Two members of the Hip-Hop collective Down By Law teamed up for a project that pays homage to 90s Hip-Hop. Emcees Dskillz Harris and Black Chakra released a 13-track album titled “Liberated Scarfaces” that is part Mos Def, part Wu-Tang Clan, part Mobb Deep, and part MF DOOM.
Liberated Scarfaces features appearances by Trai Blessed, Lil Webb, Miclopedia, Snick Foley, Quay TheLyricist, Bito Sureiya, and J. Powell. The album is produced by Trai Blessed, Sav, Rod Da Blizz, D.M.D., The Abstract Beatmaker, Pharwh, and Dskillz Harris himself.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke with Dskillz Harris and Black Chakra about their affinity for 90s Hip-Hop, the friendly competition between the two in the booth, and their new album, Liberated Scarfaces.
TRHH: Why’d you call the new album Liberated Scarfaces?
Black Chakra: The album works as an ode to 90s Hip-Hop. It’s basically some of the sounds that built my style, and helped build Skillz’ style, and my love and appreciation. So, because of that we wanted a very 90s Hip-Hop title and Incarcerated Scarfaces, which both of us really love that song from off of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx — the purple tape — kind of the thought behind it was like what if the people listening to that who grew up are now Liberated Scarfaces? What if the people who heard that are now free because of the years of listening to Hip-Hop?
So, I always thought that was a great idea like, there’s nothing that can hold us now, we’re not chained, the scarfaces is free, which is like a much more frightening thought. But also, I think in the album we try to give hella Raekwon/Ghostface energy, hella Mobb Deep energy. We tried to combine every 90s sound we could. A little bit of Mobb Deep on there, it’s a little bit of Black Star on it, it’s a little bit of Rae and Ghost on there. So, just basically an ode to the 90s and what Hip-Hop was like and our appreciation for it is kind of how we came up with the name.
TRHH: That was definitely something I got listening to Liberated Scarfaces. You guys pay homage to classic Hip-Hop, but was that the plan or did you just start making songs and it turned out that way?
Dskillz Harris: That was definitely the plan.
Black Chakra: That sound is mine and Skillz’ sound. Me and Skillz, we are modern boom bap rappers not unlike Griselda is today. It’s not like we exist alone, RJ Payne, there are several rappers who still have the boom bap sound. So, for us doing an album that was like a 90s ode it just felt like the most natural thing to do.
TRHH: So, what was the process like recording Liberated Scarfaces?
Dskillz Harris: Basically, the whole idea started after the first DBL. So, we’re the Liberated Scarfaces but we’re also in the Hip-Hop collective DBL — Down by Law, mainly based in Baltimore, we also have members in New York. The first group album which came out a couple years ago was called “Rappers are in Danger” and the response that people gave us from that, a lot of people liked the album, especially on the east coast. People were like, “Okay, this is dope,” but they wanted to see what me and him would do.
It’s only right and we record a lot together anyway, so it was like, okay, let’s see what we can make together. We of course feature on each other songs, but this is our first tape together and it was just the process of like every time we link let’s knock out 2-3 songs. We had a version of the tape that is different from this version and it was very much so complete, but I felt like we could take it higher and we’re very much so pleased with how this current version is.
Black Chakra: Yeah, the first version was a decent EP, this version I think is a great Hip-Hop album. The difference; Skillz got mad and got mad skills, so it was ridiculous, it was ridiculous. I went from rapping just going off every song to like fighting for my life track for track. People talk about the quality of music in the 90s, I think that there were still conscious rappers, I think there were still gangster rappers, I think the 90s had all the elements of Hip-Hop that Hip-Hop has today. The difference was it was a competitive time. Remember, every cartoon station like Fox, CW, all them were competing with television shows, cartoons, toy companies were competing, and rappers were the same.
The 90s was a very competitive era and it’s just basically whenever somebody picked up a pen they were trying to be nicer than the next nigga. That’s what kind of happened on this album, like I found myself reaching deep to pull out certain type verses and of course we were still working with DBL, the bigger group while we were recording the album. So, it’s like this consistent competition to be like the best writer which produces something great for the listener.
TRHH: You say Skillz was mad; is that in reference to going in the booth, or was it something else?
Black Chakra: Something happened in his personal life and after that happened, listen, man, I saw the difference. I saw the difference. And the next time I went to record with him I was like, “Oh shit. This ain’t an album no more, this is a heavyweight bout.” It was fun. It was great writing. He’s an incredible lyricist and his ear for Hip-Hop I think is why the album sounds as good as it does.
