1996 was a year chock full of great rap albums. There was an endless list of essential long players, including ATLiens, It Was Written, The Score, Hell On Earth, and Ironman, just to name a few. Yet amongst all these heavyweights, there was a worthwhile album that many overlooked. It featured a much hyped newcomer and an all star production team that featured The Beatnuts, Buckwild, Clark Kent, EZ Elpee, J Dilla, Large Professor, and Shawn J. Period.
The album was Skillz (formerly Mad Skillz) debut From Where??? Skillz, who many now associate with ghostwriting and year end wrap ups, came in with an original, varied effort that featured songs complete with memorable punch lines and hard-hitting battle raps. Despite a few misfires, the now out of print album proved to be a very strong rookie effort. Between several classic beats and creative lines like, “I came alone, draggin bags of bones, slit my own wrists, and bleedin’ out microphones”, Skillz created something TSS considered worthy of a Reconstruction.
Take a trip back in time as DJ Sorce-1 and Skillz reconstruct the untold stories of From Where???
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DJ Sorce-1: When you look at From Where???‘s production list, it’s amazing that you had such a strong production team for your first album. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to work with all those great producers?
Skillz: With regards to the Beatnuts, what ended up becoming “The Nod Factor” was part of another beat. The instrumental had another section and then it changed up and the Johnny Guitar loop that “The Nod Factor” used came in. That was the only part I liked, so they ended up redoing the beat with that loop as the core. They chopped the hell out of it.
I think I spent more money on the two songs I did with Large Pro (Editor’s Note: Only one Large Professor song made the final version of the album) than any other songs because we were in the studio for so long. He would come to the studio with me and create. It wasn’t like he was at home and he had a pattern or something he wanted to load up that he would bring to the studio. It wasn’t really a situation where he was somewhere else making stuff. We were in the studio working together.
Dilla was a person Q-Tip had formed a relationship with and brought into the studio. I still have the first beat tape he gave me. It had “Runnin”, “Drop'”, and “Somethin’ That Means Somethin'” by the Pharcyde on it. It also had one of the joints he did for Busta and the two songs he did for me. I did three songs with Dilla beats. One of them we never used. It wasn’t because the beat wasn’t hot; I just couldn’t come up with a hook for it that I liked.
The first beat I heard was “It’s Going Down” and I took that out the gate. That kind of sounded like “Runnin'” when you think about it, but he sampled two different records for “Runnin'” and “It’s Going Down”. “It’s Going Down” sampled a Sergio Mendes record. Don’t quote me on that, but I think it was a Sergio Menendez record. (Editor’s Note: You can quote Skillz on that one. Dilla utilized a sample from a Menendez song titled “Boa Palava”.)
The second beat I heard was “The Jam”. It had a real eerie melody (Skillz begins humming the songs melody). That’s the sample that was running under the track. At the time he was using an SP 1200 and a 950. When you hold down the tap and repeat button on the SP with whatever sound you’re using, it speeds it up. It made a crazy sound, and when he did that right before the track came in, I was like, “Oh, that’s nuts.” When he asked if I liked it I was like, “Yeah, you gotta keep that in there right before the verse.”
He said, “Aight, cool. That’s some shit I be doing just to make sure my drums are right at the top so when I hit the pad there’s no air between. That’s how I check my drums.” We kept it, and that’s what “The Jam” turned into. Dilla was definitely ahead of his time.
I paid him three grand for each song, so he got a check for $9,000 dollars. I remember he came to Battery Studios one day when we were mixing and he told me, “I don’t care how big I get. I could be as big as Dr. Dre or Quincy Jones. If I ever get big, you will always be able to get a beat from me for what you paid me on this album.”
That’s how humble of a person he was. He was young, he kept that Detroit fitted cap on, and he was just in there working. The Pharcyde was recording in the studio next to me. That’s how they came up on “Runnin'” and “Drop”. That’s the classic Hip-Hop story. I run into a lot of Hip-Hop historians and they’ll say, “I don’t know how true this is, but the Hip-Hop folktale is you passed up on “Runnin'”. All I can say is, “Yeah I did.”
