My interview with Ill Skillz was supposed to be a cosy affair, devoid of adjunct implements such as cheap microphones and below-average computer cameras. Due to artistic obligations on their part, a change of plan was in order; we had to do the ‘on-line thing’ Skype all over the Internet. I had known about their trip to lands far away a month prior to the fact; its immediacy was only brought to my attention during the brief exchange of words I had with one-third of the whole: ‘We are leaving tomorrow morning fam‘, declared Uno, the rather petite-sized emcee who can also pass as the group’s official spokesman.
However, declaring him thus shall, in essence, discount Jimmy Flexx‘s ability to carry any type of conversation with ease while adding tid-bits and sound-bites from his own vault; DJ ID‘s articulate nature and mannerism of speech shall also be undermined by the aforementioned declaration. Uno’s words were spoken in a bass-filled club on Long Street; there was no time for hugs, no ‘goodbye my dude, have a good time’. We did, however, agree to do the interview sometime in the near future. Both parties stuck to the deal. Fun times were had by all!
In 2008, I met with what was then a four-man rap outfit consisting of three emcees (Uno, Jimmy Flexx, and Macho) and a deejay (Nick Knuckles). Two years down the line, and the formation had disintegrated; two of the members had left, leaving the current two (Uno and Flexx) in tow. Tours to Europe got cancelled, and their album, ‘Off the radar‘, seemed to take forever to complete. Faced with this dilemma, Ill Skillz purged all thoughts which might have force them to give up. They soldiered on, building a tightly-knit unit in the process; a new deejay (Intelligent Dezign – or DJ ID) got roped in, as well as a manager in the form of Hit Entertainment’s Hardy McQueen.
At the beginning of last year, I had a chat with Uno, who proceeded to regale me with plans they had for the rest of that year. An album was to be made in twenty-four hours; mixing and mastering were mentioned; photoshoots; Redbull Studios; television! It all seemed rather overpowering but in hindsight, blame should be put on the fact that it was nearing the wee hours of the morning; I had amassed a grand total of five hours of sleep in the past three days, so my initial lack of faith in the project’s feasibility could have been an inflection on my part upon their goals – whatever that means. I digress.
‘The 24-hour project: Skillz that pay da billz‘ as the final product became rather unimaginatively titled, saw the light of day; however, this did not happen in due time; months passed, and my heart sank as I thought: ‘Here we go again, yet another bunch of rappers who are all talk and no action’! When I received an advance copy of the project from their manager I thought to myself ‘well, at least’. But still, more time elapsed. Finally, the project dropped. Names such as Zaki Ibrahim, John Robinson, and Proverb featured on certain songs; production duties were handled by, amongst others, Sibot, pH, and Planet Earth. A video for the song ‘Unbreakable’ featuring IAMWEAVES from Popskarr was shot. Victory, I secretly declared to myself!
Ill Skillz have done well for themselves. They have managed to captivate and sustain the interest of hip-hop listeners not only through their live performances, but through their forays into radio (5FM’s C-Live has even picked one of their songs for his mixtape). They also disregard any fear of setting themselves goals; more than professional musicians, they are professional dreamers. These very dreams have enabled them to yet again rope in Red Bull, with the assistance of the British Council, in order to complete part two of their ’24-hour project’. Separated by approximately ten thousand kilometres and a two-hour time difference, we connected on-line to have this chat.
Me: So what has brought you guys out there?
Flexx: Um, we’re here because we enjoy travelling. Also, to do this project out here is kind of cool – the whole idea of it, and also what it means for something as monumental as ‘Skillz that pay the billz’; we actually plan on taking it to every continent.
Me: That should be dope!
Flexx: You know what I mean, like, every continent. The crazy thing is we met this dude yesterday, and it turns he is Eric Lau! Cat gave me his vinyl and shit; he might actually get involved in this project. That’s the crazy thing about it, it opens up opportunities and creates a space for collaborations with other artists.
Me: So just let us know, you guys did the ’24 hour project’ part one last year. How did it progress up to this point? How was it received by those who heard it?
Flexx: I mean the reception…the reception was good, it can always be better in terms of just how many people are exposed to it. The thing is not everybody is on-line, you know what I mean? The fact that it’s an on-line project kind makes it difficult for cats in the hood to download. It would’ve been nice if we could access more people; most of the people who were able to access it are more urban cats, you know?!
Me: And I suppose that you don’t do music for only a certain demographic…
Flexx: …demographic of people, right. With this one, we’ll see what we can do to actually improve access to the project to cats who are in the Eastern Cape, to cats who are…you know, in the Nothern Cape, wherever.
Me: How are you going to achieve that though?
Flexx: I think with this one we’re going to print copies, I mean, Uno and I spoke like yo, we need to print some copies of this you know, to have a hard copy and not just as an on-line project. People who can get on-line will be able to get it on the web, but it’s better to have hard copies.
Me: Plus also for the cats that…I mean, I still buy CDs, simply for that aesthetic value.
Flexx: No, definitely man.
Me: Where’s Uno?
Flexx: Yo, Uno’s right here.
Uno: Wadup township, wadup world?!
Me: Yeah homie, how are you guys doing that side?
Uno: Aah man, London, one word!
Me: A million possibilities…
Uno: As Flexx explained as well, you know, it’s just room for growth. There are opportunities, you know.
Me: Did the hook-up happen through Redbull?
