Itâ€™s hard being a Hip Hop head sometimes, endlessly waiting on albums that are always being pushed back or never coming to fruition. For years, fans have yearned for another Black Star album, been tormented by the myth of Act IIand completely lost all hope on Detox.Since their first appearance over a DJ Premier beat, fans have been desperately waiting on a full-length project from Skyzoo and Torae. On May 27th their prayers will be answered when the New York duo release Barrel Brothers. I caught up with them to find out what took so long, their take on the New York resurgence and the gentrification of Brooklyn.
Mazin: Letâ€™s start at the beginning. How did you guys meet?
Skyzoo: We met back inâ€¦â€™05. We met back in 2005. Tor does a better job of telling the quick version of this story then I do. He can take it from there.
Torae: The quick short versionâ€¦ we actually got linked up via Chaundon and DJ Vega Benetton who were working on a project and Chaundon wanted both of us to feature on the record. We heard each otherâ€™s verses, we were fans of one and other, we started kind of chopping it up on the Sidekick, and then we met later on after that, face to face. Weâ€™ve been cool ever since.
Mazin: Now Iâ€™m sure the talks for you two to do a project together have been in the works for a long time. What took so long and why now?
Skyzoo: Well it started off of the two records that we did together, â€œClickâ€ and â€œGet It Done.â€ It started with all that. When we did those records, it was two solo artists coming together to do records and [DJ Premier] wanted to do a record with both of us so it just made a lot of sense to do it that way. Something different. We put it out as a Fat Beats vinyl and all that. Then they started to take a life of they own. People always wanted to hear us together and we always did records together cause we was like family. We hadnâ€™t really established ourselves as solo artists yet. I had some mixtapes, Tor had some mixtapes. We had done little things, but neither of us felt that we had done enough individually to be able really put our flag in the dirt before coming together as a duo. So years later, weâ€™ve done that. Iâ€™ve put out two albums, Torâ€™s put out an album and a bunch of mixtapes and EPs that flow like albums. Weâ€™ve done enough on our own where we said, â€œOk now if we come together, people will get it and know that weâ€™re solo artists and have our own agendas.â€ And it made sense. We both had the time, we had the open time to do it. We said, â€œLetâ€™s go do it and give the people what they want.â€
Mazin: Respect. Like you said, both of you are accomplished solo artists; this is the first time youâ€™re making an album with another rapper. What was that experience like and was there any conflict in beat selection or anything like that?
Torae: Nah, not at all. That was one of the things, that I guess was the hold-up per se, was just us having the time to get together and do it. We have the camaraderie, we have the chemistry with one another. Outside of the music, we friends. We homies. We chill and watch basketball together. You know, do things that we like. So when we get in the studio, there wasnâ€™t any conflicts, any hiccups with he and I. And as far as why I chose to work with Sky, outside of the fans asking for it and wanting it, Iâ€™m a big fan of Skyzoo. Heâ€™s one of the best lyricists of any generation and definitely one of the best lyricists of our time right now. I know working with him, he always brings the best out of me and vice versa. Our chemistry is undeniable, and our schedules opened up. We were able to do it. You know, coming up and being a fan of Nas and AZ and wanting to see them do it. Watching [Raekwon] and [Ghostface Killah] and all the other incredible tandems that our fan base really wanted and looked forward to. We decided to make it happen.
Mazin: What was the main difference between making a solo project and one with another rapper?
Skyzoo: Only having to do half the work. You know what I mean? Instead of writing two verses and a hook, you write one verse and a hook. Or sometimes you only have to write one verse. On top of that, outside of the work load being lighter, itâ€™s fun because youâ€™re working with somebody, like Tor said, youâ€™re working with somebody that you respect. You respect their pen game. You love what they do, the same things he said about me, I can say about him. Torâ€™s one of the dopest out, as far as lyricism, as far as emceeing and all that, easily. The raw passion, aggression that he brings on the record and the way he puts it all together is something that is missing nowadays as well. So heâ€™s able to succeed with that. Just makes sense doing this project together, bringing the best out of each other. Itâ€™s like you shooting or playing horse in the gym. You just messing around and, â€œOh he threw it off the backboard like that, Iâ€™m gonna throw it off the backboard like this.â€ Itâ€™s just nice. Itâ€™s real fly. Itâ€™s a good time.
