For someone who has been a big hitter in the hip-hop game since the 90’s, Ski Beatz (“Ski” to his confidantes) doesn’t come across as a man who holds his position over others. Despite his posh New York base and sterling resume of DJ and production work that includes Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt and the DD172 collective, Ski’s swagger is refreshingly bereft of the arrogance that so many expect from hip-hop stars. That attitude fits well for Ski’s headlining spot at Austin’s ND 501 club where I met him. The event, entitled The Time Machine Party: The Texas 2 Step Edition, is being put on by Austin event/promotional/management company dirtbaglife, and while it is still a popular Sunday night attraction the crowd is thinner than the hall-busting patronage expected for an event with a performer of this caliber.
“I’ll just play some music,” the baseball-cap wearing, two-decade industry veteran jokes with his manager moments before his onstage entrance. It’s clear he’s an artist with more interest in the work than the materialistic aspects of fame. There was a parade of other performers, including Jaeson Green and Duzzy, earlier in the night. Several made strong showings for the crowd. DJ Notion is also supplying music between acts, but it’s clear when Ski steps up to the control console where the show is. A seductive lady with a huge head of curly hair and a “Like a Boss” waistband that is bigger than her bikini bottoms is stage left and a wiry, energetic redhead shakes at stage right. There might be more space on the ND floor than he’s used to, but Ski drops the beats and tracks as hot as he does at a sold-out gig.
As a DJ, Ski is bolder and more sinuous than a typical nightlife spinner. “I’m just gonna play some records, I don’t see it as a ‘performance,’” he quips backstage. Whatever casual terms he uses, the records Ski puts on simply have a bigger, more powerful immediate impact. It’s clear, even if the listener was no authority on the particulars of DJing, who the master is. Ski’s track transitions are more ambitious and a more natural fit for the rhythm of the night in the venue. The tracks melt into one another, and the dancers are able to catch the beat within seconds of the changeover. There is a variety to the “set list,” and one hard-hitting fast rap will turn on a dime to a slow groove and vice versa. The relationship between Ski and his onstage accompaniment is like a tight jazz band – the “soloists” (dancers) are both supported and led by the “rhythm/bandleader” (Ski). Although Ski Beatz’ preparation for the show is simply listening to fresh beats and samples on his headphones backstage, the back and forth between the man at the master panel and his free-form dancers is totally locked-in.
Seeing as he is, in many ways, a behind-the-scenes artist, one gets the impression that Ski Beatz lives a more transient, laid-back version of hip-hop stardom. Questions about his career reveal the same even-tempered manner with which he approaches the Time Machine Party. Asked about Damon “Dame” Dash, a collaborator who is perhaps most closely linked to Ski’s story, the star of the night responds casually that “Dame called me yesterday.” They remain good friends. On the subject of why he hasn’t worked with Jay-Z since their ultra-successful original team-up, he reveals that the cause is not any festering drama. “[Jay] has this whole world that he created,” Ski explains. “It’d be dope to do a record, but it’s all good.” He moves his hands apart while making this response, suggesting the tidal waves of events that push performers to and fro in the hip-hop world.
And on the subject of his new label deal, The Fresh Air Music Fund, Ski doesn’t reveal much his audience doesn’t already know. The first release for F.A.F. is still slated for Fall 2012, but Ski “doesn’t want to reveal anything until it’s ready.” It’s not secrecy for the purpose of building hype, just a responsible approach to disseminating news about what will probably be a big eyeball-gathering release.
When the legend of Ski Beatz is written, this live performance will probably not garner a major chapter. But it’s the buildup of years and years of this type of gig – impeccable in execution despite crowd conditions, effortlessly entertaining no matter the resources at hand – that makes Ski one of the most exciting producers and DJs in modern hip-hop. There is pleasure in seeing an artist show their talent in such a no-frills setup (except for the “frills” on the dancers’ outfits, that is). On this night the DJ practices his craft for a modest, but totally appreciative, crowd. It’s a great show, because an artist in transition is always fascinating.
The ND is in a relatively spare part of East Austin real estate, and Ski’s music can be heard for blocks. Because of this great sound pumping into the open, empty air, the atmosphere outside the club is a bit surreal. It would’ve been a quiet Sunday night, but Ski Beatz brightens and energizes the entire area. For one night, he makes this East Austin enclave his kingdom.
Thanks to dirtbaglife, the ND Austin, The Austin Socialite and Billy Cannon’s Smoke & Ink for making this concert possible.