Rap Artist Mad Skillz

January 9, 2018
Rapper, DJ & producer Mad Skillz serves as the School's first artist-in-residence.

The University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies will host hip hop artist, rapper and producer Mad Skillz as its artist-in-residence during the spring 2018 semester. As artist-in-residence, Skillz will be co-teaching “Voice of Hip Hop in America,” an undergraduate course open to SPCS students as well as students from the other undergraduate schools on campus. The goal of this artistic residency is to bring an accomplished artist into the the campus community and allow students to explore their practice through a new lens to include reflection and immersion utilizing classroom teaching and community engagement.

”We’re excited that Mad Skillz will be SPCS’s first artist-in-residence," said Dr. Jamelle S. Wilson, dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies. “He’ll be creating a one-of-a-kind classroom experience for students to learn first hand about the cultural impact of hip hop from an historical, creative and business perspective directly from a hip hop pioneer.”

Skillz, whose given name is Donnie Lewis, grew up in Richmond and got his start rapping on air at WDCE, the University's radio station. In the mid-1990s, Mad Skillz won second place in a national freestyle competition, which launched his career and eventually led to a recording contract with Atlantic Records. He helped bring an increased focus on the Virginia rap and hip hop scene throughout the late 1990s and 2000s by collaborating with fellow Virginians Missy Elliott, Timbaland and The Neptunes.

“From the time I started rapping and taking music seriously all I knew was that I was proud of where I was from,” said Mad Skillz. “Early on it was hard because I was the only one waving the flag for home.”

After recording his seventh album in 2014, Mad Skillz turned his time and attention to producing and deejaying. He now splits his time between Los Angeles and Richmond. Mad Skillz has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music including Diddy, Pharrell Williams, Nicki Minaj, Will Smith and Jay-Z. He’s excited about the opportunity to bring that experience in addition to his own as an artist into the classroom.

“In a sense I’ve been teaching without really realizing it for years,” Skillz said. “The difference was it was from a stage with a microphone, so to be able now to share my knowledge of hip hop in a classroom setting is a dream come true.”

Mad Skillz will be co-teaching “Voice of Hip Hop in America” with Dr. Erik Nielson. The course will examine hip hop as a social, political, and artistic movement — one that has given rise to what is arguably the most influential form of music to emerge from the U.S. in the last 50 years. According to Nielson, this course will also consider the way rap music is produced and marketed and what this can tell us about the shifts in popular culture that hip hop has both created and responded to. In addition, students will explore the ways hip hop has served as a vehicle for political activism and grassroots organizing, particularly in the last decade.

Nielson notes that Mad Skillz brings a rare set of skills to the classroom. He’s worked with a long list of accomplished artists across the country, and he’s built a national reputation for his work as a rapper, producer and songwriter. At the same time, he has deep connections to the Richmond community, including the University of Richmond.

“One of the goals of the class is to consider hip hop as a national movement but also a local one,” said Nielson. “Donnie is the perfect person for both, and I will be learning from him at the same time our students are.”

In addition to co-teaching, Mad Skillz will be a part of Sampling Black History, a public lecture and panel discussion that will examine his career and hip hop as a social, political, and artistic movement. “Sampling Black History” takes place on Monday, February 19, from 7-8:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.