Back in the mid-1990s, I worked as a writer in the features department of The (Nashville) Tennessean. At the end of every year, we’d hold a party at Tom Roland’s home. Tom was the newspaper’s excellent music critic, and as part of the festivities he’d let us sort through all the unwanted CDs he’d received over the previous 12 months.
This was my introduction to Skee-Lo.
The CD I received was a single of his soon-to-be hit song, “I Wish.” I don’t recall the first time I played the tune, but it was listened to over and over and over and over again. For weeks, the music refused to escape my head; for weeks, I was trying to figure out what the hell “a rabbit in a hat with a bat” was. Hell, still don’t know.
Because of that experience, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Skee-Lo. Even though his time in the mainstream didn’t last especially long, he’s continued to tour and create new music through the years. Here, he talks about being labeled a one-hit wonder; about Tupac’s influence and why being short (he’s 5-foot-4) is no worse than being tall. One can listen to Skee-Lo’s new release, “Fresh Ideas,” here, follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here. Oh, and “I Wish” was recently featured in two of Toyota’s Super Bowl commercials. Heck, take a look …
Skee-Lo, your wishes have finally come true. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Antoine, I’m gonna start with a question that I really hope doesn’t offend you, because you’ve had an 8,000-times better music career than almost anyone reading this. But, well, where’d you go? In 1995, at age 23, you had an enormous, fantastic hit with “I Wish”—a song I absolutely love. You were nominated for two Grammy awards, worked as an MTV VJ … then you pretty much vanished. Now you have a new CD that just came out—and it’s absolutely fantastic. But … what happened? Did you lose interest in hip-hop? Did you lose the magic touch? Does the music business suck? I’d love to know.
SKEE-LO: Well Jeff, yes! I made history! But to answer your question, “The music business sucks!” I’m probably one of few artists who, at the height of his career, willingly retired. You see, I produced the “I Wish” album from scratch but—due to all of the unethical business that was going on (allegedly) with my former record label, Sunshine Records—I decided to go. I didn’t make any announcements about it, I just left. I had to regroup and plan for the future. I had to wait for the Internet to catch up to my ideas. And now, here we are!
My new album, “Fresh Ideas,” was released last November by God’s permission—and thank you! I am glad you like it! You can buy it on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Spotify. Also, I started my own record label “Skeelo Musik,” now distributed by Sony “Red Music” & WhatevaOk Ent. I never lost my touch. I just had to diversify and apply my skills in other areas.
J.P.: Your real name is Antoine Roundtree, you were born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., your father Archie was in the Air Force and you were raised in Chicago and Riverside. That’s pretty much what I know of your background. So, how did you get into hip-hop? How did you find your voice? And when did you first realize, “Damn, I’m awfully good at this”?
SKEE: Correction; my real name is Antoine X. My father’s name is Eugene (Chico), my stepfather is Archie and yes, he was in the military. I was born in Chicago on the south side in the Robert Taylor Homes. I later moved to the projects of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where I lived for several years. And that’s where I learned hip-hop. At the time it was groups like Kurtis Blow, UTFO, Whodini, Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-1 and more. I fell in love with the culture and that was that. Then I moved to Moreno Valley, California and—shortly thereafter—Los Angeles. I’ve been there ever since. I’ve lived in Los Angeles longer than any place I’ve ever been. I still visit Chicago and New York every year but I’m a Cali kid no doubt! Kinda like 2Pac is originally from New York and, Kurrupt is originally from Philly but are still West Coast emcees. I am very proud of my history and my Chicago roots because that’s where I got my soul. And New York is where I got my hip-hop. Los Angeles is where I refined my art and grew into an adult. I love L.A.
I first realized, “Damn! I’m awfully good at this,” just before the release of “I Wish.” As far as finding my voice, that was easy. I come from an era in hip-hop where “keeping it real” actually meant “keeping it real.” All of the artists were different and had their own voices back then. That’s the culture! Remember 2Pac, Biggie, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Ice Cube, Bone Thugz—all different.
J.P.: I was recently having a discussion with a friend whose son is in elementary school and very short. My friend is worried how this will impact his life. You’re 5-foot-4. How has being short impacted your life? Growing up, how hard was it? And what would you advise my friend?
SKEE: Don’t focus on his attributes as if they’re a defect. Instead, make him do everything you think he can’t do. So he will always know nothing is impossible. You ever see Chicken Little? You heard of “Derek Fisher”? Even I played football in high school. I played basketball, too. And can’t y’all tell I got taller!? You’re looking with the wrong eyes. Treat him like a champion.
J.P.: “I Wish” was awesome, and still is awesome. I mean it—a great, wonderful, joyful song. How did you come up with the theme? The lyrics? The ideas? And when did you first know it would be more than just another tune?
