RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond rapper Mad Skillz, aka Shaquan Lewis, is reflecting on his second-greatest claim to fame, a cashier’s job at VCU’s Main Street Parking Deck.
Skillz worked there in 1996 when he released his debut album, “From Where?” and returned for years to the glass booth when he wasn’t touring or recording.
“Some of the songs that I’ve written for the P Diddys, the Will Smiths, I wrote right here in this parking deck,” Mad Skillz told 8News in an exclusive interview.
His aim was simple: To put Richmond on the radar. To promote his town’s talent.
Drivers who knew the rapper marveled that he kept a regular job or dismissed Skillz as a wanna-be. Those who lacked faith were ultimately chagrined. Skillz is largely responsible for putting Richmond on America’s rap map.
His astonishing success includes performing or collaborating with a Who’s Who of rap music: The Roots, Common, Missy and Cee-Lo, Foxy Brown and Mase, Diddy and Nicky Minaj, Nas, and Jay-Z, to name a few.
This spring Skillz returns to the University of Richmond to teach a class on the history of Hip-Hop with Associate Professor Erik Nielson, an expert on African-American Literature.
WEB EXTRA: We sit down with University of Richmond Professor Erik Nielson. He recently penned a book called “Rap on Trial.” The book takes a look at the use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence in court cases and the impact that it’s had on the genre and society.
Skillz knows his way around UR because his first live radio experience was at the college radio station with DJ Mike Street, a UR student whose Hip-Hop show was a haven for local rappers.
Nielson has nothing but praise for his classroom collaborator.
“Without exception, people told me first and foremost about what a good person he was–and then about what a good artist he was,” Nielson said. “When I realized he’d produced for everybody, that he put Virginia Hip-Hop on the map, that he’d done all these amazing things, I told him I would love to teach with you.”
The class is a rousing success, with students as old as 65 exploring the origins of the art form, dissecting lyrics, and plumbing the culture that Skillz came to love as a student at John F. Kennedy High. He started rapping to make it into the school talent show.
Everyone can’t play a harp. Everybody can’t sing. Everybody can talk with a beat in the background. You might not be on beat–but you can figure that out.”Mad Skillz
Skillz pledged to make a mark. It’s an exclamation point. “When you say Virginia Hip-Hop and Richmond Hip-Hop you can’t not say my name. And I’m proud of that…”
Richmond is too.
WEB EXTRA: Juan Conde’s full interview with Mad Skillz