DJ Sorce-1: (Laughs) So people give you a hard time for that one?
Skillz: Oh man, do they?!? (Laughs) The real heads are like, “Skillz, what were you thinking?” You have to understand there was no Slim Kid Tre singing the hook, none of that. It was just the loop and the drumsâ€¦just the beat. But even when you tell them that they go, “Still, I just can’t see it kid.”
DJ Sorce-1: That’s amazing that Dilla would approach you after the album was done and say that you could still go to him at that price.
Skillz: I knew he meant it. There was never a question of him living up to that statement. I knew he would. I’m just sad I never had a chance to work with him again. He’s definitely missed.
DJ Sorce-1: He really is. I saw a video on YouTube where Dilla says that he ended up working on the album instead of Q-Tip because you and Dilla had a better vibe. In the video, Dilla said the disagreements between you and Tip would get really heated. Is that true?
Skillz: Yeah, they did. It was real. It was definitely real. It’s all good now though; it’s the truth. We was friends then and we’re still friends. I was a Tribe Called Quest fan and I wanted to have that soundâ€¦their sound when I started recording From Where??? Tip would tell me, “Nah, don’t do what Quest did. Do something else.” I’d say, “I want Midnight Marauders nigga.” That was just me being selfish and Tip being like, “I don’t want to put you out there like that. Establish Mad Skillz as his own person and artist. You don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” And he was right. He was definitely right.
DJ Sorce-1: Anytime people talk about Dilla, his drums come up. Everyone from you to Questlove to Kanye gives him so much credit for his innovations with drums and how he programmed drum patterns.
Skillz: He would do anything. Sometimes he would make beats that weren’t even meant to be rhymed over. I met him and worked with him before he turned into J Dilla. When Tip brought him in the studio and told me he was hot I thought he was a rapper. At that point in time, I thought I was the best rapper in the world. I had an album coming out and people were saying I should have won the Battle for World Supremacy. I was kind of like, “What are you talking about this dude for?” But when Tip told me he made beats I was like, “Oh, ok.”
Around this time I was still trying to get Tip to produce songs for my album, or at least rap on it. I did pull that off and he rapped on “Extra Abstract Skillz.” But when Dilla started playing me his beatsâ€¦.man listen. I was two seconds away from saying, “Can we start a group together? (Laughs) Can I be in Slum Village? I’ll move to the D.”
I was born in Detroit. I don’t really remember being there. But Dilla knew the hospital I was born at and he knew the GM plant that my father worked at. I left Detroit around the age of three. I just remember Detroit being on my birth certificate and my father’s GM plant uniform.
Proof, god rest his soul, was very supportive of me and Dilla’s relationship. I remember Proof sent me a copy of his record “Louis Lane.” J Dilla did the beat for it. This was when Proof worked at The Hip-Hop Shop. He used to send me beat tapes and Maurice Malone clothes. He’d also put me on to shit that was poppin’ in Detriot.
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He would tell me, “We ride around crackin’ your album all the time. Me, Em, and the whole crew, we be bangin’ your shit.” When he was saying Em, I didn’t know who Em was. I remember Proof sent me a tape and told me, “I want you to listen to a tape I sent you. Call me when you check it out.”
I listened to it and thought it was dope. It was a copy of Infinite, Eminem’s album before he was on Aftermath. There was a song called “313” on the album that I would listen to constantly. I called Proof back and said, “Dude is dope. The way he puts his words together is crazy.” When Proof told me he was a white rapper, I was like, “Get the fuck out of here. The dude that be like, ‘What you know about a sweet MC, from the 313, if you see one you flee’ is white?!?” Proof said, “Yeah, he’s white.” I couldn’t believe it.
That was the first time we talked about Eminem. We fell out of contact for a while but got reconnected when MySpace blew up. A little while after we got back in touch, he passed away as well. It was definitely tragic.
DJ Sorce-1: Did you have a favorite producer to work with from the first album?
