Passion, Poems and Profit: How Skilla Baby Became the Penman

Skilla Baby

For Detroit rapper Skilla Baby, hustling has always been his biggest motivator. A poem by Langston Hughes (“Mother to Son”) is what first encouraged him to pursue writing, but before that he was learning how to become a penman at home. “I was already going to school but (my dad) would make me do stuff like write a 31-page essay,” he tells Dirty Glove Bastard. “That shit was irritating but I think it paid off forreal.” Not only did Skilla’s at-home writing assignments pay off, but his father prepared him for the next level of writing – as a professional recording artist. 

“My dad was one of those people where if I wanted to know a word, I couldn’t ask him – I had to go to the dictionary,” he recalls. Looking back, Skilla (who was known as Skills) started to become a penman once he abandoned his hoop dreams. A challenge, but that’s not to say it was for the worst. It was a gradual change as he transitioned from sports to music, a trade-off he was willing to make if it meant becoming more self-sufficient. 

All of which to say: a future in basketball just wasn’t in the cards, but that didn’t stop Skilla’s hustle. In fact, he committed to the same lyrical athleticism that has defined rap for decades, so it’s almost like he never left the gym.

These days, the penman from Detroit’s west side is doing anything he can to avoid burnout, which isn’t much to be concerned with, especially when you’re coachable. “I think the biggest thing I got that’ll keep me going as a leader is that I’m a follower, too. I don’t mind being told what to do.”

In many ways, Skilla Baby is just getting started – We Eat The Most is his monument to a style of rap that speaks to life in the Motor City. The opening lines of songs like “Icky Vicky Vibes” make sense of why he has the reputation of being a lone wolf, helping fans see the reason behind his grind.

Earlier this month, DGB spoke to the young scribe about his new EP, growing up on the west side of Detroit, the future of We Eat The Most (as a label) and his love for R&B music.

Talk to me about life on the west side of Detroit. 

It was typical Detroit. East and West be the same thing. On the west side, you got the kids that grew up playing sports and knowing everybody… probably playing lil’ league – that was me. And then you got the kids that grew up like… I was outside fasho but I wasn’t outside wit everybody until I got to my teenage years, like 12 or 13. It was cool, though. We had struggles, good times, bad times. I lived wit my momma at first but then I moved wit my dad. My dad was older. He showed me how to become a man forreal, forreal. 

On the track “Tay B Style,” you talk about your relationship with your dad. With learning how to become a man, what resonated with you the most from his teachings?

The biggest thing was, ‘You teach a man how to fish, he gon’ eat forever.’ My dad was one of those people where if I wanted to know a word, I couldn’t ask him, I had to go to the dictionary. He would hand me a dictionary to look it up. He wanted me to do everything for myself. Then it’d be lil’ stuff like – this ain’t the best lesson but… it’s like, two more lessons: you ain’t broke the law until you got caught, and then my third lesson is ‘Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ That shit just stuck with me. 

Are you naturally book-smart?

Yeah, I learned how to read early. My dad had this program he was doing where he was teaching kids how to read. My dad, he made me [laughs] – this was so embarrassing… I was already going to school, but he would make me do stuff like write a 31-page essay and shit like that. That shit was irritating but I think it paid off forreal.

Looking back, do you feel more equipped as an artist since you’ve been working on your pen for so long? 

Yeah, I think it prepared me. I didn’t even know that I was gon’ be a penman. [Rapping] is easier for me. I know a lot of denotations and connotations for words, and stuff like that: I got an extensive vocabulary.

Were you a penman before you became “Skills,” or did all of that happen around the same time? 

It was coming together. When I was in the fifth grade – this ain’t make me wanna rap but it made me like poetry and stuff – I had read this poem called, “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. Ever since then, I’ve tried to write lil’ poems and stuff but I used to keep ‘em to myself. I showed my momma a couple of ‘em, but that (poem) just made me like putting my words together.

Hip-hop is a form of poetry, but how did you start rapping?

I actually just randomly (started rapping) when I was in high school. Everybody in my house used to rap. I used to live with my cousins, but they would never let me get on a song with ‘em. I used to write raps and tell ‘em to my momma. So, one day when I got older, I just went to the studio and I liked how I sounded. I was still in love with basketball and started gradually changing from sports to music. 

When did hustling come into the mix? 

I’ve always been hustlin’. I used to go to school, get out of school and go to practice, and then get out of practice and go to work. I used to hustle at work, all types of shit. I always wanted some money. I was one of the first kids out of the kids I was hanging with getting some money forreal, forreal – at a young age. I’m probably 14, 15… I fasho was ten, twenty thousand up. That ain’t a lot of money, but it was for my age. My dad wasn’t there when I was 14, 15. When I turned 15, 16 he was gone, so I ain’t really have nobody to buy me clothes and shit like that. So, I was just into hustlin’ forreal. I always wanted some money. 

Are you content with the decisions you made to reach this point in your life, or do you feel like you missed out on being a kid? 