Mazin: You mentioned â€œClickâ€ and â€œBarrel Brothersâ€ is among your great collaborations. Ever since â€œClickâ€ and â€œGet it Doneâ€ people have been talking about you two making a project together. Did you feel a lot of pressure making this album?
Skyzoo: I donâ€™t. I personally donâ€™t.
Torae: Yeah, yeah. It wasnâ€™t a lot of pressure for us. I think the reason why people wanna hear records together and have been pushing for us to work together is because they respect what we do when we get together. I know Skyzoo is not gonna take a bar off on a verse, he knows Iâ€™m not gonna take a bar off. It wasnâ€™t any added pressure. I think the expectation and the hype surrounding the project is great. Weâ€™re sure itâ€™s gonna live up to what people want from us because we didnâ€™t go in trying to do anything but what weâ€™ve always been doing. When youâ€™re just comfortable doing what you do, thereâ€™s no pressure. Itâ€™s like waking up in the morning, do a hundred push-ups, go take a piss, get you some coffee. Itâ€™s what you do on a regular basis. You donâ€™t feel pressure to do any of those things cause itâ€™s your normal routine. So me and Sky going in the studio and having chemistry and selecting the best beats and trying to write the best verses, itâ€™s not a pressure situation. Itâ€™s just another day at the office.
Mazin: Amazing. So you mentioned Rae and Ghost and some other dope collaborations. Whatâ€™s your favorite rapping duo of all time?
Skyzoo: I would personally say Jadakiss and Styles P.
Torae: I would have to go with Nas and AZ.
Mazin: Why those picks?
Toare: For me, Nas and AZ because the way they came together and both being real fly with it. They were perfectly matched: Nas being a Queens guy, AZ being Brooklyn guy, both of them being real charismatic, both of them being ridiculously lyrical. Nas has probably gained a higher level of status as far as his overall career, but you canâ€™t take anything away from AZ lyrically. Heâ€™s always been a top notch emcee. His pen game is crazy. When those two came together, whether it was on Illmatic or it was on Doe or Die or whatever, they always brought the fire. When you look, even when they skipped an album or didnâ€™t work together, when you saw that next album come out and you saw one of the two featured on the track list and you got excited for that track. I feel like, when people see Sky and I, whether itâ€™s his mixtape or one of my projects, when they see one of our names on a track list as a feature, they get excited. They say, â€œI wanna skip to number seven first before I take in the whole project.â€ That excitement always helped me; got me excited as far as when I saw them together. Thatâ€™s why I chose those two.
Skyzoo: As far as Jada and Styles, it was just the essence of the mixtape era. [DJ Clue] tapes and them going back and forth and you just heard the stupidest shit, in a great way. I say stupid meaning like the craziest shit. You heard them just loosing they minds. The fact that sometimes it wasnâ€™t even four-for-four or two-for-two, sometimes it was one-for-one! Sometimes they would finish each otherâ€™s lines. You know what I mean? It was something that had never really been done in Hip Hop before. Obviously EPMD had done it, to an extent, but sometimes they would go for one-for-one. They would finish the same bar with one another. It was wild man. When I saw that, it was wild. It was different. It was crazy. When I first saw that in high school or whatever it was, you know?
Mazin: Next thing I wanted to ask you about was the art of freestyling. Now both of you are very equipped off the dome. Thereâ€™s plenty documented radio freestyles of the two of you going off on radio spitting eloquently off the top. But Big Daddy Kane once said that a freestyle is just â€œfree of style.â€ It doesnâ€™t have to be off the dome. Do you think that every rapper today should be able to spit off the dome as a prerequisite?
