Initially using rap’s blog era to make a mark, for over a decade Skyzoo and Von Pea have taken different approaches to the same concept – lyrically deft music that pushes the creative envelope while simultaneously landing well with trained ears.
Commonly recognized for the dual role of rapper/producer in the whimsical group Tanya Morgan, most of Von’s core following stems from 2009’s Brooklynati – a concept LP centered around a fictional city merging the influences of TM’s New York and Ohio members. A decade later, his latest solo LP City For Sale focuses on the true to life socioeconomic devastation caused by gentrification in his actual hometown of Bed-Stuy.
A kindred spirit of sorts, Skyzoo is heralded as a multilayered thinking man’s emcee who is street smart yet sophisticated, bleeding Brooklyn culture through songs like “Spike Lee Was My Hero” and never hiding his affinity for jazz. Blessed with the good fortune of working with production titan Pete Rock for a whole album in the same vein as Gang Starr, Retropolitan captures the essence of coming up over the past three decades in New York’s five boroughs. Contrasted with City For Sale’s narratives about how systemic change affects neighborhood residents, both artists present themselves as pillars and modern upgrades to what their golden age predecessors achieved.
Two sides of the same coin, Skyzoo and Von Pea displayed a mutual respect and camaraderie on a conference call with VIBE, as they waxed poetic on where they’ve been in and outside of music, the keys to maintaining consistency over the years and what it takes for underdogs to get their just due on the heels of 2020.
VIBE: Your latest albums City For Sale and Retropolitan are acclaimed companion pieces with seemingly similar aims. How does it feel to lead the charge in a sense for keeping traditionalism alive?
Skyzoo: For me, whether New York was the way it is now or how it was 15 years ago, my music would sound the same. I probably speak for Von as well knowing the type of artist and individual that he is. When I made Retropolitan, it wasn’t about saving New York rap. It was about making music that reflects who I am and who Pete Rock is from a production standpoint. I did what came naturally, rapping about the changes going on in my world. If the idea of us leading the charge comes with it, then so be it.
Von Pea: We spoke before both albums came out, and Sky was telling me how what was happening with the Slave Theater [as shown on my album cover] was an early idea that sparked Retropolitan. We’re both from Bed-Stuy and around the same age, so we’ll talk about the same thing in our music from different perspectives. What’s happening in Brooklyn [with gentrification] is happening in so many other cities, but us being from Brooklyn is [reflected] in the music. We’re not trying to pretend it’s still ‘94, it is 2019 but our music comes from who we are and everything we’ve gone through from day one.
Being from Harlem, I know how I’ve felt about gentrification, but growing up I didn’t experience the same blocks as Brooklyn natives. What are your memories of your area when you were growing up and how did it feel to see the changes happening around you?
Skyzoo: It’s funny you said you’re from Harlem, me being from Brooklyn I feel just as bad for Harlem and I ain’t even from there. Harlem was ours even before we were in Brooklyn. When you were down South, you just wanted to get to Harlem and make something of yourself. To see that happen there is a slap to my blackness. It’s like how much of this sh*t you gonna take from us?
Brooklyn was one of the first places to get hit by gentrification on a wide scale, and it started with proximity. Manhattan was too expensive and overcrowded, so people figured “Williamsburg is right there, we can get on the L train for one stop and be in Manhattan in 3 minutes.” Then Williamsburg gets overcrowded and expensive, so let’s push it back to Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene. Then the Barclays Center is built and you can’t just have a billion dollar stadium in the middle of the hood. You gotta build bars and cafes around it and now you’re kicking grandmothers out and people trying to make it to the next day.
People will be walking their dogs and if I’m walking my dog and nod, they don’t acknowledge me because in their mind they’re like “You’re not gonna be here in three or four years anyway, we’re gonna own this.” We can enjoy this together, don’t look at me like I don’t belong, because if we had to take a test on who belongs more, I’m gonna ace that (laughs).
Von: I remember looking at reviews from people moving in and they would flat out describe the neighborhood saying “It’s sketchy, but we’re waiting it out.” That planted the first seed for City For Sale, it was the first time I thought of the concept of somebody coming for my neighborhood and it no longer being for me.
Skyzoo: You can enjoy the neighborhood despite your nationality, background and tax bracket. It’s not about keeping people away, but when we wanted the garbage picked up or for police to show up, we couldn’t get it. So now that all of that has changed and the neighborhood is pristine, if we had to thug it out when it was pouring rain, we should be able to enjoy it when the sun is out.
VIBE: You’re both ambitious artists who use narratives in your music. How did you come up with the concepts for these albums, and what were the exact statements you were looking to make?
Von: Going back to New York and thinking about Jay-Z, no matter what you think about The Blueprint, The Black Album or 4:44, he’s gonna let you know Reasonable Doubt is his masterpiece. I would never say I was trying to make my masterpiece, but I was trying to make that album that was the one for me. My group Tanya Morgan has Brooklynati and on the last song I said that for the past 40 minutes I was trying to beat that album and make a solo version of that for myself. I wanted to make a record about my city for today, people like Skyzoo and Torae never tried to bring New York back, they talked about where they were from presently, so I thought about what Sumner Projects and Myrtle Avenue were like today.
Skyzoo: Working with Pete and knowing what I was getting into, he’s one of the greatest of all time and I didn’t just get one joint, it’s like 11 or 12. Think of all of the people who have done all of these wonderful things in the game that don’t have a whole album with him, being on that shortlist was serious. The only pressure on myself is to beat what I’ve done before, knowing what he brings and what I wanted to do to match that. Like Von said, it was never about bringing New York back. It was just about making music that represented me. I always respected how the South never tried to sound like New York or LA when nobody was thinking about them. Master P, T.I. and Pastor Troy represented who they are and never tried to be us. As much as they respected us, they never tried to make a Wu-Tang joint.