Skillz: I really can’t even give you a favorite. They all meant something different to me. I could go on for days about all of them.
DJ Sorce-1: How difficult was it with a set budget to get such name heavy producers? Were a lot of guys just showing love and putting you on because they believed in you?
Skillz: My A & R Reef was very instrumental in putting all that together. He was like, “We gotta get Large Professor. Fuck that. We gotta get Buckwild.” He was a fan of those people as well. Me and him really thought we could save Hip-Hop. We were really on a mission to save Hip-Hop.
DJ Sorce-1: I first heard the “From Where??? (Intro)” was from my cousin, who had it on CD. I just remember thinking, “This is fucking crazy.” The beatboxing on the intro was so aggressive it almost sounded violent and you were spitting rhymes like, “I suck the blood out motherfuckers like Tom Cruise with the wig on.” Then when “It’s Going Down” came on next and I knew I had to get the album. The first two songs really set a hungry, battle-like tone for the album. By the albums end, the tone changes a little bit. It seems to get more reflective and serious.
Skillz: Yeah, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know shit about songwriting back then. I was just taking battle raps and putting them on beats. I knew how to structure sixteen and a hook, but more than half of that album I was just talking shit, trying to squeeze in a punchline here and there. (Laughs)
DJ Sorce-1: When you talk about song structure, do you think making the album helped give you a better sense of that?
Skillz: Yeah, it definitely did. With songs like “Get Your Groove On” and “Move Ya Body,” you could see me trying to make a shot at getting some radio play. But the biggest song on there ended up being “The Nod Factor.”
DJ Sorce-1: You produced the song “Tongues of the Next Shit.” Did you learn any production techniques from the producers you worked with on this album?
Skillz: I had an ASR 10. And I gotta credit my man Diallo on that. The horns were pretty much programmed by him. I just took it and looped it. Everything on that track is a loop. It wasn’t really me producing. It was me triggering a button and Diallo putting the horns in. I can’t really say it was producing.
DJ Sorce-1: What was The Superfriendz mentality coming into the studio for the posse cut “Unseen World”? That’s up there with my top three cuts on the album. Everyone sounds so hungry on that song.
Skillz: We used to go to a radio station every Saturday and spit. We were writing rhymes to make sure we had something new for next week. It was a competition thing, and we were all just working. We did that to make sure everybody something to pop off with. “Unseen World” was my way of trying to get them light and get them heard. I did another song with Kalonji (“Tongues Of The Next Shit”) because he was my best friend at the time. We all had a lot of energy and a lot of fire. I just wanted to make it happen for us.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you have a favorite cut off of From Where???
Skillz: Definitely “The Nod Factor” because of the creation of the song and how original it was. I remember I was in Japan reading a magazine article about Johnny Guitar Watson. The article was talking about sampling and people using his music. When they asked him who sampled “Superman Lover” and used it in the most creative way, he said, “It’s a song where a rapper talks about your head nodding. That might be the best use of that sample that I’ve ever heard. These new kids and what they’re doing with samplers is amazing because it keeps the music growing.” That was enough right there for me. He didn’t even know my name, but he knew that song.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you have a favorite memory from the making of From Where????
Skillz: Meeting J Dilla and living in New York. I was living in New York at the time the album was being put together. Living in New York in the summertime and witnessing different cultures and different people, I think that had a lot to do with the making of that album.
I also remember coming back home to VA, having everyone proud of what I’d done, and shooting the video in Virginia. It made me feel like I had accomplished something in that one shot. I tell people now, “You gotta be careful what you ask for, because sometimes you’ll fuck around and get it.”
When that album came out, an interviewer for a local newspaper in Virginia asked me, “What do you want to accomplish form this?” I said, “I want people to know my name and know where I’m from.” The album wasn’t a commercial success, and I never sold a ton of records. But with that one album I accomplished those two goals with one shot. People definitely knew my name and they knew I was from Virginia.
Skillz’ album Million Dollar Backpack will be in stores July 8th.