Interview with DAVID 'SKI BEATZ' WILLIS, producer for Jay-Z, Lil Kim, Camp Lo - Nov 3, 2008
"The secret of my beats is me as an individual, not what's in my head"
David Willis is better known worldwide as Ski or Ski Beatz, the legendary hip hop producer who broke through in the 90s and is one of the people responsible for discovering Jay-Z (No.1 UK).
Throughout the years he went on from fronting his own outfits The Bizzie Boyz and Original Flavor to producing and providing tracks to Lil Kim (Top 10 US), Fsat Joe (Top 10 US) and Camp Lo (Top 40 US).
Ski Beatz talks to HitQuarters about crossing over the generation gaps and staying in touch with current sounds, his organic work processes and hid everlasting love of music.
How did you become one of the hottest producers in hip-hop as a Greensboro, North Carolina native?
I started out as a rapper in this group from Greensboro called The Bizzie Boyz. There was a producer in the group called Fanatic.
I got introduced to beats at his home when he got his SP1200. The UPS man brought it in. And while he was learning how to operate it, I was reading the instructions from the manual to him. So, at the same time he was learning how to operate it, I was kind of learning the machine too.
When there were days when he wasnít on the machine, I was going to his house, getting on the machine and just making beats.
I didnít even know what a producer was. I was just making beats because I wanted to rap to them. And I guess my edge of being a rapper and making beats I wanted to rap to at that time period was something I carried with me into my own productions later on.
That period played a big part in grooming my skills as a producer.
Then DJ Clark Kent discovered you?
I moved to New York with a record label called Payroll Records that The Bizzie Boyz was on at that time. Thatís when I started doing my own little solo production for my own album with the group Original Flavor.
I did all the demo work for that album. I took it to Atlantic Records, because thatís where DJ Clark Kent was working at that time. I met Clark when I was living in North Carolina when he was DJing for Dana Dane. They used to come to town and we used to open shows for them.
So he said: ďWhen youíre in New York, just hit me up.Ē Thatís what I did. I got my demo together, went to Atlantic Records, and dropped it off to him. A week later they called me up and said they wanted to sign me.
Back then you didnít really have to be in a cookie cutter type of situation, you could basically do what you wanted to do or whatever you felt. What made that change over the years?
When money became a major factor in the rap game, it naturally changed the whole outlook. When we were doing it back then, it was more for the love. We just loved hip-hop; DJing, graffiti, breakdanciní. We loved the whole culture of hip-hop.
Todayís artists are more likely to see another artist make 100 million dollars or sell a million ringtones and want to write songs strictly for the purpose of achieving just that.
And if everybody is doing that, then it ends up that up-and-coming artists are emulating a lot of other artists that are out there.
If Young Jeezy raps a certain way, then thatís how he made his money, so they emulate his style in the hope of it working the same way for them too. And thatís no love, thatís money.
What were your studio facilities back in the day?
We were working out of this studio in New Jersey when I first moved to New York. Then I got my own apartment in Manhattan, in Harlem, and I started working there.
When did you hook up with Jay-Z?
I first met Jay-Z on the video shoot for Original Flavorís ĎHere We Goí. When I got the deal with Atlantic Records, Damon Dash was managing me. And Clark wanted Damon to manage Jay. Jay-Z was Clarkís artist.
He brought Jay to the video shoot and it was like: ďYo, I got this guy and I think heís really great. He can rap and he needs a manager.Ē Damon met him, we all heard him, we thought he was crazy, and Damon signed him up.
Jay heard my beats and asked me to make some for him. Thatís how I start working with him. He came by the house and we just started making songs.
Sometimes you made beats in advance, but for instance with ďPolitics As UsualĒ you created the beat right there in the studioÖ
I heard the original song by The Stylistics come on the radio in a car, driving in Long Island. And I thought it was hot, that it could be a hot song for Jay. The second I heard it I went to the store, bought the CD, went home and made the track. I played it for Jay and he liked it.
You co-founded Roc-A-Blok Productions together with Darrien Dash, as a sister company to the then fledgling Roc-A-Fella Records. Why did you venture off?
When we started that company we had Pace Won and Sporty Thievz. I was doing the company with Damonís cousin Darrien Dash.
Iím originally from North Carolina. I felt tired and just wanted to come home and give my ears a break.
What was your vision for Now City Records?
Now City was founded in 2001 by me and my partner Franz Tudor. Our vision was basically to bring exposure and awareness to North Carolina. Thatís what we call North Carolina in my town now: Now City. NC.
Are you affiliated with ĎThe Final Statementí, the first ReDef group album, coming out in 2009?
Thatís my homie. I did have a situation with Redefinition Records, but now Iím strictly with Now City.
