Mad Skillz

Shaqwan Lewis' "Rap Up" is better than ever.

By Craig D. Lindsey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 23, 2008

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art credit: ALEX FINE

A newfound tradition happens at the top of every year in the hip-hop community: A Virginia rapper named Skillz writes his yearly "Rap Up."

Much like they do with Mr. Blackwell's worst-dressed list, which also shows up around this time, fans anticipate Skillz's lyrical breakdown (or beatdown, depending on how you look at it) of the previous year's controversial news events, dubious pop-cultural moments, heavy- rotation hits and, most important, scandalous celebrity behavior, mostly just to see what the hell he's gonna say about it.

"It's the ultimate barbershop record," the 30-year-old MC says over the phone. "It's all the things I hear about and talk about with my friends and colleagues. And when I go get a haircut, this is what they talk about in the barbershop, about Mike Vick. This is what they're saying about Paris Hilton in the barbershop. You're used to hearing people talk that way, but you're not used to hearing that 5 o'clock, primetime, on the radio."

Vick and Hilton are just two of the names he checks on the new track, on which he goes off on everyone from Britney to O.J. to Imus to 50 and Kanye. He cracks on Three 6 Mafia for their MTV reality show, T-Pain for appearing on every song, Bobby Brown for trying to save his marriage "from Supahead's couch" and Amy Winehouse for being, well, Amy Winehouse.

"I never feel bad about anything I've said," he says, pointing out that he's only riffing on all the true things that occurred last year. "If you don't wanna be in the 'Rap Up,' then don't make a mistake. Don't do dumb shit."

Shockingly, Skillz says none of the people he's mentioned, past or present, has ever retaliated. (Not even rappers Skillz has famously ghostwritten for, including Diddy and Will Smith.)

But he did get props from one unlikely person. "I remember seeing Lil' Jon one time," he recalls, "and he walked up to me in L.A. and he gave me a pound. [He said] 'Yo, I made your "Rap Up." I made it. I arrived.'"

Skillz (born Shaqwan Lewis) has been mercilessly taking celebs to task ever since his first "Rap Up," which appeared on a mixtape collection that had him rapping over the beats of fellow Virginians the Neptunes, began hitting radio stations at the end of 2002.

For this year's number, Skillz ventured into some unprecedented waters. While previous tracks had him rapping over the beat of a popular song of that year, like Common's "Come Close," Jamie Foxx's "Unpredictable" or Jay-Z's "Lost Ones," Skillz uses a brand-new beat provided by another proud Virginian, Bink, who has notably worked with Jay-Z on his Blueprint album. The song has already been remixed by Philly producer James Rose. There's even a video, directed by music-vid vet Chris Robinson, that has Skillz goofing around with several comedians. "I knew if I kept doing it, I would have to concentrate on making it bigger," he says.

It seems in these TMZ-infected times where a celebrity can stir up controversy at a moment's notice, it's been hard for Skillz to keep his "Rap Up" up-to-date. Both the video and the remix feature something that's not included on the original track: a brand-new verse about the newly knocked-up Jamie Lynn Spears. "It has to be as current as possible," he says of the 11th-hour inclusion. Despite that recent development, Skillz maintains his "Rap Up" is his own take on the year-in- review. It's also been quite the calling card for him.

"The thing about the 'Rap Up' is it's a beautiful record," says Skillz, who's scheduled to drop his new album The Million Dollar Backpack in the spring. "It's perfect to perform because it's always current and there's always somebody at the show who hasn't heard it. So I get that response and I get shows off of it. It's definitely a marketing tool. And the thing about it is, once the new one comes out, I never have to do the old one again."

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