Skyzoo: I think it should be. I know that thatâ€™s probably not the case, and it probably never will be the case. Cause you know, the money and the image and the branding has eclipsed all of that as far as the music. But it should be. Itâ€™s like if somebody said, â€œLike Ok, you can play but you gotta be able to run a lay-up line, or you gotta be able to shoot free-throws, or you gotta be able to dribble with your left hand.â€ Itâ€™s the same thing. How you gonna have a Sprite deal and you gonna have this and you gonna have this-this-this and you gonna be that guy, but you canâ€™t dribble with your left hand? I think itâ€™s that much of a necessity as far as the fundamentals of the sport go. I think itâ€™s that high. But obviously itâ€™s not. Obviously itâ€™s a different ball game. But for me, thatâ€™s just a personal thing. I know if I do a radio interview and I spit a written and go crazy, every time Iâ€™m on the radio for the rest of my life, it wouldnâ€™t be no different. Nobody would say, â€œOh word, you spit a written as opposed to an off the head.â€ Nobody would care that it was written or not. But I care. I care that I went up there and spit off the head as oppose to a written. Or whatever it may be. Thatâ€™s just me. Thatâ€™s just the internal thing, a fundamental thing on my end. Itâ€™s like being able to say, â€œI wanna know how to dribble with my left. Nobody may ever play me on my left, but I wanna be able to dribble to my left.â€ This is what it is.
Torae: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Just to echo what Sky said, itâ€™s part of the exercise. I think the difference nowadays is everybody isnâ€™t a lyricist. I think itâ€™s a lyrical exercise. Something that true lyricists wanna do, you wanna be able to be spontaneous with what youâ€™re saying. Again, itâ€™s like shooting free-throws, another basketball analogy. You couldâ€™ve had the craziest vertical and jump out the gym and been able to dunk all over the place, but when you get fouled and the last ten seconds of the game, can you hit the free throws and really knock it down?
For me, freestyling is a sport. It keeps me sharp. I would walk down the block rhyming to myself and looking like a psychopath. Itâ€™s just another way to keep yourself sharp, stay on your toes and be prepared for a situation. You never know when youâ€™re gonna have to come off the head. You never know when the record might skip at a live performance and you in front of a hundred thousand, you gonna stand there and look stupid or you gonna figure it out and make sure the show goes on? For me, itâ€™s just another form of exercise, like doing push ups or doing curls. Freestyling is a lyrical exercise. I think all true emcees should be able to do it.
Mazin: Respect. Now both of you are putting this album out on your personal imprints and Tor, you were an A&R and a radio host. How has working on the business side affected your process of making music?
Torae: I always had a business mind. You know I was a business major in school. I started Internal Affairs Entertainment when I was a kid. It was one of the first things I did. I started my own company because I always knew there was more to be an artist then just rapping and standing on the stage. And the business part is a bigger deal, especially in 2014 where the music is gone as far as the sales and the impact of the Internet and the impact of social media as far as social networks, I thought it was important to always have your own company. You know, Iâ€™m not the type of person that would wanna work for anybody. If I gotta go to some place and it feels like work then itâ€™s not for me. Iâ€™d definitely much rather work for myself and be in business with myself. And even if it means selling seven, ten thousand records as oppose to selling a million, if I make the best business deals then Iâ€™m gonna still, monetarily, be Ok. So my love for the music and the culture is what enables me to be a good on-air personality and enables me to be a solid A&R and tell people how to put together a song or be able to put an emcee with a producer and have them get in the studio and make something dope. Because itâ€™s all just extended from my love of the culture. Itâ€™s all extended from me being a fan of the music first. Before you can do anything in this business, you gotta be a fan of it. And so I came up as a fan. I think that thatâ€™s my greatest asset in all the things that I do in music. From emceeing to hosting to whatever else, cause then you more in-depth and more in line with whatâ€™s going on.
Mazin: With the Internet, do you guys think that itâ€™s easier or harder for rappers to get on today as oppose to the demo-tape era?