Why was your mixtape ĎBeatz, Rhymes & Samples: SKI BEATZí (2007) given away for free?
Why not? Get people familiar with my stuff. Just let them hear me, let them know what Iím doing. And let them know what I did before. Thereís a whole generation of younger cats, who never heard the music. They might have heard the name but they never heard the music.
Just introduce them to the music. Let them get familiar with it. So when we start bringing out new music I wouldnít seem like some guy that just came out of nowhere.
You established a reputation for your organic production style. Where did it originate from?
I took a little bit from everybody. Primo was a big influence, even though my tracks donít sound like his. Primo and Clark made me want to step my game up, to get better.
That organic style came from one of my North Carolina friends called Mark Sparks. He had a real jazzy organic sound at that time. I was listening to a lot of his stuff and to a lot of Pete Rock. I guess I took a little bit off everybody and that just made me.
What makes you different from today's typical cut-and-paste producers?
I still feel the love. The love for the music. The love for the sound. Sonically, just the love for the whole thing. And just being myself.
How did your astonishing career in hip-hop remained remarkably consistent considering itís nearly two decades since your first appearances on wax?
Itís all about simply loving the music. Nothing was forced. It was all just love: I love this beat; I want to hear Camp Lo rap over it. I love this beat; I know Jay would chill this. I love this beat; I want to hear Nas with this. Just to make a crazy backdrop for what is going on in hip-hop.
What are you currently working on?
Iím working on a new project thatís coming out on Now City and is entitled Carolina Blue Vol.2. Itís an album consisted of all native North Carolina artists and producers.
Iím letting young new hot producers get on it. Iím letting all new young hot artists from NC get on it. Itís going to keep the movement moving. Itís going to continue pushing this North Carolina thing until North Carolina becomes like Atlanta or Texas or Miami.
Thereís definitely a market here and thereís definitely a lot of artists that needs to be heard and seen.
Whatís the difference between working with established artists and with new ones?
Established artists have the budgets and they pay the money. New artists are more of a challenge because theyíre still wet behind the ears. They havenít really been in the studio.
When I was working with Jay-Z, he was established, but when I started working with Camp Lo they werenít. They had this hunger like all those non-established artists Iím working with now. They have this hunger because they want to be on so bad. And a lot of the established artists sometimes get a little lazy in the booth.
When did you first meet the Bronx hip-hop duo Camp Lo?
I was living in the Bronx and Geechi Suede was living in the building adjacent to me. He used to see me all of the time. He used to come by the house and stayed to rap, saying little rhymes.
He was kind of wacky back in the day. He was like fifteen when I met him. He was trying and I told him to work on songs. I took him to Clark Kentís house a couple of times, made a couple of songs with him. Then he went missing for a couple of months.
But when he came back to me when I was living in Harlem, he had Sonny Cheeba his partner with him. He said: ďYíall, we got a group. Itís me and Chee, and weíre going to call our group Cee-Lo.Ē So I said: ďLet me hear you guys.Ē
So they started rhyming and that whole style was crazy. And I said: ďYíall sound like youíre straight out of some Blaxploitation movie. Thatís what weíre going to do. Weíre going to take that sound out of the Blaxploitation era and put it up against yíall because yíall sound crazy.Ē
Can you provide some insight on how you map out a project?
I donít really have a mapped out plan. Itís like someone might come to the studio and start saying: ďI can rap, Iím good, I want you to hear me.Ē They start rhyming and Iím like: ďOkay, these are kind of hot.Ē Then I start making a beat and then I tell them to do a hook.
Then I start doing a chorus and building a beat around that. And then Iíll start trying to get inside the personís head and figure out what the story and the theme is to their sound. Sometimes it works, sometimes it donít.
There are several YouTube videos out there on which you explain the making of your beats. Isnít that giving your secrets away?
Not really. With so much interest in ďDead PresidentsĒ and ďLuchiniĒ I just thought it would be cool just to show cats how to do it, or how I did it.
I donít look at it as secrets. The secret really is me! Itís not what is in my head, itís me as an individual. Iím the secret. They canít be me. They just have to be who they are.
How much time do you spend on a production?
Sometimes itís a couple of months. Some time I take a year. Some time I take a week or two. It all depends on the project and what Iím trying to do.
Do you prefer working directly with the artists or just shopping some beats?
I like working with the artist. Thatís my strong point, itís to actually work with the artist one-on-one, and build them from the ground up.
I do shop beats and I do get placements here and there, but my favourite thing is actually sitting down with people and just making music.
New creations are often looking back at music from previous generations. What's your take on that?
