It’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: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you guys meet?
Skyzoo: We met back in…’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 version… 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 other’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. We’ve been cool ever since.
Mazin: Now I’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, “Click” and “Get It Done.” 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 hadn’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, we’ve done that. I’ve put out two albums, Tor’s put out an album and a bunch of mixtapes and EPs that flow like albums. We’ve done enough on our own where we said, “Ok now if we come together, people will get it and know that we’re solo artists and have our own agendas.” And it made sense. We both had the time, we had the open time to do it. We said, “Let’s go do it and give the people what they want.”
Mazin: Respect. Like you said, both of you are accomplished solo artists; this is the first time you’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 wasn’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, I’m a big fan of Skyzoo. He’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, it’s fun because you’re working with somebody, like Tor said, you’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. Tor’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 he’s able to succeed with that. Just makes sense doing this project together, bringing the best out of each other. It’s like you shooting or playing horse in the gym. You just messing around and, “Oh he threw it off the backboard like that, I’m gonna throw it off the backboard like this.” It’s just nice. It’s real fly. It’s a good time.
Mazin: You mentioned “Click” and “Barrel Brothers” is among your great collaborations. Ever since “Click” and “Get it Done” people have been talking about you two making a project together. Did you feel a lot of pressure making this album?
Skyzoo: I don’t. I personally don’t.
Torae: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’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 I’m not gonna take a bar off. It wasn’t any added pressure. I think the expectation and the hype surrounding the project is great. We’re sure it’s gonna live up to what people want from us because we didn’t go in trying to do anything but what we’ve always been doing. When you’re just comfortable doing what you do, there’s no pressure. It’s like waking up in the morning, do a hundred push-ups, go take a piss, get you some coffee. It’s what you do on a regular basis. You don’t feel pressure to do any of those things cause it’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, it’s not a pressure situation. It’s just another day at the office.
Mazin: Amazing. So you mentioned Rae and Ghost and some other dope collaborations. What’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 can’t take anything away from AZ lyrically. He’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 didn’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 it’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, “I wanna skip to number seven first before I take in the whole project.” That excitement always helped me; got me excited as far as when I saw them together. That’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 wasn’t even four-for-four or two-for-two, sometimes it was one-for-one! Sometimes they would finish each other’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. There’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 “free of style.” It doesn’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 that’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. It’s like if somebody said, “Like 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.” It’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 can’t dribble with your left hand? I think it’s that much of a necessity as far as the fundamentals of the sport go. I think it’s that high. But obviously it’s not. Obviously it’s a different ball game. But for me, that’s just a personal thing. I know if I do a radio interview and I spit a written and go crazy, every time I’m on the radio for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be no different. Nobody would say, “Oh word, you spit a written as opposed to an off the head.” 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. That’s just me. That’s just the internal thing, a fundamental thing on my end. It’s like being able to say, “I 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.” This is what it is.
Torae: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Just to echo what Sky said, it’s part of the exercise. I think the difference nowadays is everybody isn’t a lyricist. I think it’s a lyrical exercise. Something that true lyricists wanna do, you wanna be able to be spontaneous with what you’re saying. Again, it’s like shooting free-throws, another basketball analogy. You could’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. It’s just another way to keep yourself sharp, stay on your toes and be prepared for a situation. You never know when you’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, it’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, I’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 it’s not for me. I’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 I’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 it’s all just extended from my love of the culture. It’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 that’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 what’s going on.
Mazin: With the Internet, do you guys think that it’s easier or harder for rappers to get on today as oppose to the demo-tape era?
Skyzoo: I think it’s actually both if that makes sense. It’s actually both. Because what happens is, with the Internet, there’s no rules, there’s no laws, there’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, there’s so many people trying to get through the same hole, trying to get through the same door. There’s so many people trying to get through this one door. It becomes, “Ok, 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?” 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. It’s so easy to put something out.
Back when I first start rhyming or even when I was really going crazy… I started rhyming when I was nine, but when I was really, every single day, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t gonna get signed tomorrow. Couldn’t tell me I wasn’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 would’ve never went to school.
Skyzoo: [Laughs] You know what I mean? I would’ve just been in my man’s studio, and shooting videos the next day. I would’ve been like Lil B. I would’ve been doing a record and going to shoot the video right away. You know what I mean? I would’ve never went to school. The options they are all endless. The possibilities are endless. So, it’s yes and no, if that makes sense. Hopefully that explanation worked. It’s yes and no.
Mazin: I see what you’re saying, it’s a bigger pool of people that you’re competing with but the avenues are greater.
