In just over a year, up-and-coming young local rapper Skewby (see this week's "20<30" cover story) has revealed three different sides to his musical personality.
His late-2009 mixtape debut, Proving You Wrong Since 1988, was rooted in classic hip-hop sounds, sampling artists such as Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Roxanne Shante whom most hip-hop fans his age probably weren't familiar with.
It was Skewby's assured flow over a Pete Rock sample on "Talk 2 'Em" ("I tell 'em I'm from Memphis, Tennessee/And they look at me strange like I need ID") that first drew the attention of hip-hop magazine The Source, which tabbed Skewby in its celebrated "Unsigned Hype" column.
Over the past year, via a series of exciting, mixtape-style singles such as "I'm Ill" and "Angels (Remix)," Skewby updated his sound, spitting fierce, swaggeringly fun rhymes over glossy, radio-certified borrowed beats.
Now, on his second full-length mixtape album, the pre-Christmas release More or Less, featuring mostly original production from Skewby, DJ Charlie White, and young local producer/engineer Go Judo, he's crafted a softer, more introspective, more personal record full of sung hooks and with a sound more rooted in R&B and even jazz touches.
The result is a collection that doesn't grab the ear as instantly as Skewby's previous highlights, but it grows on you with repeat listens.
"Those are just fun for me," Skewby says of the one-shot singles. "I did 'I'm Ill' in 30 minutes. The songs that really mean the most to me, I don't just put them out immediately. That's what I put on [More or Less], the songs that mean the most to me. 'I'm Ill' ... I don't really have a connection to it. It's just me showing off my skills.
"We took our time. We wanted to put together something we could be proud of, make it as high-quality as possible," Skewby says. But despite the original production, he still considers More or Less — available for free download at SkewbyMusic.com — a second mixtape rather than an official debut album.
Now Skewby faces the challenge of building his career beyond the solid toe-hold he's gotten on the national hip-hop scene.
"I'm not on BET, but I'm not unknown," Skewby says about his current place. "This year has to be all about going places, creating new fans, and releasing more new music."
To that end, Skewby has plans for an event in Atlanta later this month and trips to Los Angeles and Austin (for the South By Southwest Music Festival) in the next couple of months, with touring to follow.
More or Less hit number one on the mixtape chart at DJBooth.net and is currently at number seven, just two spots below a recent mixtape from Top 40-certified Atlanta rapper B.O.B. On the same site's "independent songs" chart, Skewby's "Everyday" also hit number one and is currently number 10. But if Skewby has been embraced by hip-hop blogs around the country, getting industry attention — and especially radio play — in his hometown has proven harder to come by.
As he raps on More or Less, "Got a lot on the line/That's not a drug reference/I keep it cool, but where I'm from/They got a thug preference."
"It's the substance of it. The way I sound. The way I dress," Skewby says of his outside-looking-in status locally. "It's not that people don't like it. They just don't know how to react to it. I understand that everybody's not going to like it. But I also understand that people are followers. It takes somebody to stand up and say this guy's good so people will feel comfortable with it."
Skewby opens for Indiana-based rapper and 2010 breakout artist Freddie Gibbs at the Hi-Tone Café Friday, January 21st, with Rockwell Knuckles and Pat24Seven. Showtime is $10 p.m. Admission is $8 in advance and $12 at the door.