Interview: Mad Skillz Talks ‘Mad Skillz Day’, Successes, and Future

Shaqwan Donnie Lewis is known as the Grammy-nominated Mad Skillz to hip hop fans around the world. After ignoring calls from unknown numbers and a message on Instagram from someone at the Mayor’s office, Skillz reached out to a friend who works at the Richmond City Hall in Virginia.

His friend told him that the Richmond City mayor wanted to issue him a proclamation about him, but he did not understand what that meant.

He got texts congratulating him, but it was not until he saw Stoney’s post on Instagram that he fully understood what people were excited about. He stated:

“Oh it’s like a day, I didn’t know that. Then I sat down and kind of relished in how big of a deal it was”

“Mad Skillz is credited for putting Virginia on the hip hop map as he was the first artist to break out nationally from the state,” the proclamation read. “In the late-1990s more of a Virginia scene emerged, and he allied himself with fellow Virginia natives Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and The Neptunes.”

Mad Skillz Day is on February 13, in honor of the anniversary of his 1996 debut album From Where???. Released under Atlantic Records, the album was a reference to his Virginia origins. Though Skillz has worked with artists the community idolizes,  he has remained humble.

September 10, 2001, he was backstage at Madison Square Garden in New York hanging out with Missy Elliot. Michael Jackson was performing that night and he poked his head in to thank everyone for coming. Skillz was starstruck for the first time in his career, but the next day he had a revelation.

“Everything that happened the next day [9/11] superseded that moment,”

Skillz felt trapped, and he was. He was with Pharrell and they were wandering the streets trying to figure out how they were going to get back to Virginia. The tunnel to get out of New York was closed, trains were not leaving and flights were canceled. He was scared. He compared the event to a natural disaster.

“When an earthquake hits it doesn’t matter if you’re a Kardashian or homeless, we’re all the same,”

The event was a humbling experience for him and made him realize everyone is human regardless of how much money or success someone has. Skillz is not the kind of person to gloat about who he has met or worked with. Bryce Collier, a publicist and social media strategist in Richmond, has much respect for Skillz and said he is a humble person, who focuses heavily on perfecting his craft.

“I think it [the proclamation] is a well-earned and deserved achievement. I don’t think any other artist from Richmond has put in nearly the amount of work and put out as much quality (work) as Skillz,” Collier said.

Skillz knew he wanted to have a career in music from the young age of 11 after listening to either Run DMC or The Fat Boys, the music spoke to him. However, at that age, he never thought he would be the in-demand well known Richmond songwriter, producer, and artist that he is now.

He would describe Richmond as diverse, home and a musical melting pot. This is what Skillz had to say about starting his career in Virginia instead of Los Angeles or New York.

“I don’t think I would have gotten the same recognition or went as hard as I ended up going. I think being from here I already had a chip on my shoulder because nobody had kind of done that before,”

In 2000, Skillz put out a tell-all single “Ghostwriter,” revealing he had written hit songs for some famous artists at the time. He named specific artists, but his label decided to edit them out. In live performances, he is known to say the names including P. Diddy, Foxy Brown, Will Smith, and Jermaine Dupri.

He also made appearances on Timbaland’s albums Tim’s Bio in 1998 and Indecent Proposal in 2001. Timbaland has produced quite a few of Skillz’s records, including his 2007 hit “Together.”

His second album I Ain’t Mad No More released in 2002 under Rawkus Records featured well-known artists like Missy Elliott, Kandi, Cee-Lo Green and more. The single, “Crew Deep” peaked at #83 on Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.

Andrew Hypes, a producer, and deejay in Richmond talked openly about Skillz being a mentor to him. Here’s what Hypes had to say about Mad Skillz.

“Skillz is one of the original guys to pop from out here. He helped people see they can make it from here. He’s been a mentor and he has helped me grow as a producer,”

Hypes produced the song “Bring The Sparklers Out” on Skillz’s album Thoughts Become Things released in 2013. He became a fan of Skillz after hearing his unique “rap up” in 2002.

Skillz is well known for his yearly “rap ups” that started in 2002 where he raps and recaps some of the most memorable headlines of the year. His unique rap ups have caught the attention of XXL Mag, Complex and even the Howard Stern show. The 2018 rap up featured Lil Duval, the well-known comedian, and singer.

“To have something that’s yours and people only want it from you, even if it is a four-minute song, in hip hop that’s rare,”

He also created “Hip Hop Confessions,” a show that invites guests to tell secrets about the industry. Guests on the show have included, Salt & Pepa, MC Lyte, Naughty By Nature, Joe Budden and more. It has been about five years since the last episode, but Skillz would like to bring it back interviewing someone big like Drake or Kendrick Lamar.

With all of his experience in the music industry, he was hired to be the first artist in residence at the University of Richmond. Skillz co-taught “Voice of Hip Hop in America” with Dr. Erik Neilson spring semester of 2018. Skillz would like to go back to teaching because he felt like he was learning just as much as the students. He was very open about what he wants for the future of his career. He stated:

“Whatever I’m gonna do is gonna be music related, it’s just about a matter of what,”

It is hard for Skillz to pinpoint one thing he is most proud of.

“There’s so much more I have to do it’s hard to focus on what I have done,”

He has toured with some of the greats including Missy Elliott, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Nicki Minaj and performed on the annual Sprite Liquid Mix Tour. Currently, Skillz is on The Acrylic Tour with Leikeli47, a unique rapper signed to Sony’s RCA Records. Leikeli47 recently had her music video for “Tic Boom” premiere on ABC’s spinoff of black-ish called grown-ish.

When Skillz is not touring with artists, he can be seen deejaying anywhere from the Broadberry in Richmond to venues in Hollywood and Denver. To stay up to date on where Skillz is touring, fans can head to and follow him on Instagram @SkillzVa.


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