Having released more than 20 LPs between them since 2010, it’s safe to say rapper Skyzoo and producer Apollo Brown are proficient musicians. The former, a complex wordsmith, has developed into one of hip-hop’s leading MCs; the latter, an underground favorite, mixes hard drums and scratchy soul samples, becoming a go-to producer in indie hip-hop. Their collaborative album, The Easy Truth, follows the blueprint laid by Gang Starr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth, classic rapper/producer duos that specialized in pairing raw beats with no-nonsense flows. Created in response to popular demand from their shared audience, The Easy Truth eschews the current mainstream aesthetic in favor of the sound of golden age hip-hop.
Unlike the work he does with his other group, Ugly Heroes—in which all of the members are from the Midwest—Brown, a Detroit native, wanted to create a backdrop that evoked Skyzoo’s New York City upbringing. “Jordan’s & a Gold Chain”—the title borrows a line from a 1996 Nas song—feels like classic Wu-Tang Clan, with its hypnotic drum loop and wistful string melody. “On The Stretch & Bob Show” pays homage to the legendary New York radio show, and has the lo-fi hiss of an old-school beat tape. “I grew up where shit less cautious, more Cassius,” Skyzoo rhymes. “Know the corner store so well, I could walk backwards.” Brown and Skyzoo spoke with us about the inner workings of their album, how they honor their heroes, and the struggles of current New York City hip-hop.
You two have worked together for some time now. How did The Easy Truth end up happening?
Skyzoo: It started on Twitter, believe it or not. We live in an age where the fans are able to connect with you directly and voice how they feel about your music. Apollo and I kept getting these tweets from the fans that know he does full projects with rappers, and I do full projects with producers. Everybody was saying, “Apollo, the next person you do an album with gotta be Sky” and vice-versa. It really was just about the timing, putting some time aside and having the open window to do that. Once that happened, we just went for it.
Brown: We’ve toured together in the past. I was on his album, Music For My Friends, as well as the Barrel Brothers album he did with Torae, and they were on my album Grandeur. The fans caught wind of the music we make together, and with the demand for an album, we decided to give the people what they want.
Given that you’ve both done whole albums with other producers and MCs, what would you say was different about working with each other?
Brown: I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily different, because I treat all of my beats like they’re my kids. It’s like interviewing a babysitter; I’m not gonna leave my kids with anybody without getting to know them. I have to get to know you first before I can make a whole album with you.
It was natural and organic because we already knew each other’s work habits and our shared hunger for the music. It’s cool to call him a friend, [and] going into the studio wasn’t really new. Sky is one of my top five MCs in the game, and he’s an amazing writer. He puts together words and paragraphs like no other, so watching him work firsthand is always an amazing experience.
Skyzoo: Production wise, [Apollo’s beats] are dirty and gritty. 9th Wonder’s stuff was dirty as well, as far as the old school hip-hop feel with beats and loops [Skyzoo collaborated with 9th Wonder on Cloud 9: The 3 Day High – ed.], but with Apollo it’s real gritty. It’s been a while since I had been on something like that.
All my music has the aesthetics of the hip-hop we know, love, and grew up on—from the drums to the loops and samples. But I like to add musical elements to it. I’ll bring in the trumpets, string sections, tubas, and Fender Rhodes. On this album, there’s really none of that. I think I put trumpets on three records, but that was it. Compared to the projects I’ve done recently, this one scales back, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of quality.
The Easy Truth is indeed soulful, straightforward, and traditional, with a cinematic feel to it. What were you two trying to convey both lyrically and with the sound of this album?
Brown: You mentioned it being straightforward, that’s kind of what I go for—without any gimmicks, extras or tricks. With the beats, I wanted to take Sky out of his comfort zone and make him uncomfortable. He made me uncomfortable as well, if you’re familiar with my work, there’s music on this album that’s not necessarily what Apollo Brown does all the time. I’m not really big on using the 808 drum kit, but I broke it out for this album to reward Skyzoo with more of a New York street sound. At the same time, I wanted to give him more of the minimal sound that I’m used to; he’s not used to spitting over dirty, dingy, drumless tracks that let the MC breathe.
