Skyzoo Discusses His New Album and the Changing Landscape of Brooklyn (Interview)
2015 is a monumental year for Skyzoo. While the journey extends back longer, it has been a decade since much of the Rap consciousness first heard the smooth cadence from the Brooklyn, New York MC. In that span, Sky’ has released and appeared on handfuls of acclaimed and charting albums. He was a top contender on “106 & Park’s” Freestyle Friday, and a mainstay performer. He has signed to high-profile labels, nabbed critical cosigns, and turned a dream into a profession. Once a basketball-obsessed teenager, the MC in Skyzoo has carried the ball up the court and put up numbers.
A decade in, Skyzoo finished Music For My Friends, a concept album that looks at his adolescence, the Bedford Stuyvesant streets he spent them on, and the circle he has kept ever since. Released early, the First Generation Rich LP steps beyond the frame of mind heard on celebrated releases like The Salvation, Theo vs. JJ, and last year’s Barrel Brothers project with Torae. Sky gets to write and rap from different vantage points, and it can be argued that the EMPIRE-distributed work treats the borough of Brooklyn as much like a protagonist as any human character. With the June release, Sky’ is also one of the confirmed headlining artists at 2015’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. The lyricist known for his strong images will not be new to the stage or the event, but the show serves as a testament to Skyzoo’s growth, his penetrating artwork, and the resonance of his message. Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, S-K-Y explains his album, the significance of the July 11 concert, and Brooklyn (and other communities) could learn a little bit from Do The Right Thing.
Ambrosia For Heads (AFH): I love the documentary that leads up to the album…honestly, I never like those things, ‘cause I never thought it did much justice to the albums they promote, but I feel that yours only heightened my anticipation. It’s really well done…
Skyzoo: Well thank you man. I just think that as an independent artist nowadays it’s all about content, how much stuff you can throw up, and how can you make it count and worth something. [This was] where we break it down and go into the depths of [Music For My Friends], and show my old hood, stuff like that. It’s being received greatly; everybody’s like “word up!,” so it’s good. I’m glad it’s helping out as a view of what the project is.
AFH: I’ve probably gone to five of these Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festivals. In more than half of them, I’ve seen you, either backstage or in the crowd. This year, you are one of the headliners. What does that mean to you, especially as a Brooklyn native?
Skyzoo: well, as far as my career goes I am continuing to grow in a certain direction, and that’s what it’s all about: constant elevation. Whether it’s music or whether it’s outside of the booth or certain aspects of the career, it’s just about constant elevation. With the [Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival], I had done the fest back in in 2010, and it was brief the way I did it. I was with Duck Down [Music] at the time; I’m not with Duck Down anymore. At the time, and it was like their 15th anniversary so they had a Duck Down anniversary set, with all of the Duck Down acts together in the same set—myself, Black Moon, Smif n’ Wessun, and we all kind of split 30 minutes. So to me, it wasn’t really me performing, you know, it was a Duck Down set, as opposed to my name being promoted. I didn’t get a chance to really, really cook the way I wanted to cook. It was like 10 minutes, and three songs. I like to really cook with my DJ, my trumpet player, 30 minutes, 25 minutes.
[Beyond that], it was something that every year, we’re like, “We gotta get to fest.” [There is always] a lot going on. [Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival founder] Wes [Jackson] is kind of driving the car, and he has a million things on his plate [every year]. I was like, “Yo man, we gotta get this fest thing happening, man.” Every year when there’s a fest going on, you gotta have some [artists] from Brooklyn [performing].” And it just made sense this year. You know everything happens for a reason—with [my] new album coming out and [by July 11] I think the album will be two, three weeks old, the timing is perfect. I can literally rock records onstage and say, “You like that? Go pound it right now on iTunes or on your phone.” The timing is dope and it will still be fresh in somebodys’ mind and in peoples’ ears. So, it just panned out really nice.
AFH: With the theme of the title, I’m sure that some of these folks that influenced your album—that you will be promoting onstage—will also be in the crowd. Southpaw is gone, and I know venues have changed in the borough of Brooklyn. So how important at this stage is your career as an artist on the charts with catalog in stores, to be able to perform—to co-headline a festival within walking distance of where you grew up? I’m sure that people asked Jay Z the same question, when he showed up last year.
Skyzoo: Right, it’s huge. Like you said, as far as the venues, we lost a couple—and gained a couple in the process as well—but to have something for Brooklyn is really amazing, and the fest has really turned out to be the highlights of a New York summer—I would have to say [starting] like 10 or 11 years ago or something like that the fest has really turned out to be the highlights of a New York summer. You know that in New York, you’re gonna get your Central Park stuff, your Governor’s Ball stuff, or whatever. But you know you’re getting the fest, and you know it’s one day, a huge outdoor area, and everybody rocking out.
