Imagine Kendrick Lamar walking into a store, hearing your song play over the speakers, then loving your song enough that he decides he wants to meet you. It’s a dream scenario for music hopefuls everywhere, but it actually happened to Lance Skiiiwalker.
In 2012, the aspiring artist and his wife were in Los Angeles by way of their native Chicago for a weekend. On their final day in town, the pair visited a clothing store in the Fairfax District, where Skiiiwalker’s friend was a manager. “He asked me if I had something he could play at his store, so I gave him one of my last two beat tapes,” the singer and producer tells Billboard. “Twenty minutes later, Kendrick and [former TDE president] Dave Free walked into the store, [and] I get a call, saying Kendrick wants me to come back — he wanted to meet me. Ain’t that crazy?”
Nine years later, Skiiiwalker is a veteran of TDE, fresh off his second EP of the year for the label, Tales From the Telescope Chapter 2: Internal Shine. The five-song release served as a follow-up to his September EP, Tales From The Telescope Chapter 1: Rebirth, which marked Skiiiwalker’s first project in five years following his 2016 album Introverted Intuition. It also marked a fresh start for Skiiiwalker, who is more active than ever with his own musical output and the L.A. label’s evolution.
“Musically, Lance is like water,” says the label’s president, Anthony “Moosa” Tiffith Jr. (son of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith”). “You can pour water into any container and it’ll take form of wherever it’s at. I feel the same thing about Lance. I can put him in any room, any place, any time, he’ll be in full form, just like water.”
Moosa met Skiiiwalker in 2013, when the singer and producer began popping up at the Carson, Calif. residential home which doubled as TDE’s studio and headquarters. Since then, the singer and producer has had a hand in production and songwriting for nearly every TDE signee, including Lamar, SiR, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad. “He’s involved top to bottom with everybody,” says Moosa.
Sonically, Skiiiwalker draws on jazz, R&B and hip-hop influences, but fills a lane completely his own–something that has drawn fellow TDE acts into his world. His approach to music is unintentionally anti-commercial, as each indescribable song challenges listeners to tap into their inner-child, that is, to use their imagination.
Maybe you’re rushing down the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland, except it’s Chicago, and there are saxophones and pianos played by phantoms floating about. Or it’s 1965, and you’re in a half-empty coral-toned jazz lounge after hours, as “Save My Number” echoes gently through the speakers.
“As a human being, Lance is like a glitch in the system. I don’t know anybody like him who does the things he does,” says Rashad. “He’s on a totally different frequency.”
Skiiiwalker describes himself as an anxious middle child who mostly raised himself while growing up in Chicago’s northwest neighborhood of Wicker Park. As a child, he struggled in school, and later dropped out as a junior in high school. While the traditional approach to academics didn’t click for Skiiiwalker, music always did.
“I would beat on tables a lot, and just find my own melodies listening to streetcars,” he says. “I never really had a lot of friends, I was constantly in my own world, since I was born.”
In 2013, Rashad, Skiiiwalker and SZA lived together for about a year in the Carson house. During this time, Rashad says he came to understand Skiiiwalker’s genius. “He’s always got some type of gadget that he’s using to make music, he totally expanded my view of what you could do as a creative. He’s like a mad scientist.”
Skiiiwalker contributed vocals to Rashad’s critically acclaimed 2021 album, The House Is Burning, which arrived after a five-year hiatus. Skiiiwalker’s 7-year-old daughter, Natalia, was also featured as a vocalist on “HB2U.”
“Lance usually does the parts that I don’t have the confidence to do,” Rashad says. “I’ll call Lance at 11 o’clock at night to do a couple sounds for me, and he’ll be there at 11:30.”
When it comes to his jet-setting 2019 album Chasing Summer, fellow TDE signee SiR says conversations with Skiiiwalker helped cultivate the project’s cohesive sound. “When you hear the saxophone on ‘The Recipe’ or the guitars on “Mood,” it’s [from] those conversations we had, talking about how we wanted the album to feel,” he says. “Chasing Summer is a labor of love, and Lance was definitely there from the beginning to the end.”
Skiiiwalker and SiR arrived to TDE within months of each other. “We clicked right away because we were both new kids on the block,” says SiR. “To see what he brought to the table was just a breath of fresh air and we’ve been homies ever since.”
SiR, who is featured on the opening track of Tales From the Telescope Chapter 2, says that early on, Skiiiwalker’s creativity pushed him to be a better artist and producer. “I think we were working on HER, and he just had a whole bunch of vibes that I gravitated towards, and we would talk about samples and how we wanted to keep music inside of our music,” he says. “He made me work harder to get the final product and not be a lazy-ass musician like I was headed towards.”
While the duo has made music together for years, “Peso,” which samples Tupac’s “Do For Love” (which itself samples Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love”), is their first collaboration to be released. “I was at Carson just to pick up some merch and Lance just so happened to be there and I just hopped in the studio,” says SiR of creating “Peso.” “It’s a great song and vibe, it’s actually evolved since the last time I heard it.” According to SiR, the pair have continued getting into the studio together recently, as the L.A. native pieces together his forthcoming album.
With the help of his label, Skiiiwalker hopes to bring listeners into his world, and not the other way around. “[Conforming] would be me losing a piece of who I am, and I love being who I am. No amount of money or attention could change [that],” he says. “TDE gave me the freedom and time to figure myself out and that made me into a stronger producer, songwriter and singer.”
Outside of his musical prowess in the studio, Moosa looks to Skiiiwalker as a “pit stop” when it comes to signing new artists. “I’m going to take them to Lance, for him to see their character and what they’re capable of. Lance is capable of so many different sounds, he’s going to see if he can rap, see if he can sing, just to get a complete gauge on whatever artist I’m bringing in.”
Although Skiiiwalker isn’t putting on his label-exec hat anytime soon, he derives purpose from inspiring up-and-coming artists to “paint the world whatever color you want to paint it. I think that’ll help all of us.” Recently, Skiiiwalker has been in the studio with artists like Smino and Alabama-raised rapper Pink Siifu, working on production and songwriting. “Some of them are really underground, but they all have strong sounds,” he says.
While TDE experienced the departure of Free as label president in 2019 and Lamar’s recent announcement that his next album would be his final with the label, Skiiiwalker is enthusiastic about TDE’s direction moving forward. “They’re open to everything creatively,” he says, “which is dope, because the new artists who I’m building with – through and outside of the label – they’ll embrace.”
Along with emerging artists, there are two people Skiiiwalker lives to inspire: his daughter Natalia, and infant son. “Something I will always push for in myself, my family and my music is to never let anybody put you in a box,” he says. “Because to me, that’s when you start to die.”