“New Flows Always”
“Victory with an easy entrance” proclaimed Skillibeng on his dubplate for Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness ahead of the landslide victory in the 2020 election. Likewise, Skilli himself has been victorious this year in spite of the global pandemic, establishing himself as Jamaica’s new force, specialising in elevating lyrical standards. Seen by many as a face of the rising Trap Dancehall wave, the 23-year old reflects influences ranging from Vybz Kartel to deceased US drill bastion, Pop Smoke, paying tribute in remix of club-smash “Dior.”
Born in the eastern parish of St. Thomas, his passionate East Syder fanbase grows exponentially on a daily basis, drawn in by inventive flows and sharp lyricism. The vibrant countryside parish, better known historically for Paul Bogle, the Morant Bay Rebellion and rich Afrocentric traditions, is one of the trending regions for talents in dancehall. Skillibeng is the latest attraction alongside 6ixx’s Chronic Law and the unstoppable OVO-signed, Gaza-alumni star, Popcaan.
With co-signs ranging from Jamaican pocket rocket Koffee, incarcerated reigning dancehall king Vybz Kartel to rapper Young MA, the lyrical technician is making huge strides in his relatively new career. Since breaking through in early 2019 with the acclaimed Prodigy mixtape, a slew of releases including guest spots on Jada Kingdom’s popular mixtape E-Syde Queen: The Twinkle Playlist, the weed ode “50 Bag” and “Mr. Universe,” along with controversial hit “Brik Pan Brik” sparking debates around Scamming songs (songs about the lifestyle of lottery scammers—an increasingly popular hustle tied to organized crime in Jamaica), all aided the young talent in establishing himself as a forerunner among the new generation. Marvin Sparks speaks with Skillibeng about his year 2020 rise in lockdown, Popcaan friendship, collaborating with Vybz Kartel, lottery scamming culture and recording a dubplate for the Jamaican Prime Minister. Q&A After The Jump…
Photographs By El Puru
MR SPARKS: 2020 has been a good year for you musically, but a strange year generally. How has it been for you?
SKILLIBENG: It’s a mixed reaction. I’m still doing a lot of new music, the people are gravitating to it streets-wise, Internet-wise and market-wise so I’m grateful. Just not being able to share the same area, stage and party as my fans — that’s the missing piece. I wanted to push out as far as possible, but that can’t happen due to the times, yuzee? [Sumfest] was one of the platforms I was looking out for locally, but I was looking out for big platforms internationally too.
How did you spend the 2020 lockdown?
I just tried to focus on my craft; build some new songs, some new sounds, new flows always. Filmed plenty videos
And you made a cameo in Koffee’s “Lockdown” video.
Koffee linked me and asked me to be in the video, so I showed Koffee a strength because me and Koffee are friends. We met at a J. Wray & Nephew anniversary stage show. It was about two or three months ago. We kept the link after that.
“A collaboration with Koffee supposed to soon reach the people. It’s my team’s production. Koffee did the hook and I gave the lyrics.”
Tell us about growing up in St. Thomas.
Yeah, East Syde. I grew up in Lyssons Retreat and Airy Castle. It was just a country child life, nothing extraordinary. Always music around. I was always moving about the place; when my mother went to [New York, USA], I was about three-months old, so I stayed with her friend for about a year. I went to live with my grandma because my father was in England until I was six-years old, then I lived with him until I was seventeen-years old.
Music was there from very early stages of my life. I started writing songs and used to sing cover songs when I was in primary school just to entertain myself. I used to play the instrumental on my phone and record myself on a mp3 [device] in first [grade] at high school. I’d carry them to school for my friends to hear them.
Which songs did you cover? Any favorite artists stand out from that time?
Vybz Kartel. I used to listen to a lot of reggae songs as a youngster too: Jah Cure, Garnett Silk, Zamunda, Sizzla, and Bob Marley. I had a different love for reggae music. My father used to play music for me. I think that’s where I found my love of music — all different genres and sounds. He listened to music often, in the car and around the house.