SKEE: I’m just living life, man, and rapping about my experiences. I was really going through some things when I wrote “I Wish.” The words just came out and, oddly enough, I had not produced the music yet. It made me feel good and others the same. It’s like I’ve been doing this so long … when I produce a track or another producer plays a track for me that I like, the music will tell me what to say and how to say it. I can hear in my mind the words, the hook, the rhythms, concepts, etc. As if the song already exists in the universe and, I just kinda tune-in and turn-up. You know what? I first knew “I Wish” was a hit record the second I wrote it.
J.P.: Back in the ’90s you sent your demo tape to a Los Angeles radio show, “Five Minutes of Fame,” and they played it on the air. You were just a young guy coming up. What did that feel like? Do you remember the exact moment … first time hearing your work live?
SKEE: That was a lot of fun! You see, at the time I was trying to get a record deal for the “I Wish” album. I had rejection letters from every major recording house, including the record label I later signed with. So good looking out to that radio show “Five Minutes of Fame!”
The experience got me a record deal for “I Wish,” but it wasn’t the first time I’d been on the radio. In 1990 I had a single in the Inland Empire called “Living For The Weekends.” It got rotation on local radio. I had a deal with a sub-label of Jive/RCA and I was opening shows for C&C Music Factory, Kid Frost, Vanilla Ice, Mellow Man Ace and Lighter Shade of Brown. I’ve been doing this professionally for 23 years now.
J.P.: When did you find out that Toyota wanted to use “I Wish” in a commercial? How did you feel about it? As an artist, are you 100% comfortable having your music used in commercials? And are there limits? Like, would you do a beer commercial? Cigarette commercial? Etc? Do you have to think about it? Etc … etc.
SKEE: I found out in early January that Toyota wanted to license “I Wish” so, as majority owner of the “I Wish” publishing/copyrights for U.S. territories and, the exclusive owner of “I Wish” in overseas territories—wish granted! Also, I thought it was a cool way to celebrate the song’s 18-year anniversary, and announce the release of my new album “Fresh Ideas.”
The commercial’s use of the song helped Toyota generate 11 million-plus views before game day and, it also re-introduced the song to a new generation. Billboard says: “Skee-Lo was the #6 most Tweeted artist during the Super Bowl”
Overall, It was a good look for hip-hop, Toyota, and Skee-Lo fans. Big ups to my publishing administrators at Modern Works for closing that deal. I don’t mind having my music in commercials, but there are limits. No alcohol, cigarettes, etc.
J.P.: I’ve been reading a bunch of articles from the mid-90s, and the universal take from writers seemed to be, “Wow! There’s this rapper, and he’s not talking about killing people in drive bys.” I’m wondering if, at the time, you found this somewhat offensive; as if, if you were a black kid rapping, it had to be about bitches and blunts and Glocks?
SKEE: The way I remember it, the record labels weren’t really signing anything else. Gangster rap was very popular in the ’90s. I figured there was nothing wrong with that but … that’s not me. It didn’t offend me what journalists said because I knew, as a black man living in America, we share the same experience. I’m just being myself, and not who others say I am.
J.P.: Hip-hop is a weird musical phenomenon, in that older artists can still be mainstream. What I mean is, Jay-Z, Snoop, Dr. Dre, Nelly, Eminem—all charting in their late 30s/early 40s. Meanwhile, once pop singers hit their 30s they all but vanish from radio. Why do you think this is? And, as a 37-year-old man, does this give you hope that your new release can draw interest?
SKEE: Regarding artists who vanish from radio, ask yourself this: Did the great/legendary artists of the 1980s & ’90s all disappear? Or are we just programmed to believe so? Because the real emcees/pop singers just get better with time. The entertainment industry sets the rules on age and trends and, therefore, that becomes the popular norm. But never let anyone tell you that you’re too old for something. And as long as I have something to say, I will say it. My new album “Fresh Ideas” is a work of art. It is by far the most honest, sincerest body of work I’ve ever done. As far as drawing interest, people can judge for themselves if they like it or not. You can listen to the Full length album at www.freshideasmusic.com.
J.P.: There’s a scene in Up In the Air, the George Clooney film, where Young MC performs Bust A Move for a room filled with middle-aged convention goers. It’s both funny and sorta sad, in that I’m guessing this isn’t what Marvin Young imagined he’d be doing 20 years after “Bust a Move.” But is it, ultimately, OK being known as a one-hit wonder? And do you, personally, accept that label?
