[RH Interview] Skyzoo: Sociology Raps

“I wanted people to hear every single word I had to say. I didn’t want there to be any confusion about what you heard,” Skyzoo tells me on a cold Thursday night in February. His new LP, In Celebration of Us, has just dropped and Skyzoo is seeing a bevy of press and praise surrounding his new LP. His voice, always a signature for the Brooklyn born emcee and writer, is confident and grows in excitement. “Fuck it. If you gotta hear the whole song again, you’re going to hear the whole song again.’ It’s that necessary.”

And so, Skyzoo dropped a new LP that starts with an opening track (“Everybody’s Fine”) that clocks in at over 8-minutes long, a lifetime as far as songs go in this day and age. But this album is not any normal album, and Skyzoo makes it clear from the opening seconds that In Celebration of Us is a serious piece, and requires an investment from the listener.

On this cold night in February, Skyzoo talked to me in-depth about his new LP, one that he has called the hardest of his career in terms of writing and recording. He was diligent in the subject matter and the stories on In Celebration of Us, an album that he approached like a sociologist undergoing a deep study into his people’s past, present, and future.

Read the full clip below.

rubyhornet: Congrats on the birth of your son, what’s his name?

Skyzoo: Miles.

rubyhornet: Is that after Miles Davis?

Skyzoo: 100%. You know, I’m a Jazz head. Sunday Morning Jazz on my Instagram, you know I’m a Jazz head so it was only right. Miles Davis is my favorite Jazz musician of all time – if not, one of my favorite musicians period of all-time. So it just made sense. I’ve said since I was a teenager that when I have a kid, if it’s a boy, I’d name him Miles. So it was meant to be.

rubyhornet: The album seems to tell the story of your childhood, growing up and other people you’ve witnessed. At what point in the story did you fall in love with Jazz? Is that in pieces of this album.

Skyzoo: Yeah, my Jazz affinity came from having my pops. He was into Jazz my whole life. When I was a kid, 12-13 years old, I wasn’t into it. Because as a writer – there are no words in Jazz. As a kid I used to tell him, ‘this music is stupid, man. There aren’t even any words.” He used to say, ‘man, when you get older, you’re going to learn to appreciate it, and you’re going to fall in love with it.” As I got older, I did. It was between him and the movie “Mo Better Blues”, seeing that I as got older, the two culminated to my love and affinity for Jazz. I listen to more Jazz than Hip Hop. I listen to Jazz every single day.

rubyhornet: I want to get into the album. It starts with an 8-minute song, which is rare these days. It’s like you are demanding an investment from the listener from the jump. Was that on your mind in that decision?

Skyzoo: Totally, Totally. As someone who puts out music for a living, I know the attention span of people. How that works, how that goes. The way I formatted it, I just felt it was so important. It was so important for people to hear it that way, for it to setup the album, and introduce the album. So out of that 8-minute song, the first two minutes are a skit between two characters that are supposed to be my father and my godfather, they’re best friends. Then you have the actual song, then when the song is over I spit the whole song again with no drums. I felt like that was important because I wanted people to hear every single word I had to say. I didn’t want there to be any confusion about what you heard, if you missed something, if you caught something, if you weren’t paying attention. So I said, ‘fuck it. If you gotta hear the whole song again, you’re going to hear the whole song again. And that’s what it all came down to, and people have absolutely loved it. No one complained about the fact that it’s 8-minutes. People have loved everything about that.

rubyhornet: You just mentioned the skit at the beginning with your dad and his friend. Then at the end You tell a story about a child growing up and going to different schools and thus through those schools, different worlds. You could have equally put that story at the beginning of the album and introduced yourself, and it makes a difference when placed at the end. What,  was behind your decision to put that at the end, and then letting people know that was you? It’s like a big reveal in a way.

Skyzoo: I wanted it to be the story arc. You hear these guys talking in the beginning. One is telling the other that he’s having a son, and he’s got to change things in his life. Then you see all these things that go on with our people. Black people and Black culture. And what makes us the way we are, why we are the way we are, and what makes things the way they are, you get to the end and I’m explaining the story of this kid having both his parents his whole life, and how important that was. Then I reveal that the kid is me. So, I’m going back to the story that started in the beginning. If you’re listening in the beginning, it becomes, well here’s what happens to the son. And here are all the different things that he had to face, and that he has to face as a young Black Male. That’s why it’s so important that that guy at the beginning of the album continued to decide to be in that kid’s life. Of all these things that go on in the world, that kid needs that guy the same way every kid needs that guy to be their father.

rubyhornet: Your parents had you very young, you just welcomed a son into your family. Could you imagine having a child when you were your parent’s age, and thinking about what you were doing at 19?

