At Time for a Cut Barber Shop in Inglewood, Lonnie Kimble, known to rap fans as Skeme, sits slouched in a faux leather chair, his dreads pulled back in a ponytail and his knees peeking out of holes in his distressed Yves St. Laurent jeans. A bootlegged version of Straight Outta Compton, with Chinese subtitles, plays on the TV, while the shop's lone barber, Marlon, shaves the head of one of Skeme's “brothers.”
It's a sizzling Friday afternoon in September and some of the guys in the shop have wet towels draped over their heads. The rest of Skeme's crew is camped out in the back of the room, sitting in a semi-circle around the shop's lone floor fan.
As his friends joke and gossip, Skeme looks on with a smile. These men — his crew and the other customers — are the people he makes music for, releasing all nine of his mixtapes for free. Though he has been offered deals with labels such as Top Dawg Entertainment, he has remained unsigned. He hasn't upgraded his lifestyle by relocating to Hollywood or the Valley, instead remaining a constant fixture in the neighborhood he grew up in and still calls home.
His music, he says, is tailored specifically for the streets, with themes of drugs, death and money. “These songs were made for Inglewood niggas,” Skeme says, his voice raspy from years of smoking clove cigarettes. “I speak with their tongue. I say the shit that they're going through.”
Skeme's music is a reflection of his hometown of Inglewood, which, he proclaims “is not as fucked up a place as people think it is.” In the last few years, he's been working on a trilogy called the Ingleworld series, which he describes as an effort to clean up Inglewood's bad reputation and put it on the map, as N.W.A did for Compton.
“There's really nobody that defines the city yet — not like I'm trying to do,” Skeme says.
The 25-year-old started rapping around the age of 11 at the behest of his father. “I used to always remember songs word for word, so one day we were in the car and he was like, 'Why don't you write your own damn songs, 'cuz you know all the mothafuckin' words,'?” he says. “And I was like, fuck it. I'll do it.”
“We’re at the end of an era of music that was strictly rap.”
He dropped his first mixtape at the age of 18, but it wasn't until his 2010 release, Pistols and Palm Trees, a 14-track set featuring fellow up-and-comers Tyga, Kendrick Lamar, Dom Kennedy and Ty Dolla $ign, that he started to get noticed. He dropped a steady flow of yearly releases from 2011 to 2013, including his first two albums, Alive & Living and Ingleworld.
And then he stopped making music.
From 2013 to 2015, Skeme put his own projects aside in favor of ghostwriting for other hip-hop and pop artists. He declines to say which artists he's worked with, but in past interviews he's claimed he had “something to do” with Iggy Azalea's hit “Fancy.”
“I like being in the studio in general, even if I'm just listening to somebody else record for a day,” Skeme says. “I like being in the studio more than I like being in the streets.”
He returned to his own music in 2015, in June releasing Ingleworld 2, a project that marks his first step in a new sonic direction. Prior to Ingleworld 2, Skeme's music was more diverse, employing a broad array of instruments, samples and melodies. But his new work heralds a shift in style that can only be characterized as darker and more gangster than his previous works.
He says the two-year detour into other people's music helped refresh his ideas and get a better handle on his own sound. “Now I know what I like,” Skeme says. “It's more about me. I want people to see that this is the direction I'm going in right now.”
His new tracks are grimy and hard-hitting, with “a bunch of dark-ass sounds and a lot of me shouting.” There's also a lot of Auto-Tune, bass and 808s, which Skeme says is a reflection of his love for Southern rap; his favorite rappers of the moment are Atlanta's Future and Young Thug, who also rely heavily on Auto-Tune.
Skeme's fans have mixed emotions about his new sound — especially the Auto-Tune, which many lament as a cop-out from straight-up rapping. His sound engineer, Daniel Zaidenstadt, has his own theories about Skeme's newfound love of the pitch-shifting software.
“It's a confidence thing, I think,” Zaidenstadt says. “Generally, rap is just so macho, and singing is seen as a girly thing to do.” Auto-Tune lets rappers blur the line between singing and rapping. They can hit their notes without seeming as if they're trying too hard or taking the act of singing that seriously.
For Skeme, Auto-Tune isn't just a choice but a necessity. “We're at the end of an era of music that was strictly rap,” he says. “There was no melody at that point in time. You didn't need that to win. At this point, you definitely need that.”