TRHH: Is that how you feel?
Dskillz Harris: Yeah, I felt like it was like when uncle Ben died. If you read Spider-Man it was like that. So, you can hear the difference, too. Those who know, know but if you really listen to just the difference in certain deliveries and the cadence switches, it’s different. But you can tell kind of in the production, too, because I produced the majority of the tape. The first half of the tape it’s a point where it’s like I’m doing mainly the production and I’m rapping with Chakra, but Chakra is clearly leading the race. Then it gets to a point where it’s like I’m going crazy like out of nowhere. I would say that the change starts with my second verse on “In the Heat of the Night.” Matter of fact, probably “Makin Money Like Mitch.
Around that time whatever happened clearly put an extra battery in my back. And the reason why this works right is because we’re both two very different emcees with two very different voices. We rap, but the thing is that we both love Hip-Hop and we also both want to be the very best. We want to put together the best projects, want to put together the best rhymes. If we’re gonna do it we’re gonna do it at a high level. But when this thing happened it put a hunger in me I’ve never had before and it’s like I go from a point where I’m rapping, to like I’m rapping like my life’s on the line, basically. So, there’s like an intensity and like a focus switch that happened that’s still going on right now. I got an album coming out in January called Raw Raps.
Black Chakra: I got an album coming out in December because I had to outdo this nigga [laughs].
Dskillz Harris: Basically, Chakra was gone at some poetry events for like a weekend and when he came back we did a photo shoot. After the photo shoot I switched out the CD’s for Liberated Scarfaces that was in the car and then I put in the new CD and he’s listening to it and he’s like, “Yo, what is this?” I’m like, “This is my new album.” He’s like, “We just did a new album, what you mean you got a new album?” I did this new album in two days basically, and it’s just it’s ridiculous.
Black Chakra: It’s sick! If you could have seen my face, brother, when I was like, “Nigga, what you mean you got a new album? I was gone for two days.” He said, “That’s when I recorded it,” and I was like, “Oh, this nigga is on a different earth than me.” We’re not on the same planet no more. And like he said with the styles, we definitely bring like two different spectrum’s of Hip-Hop lyricism I’m on some like Gravediggaz/Big L type shit. Skillz be on some like Mos Def/Ghostface type shit and it just works.
It just works because what we bring to it is skill, different perspectives, the verbal theatrics and gymnastics that we tend to put on songs. I go back and listen to it and it just makes me a bigger fan of him, really. Listening to the album just makes me more of a fan of him. I think it’s actually the best Hip-Hop project I’ve done. It ain’t the best Hip-Hop project that he’s done, that’s his next album, that shits incredible.
Dskillz Harris: I appreciate you, bro and I feel the same way. That’s the thing too, with this style of music that we do people don’t really expect certain things, which is why we did a record like Tylenol. There’s some sort of belief that primarily boom bap rappers can’t rap on trap beats and it’s like, if you can rap on a boom bap beat of course you can rap on a trap beat. It’s easier to hide behind the beat, but on a boom bap beat things are slower, there’s more emphasis on your lyrics. So, if we are in situations where we’re constantly put in a place where we have to show whether or not we can spit, when the beat is more so the emphasis now why would we not be able to do that?
Black Chakra: Exactly. They be talking about them bum ass boom bap niggas when they say shit like that. They exist. It’s the bum ones and they really just be talking about them like, “Oh, they can’t spit over trap beats that’s why they do boom bap.” I’m like, “Yeah, we not them, bro. Like, we can rap.” We choose this sound because when you’re doing lyricism the focus is on the writing of this. I could show you off the flow, I could show off my beat maker, I can make you dance, no, the focus of this is lyricism.
Boom Bap and the type of old school 90s style beats, they lend themselves to that style. Because the beat is a simple rhythm, a simple loop for you to just ride on top of. The star is the lyrics and I think that’s what me and Skillz are fans of predominantly. That being said, if a nigga call me for a fast rap song I’m not gonna be sitting there like, “Oh no! What do I do now? “It’s like no, bro. Yeah, I got you. I got you there, too.” It’s not hard to rap on a hi-hat/snare it’s just multis with less breaths.
