Skype Williams’ debut EP is called “Sorry I’m Late,” which is funny because the first time I met the New York native born Tony Jackson Jr.—through a mutual friend at a dinner four years ago—he was two hours late. In his defense, it was New Year’s Eve and he was very drunk, which I know because shortly after arriving he puked under the restaurant table.
“Please lead with that story!” Jackson exclaims, when I meet him at Fierman, the small contemporary art gallery he manages on the Lower East Side. Wearing a decomposing Bullwinkle T-shirt under a black suit, with green Nikes, he looks every bit the multi hyphenate: downtown gallerina-curator by day, DJ by night, rapper-singer-producer whenever he finds the time in between. “It's basically a commentary on masculinity,” Jackson says of the massive head of a taxidermied water buffalo juts out of the middle of the gallery floor, which the artist Dominic Nurre inherited from his late father… “Because the artist is gay and his father left him the most straight shit ever.”
The pressure to conform to some of that straight shit almost derailed Jackson’s music career. In his early twenties, when Interview Magazine requested a photo to accompany an interview about his music, “I was like, ‘I kind of can't do it because I'm gay,’" Jackson recalls, thinking about his family in Queens. “I was so afraid of being found out.” Instead of rapping, Jackson pivoted to DJing, which allowed him to hide behind a moniker. He made a name throughout New York as Skype Williams, playing manic pop sets—a sped-up version of Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” comes to mind—at parties and institutions like Bubble_T, MoMA PS1, and Papi Juice. “When I first heard of Papi Juice I was like What the fuck? Papi Juice? It sounds like a gay porn, I have to go,” Jackson exclaims.
Now that Jackson’s out, so is “Sorry I’m Late.” The record’s five songs are pure summer pop, refracted through the prism of old school hip-hop and studded with elements of funk. It’s the sonic equivalent of lemonade dripping down your chin at the roller rink—breezy, laidback, and fun—with Jackson sounding like Biz Markie cosplaying the sixth Backstreet Boy. Following his release on June 1st at The Standard, East Village’s NO BAR, The Standard spoke to the artist about how hard it is to make happy music, collaborating with his idols, and cosplaying a Backstreet Boy in his fifth-grade talent show.
My only context for you is as a DJ, so I didn’t know you could sing.
Well, it's not really singing. It's like rapping. I'm not on key for a lot of it and that's on purpose. It's supposed to be a little janky.
Right, it reminded me a little of Biz Markie, like melodic rapping.
For sure. But even the presentation is more hip-hop rather than me [mimics singing high note] like Mariah.
Can you actually sing like that?
I was in the choir, school plays, talent shows, I did the whole thing. But this is fun. This is better.
"Like what the fuck am I going to talk about? I don't know what to talk about when you're happy."
Skype Williams the DJ sounds very contemporary, while Skype Williams the producer-rapper-singer sounds like more of a throwback to the eighties and nineties, with elements of funk. Do those two identities share space in your mind?
I think there's an overlap for sure. I think at the root of everything I do is pop, pop, pop, pop music. Even the EP is hip-hop through a pop lens. I've been making music for a long time, like before I started DJing. I always ended up producing sad stuff—it's so easy to make sad music, and so hard to make music that is happy. That's basically what this project is: a challenge to myself. Like what the fuck am I going to talk about? I don't know what to talk about when you're happy.
It's funny because I feel like the album sounds happy, but then some of the lyrics, like when you repeat “I Can’t do Anything Right,” are a bit sad.
[laughter] I had to put that moment in because I'm a Gemini. It's a duality. But I wanted all of the sad moments to be kind of sarcastic.
Is the same true for DJ’ing; that it’s harder to DJ a happy set?
No, when I’m playing a party I'm playing things that are going to get people pumped up and happy. When I DJ, sometimes I can't pay attention to people who are right here [extends hand] because then I'll play to them, so I'll look really far out to see if those people are dancing. I want to get the people in the back.
Are you paying homage to anyone on this album?
Oh my god, every fucking song is an homage to somebody. “Natural,” that song I did with Miho [Hatori], the melodies on the verse were Spice Girls-y. “I Hope You Don't Fuck It Up” is my homage to Lily Allen cause you know that song “Smile”? I literally wrote that song as an answer five years ago. "Not Ya Nigga," I wanted it to be a Ja Rule moment, where you have a person answering you—Cakes [Da Killa] comes on and he's like bro, you're not going to play me. The beat on “Eddie Murphy” is a very Gang Starr / Nas throwback. I’m from New York—I had to do something that was going to sound straight hip-hop—on the beat at least.
Tell me about working with Miho Hatori and Cakes Da Killa.
Like Miho Hatori, are you fucking kidding me? I didn't think in a million years. I've been listening to her since I was a kid. I’ve known Cakes for like six years. I love him. I think he's like New York legend. He and Le1f are two of the best performers ever. I wanted the record to be collaborative. I wanted the experience of making the EP to be happy and fun so I have a good memory with it.
What’s your process for writing?
I write all the song titles first. Like a bus will pass and I'll see a phrase I like and I'll write it down. I write the lyrics based on the title.
Are the lyrics themselves just based on a feeling?
Yeah, the feeling of the music usually.
Where did the song “Eddie Murphy” come from?
In the chorus I'm like "If you want to act funny, I can act funny too.” I just wanted a song named after somebody, I don't know why, and Eddie Murphy looked good with the other song titles. I'm really big on the visuals. [laughter]
"I turned to Brian, who was the leader of our pack, and I was like, ‘I'm going to go in the crowd,’ because girls were screaming."
So literally how it looks from a graphic design perspective? Like the typography of his name?
Exactly. Like, the letters; that matters to me. Like, it would've been called Adam Sandler or some shit if that looked better with the track list. And I think the final version of the album will have Eddie’s laugh at the end or some shit to tie it in. People have been saying the record sounds like me, which I like. It's pretty laid back. I'm not that serious of a person. I don't take myself that seriously.
Take me back to these fifth-grade talent shows you mentioned.
So, picture this, Sicily nineteen—no, like I remember my friend Brian Cruz was talking in the hallway that they were going to do a talent show and I was like I want to be a part of it. So, it was five of us and we did the Backstreet Boys, of course, because what else are you going to do?
Which one were you?
AJ. [laughter] Of course.
I know, but also you know, the gay one. I dyed my hair red with like spray paint. We practiced for like a month and when we got on stage and I was like, ‘I love this shit.’ Unrehearsed, in the middle of performing “Larger Than Life,” I turned to Brian, who was the leader of our pack, and I was like, ‘I'm going to go in the crowd,’ because girls were screaming. I got girls to come on stage—it was a moment—and the principle and the deans were like “Stop. Enough,” cause all these girls were going crazy.
So, stage fright is not a problem for you.
I don't think so. If I was making the music I was making before, which was sad, that would be one thing. But this is just fun.