Skyzoo: The rapping is the stuff that people have come to know and love me for—stuff like lyricism, storytelling, speaking on how I grew up, and how my childhood translates into adulthood. But with this one, I spoke on certain topics more than I ever have, like police brutality on “One In The Same” and “Jordans & A Gold Chain,” and gentrification on “The Vibes.” There are moments where I’m directly speaking on these things and blatantly calling them out.
To me, it’s just a sign of the times with everything that’s going on. When I was putting this album together, every time you turned on the news, you’d see somebody get laid down in the streets that looked like me. Every time I’d open a newspaper or go on Twitter, you’d see another one who looks just like me, sounds like me, that could have been me laid down in the streets by police. All of that resonated and hit home.
I’m from Bed-Stuy, and I still live there. For me, not a day goes by where there’s not police presence in my neighborhood. Literally not a single day goes by—whether they’re riding down the same block 30 times in a 30-minute span, or they’re posted up in front of the building just standing there. I used this project as an outlet to speak on that, because it is affecting this country at the moment.
There is a new energy in the pen on this one because of what was going on. It’s more blatant. But at the same time, there’s a lot of hidden meanings, double entendres everywhere, and the lyricism that people want from me. But I’m using those moments to speak directly on [current events] and the way they affect me and my neighborhood.
You just spoke of how sharp your wordplay and lyricism are on every album. Do you ever worry your intricacy could go over people’s heads, or do you just write for your core audience?
Skyzoo: A little bit of both. I take it into consideration when I’m writing, because you have to think from a business standpoint as far as what consumers gravitate to. But at the same time, I make music designed to last forever, and I feel like the music that’s understood and easily digested right now is the music that doesn’t matter five years from now.
[With albums] like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, you’re still breaking them down and celebrating them 20 years later. We’re still getting things from that music and pulling from it. The music is still serving you. You really got that $9.99 worth, and with my music, I want to do the same thing.
So I take it into consideration at times, but it doesn’t make me change my approach to writing. I’m not trying to outsmart the listener, I’m just trying to make them listen even deeper—feel a deeper connection and pay attention, as opposed to it just being background music. I want to be foreground music, where you’re grabbing something from it because you relate to it.
A lot of your songs actually pay homage to your heroes. Why do you consider that important?
Skyzoo: Jay, Nas, Big, Scarface and Andre 3000 did a lot for me as an MC growing up, so I want to continue that legacy. They say “Give the flowers while someone can still smell them,” and on top of that I’m still a fan. No matter how many records I’ve put out, or how many accolades I’ve been blessed to receive, I’m always gonna be a fan first. I’m always gonna get excited when I hear one of my favorite MCs is dropping new music, break it down with a fine-toothed comb, get excited if they killed it, be a little disappointed if they didn’t, and wish that I had the instrumentals so that I could tear it up as well. I’m still the same guy I was at 13, listening to Hot 97 and hearing all of my favorites.
Speaking of the radio, “On The Stretch & Bob Show” is a tribute to underground radio pioneers Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia. Tell me about the concept of that song.
Brown: That was definitely Skyzoo’s idea; I rolled with it because I thought it was dope. Stretch & Bobbito’s radio show in the ‘90s was amazing. I think every MC that’s come up in New York that knew anything about that show would have loved to be on it, so why not recreate it?
I went through hours and hours of the show’s audio trying to find pieces that I could put together to create a faux interview. I finally found clips that worked, and in the meantime, I got to learn a lot because I’m from Michigan. I always knew about Stretch & Bobbito, but I never really delved deep into the show until now. I learned to appreciate and definitely respect what they did back then.
That was a fun record to make. It was challenging, and it sounds different from any other record on the album. It sounds hazy, and there’s a lo-fi quality to it. If people say it sounds like it isn’t mixed and mastered, it’s supposed to sound like it’s on the radio. But it came out dope, I love that track.
Skyzoo: That’s one of my favorite records on the project. It’s a concept that I came up with upon seeing their documentary [Radio That Changed Lives]. I grew up on the second half of Stretch & Bob’s run on Hot 97, when they were at Columbia University, I was young. I was maybe 11 or 12, I wasn’t listening to college radio [Thursday nights at 1 a.m.].
