Your sophomore album The Million Dollar Backpack is finally coming out. That must feel good.
Definitely. It’s been a long time coming but it’s about to happen.
What does the title The Million Dollar Backpack mean to you?
Being that I make what people tend to label “underground” music or “backpack” music, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the same dreams as everybody else. I want to be successful. I want to be able to carve my niche in this game we call hip-hop. But I came a long way from where I started to where I’m at now and I’ve been a lot of places, man. I’ve seen a lot of things I never thought I would see. I met a lot of people I never in a million years thought I would meet. Anything that got me anywhere in this game came from an idea I wrote in a book that was in that backpack. That’s just me saying you can’t put a price on what that means to me.
Are you ever surprised at the level of success you’ve achieved thus far in your career?
Definitely. I thought that was it at one point. And I’m really only on what I technically call my second album. I don’t really count Confessions of a Ghostwriter as my second album. That was just my Rawkus songs and it was repackaged. Those songs were old by the time the public got ‘em. So this is the first time since From Where??? that I recorded an album in a timely manner and got it out to the people. I never thought I would make it this far. It’s a win-win for me. Through all the label setbacks and through the Timbaland situation falling apart and then the Rawkus album didn’t sell because MCA took over the company…This Tuesday I have an album coming out in stores. That’s a win in itself.
Have you been happy with the feedback you’ve received so far from fans for The Million Dollar Backpack?
Yeah. You know, everybody’s not going to like everything but I realize that once you put music out there, you put it out there to be critiqued and I’m fine with that. I know that I made a very dope hip-hop album for 2008. I know I made it. It’s not a question of whether or not it’s going to come out. I don’t have to worry about that right now. I can worry about making music and focusing on music.
You have a diverse collection of songs on The Million Dollar Backpack. Do you think you might catch some fans off-guard?
No, I don’t believe I will. I believe I made a very dope record. I’m not the same MC I was in 1996. I don’t think any MC is. I’ve definitely grown as a man and as an artist and that shows in some of my music. I still know what the people want to hear from me and I tried to give them that as well. It’s been a long time since I had an album in the marketplace and I did what I felt I needed to do to secure that place.
You had a lot of big collaborations on the album, from Freeway to Common. How do you make those collaborations happen?
From the relationships I have with artists. I’ve been in the game for over 10 years and I’m fans of artists and they’re fans of mine. We’ve crossed paths, whether it’s doing shows or on the radio or doing the same award shows. Some of these people, they reached out to me and some of them I reached out to them because I was definitely fans of what they were doing. And we made it happen.
What inspired you to write the retrospective “So Far So Good”?
The beat was just real soulful. Shout out to Joe Money. He did the beat. The beat was real soulful. It sounded like something new. It had a Dilla kind of sound to it. And I just wanted to talk about how far I’ve come in the rap game. And Kweli and Common both felt something about it and they both hopped on the song and all three of us are just talking about how far we’ve come. Nobody’s promised anything in the game.
Right now there’s a kid on the corner that’s trying to give his CD away and we have the opportunity where we are able to sell our music and people come to our shows and want to know what we’re doing. It’s just me and Common and Kwa reminiscing on how far we’ve come and this is not over and we got a long way to go but right now, man, it’s so far so good.
What exactly did you want in the production for The Million Dollar Backpack?
Just classic hip-hop. I didn’t want to step outside the box. I didn’t want to try to do anything different as far as recreating the wheel. I wanted to make a good hip-hop album for people who enjoy good hip-hop music. I feel like I accomplished that. I reached out to people like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Questlove. My man Kwame came through. They supplied me with the soundtrack to make a good hip-hop record.
A lot of times I hear artists talk about “taking their album to the next level” or their album being “a movie,” but rarely do I hear artists say that their overall goal was to make a good hip-hop album. Why do you think that is?
The main thing is to try different sounds and to work with different producers. I think a lot of times people say they want to step outside the box. I think “Preachin’ to the Choir” has a real gospel feel to it. I think that’s definitely outside the box. I think Kanye doing something like “Stronger” is stepping outside of the box. Those are examples, to me, of stepping outside of the box.
Why did you want to have live instrumentation on The Million Dollar Backpack?
Half of the album is live instrumentation, from “Crazy World” to “Hip Hop Died” to “Yeah You Know It”. A lot of those songs we made from scratch. I picked that up from The Roots and watching their vibe. Even one of their producers is on the album. Instead of sampling and trying to recreate we started from scratch and we came up with some real good music.
As an MC, do you approach tracks with live instruments differently than you would a track containing a sample?
I feel like you have a little bit more freedom. I can easily sit down and tell a guy who’s playing drums to play “Funky Drummer” by James Brown. We have the freedom to change that up and go in a different direction and come up with something new and exciting and that’s what being in a studio is. The longer you stay in the studio the easier the process becomes. That’s what we did on this record. Samples just aren’t interesting to me unless it’s a real killer record.