Skyzoo: Not at all, I totally couldn’t do it. My parents are way better than me. At 19, I was ripping and running, man. I was outside running the street, picking up some girl’s number, doing this and doing that. I was ripping and running man, at 19. I couldn’t have done it. They’re better than me. I’m 35, so having my first son at 35 is a world of difference between being 19. When my parents were 35, I was what, 15, 16? That’s insane. I could not imagine having a high school junior right now. We’d probably fight everyday. It just shows who they are, and why they’re so special.

rubyhornet: The press release drew parallels to Ta-Neishi Coates. Between the World and Me was written as a letter to his son. Was your own impending fatherhood the impetus for channeling him on this project?

Skyzoo: 100%. I read the book before Miles was coming, but 100%. It spoke volumes to me because here’s another story of a Black male being in his son’s life, forever. Never taking a day off. Never taking a moment off and Ta-Neishi Coates explaining what’s going on in society. I always had the plan of telling our story and making this album a very pro-Black album. A very aware album, and things like that. Once I found out I was having a son, it added that element to it. And I said Ok, ‘I want this album, as pro-Black as it is and as aware and focused as it is on these things, I want it to be a cautionary tale to my son. So later when he’s 16, when he’s 20, 25, he can listen to this album and know what’s going, what to expect, what not to accept, what not to tolerate, and what to be prepared for that’s going to be waiting for him in this world, as a young Black male.

rubyHornet: I want to talk about that, but first to get context, What was happening when the light went to make this album and to make it as pro-Black and such a look into what’s happening, explaining situations. What was happening in your life, and what was happening in America?

Skyzoo: I think it’s just a culmination of everything we’ve been going through and just being fed up. There’s no way you can live in this world and not see what’s going on as far as Trump, as far as police brutality, as far as cultural appropriation, as far as economic crisis, there’s no way you can live in this world and not see those things. It was just hitting me, everyday. I’ve always been someone who’s spoken on things in one way or another, whether it’s lightly or whatever the case may be. But I said, ‘man, this is insane, what’s going on out here. How do we fix this, how do I contribute and do more – more than I’ve already done?’ I’ve always been aware, I’ve always spoken on certain things. How do I take it a step further? Well, let me use the art to go a step deeper and a step further than ever before. And that’s where it all came from. And I felt like it was all needed.

A lot of it also came from Solange’s album, Seat at the Table. It’s an album that I love, and I was very inspired by that album as well. And when people ask me in the short term, ‘hey, if you had to describe this album in one sentence, how would you describe it? I’d say, ‘it’s the Hip Hop version of Solange’s album.

rubyhornet: I want to talk about your examination of race throughout the album. I think it is safe to say that as a traveling artist, you probably have more experience, exposure, and relationships across racial and ethnic communities than, I don’t know, 85% of Americans, from wherever they’re from. Do your travels as an artist across cultures, races, ethnicities, etc inform the stories on this album, either the stories you’re telling, or the way in which you want to tell them?

Skyzoo: It definitely influences and effects, because when you go overseas, I go overseas numerous times per year for tour. And when I go, I’m there for an extended amount of time. I’m there for 2 weeks, I’m there for a month, I come home, I’m gone again for a month. So when I do all those things, I’m able to experience different types of cultures, and I’m able to experience the way Black people are treated and the way Black people treat each other when they’re overseas. And it’s crazy, because the way Black people are looked at in Europe or some of these different places is amazing. The way we’re looked at is so different than how we’re looked at in the states. You also still have certain places where it’s pretty harsh. It’s just irony of all these different walks of life and different ways, and cultures, and how we look at each other. I’m able to experience all of that. I’m able to say, ‘why is it like this at home, when it’s like that overseas? Why is one way here, and another way there?’ And I’m able to take that and put that in the music as well.

rubyhornet: One of my favorite lines on the album is, “Sounds like a fist in the air, meets a brick in the air, meets baguettes, meets the vision impaired.” After a few listens, that bar seemed to hit at the crux of the album itself and summing up the theme and the purpose.

