[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
The directions haven't changed. If you want to find Skee-Lo, take the 110 to the 105 and get off on Crenshaw. It's everything else that's been altered since “I Wish” transformed the Snapple-size South L.A. rapper from obscurity into an evanescent national phenomenon in the summer of 1995. The gold-certified smash yielded Grammy nominations, stints as an MTV VJ and a spot on the television adaptation of Dangerous Minds. Then he disappeared.
“I retired five months after it was released,” Skee-Lo says, drinking coffee at the Denny's on Crenshaw and 37th, a few blocks from the home he shares with his wife and two children. “Not only did my label [Sunshine] take credit for producing 'I Wish,' they took all the profits. So I refused to shoot any more videos, promote or record music. I'm not their slave. I wasn't working for free.”
You expect to hear rappers indict the improprieties of a corrupt industry. But you don't expect to hear Skee-Lo inveigh against its sheer “wickedness.” It's like hearing the Easter Bunny go off on Big Chocolate.
For those foreign to the charms of “I Wish,” the rapper born Antoine Roundtree plays an endlessly endearing ne'er-do-well. “I wish I was a little bit taller,” he posits, adding that he's saddled to a Hatchback with an 8-track, where “Everywhere I go, I gets laughed at.” The indelible underdog anthem reached No. 13 on the singles chart but branded him a one-hit wonder.
“The one-hit-wonder thing used to really irritate me. But no one knew the true story,” says Skee-Lo, the spitting image of his '95 self, plus a few pounds.
He graduated from high school in Moreno Valley, and while attending El Camino College performed every week at the Good Life in Leimert Park, the Left Bank of early-'90s underground hip-hop. That's where he unveiled “I Wish,” one week after writing it during a study session gone wrong.
“I wanted to do anything but school. So I started listing wishes and wrote the whole record without music,” Skee-Lo says. “Two days later, I'm cleaning my room and in the middle of an ugly old record. I heard a beautiful horn section that made me feel like I was at a casino, on a beach or a boat. I threw my broom down, got on my MPC-60 and made the beat.”
The hook floated into his mind that Thursday night at the Good Life, following a successful preshow freestyle in the parking lot. When Sunshine Records (the parent company of Scotti) heard it, he received a $150,000 advance. The song's success created a familiar paradox: His music was omnipresent but he never made a penny. Nor did he get with Leoshi (though she did appear in the video).
After a half-decade of legal battles, Skee-Lo wrangled back his publishing rights. He proudly notes that he receives every cent when the song is purchased and played today. But even though he kept busy doing shows during his “retirement,” his recording hiatus left him adrift and depressed, even after the royalty money kicked in.
“It got to the point where I told my wife and children that I didn't want to live anymore,” Skee-Lo says of his low ebb five years ago. “Then a voice spoke to me clearly and said, 'At what point in your life were you truly happy?'”
The religious vision caused Skee-Lo to rededicate himself to the Nation of Islam, which he had joined at 16. His raised spirits and reaffirmed spirituality inspired him to form his own indie label, Skee-Lo Musik, whose flagship release will be April's Fresh Ideas, Skee-Lo's first real record since “I Wish.”
But no matter the outcome, he's achieved the crucial goals of his lone smash: People still remember his name, and he'll be played on classic rap radio until the day everyone is 6 foot 9.
“I've had people from prison tell me how much that record helped them through the years they were locked down,” he says. “People treat me well wherever I go. How can you hate on Skee-Lo?”