Dskillz Harris: We put in those 10,000 hours. I had somebody ask me one time because they work with somebody that’s underground but they’re in the mainstream, right. So, he was like would I be nervous to rap with that person, I was like, “No,” and they were like, “Come on, you wouldn’t be nervous?” No. One, I feel like we were born to do this, two it’s like yo, do y’all see who I rap with? Yo, I rap with Chakra all the time. Chakra is being extremely modest right now but Chakra is a multi-national champion for poetry. So, if I’m riding with someone who has an undisputed top tier pen and I have to rap with that level of a writer every day, I’m not going to be nervous to rap with anybody. That doesn’t mean I’m going to take anybody lightly, but that means I know better than to take someone lightly.
Because me and you both don’t want to have a wack verse. Nobody wants to have the wack verse. That’s the worst thing in the world when you’re on a posse cut or you’re just on a song period and people skip past your verse. Or once they get to your verse they don’t want to hear it no more. So, if I’m always in a position where I got to bring it every single time, what would make it different then? Definitely, bro, iron sharpens iron. You definitely help me push my pen, bro. A lot. You’ve helped me push my pen a lot, bro, and I want to thank you again. When that thing happened, yo, it just put a battery in my back and it introduced me to a hunger I didn’t know existed verbally.
TRHH: Dskillz, you produced a few songs on Liberated Scarfaces. Is this your first foray into production?
Dskillz Harris: No, I’ve been producing for a minute. I kind of put it down once I got into college. I jumped in the Baltimore scene around 2016. I produced the majority of the collab project Sketches of Pain that I have with J. Powell. I’ve produced different singles for Chakra, I’ve produced a tape basically for Miclopedia. I’ve been producing for a lot of people in the last two years or so. When I first started rapping I started producing around the same time because it’s like you’re just a rapper and you’re not in a group yet or you’re not in the scene, you’re probably not gonna know any producers.
So, it’s like, alright I might as well get into making beats. But I grew up always around music. I come from a musical family. I’m related to Ms. Tiq who toured for seven years with Vaughan Mason & Crew, so, I’ve always been around music. My cousin is no longer living, Sir Andre, he used to play with B.B. King and mad other musicians like that. So, music runs in my family, but as far as getting this deep into production, definitely I fine-tuned it more so with this project. I produced the first track No Place Like Home, I produced the second song Tylenol, I produced Shane, RNM, and then the cypher — track 13, 8 is Still Enough, which is a shout out to Big L.
TRHH: What’s in your production workstation?
Dskillz Harris: I mainly use FL. I chop in FL. That’s what I mainly use. I mean, I have Reason on my laptop also. Back in the day I first started making music on Audacity. That was a very long time ago. I’ve used Audacity, then after that I was using Cool Edit, which I’m pretty sure is Adobe something now. I think it’s called Adobe Premiere. I mainly use FL. My friend EL Summers who did the majority of the mixing and mastering on Liberated Scarfaces, I just came back from Atlanta, while I was down there he gave me a portable turntable. I have over 1000 records upstairs, but basically, I can use this to play 45s, 33s and others. I just gotta plug this into the computer and then I’ll be able to sample straight from the records into the computer.
TRHH: Okay, what were you sampling with before? You were just using MP3s?
Dskillz Harris: Yeah.
TRHH: Okay, my favorite joint on the album is “Nas & AZ.” Take me into the creation of that song and why did you choose that title?
Black Chakra: Thank you. Skillz and me are very, very much fans of this art form. One of the things we’re fans of is letting titles come naturally. We don’t usually be like, “Oh, I wanna make a song called this,” and then just make the song. The beat had this 90s AZ or Nas feel. We couldn’t figure out which one. He was like, “Yeah, this some Nas and AZ type stuff.” And once he said it was that, I was like, “Oh yeah, both of us gotta hop on this now.” Which is one of the reasons you’ll hear my flow is a lot calmer on that song, trying to be as smooth as like an AZ or a Nas because of that concept. When it comes to writing the verses what I’ve always liked about emcees like AZ and Nas is that you can be conscious, hood, hyper-real, while being hyper-violent at the same time. So, for me, writing my verse was me trying to channel all that — the smoothness, the intellect, and it was fun to write. It was great to record. Listening to it after it was done, it was one of my favorite tracks when we first recorded it.
TRHH: “Love” is a song that had a different vibe from the rest of the album; Why did you choose to speak on love over that beat?