Skyzoo: You nailed it.  That song is called “Sound Like”, and I was trying to think of another title, something more poetic for a title. I’m big on titles, I’m big on – “The Stick Up Tape Menace”, and “Parks and Recreations”, and “Black Sambo”, I’m big on song titles and I’ve always been. I was like, “Sound Like” is such a basic title for a complex song. But it made so much sense. This is what this album sounds like. The album sounds like this, this, this, this, and this. That’s why it’s at the beginning of the album. I’m letting you know what to expect for the next 60 plus minutes or whatever it is. This is what to expect on this album. It sounds like this, it sounds like that.

It sounds like a fist in the air – Black Power

Meets a brick in the air – hustling, going for it outside, this heinous world of activity that people don’t understand.

Meets baguettes – shining off that.

Meets the vision impaired – those who can’t even see how much you’re shining.

Or, it sounds like vision in pairs – multiple eyes, multiple sets of eyes looking how much you’re shining, looking at what you’re doing.

And depending on how you pronounce both is what’ll get to appear – either someone’s trying to take what you’ve worked so hard for, or someone’s saluting you for what you got, or someone wanting to be like you or someone wanting to be beside you, or someone wanting to see your downfall.

Those are all layers within that four-bar stanza. And that’s just the smallest tip of the iceberg on there.

rubyhornet: You mentioned “The Stick Up Tape Menace”, the second time I heard it I feel like I was listening to a letter from you to your younger self, is that the case?

Skyzoo: Could be. Yup, that’s a cool way to look at it. And I see why you would get that, because the song is about validation. A lot of people on first listen think the song is about “Menace II Society”. It’s not about “Menace II Society” at all. I just used “Menace II Society” as an example of the point I’m trying to get across: The power of validation within Black people. Why my people feel so strongly about validation and put so much emphasis in it. While I’m explaining that, I’m saying, “for example, here’s a story of validation gone wrong. Here’s why it’s detrimental to put so much value on validation. As Black folk, we put so much value and emphasis on validation that it’s why you can live in the projects and have all the newest Jordan’s and the newest clothes. Or, you can throw a $5,000 party for your two-year-old that they won’t even remember. Because you want everyone to see how you’re doing. Because as Black folk, we fight for validation everyday. We want people to look at us and see us a certain way, respect us a certain way. That’s why we put so much emphasis on where we live, what we wear, what we drive, who we are. ‘Don’t bump me in the supermarket or it’s going to be a fight. Don’t step on my sneakers, or it’s going to be a fight, accident or not. It’s all validation. Well, why is that? The reason is because 400 years ago we were told we didn’t matter, we were told we weren’t validated. We were told, ‘y’all can be outside, and the other half of y’all can be in the house. Y’all aren’t allowed to learn how to read or write, but you’re women are allowed to give us sex everyday and if you get pregnant by us, it is what it is, we don’t want nothing to do with that. It’s why y’all aren’t allowed to use these bathrooms, or allowed to vote, or allowed to do any of these things. You’re not allowed to own your own businesses, open your own schools, or anything like that. We wanted validation from day one off the boat, so we put emphasis on validation forever, and it comes back to bite us. That record is about validation.

rubyhornet: As an emcee, I think validation is ingrained in it, and much of hip hop from the emcee battle to getting props from this DJ, seeking validation from peers. How does validation apply to your life as an emcee? You’ve had a crash course, but also you need those props to keep going.

Skyzoo: You’re absolutely right. Hip Hop, especially being an emcee, if you’re on the creative side of hip hop, emcee, producer, whatever, it’s a sport. It’s a competition. We all want the validation of being recognized for how dope you are or how dope you think you are. And when you’re dealing with any type of sport that’s subject to opinion, music, fashion, film, it’s all opinion. Somebody might say so and so is great. And somebody else might say the same person is garbage. It sucks, but everybody is right. Nobody is wrong, because it’s all opinion. With that, you fight for that validation even more. Now you’re fighting for opinion. We can’t debate if Lebron is amazing. You might not like the way he goes about picking teams, or whatever, but he can put the ball in the hole. He can give you 30 pts, 9 rebounds, 7 block, 2 steals, MVP year after year after year. We can’t debate if he’s nice. There’s no opinion needed on there. But there’s an opinion if so and so is nice, or if so and so is whack or if Skyzoo is top 10 all-time or if In Celebration of Us is the best album of the year. There’s an opinion on that. So if you know what you know, you know it’s real, and those things about Skyzoo are right, there’s an opinion factor on that. And that’s where the validation gets even more sacred. Now it’s opinion, and now it’s even harder to get.

rubyhornet: Talking about multiple opinions, a project like this forces multiple viewpoints. You rap from different viewpoints, and tell the story from multiple viewpoints and characters. Going back through your catalog, that seems to be something fun for you to do creatively. While this is such a serious project, did you have fun doing that?

