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Skillz - Skillz Of The Trade

Author: Cyclone
Monday, August 18, 2008

3D’s Cyclone learns more about the path that led to Skillz new LP The Million Dollar Backpack, his work with heavyweights like Timbaland, and what the MC thinks about the current state of hip hop.

Skillz is the MC Timbaland let go, but it's been the making of him.

In 2008 Skillz is promoting an album that represents the best of overground hip hop. The Virginian offers wry, observant lyrics over a soulful backing.

That the MC should entitle his LP The Million Dollar Backpack attests to his sense of humour. Skillz has needed that. He's endured his quota of career setbacks.

Today, aside from re-establishing himself as a recording artist, Skillz is intent on fostering hip hop in 'VA' (Virginia). “I just wanna be able to give people the chance that wasn't given to me,” he says without bitterness. “I want to be able to showcase VA. There's a lot of untapped talent.”

“We're forced to be original because we never really had any particular sound - not like New York [with its] boom-bap rap or the West Coast [with its] G-funk - so I just wanna help. Maybe we could create that and start something new because, like I said, there's a lot of talent here.”

Shaquan Lewis, aka Skillz, was born in Detroit, the city that gave us Eminem, but moved to Richmond, Virginia in childhood. “I don't really remember being there,” he says of the Motor City.

Originally known as Mad Skillz, the MC was spotted in the early '90s when he came second in a national freestyle comp (Supernatural won), striking a deal with Warner.

In 1996, with The Beatnuts assisting on production, he delivered his debut, From Where---, home to The Nod Factor. At the time, no one was looking to Virginia and, commercially, Skillz was lost in the mix. Nevertheless, he acquired mad underground props.

In the late '90s, with Virginia generating heavyweights like Timbaland, his cohort Missy Elliott and The Neptunes, Skillz forged important friendships. He allied himself with Timbaland's crew, cameoing on the beatmaker's albums. Skillz was among those on a hot remix of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody-

Timbaland was reportedly eager to sign Skillz to his label. That didn't eventuate. Skillz doesn't allude to any fall-out. “I haven't seen Tim in a while. I won't say that I don't have an allegiance with him, but I've just been doing my thing. He's down in Miami. He's been focusing on his label. We bumped heads a couple of times in Miami, but I didn't get a chance to work with him on this album - so maybe the next one.”

Skillz went with Rawkus. It was then that he dropped the ‘Mad’. Infuriatingly, with Rawkus in turmoil, the company shelved his I Ain't Mad No More, which Skillz then bootlegged. (The album was later released, in edited form, as Confessions Of A Ghostwriter.)

Indeed, like Pharoahe Monch, Skillz has supplemented his income ghostwriting for other rappers. He actually composed the track Ghostwriter, laced by Timbaland, hinting at some of his clients - rumoured to include Diddy, Ma$e and Foxy Brown. (Only Diddy, with no pretence of being a legit MC, ever acknowledged his input.) It's not something Skillz does these days. “At this point now I wouldn't even call it 'ghostwriting' anymore, it's just songwriting. I'm moving into RNB - working on some RNB stuff.”

Along the way, Skillz has found new fans with his annual Rap-Up summaries.

The MC still has worthy supporters. He's down with The Roots as well as Jazzy Jeff, whose homie Will Smith Skillz defended from<