll pop up. I’m sure of it.
When I was at a Ghostface show, at the end, he said, “I’m staying at the such-and-such hotel. Any girls that want to come through, come through. Any dudes show up and you’re getting beat up.” You might want to do that.
(laughs) Honestly, you know what? I don’t think I can do that. I can’t go hard like Ghost. I’m not going to tell people where I’m staying and all that. If you enjoyed the show, cool. I’m glad you enjoyed the show. I don’t really owe you that conversation. You want to stay up and talk about who killed 2Pac at 4:00 in the morning? Homie, please. It’s just crazy, man.
That’s the other side of fame that a lot of fans never know about.
Right. I definitely wish that I had some kind of footage where I could have captured that somehow. That was funny, yo. I knew that nobody was going to believe this shit! Nobody was going to believe this. It was so funny. You know how you’re like, ‘Nobody’s going to believe this shit!’ That’s what that situation was. It was hilarious, man. Funny!
I think I already know your answer, but can you tell us what songs you ghostwrote this year?
Nah, nah, nah. I ain’t doing that. Most of the artists I’m dealing with, I only did two joints that came out this year, but I have a good relationship with those people. And one of them isn’t even a rap song. It’s an R&B/rap song that has rapping in it. I ain’t gonna do that. Then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, man, I was looking on HipHopGame and you put me out there’ and then I won’t be able to work with them again.
A good ghostwriter never reveals his clients even though I did back in the day. I was young and hot-headed and I will never do that again.
Do you have to advertise your ghostwriting services or does your reputation speak for itself?
I don’t advertise. I don’t go around shopping songs. These people call me. My name is in the right circles and the right people know about me, therefore I get those calls, like, ‘Yo, so-and-so is working on this album and we want to bring you out to Miami.’ It’ll work if I’m not on tour. This last artist was going in and I couldn’t help him because I was in Asia touring for about three weeks and I couldn’t make it. I was really pissed about that because I wanted to do that.
How do you explain to people who ask you if you can write commercial hits for other people, why don’t you just write hits for yourself?
It’s more or less an issue of the song. If you want me to write you a song, I’m going to write you a song. I’m going to do what you hired me to do. I’m not that vein to where I won’t write songs for other people or I won’t work with other people. There are songs that I’ve written that have charted bigger than any song that I’ve ever made. I’m still a part of that song. A lot of times, it’s not the artist. It’s who’s working the record. You can make a song a hit if you spend enough money.
I can write a song for myself and put it out on Rawkus and it’s not going to do as well as it would do if I gave it to Justin Timberlake. It’s not always the fact that you wrote the song. It’s about how you use the song. I might make a song and they might not push it as hard but if I took the lyrics out and sold the beat and hook to 50 and it’s his first single, it’s going to get pushed.
Looking at that, what kind of a push are you looking for for The Million Dollar Backpack?
You know what? I’m not even concerned with how they push the record and I’m not even concerned with how it comes out. I just want my album to be in stores. That’s all that matters. There are so many other things. I make money off of doing other things like writing songs for other people. It’s been a long process. The industry is shit right now. Nobody is making the kind of money they made five years ago. It’s a struggle. Just to get your album out, it’s a struggle. And I don’t want to be a ringtone rapper or be the nigga who put out a hot song and then you never hear from him again. There’s a lot of cats who did that this year. Who wants to be that dude? No one is worrying about building careers. I want to get my album out, go on the road and promote my music and promote the music that I love and stay in the studio. I don’t have any expectations for The Million Dollar Backpack. I just want it to come out.
To be able to tour, you need to put out albums. I’m a songwriter and I get inspired by other songwriters. It’s just what you know me for and I happen to be good at it, so I’m going to keep doing it.
Because Confessions of a Ghostwriter was old material by the time it saw the light of day, are you considering The Million Dollar Backpack to be your second official album?
Basically. This is the second shot. This is the second shot because I never really got one.
And with Confessions of a Ghostwriter, that came out two and a half years after I made it. I want to be able to compete in the realm that I compete. I want to be able to put an album together and put it out in a timely manner. I don’t want the album to be so dated to where the punchlines don’t even make sense. And that was the case with Confessions of a Ghostwriter. That album was old and you can’t really judge me on content that was that old. That was like a mixtape. If I’m going to do that, I might as well rap over everybody else’s beats and hook up with DJ Drama and drop some shit now.
Are you still in touch with Pharrell and the Neptunes today?
The last time I saw Pharrell was at the Hip-Hop Honors. They got a couple of studios in Virginia Beach and I frequent them. I think Pharrell is based in Miami now but Chad is based in VA. I stay in touch but I don’t really see him that much.
Who should we watch for coming out of Richmond today?
My man’s got a label coming out called Donland Entertainment. He’s got a lot of new artists. He’s got Kenny Wray. That’s Nicole Wray’s brother. He’s coming out. You got my man Big Get It. He’s coming out. You got the whole GMGB Fam and the Cut Fam. There’s a lot of artists coming out of Richmond doing their thing and I know I’m forgetting somebody. There’s a lot of artists, man, that are just doing their thing and they just need to stay focused and just keep putting out good music. If you do what you love to do, the money will come. I learned that. That’s true.
How hard is it coming out of Virginia today, especially with the current climate in hip-hop?
It’s crazy. It’s always an issue. I tell people today that if I was from New York, I probably would have never made it. I probably never would have seen the light of day. The fact that I was from a place that wasn’t really known for rappers made it that much better. If I was from New York or if I was from L.A., I would have just been another rapper.
In one of our past interviews, you said you kicked in the door for Virginia hip-hop. Where would Virginia hip-hop be without you?
I don’t know how I can answer that without sounding cocky. I think I was the person that showed that it was cool to be able to say that you were from VA. When I came up, it was just me and I was going to scream “VA” from the top of my lungs. I made it easier for other artists to say that they were from Virginia. When I told them where I was from, they said, “Oh, that’s new. I didn’t know VA had rappers.” Now they talk about Trey Songz and Chris Brown and they know they’re from where the Neptunes, Missy and Skillz are from. We used to have nobody and now we have somebody. I was definitely the person to kick that off.
What’s the next move for Skillz?
The Million Dollar Backpack is about to come out. The “Rap Up” video is tearing up the internet. I got the internet going crazy. I’m about to do this tour. I leave for Japan on Sunday to do this tour and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’m going out with the Roots and my OkayPlayer family. I got a new single that I’m about to drop with Kwame that Kwame produced and then I’m coming with the album.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Just check me out on MySpace. You can check me out on OkayPlayer. You can see the video at SoVeryFresh.com. The Million Dollar Backpack is coming soon.
And come check me out on the road. I can actually guarantee you that my show is better than any rap performance out there. I don’t care who it is. I will put my show up against anybody. A lot of people jump up on stage and walk back and forth and think that you’re going to go crazy screaming. Nobody puts their focus into a show anymore and I’m bringing that back. I have one of the best shows you ever seen.