[Interview] Skyzoo talks “A Dream Deferred,” idolizing Penny Hardaway, and growing up around Notorious B.I.G.

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Fresh off the release of his latest mixtape, the lyrically dense Theo vs J.J. (Dreams vs Reality), Brooklyn emcee Skyzoo is gearing up for the October 2nd release of his sophomore album, A Dream Deferred. Fans of Skyzoo will know A Dream Deferred has been a long time coming, ever since the release of his critically acclaimed 2009 album, The Salvation. Since ’09, Skyzoo has released 2010’s Live from the Tape Deck, as well as 2011’s The Great Debater mixtape, but neither were intended as the follow-up to The Salvation. With the October 2nd arrival of A Dream Deferred, the time has come. The Come Up Show recently caught up with Skyzoo, and we talked about A Dream Deferred, idolizing Penny Hardaway as a kid, and growing up two blocks from Notorious B.I.G., among other things. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You were in Toronto not too long ago for the Battle of the Beat Makers weekend, how was that?

Skyzoo: It was dope, man. It was real dope. You guys [have] got some amazing producers out there. The winner was this girl, WondaGurlBeats, and she was spectacular, man. Really, really, spectacular.

TCUS: What do you like most about Toronto?

Skyzoo: [Laughs] It’s a clean New York, and you guys have the prettiest women. Like, hands down.

TCUS: From an outsider’s perspective, what’s your impression of the music scene here?

Skyzoo: It’s kinda like, if you give me a New York vibe, but it feels young, fresh and new. It feels like the scene has been around for awhile, but now it’s really bursting because of the success of Drake, and The Weeknd, and all that OVO stuff. So it’s real dope, man. It’s kinda like seeing it in its best stages, when it’s early and really first getting that respect, you know?

TCUS: Yeah. Aside from doing music, I know you’re a big basketball fan. You teamed up with SLAM last year for Chain Link Champions, what was that like?

Skyzoo: It was dope. I was able to blog and express my feelings on anything basketball-related. At times, I would sneak a few different thing in there, but it was really just about basketball, which is another love and passion of mine, like you said. And specifically, [I was] going in on the Knicks, just talking about my beloved Knicks and what we’re doing.

TCUS: As a Knicks fan and Brooklyn native, you must have mixed feelings about the Nets moving to Brooklyn.

Skyzoo: Nope, no mixed feelings at all. It’s strictly the Knicks [laughs].

TCUS: [Laughs] In your music video for “Written In The Drums”, you’re repping two of your favourite NBA players, Carmelo Anthony and the retired Penny Hardaway. Growing up, how influential was Penny Hardaway to you?

Skyzoo: Huge, man, because when I was young, I was rhyming and playing ball, and that was it. I was shooting jumpers, and I was freestyling while I was shooting jumpers. Literally, I’d be on the court shooting free throw shots, and I’d be rhyming at the same time. I just wanted to be Penny, and I wanted to be Nas. That was it as a kid, you know? Back in ’94, ’95, before Jay[-Z] came out. Everybody knows I’m probably the biggest Jay fan, but before Jay came out, when Penny was really in his heyday, it was Penny and Nas. That was it. Yeah, Penny was a huge influence on me and everyone who grew up in that era. If you look at the Wikipedia pages of LeBron and Melo, and people like that, they all have Penny tied into their Wikipedia pages as their favourite player when they were kids. It’s all from that era. He was kind of our Jordan for a minute, you know? Before he got injured, he was our Jordan.

TCUS: Moving from basketball to another passion of yours, New Era hats, when did your New Era hat collection begin?

Skyzoo: Wow, ummm… I don’t know, because it happened so long ago, and it happened so gradually, I don’t know if I can pinpoint it. But I’ve always been wearing hats, man, even before New Era became the culture. It’s in my family – my pops, my grandpops before he passed, everybody – all the men in the Taylor family always wear hats, whether you’re bald-headed or not. So that was our thing, and it kind of just kept going down the line. I feel like I’ve been carrying tradition. As far as the fitted, I guess it started around ’04, ’05. Now, I still cop fitteds, and I get joints sent to me as well. A good 99% of my fitteds are New Eras. Anything else that’s not a New Era fitted is a snapback.

TCUS: When’s the last time you went a day without wearing a hat?

Skyzoo: Probably whenever the last time I went to church was, or if I went to the park and played ball. I got one on right now.

TCUS: [Laughs] What hat are you rocking right now?