Dskillz Harris: So, we did an interview and part of that interview that we sampled is at the end of Shane. I sampled a part of that interview where I was basically saying that, true story, we were in the car on the way to that interview and I was telling Chakra this album is basically The Infamous mixed with Black on Both Sides. That’s another nod to Hip-Hop history — we made that track number three because on Black on Both Sides track 3 is Love. That’s one of my favorite Yasiin Bey songs also known as, Mos Def. We were done with the album and I was asking EL Summers, who produces and is from Baltimore, what do you think the album needs? He was like, “Yo, probably some outros and intros,” but he was also like, “Yo, y’all need something for the women.” And I was like, “Word, you’re right.” This is like our version of Only Built, right? And that’s the basis of it. Our main inspiration for this was Only Built because for me and him Only Built is one of the best Hip-Hop albums ever made. So, I was like all right, what makes it one of the best Hip-Hop albums ever made? It has something for everybody. They did have records for the women, too, they had the Wisdom Body joint and the Ice Cream joint.
As far as that beat goes, Pharwh he produced “Pizza and the Juices” on the first DBL album, produced a couple other cuts on there, too. He had sent me like 40 beats like a day or so before we had the session and when I heard that beat I was here hanging out with Trai Blessed. When I turned the beat on the hook came to me automatically. I was like, “All right, okay. Im’ma lay this hook down.” I flipped the original hook by Yasiin Bey, and then I made my verse, put the hook back on it, then Trai put his verse. We was like, “Yo, we gotta push Chakra on it.” I was like, “This definitely adds more to the album,” and once again we’re doing things that people don’t really expect people in our genre to do or people that make the type of music we make. Because there’s stereotypes about extremely lyrical rappers, they feel like rappers like that don’t make hooks. It’s quite a few hooks on there. So, it was just another thing to get outside of the box that we’re expected to be in, and it’s important to show love to the earths, too. So, it was just a lot of different things that went into the creation of that track.
TRHH: What do you hope to achieve with Liberated Scarfaces?
Black Chakra: I’ve been rapping for a very long time. Spoken Word started paying the bill for me about seven or eight years ago, so I started doing that predominantly, but I’ve been rapping for a very long time. During quarantine was when I decided I can get back in the booth. I’ve got the bars, I never lost my ability to rap, I just wanted to do this with a group effort. I’ve always wanted to move as a group. When I was younger I was in a rap group but we didn’t have the notoriety, the understanding, the studio time. Once we started getting all those things it started to crumble. What you often find is there are people who wanna be rappers, but they don’t wanna be rappers, you know I’m saying? It’s a couple guys that wanna come to the studio, they wanna drink, they wanna smoke, they want to fuck around on a beat or two, but when it comes time to “Yo, y’all ready to book some shows, y’all ready to go perform this, y’all ready to master this song, y’all ready to meet up, practice, and go over all this?” Nah, they not with none of that and I got annoyed by that because this group thing works.
If Wu-Tang shows me anything it works. A simple math equation I do is if there are six of us and six of us sell 10 tickets that’s 60 people at one show. And now each one of us have just made 50 new fans and if 10 out of the 50 fans we just made invite two people we can just keep a revenue and a fan base going. I remember watching Straight Outta Compton because I’ve had this belief for years, when Straight Outta Compton came out I was like, “Exactly!” Boys N the Hood came out, Eazy E blew up, but when it was time to do concerts he wasn’t like, “Oh it’s me, Eazy,” he’s like no — Boys N the Hood Eazy E is a product of N.W.A. N.W.A is Eazy E’s group.
So, the show is the group, I don’t have to perform for myself. Also, it makes writing easier. Where you would write and perform a whole album, all you got to do is memorize like 10 sixteens and let everybody else have verses on the tracks. It’s just an easier thing to be in a group. As I’m older I wanted to come back to Hip-Hop with a purpose, so, what I hope for the album is to shake some underground trees. I never cared to be Jay-Z or Eminem or this big rich person, I just wanted to be known as one of the most elite lyricists. So, this is the type of album I’m hoping gets the attention of certain people, scares a couple of rappers, and gets some underground heads listening. I’m very much interested in being Skyzoo as I know Skillz is very much interested in being MF DOOM.
Dskillz Harris: Yeah, you ain’t lever lied, yo [laughs]. But yeah, I fully agree with that. I just want to put people on notice, man. This is the shape of things to come as far as the future of DBL, as far as the future of Liberated Scarfaces. I think this is definitely a great first foot forward towards where we’re headed with this music thing. I definitely feel like we put a lot of love, time, and effort into this and we’re getting a lot of love back. People are definitely rocking with it in Baltimore and outside of Baltimore. So, it’s more where that came from, you feel me?