“I’m Not Gonna Rap About Rap:” A Conversation with Skyzoo, Winter Soldier

Abe Beame talks to Skyzoo about slowly saying goodbye to the Brooklyn he once knew, continuing to rock with the Knicks, and his latest project, 'All the Brilliant Things.'
By    June 30, 2021

Photo via Robert Adam Mayer

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A shift has occurred over the course of the last several years in rap. It’s always been a young man’s game. Success typically comes early or not at all. Many of our great rappers throughout history can call their debut their best, or at least best loved, and for most, returns diminish with each subsequent release. And the game is still densely packed with young artists, but as rap’s fanbase has aged with the art form itself, we’ve seen a new path to fame emerge.

You can perhaps date this back to Marcberg in 2010, when 33-year old Flipmode survivor Roc Marciano finally found his people with a second bite at the apple, but we’ve seen the relatively novel rise of the rapper who has put in their years of blood and sweat, built up their fanbase mixtape by mixtape and tour by tour, gotten a handle on their craft, their talent, and their strengths as artists, and put together mid-career summations that coronate their effort. At last, the greater rap public wakes up to the time that said artist has spent in the trenches, developing their voice.

Last year, we saw the ascendency of 38-year old Griselda MC, Westside Gunn. This year has seen 29-year old Moneybagg Yo — a decade into his career at 29 — cross the threshold into widespread acclaim. And perhaps it’s time for Skyzoo to make the leap, who like his peer Westside Gunn, has delivered the best album of his career at 38.

Gregory Skyler Taylor has been releasing music since 2002, working with Primo disciples like 9th Wonder, Illmind, Statik Selekatah, Black Milk, and Primo himself (as well as a whole album made with Mount Vernon deity, Pete Rock), collaborating with rappers in the New York mixtape milieu like Styles and Jadakiss, multiple Boot Camp members, and the Griselda crew.

Skyzoo is a studio rat and tour rat, working on his craft relentlessly since making it a full time job in the early aughts. There’s a trap that rappers like Skyzoo fall into, they could easily wind up on the nostalgia circuit, performing a kind of rap Dark Star Orchestra, technically perfect MCs making revivalist rap for the sake of rapping, aimed squarely at the fur lined North Face and Lugz outer boroughs types who never wanted the ‘90s to end. It’s a comfortable and lucrative living, making rap for dudes of a certain age with a disposable income, and fitting in comfortably towards the back of the lineup when Rolling Loud comes to town.

But Skyzoo is more than that. All the Brilliant Things is nostalgic and backwards looking, but doesn’t contain the at times bitter, reactionary scold much of the artists in his lane flavor their bars with. It’s an album about gentrification, about a city in flux, a paradise lost, but the focus is more on the paradise than the loss. It’s a high wire act, the freedom from needing to telegraph your message and the implied stakes to the listener, one that could only be pulled off by a rapper comfortable and confident in his abilities, the kind of comfort and confidence sky exudes in the booth and in conversation.

On “Something to Believe In”, Sky describes himself as part Mos Def and part Ma$e, and this feels right. The wit and intellect of one, and the effervescent charisma and infectious excitement of the other, but he’s a better technical rapper than both. He’s the rare backpacker who sounds like he’s having a blast, like an entire career was built from the end of his neighbor Biggie’s outro on “I Got a Story To Tell”, a blunt, Henny and laugh filled session amongst friends, re-enacting the good times.

All the Brilliant Things is dense with reference, both in well worn sample sources like “Nautilus” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, and Sky’s bars, which both explicitly cite his favorite rappers and their songs, and directly lifts iconic phrases from other rappers, weaving them into his. Skyzoo is a jazz head. Last year he released The Bluest Note with Italian nu-jazz outfit Dumbo Station, a Jazzmatazz-ish fusion EP, and his latest effort features recurring live horns that drift in and out through the album. Sky similarly riffs off phrases of rap like his hero Lee Morgan, quoting pieces of rap at the edges of our memory, sometimes leaning into his source material, and sometimes leaning away.

