Words by David C. Obenour
A pandemic is a weird thing to have lived through. From the surreal beginnings, to the series of false start endings, one of the weirdest things yet was figuring out your new normal in the midst of it all. For New York by way of Chicago’s SKECH185, making use of that time meant letting the writing loop run wild. Filling out notebook after notebook, scratching and scribbling, he found new through lines in his rhymes. Pushing boundaries and using all this newly found time for productive growth. Working with longtime collaborator and now neighbor, Jeff Markey – the tempo on He Left Nothing for the Swim Back may have slowed – but we need every breath we get to try and keep up.
Off Shelf: Your namesake comes from a lifelong fascination with art, be it with anime and comic books or later on with graffiti. How do you think that part of you is echoed in your music?
SKECH185: Style wise, at one point I decided to figure how to make my writing a form of wild style where there were flow in improbable ways, stops and starts and a level of complexity that can be appreciated from a far, deciphered over time but not easily imitated. A big thing about the style is to craft it in such a way where I can immediately hear if someone was biting me. Writing wise, I’ve grown very fond of writing – perhaps not delivering – my rhymes in a way that reflects an internal dialogue you find in a comic book. Watchman, particularly the Rorschach journals, was a big inspiration.
OS: Vivid and evocative – the title for your album, He Left Nothing for the Swim Back is stark – and so is the cover art. Is it a photograph? Knowing your background, I was wondering if you could discuss the significance of it.
S185: The cover is a photo done by my friend Vito Oliva. He was going to Rockaway beach early in the morning and capturing fisherman and surfers out for a season. When we finally narrowed down what the title was going to be, his penchant for wide shots that harkened to sublime paintings. The idea of a man standing in a world far greater than his scope to understand yet peering forward just seemed like the perfect fit.
OS: The press materials talk about how a lot of the album was written during COVID lockdown – how do you think that influenced the songs?
S185: My music, in general, involves a lot of rough drafts, composites from scribble down thoughts, text messages to myself and phrases that loop in my head. Lockdown created an environment in which that process happened ceaselessly at times. A lot was written for this project. I was given time to breakdown, reconstruct and figure out what are some of the issues as an MC I have not tackled technique wise yet and where to take my style for this project. This is my third album as the sole MC in my catalog and sixth full endeavor – Peace to Tomorrow Kings – so one thing I was able to address because of lockdown is if I have grown as a writer and what does that sound like.
OS: You had a really cool shot on your Instagram last year of a fistfull of stacked and torn notepad sheets simply titled, “This is one Rap album”. Do you do most of your writing by hand? How do you organize and keep track of thoughts that way?
S185: I still write down almost all of my rhymes and I don’t keep track to be honest. I rip out pages when I edit and I rip the edits out to be able to read the back as I record. I can tell by the cleanliness of the writing how many edits a verse has gone through and some notebooks have different rhythms to them because of verses or outlines throughout so I write in them accordingly. That in mind, once recorded, I stuff the verses with all of their previous edits into the back of the notebooks until the project is printed in case I have to re-record or edit for any beat switch ups.
OS: Now that we’re starting to feel more on the other side of things with the pandemic, how has your relationship to the music changed upon its release?
S185: This is the most straightforward writing I’ve done about my life on a project. I didn’t try to “strip it down” or “slow it down” but that happened based on the production choices and subjects. Its a different way of rapping for me so it’s still something I’m adjusting to hearing. This is also a bizarre feeling to share this much about my family to people, so I’m still getting a handle on that.
OS: Your verses delve into your own stories as well as larger and systemic issues, how do you balance constructing a narrative with those two scopes?
S185: Honestly I don’t really try to balance it at all. Quite a bit of this record came from hours and hours of conversations and reflections about these issues with friends and family over the years, especially during lockdown. Perhaps, due to the relationships, I found myself having to work between talking to people who required no prior context and those where backstory allowed for less hand holding later.
OS: Can you talk about your history with Jeff Markey? What led you to work with him on this album?
S185: I’ve known Jeff for 12 years and we met through our mutual close friend AM Breakups. We were fast friends and connected on an intellectual level very quickly. We first started working on music together back then we he did a remix of my song “Christmas” on my first album. Since then, its been remixes, one offs and guest verses on various projects he was doing with other MCs in our crew or circle. We had been talking about doing an album for a long time and even were collecting beats. We live in the same neighborhood now and one day, while going through beats one clicked – Badly Drawn Hero – and we built from there. As with all of my projects, this record also serves as a continued conversation between Jeff and myself.
OS: Whether it was with Jeff or with any of the guests, were there any parts in the collaborative process that particularly surprised you? Maybe people bringing an energy or approach that wasn’t what you had initially envisioned?
S185: Sometimes, Jeff would make a beat after a conversation about music or an edit of a song which would make me write or rewrite to build onto it. Collasoul Structure told me he was doing the chorus for Western Automatic Music pt 2 and I had no idea how it was going to come out but that pushed the sequencing of the beat around my verse. woods actually had a similar approach where I didn’t know what he was going to talk about and where on the beat it was going to land. Both of those elements leaving us in the dark made the final song kind of a puzzle but also gave us everything we needed to make it sound like an album closer.
OS: Looking at the credits for He Left Nothing…, working with Backwoodz Studioz is more involved than just album production, promotion, and distribution. What has it been like? Are things as connected as they seem?
S185: Jeff and I came in with musical history and a vision so we were on a mission. woods and Anton just let us do our thing with the occasional suggestion about sequencing but they respected our focus. We both have a relationship going back a decade with Backwoodz that spans multiple cities/scenes so it always overlaps.
OS: What’s inspiring you these days?
S185: Conversations, cooking shows, comics, my crews, my girl, my family, friends and this gloriously spinning dumpster fire we live on. Same things as always with just an older set of lenses.