Spazzy Drummer Boy
Pikesville native, Prince Paul collaborator drops crazy new album
Published: October 10, 2012
Marching to the beat of a different drum machine, 44-year-old WordSound label owner, producer, and recording artist S. H. Fernando Jr. aka Skiz aka Spectre has always been a little unusual when it comes to his music. Skiz, a Baltimore native born in Pikesville, attended a preppy private school, but his sonic taste was always beyond the standard rock ’n’ roll embraced by his peers.
“My brother and sister, who were much older than me, were bringing home records by P-Funk and Bob Marley as well as stranger stuff like David Bowie, so I was always open to listening to different types of music,” he says.
“One day in 1979, I was checking out [now defunct radio station] WEBB and they played ‘Rapper’s Delight,’” he recalls. “For me, that was it. I had no idea what hip-hop even was, but I was mesmerized. A few years later, when Soul Sonic Force released ‘Planet Rock,’ I knew I wanted to be a part of that music.” Skiz, a lanky Sri Lankan, befriended the only three black guys who attended St. Paul’s School, near Timonium. “They turned me on to stuff like LL Cool J and Run-DMC, but at the same time, I was also listening to the Smiths.”
Coming of age at a time when record stores still mattered as social centers for music geeks and inquisitive kids, Skiz furthered his journey into sound while hanging out at the local Record and Tape Traders.
“It was there that I bought the first Bad Brains, which was released on a cassette-only label called Roir,” he says. “I was already into punk, but then in the middle of a song, they’d start playing a completely different type of music. That was my introduction to dub.”
Unaware at the time of the aural connection between dub and hip-hop—formed by former Jamaican Yardies like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash—he was automatically hooked on the blunted grooves imported from the island. “Years later, when I was interviewing Afrika Bambaataa for my  rap-history book, The New Beats, he described himself as ‘hip-hop and then some.’ That might be the best way to explain what I’ve tried to do with WordSound.”
Skiz began writing for various music publications including Vibe, Spin, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times after the release of The New Beats, for which he interviewed over a hundred producers, rappers, and scene-makers. “I became a music journalist so I could meet the artists I wanted to meet and get free records,” Skiz laughs.
While living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1990s, he was working on a piece for “hip-hop bible” The Source that led him to meet the musical mentor he’d been looking for in the guise of esteemed bassist Bill Laswell, who had worked with Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono among many, many others.
Skiz was reviewing Laswell’s experimental Hallucination Engine (1994) and contacted the publicist at Island Records to arrange an interview with Laswell. “I was living in Williamsburg at the time and Laswell’s studio was five minutes from my house,” he says. “After that first interview, I started hanging out there every day. I met so many people there, from George Clinton to [Miles Davis drummer] Tony Williams. Laswell was recording all kinds of music, from funk to dub to African, and I was just a kid soaking it all up.”
Laswell loaned Skiz $1,000 to start WordSound in 1993. “Skiz was hanging out at my studio and I just respected what he was doing,” Laswell says. “He’s always had good intentions and he had great ideas he wanted to build on. I try not to analyze these things too deeply, but helping Skiz build his label just felt right.”
In the label’s 19-year history, it has signed an eclectic roster of artists (Prince Paul, Sensational, Dr. Israel). To date, the label has put out 65 releases. WordSound has released Skiz’s own material under the moniker Spectre, putting out nine wild-styled Spectre joints, the latest being The True and Living, released Sept. 29.
Producer Prince Paul, renowned for his groundbreaking work with De La Soul and Gravediggaz, was on a downward slope when he and Skiz decided to work together. “For the first time in my career, my stuff wasn’t selling like it used to,” Paul remembers. “The last De La album wasn’t selling, nobody was really understanding the Gravediggaz, so I was feeling my career was over.
“When Skiz contacted me about making the record, I decided that Psychoanalysis: What Is It? was going to be one of the craziest recordings ever,” he says of the 1996 release. “But the bugged thing was that [that] record catapulted my career. Handsome Boy Modeling School and the albums with Chris Rock all came afterward and wouldn’t have happened if not for Psychoanalysis: What Is It?
“I’ve always been attracted to eclectic people, and Skiz is that. He’s a funny, good-hearted dude, but if you listen to Spectre, you’ll see there is also a creepy side to him. I owe Skiz a lot,” Paul says.
Skiz moved back to Baltimore in 2001 and has since been dividing his time between making beats and cooking food, having written his first Sri Lankan cookbook, Rice and Curry, (Hippocrene Books) last year. “I’ve always loved cooking,” says Skiz, who appeared on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. “For me, cooking is relaxing, it’s not a burden. Like music, it helps to put me in the zone.”
Skiz records in a sound lab, converted from a bedroom, in his Charles Village home, which also serves as WordSound’s office and studio.
“Since the early 1990s, I’ve been making music every night,” he says. “I create some music and usually have about 60 to 80 tracks that I then cut down to 15.” The only outside production on The True and Living is the track “My Rifle,” which his late nephew John Fernando contributed.
“John was 17 when he died in a freak accident last year,” Skiz says. “He was a young beatmaker, a young producer who created some incredible material. I always told him I was going to put his work out on WordSound, but not just because I was his uncle; I truly respected his work.”
The average 17-year-old Lil Wayne/Drake/Nicki Minaj fans might have problems digesting the wild-style soundscape on The True and Living, which includes everything from snippets of strange films and Middle Eastern chants to a guest appearance from Wu-Tang member Killa Priest.
“I’ve been a huge fan of Killa Priest since the beginning of his career and I always dreamed of collaborating with him,” Skiz says. “We spoke over the phone in the beginning, but we constructed the song through e-mail. I’m very happy with how it turned out; I think its vintage Killa Priest.”
Noted recording engineer/producer/remixer Scotty Hard, a Brooklyn resident who has worked the Boogie Down Productions, Stereo MCs, Bjork and countless others, has known Skiz since 1996. In addition to mixing tracks for the latest Spectre project, he has also recorded music on the label, including his bugged disc, The Return of Kill Dog E.
“I met Skiz when I was working with Prince Paul on his WordSound project and we’ve been friends ever since,” Hard recalls. “Today’s hip-hop is so commercial and formulaic, but Skiz just trusts his instincts. Some people might not call it hip-hop because it’s so experimental, but that’s what it is. There was a time when rap producers weren’t afraid to be different.”
> Email Michael A. Gonzales