Skyzoo: I think itâ€™s actually both if that makes sense. Itâ€™s actually both. Because what happens is, with the Internet, thereâ€™s no rules, thereâ€™s no laws, thereâ€™s no screening. You just go. Anybody can record something on their own, shoot a video for it on their iPhone or get somebody with a Canon or whatever it is and upload something. And send it to you guys or send it to another blog or source. Put it on TuneCore and get it on iTunes. Anybody can do it. But at the same time, that makes it easier, but that also makes it harder because what happens is, thereâ€™s so many people trying to get through the same hole, trying to get through the same door. Thereâ€™s so many people trying to get through this one door. It becomes, â€œOk, how do you get through as oppose to these other people getting through in front of you? Or without getting pushed out of the way by the people behind you?â€ So you have to do that much more in order to stand out, in order to really have an impact and to really make a difference, because it is so easy. Itâ€™s so easy to put something out.
Back when I first start rhyming or even when I was really going crazyâ€¦ I started rhyming when I was nine, but when I was really, every single day, you couldnâ€™t tell me I wasnâ€™t gonna get signed tomorrow. Couldnâ€™t tell me I wasnâ€™t gonna run into [Puff Daddy] on the street and get signed and all that when I was fifteen, sixteen, everyday. In those days, if I had what these kids have now, as far as access to the blogs and people to put music out, access to making music in your home and shooting your own videos, I wouldâ€™ve never went to school.
Skyzoo: [Laughs] You know what I mean? I wouldâ€™ve just been in my manâ€™s studio, and shooting videos the next day. I wouldâ€™ve been like Lil B. I wouldâ€™ve been doing a record and going to shoot the video right away. You know what I mean? I wouldâ€™ve never went to school. The options they are all endless. The possibilities are endless. So, itâ€™s yes and no, if that makes sense. Hopefully that explanation worked. Itâ€™s yes and no.
Mazin: I see what youâ€™re saying, itâ€™s a bigger pool of people that youâ€™re competing with but the avenues are greater.
Mazin: In the press release for Barrel Brothers you mentioned the â€œresurgence of New York Hip-Hop.â€ What do you think brought about this â€œresurgenceâ€ and how do you guys feel about it?
Torae: I think everything goes in 360 degrees. It should all come back around at some point. As far as the resurgence, it was just the time. I feel like people wanted to hear New York again. The South had on lock for such a long time with such a strong hold and I think right now, on the mainstream side of things, the West Coast is actually really solid. They got maybe ten, eleven artists out there right now that are really, really making noise and really, really selling records and selling-out venues and things of that nature. And, itâ€™s just time for New York City again. Thereâ€™s been a bunch of cats bubbling in the underground scene for a while and I think the focus and the shift is slowly moving back towards the East.
Now with that being said, thereâ€™s still work to be done as far as the New York City sound and feeling in the mainstream. We have a lot of artists from New York, but they donâ€™t necessarily sound like New York in their music. And when I say that, that doesnâ€™t mean sound like 90â€™s boom bap, backpack rap. But just from the slang to the style of beats to the way they ride they beats. I think only a handful of emcees that you hear from New York actually sound like New York. If you put on a record and you canâ€™t tell if an artist is from Atlanta or Huston, even though they might have been born in the Bronx or Staten Island or wherever, that doesnâ€™t make it a New York record. That doesnâ€™t make it New York rap, as far as my definition. If you put on the Barrel Brothers, anything by Torae or Skyzoo, you donâ€™t have to look at the cover art, you donâ€™t have to look at the title, you donâ€™t have to do anything but press play and you gonâ€™ say, â€œOh yeah, heâ€™s from New York.â€ Or if notâ€¦ you know back in the days we used to think Tha Alkaholiks was from New York cause they were so lyrical and they shit was hitting so hard, people would automatically say, â€œDamn this sound like some New York shit.â€ But if you knew they was West Coast artists, you would say, â€œYo, they sound like New York.â€ Nowadays, a lot of cats from the five boroughs sound like everywhere else but the five boroughs. Our mission with the Barrel Brothers album, and throughout our careers, was to always just put a flag in the dirt and really rep for New York City. Whether it was the popular thing to do, or the trendy thing to do, we not part of the New York resurgence because we wanna be down with whatâ€™s going on now. We part of the resurgence in New York because weâ€™ve always been New York and never wavered in our music making to fit in with a style or a trend.
