There’s fan fiction, and then there’s what Skyzoo has created with Mind of a Saint. The Brooklyn-bred artist has built a career on high-level rap rooted in perspective, conceptual creativity, and wit. On his latest project, he teamed up with the production group the Other Guys to rap from the POV of the fictional Franklin Saint, a store clerk-turned-kingpin in Snowfall, the late John Singleton’s hit FX series about the rise of crack in 1980s Los Angeles. It may sound similar to Jay-Z’s American Gangster, but while Hov used the Denzel flick as inspiration to recount his own experiences, Skyzoo was never a drug dealer himself — he’s just taking on the role actor Damson Idris has perfected over five seasons. That means diving into Saint’s psyche, writing era-specific metaphors and references, and occasionally going beyond the script to craft scenarios that coincide with the series, which premieres its final season on February 22.
“Franklin has moments where he reflects, like, I’m caught in a whirlwind and I can’t get out,” says Skyzoo, who plans to record extra songs after the series finale for a deluxe edition of the album. “These things happen when you’re really outside in the street, but nobody talks about that side of it. They just talk about how it’s a big-ass party and it’s the coolest job ever.” Days ahead of Mind of a Saint’s release, Skyzoo spoke about connecting with his role and the painstaking details of bringing Snowfall to wax.
How did you come up with the idea to do an album like this, and what is it about Snowfall that resonates with you so much?
I got a friend named Kerry Watkins, an executive for the Portland Trailblazers. He would always text me like, “‘You got to do Theo Vs. J.J. Part 2 as Avon versus Franklin.’” One day, he said it for the fifth time, and I was like, “I think I could take that idea and twist it a little bit.” What sealed the deal was noticing a lot of the coke rap lately is all about the glamour. No one in particular. But everyone’s on the yacht, throwing keys in the air like LeBron, running off on the plug. Where’s the stories of a fiend paying you with a fake $20, and you got to go find them or your boss is going to beat you down? Where’s the story of your family being in jeopardy because you got stuff in your mother’s house? Where’s the other side of it? Where’s the nightmare?
Of course, Jay gave you that, Raekwon and Ghost gave you that, Griselda gives you that. But a lot of people just don’t give you the full story. And again, that wasn’t my life. But it’s just this big fantasy and fairy tale to these kids, man. My whole thing has always been authenticity, being myself. Whether it’s talking about having a 9-to-5, growing up with three parents in two different houses, or my best friends being some of the wildest dudes in the neighborhood. So if I’m going to do this, I can’t talk about it as if that was my life on that level, because it wasn’t. So how do I get that message and story across? I’m a huge Snowfall fan and I was like, “What if Franklin could just tell his story?”
This could have easily just been a one-off concept song that mentions characters and a few scenes. What do you think is the line between nailing details in a way that stays interesting versus letting it get detailed in a way that feels too academic?
A lot of it came from knowing the show, but also from knowing that world without having to have played in it. You can’t tell me Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent, don’t know everything about being an elite basketball player. He probably never suited up in his life, but he’s with Bron and his plethora of clients every day. So if I never played in the game but all of my friends suited up my whole life, how do I not know what the game is like? Getting the story down, making it believable, the lingo, that was the easy part because I’ve been telling people about that forever in my own way.
The other thing, I had to make it feel like the ’80s because that’s the era that the show is in. But I don’t think anybody in 2023 wants to hear an album with ’80s beats. So sonically, there was a line I had to walk too, and that was all with the producers, the Other Guys, who did the whole album.
The part that I’m really excited about is from a lyrical standpoint. Somebody may say, “Shooting like Steph Curry.” Well, you can’t say that back then. So I said, “The magical rookie who talked different, making a lake of gold off flour and raw whipping.” Magic Johnson was the rookie in the early ’80s; he spoke different from the rest of them, and Franklin spoke different from everybody around him because he had a different experience going to different schools. Same thing with the Mario Bros. line. “Pipework, the Mario Luigi kind. Duck hunting on these birds when the scene arrives.” I had to think, the same way Skyzoo will rap in 2023 and use metaphors about Melo and the Knicks, this is how Franklin would rhyme in the ’80s and use metaphors about Magic Johnson, Spencer Haywood, Thriller, Nintendo, and Mike Tyson.
There are things that the show seems to say subtly, but that you say overtly. A big example of that is “Panthers & Powder.” The show focuses on the differences between Franklin and his father Alton, but your song illustrates just how much Alton informs the way that Franklin thinks. How much do you think the show says out loud, and how do you decide what to expound?
