Scott Keeney can’t find a position to comfortably seat his 6-foot-3 frame. He gets up from a bright orange couch, dusts off a speck of lint from his immaculate white Nikes, then paces the carpeted floors of a plush 1,680-square-foot studio. Cameras follow, producers in an adjacent control room stand by, and a throng of teens waiting offstage attempt to snap photos of the man known as DJ Skee.
Here, in the downtown Los Angeles headquarters of Mark Cuban’s AXS TV, Keeney holds court. But as he waits for his next guest, tiny beads of sweat roll down his chiseled jawline. The DJ, producer, and pop culture personality has spent the last decade using social media to catapult from unknown A&R intern to the host of nationally syndicated radio shows on KIIS-FM and Sirius XM’s Hip Hop Nation. But in this industry, his is not a stereotypical success story.
With over half a million social media followers and a squeaky clean image in a culture known for promoting anything but family friendly behavior, he’s been called the Ryan Seacrest of hip-hop. But as Skee waits for a very late big-name rapper to grace his stage, he’s no longer a calm, confident 30-year-old. He’s just as anxious as the youngsters who clamor excitedly when the massive cameras pan their screeching faces.
"Where’s 2Chainz?" Skee mutters under his breath.
Skee is something of a paradox in the braggadocio-fueled world of hip-hop. First, he’s a white guy who doesn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. And he smiles. A lot. He looks like the illusive 18-34 sweet-spot marketers salivate over: tall, fit, with piercing blue eyes and close-cropped dirty blond hair. He has that all-American boy-next-door quality. At the same time, he’s produced records for hardcore artists like the rapper Game, and his brand affiliation, from Google to McDonald’s to shoe companies, has won him respect in the streets and boardrooms, and the admiration of hip-hop and sneaker heads worldwide.
Unlike many DJs, who promote a hard-partying, anti-authority image, Skee seems genuinely comfortable in his own skin, not conforming to stereotype. He was recently named a champion in the UN Foundation charities Girl Up and Nothing But Nets. This month, his company SKEEMATIC launched a social good campaign with AT&T to help give fans jobs. How many mainstream DJs volunteer with the UN or provide the kids that look up to them a foot in the door?
"I could not be more excited about this opportunity," he says. "The UN Foundation does so much good for the world, it was a natural fit to take advantage of all the various platforms, connections, and outlets I have."
Those platforms, connections, and outlets include two radio shows that reach 20 million weekly listeners, and nearly half a million combined social followers, which gives Skee a direct line of communication to fans. Plus his show on AXS TV, now entering its second season, reaches another 40 million people. Both Billboard and Forbes have named him to their power-players-under-30 lists. That’s why organizations like the UN, and major brands, love working with him. Because when they get Skee, they also get access to his arsenal.
"We work with over a dozen brands," says Ryan Tomlinson, Skee’s business partner of seven years. What began as a ragtag management group in the mid-2000s has evolved into SKEEMATIC, one of the biggest and most polished under-the-radar media companies in L.A., if not all of entertainment. If Skee is the face of the company, Tomlinson as the president is the brains, wrangling the brands interested in working with Skee and his guests. From there, it’s strategize, create, share.
"We talk about aspirational lifestyles, and Skee’s the architect of that," Tomlinson explains. "Then we align the exact narrative with the brands that we go after to underwrite that content. Part of that strategy is: Where does it live, and how do we meet consumers in the places where they live and breathe? Whatever that content is, we create it all in-house. We hit the audience at all the touch points: online, radio, mobile, out-of-home distribution in screens in fast food restaurants, airport terminals, TV."
Inked deals include Google, AT&T, Boost Mobile, Mountain Dew, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven; major companies who want in on Skee, and the influencers he rubs shoulders with. Through his radio and TV programs, Skee provides entertainers with a forum, and in return, Skee gets content to push online. Both parties also get exposure to brands, hungry to get a piece of the influencer pie, and access to all of their devotees. It’s win-win-win.
That’s why Mark Cuban bankrolled his show on AXS TV—he believes in him. And now Skee and his company get more credibility and capital to keep creating, and incentivize brands to work with them.
"He’s tapped into the forefront of pop culture," Cuban told us via email. "I respect that he’s not afraid to speak his mind."