Skyzoo: I got on the Acapulco Gold “Where Brooklyn At?!!” fitted. It’s a red fitted with a grey bottom, done through New Era and Acapulco Gold. Acapulco Gold is this clothing line from Brooklyn, and the front [of the hat] is just a big BK in white letters, and the hat is red. And in red script it says “Where Brooklyn At”. You can see it, but you can’t see it. You’ve kinda gotta be close up to see it. So it’s kinda fly.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest mixtape, Theo vs J.J. What interested you about Theo and J.J., and what made you decide to compare the two?

Skyzoo: Just the similarities and the differences between the two. [Both are] young black males trying to get it, [and] trying to make something out of life. One of them [Theo] was already in a position to have made something out of life, because of what he was born into. The other one [J.J.] seemed like he didn’t have a chance to make anything out of what he was born into. So the similarities and the differences, and the irony in it all [interested me].

“As much as I wanted to be Theo, my day ones was more J.J.” – #FGR (First Generation Rich)

TCUS: One song that I’ve been playing a lot from that mixtape is “First Generation Rich”. You mentioned that you heard the term ‘first generation rich’ when Oprah interviewed Dwyane Wade, following the Miami Heat championship. Can you talk about this?

Skyzoo: Yeah, I was literally watching that sit-down with them, and they talked about having money now, and how it changes things, and the way people look at you. Dwayne Wade was like, “yeah, I kinda got a million cousins now,” and Oprah laughed, and she said “it’s a different world that you get used to.” Dwayne Wade said “yeah, first generation rich,” and she said “exactly. I remember when I became first generation rich.” And it hit me like a ton of bricks, I was like, “wow. FGR. First Generation Rich.” And it meant so much, because at the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do, you know? Be the first generation rich.

TCUS: I was looking through my iTunes recently and noticed that your music’s genre is listed as Lyricism. What was the inspiration behind that?

Skyzoo: I think it’s self-explanatory. I feel like [with] what I do, lyrically and musically, people know what they expect when they hear me. I’ve got a freestyle that I did last year from the Penny series called “Boat Check In” over the “Otis” beat, and I said “they expect the sun, moon and stars to jump through the car, but I’m just trying to paint a corner.” And it’s literal, like, people expect the sun, moon and stars when I rap, because they know “oh, Sky gets serious. Sky’s verse [is] about to come on? Chill out, let me hear this.”

It’s kind of that feeling, like when we were kids, whenever a Jadakiss verse was about to come on, we were like “hold on, shut up, let me hear this.” Or whenever a Nas verse or a Jay verse came on, or even a Canibus verse when he first came out, [we’d be like], “yo yo yo, shut up, let me hear this.” That’s kind of what people look to me [for] now when they hear my music, or when they see my name on a track listing. It’ll be “hold up, let me hear what Sky says,” you know what I mean?

TCUS: One thing that really strikes me about your music is your storytelling ability. Have you ever thought of writing a book or a film?

Skyzoo: All the time. I appreciate that; I feel like I’m a storyteller first, it just so happens that I know how to make the words rhyme and fit in pocket on the beat. But I feel like I’m a storyteller and a writer first, and I appreciate the fact that you see that in the music. As fas as the book and a film and all that, I’m working on all of that now. I’m actually working on a book based on some of my music, some of my most intricate and layered songs. And I’m also working on – not a movie script or film script per se – but a television script. I’m working on a pilot now that I’m going to try to pitch next year.

TCUS: Any details about that, or is that still under wraps?

Skyzoo: It’s definitely under secretive wraps, but it’s gonna be something that from my side of the table, to your side of the table… anyone involved in what we do is gonna be a fan of it and feel like it’s long overdue.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your upcoming sophomore album, A Dream Deferred, that’s coming out October 2nd. The title of your album is an ode to a Langston Hughes poem of the same name. Can you talk about this?

Skyzoo: Yeah, the title came from the poem. I felt like the poem meant so much – it’s such a short poem, there’s only like four lines, but it’s all deep. It’s so deep and so significant in the impact that it has, and the things that it’s talking about. And I felt like that was where I was at when I started creating this album, [and] putting songs together. When I started coming up with concepts and ideas, that was the frame of mind that I was in, [in terms of] things I wanted to talk about and things I wanted to go over, and just where I was, telling these stories of what I’ve been dealing with. So it made perfect sense to just borrow [the title], you know? Borrow from a legend who I went to school learning about and [who I] looked up to, and take it from there.

TCUS: Your album was co-executive produced and mixed by !llmind, who you have a long history with, dating all the way back to Corner Store Classic. How did you and !llmind first meet?