I rarely do interviews, but he’s made my favorite record of this quarter, so I wanted to talk to him about it. I DM’d him the other day on Twitter, on the humble, and I wasn’t particularly surprised when he responded the same day, thanked me for fucking with his music, and set up a time to get on Zoom several days later. – Abe Beame

So I love the album, I personally think it’s your best work, no strays at the other stuff.

Skyzoo: Thank you, I appreciate that.

So you’re in Atlanta now, right?

Skyzoo: Yeah. I got here, it’s been about three years now. It was 2018, so yep, about three years.

Since Covid, a lot of people have moved from Brooklyn to Atlanta.

Skyzoo: Even before that, it’s just such a different way to live, how far your money goes, to what you can get, to just the people and how you can raise a family, so it’s good.

I was gonna say, having a kid probably didn’t hurt, right?

Skyzoo: That’s what did it, if it wasn’t for my son, I would still be in New York, I would’ve been in Brooklyn dealing with a small apartment and whatever, but once my son was on the way, we gotta go get this nice big house and this land and grass and a playground and all that for him.

I have two kids in a two bedroom, so I can definitely sympathize. So the album, I can’t think of another I’ve ever heard that explicitly tackles gentrification head on the way Brilliant Things does. What do you think the tipping point was in New York in terms of when it started to hit different? When did you feel in your day to day that gentrification was kind of happening in Bed Stuy. Did you stay in Bed Stuy till you moved?

Skyzoo: Yup.

Do you have any specific recollections of times you thought, “This is bullshit, it’s not the same city anymore”?

Skyzoo: It’s kind of like, chipping away. So it’s like, a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. It wasn’t some big moment. The whole thing in New York really started in Williamsburg, early 2000s. Gentrification is really all about proximity, so it’s like how close do we need to be to go to work and live or whatever without having to deal with the area where we work at.

So it started with Williamsburg because it was like, we can’t live in Manhattan anymore because it’s either overcrowded or too expensive, we don’t really wanna live in Brooklyn because we’re a little afraid of Brooklyn, Brooklyn has a bad rap, but if you live in Williamsburg, it’s just one train stop. Take the L for one stop and you can be on First Ave. So it became Williamsburg, and they moved back a little more and a little more, but went it really went crazy was the Barclays Center, because they broke ground, and when you build something like that in a neighborhood, you gotta build around it, you gotta have cafes, and wineries, and restaurants, and bars and all these different things that attract the people that are able to afford to go to the Barclays Center.

I used to live right down the street from there, before the stadium.

Skyzoo: Right. It was a different world down there. It wasn’t pretty, you know what I mean? And I remember what that world was like back in the day, but there’s a way to clean up that world that doesn’t involve kicking people out. And that’s the issue. They say, “Well it’s cleaned up now, Atlantic and Flatbush used to be awful.” Yeah it was, but you can clean that up without kicking people out. You could clean it up, and allow the people who had to suffer through it, enjoy it, you don’t have to remove these people and that’s what it comes down to.

When the Nets came to Brooklyn, you kept it Knicks?

Skyzoo: Oh yeah, 100%. I don’t mess with them. At all.

What was it like being in Atlanta when the Knicks were playing the Hawks, was that horrible?

Skyzoo: It’s like being in the Garden because of how many New Yorkers are down here. I was at Game 3 down here. That game was more Hawks than Knicks, because you know, Atlanta hadn’t been to the playoffs in a while, and they had a real shot, so that game was a lot of Hawks fans, but normally you go to a Knicks game in Atlanta, it’s like 60-70% Knicks fans because it’s that many New Yorkers that live in Atlanta now.

Yeah, well, I fucking hate Trae Young.

Skyzoo: (Laughs) He’s a monster man. He’s a monster man.

(Stammering with rage) Yeah… I agree. But I also fucking hate him.

Skyzoo: Aye it is what it is, he’s incredible.

He reminds me of Reggie in terms of how much I hate him.

Skyzoo: We would take him right now if we could.