‘Brik Pan Brik’ caused a lot of controversy for endorsing lottery scamming culture. Why was that an important topic to touch?
It is a controversial song but it’s a natural song. People at my age, it’s what’s going around me naturally. That’s what’s happening in my surroundings. That’s not even controversial, people been singing about scamming. “Brik Pan Brik” is not more controversial than any other scamming song.
The topic itself is controversial, but a lot of people misinterpret. A lot of people think “Briks” is drugs, but I’m talking about money. I started recording the song singing “Brik Pan Brik” not knowing where the song would go. So then I sang about what’s happening around me. Bob Marley used to sing about revolution because he wanted to start a revolution. What he did in the daytime, what he experienced and what he saw. Not everything he sang is what he did, but it’s a normal thing from life that he saw happening in front of him.
The popularity of Lottery Scamming seems to have increased for Jamaican ghetto youths in recent years.
People gravitate to scamming because of their surroundings. Scamming is not easy, so they learn it from their surroundings and what they see happening—that’s how they learn it. Nobody just gets up and scams. If you do that you won’t know the first step.
“It’s not the best alternative but most people that scam, scam because they are suffering.”
Law-abiding citizens consider it taking the easy way out.
It takes guts. A lot of people have degrees and still don’t have a job. Isn’t that a hard way to lose? So what’s wrong with an easy way to win? The two of them can be the same—of course you can get locked up from scamming— but if that’s what you’re interested in, interest grows knowledge. If you’re not interested in it, it won’t last, you won’t get your best out of it. Ghetto youths braver than they think, because they don’t give us, so we take it.
Do you feel it’s important to be a role model?
Me nah scam and me still make money. I want to show kids how they can make a living doing what they love and enjoy, make money, and how to embrace themselves as a ghetto youth. I really love to see youths excel and I don’t want to see them go the wrong way.
Vybz Kartel is clearly a big influence. What was it like working with him on his latest album Of Dons and Divas?
It was a life-changing moment. Kartel is an icon to me and influenced me a lot musically. That was a big moment. A special moment. His team reached out to me, so I just executed it. I’ve spoken to him through his team. He told me I have a very bright future in music and I should keep killing them with wicked flows.
And Popcaan is from the same parish as you. How has his success inspired you?
I’ve known Popcaan for years now. Before I was out there like that, Popcaan knew I was an artist. [His success] shows me how powerful he is as a normal human being, so Skillibeng can do it too. It’s good to see someone from the eastern parish of St. Thomas doing so well. To know we share the same hometown is a blessed feeling. He gives advice—Popcaan’s advice is encouragement, he encourages me to do better, go further and not stop doing music.
Would you class your music as “Trap Dancehall”?
Trap is a new style of hip hop which isn’t too lyrical, so it’s better you say rap-dancehall. Skillibeng is a very lyrical artist. Is trap considered as mumble rapping? Skillibeng is way more talented than mumble rapping. I give a mix of everything but I’m trying to be the most lyrical artist.
“Skillibeng is way more talented than mumble rapping. I give a mix of everything but I’m trying to be the most lyrical artist.”
I embrace the foundation of dancehall so you’ll always hear the elements of that in what I’m saying. It’s a mixture, a full package. I’m not gonna say I’m always going to be the person singing new stuff and style, I’m always going to pay homage to where dancehall is coming from.
What’s your take on Dancehall at the moment?
Dancehall has always been dancehall. All we need to do is continue to give people good music. A lot of people internationally still use dancehall a lot, so dancehall is still trending.
But people would argue that it’s more the traditional dancehall that they gravitate to. Not new dancehall.
I don’t really agree with that. At the end of the day, young people know Vybz Kartel internationally and the older people know the elders. I am building songs for the younger audience. Even the older artists are doing music for the younger people now, so we are going to be the iconic foundation of the young people now for our music.