Skyzoo: Ahh man, well I’m actually sitting in the car with !llmind right now. We met back in like ’05, through my man Khrysis. I was in North Carolina working with Khrysis on some records, and he put me onto !llmind, like “yo, you ever heard of this kid !llmind? He’s from up where you’re at, he’s from out there in Jersey.” And I’m like “nah, well I’m in New York, so that’s two different states,” but he was like “he’s dope, man. He’s this Chinese cat, he’s mad dope.” And !llmind isn’t even Chinese, you know?

TCUS: [Laughs]

Skyzoo: [Khrysis] said “he’s this Chinese cat from Jersey, man. He’s crazy nice!” And he hit him on AIM, or AOL instant messenger – way back. And !llmind messaged him one beat, and the beat was stupid. Right away, I took twenty, thirty minutes, wrote a song to it, and Khrysis sent it back to !llmind, and we [exchanged] names and started kickin’ it. And it just grew from there, nah mean? I’ve known him a pretty long time know, man. It’s turned into family over the years, like hands down, before anything else.

TCUS: Your album, A Dream Deferred, is being released through Duck Down as well as your new label, The Faculty. What can you tell me about The Faculty?

Skyzoo: It’s just another step in the progression of me as an artist and businessman, and the career that I’ve been carving out for myself. I feel like it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I grew up looking up to Puff and Russell Simmons, and guys like that when it came to music, but outside of the actual lyricism and being a rapper. You saw Puff, you saw Dame Dash, you saw Russell, and it meant a lot to kids coming from where I was from, who looked the way I looked and dealt with what I dealt with.

So the opportunity to be able to have a label and create something presented itself, [and] it just took me back to that feeling, absolutely. I remember being fourteen, fifteen, drawing logos when I was in chemistry class. You know, drawing logos in my notebook of possible label names. I saw Puff and Bad Boy, and I just wanted to be that. So it took me back to that, and it makes sense. When people hear my music, outside of the lyrics and what I do as an artist, they always say I pick dope beats, they always say I pick the right artists to do records with, they always say I write the perfect hook, and I think a lot of that comes from me being a fan on some A&R type stuff.

And I was like, you know what? I do know how to pick artists and groom them, and put something together. Let’s do it! And I feel like if I hear a certain artist, or hear a certain song… I can tell if it’s worth expanding on and doing more with, and get a sense of “oh, he’s a dope artist, he’s got more than just this one song,” or “she’s got more than just this one hook.” I can tell; I can hear it. Let’s groom something and let’s build something. And that’s what it all came from, to make a long story short.

TCUS: A Dream Deferred opens with “Dreams in a Basement”, and the song begins with a conversation between two boys. Can you provide a little background on this?

Skyzoo: Yeah, it’s from the movie Fresh. The conversation is [between] Fresh and Chuckie, and if you know the movie, you’ll know Fresh was a drug dealer… he was more of a mule. He was more of, you know, “take this from here to there and I’ll give you a couple dollars,” but he had his moments where he was standing outside pitching as well. But Fresh just lived this life that was well beyond his years, and well beyond what he’s supposed to be [in terms of] his maturation level. He was way more mature than he was supposed to be. And all that was a product of his environment.

He’s having a conversation with Chuckie, who he just put on to hustling as well, and Fresh is bringing Chuckie into his world of melancholy, and just being quiet and having these moments to reflect on being twelve years old but living like a thirty-two year old. And it starts with Chuckie saying “it’s quiet here,” like “why do you come here? Sometimes when I’m at home and it gets loud, it feels lonesome. The same way it feels here.”

And Fresh just goes into his views on that and says “the more people there are, the lonelier it gets.” And he goes, “I have this dream.” Chuckie says, “like what?” [Fresh] says “nothing… Sometimes I have it, that’s all.” It just spoke volumes to where I’m at, and where I was at during the creation of this album.

TCUS: Moving from “Dreams In A Basement” to “JanSport Strings”, you conclude “JanSport Strings” with a snippet from Chi-Ali’s “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number”, a song that played a big role in you becoming an emcee. Take us back to the day when you saw that video on DJ Ralph McDaniels, what kind of a feeling did it give you?

Skyzoo: Yeah, yeah, the video was on Video Music Box, which was hosted by Ralph McDaniels. Literally, I was just in the crib Saturday morning, doing whatever I was doing. [I was] nine years old, my mother was probably on the phone with one of her girlfriends, and I was in the living room, watching videos – [the] videos were probably in the background; I was probably playing games or playing with toys or something while the video was on. And when [Chi-Ali’s video] came on, I stopped everything; it just hit me, and I was like “that’s what I want to do.”