Nah, I feel like I missed out. I always said that I had to grow up early so I missed out on a lot of childhood stuff. I didn’t go to prom; I got kicked out of school; my friends couldn’t come over my house. At my momma house, I had sisters, so my momma wasn’t doing the boy thing at the house. At my daddy house, we lived in a senior citizen building, so I ain’t want nobody to come up there. We lived in a studio apartment. That shit was cool, though. I ain’t really have it hard growing up. I just had to grow up early: if I wanted something, I had to go get it. 

What came easy to you? 

Sports came easy. School came easy. The thing about school is, I used to get my work done fast, so then I’d get to disturbing the class. I wasn’t a bad kid or I didn’t do anything dangerous, I’d just be talking too much. Shit like that, or a class clown. Anything I put my mind to, I can do forreal – if I sit down long enough and try it. 

Is it hard staying humble in Hip-hop? I feel like the genre commands a certain amount of braggadocio. 

I’m very humble now but that’s because the world showed me to be humble. When you flaunt everything, and when you extra and you want all the attention, it’s a lot of shit that come with that attention. When don’t nobody know who you is, nothing happens. You can be peaceful. I think that’s the biggest thing I like about being humble, it’s peace that come with it. When you in the hype of stuff, it come wit a lot of drama. Everybody wanna say something – it don’t gotta have no meaning to it or anything, people just want attention from you. That’s what I don’t like about all that extra stuff. I’d rather stay humble for sure. 

Does your humility become a problem when it comes to dealing with hate? 

It’s easy for me to deal with (haters) because I confide in God. My motto with my problems is “I don’t stress over nothin’ I can’t control.” I don’t even think about none of the negative energy. Once I give into negative energy, my energy be so thrown off to where I’ma take it all the way there. I don’t even give negative stuff a thought – I just try to focus on all positives. Between all the bad stuff that happens, I try to find the positive out of it. 

On a positive note, I see that you just inked a new deal. Congratulations. What’s changed the most for you? 

I’m signed to Geffen, that was a big thing that happened. It’s a blessing for me. They put me in some rooms with people that got my best interest and it’s like I got a big ass machine behind me right now. It’s like a real lift off my shoulder – there’s a lot of work that I don’t have to do because they help me with everything. And then with the We Eat The Most thing, that’s my label. I signed to Geffen through my label. Umm… I’m looking to sign artists but I don’t wanna sign street artists. I wanna sign somebody that’s gon’ go global. I’m really looking at singers and stuff like that. I got another entertainment company under my rap name, Skilla Baby, but I was really using that for me on the independent side. 

We Eat The Most isn’t just the name of your new EP, it’s also a sub-label? 

It’s my entertainment company. 

With you stepping into this executive role and wanting to sign other artists, when you mention “singers,” are you crossing over into the R&B space? 

I listen to more R&B music than I do rap music, so I’d rather get R&B musicians and Pop musicians. I feel like they’ll go a lot further with less drama. I feel like (singers) are way more marketable… it’s more money to be made. I know a lot of money is made off rappers and stuff but that’s if one of them artists pop: you gotta be the biggest artist in the world, or the biggest artist in your region. It’s a lot of money to be made in the R&B and Pop circle. 

What can Skilla Baby do to bring people closer to your vision of real R&B?

I think we just need to push more positivity anyway. That’s why I wanna do that, too. Most of the top albums and artists are Rap, like that market oversaturated. That’s one thing I learned from hustlin’: if everybody doing something, it burnout fast. It’s cool to be a rapper and all that shit if you get success from it, but most billionaires, millionaires, they started their own thing. 

What are you doing to avoid burnout? 

I’m evolving as the world turns. I’m open to change. A lot of the stuff I don’t wanna do that Geffen asks me to do, I do it ‘cause I know they know what they’re doing. I think the biggest thing I got that’ll keep me going as a leader is that I’m a follower, too. I don’t mind being told what to do. 

Is there a specific song from We Eat The Most that speaks to where you are in life now? 

All of ‘em, forreal, forreal. “Tay B Style,” that got me out there; “Can’t Stop” is how I feel about some situations that I been through; “March Madness” is just party, funny; “Man Down” is me getting my feelings out – I didn’t even know I was gon’ drop that until I was really feeling like that. “Dope Man Anthem,” I’m a hustler at all times. I grew up with a dopeman grind. “Duck Yo Taco”… most of my mixtapes, the EPs I put out, it be wild. You can tell I be in an up-down mood. One day I might wake up mad, but the next day (or next hour) I’ll be happy as hell. I’m just a person like that but I’ll never let it affect the business, or a relationship that I got wit a person. I don’t let my feelings affect nobody I’m around – it affect my music. I won’t make music based off of something I’m not feeling. That’s why I take my music so personal. Even the people at Geffen know… a lot of the stuff I don’t wanna drop is because it’s sacred to me. My music comes from a genuine spot.

About the Author

Derrius Edwards
Derrius is a music industry professional with experience in content strategy and editorial writing, sharing relevant and resonating stories as a conduit for hip-hop culture advancement.

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