SKILLZ as part of the Okayplayer Tour 2004 with the ROOTS , JEAN GRAE and MARTIN LUTHER at the Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Thursday (May 13). $35.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
He may have dropped the "Mad" from his name, but Skillz still has a right to be pissed. I Ain't Mad No More, the follow-up to Mad Skillz's 95 debut, From Where???, has barely crawled from the wreckage of the mishandling of Rawkus Records.
When NYC-based Rawkus was indie, its name was synonymous with premium underground rap. But once MCA Records had bought 51 per cent of the company and folded, and then Geffen (which is owned by Interscope) had acquired MCA, Rawkus was starved of credibility and swept under the carpet.
The Rawkus slide is well represented by the decline of the label's Soundbombing compilation series, which showcased the best of their artists. Soundbombing 1 is as hard as the abused bloodhound that tears its kennel open and kills its owner. Radio-friendly Soundbombing 3 is softer than one of those Cottonelle kittens that playwith the toilet paper. Volume 4 is on the way.
Sometime during the label's merger mayhem, Skillz's second album was lost in the shuffle. Had it been well promoted and distributed, the rapper would have been one of the biggest alive.
With his deadly combination of extreme wit, battle-me punchlines, double entendres, an honest drawl and smooth cadence, he was primed to explode.
It doesn't hurt that his friends, fellow Virginians Timbaland and the Neptunes, all produced on I Ain't Mad No More. The last guy to get royal beat treatment like that was Justin Timberlake, whose album Justified is near the 7 million mark in record sales. Meanwhile, Skillz's shit is MIA.
There's more to the story. Throughout the shitstorm his MC career endured, writing hot lyrics for busy, less talented rappers has put food on the table. Over the mobile phone from Richmond, VA, the Roots affiliate tells me about how he got into ghostwriting.
"I was in a studio cutting my own record for somebody else's, a producer's, project," Skillz says. "Another artist came in with his manager and liked the joint. He asked if I'd be interested in helping him write for his project. I wrote four songs. He took two. And from then on we always had a relationship and my name started floating around the industry as the guy who wrote that song."
Can he say what song it was, or name any of the people he's written for?
But Skillz, who likens ghostwriting to acting, tells me he's written big radio hits for famous rappers, and a few more big anonymous projects are on the way. With his integrity as an underground MC, you wonder if he respects anyone he writes for.
"I respect their business," he says diplomatically. "These are busy people who don't have time to sit down and construct a song. The way the industry is now, I never really look at it like it's personal. It's always business. I don't sit there and slouch and give 'em some bullshit. I'm trying to sell 'em a song."
As for new Skillz material, the free agent is in no rush.
"I had to turn down four record deals because I don't really feel like dealing with the pressure of having to sell records. I'm so past that, you know what I'm sayin'?"