harlem rapper skizzy mars lifts inspiration from kid cudi and death cab for cutie
Meet the New York lyricist behind a different wave of beats.
Skizzy Mars' scuffless Stan Smiths squelch with rainwater as he shuffles upstairs to reach my South Williamsburg apartment, a sparse railroad that fills with sunlight when there is any. He arrives with the six or so people his publicist told me to expect, one of them a friend named Brooklyn — a quiet kid with a mouth full of gold who has, ironically, never before visited his namesake borough. Skizzy, however, settles in instantly, with a familiarity learned from years spent scaling other strangers' creaky Brooklyn stairs, and crouches beside my makeshift coffee table. This is to say, he's a native New Yorker.
The 22-year-old rapper, real name Myles Mills, was raised and still resides in Harlem, these days on 132nd Street. Skizzy's enunciated flow marks him as a descendant of the neighborhood's lightning-quick lyricists, but the tracks collected on Alone Together — his just released debut full-length album — branch far beyond the regional conventions of one of America's most historic hip-hop hotbeds, beyond the genre itself. "Growing up, I always tried to get different tastes of the city," Skizzy explains, "whatever I could get my hands on."
Though a son of Harlem, Skizzy attended a "predominantly white" school on the wealthy Upper East Side. He counts his high school hangouts as chiefly downtown destinations — the Meatpacking District or Lower East Side — and began making music at around 17 years old, often venturing to Brooklyn to do so. Before rappers like Kanye and Cudi broadened the possibilities of modern hip-hop, Skizzy was exposed to bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Beirut, and Animal Collective — influences that persist in shaping Alone Together's multidimensional sound.
"Being raised in Manhattan among a lot of diversity and so many different cultures definitely inspired me to have a lot of different, multifarious influences. You can hear that on my music; it's different because it has a lot of rock components. I play with a live band — a guitarist and a drummer — but it also has some more urban and trap elements to it," Skizzy explains. "But it's really just vibes. In a hectic city like New York, I always wanted to kind of chill and find my place."
Much of Alone Together is a meditation about just that: finding one's place somewhere among the 8.2 million others with whom we share zipcodes. It's a melodic collection of sleepless city misadventures and introspective moments of isolation. On "Girl on a Train" — half-rapped, half-sung Missed Connections section poetry — Skizzy recalls a cutie "on the L with some headphones on," who "broke my heart when her stop came." "Recognize" — a duet with JoJo — blends sports references into the larger love song saga, a product of Skizzy's eternal passion for the Knicks. And the recently released video for single "I'm Ready" — a shimmery techno-pop cut that includes shout outs to Morrissey and Minor Threat — collects a crop of distinctly diverse NY kids. "We kind of wanted it to have a real New York, kind of 80s punk, sort of Britpop wave. So everyone we cast was with that vibe, plus friends of ours."
Though the video was shot on Brooklyn fire escapes and under the neon glow of Chinatown massage parlors, it isn't entirely a product of New York. Both its tattooed vocal collaborator, Olivver the Kid, and director, Dan Regan, are LA-based. As is Michael Keenan, Skizzy's longtime producer with whom he's crafted most of his music.. Though Alone Together is profoundly shaped by The Big Apple, its oscillating moments of cool confidence and introverted misanthropy become a soundtrack for city living anywhere.
When I meet Skizzy, he's just finished traveling both coasts of the States — in a few hours, he'll be playing the penultimate stop on a 40-city national tour, which included three SXSW dates for which he linked up with two of our favorite rising hip-hop stars, Donmonique and Jazz Cartier. On top of the ambitious schedule, it's his first time hitting the road with a live band. "I thought it was really important this tour to add a live element to songs. People don't want to just hear the same stuff they can hear on a laptop, so it was really important for me to just have different live versions of songs," Skizzy explains, adding that having a band elicits more energetic performances: "they give me that extra push."
Having a live band provides an enriched experience of Skizzy's music, but also speaks to his ambitious outlook on making it. To Skizzy, the best thing about being a young, creative person today isn't simply the possibility of captivating listeners with a novel sound, but having the freedom to experiment with creating it. "The ability to mess up and not be vilified for it I think is a big tool for young people to have. Some people may like it and some people may not, but I can still keep making shit. That's a huge thing; not a lot of occupations allow that sort of creative freedom" Skizzy explains. "I just enjoy being able to wake up and learn every day."
Though that room for growth is constantly driving Skizzy to branch out with his sound, he hopes Alone Together will remain a touchstone for people down the road. "Albums like Man on the Moon, Graduation, and Transatlanticism, I can listen to years later and I still get that same feeling — remember where I was or the smell or the girl that I was in love with," he explains. "I wanted to make a group of songs like that for people, songs that really resonate."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen