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A Talk with Dskillz Harris

In hip hop, collaboration can be a gift or a curse. For some, having too many guests can drown out your own voice and vision; for others, bringing on features is like a whetstone to sharpen your lyrical skills. Dskillz Harris falls into the latter category.

The frontman and founder of the DownByLaw hip hop collective, the rapper-producer is seen as an essential leader of the Baltimore rap scene. Despite having already released two albums this year, the MC already has several projects scheduled for the rest of 2024, each packed with guests for Harris to rival for the best verse.

“I think collaboration brings the best out of people,” said Harris. “Iron sharpens iron, and we all make each other better … A lot of people are scared to get bodied, so they would rather nobody get on the song … I’m not scared to rap with anybody.”

Dskillz Harris interview 1
Credit: Dskillz Harris

The rapper’s claims are not empty, either. Earlier this year, Harris joined forces with rapper-producer J. Powell for their collaborative album, Rap Advance. The two previously linked up for Sketches of Pain in 2022, and the new album follows a similar, jazzy style. “We were like, ‘We’ve got to make a second one, but we’ve got to move forward.’ I like the first one, but I feel like the second one was more refined and I think that shows.”

Despite the praise the duo received for Rap Advance, they aren’t rushing back into the studio to follow it up. When asked about a potential sequel album, Harris said we won’t see it “for a couple of years,” but made it clear that their creative partnership is far from over.

As well as Rap Advance, Harris dropped Raw Raps: Thee Promo Tape back in February. The project was made as a teaser for Raw Raps, the MC’s upcoming solo venture scheduled to drop in October. “I had a whole bunch of songs that I meant to drop,” he said, “but because of Covid and different things, I couldn’t drop everything I wanted to at the time … I just wanted to give people a tape to hold them until I drop the full album.”

Whereas other artists might tease an album with a run of singles or even an EP, Harris decided to turn Thee Promo Tape into is own full-length project. Bringing in guests from the DownByLaw collective for 12 lengthy tunes, the teaser is as substantial as any other Dskillz Harris release.

Dskillz Harris Interview 2
Credit: Dskillz Harris

Although he takes pride in his prolific nature, Harris makes clear that his output has nothing to do with the money. “A lot of people are somewhat surprised by how much I drop, but I don’t drop for the sake of numbers,” he said. “I’m more so about quality than quantity, but I think it says something if you can drop a large quantity of music that doesn’t miss … The same way that I look at a Redman or a DOOM or a Sean Price or a Ghostface, that’s how I want to be looked it when it’s all said and done. In my opinion, those MCs I just mentioned have incredible discographies, so I’m striving to have the same.”

Diving further into Raw Raps, Harris promises some of his sharpest work yet. “Black Chakra and many people around us who have heard the album – not the promo tape, but the full album – they feel like this is my best album to date. It’s getting Illmatic and Supreme Clientele comparisons in the community. I just want people to get ready. If y’all like the promo tape, y’all not going to believe this!”

Getting praise from rapper Black Chakra is no easy thing. Harris and Chakra are close creative confidants, frequently bringing out the best in one another. Above all other collaborators, Chakra stands as one of the most ruthless lyricists in Harris’s camp. “If I have to rap with somebody who has an undisputed pen like that, that means I’m always sharp, because I have seen him make people look stupid. I literally told him the other day – I saw him record a feature for somebody, and I was like, ‘Bro, why was he asking for his casket? Why did he ask you to do that? He knew you were going to go crazy!’ If you don’t bring it, Chakra will make you look stupid.”

Dskillz Harris Interview 3
Credit: Dskillz Harris

The duo collaborated in 2022 for Liberated Scarfaces, after which Harris was quick to start work on Raw Raps and sharpen his skills as a solo MC. He recounted the story: “[Chakra] left to go to a poetry competition in Hawaii. He was gone for like two days. When he was gone, a friend of ours named Pharaoh Soul – a producer from Massachusetts – he sent me like 40 beats. I started writing and recording. By the time Chakra came back, I was 95% done Raw Raps.”

With comparisons to classic ‘90s rap records, Harris is confident that Raw Raps will impress long-time fans as well as brand-new listeners. “This is definitely going to be seen as my magnum opus,” he said. “In Baltimore, we’re known for many things, especially because of The Wire, The Corner, and different TV shows like that. It’s a very special city. There’s a lot of artists that come from my city; a lot of athletes who come from my city … I wanted to shed light on [the fact that] we can do more than one thing. I think that’s what you’ll be seeing with this album.”

Along with DownByLaw associates like Prince Mac and Miclopedia, Black Chakra is guaranteed to have a spot on Raw Raps. Before that album releases, however, Chakra and Harris have another collaboration in the works named Liquid Guns. The album is the successor to Liberated Scarfaces, with a similar Wu-Tang inspired title.

“A lot of people in our scene and outside of Baltimore who have heard [Liberated Scarfaces] call it an underground classic,” said Harris. “So it’s like, where do we go now?”

The rapper’s answer is one of the grimiest releases from the duo yet, leaning into the grit and darkness of GZA’s Liquid Swords. “[I’m] keeping up with the theme of how GZA wanted [Liquid Swords] to be one of the purest and rawest Wu-Tang albums,” said Harris. “That’s definitely the vibe we’re going for with this … Liberated Scarfaces got compared to The Infamous mixed with Black On Both Sides, and we’re very appreciative of that. But this one right here … It’s more of the same, in terms of raw, gritty hip hop, but we took it further this time.”

Dskillz Harris Interview 4
Credit: Dskillz Harris

Even beyond Liquid Guns, Harris and Chakra have plans for future projects. “We’re basically going in line with the classic Wu albums,” he said. “We’re going to do an album – I believe he wants to call it War Machine – that will be his Ironman. You know how Ironman was Ghostface Killah featuring Raekwon and Cappadonna? [War Machine] would be starring Black Chakra and featuring myself and Miclopedia.”

Pumping out albums and collaborating with countless artists from the Baltimore scene, it’s no surprise that Harris is also preparing for the next DownByLaw group album. The collective dropped their debut in 2021 with Rappers Are In Danger, and now their new LP, DBL On Air, is not far off. Harris said:

 “This is mainly going to be boom bap, sticking to what we primarily do and what I think we’re best at. It’s definitely going to be more cohesive; it has more of a concept than the first album … We’re calling it that because it’s going to sound like a radio show. It’s going to sound like you’re listening to Shade 45 or Rap Is Outta Control – different shows like that. We’ve got Sammy Loco, he’s a podcaster and YouTuber from Baltimore. He’s going to host it like a radio host, playing the songs from the album as the songs in the mix show.”

Dskillz Harris Interview 5
Credit: Dskillz Harris

Years on from the formation of DownByLaw, the collective has shifted in many ways. What started out as an outfit of battle rappers has evolved into an independent label, distributing and promoting their own music. Even in their mindset towards creating songs, DownByLaw have changed. “I think that we’re going in a direction where – not that we’re studying music theory – but we understand the importance of song structure, and when you’re making a record, you’re not just making it for people to listen to, but for people who want to watch you perform it.”

Although the collective has seen many changes, Harris remains focussed on collaboration and teamwork. Through his work with Black Chakra, live shows with the group, and guest-packed solo projects, it’s clear that, no matter how far DownByLaw comes, Dskillz Harris will never cower away from sharing the mic.

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