Skyzoo: Agreed. The music that youâ€™re making should represent where youâ€™re from. If youâ€™re from a certain area, you should sound like it. That doesnâ€™t mean that you should be stagnant, as far as other regions. Not at all. We grew up listening to just as much West Coast and down South as we did New York. I know the whole Doggystyle by heart. You couldnâ€™t tell me anything about that when it came out. You still canâ€™t. But at the same time, when I make music it reflects who I am, where Iâ€™m from, how I came up, where Iâ€™m tryna go, and what Iâ€™m about. And I think everybody should be that way. I think thatâ€™s why the West is winning. You have the Kendrick Lamarâ€™s, you have the Nipsey Hussles, you have the Dom Kenndeyâ€™s, you have the Problemâ€™s, you have the YGâ€™s, that are making music that reflects where theyâ€™re from. The reason that other regions like it is because youâ€™re giving them a side of you that they donâ€™t know because theyâ€™re not from there. If you come to New York and do a show and youâ€™re YG or youâ€™re Dom or Nipsey, you look like L.A, you dress like L.A, you sound like L.A, you smell like L.A. People are attracted to that. Theyâ€™re like, â€œYo thatâ€™s L.A! I wanna know more about it because thatâ€™s not what I see when I look out the window. I see New York when I look out the window.â€ And vice versa. When I got to the West or Tor goes to the West or down South or whatever, those people donâ€™t live the way we live so theyâ€™re attracted to it. Theyâ€™re like, â€œYeah I wanna know more, Iâ€™m interested in that.â€ So if youâ€™re from somewhere else and youâ€™re pretending to be them, why would they get behind that? Theyâ€™re gonna be like, â€œYou know what? I know what thatâ€™s like better than you do because Iâ€™m really from here. So Iâ€™m cool, Iâ€™ll pass on that.â€ And thatâ€™s the problem. Itâ€™s so simple but so many people seem blind to it. And itâ€™s so simple. Itâ€™s not even that hard. One and one is two.
Mazin: So do you think that lyricism is back in the forefront now?
Skyzoo: Yeah, I think itâ€™s been there. I thinkâ€¦ slowly but surely. Itâ€™s not everything you hear on the radio like it may have been back in the 90s or whatever. But when you have Kendrickâ€™s, you have Drakeâ€™s, you have [Lilâ€™] Wayneâ€™s, you have all these different guys on the radio, you know, J. Coles and Wales, things like that. Yea, lyricism is there. [Rick] Ross. Lyricism is on the radio when you turn it on. But what the content may be about, they maybe something to debate depending on what you looking for. But somebody being lyrical and making sense in a rap, itâ€™s on the radio at least 40% of the day.
Mazin: You agree with that Tor?
Torae: Yeah, to a certain extent. Obviously, itâ€™s not a 100% all lyrical thing on the radio on the mainstream, but it never was. It mightâ€™ve been a more balanced display of music a few years ago, or a few decades ago rather, but thereâ€™s definitely more lyricism on the air then their was five years ago. You know, like you said, a guy like Kendrick Lamar who was the biggest thing in the world last year, super lyrical. A guy like J. Cole, who has lyrical capabilities and his content and subject matter is a little more conscious than what you may hear on a regular basis. I definitely think that lyricism is making its way back to the forefront. And people care. And I think you can kind of attribute some of that to the Internet because when all you had was the radio to get your supply of music then you were forced to just listen to whatever the powers that be put into play. But now that you have your Soundclouds, Myspaces and Youtubes and all these different outlets to get music and stream music. You can play whatever the hell you want and if radio wants your dollars and they want those advertising bills then they have to start playing some of the things that people are demanding. And thatâ€™s when you get a guy like J. Cole, or Kendrick, or whoever you feel is lyrical. Thatâ€™s when you get guys like that being able to get record deals and be able to kind of pushed back to the forefront of the music.
