DJ Skee Built a Giant Multimedia Hip-Hop Empire
PHOTO BY JULES SCHRATTER
The vibe in DJ Skee's 5,000-square-foot offices is like that at a dot-com after an infusion of venture capital. There's a Skee Ball machine, mounted flat-screen TVs, fridges full of Monster Energy drinks, football jerseys and album covers. Twelve employees are scattered across six studios, a radio room and eight offices.
Skee himself, the 29-year-old TV host, mixtape DJ, and radio personality, sits in the corner office of his nerve center, called Skee.TV. At 6 feet 3 inches, with short, blond hair, blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, he looks more like a major league baseball player than a DJ. Think Chipper Jones if he favored crisp white tees and limited-edition imported sneakers instead of rhinestone-studded Affliction.
Skee.TV is located a few blocks away from Skee's home near the Lake Hollywood Reservoir, adjacent to the 101 freeway, and from Skee's office you can watch the cars tearing past. It's impossible to take your eyes off them.
The problem is that if you stop focusing on the conversation, Skee will lap you. Other DJs operate at autobahn velocity, but Skee motors at Formula 1. By the time you finish asking a question, the KIIS-FM and Sirius XM Hip-Hop Nation DJ has already begun a fully formed and thoughtful response. It's as though he has the answers ahead of time.
Maybe he does. Scott Keeney might be the most accomplished DJ his age in a major market. Both Billboard and Forbes have named him to their yearly power-players-under-30 lists, alongside artists like Frank Ocean and Carrie Underwood. He's made seminal mixtapes with The Game and Freddie Gibbs. And Mark Cuban has given him a show, SkeeLive, which debuts July 30 on the Dallas Mavericks owner's cable channel, which reaches roughly 42 million homes. "It's not a reality show of my life but everything I do within my life, turned into segments," Skee says of the program, which will be filmed before an audience at downtown's L.A. Live and broadcast live on AXS TV, with no tape delay.
"Skee is the Oprah of music," Cuban says via email. The pair met when Skee hosted DirecTV's Super Bowl party. Impressed with his quick wit and insider information, Cuban asked Skee to host his network's Grammy special, and Skee sold him on SkeeLive shortly thereafter.
"He has access to everyone because they know and trust him, and his interviewing skills are second to none," Cuban adds.
SkeeLive will feature interviews and performances with musicians, comedians and athletes, plus tech reveals, man-on-the-street bits and sneaker porn. His white board reveals tentative guests for the initial 12-episode run, including many stars known for ducking paparazzi.
"I've been able to walk between all these worlds — from a big club DJ playing dance music, to a mixtape guy in the street, to terrestrial radio. L.A. is an epicenter for music, and I want to capture that feeling on TV," Skee says.
Baseball was Skee's first love. But after his sophomore year in high school, the son of a college psychology professor and an elementary school teacher switched from center field to spinning records. He intuitively understood the art of hustle. Through a family friend, the teenager from St. Paul, Minn., maneuvered an introduction to Stretch Armstrong, the legendary New York hip-hop radio DJ. "I'd save money and fly out there and help him out — just hang around while he was doing his radio show," Skee says. "He was on Hot 97 at the time and guys like Redman and Cam'ron came in. I absorbed everything."
During these trips to New York, Skee scooped up every available mixtape on Canal Street. When he returned to St. Paul, he'd make his own mixtapes from the source material to sell to his friends. "I'd take DJ Clue? and DJ Kay Slay mixtapes and sold them at school," Skee remembers. "This was when CD burners came out and took forever. So I set my alarm to wake up every hour in the middle of the night and change it and make new copies."
Skee expanded the business by cold-calling record stores and selling them on his homemade compilations. He worked with local rappers and got his own Saturday-night radio show on a Minneapolis community station. He learned engineering through a program at his high school. Label executives and magazine editors started hitting him up for meetings and interviews, not realizing that Minnesota's street-rap mixtape king was 16. His reign lasted until he got an email from the Recording Industry Association of America.
"They said they were suing me, so I just deleted it," Skee says, flashing a Dennis the Menace smile. Then one day, he came home from school to find his father having a serious phone conversation with a lawyer. The RIAA mistook him for the copyright violator, because Skee had bought his domain name with his dad's credit card. "They wrote the RIAA a letter basically saying, 'Please don't sue, he's sorry, it's just a high school project,' " Skee says.
Another moneymaking scheme involved flipping rare sneakers and video-game consoles. Through Armstrong, this brought him in contact with Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind, who was desperate to get his son a PS2 for Christmas. Skee came through, so impressing Rifkind with his entrepreneurial spirit that the pioneer of the rap street team took him under his wing.
Graduating a year early, Skee moved to L.A. to head Loud's marketing division. Teaching himself on the fly, the teenager networked his way into T-Mobile and Chrysler accounts. If you've ever wondered why Sidekicks and Dodge Chargers came into vogue among the hip-hop crowd last decade, that was all Skee.
By night, Skee curated street-rap mixtapes and became the DJ for The Game. The pair's first official collaboration spawned the scorched-earth 50 Cent diss "300 Bars & Runnin." Through Game, Skee linked up with Snoop Dogg. He also earned a Wednesday-night show on Power 106 and the daily program on Sirius XM, which he still holds.
This was around the time he launched Skee.TV, a production company that made music videos for everyone from DJ Quik to Soulja Boy, as well as mini-documentaries of Justin Bieber concerts. Using his marketing savvy, Skee inked deals to provide video content to 7-Eleven, McDonald's, mobile screens and national gym chains. "Anywhere there's a screen, we wanted to place our content," Skee says. "There's so much in the vaults, too — from Rihanna to Kendrick Lamar at 16, freestyling his ass off in front of The Game and I."
SkeeLive isn't the checkered flag at the end of the race; it's the proper grand prix for Skee's skill set. There's a void for a music program that doesn't pander, and Skee is a skilled interviewer with a rare affability who can appeal to the masses without alienating underground music fans.
"It's a cliché, but it's never been about making money. I just wanted to do cool things," Skee says. "[TV's] just the next natural step for me."
Then he looks at his watch and realizes it's time to tape his show at KIIS-FM. He makes it all the way to his car before realizing it's the Fourth of July weekend. There's nothing scheduled today. Above him, the cars on the 101 are still screaming, but Skee declines to start his holiday early. He still has work to do.
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