Plus you don’t want to lose your publishing.
Yeah. Who wants to give away half of their publishing? I don’t.
Are you and director Chris Robinson working on any new videos?
Yeah. Chris and his brother VinRock directed “So Far So Good”. Chris Robinson was on set and he was helping out and he was giving his eye and his ideas to the video. VinRock directed it. They did “So Far So Good”. That was a Robot Films project. They also did “The Rap Up” as well. So I’m definitely looking forward to working with them in the future. They did the “The Rap Up” video for free. I felt compelled when I got a budget and I got a little bit of money that I would only go back to the people that looked out for me. Come on, man. Chris Robinson is a world-renowned music director. Who wouldn’t want to work with Chris Robinson and Robot Films?
Do you feel like the music video is more important today as an artist than it was a few years ago?
I think videos are definitely a bigger part of the picture. With the internet being the way that it is, I feel like the internet is a channel within itself. You don’t have to wait for videos to come on TV anymore. You can go look at a video whenever you want to look at it. I think that it’s helped a lot of artists. I went out and bought me a video camera and filmed my last two videos before I shot “The Rap Up”. Me and Elusive Media shot “Crazy World” and “Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know” which are very good looking videos in today’s market. They did very well on the internet and in various media outlets.
It just goes to show, man, that it can be done. Don’t wait for anybody to put a lot of money in your pocket and film you. If you really want to see your vision come to life then you need to go out there and make that happen.
Shout out to ElusiveMedia.com. Those guys are hard workers and we came together and we got future projects in the works.
Speaking of future projects, have you started thinking about how you’re going to top last year’s “The Rap Up”?
Nah. Right now it’s The Million Dollar Backpack time. I probably won’t start thinking about it until Thanksgiving. This album is my focus right now. I’ll be working this well into early next year. “The Rap Up” is definitely coming. It’s just not on my radar right now.
You just got back from touring with Jazzy Jeff. Do you have any interesting stories from your time spent overseas?
Yeah, man. I’m on my second passport messing with Jazzy Jeff. We’ve been a lot of places. Some of the videos and some of the pictures inside of the album are from when me and Jeff were traveling. He’s an icon and a hip-hop legend and just to share the stage with him is great. He DJs for me. I had a show with Wale at SOB’s and when Jeff gets behind the tables everybody immediately starts chanting “Jazzy, Jazzy.” The only other person he’s ever DJ’d for is The Fresh Prince so to have him DJ for me that night is definitely a moment to be remembered.
You’re on the road with The Roots a lot. What’s it like touring with them?
Being on the road with The Roots is carefree. They’ve been everywhere 10 times so it’s never anything where they don’t know where to get to or how to get to. We listen to different kind of music on the bus. Quest is a student of other bands. We’re looking at an old James Brown concert or old Sly and the Family Stone footage. We’re always looking at the forefathers before us and incorporating things they learn from them into their shows. So when I’m doing a Skillz show you’ll definitely see showmanship and I’m putting together a show and that came directly from being on the road with Questlove and Black Thought and the rest of those guys.
With Wale’s recent success a lot of fans have been saying the DMV area is on the rise. What’s it going to take to have the area blow up on a national level?
Look at it, man. We came a long way. I don’t believe we can sit back and say it’s going to get better. I believe it’s gotten better since I came out. Matter of fact, I know it has because when I came out there was no Missy. There was no Timbaland. There was no Chris Brown. When I came out it was just me. I think Virginia has been doing better. You have a lot of rappers from Baltimore like Mullyman and Bossman and cats like that.
I think we’re doing good as a collective and if you want to through D.C., Maryland and Virginia together, I think we’re doing all right, man. I’m not thinking only of rap. I’m thinking of music in general. You got me and you got Wale and you got Trey Songz and J. Holiday. You could do a tour with just DMV artists if you wanted to and there’s always room for more. There’s always someone on the come-up and we’re just making it easier for them to get noticed.
What are your goals for The Million Dollar Backpack?
My goal for my album is for it to be in stores on Tuesday. That’s my win. You’ve followed my career so you know it’s always been something with Skillz and whatever company he was dealing with. The fact that I know my album is coming out next Tuesday, that’s a win. The fact that I can stand on someone’s stage and say, “The album is in stores” or “the album is on iTunes,” that right there is a win. There are a lot of rappers who don’t get to that point. Getting signed is easy these days. But putting out an album is definitely a whole different ballgame. I’m just happy I have an album coming out. I’m not even tripping over the numbers.
Will we have to wait another 12 years for a Skillz album?
One thing I know I won’t do is I won’t wait this long to make another album. Between touring and songwriting I got sidetracked. I was doing al to of running around to different parts of the world and just focusing on my craft. Now that I have a label that can put my music out in a timely manner, you will probably see another Skillz album sometime around this same time next year.
firstname.lastname@example.org (for producers interested in working with Skillz on his next album)