I mean that’s true even though I don’t want to admit it… fuck him. So I was really impressed, I didn’t have the liner notes for Brilliant Things when I listened to it, it’s a really cohesive album and I was surprised how many different producers you had contributing to it. There’s these Terence Blanchard jazz licks that are larded throughout the whole album…

Skyzoo: That’s a great person to reference, I’m honored by that.

Well I know you’re a Spike head, so I thought that might be what you were going for. So, did you commission the beats, or were those jazz notes added to give it a sonic thread?

Skyzoo: Yeah, I always add trumpets and keys and strings, like always. The beat will come to me one way, then I’ll add some trumpets to it, I’ll add a string section, I’ll add my man playing a Fender Rhodes. But picking all those beats, I was just going for a certain sound. I would hear beats, people would send me beats, and I’d say, “That’s it, it fits in the story of what I’m trying to do.” And it would go in the pot with all the beats I was trying to put together.

Almost every beat on the album has references to other classic songs. You’re going over “Nautilus” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, all these iconic sample sources. Was that a conscientious thing where you wanted to do, I wouldn’t say a greatest hits but it’s playing on memory, and a lot of your rap on this album is backward looking. Respecting and celebrating history. Was that a decision or was it more like the beats were hitting you in a certain way?

Skyzoo: A little bit. Like the beat for “Something to Believe In,” my man sent me that beat and I was like, “This is insane.” I knew what he chopped up for it, and I just went off on it. For the “I was Supposed to be a Trap Rapper”, the “Nautilus” flip, it’s the most flipped joint ever in hip hop, but that record does so many things, so many people have used it in so many different ways, I thought that spoke volumes to what I was trying to say on “Trap Rapper”.

The fact that, I grew up this way, but I’m doing this, I could’ve been doing that, I could’ve been rhyming on this type of time but instead I’m on this other type of time when I’m making music, so it’s such a wide ranging sample, it hits everything. It hits the streets, it hits the underground backpackers, it hits everything. R&B records have used it, everybody loves that flip.

The “Beats to the Rhyme” stretch is my favorite part of that sample. When you go over “Dear Summer”, or you’re going over a Slum Village sample, or “Beats to the Rhyme”, are you having a conversation with Jay, or Slum Vill, or Run. Are you aware of the fact that you are going over this beat and writing to the expectations that come with them?

You also do this thing where you sample other rappers in your bars. You use lines that are recognizable phrases and bars from other rappers and either flip them, and put your own spin on it, or employ them in the same way the author did. So is it just how your pen is hitting that day, or are you trying to have a conversation with Jay, for instance?

Skyzoo: Nah, it’s just kind of like how my pen is hitting that day. If anybody used a sample before I’m conscious of that, but I’m not writing saying, “I gotta do better than them or I gotta beat them because everybody knows them.” You know, I’m not really doing it like that, I’m just seeing it from my point of view and using it as if I’m a first time listener, like it’s my first time hearing that beat with that chop on it.

Yeah, I didn’t mean to put a competitive spin on it. So “I was Supposed to be a Trap Rapper”, the interlude at the end where you drop into trap, first of all, it’s great, but was it satirical? Are you making a commentary on trap rap, was it fun to write in that cadence, and spit that, and get into another voice, or was it just “look at how easy this shit is I can do it too?”

Skyzoo: It was a little bit of all of that, without disrespecting trap because I do like some trap. I’m not gonna sit here and say I listen to trap rap all day but some of it is dope. I like Lil Baby alot. I think Migos are very underrated as far as on our side of the fence, the quote unquote underground side, Migos be rapping, they don’t really take a line off. Are they saying double and triple entendres? Nah but they be rapping. They rap. If you read their lyrics on a piece of paper, they’re saying something, they’re going off. So, some of them do get busy, and I do respect the subculture and subgenre of trap, so it wasn’t a parody.