Well, if I solely just recited what happened on the show, that’s not an album that you need as a Snowfall fan. So how do I take these stories and dig deeper and create a world within them, but keep the world attached to the Snowfall script? We know Franklin grew up in a Panther household; they talk about that a good amount, and throughout the series, they give you just enough. Well, I was able to take that and say, “How does a Panther kid wind up being the biggest drug dealer the West Coast has ever seen?” Panthers were about saving the community. They detested the Franklins of the world. So how did that kid become that? Let’s explore that.
Same thing with “Views from the Valley.” We know Franklin moved in with the Volpes to have a better life. Ironically, the Volpes are the ones who introduced him to coke. So let’s talk about it. “Top down on the ’Vette with me as the passenger / Chauffeured all around these hills, but still ain’t had enough / All I do is inspire you to see what the package does / Screaming, ‘Front me a key,’ with my heartbeat padded up.” So that goes to the scene where Avi was testing him out: Franklin was like, “Front me a key,” and Avi gave him the bulletproof vest. You never saw Rob and Franklin in a Corvette together. But Rob came from that world, so why would he have not been driving around with Franklin throughout the Valley after school one day? It didn’t happen in the show, but it absolutely would’ve happened in the show. So it’s not far-fetched. That line’s really thin. It’s like cooking. You add too much spice, it’s over; you don’t add enough, it never got started.
Another example I hadn’t initially noticed was the tribute to Nipsey Hussle. What made you decide to add that?
In my studio, I have a framed copy of the Final Call with Nipsey on the cover from when he got killed. So every time I go to the mic stand, Nipsey is right there. It kind of hit me just sitting there writing and seeing his picture. I was like, “Nip was born in ’85. Currently, in Snowfall, we’re in ’86. That means Nipsey would’ve been a year old, Blacc Sam would’ve been about 4. They’re all from South Central. What if Franklin, as a 20-something-year-old, was around them?” Franklin is a fictional character, but he represents so many people that really existed. Guys like me, Nip, Blacc Sam, we’re all around the same age. As little kids, these is the guys that was above us, the Franklins of the world. So in my mind, the world Franklin built through crack is essentially why Nipsey’s not here anymore, doing the work that he was doing to uplift the community. That’s how I was able to blend the fictional world with the reality world.
As a writer, that was a lot of fun putting that verse together. It’s kind of like when you come up with a triple or a quadruple entendre. It’s that feeling like, “Oh, God, wait until they hear this.” And I just like the fact that I was able to honor Nip and show him and his family some love in a creative way.
Where do you think Snowfall ranks all-time?
Well, it’s super-high up there for a lot of reasons. One, the fact that they tackled that topic. I know how much it meant to John Singleton, rest in peace to John. I’m really close to Tyrese, and before this album came about, he was telling me, “John wanted to make that show forever.” He’s doing it the right way because while he was here, he made sure it was given to you as raw as he could do it on FX. Then, the acting’s been stellar. They’ve not missed a single beat on the casting; all of them have knocked it out the park. The writing is top-tier, the attention to detail. They checked all the boxes for five seasons. I tell people all the time, “If you’re a Wire fan, you’re going to be a Snowfall fan.”
When Snowfall debuted, my son was on the way. Then during COVID I was able to binge, and man, I was doing a season a day. It was bad. My son goes to bed at 8 p.m.; 8:01, I’m in the basement on Hulu. And now it’s six in the morning, sunny outside with birds chirping. Even when the new ones dropped, I’d watch every episode three times. I kid you not, I did not turn the series on one time while I was writing. I already knew all the quotes, all the details, every line, every moment, the names of the people. It was like it really was my life, because I’m that invested in the show.
Have you pursued official partnerships with the show?
I was talking to Phonte of Little Brother about it, and he was like, “You got to try to get that to them. You’re going to kill it, and it just makes too much sense.” I’ve got a homie named Doug, he did the Supreme Team documentary on Showtime. Me and him go back almost 20 years. He’s best friends with Trevor Engelson, one of the executive producers of Snowfall. We all had lunch in L.A. Coolest dude in the world, and I can’t thank Doug enough for putting that link together. So he was like, “I want to see where this goes. I have no idea where it can take off, but you 1,000 percent got my support.” The team, the cast, I was told that they do have [the album]. So without going into much more, because some dope things could be brewing, I’ll leave it at that.