Skizzy Mars can recall the exact moment in 2009 when he realized he wanted to become a rapper.
“It was a Saturday night before the VMAs. It was at Terminal 5 in the city. Phoenix opened for [Kid] Cudi. Phoenix is one of my favorite bands. And I saw Cudi onstage and he had a joint lit. He was draped in Bape,” Skizzy says from the offices of Atlantic Records on a rainy November afternoon. “I’m looking at him like, I want to be that. Honestly that and the Glow in the Dark Tour, where ’Ye brought out Jay, Rihanna, Lupe — I was like, ‘I want that spotlight.’ ”
Kid Cudi’s entire career has orbited around hip-hop, alternative, rock, and pop. It’s inspiring for any emerging artist to see someone tap into all those veins and be successful. The same can be said for his mentor, Kanye West, whom Time magazine declared to be one of the 100 most influential people in pop culture this year, and who continues to break boundaries with his persistence and determination to innovate. It’s no wonder that the 22-year-old from Harlem places them both on such a high pedestal.
“My Tupac and Biggie were Kid Cudi and Kanye West,” Skizzy says, explaining that his father gave him Kanye’s Late Registration when he was nine years old and that he memorized every lyric.
In their wake, hip-hop’s melting pot has become more thickly crowded, especially in New York, where there’s a tendency to make the claim that the city’s amalgamation of cultures and ethnicities doesn’t produce a distinctive sound when compared to Atlanta or Los Angeles. The old guard has laid the blueprint for acts to build and experiment by being open-minded with their influences and collaborators. Skizzy Mars (a/k/a Myles Mills) is a part of this lineage of progressive artists since blowing up after “Douchebag,” a pop-driven single produced by David Yassky that displays his youthful arrogance. The hook: “They say nice guys finish last/Well, thank God I’m a douchebag.”
“I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn with Joey Bada$$. I didn’t grow up in the trap with [A$AP] Ferg and A$AP Rocky,” he says. “I think that every artist’s sound is a replication of what they heard growing up.” His journey began in Harlem, where he spent his childhood around West 132nd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a corner that wasn’t less dangerous than other parts of the neighborhood. Skizzy’s parents — his father is a therapist and his mother owns two daycares in Manhattan — wanted him to get away from the street life, enrolling him in all-boys private schools on the Upper East Side, St. Bernard’s School, and, later, the Browning School.
“It was day and night for me,” he remembers. “It was like, go to school at 62nd and Park, where there’s David Yurman, Etro, Robert Talbott, and Hermès, and then go home to Harlem where it’s like dudes trapping on the streets. It made me who I am today.”
Skizzy was always musically inclined as a teenager but began to take rapping seriously when he dropped out of Union College, a private liberal arts school, after spending only ten weeks there majoring in sports journalism. He actually took the advice of U.K. producer Star Slinger, with whom he worked at the beginning of his career. “When I was deciding whether or not to drop out of college, he was like, ‘If you put in part-time effort you’re gonna get part-time results.’ And I took that to heart. If I want to be where I want to be, if I want to be like Cudi and Kanye — my idols — then I need to give it full-time.”
It was during these years Skizzy developed his eclectic tastes. He says attending diverse schools in Manhattan expanded his musical palette. From friends’ suggestions, he was introduced to modern rock bands, indie singers, and folk musicians: Beirut, Animal Collective, Death Cab for Cutie, Born Ruffians, Morrissey, Ferraby Lionheart, and so forth. Hip-hop came from an older sister who watched B.E.T.’s 106 & Park religiously, so he was always getting the latest in rap from her. She was the first to put him on to the Diplomats, Harlem rap veterans consisting of Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey Zekey.
Skizzy’s ability to be a reflection of the artists he loves came full circle with “Douchebag.” In May 2011, he released the track online and began pushing it to credible music blogs like Good Music All Day (an early supporter) when he was seventeen. Labels took notice and fans liked the playfulness of the track (it currently has over 1.6 million listens on YouTube), which gave him the confidence to put out a follow-up, “Profound.” This song, in particular, touches on his unique background, which he later explains to the Voice as one reason why younger fans can relate to his subject matter: “They are getting the story of a black kid who grew up predominantly with white kids, which is probably one of the toughest things to do in the world,” he says. “But most importantly, you’re listening to a kid who likes to take extreme care with what he puts out.”
Skizzy believes in quality over quantity when he’s getting ready to put out music. Each project is a significant marker in his growth as an artist. Phases (2013), Pace (2014), and The Red Balloon Project (2015) are made with meticulous attention to detail and have contributed to Skizzy’s goals of moving the needle within the confines of the genre. On his next album, Alone Together, due out in January 2016 through Atlantic, he’s ready to make another statement to the youth.
“How together are we as a society? There’s all this social media. Kids can contact me immediately and say, ‘Skizzy, you fucking suck.’ But who are you? There’s so much connection, but there’s so much disconnection. And it’s so easy to get disconnected. So this album is about New York City vibes and what I’ve dealt with in the last year. It’s a lot more mature,” he explains.
Even so, “Alcoholics,” the first single off Alone Together (which the Voice is premiering above), is perfect for those nights when you feel like party-hopping and engaging in foolish antics. Produced by longtime collaborator Michael Keenan, it shows Skizzy’s indulgences in plain sight — libations, pills, anything to slow down time so as to buy a few more hours until sunrise. It’s new emotional territory compared to that in which we’re used to seeing Skizzy — and it only creates more anticipation for Alone Together.
Like his heroes Cudi and ’Ye, who helped redefine hip-hop, Skizzy wants to continue expanding the sound of what it means to be a New York rapper. On February 9, he kicks off his Alone Together: The Tour in Pittsburgh at the Altar Bar with P-Lo of Iamsu’s HBK Gang, and locals can witness firsthand the turn-up of a Skizzy Mars show. Guided by his former tourmates G-Eazy and Logic, you can expect a tight act backed by a live band. Maybe someone in the crowd will be inspired to chase their dreams just like Skizzy did when he saw Cudder years ago.
“If you want to hear music and you want to hear sounds of vibes and have a good time, come to my show,” he says. “I don’t really even consider myself a rapper. I’m an artist.”
Skizzy Mars performs at S.O.B.’s (204 Varick Street) on April 7, 2016. Click here for ticket information.