Lil Sko’s 1998 album U Know Tha Sko is a brilliant time capsule into the much emulated and still under appreciated five years of Memphis hip-hop that preceded its original release date. Throughout this decade, rap made in Memphis in the 1990s has been increasingly recognized for being ahead of its time and for being just inaccessible enough to make a Tommy Wright cassette collection or Koopsta Knicca T-Shirt a sort of cool rap nerd signifier. It’s a bittersweet phenomenon: While the music on its own is incredible, too often fans lose themselves in the novelty of Memphis rap’s aesthetics, seeing only a series of Southern horrorcore B-Movies without appreciating innovations made by artists working with very limiting equipment and close to no music industry infrastructure.
No matter its status as an aesthetic accessory and Sko’s current place as a face in the crowd of pen & pixel album covers, this album is important. Every track was originally released on an earlier mixtape of another artist, and every track can be seen as a glimpse into different iterations of the sound that makes Memphis’ mid ’90s hip-hop scene something more than just cool.
Throughout the five year period during which it was recorded, Sko worked with producers who first used the 16 hi-hat falsely attributed to trap producers and rappers who first used the triplet flow falsely attributed to Migos. Bouncing between the home studios of Mac Nig, Skinny Pimp, DJ Squeeky and others, U Know Tha Sko walks you through the basements and bedrooms of a remarkably talented collection of young artists who were once the forgotten missing link in the evolution of Southern Rap’s subspecies.
Sko’s work with Memphis legend Tommy Wright III would warrant attention for any of his solo work, but Sko also worked with nearly every legend in Memphis during the recording of this tape. While many peers stayed confined to one producer, or one posse, or one studio, Lil Sko’s compilation album was recorded all over the city and with nearly every relevant producer, ranging from the bouncy, G-Funk-influenced sound favored by DJ Squeeky to the moody crawl of Maceo and Tommy Wright.
Friday, PLZ Make It Ruins is dropping a reissue of U Know Tha Sko, the result of a savvy independent A&R recognizing and compensating one of the many immensely talented men who changed rap forever. Despite a small army of copycat acts and a steadily growing hum of whispers describing near-mythical tapes only accessible by a trap door in a YouTube subscription or Estonian attic, most of Lil Sko’s collaborators have received little compensation or recognition. We caught up with Sko to discuss the artistic range of his tape, his teenage years making music all over the city, and his day-to-day life during and after the 1990s. Enjoy an exclusive stream of U Kno The Sko below. —Lucas Foster
You’ve got a long history in Memphis, and this Friday’s reissue of U Know Tha Sko shows what you were doing when you were really young. How was it initially recorded?
Lil Sko:Well, I had music all over the place on different mixtapes, and on U Know The Sko I wanted to gather it all together in one album to cement my reputation in the city. Some said I sounded like Skinny Pimp. I wanted to show that there was this kid named Sko and he’d been making a lot of good music. The album was released when I was just out of high school and has songs that were originally on DJ Squeeky, Manson Family, Tommy Wright, Skinny Pimp tapes, others mixtapes. Allied Productions released some of the songs, but it’s been so long I can’t remember all the versions and details.
That’s what’s so remarkable about the album. It has songs all the way back from 1993 up ‘til ’98, and you worked with a lot of different people all over the city in such a classic time and place in musical history. Why do you think that scene you were a part of sounded so different from the rest of the country?
Lil Sko:Memphis just has that Southern twang to it. Also, just being young and using the equipment we had, sometimes that limited what you could do. But at the same time, we did have something special going on. U Know Tha Sko really shows everything going on in in the city at the time—like I said, Mac Nig, Tommy Wright, DJ Squeeky, Skinny Pimp, Maceo, Manson Family—U Know Tha Sko really shows what was happening all over the city at the time. I worked with a lot of different rappers and producers.
It seems like there were people from different neighborhoods who were able to work together really well. Would you just leave neighborhood beefs at the door when you recorded?
Lil Sko:Yeah, most of the time, but we had some tension. Rappers get into it with DJs and what not—we had a few incidents. There was a time when someone stole our equipment, a 4-track, and we had to go out to go find it, and we actually did go out there and got our equipment back to keep making music.
It’s interesting to hear details like that. Back then, what were you doing besides selling tapes?
Lil Sko:That’s how it was. In our day-to-day we were just hustling trying to get money to get equipment, get our tapes recorded. I’ve worked a few jobs in my life, but music has always been my main focus personally, and nowadays I’m able to focus on music full-time. Right now, as we speak, I’m in the studio working on a new album.
What’s the new album sound like and who are you working with?
Lil Sko:It’s a more modern sound, I’ve been working with Mac Nig and a few younger producers. All of the guys I’m working with are from Memphis.
Are you currently touring?
Lil Sko:I’ve done a few shows recently with Tommy Wright up in Detroit. I think with this little re-issue I’ll get more people asking for shows.
Yeah, the interest has definitely heightened in the ’90s Memphis sound. I originally heard your music on a DJ Squeeky tape on YouTube. A lot of people had a similar experience. I’ve heard the YouTube uploads were originally a lot of German tape collectors. Have you talked with them?
Lil Sko:Yeah, it’s crazy how people in Germany and overseas talked with people in Memphis. Back in the day when I was rapping with the Manson Family, we actually collaborated with some German rappers and producers on a song called “Worldwide.” They got a real cool underground scene over there as well.
For a few years now, a lot of young American rappers from all over have made music that’s inspired by you guys. What would you say to them?
Lil Sko:I would say just keep focused and chase your dream. I’m happy to see that people take influence from our music in Memphis.
Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories regarding how Memphis’ influence spread out, how maybe Bone Thugs heard a tape and copied the style.
Lil Sko:I don’t know if that story is true, but at that time when Bone Thugz-N-Harmony was on the radio, people were talking about them being influenced by us. People actually thought it was me on the radio.
Any thoughts on other cities like Houston and Atlanta taking influence from Memphis?
Lil Sko:Well, with Suave House, 8-Ball & MJG were working with a Houston record label and with Houston artists. I know Gangsta Pat had moved to Atlanta and so had some producers.
Before you made music, what initially got you interested in hip-hop?
Lil Sko:When I was a young kid in junior high school, it was breakdancing. Eventually it kinda flipped from breakdancing to rapping.
What got you first recording your raps?
Lil Sko:Well I was friends with a guy, Mac Nig, who I still work with today, he got a 4-track. In the early ’90s in Memphis most of us were working with 4-tracks and 808 drum machines just making our tapes and trying to get heard.
Now that there’s more interest in the early tapes and music, that really classic sound, how did you actually go about getting an album re-issued?
Lil Sko:Joe from PLZ Make It Ruins Records messaged me on Facebook, awhile later we met in Las Vegas, and I grabbed the masters and the rights to get it reissued and it’s set for a re-release on October 27th.
Now, thanks to the internet, a lot more people regard your music and your collaborators’ music as legendary. At the time U Know Tha Sko was recorded, did you feel that the music you were making was making history or really changing music?
Lil Sko:Yeah, I kinda did actually. Like I said, when people heard Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on the radio they thought it was me! When I heard it I thought it was me!