RRR is all about the appreciation, the recognition and the importance of Rap radio. We want the loyal, as well as late-to-the-party listeners understand how crucial and fundamental Rap on the airwaves was in breaking artists to new audiences in days gone by. The most important show of the 90s, and arguably the most important outta all Rap radio, was the essential, and award winning DJ Stretch Armstrong Show featuring Bobbito. It was on WKCR a ‘non-commercial’ college radio station broadcasting outta Columbia University in New York. This is the same cutting edge radio show that broke Rappers like Nas, Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan, offering them the initial platform of appearing and appealing to new listeners, A&R people and anyone outside of their own communities and fan-base. These communities across the globe shared these recordings via cassette and word of mouth, and this is exactly how RRR got to hear about Skillz all the way in London in the Summer of 1994. This was long before the web allowed consumers to do the same. He still releases and makes music to this day, and as an MC, takes no slack from no man. He is outspoken and unforgiving, he can floor an MC regardless of where they are from or who they run with, and is unapologetically proud of his Virginia roots. He is one of those MCs that you just cant fuck with. And in 2019, he is also a really good DJ, enjoyin a new found passion behind the decks.
FYI. The WKCR freestyle above is peppered with seemingly endless riotous references to previous Rap tracks [as well as the Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanuts]. You can even hear Bobbito and Q-Tip laughing as Skillz melts the mic. People across the planet can recite this ‘tantalising wordplay’ verbatim a quarter of a century after its initial delivery, in the same way that some average schmo might recite Queen or Madonna lyrics. You can ‘Peep the steelo and the flow’ below, even when faced with the physically confrontational MC on stage during the opening rounds of the 1993 New Music Seminar MC Battle. Virginia’s finest was NOT to be messed with. Despite a height disadvantage, he shredded his opponent that night. Any MC channelling that Bernie Mac ‘I aint scared of you mutherfuckers’ vibe gets the vote from true Hip-Hop fans.
As he is famed for his imaginative rhyme style and catching his big break on WKCR, we recently caught up with Skillz and asked him about his visit to the show that April in 1994, where he expanded his following from local to worldwide. Skillz talks about his appearance alongside his beat-digging co-hort Q-Tip, as well as shootin the gift on a few other subjects…
The first time I ever heard you was on Stretch & Bobbito, it was Spring 1994. When I copped that TDK SA90, I was told in no uncertain terms, that there was an incredible and seriously funny new MC on there. What are your memories of that night ?
Well, I had been hangin with Q-Tip for a while, record shopping and working on the first alblum, From Where? but generally, I had been runnin around with him. I had asked to come up to the show and they wouldnt let me up there without Q-Tip cos during that time Q-Tip was buzzin as a producer outside of Tribe Called Quest. He had already done the Nas stuff. And they wanted him to rhyme, but Q-Tip wanted me to rhyme. The rest was history.
Had you heard that beat before you rhymed over it ?
Nah, and Rappers couldnt just tell Stretch & Bobbito what to play, especially not me at that point of my career. When Stretch mixed in the track from the previous song I just knew it was dope [Red Alert by DJ Mark the 45 King]. I had never heard that beat before that night, and only discovered later that 45 King did it.
It was evidently a classic rhyme and as a VA MC your distinctive tone set off a path that spread around the planet like an anomolus and amusing virus. Was that the plan, cos you knew about the relevance of Stretch & Bobb?
Yeh I knew about them, we’d get tapes of them down in VA, and I’d probably been doin that rhyme in alotta different places down there, probably for about a year. It was inspired by KRS Ones’ Hip-Hop vs Rap track. The next day, I just remember people hearing the tape, and asking who was that kid Mad Skillz ?
Was the appearance on the show what led to getting a deal with Big Beat Records?
Nah, it was Rob Reef that was looking after A&R at Big Beat, he had seen me at the NMS Battle the year previous.
By the time you performed in the UK in March 1996, you were already successful at various freestyle events, jams and on radio in the US, what do you recall about Londons’ perspective on a Rapper from Virginia, and MC Fallacy ?
I knew my name had a little buzz, but people didnt know where I was from, and I was a representative of VA. London was dope around that time, and I just thought Fallacy was a dope freestyler and a dope MC. London had a few MCs that were worthy of getting a bigger audience, and I just wanted to help that happen’.
One of the facets of your talent is the rare ability to make the listener laugh. Your freestyles on radio and during your live sets overflow with laugh out loud punchlines. What inspired that ?
Just popular culture, my favourite comics were Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor way back, but Def Comedy Jam & Showtime at the Apollo were big back then, and this was why you would hear memorable lines from comedians getting snatched and put into my punchlines.
What is your earliest memory of Hip-Hop, and specifically Hip-Hop on the radio ? Was there a station in VA, or where you tuning into Philly/ NY shows?
I remember being young, hearing Sucker MCs and The Fat Boys on the radio, that was something that had a lasting affect on me. It sounded like they were talking directly to me, I practiced every possible aspect of it after that. Way before we would get shows like Stretch & Bobbito on tapes, it was two guys, El Bravador & DJ MC Fresh that went by the name of the Z-Rock crew and they were on 1580 WKIE, an AM station, that was how we got all our music.
As Stretch & Bobbito were integral part of your success, the movie seemed to pass you by ? Were you busy during the shooting of the Radio That Changed Lives documentary ?
Bobbito told me that I was in their movie and that they were gonna use one of my parts, then they cuts some parts to get to a shorter running time. They’d been trying to get Jay-Z and Nas for a long time, and after they turned up for their interviews, my parts got cut. But I got cut for Jay-Z, so ya know ya cant be mad at that.
Apart from destroying any MC that steps in your path, the annual Rap-Ups and since the Im The DJ & And The Rapper alblum, you seem to be really enjoying the selector vibe, DJin parties and clubs around the world, what’s next for Skillz ?
Yeah man, I love parties, I love DJin and im still puttin out original music. I keep it pushing, but yeh, DJin is a new found passion for me, im havin a ball !
Big shouts to the Microphone Molester. Wise crews take cover !