The moment it went off, I started rapping to myself. Literally, the moment the video ended, I started rapping. And the funny thing about that skit [on the album] is, that’s the actual episode that I saw. Because that was the introduction of the video on Video Music Box. If you hear Ralph McDaniels, he says “new music from Chi-Ali, you first saw him a couple months ago with Black Sheep. This is his first joint, check it out.” So that was the actual episode that [I saw]; I found that clip on YouTube, and it was just meant to be.

I was like “wow!” Like, what would it have taken to find the actual clip? Not just the video [of Chi-Ali], but the actual clip from when that happened. And I just ripped it off YouTube, and !llmind put it at the end of the record. That day was a special day, man. It changed my life forever, because who knows what I could’ve would up doing if I hadn’t seen that video? [That’s] what the record talks about, and what the hook talks about. Anything could have happened if I didn’t see that video.

TCUS: Have you met Chi-Ali at all?

Skyzoo: I haven’t met him, but it’s funny, we’ve actually been talking since he’s been home. Right before you called here, he shot me a text; we’ve been texting all morning. We spoke last night on the phone, [and] we’re working on just hooking up, and getting together. We’ve actually been kicking it for awhile now, since he’s been home.

TCUS: You mention growing up just a block away from Notorious B.I.G. on “Pockets Full”. What do you remember most about growing up so close to Biggie?

“Made mine in remembrance of a couple of doors down/ ‘Cause when you’re neighbours with the greatest, your applause sounds/ Madison Square-like” – Pockets Full

Skyzoo: Just the inspiration, seeing Big right up the block. We remember when they shot the “Juicy” video. We saw when Big was outside, and then we started seeing him a little less, and a little less, because he was moving. You know, he was on tour, he was popping [and] doing his thing. He was being successful. But you still saw him come back around the way and show love; you still saw him outside with the Lexus and all that, and it just showed us “yo, this could happen.” We were young, we weren’t running with Big, we were running around Big. We were eleven, twelve, thirteen when Big was moving. So we were running around Big, like “yo, look at Big, he’s getting busy! He’s doin’ it!” And it showed us that we could do it too. He was right there.

TCUS: Moving from Biggie to another artist that inspired you, Raekwon. How did The Purple Tape [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…] influence you growing up?

Skyzoo: Just the storytelling, and how deep it was. You couldn’t get it right away; you had to speak the lingo to get it. I understood the lingo, being from where I was from – not all of it, I think I was thirteen when that album dropped – but I understood enough to want to understand the rest. I understood enough to want to figure out what the rest of the lingo was, and the older I got, the more I understood, because of being around those things more and more.

Even on top of that, [I was a fan of] the production, man. It was just stupid. Out of all the Wu stuff that came out… you look at that first run of debut solo albums, Liquid Swords, Ironman, Tical, and just that whole first run of debuts, they all had incredible beats, but The Purple Tape had the best beats out of all of them. I wanted to rap to every beat. At thirteen, I was in math class, writing verses to every beat. I had one headphone in my ear, and the other one hanging over the back of my head, because I didn’t want teacher to see me. I literally was writing my own verses to those records.

I don’t know if kids still do it nowadays, but when you were coming up as a kid and you rapped, if a hot record came out, you wrote your own verse to that record as if you were on the record. And you would pretend that Rae asked to put you on “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, or that GZA had asked to put you on “Cold World”. We wrote sixteens to every hot record and every hot beat that was out. So I was in the class, writing sixteens to almost every beat on The Purple Tape.

“In junior high, I rocked Penny’s, rolled dice/ And threw on The Purple Tape before I would go and write.” – The Beautiful Decay

TCUS: You tweeted a picture with the tag: “The stoop where it all took place. Writing and more writing.” What can you tell me about that?

Skyzoo: Yeah, that was my crib. That’s 133 St. James, that was where I used to live at, up the block from Big. I was 133 St. James, and Big was 226 St. James. So it just shows you literally how close he was. That was the crib where I used to sit on the steps everyday. I used to play ball in front of the steps, [and] run up and down the block, passing by the steps. I used to go too far from home, when I was supposed to be on the steps. All those things, man.

The only thing about the crib [is], they changed it. The crib used to be painted grey, but the grey looked baby blue. So everybody knew my crib was the baby blue crib. Everybody would say “yeah, yeah, we’re going to Sky’s crib.” And if you didn’t know where Sky’s crib was, it was the baby blue crib. So that was the only difference. Now, they flipped it. You know, gentrification kicked in, so they flipped it and made it look pretty. [Now] you’ve got the brown brick, the nice, clean brick.

TCUS: What can you tell me about “Steel’s Apartment”?