I like the Cool Kids, Lupe Fiasco, Wale. I love their whole sound. I love what theyíre doing. I love their whole revisiting of what we did. If they could bring it back or if itís already back, I love it.
How could you make that original hip-hop sound feel fresh again?
Once again, the current sound comes from the love. I love it and Iíll keep making it. And if I love it then I also like everybody else to love it. If they donít, then Iíll just keep on making it anyway.
As a producer, your lifeline is staying in touch with whatís current. You must remain open-minded to music because music is ever-changing. How did you learn to appreciate the vibe that the kids are feeling?
When I first moved from New York and came back home to NC, I heard a lot of Southern stuff on the radio. At first I didnít like it and I was being close-minded to the whole Down South sound. But once I opened up I started appreciating it.
I started listening to the different instruments. I started hearing different production skills. And I just fell in love with it. And then that just helped to advance my production.
Because I can take a sample and do whatever I do with it, all day, every day, thatís the skill that is never going to go away. But now I spend time at home learning how to play the keyboards.
Iím more musical. I can read music. Iím learning music theory. Iím just learning a whole new aspect thatís giving me a different love and appreciation for music.
What story do you want to hear in songs?
Iím not telling the story. The artist is telling the story. In relation to my music I just want people to say: ďBang! That was a hot track.Ē Just making people feel good, making people appreciate what Iím doing, thatís all.
What constitutes a hot hit song?
Timelessness song. If you play ďLuchiniĒ right now, youíll still like it. If you play Jay-Zís ďReasonable DoubtĒ, youíll still love it.
There are songs that people are putting out now that you canít even play again a week after you hear it for the first time.
ďLuchiniĒ was your first radio/club hit, the one which catapulted you into the game. Did you come up with the beat while working on ďCoolie HighĒ?
We were at the tail-end of the album and the label was asking for a hot single. And I was just sitting in the crib and listening to records, dropping needles, and I heard that sample, and I made the beat, and as soon as I made it I just called Suede and Chee up.
They came to the house and I wrote the hook and they wrote the verses, and that was that.
What is important to keep in mind with placements for film and TV?
When youíre placing music on film and TV you must go in with the understanding that youíre not going to get a lot of upfront money like you get if you sell a beat to an artist on a label.
But you do get a lot of publishing. And any kind of exposure as a producer is great. TV work, videogames work. Iím trying to do everything.
What gear you canít live without?
My new baby is the Ableton Live. Thatís my program. Thatís my weapon. Thatís like my SP1200 right now.
Any magazines you read to keep up with the new gear?
I read Music Tech, Future Music, Computer Music. Anything thatís a software-driven type of magazine. Thatís where I learn a lot of engineering tips, EQing tips. Just whatís going on with sound.
I try to stay up on that, and try to get as many Plug-ins and as many VSPs (Vortex Surround Plug-ins) as I can just to keep my sound different and fresh.
Are you signed to a publishing company?
Iím signed to Universal Music.
What advice would you give upcoming producers entering the market?
My advice is: donít get into the game if itís all about the money, because youíre going to drive yourself crazy. Get into the game if you possess a natural love for the music, then you donít have to find a situation, because the situation is going to find you.
Just keep making your music and staying focused and try to better yourself every day. Eventually someone will hear you and you will be golden.
How do you view the current hip-hop scene?
Itís a little different from what I was doing. But itís the scene, and we might think the scene is wack. Because weíre from a whole other generation.
To these kids the scene is beautiful. They love the music, they love whatís going on, they love the fashion. They got their own coaching going on.
Donít make the mistake of asking: ďHow do you feel about the scene?Ē Because that kind of puts you in that old guy mentality. I canít do that. So I have to say the scene is beautiful and that I love it.
What is it you would still like to achieve in your music career?
I just like to make more music. Iím not really out to achieve any incredible major crazy goal. Iím just taking it day-by-day.
If Iím working on this ĎCarolina Blue Vol.2í, and all of a sudden it turns out to be some incredible movement, then thatís great. But if it doesnít, thatís still great. I mean, weíre having fun making the music.
When I left New Jersey for Roc-A-Blok, thatís when it died for me. I felt kind of funny about the music. I wasnít really feeling anything. I guess I was slipping into that old man state of mind.
I was going to get grumpy about the music. But then I caught myself and fell back in love with the music.
Artists like Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Prince managed to cross genres and break down barriers with their music. Are there examples you can give for current artists doing that?
Kanye is breaking down barriers. OutKast. Andrť 3000 is breaking down barriers. Puff Daddy when he was doing his thing. Jay-Z.
What will be your groundbreaking sounds and new business ventures for the upcoming times?
Just basically bring this new North Carolina sound and North Carolina as a whole state to the music game with making hot beats and hot songs.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Cynthia B. Herbst
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