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"I Ain't Mad No More" Rawkus Records

SKILLZ Bio by Ashley D
Since before the breakouts of his longtime friends—The Neptunes, Timbaland, Missy Elliott and the Clipse—the name Mad Skillz has been synonymous with quality wordfare from Virginia. Arriving onto the rap scene proper in 1994, Skillz stuck a flag in the ground and put the world on notice that Virginia was for as much for rhymers as for lovers.

The emcee now records under the moniker
‘Skillz’ because, as his album title states, “I ain’t mad no more.” I Ain’t Mad No More is not your typical hip-hop longplayer. It’s full of topics and textures, rhymes and rhythms, wit and wordplay, and guest shots from Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott, Musiq and Cee-Lo Green. Says Skillz, “I just wanted to bring something new to the table and give people something where they look at it and go ‘I can’t even believe this came out on Rawkus.’”

As planned, I Ain’t Mad No More eschews the hip-hop orthodoxy of regurgitated topics and harder-than-thou anthems, replacing them with an abundance of lyrical virtuosity and soul-drenched, intricate tunes.

On the first single, “Crew Deep” Skillz borrows from KRS-One, noting, “Rap is like a setup/It’s a lot of games/A lot of suckers with colorful names/I’m so-and-so, I’m this, I’m that/But all y’all cats rap about is cars and crack.” Produced by Hi-Tek, “Crew Deep” is an outright bragfest tricked out with a blaxploitative gangsta lean featuring the incomparable Missy Elliott and former Xscape member Kandi Burruss.

“Wave Your Hands” is a cut of hip-hop soul, held down by Philly crooner Musiq. It’s backed by a track that’s current enough for new school fickleness and bouncy enough for the dance floor, while seeming like a throwback to earlier, more carefree times, especially when Musiq flows sublimely behind Skillz as he directs listeners to “Keep on to the break of dawn as we rock on y’all to the early morn.”

Similarly, “Y’all See Me,” featuring St. Louis rising star Pretty Willie, is an anthem loaded with playful string and key arrangements. There’s also “Skillz Vs. Shaquaan,” a self-produced conceptual coup, where Skillz battles a hater whose girlfriend likes Skillz’ music a little too much.

“Only Get One” is a poignant, mellow number featuring Philly soul scenesters Aaries. Written as a final conversation with his mother, the song is the result of years of self-introspection, with Skillz breaking into tears. Produced by the Neptunes, “Suzy Q” is a picture-perfect fable where Skillz ends up getting played like a video game by a smooth operator. Another standout tune is “Imagine,” a cinematic narrative of love, betrayal, loss and guilt. “When I got the beat I didn’t know what I was gonna write about, but I knew it had to be something,” says Skillz.

Despite the variety represented on I Ain’t Mad No More, there’s still no shortage of undiluted hip-hop boastfulness, best exemplified by the duets “PA to VA” and “It’s Like

That,” featuring Philly’s Pretty Ugly and Supafriend Danja Mowf, respectively. Cuts like these make it clear that the battle of MC in Skillz’ soul is alive and kicking. “He gon’ always be there and he always gonna be a part of me. I just gotta learn how to tone his ass down sometimes. But it’s always good to have him there, just in case.”

In 1994, Mad Skillz was living in Virginia, pursuing his rap dreams. He was born in Detroit, Michigan and relocated to Fayetteville, North Carolina before settling down and making Richmond his adopted home in 1987. He’d been bitten by the rap bug during hip-hop’s golden age—the years of enduring classics from Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Rakim, the legendary MCs whose words inspired him to create his own. “Hip-hop was more or less a way of life,” Skillz says with no pretense.

Displaying that he was worthy of the name Mad Skillz, the MC garnered a reputation as battling baron, a metaphor master and punchline professor, taking out more opppponents than most MCs can wave a rap book at. “If you were in a cipher with Skillz, you definitely walked away knowing who he was,” says Malice of up-and-coming Virginia rap duo the Clipse. “You didn’t want to go up against him.”

Skillz landed a well-deserved recording contract and in 1995 released the aptly-titled From Where???, a small-nod to the then undiscovered talent of Virginia. Filled with avant-garde beats from the Large Professor, the Beatnuts and Buckwild, and wide weaves of words and wit with Skillz “grinding on nouns, hitting verbs from the back,” the album became an underground favorite. From Where??? spawned the hit single “Nod Factor,” along with the underground thumper “Extra Abstract Skillz” featuring Large Professor and Q-Tip, and garnered a Hip-Hop Quotable in The Source.

During his off-season, Skillz also discovered ghostwriting, as depicted on his underground 12-inch classic, “Ghost Writer.” “When I fell into the ghostwriting, I was like, fuck rap,” he jokes. “But like I love rapping too much.” The ghostwriting jobs (for emcees he won’t name) kept food on the table, but for Skillz, rapping has always been more of a vocation than an occupation. “I’ve always been a person with a work ethic,” he says, “I don’t mind getting up in the morning and doing a 9-to-5.”

He still has the Skillz. He just ain’t mad no more. Got it?