The thing I like about the fest the most is—why it was always important for me to be a part of it is that, I always felt like the fest was a dope representation of Hip-Hop because it had all these different walks of life in Hip-Hop that may have been different, but still connected to one-another, somehow. There was a year where you had Pusha T and Redman; this year you got Common and Mobb Deep, and then me and Charles Hamilton, I just think it’s a super-dope representation of all facets and spectrums of Hip-Hop, and that’s what makes it so important and so dope. And you know it’s outdoors and [there is] food, and you’re chillin’, and it’s Saturday and as long as the weather is right, there’s truly nothing that can go wrong that day.
AFH: When you and I first met, it was at a Rock the Bells in New York like ’07 or ’08. You were walking around networking, and among Kooley High and Torae—a series of artists who are all in great positions today. I want to ask you, how important are these events where the dividing line between the stage and the crowd is so thin, whether for you now, in this position, or the Sky’ who was just trying to get heard?
Skyzoo: Well, these events are everything [for] networking as well. If you’re not on stage or part of the event comings, as long [as aspiring artists] treat it the right way, you know what I’m saying. It’s all about those relationships, shaking hands, being humble, and being smart and strategic all at the same time. So, these festivals are super important for that.
AFH: Moving into the album, in the documentary, you talked about the concept, which is very literal to the title of this album. You’re an artist who has always thrived on concept, I feel. None of your projects are without cohesion. So with Music For For My Friends, you talked about what inspired it and you wanted to write about the stories of your friends and of your community. With that said, looking at other songs, what were some of the records you couldn’t make on this album? You know what I mean? Like, working within those confines, artistically, what did you stay away from?
Skyzoo: Hmmm…that’s a dope question. Like you said, I don’t step into an album unless I have a concept. Because I grew up on Ready To Die, I grew up on Liquid Swords, [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…], Reasonable Doubt—I grew up on records that had cohesion, concepts, lyricism, stellar production and that’s just a part of my make-up; I can’t do anything but move the way I was built to move. So every album is going to have a concept and every album is going to have a cohesive A-to-Z and is going to be a story. But with that being said, I’ve always talked about my real life, my personal life, my upbringing, how I came up. This album goes a little bit deeper, and I guess that with this album I’m trying to think of old records that I may have not have been able to put on here. I got some records like “Langston’s Pen,”…I got some records that are written [in the past] that I couldn’t have put on here even though it’s a great record. I’m looking in the tracklist of records in my head of different albums, pardon me… I guess some records like “The Ellis Wilson Painting On The Wall,” which is one of my favorite records, which a lot of people had really stick to them… I guess that record, it could and then it couldn’t because that record was more about playing on the “Cosby” stuff and growing up a certain way and so much being expected of you.
The theme of the concept [of Music For My Friends] was really about seeing the world as you see it as an adult because how you grew up when you were 13 years old. And to me, I feel like the ages of 13 and 14 are your most formative years. Because when you’re 13, your voice is changing, your body’s changing and you’re interested in the opposite sex becoming somewhat of an adult, but at the same time, you still write a Christmas list for your parents, and you still got to be in the house by 10:00 and you’re still scared of certain things, and you still got to get permission for everything, and you’re still a kid; you still may watch cartoons but there’s a girl across the street and you can’t wait for her parents to leave so you can go over there and you’re still trying to figure something out. You’re caught between these two worlds when you’re 13, 14 years old. Whatever you see, and whatever you’re taught, and whatever is around you when you’re 13 and 14, is how you’re going to live the rest of your life. How you see the world, it’s going to shape your outlook, shape how you move, what you choose to do, and what you choose to believe in. So to me, I feel like those years are important and, here’s what happened to me when I was 13 and 14. So, here’s what happened to me when me and my friends when we were 13 and 14. And we’re still attached at the hip. And from the same place and the same community, the same background and the same horrors and the same ills, and the same triumphs at certain points. And my friends that I love more than anything went that way but we’re still connected.
AFH: Last week I was speaking with DJ Premier and he told me something interesting with this band that he’s touring with. The band is playing some of Premier’s favorites of his own production catalog that he could never tour with so he was telling me that they do an Ill Bill record, a Lord Finesse record, and sure enough, they told me they do a Skyzoo & Torae record. I don’t know which of the three. What does it mean to you—beyond just Premier—what does it mean for you to see your music taking a life of its own form?