Uno: Uh, yes. As most people [may] know, last year we did the project. It caught the attention of others, they recognised the initiative; it actually took initiative on our part to approach them and be like ‘hey, what about doing it over there’? So we connected a few dots, the British Council was one of the organisations that came on board to help us out, and now we’re here.
Me: How has the experience been thus far?
Uno: I mean it’s all been the preparation phase you know, it’s the main reason why we came early this week. It’s just to familiarise ourselves with the environment, learn a few things about their culture and lifestyle, and try to incorporate that into the music that we intend to put out. We’re trying to stick to that London theme, [so we should] at least have something substantial to fuse in.
Me: Right, that would be really important. So let me know, seeing that you guys have been through a shitload of struggles, what has it taken for you to recover from that and keep going?
Uno: You know man, like uh, this is life! You choose your own path; in my own situation, I had to quit my job which paid me well; I had to make drastic decisions in order to pursue this. Obviously one goes through peaks and valleys, and I actually thought about what you’re saying now yesterday. I’m thinking to myself ‘look, we’ve been so long in this that we can’t wait to blow’. But the thing is what if things don’t turn out as expected? Do we give up? Already, I’ve a couple of goals ahead, and am trying to accomplish more. It also comes down to one of my thoughts that I always keep in mind that, back in the day when I was just a bedroom emcee, this is where I dreamt of being. And I’m here! So by applying the same frame of mind, the same approach and looking ahead, it’s all possible!
Me: So tell me, the importance of discipline and focus is very integral to everything. How do you keep disciplined and focused?
Uno: Uh, by not drinking and smoking [laughs]. Nah, for real though, if you want to go forth, I think perseverance is what you need. You require a lot of energy to do this kind of thing, and energy should be surrounded by positive qualities. That’s all you need to associate yourself with. I’m not talking about cats who are just chilling and feeling sorry for themselves and thinking ‘why is Ill Skillz getting all these opportunities.’ My man, we do this ourselves; we had to holla at the Redbull Music Academy in London, we had to spend our money to start the first series of this project; we had crazy debt. Some relationships went well, others we fucked up and had to patch things up. It had good and bad sides, but we stuck with it, collecting good energy as we went along.
Me: That being said, please touch upon the group dynamic between yourself, Jimmy Flexx, and Akio (DJ ID). And also the significance of building a strong team around yourselves.
Uno: Oh well, I guess for me and Flexx, it’s such a natural thing. It’s very hard to describe, he is who he is, and I am who I am. We share life together! In addition we have DJ ID who is so instrumental you know, not just for Ill Skillz, but for the hip-hop community wherever he’s at. This cat could move to Baghdad right now and make an impact; those are the kind of figures that one would want to associate themselves with. As you can see, the talent is definitely there, that’s why we admire each other. We move forward by combining our skills, talents, and passions. Everything just takes place naturally, there’s no room for judgement.
Me: That’s well-put, please put Akio on.
Uno: Ait cool, he’s coming…
DJ ID: Hello…
Me: Wasup, wats good man?!
DJ ID: Nah I’m cool
Me: You’re the one I’ve spoken to least in the group. I just want to know how you feel you’ve contributed to the collective.
DJ ID: Uh, for me it’s like, the best way to describe it is that when things kind of started taking off for me here, it was the same situation for Ill Skillz. You could look at it as a coincidence, but you could also look at it as people, motivated people getting together. For me as a deejay, KOL (Kool Out Lounge – an events company he co-owns with Mingus and DJ Raiko) really started taking off as when Ill Skillz did. It was really a lot of positive energy like, working together and working towards similar goals; we played off of each other a lot. Me being their deejay helped me raise my profile, and me being an events manager helped them as well because we could get on certain events. So it’s like, together when you’re both striving for the same goals and working together, and bringing different resources together…it makes things, you know, better for the whole team.
Me: If anything, my concern with the past project was that your involvement in terms of the deejaying aspect was minimal at best; you were not as involved with cuts as…
DJ ID: Yeah, it’s true, um, it’s one of the things with the things like, with the first project, it was the first time that anything like this had been organised. It was kind of, uh, there were so many people, and the timing…I think it was um, maybe a bit too optimistic in terms of what we could accomplish. So I think this time around we’ve kind of cut out some of the stuff that wasn’t necessary; it was definitely an issue that we did discuss, we had planned to put in cuts and…and some collaborations on the tracks that just didn’t come around because we were so far behind schedule. With this one we’re gonna try and put that in there.
Me: So what’s the focus on this album? Is there any theme that runs through the project?
DJ ID: You know that’s one of the things that we were talking about and uh, and this guy that we met last night, Jonzi D (legendary British hip-hop theatre performer and organiser of the Breaking Convention festival) made a recommendation that we go to this rally tonight (regarding the death of reggae artists Smiley Culture, and the mystery that surrounds it) so that Uno and Flexx can get some content on local issues. It’s cool to bring South Africa to London, but it’s also kinda cool to write about content that is local here, you know?! So I think the guys are gonna try and incorporate that; just some observations of being abroad and being in England as well, I think that it would be a good theme for at least a track or two.
Me: In terms of producers, who is on this project?
DJ ID: Uh, let’s see…I know we’ve got Sibot, Raiko, White Nite, Planet Earth, uh…Eric Lau possibly, I don’t know, we met him yesterday and are trying to get him on one of the beats. So those are some of the producers, and we may even try and link up with local cats as well.
Me: Cool man, I really appreciate the time you have set aside to do this.
DJ ID: Nah cool man, we appreciate it.