It was me saying, one, I can do it, I can do double time, fast rhyme if I have to, if you’re supposed to be one of the greats, and you’re that talented and that nice with your pen, you gotta be able to do it all. And two, it was me saying, I gotta prove it. So that was me proving, yeah I was supposed to be a trap rapper. You see how easy I could slip into these shoes? If I wanted to make a fifteen song trap album, It would sound like that little sequence at the end, and it would be bananas. It would be fifteen of those beats and I would be killing. It would still be lyrical, it would still be double entendres, it would still be metaphors, and it would be trapped out and it would be crazy. And I would crush that shit.

I’m very here for that album by the way, so if you ever feel like making it you’d at least have an audience of one.

Skyzoo: (Laughing) A lot of people are. I’m starting to see that. A lot of people wrote, “Yo, we need that”, and I’m like, “Really?” I don’t know. Maybe.

Is it infectious being in Atlanta? You’re in the epicenter of that sound.

Skyzoo: This is the home of it man. But the funny thing about it, there’s such a scene for the other side down here too. It’s like 50/50. People think Atlanta is only trap, but there’s lofi scene, the underground scene, the Dilla heads, it’s huge down here. Huge. It’s a 50/50 split between guys who listen to Mike Will Made It and Pete Rock. I mean you gotta think, Outkast came from down here, Goodie Mobb came from down here. So there are guys down here that are Southern Atlanta all day, but they’re about the other side.

So my interpretation of “I Was Supposed to be a Trap Rapper” is basically “I came up in an environment that was conducive to me making trap rap. I grew up around a lifestyle that is what trap is focused on in terms of content. Crime, husting, whatever. Do you think that’s rare amongst backpackers? Do you think backpack is a middle class medium, and do you think the economic concerns people grow up around are what influences their style and writing?

Skyzoo: You nailed it. You nailed it in terms of what the reason was for making that record. I grew up in this world, which is supposed to mean I make music that sounds like this world. But I also grew up listening to some other shit, and my attention swayed more in that direction. Like when people look at me and say “Oh he’s a backpack rapper” whatever whatever, it’s cool but I’m like, “Do you listen to what I’m talking about?” All my stuff is about what goes on outside, I’m just not glorifying it.

All my music is about outside. Guys outside getting money, people getting killed, families getting taken over by drugs, addiction, the ills, the highs and lows and the pitfalls that come with the street. All my stuff is street rap. I just don’t glorify it. And that’s why I get looked at in a different light. I don’t say “it’s bad and the devil is in you” either, not at all. I’m just putting it out there and saying, “This is what goes on in my neighborhood and it’s been going on since I was born in 82.” And I’m not saying I know how to fix it but I am saying here’s why.

Here’s why my friends stay out all night, here’s why my friends are in jail instead of sitting here with me on this interview. Here’s why all that stuff exists, and that’s why I do what I’m doing. And I don’t know many quote unquote backpackers that are doing that. It just so happens that I was doing it over 9th beats, and I was doing it over Pete Rock beats and Apollo Brown beats so people think I’m backpack, no I just went with the beats that made the most sense, that were soulful because the music has soul to it, with jazz because I’m a jazz head, and dirty drums because this is dirty content, and I grew up on dirty New York hip hop.

Something I really appreciate about your music is I think a lot of “backpack rap” is not fun. It’s a lot about how the game is fucked up, and these dudes suck, it’s a lot of complaining, like “Get off my lawn” shit, but you are comfortable, in my opinion, saying “this is the music I’m making” and “I’m not really concerned about what’s going on over there”, not overly editorial, not moralizing much with the stories you’re telling. You seem to be enjoying your memories of the city even if it’s not the same place.

Skyzoo: I don’t rap about rap. A lot of “backpackers”, and I hate the term because people feel disrespected or boxed in, but a lot of “backpackers” rap about rap, they rap about hip hop. I don’t rap about rap ever. I tell stories in my music. All my music is stories. Yeah you have “spitters”, a spitter is a record where you’re just going off, like “Eastern Conference All Stars”, “Carry On Tradition”, “Stretch and Bob Show” off the Apollo album, those are spitters and you gotta do those to let people know and remind people I get busy, but the majority of my music is stories. That’s it. I don’t rap about rap. And that’s fine for the people who do, but I’m not gonna rap about rap. Nobody sings about singing. Rock artists don’t make songs about rock & roll, they make songs about love, or heartache, or depression, they’re telling stories.

