Over the course of the past decade, Michigan born, Virginia bred Skillz (formerly known as Mad Skillz) has claimed to have penned hits for the likes of P. Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown and Ma$e. His ghostwriting escapades were chronicled on the Timbaland-produced “Ghostwriter” in 2000 and gave fans a glimpse into the taboo practice that Skillz helped popularize. Despite his uncanny ability to craft hits for his peers, Skillz has been hard pressed to work the same magic on his own career. Inking his first deal with Big Beat/Atlantic Records in 1995, Skillz dropped his debut, From Where???, later that same year. While hailed by critics for its creativity, the LP was met with little fanfare. As a result, Skillz asked to be released from the label and went on to form the Supafriendz, a collection of VA rappers that included Danja Mowf, Lonnie B. and Patrice O’Neal. The crew appeared on the remix of Aaliyah’s 1998 mega-hit, “Are You That Somebody,” and put out The 804 Compilation two years later. After an appearance on Rawkus Records’ 1999 project, Soundbombing, Vol. 2, Skillz signed to the indie label and prepped for the release of his sophomore album, I Ain’t Mad No More. The project, however, got lost in the shuffle when Interscope/Geffen Records purchased Rawkus in ’02. Skillz went on to focus on his ghostwriting, while also releasing his annual end of the year “Rap Up,” where he lyrical chronicled everything that happened in hip-hop each year. After putting out the commercially ignored Confessions of a Ghostwriter (Sure Shot Recordings) in 2005, Skillz is set to give it one more shot with his new album, Million Dollar Backpack, set for release this fall on Koch Records. XXLMag.com talks with the underrated lyricist about his new LP, ghostwriting and the stigma of being the “Rap Up” guy.
You’ve been a in the game for years and have a new album on the horizon. How do you feel about your position in the game today?
I’m cool, man. It’s just swimming in this cesspool called music. I’ma fan like anybody else, but when I see some of this shit that makes it across the board, I get upset as anybody else would.
Anything in particular that’s pissing you off?
The music, the industry, everything about it. Eighty percent of music just sucks. The music is so bad and it seems like it’s getting worse. And when you don’t think there’s a song that can be dumber than the last song, you’re proven wrong.
Who do you point the finger at?
I think there’s a real problem with microwave artists. A lot of these artists have a shelf life of six months to a year, tops. Then you never hear from these dudes again. I mean, that’s a good thing, but then again, that’s bad. I feel bad for certain artists who’ve been struggling for a long time. There’s no more artist development.
Does it hurt to see less talented artists make it before you do?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m never bitter about a young Black man being successful. I just know they’re not paying attention to the pitfalls they should be aware of. This game is crazy. It’s like there’s two worlds now—the real world and online. People care so much about how much so-and-so [sold in their] first week. I remember a time when nobody cared about that. Just because you didn’t have a good first week doesn’t mean you’re not gonna have a successful career. Look at Jill Scott. She sold 7,000 records her first week and then went on to sell a million. Information is definitely fucking these kids up, man. I used to care what they said online. I used to read something like, “Skillz is washed up, he’s nothing but a ‘Rap Up’ dude.” Then I realized that I was arguing with a 14-year-old from Arkansas and it made no sense.
Do you feel doing the yearly “Rap Up” records pigeonholed you with new fans as just being the “Rap Up guy?”
People will say, “The only time you hear from this dude is once a year,” but that’s not the case. I do make songs in between each year, they just don’t get as much plays as the “Rap Up.” Like [my new] song with Freeway, “Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know;” that’s a banger but it doesn’t make it to the Howard Stern show. I can make a song about the state of hip-hop and the state of the world, and it would be a really informative record, but it’s not going to make it to Wendy Williams.
Do you plan to stop doing the “Rap Up” songs?
I don’t mind being the “Rap Up” guy. I used to think I didn’t want to be. I was like, “I don’t want to do that shit anymore. I don’t want to be 50-years-old in Vegas doing “Rap Ups.” But my man was like, “Who else is going to be 50-years-old in Vegas rapping?” So I’m thinking maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe having something of my own that people only accept from me… that’s damn near unheard of in hip-hop. So as long as people continue to do dumb shit and as long as people continue to listen to the songs, [then] I’ma try to make a better one every year. I’ve realized some years are not as good as the years prior, but if people want to hear it, who am I not to give it to them? That’s supply and demand. I never really thought I would still be doing them, but I love it.
Have you ever thought of just giving up rap altogether?
It’s never made me think about leaving [hip-hop] for good. I love what I do. I loved this when it didn’t pay and I loved it when it did. I was always told to do something that you love. I’ve never been bitter about the game to the point where I wouldn’t want to be involved. I just try to focus on other hustles, like songwriting.
Do you have any industry horror tales or situations that made you question the authenticity of this hip-hop game?
This game sucks. I’ve had songs that I’ve written—[ones] that a couple artists might be interested in—so I go to the label to speak to the A&R who’s working on that [artist's] project. [I call him] like, “I got this song for so-and-so, I was with him in Atlanta last week, he liked it, [and] he’s talking about using it for the album. Let’s talk.” [Then he] calls me like, “I heard the song you wrote for so-and-so is crazy. I got a new artist, come in and play me some stuff.” So I take time out of my schedule to go to New York [and] LA to meet with these cats [and] they sit down and start playing me beats. Everybody has a side hustle, but you brought me here for a song that you heard from your artist and you’re sitting here playing me some beats from a dude that you manage in Brooklyn? [So the A&R] is like, “Take his beats and write some songs, and I’ll make sure they get placed.” I’m sitting here like, that’s not the way the business goes. If Clive Davis knew you were in here peddling your beats off to me, you wouldn’t have a job, nigga. It’s funny, man. The game is funny.
You’ve ghostwritten for the biggest names in the industry, such as P. Diddy, Foxy Brown, Ma$e and Jermaine Dupri. Do you feel like your ghostwriting has hindered your own career?
Nah, I feel like it’s balanced out because I’ve made a lot of connections that have turned into other opportunities from songwriting. I definitely don’t feel like it’s held me back. I know what I’m good at. I’m not good at crunk music. I’m not good at hyphy music. I’m not good at Baltimore club music. I make good hip-hop music for people that appreciate hip-hop music. That’s it.
What’s the status of your new album, Million Dollar Backpack?
Man, I’m in the 11th hour of that. I’m almost done. It’s hip-hop at its finest. I know this is a bold statement—this shit is gonna sound real crazy—but I believe I just made the album everybody wants to make. I just made the album that Jay-Z, Kanye [West] and Lil Wayne want to make. It’s that good. I’m bold enough to say that because I believe it. It took me three years to make this album and I’m still not done, so you can imagine how much material there is. I’m gonna have one of the best albums to drop this year and I don’t care what it sells.