Mazin: In the press release for Barrel Brothers you mentioned the “resurgence of New York Hip-Hop.” What do you think brought about this “resurgence” 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, it’s just time for New York City again. There’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, there’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 don’t necessarily sound like New York in their music. And when I say that, that doesn’t mean sound like 90’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 can’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 doesn’t make it a New York record. That doesn’t make it New York rap, as far as my definition. If you put on the Barrel Brothers, anything by Torae or Skyzoo, you don’t have to look at the cover art, you don’t have to look at the title, you don’t have to do anything but press play and you gon’ say, “Oh yeah, he’s from New York.” Or if not… 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, “Damn this sound like some New York shit.” But if you knew they was West Coast artists, you would say, “Yo, they sound like New York.” 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 what’s going on now. We part of the resurgence in New York because we’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 you’re making should represent where you’re from. If you’re from a certain area, you should sound like it. That doesn’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 couldn’t tell me anything about that when it came out. You still can’t. But at the same time, when I make music it reflects who I am, where I’m from, how I came up, where I’m tryna go, and what I’m about. And I think everybody should be that way. I think that’s why the West is winning. You have the Kendrick Lamar’s, you have the Nipsey Hussles, you have the Dom Kenndey’s, you have the Problem’s, you have the YG’s, that are making music that reflects where they’re from. The reason that other regions like it is because you’re giving them a side of you that they don’t know because they’re not from there. If you come to New York and do a show and you’re YG or you’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. They’re like, “Yo that’s L.A! I wanna know more about it because that’s not what I see when I look out the window. I see New York when I look out the window.” And vice versa. When I got to the West or Tor goes to the West or down South or whatever, those people don’t live the way we live so they’re attracted to it. They’re like, “Yeah I wanna know more, I’m interested in that.” So if you’re from somewhere else and you’re pretending to be them, why would they get behind that? They’re gonna be like, “You know what? I know what that’s like better than you do because I’m really from here. So I’m cool, I’ll pass on that.” And that’s the problem. It’s so simple but so many people seem blind to it. And it’s so simple. It’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 it’s been there. I think… slowly but surely. It’s not everything you hear on the radio like it may have been back in the 90s or whatever. But when you have Kendrick’s, you have Drake’s, you have [Lil’] Wayne’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, it’s on the radio at least 40% of the day.
Mazin: You agree with that Tor?
Torae: Yeah, to a certain extent. Obviously, it’s not a 100% all lyrical thing on the radio on the mainstream, but it never was. It might’ve been a more balanced display of music a few years ago, or a few decades ago rather, but there’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 that’s when you get a guy like J. Cole, or Kendrick, or whoever you feel is lyrical. That’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 Brooklyn’s changed a lot over the past ten years. How do you feel that’s gonna impact the future of Hip Hop that comes out of Brooklyn?
Skyzoo: I think it’s gonna be a huge impact, and I’m dead smack in the middle of gentrification. Where I’m from, I’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 it’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. It’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. That’s my neighborhood! You know what I mean? That’s my neighborhood every single day and it’s amazing. I’m not a fan of gentrification. When I say amazing, I don’t mean that in a great way. I mean that in a shocking way. I’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 I’m all about my hood getting cleaned up. I saw my hood go through it and now to see it getting cleaned up somewhat, I’m all for it. But they’re not cleaning it up for us, and when I say us, I mean the folks that look like me. They’re cleaning it up to get us out and get people who don’t look like me to feel comfortable and safe enough to move over here and enjoy what they’ve done.
You know if you’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 people’s houses to bring jobs to the community with the Barclay and you’re putting these bars up, putting restaurants and you’re bringing the cops around and you’re cleaning up crime and you’re cleaning up the garbage in the street and all that. That’s great. But what happens to the lady who’s 80 and she’s been here since she was 30? She doesn’t get to enjoy that? You know, that’s my stance on it. They’re pushing us out by skyrocketing the rent. Making it impossible to live over here after they’ve already turned it clean. After they’ve already done ‘the right thing with it. And I’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 don’t have the same Brooklyn experience that we had at 15. They won’t have the same story and I think that will be at the detriment of the city. It’s not the same. It doesn’t stand out. You know, I’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… it’s almost like a time capsule; you wanna put something away and bury and pull it out in 20 years from now and see what’s what. I think 20 years from now, a Brooklyn time capsule would encompass a whole bunch of different things and it wouldn’t necessarily reflect the Brooklyn that we all grew to know and love.