Skyzoo: “Steel’s Apartment” is another one of those records that just hops on everything that we went over. It’s like, everything that we grew up doing [and] being a part of. Juice was a big movie in our lives. When you’re young, those movies [like] Juice, Paid In Full, Menace to Society, Boyz n the Hood, South Central… we saw all of them. We learned them by heart; I swear I know Boyz n the Hood and Menace to Society by heart, as I do with Juice. And [Juice] was us. We watched it, and we were like “damn, they made a movie about us and we didn’t even know!”

That movie was me and my three friends, and I was Q. We were all running around doing the same things, cutting class, and hanging out at my man’s crib every day. His moms was at work late, so we used to be able to go to the crib and do whatever we wanted. We literally were in there, playing videogames, playing NBA Live and all that, [and] my man was in there doing things he wasn’t supposed be doing, because he was really living that life. He had paraphernalia around him, and was putting things together, if you know what I mean, and I was sitting on the chair, writing rhymes. I had my headphones on.

All four of us were in the room, watching videos and playing NBA Live, but I was writing. I had my book and my headphones, and I was spitting it for them, like “yo, check out the new shit I just wrote!” And they were going crazy. And if I had an open mic or a talent show, and my friends wanted to go do something we weren’t supposed to be doing, I was down, but I was like “yo, I’m not missing the talent show. I gotta do this.”

And they’d be like “man, f*** that rap shit. We gotta go get this, man. We can go make some money,” or “we can go do this.” I was trying to balance it out, and still do what I had to do, and what I felt like I was put here to do. So it all happened in Steel’s apartment. We were watching Puffy, Ma$e, and the Lox on BET and MTV and TRL, and I was like “yo, that’s us.” But it wasn’t us, it was just me, because they weren’t rhyming. They weren’t trying to rhyme, they were trying to do what they were doing while I was doing what I was doing.

We all came up together, the same way. And that’s why I say “word to Puff, wait ’til we get in these living rooms/ Or better yet I, cause I was all alone in a basement full of eyes/ that were similar to mine, with no similar in rhyme.” It’s all layered, man, you know what I mean? Cause I was looking at the TV like ‘we’, like “wait til we on TV in everybody’s living rooms.” But it wasn’t we, it was I, cause “I was all alone in a basement full of eyes.” They all looked like me, we all saw the same things and had the same vision, and they were so “similar to mine”, but it was “no similar in rhyme” because it was just me trying to do that.

TCUS: A mantra of yours is “if you’re not better today than you were yesterday, you should’ve stopped yesterday.” Can you talk more about this?

Skyzoo: Yeah, I actually got that quote from an Eminem article that I read years ago. He was doing a story on whatever new album he was promoting at the time, and they asked him straight up in the story, “do you think this album is better than your last?” And he was like “absolutely. If it wasn’t, I should’ve stopped after the last one. If what I do today isn’t better than yesterday, then I should have stopped yesterday.” And it stuck with me, man. It’s probably going to stick with me for the rest of my life.

TCUS: What goals do you have for yourself at this point in your career?

Skyzoo: To just continue to grow musically, as an artist, and [to be] successful. We all want success. We all want money, and we all want to be able to say this was worth it. That’s the goal, you know? The goal with me, [in terms of] getting paid and continuing to get paid, [is] to be able to call my mother and say “quit your job.” I’ve got a song called “Be Well”, and I say “Nelly said he called his mother and told her quit her job/ F*** a sixteen, that shit was as real as God.” That really happened. I remember watching that, and I was like “Damn! Nelly called his mother and told her quit her job! That shit’s for real!” Those are the goals, you know, but at the same time, my goal is to continue to make music that touches people.

TCUS: What’s the plan for you following the release of A Dream Deferred? Any tour dates in the works?

Skyzoo: Yeah, after the album, there will definitely be touring, and promo, and doing things like that to make sure the word is out and make sure people got the album and understand it. And then, you know, just getting out there and feeding the people the music, whatever the next project may be; I haven’t started brainstorming the next album or mixtape or anything. It’s just whatever happens, whatever comes to me inspiration-wise.

TCUS: Well, that’s all from me, is there anything else you wanted to say to the people out there?

Skyzoo: Nah, I think we pretty much covered it, man. This was a real dope interview, really in depth, man. I can definitely tell that you get the music, so I really appreciate it. But yeah, good looks on the love and the support, and shout out to everybody who’s been supporting and who gets it, everybody from day one who’s been involved.

TCUS: Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck to you in the future!

Skyzoo: Word up, thank you, man. I appreciate it.