Skyzoo: Oh absolutely. I had a blast making the album because I was pushing myself. This was my most difficult album to make. Not because I hit a writer’s block, not because I didn’t have it, nothing like that at all. If you know me, I write quickly. It’s a blessing, it’s a gift. I can write a 16 in 20 minutes, I can write a song in an hour. But with me, I wanted to make sure I got every point across that I wanted to get across. I had a vision for this album, and I was so afraid of not hitting the mark and exactly pinpointing it the way I wanted. That’s why I say this album was my most difficult to create. Because I put so much on myself to create it, but I had a blast making it from picking the beats, certain records I wanted to make… A record like “Sound Like”, it’s just a metaphor fest, and I had a blast making that and pushing myself. “Everybody’s Fine”, I remember when I sat down and wrote that, I didn’t want to stop writing. “Love Is Love”, ideally in the beginning, “Love Is Love” is supposed to be a one minute song. It was going to be like a little short song in between two songs “Love me like this, love me like so and so..” it was like a minute long and would’ve been a little stab. But when I was writing it, I couldn’t stop writing and it turned into a four-minute song. That’s when it’s fun, that’s when it’s enjoyable. When you have to force yourself to write a four-minute song because you’re over it, it’s not fun. You set out to write a one-minute song and it turns out to be four minutes, that’s when you know you had a fucking blast writing that song.

rubyhornet: To piggyback off that, did those multiple perspectives and adopting different characters make you re-examine issues in any way? Did it change your perspective on things?

Skyzoo: Definitely. When I was writing the album, I had to think of everything that was going on. There were situations that may have been quiet for a while, say, police brutality cases like Trayvon Martin and “Hoodie Season” and Alton Sterling, and all those guys that we lost. I had to revisit those moments throughout our history, whether they were a year ago, 2 years ago, whatever. I had to dig into certain memory banks and it was dope doing that because it continued to put all these things in front of my face. Going back, remembering this, remembering that. “Honor Amongst Thieves” is one of my favorite records on the album. Going back to my childhood and what it was like when my father and I went to the movies to see “Boyz In The Hood” and we related to that and the conversation we had after the movie went off is what I wrote about on the record. Those moments to me are priceless on the record.

rubyhornet: I wanted to ask you about the process of making it. It feels like you approached this as a sociologist. Did it ever feel like that during the process? If so, was there conscious effort of taking on that role?

Skyzoo: Absolutely. It’s funny you mention sociology. That was my favorite course in college. When I was in college as an English Major, I had to fill up other credits. I took sociology, I took psychology. I didn’t know what sociology really was as an 18 year-old college freshmen. But when I got to class and it was explained to me, I fell in love with it. I said, ‘this is what my music has always been about.’ And that was me at 18 years old. Nobody outside of my neighborhood knew me as an emcee or a rapper. That’s what I had already been about. And I fell in love with it. When I went to sell my books back, I kept my sociology book. I fell in love with the idea of what sociology meant. You hit the nail on the head once again. I’ve always looked at as my music as a big ass sociology experiment.

rubyhornet: The press release mentioned this album in relation to The Salvation, are there parallels between those projects or a relationship besides the lack of guest features and attention to detail? Did you have any reflection on then to now?

Skyzoo: The Salvation is an album I love. It’s my debut, my fans love it, the whole deal. The Salvation is a fantastic album and I think what’s so dope about it and what people love about it is that it’s a young perspective. I was so young when I made that album, maybe 24. I was so young when I made that album. This album is much more mature and grown, because I’ve grown up. It’s been a long time, I’m now 35 years old. It’s a more mature album as far as things I’m speaking on, my perspective, my outlook. It doesn’t make one more right than the other, it just makes where my pen is coming from a different thing. I would say the only similar thing is the fact that there’s no rap features. There was one signer on The Salvation, and there are about four or five on this. But there’s no hip hop features. And same thing I said on The Salvation, If I could sing I would have had nobody on it. I can’t sing, so I had to call some amazing people like Raheem Devaughn and Kay Kola, WordsNCurves, and JillsBlack.

Skyzoo also hits Chicago on April 8th. Grab Tickets here.