I’m going to run through some loosies, quickly, if that’s ok. So as a Spike Lee fan, what’s your top 5?

Skyzoo: Mo Betta Blues, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, Malcolm X. My favorite movies of all time are Mo Betta Blues, Do the Right Thing, and Goodfellas, in no particular order.

Man, I hate Clockers though.

Skyzoo: Really?

You ever read Clockers? It’s the opposite of that film, and the things I like about your music actually.

Skyzoo: I got the book, yeah.

Love that book but, I don’t know… I think Spike did too much with it. Have you ever seen Bamboozled?

Skyzoo: Of course. Yeah, you know what? Let’s swap Clockers for Bamboozled.

Thank You.

Skyzoo: I’ve seen every Spike Movie 30 times. Bamboozled is absolutely amazing, way ahead of its time. Yeah let’s swap Clockers for Bamboozled.

Love that fucking movie. I heard the Hypnotiq feature, I’m a longtime fan. How’d you link up with them?

Skyzoo: I met them in 2012 I wanna say? Just on the scene, but I was a fan of them before that. I was buying their stuff off the street… They used to sell stuff on the street in front of the Virgin Mega Store in ’05.

I used to love watching them in Union Square.

Skyzoo: One of my mans that I knew through the industry ended up managing them. That’s how we met. So we connected through that. Then we did a couple shows together, and we always talked about working and I got this, and it was like, this is the one. I called them and sent the track over, we weren’t in the room together, but they knocked that out of the park.

What’s your favorite Clue tape?

Skyzoo: Oh wow that’s tough man. I never had someone ask me that. I’d say anything Show Me The Money.

Yup! That’s mine.

Skyzoo: 4,5,6, that was one of the first ones I got. Oh my gosh, I’m lookin at one of the covers… Holiday Hold Up, yeah he had it man. Nobody did it like him, man.

Show Me The Money 2002 is my absolute favorite. I saw on your Twitter bio you’re a reader and a film guy, what were you listening to, reading, watching when you were making the record, were there specific works of art on your mind when you were making the album?

Skyzoo: One thing about me, when I’m making an album, I don’t listen to other rap. I don’t listen to new rap, because I don’t want to be influenced by it. I remember learning that through a story 50 told about Eminem, that they gave Em his demo but Em wouldn’t listen to it until he was done making his album. And he told Paul Rosenberg “I’m going to listen to it, but I can’t listen to it while I’m making my album. I don’t want to be influenced by nothing else.”

And then he listened to it and the rest is history. So I’m the same way. I was listening to a ton of jazz, I listen to jazz everyday. I was listening to a lot of Gil Scott Heron, a lot of Curtis Mayfield, and a lot of Bill Withers. Those are the three artists that were really sitting on me while I was making this record. I might have listened to Make A Smile for Me 100 times while I was making this album.

And in terms of movies, books, anything like that?

Skyzoo: I was reading a Lee Morgan biography, I was reading this book about the making of The Wire, but nothing really jumped in on the writing of the album. Not for this one. But the music I was listening to, yeah.

“Soft Eyes” is a Wire reference, yeah?

Skyzoo: 100%. It was always just a dope title, season four, episode two, and I just always loved the title. David Simon is a genius. He’s one of the greatest writers ever, I aspire to be as good in my music as he is in film or TV.

It’s also like, you know, rappers need soft eyes. It’s about observation and taking in your environment. Are you going to tour this album?

Skyzoo: I would love to if Covid let’s us. It’s the kind of thing where normally I’d be doing a whole run, but I absolutely would love to.

Well, we’re back open in New York.

Skyzoo: Atlanta was never closed… it was 24/7. They didn’t believe in it.

Yeah. Ask Lou Will.

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