Von: You gotta be yourself. You can’t tell somebody else’s story and sound authentic.
VIBE: Along with gentrification and other changes in the city, some would argue New York lost its musical identity. If you can identify with that feeling, how do you think that came to pass?
Von: I would disagree. Maybe you could say that was the case for a little while, but a record like “All The Way Up” [by Fat Joe & Remy Ma] sounds like a New York club record today. French Montana’s music has trap elements but to me they sound like current New York club records. You can get traditional sounds from people like us and the city’s current sound comes from things like transplants and the internet. You look at A$AP Rocky’s generation, they don’t just sound like Dipset, they sound like they were listening to Scarface.
Skyzoo: I think that’s a dope point. As large as the internet is, it made the world smaller. No matter where you are, everybody has access to the same things at the same time. While I agree with Von, I think on top of that New York has always been the home of the hustle. Whatever is winning, New York is gonna do it because we’re about that paper. If heads is wearing white tees down to their knees, we’re doing that, and if we’re scamming and swiping cards we’re doing that too. Being the home of the hustle is a pro and a con, because musically all these little kids in their early 20s see what’s winning and run after whatever is gonna get the paper, and the identity gets lost in that.
VIBE: The three of us have similar stories, growing up in the hood but never letting it define our limitations. This idea tends to come up in your music often, what gave you focus to see that there was more to the world?
Von: It really was just rap. I had an older cousin who was pursuing a rap career. We would drive around in his car listening to whatever was popular whether it was [Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s] Mecca & The Soul Brother, The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass or LL Cool J. He was trying to be a rapper and I had only seen rappers on TV. I was never into comics but Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and KRS-One were my Superman and Batman growing up. Then I discovered Tribe and De La Soul and my best friend growing up put me onto Death Row, and I realized all of these people were from the hood like me.
Skyzoo: For me, it definitely was Hip-Hop but the difference was having my pops. I grew up with both of my parents my whole life, even though they never were in the same house. I spoke to my pops every day even if I was staying at my mom’s crib. When I eventually moved in with him, I would come from hanging out in the hood and we would have Leroy Campbell paintings on the wall and he was listening to artists like Ronnie Jordan, Anita Baker and Sade. It taught me how to be comfortable in both types of surroundings.
VIBE: You’re both pretty prolific, dropping quality music almost annually whether free or for sale. What would you say has been the key to your consistency over the years?
Von Pea: For me it’s being a fan and competitive. I could be listening to Sky’s latest record, Drake or a dude I just heard of yesterday, but if somebody is spitting that sh*t I’ll be like “That was ill, why didn’t I think of that? You hear that flow? This beat is ill, I should have flipped that sample.” Then I’ll turn on the drum machine, fire up the Notes app and write some sh*t. I’m a huge fan, but I have to remember I’m one of these people and I have to keep up too.
Skyzoo: Same for me. If you’re doing anything creative, the day you’re not a fan anymore is the day you lose because you gotta know what’s going on out there in order to compete and coexist. I always want to one up myself creatively, while knowing the business end and what it takes to stay out here. You can’t drop every five years unless you’re Jay, Beyonce or Nas, that’s the era we’re in. I don’t believe in dropping 30 mixtapes a year, but one a year will keep me on tour, selling records and merch, and collecting feature money because the new record is out. You have to keep the fans locked in without them forgetting. If you’re gonna be in this, you gotta actively work.
VIBE: What is it like to take the road less traveled at a time where it can feel like there’s a limited audience hanging onto the type of music you make?
Von: I met Skyzoo at the Little Brother “Lovin’ It’” video shoot in 2005 and in all of that time, you see people try to get signed only to sit. People who were dope as f**k being themselves would be like “I got the Lil Jon-sounding record because Im trying to put my album out.” Even sadder is seeing someone become totally different because they’re trying to get on…I say it’s integrity on my part. A label will want to sign you only for you to sound like another person on that label and I never understood that, so I’m just gonna do me. If I could make a hit record being myself I would do that.
Skyzoo: Like Von said it’s about integrity, where I’m able to look in the mirror and be happy with the music I made. You never want to have moments where you’re like “I can’t believe I made that type of record.” There was never a moment when I dumbed down, for me it was like how can I do what’s working, while doing me at the same time and making it make sense.
Von: Fat Joe tells this story where KRS-One said “No one is shooting at my shows because I don’t talk about that.” We see what’s going on with [Tekashi 6ix9ine] in court, you talk up certain things and people are gonna approach you [with that same energy.] So I keep it true to who I am and what I’m doing.
VIBE: I know gentrification, fixing New York’s infrastructure or even the state of Hip-Hop are issues that are too big for any of us to tackle, but what’s the role you want to take on with your music?
Von: It’s part selfish, but as I’m trying to figure out what I want to say and do next, I just want to continue to have the respect of my peers and for people to say “Von is dope” or “Tanya Morgan dropped another classic record.” I don’t know if that’s vanity (laughs), I just want to be acknowledged for being dope and anything else is a nice perk.
Skyzoo: I want people to relate to the music, see themselves in it and leave a legacy. We’re always celebrating 15, 20 and 25 year anniversaries of incredible albums and I want my music to be looked at like that. We do that with Marvin Gaye, Stevie, James Brown, Michael Jackson and all of the music that shaped this country and world. I want my music to be represented like that as something that lasts, having the same impact as Illmatic, Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Midnight Marauders, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and sh*t that I listen to like it dropped yesterday.