Published on November 3, 2010
There’s a hint of light rain you can see (but not feel) outside of Matt Cody’s condo, and two women at the reception desk who doesn’t know him by his government name. “Oh, you mean Ski Beatz?” one of them asked with a raised eyebrow. Living in a space conjoined with Dame Dash’s DD172 Art Collective Space in downtown Manhattan, he spends both his on and off time here.
Inside the studio, amidst paintings, sculptures, and photography, upstairs Ski Beatz effortlessly conducts an array of boards for Pro Tools. Terri Walker, a singer from the UK with promises of crossing over, belts the same chorus repetitively towards perfection in the recording booth: No use in trying/You got me dying/Oh why, make it so hard?/Oh why, make it so hard? Ski sits quietly, concentrating as he waits for the cue to begin the loop again, but swivels around once, just in time to acknowledge my presence with a smile.
Once again under the umbrella of hip hop mogul Dame Dash, together they are no strangers to the formula of success. Having met Dash in the 1980’s, manager for his rap group ‘Original Flavor,’ Ski continued to build with him, creating what is today an impressive discography filled with Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Rass Kass, and Proof to name a few. Ski, also known as the mastermind behind Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed singles from his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, as well as Camp Lo’s equally groundbreaking Uptown Saturday Night, made an imprint in the game that reads like a legend in the rap world.
Dame Dash simply provides him the platform.
Terri Walker took a break for tea as Ski took me through the steps of “polishing” the tracks. “I was always a type of person that was trying to stay on top of technology when it came to making music,” he said while lowering the bass that “took the strength” from her voice. “It went from the funniest looking piece of equipment to the state-of-the art. But I know a lot of producers who are kind of stuck in their ways when it comes to equipment; like ‘I’m only gonna use this type of equipment,’ and it reflects in their sound. I wouldn’t say dated, but it doesn’t sound as… ya know?”
He’s a short man, stands about 5’4 or so, sitting in everyday urban wear, clean Nike sneakers, and a friendly gap that says ‘hello’ when he laughs. With the remarkable catalogue he holds, the most endearing quality about Ski Beatz is his southern hospitality. Unlike many producers I’ve met in the past, he has a way about him that makes you feel at ease and comfortable with not only his presence, but your presence amongst him.
He opened a new session and demonstrated how he begins the process of creating a beat. “I might just initially start off making a beat just because I want to make a beat,” he said, positioning his drum kit above right knee. “But then at the end of the day, the beat might be like ‘Yo, that’s Curren$y; that sounds like he’ll like it’ and then I’ll play it for him. But sometimes I just make a beat while an artist is here, and they might say ‘Oh, that’s dope. I want to get on that.’ And then they’ll end up using it. So I don’t sit around actually thinking about a person like, ‘Today I’m gonna make a beat for Jay-Z.’ Every time I try to do it like that, it never works out.”
With over 20 years in the music industry, his process has transformed through various stages. From spinning vinyls to spinning on computer programs; listening on tape decks to CD’s to iTunes; and even the condemning of rap to an international following, he’s been around to witness the evolution of the industry. “But the energy is still the same,” he whispered. With so many independent labels trying to build success in their own way, and on their own terms, Ski presses many upcoming artists he works with about saving on budgets. “[Even] being a producer—selling beats back then was totally different from now. I could, like, make a beat, and give it to the artist, and then the next day they would actually buy the beat and take it. But now, since everybody got their own studio, I’ll give them a track, and then they might two-track it in Pro-tools and just sit on the beat forever before [they] even think about paying. So it’s a whole different thing.”
In 1998, after being a major component in the success of Roc-A-Fella Records, he made the decision to relocate to his original home in Greensboro, NC and do his own independent work. “Got married, had kids, worked with artists down there, but it wasn’t in my heart,” recalls Ski while lining up sample tracks. “I [came] back to New York because that’s where the industry of underground hip hop is… mostly right here. So I came back, I reconnected with Dame. I liked the movement he started.”
Their most recent project is under Dash’s new record label, Blu Roc, formed after the collapse of Roc-A-Fella Records which thrived off of the friendship and business ventures between former comrades Jay-Z and Dash. Blu Roc is the newest addition to a short list of independent labels that hold rising major acts. In 2009, Ski moved back to New York for this opportunity and released the highly anticipated album, The 24-Hour Karate School, this past September. With guest appearances from established artists such as Jean Grae, Cool Kids, Joell Ortiz, Jay Electronica and Mos Def, the most vibrant of the names is Curren$y who is at the peak of his crossover from underground to mainstream, similar to the same position Jay-Z had been in 15 years prior.
“We finished Pilot Talk 2—Curren$y’s album. It sounds crazy,” he said while re-opening the session they had begun an hour before. He recalled feeling the same way about classic projects he’s worked on in the past, but also for dozens of others who eventually fell to a flop. “If you were in the sessions for Reasonable Doubt, you might’ve been like, ‘oh this shit is hot,’ but you wouldn’t have said it was going to be a timeless classic. So maybe the shit I’m working on with Curren$y could be a timeless record. You never know; there’s no way to determine.”