We have a heavy workload because people get tired of one song, so we have to feed them with a new one. That’s why people crown Vybz Kartel as the lyrical heavyweight right now, because he’s consistently feeding people new music. It’s a different workload from the older people who put out one record, wait, put a next record, wait, then when they put out an album, they take so long to put out a new single.
People had to play it, they had no choice, because they wanted to listen to music.
“Older people can’t really comment on what’s happening in the music now. People listen to what they like.”
So the music is more disposable?
Yeah, it is. At the end of the day, that’s because of how much music there is and how much options they have. Writing doesn’t take me a lot of time. Normally I freestyle in the studio, but I also write a lot. I write based on my vibes or where the instrumental is carrying me.
Do you have a favourite written song?
I’m still trying to write my best song. I like “Mr. Universe,” I have a song called “Lyrics” too. I love those songs in terms of lyrical, the flow, the connection of the words—it’s just different. Those songs there were freestyles. I capitalised from like four bars out of a freestyle then built a whole song like that. That’s where those flows come from.
There’s a debate about Afrobeats & Reggaeton taking the lead from where Dancehall laid foundations.
It’s just how the systems set up. Dancehall people need to upgrade to international production and publishing levels. That’s the only thing dancehall is missing: we don’t have the same promotion, access, and exposure as international artists. We don’t even have Spotify. As a Jamaican, we have to use an international account.
At times we miss certain strategies and we need to look into it. Dancehall needs to interact with international artists and platforms more. Jamaicans love dancehall so much that a lot of times I’m not even interested in the marketing side, I just want to make sure my fans are happy.
What are your hopes for the near future?
I would just like the world to give Skillibeng a listening ear. That’s a big objective so I know how much hard work has to be put in and that’s what we’re doing right now. A lot of people want to collaborate with me. Laza Morgan, I have a collaboration with Young MA through Megan Ryte at Hot 97. Big up Megan Ryte, she said she likes the vibes. She did a whole review on “Brik Pan Brik.”
I have whole heap of tunes that I could release an album, but I have an EP named Brik Pan Brik with three tunes; “Mr. Universe”, “Brik Pan Brik” and “Million a Dolla.” I have a mixtape I’ll drop after that.
The only thing that would excite me about artists enjoying my songs would be artists internationally. That’s when I’d know the work is really being put in. Every artist in Jamaica listens to me or has a favourite song
We saw the Trinibad artists do dubplates for politicians, now it has come over to Jamaica. You recently took part in the Jamaican election dubplate clash alongside artists like Spice, Masicka and others.
Yeah, for the Prime Minister. A lot of people reached out, I was kind of skeptical about the politics ting, but that’s the Prime Minister. As a young artist, I just embrace the leadership. As a ghetto youth, I would love to see a ghetto youth become Prime Minister, so I don’t have a problem doing a dub for the Prime Minister. You can hear the topic [of the song], “Mr. Universe,” so I’m really embracing that song right now.
Were there any concerns as Jamaican politics has been quite tribal in the past?
Skillibeng never really vote yet. I’m not really interested in politics that way. I didn’t want to go on a side for people to say I’m on this side or that side. But that’s the Prime Minister, he could be on any side, I would embrace it the same way. Some people probably look at it like it was for JLP, but I did it for the Prime Minister.
There has been quite a debate regarding the politicians getting dubplates. Some people think it’s just good fun, whereas others say politics is using dancehall music that they don’t care about and do more to stunt than help.
I wasn’t really in tune to it to know what’s going on to know it was a whole dubplate thing. I got a link from him and thought he just wanted me to represent for him for a special moment. I never really knew it was a thing like that.
You have to be in tune to the system and know wah gwaan, because at the end of the day, if you want to make a food from dancehall music and the system to ease up, you have to go to it in a strategic way. For the people that responsible to look into dancehall music, we have to really make them know our feelings on a personal note. Not just saying this and that on the internet.
At the end of the day, we don’t turn our back on you, so you shouldn’t turn your back on we.
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