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"Rap Up" MC Skillz Talks Retiring, Ghostwriting and "Popcorn Music"

Skillz may not be a household name, but he's had a crazy interesting career in hip-hop. He's shared the mike on a track with Dave Chappelle, written songs for some of rap's biggest names, and beefed with Shaquille O'Neal.

Had YouTube existed in 2002, Skillz may have been one of the first viral sensations. That year he started doing "The Rap Up," in which he summarizes the previous 12 months in rhyme. Waiting for the track has become a tradition for fans.

December 26 is a big day for Skillz. "The Rap Up" celebrates its 10th anniversary and his new album Thoughts Become Things drops. The album is his final release as a rapper -- December 26th is also the day he retires.

Before he calls it a career he returns to Houston Friday night to host Red Bull's Thre3style Massive event at Stereo Live. Rocks Off caught up with him one last time to talk ghostwriting, the changing trends in hip-hop, and how he wants to be remembered.

Rocks Off: So what lead to the decision to make Thoughts Become Things your final release and retire the Skillz name?

Skillz: I just felt like it was time. When I let people know my last album would have been my last album I got a lot of flak from the fans- "You're just gonna leave? You didn't even give us a heads up."

At that point I started thinking about what songs I had and how far I had come and just started thinking about if I did put together a last project what would it be? That's how I came up with Thoughts Become Things.

RO: You've said you plan to keep writing for other people. The public is pretty savvy- they know certain artists use ghostwriters. Have you seen a change in how fans perceive the act of ghostwriting?

S: I think we've come to a point in the industry where people care more about the songs than they do about the artists, where they care more about personalities than they care about actual skill. With that being said a lot of these people have businesses and companies and they're doing three or four things at a time. They don't have the time to sit down and construct a hit.

It's no different than hiring someone to do what you can't do or that you can't do at a fast rate. Not that you might not be able to do it but you might not be able to do it as fast as other people can. Some people are willing to pay for that.

RO: Do you think the focus on songs and personality instead of talent is bad for rap?

S: I think it has helped rap take a decline as far as popularity in mainstream America. I don't think rap is as big as it was when we had a lot more going on. We seem to gravitate toward one thing and then we stay on that 'til we dry that up then we go to the next thing.

I think it's a lot of microwave music, a lot of popcorn music, and no one is focused on having a career. You're gonna get a lot of one-hit wonders and lot of people that have a hot summer and then they don't have a career. That's just the industry that we're in now.

RO: The last track on the new album is the "2012 Rap Up." Did you think back in 2002 it would be something you'd still be doing every year?

S: Nah. It was just a freestyle that I choose to put on a mixtape. I never thought it would become as big as it did. I never thought I would be doing it again and it would be something that people expect and wait for.

As corny as it feels sometimes to be labeled as "The Rap Up Guy," I'm proud to have something that I own; it's my idea and people only wanna hear it from me. They don't wanna hear it from anybody else. Even if it is one song a year, that's special.

Every year I get new fans and some of them check me out and I'm "The Rap Up Guy" and some of them check me out and they go back in to my catalogue and discover other things that I did that they enjoy. I'm appreciative of that.

RO: How do you want people to look back at your career as Skillz?

S: I just want people to look at me and say, "Hey, he did it. He represented where he was from." When I first came out it wasn't cool to say you were from Virginia. We didn't have hip hop on a national scale, it was either New York, L.A., maybe the South and that was it. I'm proud to say I'm from Virginia.

"He stayed true to himself the whole time." I don't think that I ever tried to do what everyone else was doing. It just wasn't comfortable for me. I love making music. For lack of better terms, I make hip-hop music for people who enjoy good hip-hop music. I don't think it could be any plainer.

Skillz hosts the Redbull Thre3style Massive DJ competition featuring A-Trak, Toy Selectah, RL Grime, Four Color Zack, Nedu Lopes and DJ Drummer 8 p.m. Friday at Stereo Live, 6400 Richmond, www.stereolivehouston.com. All money at the door goes to our friends at Girls Rock Camp Houston.

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