SKEE: First of all, Young MC is a genius! He also helped pave the way for a lot of emcees—and never forget the good times we had partying to his music. He is at least in a George Clooney film, right? Not too many people can pull that off. Did you say middle age convention goers? Ohhhhh … you mean—fans. Or are the younger of these the only ones who count? The funny thing to me is, it just so happens that a Marvin Young record is playing right now on a “Pay-Day” candy-bar commercial. Even as I answer this very question. So good for him!
Let’s see—one-hit wonder, and does it bother me? No. I know who I am. I admit “I Wish” the single was a smash hit success for me. But so was “I Wish” the album. I got a Grammy nomination for that. (Best Rap Album—1996) Also, “Top of The Stairs” in the Money Train movie soundtrack, “Holding On,” Come Back To Me” in the Big Bully movie soundtrack, “Mr. Morton” (School House Rock Project), “I’ll be Your Everything” which I co-wrote with the group “Youngstown” for the Inspector Gadget movie theme song. These were all world-wide, multiplatinum success stories for me. In some countries I have three and four single releases. Praise be to Allah! Today these records are still spinnin’ on radio stations around the world. And you can also find “I Wish” in movies like American Pie and TV commercials like Toyota’s new Super Bowl ad.
And these were the Grammy nominees of 1996. I competed with…
Best rap solo performance:
“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio
“Keep Their Heads Ringin’” by Dr. Dre
“Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G.
“I Wish” by Skee-Lo
“Dear Mama” by 2Pac.
Best Rap album:
“E.1999 Eternal” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
“Poverty’s Paradise” by Naughty by Nature
“Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard
“I Wish” by Skee-Lo
“Me Against the World” by 2Pac.
J.P.: This might be a dumb question, but your new single is called “I Love LA.” As you know, Randy Newman has a song of the same name that’s pretty iconic. Were you concerned at all about this? Did you consider, maybe, “LA is a nice place—yeah” or something along those lines?
SKEE: Randy Newman never crossed my mind. I just love LA—that’s all …
J.P.: I’m an enormous Tupac fan, and I’m also pissed off at him. Insane talent, gifted beyond gifted, wealthy, successful. And yet, for some reason, he felt compelled to live this nonsense gangsta lifestyle, go with the thug life image, carry guns—and now he’s dead. Is my anger misplaced? Or am I right?
SKEE: No, 2Pac is the truth that many people don’t want to hear about. He’s someone who the hip-hop community identifies with. I agree with one thing—you should be pissed off, but not at 2Pac. Some gangsters wear suits, badges, uniforms and robes. They don’t go to jail for the evil they do; but they are gangsters. I Wish 2Pac were still here.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Steve Sax, the 405 at rush hour, Staples Center, Silence of the Lambs, strawberry scented candles, Beach, Hall & Oates, House Party II, Domino’s Pizza, pigeons, pottery classes, RGIII, Menudo: Beach, Staples Center, Domino’s Pizza, House Party II, RGIII, Steve Sax, Hall & Oates, Silence of the Lambs, pigeons, strawberry scented candles, pottery, Menudo, the 405 at rush hour.
• Strangest venue you’ve ever performed: It was actually an event in Seattle and, the stage was built on a cliff… it felt like Woodstock, though.
• Your wife Stacy Tweeted: “I married my best friend … a humble man who loves GOD more than anything!” How did you propose to her?: That’s my Queen & my BF so, with all respect, we have to keep something for ourselves you know? I will say this—it was very special. Follow my wife Stacy on: www.Twitter.com/ambroseonstage she might tell you …
• Celine Dion offers you $5 million to spend the next year rapping “I Wish” in Dutch four times per night in her Las Vegas show while hopping on one foot. You in?: Placing my order for Rosetta Stone right now!
Do you think the hip-hop world is fully ready to embrace an openly gay rapper?: Well, I can’t speak for the entire hip-hop world but, personally, what does sexual preference have to do with the song in your heart? And what if the hip-hop community does not embrace an openly gay rapper? Does that mean they hate gays? Does that mean they want to hurt gays and mistreat them? Or is it just they simply disagree? I hope we don’t start attacking people who disagree with our views. Because forcing your views upon others as if they have to agree with you (or else) is another form of control/programming …
• My friend is a rapper named MC White Owl. He did a song for my last book. What do you think?: He’s really dope; I love it … It’s hip-hop!
• Do you think it’s wrong for KISS to let guys who aren’t original members wear Peter Criss and Ace Frehely makeup?: No. A band is also a business, a corporation and a brand. If you love Kiss, support them. Look at The Temptations. They have also changed their members over the years.
• Best joke you know off the top of your head …: What did the Leprechaun say to his Therapist? “Irish I Was A Lil Bit Taller,” “Irish I Was A Baller,” “Irish I Had A Girl Who look good I would Call her”…