Skyzoo: Off the top, right now I can tell you he’s talking about “Click.” I can tell you, I didn’t know any of this stuff, but knowing [DJ Premier], and knowing the great records that he has done with me and Torae, he’s definitely talking about “Click.” I mean, he loves “Click” more than any other record he has done with us. We’ve done three records at this point, and “Click” is his favorite. So that’s definitely what they’re performing.
[To answer your question], I mean, I think that’s what [MCs are] supposed to get in this game for. And the sad part of this is that a lot of these kids, a lot of these up-and-comers [feel differently]. You’re supposed to get into this game with the idea of longevity, with the music lasting today, tomorrow and forever, almost like a marriage. It’s about the music being around for as long as possible and having that impact in other areas and not just “Oh, the record pops on the radio, and we just get some club walk-through’s or we can get bottle service.” You know, that’s cool. I’m with that, and we can go to the club and have a good time, bottle service and there’s women everywhere, yeah, that’s cool, but it’s supposed to be more than that. Music is supposed to not stop there. And I think what the problem is nowadays is that a lot of these kids are content in having this ceiling that they designed, “If I can get there, I am good.” It’s like, oh okay, we know why you’re in this and it’s clearly not the reason why I’m in this. Because, besides the fact that I can make a living from this and hopefully build something for me and my family moving forward, it’s really about the longevity of it.
AFH: I am curious as to what you told me that this album recaptures some of the essence of friends that you had since childhood adolescences and the crossroads that most 13 and 14 year olds face, Brooklyn certainly changed, and it kind of affects the festival. Over the years, since 2004 and 2005, when Wes started the festival, the fashions have changed, the demographics have changed, Hip-Hop has changed, making this album and kind of going back to that place for you and standing on your block in the video and all of these different things, how do you reconcile this where the borough is today and where it appears to be heading?
Skyzoo: I dig the fact that it’s getting better. My only issue is that it doesn’t get to change for the better for the people who had to deal with it when it was at its worse. That’s my only issue with it. I have no problem with things getting better; we don’t want to live in a wasteland or live in a hellhole, or whatever it was we were told back in the ’90s. But for those that have endured it, for those that lived there when [The Notorious] B.I.G. made Ready To Die, and shot the video [on] the block I grew up on, with Big. All of those things he was talking about [in] “Everyday Struggle,” “Things Done Changed,” and “Gimme The Loot,” that was the block I was standing [on]. I was right there in the middle of that as a 12 or 13 year old kid. That was every day, and for those who had to live through that, they deserve [to enjoy it] when it gets better. If you had to deal with the rain every day, you deserve when the sun comes out to see it shine, you deserve that because you saw the other side.
I walk around the neighborhood and there are certain people that just moved there from other cities and they look at us like we’re not supposed to be there. It’s like “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up,…you guys are more than welcome to enjoy it and kick it with us and all that, but don’t look at us like we’re not supposed to be there.” And I think that’s why Spike [Lee] went on his rant about two or three years ago, because those things are all true and it’s happened. It’s not because there’s a new influx of people are coming here it’s the fact that you’re looking at us like we’re out-of-towners, like we’re not supposed to be there. I can’t do it. That’s where the boiling point comes from. So it’s dope that it’s changing, as long as it doesn’t lose its identity and essence and what it’s about. As long as it doesn’t lose what Brooklyn and New York have been about as a whole, and not just the bad, but the good vibes. You watch a movie like Do the Right Thing–one of my top three movies ever—of course it’s about the racial side, it’s about police brutality and all that, but one of the biggest things you get from it that a lot of people forget to mention it when they see it, is the community aspect of it. [It is a place] where everybody knew everybody, and everybody understood who everybody was, and who the mayor was, and you never had a problem with it because you knew he would never hurt a fly. You knew that the mayor was a drunk, but he cared and looked out for everybody on that entire block. He knew everybody and made sure he looked out and protected everybody. We had a real mayor, my man Kelly, who died—he got killed on the block three doors from my house, got shot and died. Mr. Kelly, he was just like the mayor drinking all day, singing all day, and walking up and down the block, cleaning he had a broom and a dustpan making. Sure, the sidewalks were clean, and he had a shovel. He lived outside; he was homeless. We had a mayor, so I know exactly what that guy was like because we had one. [The block is] a humongous family, where everybody’s cool with everybody you know you run into each other at the store, or you crack jokes on each other when you’re walking by. There’s an old lady that lives on my block, and I can’t walk by the house without saying or talking [to her] about basketball. If I walk that way, she’s gonna stop me—an old West Indian lady that’s one of my best friends’ grandmother. So, it’s that thing you don’t want to lose: the community, man. I think that that’s beginning to get lost as well.