You had school the next day.
Skyzoo: You didn’t even know college radio existed when there was no internet. I knew their legend and what they were able to do for the game, and the documentary brought it all home even more. That made me say, “I wish I was around for that era at 25 or 30 years old to go up there and get busy.”
Then I realized we have this thing called the Internet, where you can chop some things up and make it feel like that. I went to Apollo with the concept and I told him to watch the documentary first. I told him I wanted it to sound like they interviewed me, then I went off for 50 or 100 bars.
Having grown up loving hip-hop as a native New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the city not having a star that sounds authentic in 2016?
Skyzoo: It’s rough, because it is something that you want. I’m a huge basketball fan, and it’s kind of like in the NBA, you ask how the New York team has no relevance. Back when the Knicks were doing really bad years ago and we didn’t have Carmelo Anthony, it was like “How is New York gonna have a basketball team that doesn’t matter?”
With this being the birthplace, the home and the root of it all, as a New Yorker, you want one of your own to be one of the winners whether you make music or not. When you’re looking at Drake, Kendrick, J. Cole and whoever else, you want one of the guys sitting there with them to be from the city.
We deal with the age old idea of New York losing its identity, and in the mainstream sense, that may be true. But with the internet, there’s a ton of New Yorkers who get busy and keep the identity of the city. As a fan, all you gotta do is go look for it, find it online and enjoy it.
On various Sundays, you’ll mention classic jazz albums that you’re into on social media. With you using such a diverse array of flows and cadences, is it safe to say you use your voice as an MC in synchrony with beats the way jazz musicians operate?
Skyzoo: I definitely try to. That’s definitely the goal in what I try to do, so hearing you say that means that I’m accomplishing that goal and I appreciate that. That comes from being a jazz head like you said. I listen to more jazz than hip-hop in the crib, driving or walking down the street.
I guess subliminally I’m taking in all of that every time I listen to Miles, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or Horace Silver. I’m taking those elements of the musicianship and implementing them in the music, and it comes through whether it’s on purpose or not. I don’t sit and try to come up with melodies, but when I write, it makes me tackle the beat a certain way. Subconsciously, it’s coming from the jazz inspiration and that stuff sitting in my ears for so long.
A lot of your songs’ themes deal with you trying to define success for yourself. How do you define success at this stage of your careers?
Skyzoo: For me, success is being happy with what you’ve achieved. I always feel it’s in the eye of the beholder, and it’s different for everyone. We all want to be financially straight and able to say, “I made x amount of dollars, I’m good. That was a successful project and tour.” I definitely want that. But along with that, I want to be able to make music that people care about. If I was born and raised in this current era, maybe it would be different. But I’m from an era where you gotta be able to look in the mirror after you made music and be proud of what you see and hear.
When I look back at older projects, like The Salvation, A Dream Deferred, Live From The Tape Deck and The Great Debater, they’ve been out for years, and people still talk about them. They talk about how the music changed their lives, and they still listen to it, even though it came out five or six years ago. That’s success to me, it means I’m honing in with these people. Years from now, people will be able to say, “He did something that impacted where, who and how we are as people.”
Brown: Success for me is being able to make an impact on hip-hop. If I stopped making music right now and disappeared into the sunset, I would just want to know that I touched people, that I allowed them to forget things or remember things with my music. I would want to know that my work could stay alive for eternity. But also, success for me is having an amazing home life with a family and being around people that love you unconditionally no matter what. It’s not necessarily a monetary thing or about fame for me.
What’s your ultimate vision?
Brown: Inspiration is everywhere. When you look out the window, when you’re feeding your kids, when you take your lady to the movies, listening to music and while driving. I can look at things, hear things, smell things and get inspired to make good music. My ultimate vision is to stay consistent in making music that people can feel and relate to. Consistency leads to longevity in this industry.
Skyzoo: The hunger is there 1,000 percent. I feel underrated no matter what I accomplish in what I’ve been blessed to do. No matter how many people champion me, I still feel like there’s more to go. You can win a championship, take two months to go on vacation, then come back and get in the gym to shoot 1,000 jumpers a day. There’s another season next year and you gotta get that ring, too.