Mazin: Definitely. Well the last question I wanted to ask you guys was about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Obviously Brooklynâ€™s changed a lot over the past ten years. How do you feel thatâ€™s gonna impact the future of Hip Hop that comes out of Brooklyn?
Skyzoo: I think itâ€™s gonna be a huge impact, and Iâ€™m dead smack in the middle of gentrification. Where Iâ€™m from, Iâ€™m in Bed-Stuy borderline Clinton Hill. I grew up a block away from Biggie. Literally, same street, everything. Just up the block.
Skyzoo: Everything he talked about in Ready to Die was happening in my neighborhood when I was 11, 12, 13 years old. That album was based on events going on around that time. When I was running to the store, when I was going to the park to play ball, or when I was trying to get a girl to come in the staircase with me. Those things were happening at that time. I saw all that stuff as a little kid. So, I say all that to say itâ€™s completely different now, to an extent. You still have incidents, you still have things that are going on but the change, especially in my hood, is ridiculous. Itâ€™s literally, you can see one type of person getting what they need to get a high for a couple hours, for lack of a better word, and walking right by them could be a Lily-White family with a Maclaren stroller. Thatâ€™s my neighborhood! You know what I mean? Thatâ€™s my neighborhood every single day and itâ€™s amazing. Iâ€™m not a fan of gentrification. When I say amazing, I donâ€™t mean that in a great way. I mean that in a shocking way. Iâ€™m not a fan of gentrification, only because of who it pushes out. Not because of the good that it does for the community. Because Iâ€™m all about my hood getting cleaned up. I saw my hood go through it and now to see it getting cleaned up somewhat, Iâ€™m all for it. But theyâ€™re not cleaning it up for us, and when I say us, I mean the folks that look like me. Theyâ€™re cleaning it up to get us out and get people who donâ€™t look like me to feel comfortable and safe enough to move over here and enjoy what theyâ€™ve done.
You know if youâ€™re pulling gentrification off to clean up the neighborhood, bring jobs to the community, you got the Barclay [Center] and all that, you tearing down peopleâ€™s houses to bring jobs to the community with the Barclay and youâ€™re putting these bars up, putting restaurants and youâ€™re bringing the cops around and youâ€™re cleaning up crime and youâ€™re cleaning up the garbage in the street and all that. Thatâ€™s great. But what happens to the lady whoâ€™s 80 and sheâ€™s been here since she was 30? She doesnâ€™t get to enjoy that? You know, thatâ€™s my stance on it. Theyâ€™re pushing us out by skyrocketing the rent. Making it impossible to live over here after theyâ€™ve already turned it clean. After theyâ€™ve already done â€˜the right thing with it. And Iâ€™m not a fan of that at all. You know?
Torae: Definitely, from a community stand point and from a musical standpoint. Even though we were coming up in the 90s, just kind of finding our way in the 90s, we were influenced by what was going on in the neighborhood. We were influenced by the hustlers, we were influenced by the fly-girls, we was influenced by the music that was being played. All of those things make up what our whole package is about. It defines as human beings and who we are as people, who we are as artists and I think that gentrification of the borough, for cats coming up nowadays, when they get to their mid-20s or what have you, they donâ€™t have the same Brooklyn experience that we had at 15. They wonâ€™t have the same story and I think that will be at the detriment of the city. Itâ€™s not the same. It doesnâ€™t stand out. You know, Iâ€™ve been all around the world. I see hipster communities in the middle of Poland and Russia. The things that make the city, the city, make the town, the town, once you start to wipe away some of those traditions, then the community loses its identity.
When I moved out of Coney Island, all my neighbors was Russian, you know? And normally they would be in the Brighton Beach area, but they were literally living right next door to where I was living. I think that overall… itâ€™s almost like a time capsule; you wanna put something away and bury and pull it out in 20 years from now and see whatâ€™s what. I think 20 years from now, a Brooklyn time capsule would encompass a whole bunch of different things and it wouldnâ€™t necessarily reflect the Brooklyn that we all grew to know and love.