Not being afraid to speak his mind and pursue his ambitions got Skee noticed at a young age. At 16, he was already a wizard behind the boards, having mastered engineering and mixing classes at Central High School in St. Paul. Fast earning a rep in the studio, he parlayed a family friend’s introduction into an apprenticeship with the legendary DJ Stretch Armstrong at New York’s Hot 97 radio station. Skee would buy mixtapes on Canal Street in Manhattan, and then fly back and flip them in Minnesota. He would often double his money, and flood the suburban airwaves with previously unheard music. Skee would do the same with sneakers, PlayStations, Xboxes, anything he could get his hands on, and in a twist of fate, used that hustle to make the jump to the big leagues. During a meeting, Steve Rifkind, the founder of Loud Records, was venting to Armstrong about buying his son, Alex, a PlayStation 2. But he couldn’t find anything on the shelves so close to Christmas. Spider-sense tingling, Armstrong reached out to Skee.
"Stretch is like, ‘I might know this kid who might have one,’" Skee remembers.
Still wet behind the ears, the teen didn’t even know who Rifkind was. But eager to please, he looked Rifkind up online, quickly realized his fortune, and overnighted a unit for free. Rifkind was so tickled with the fast turnaround, and with Skee’s abilities in the studio, he decided to take the youngster under his wing. Skee then enrolled in online classes, graduated high school a year early, and followed Rifkind from New York to Los Angeles. The introductions and tutelage Rifkind provided paved the way for Skee’s early progression.
"I looked at it almost like being drafted in to the pros," Skee remembers.
In 2002, Skee helped Rifkind run the marketing agency for his newly formed SRC Records. He soon branched out on his own, and because he had one foot in the music world, and one in marketing, he began linking artists with brands. The first was T-Mobile. At that time, Sidekick devices were all the rage, and Skee helped set that trend by brokering deals between the company and everyone from Juicy Couture to NBA star Dwyane Wade.
"It was the first real smartphone on the market," he says. "That’s how I met so many artists too, because they were always going through me for seeding and getting product."
The success of that venture turned into a stint with Daimler-Chrysler, helping launch the Chrysler 300 magnums. Skee was fast building a name as the go-to guy for both artists and brands—and then things really hit light speed. While walking on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue, Skee bumped into the rapper Game. Rifkind had already introduced the two, and when they happened upon each other that day, something clicked, and hip-hop history would change forever.
"He played me the first lines of what would be 300 bars, where he was going to diss 50 Cent for the first time," Skee recalls with a smile. The Compton rapper wanted the nearly 15-minute song all on one beat. "I said, ‘You should switch beats,’ and sent him an MP3 sample, and he’s like ‘I love it.’ I ended up producing 300 bars which really put me on the mainstream stage."
The rapper and DJ started working together, releasing hit mixtape after hit mixtape, and Skee began finding his groove, realizing he could straddle both artistry and sales.
"I knew at that moment the whole opportunity for me was open," he says. "There’s not many opportunities you get to put your name out there, and this is one of them."
Game led to Skee connecting with Snoop Dogg. Then the ambitious DJ landed a show on L.A.’s Power 106 radio station, and then a slot on Sirius XM. Ever aware of the power of emerging technologies, Skee, along with Tomlinson and the rest of his team, were also shooting, producing, and releasing music videos for artists like DJ Quik and Soulja Boy, on YouTube—and racking up big viewership. The platform was in place.
"After I made it as a DJ, I realized the power I have," he says. That’s when Skee and company rebooted their agency and dubbed it SKEEMATIC. "People say how do you walk between the streets and hip-hop and board rooms with the biggest executives in the world, and I think the answer is always stay true to who you are. It’s all about being authentic. And people believe it. There’s no way to hide it. I never pretended to be, or acted like I was hard. Same with the corporate world. I never pretended to be a Stanford student with an MBA."
Back in the AXS studio, a basketball-tall rapper lumbers out of the green room and onto the stage. Wearing John Lennon Windsor sunglasses, a low bucket hat, and a red flannel shirt, the appearance of 2Chainz lets Skee breathe a sigh of relief. But he’s so quick that he keeps poker-faced when the two embrace, and begins his rapid-fire interview with the flare of a natural-born performer.
Minutes later, when the director yells cut, and the cameras fade, Skee doesn’t break character with his guest. Because he’s not a character. That’s really him out there. And that’s why folks on both sides of the fence respond so positively.
"Value of a brand as an artist and a businessman parallel," 2Chainz says on the way to a smoke break. "It notifies fans you’re both a true person, and a good follow."
Aaron Axelrod, a fine artist who has worked with Skee on multiple projects since 2007, says the elusive winning quality Skee possesses is his ability to keep genuine relationships with performers and the people who cut the checks.
"In L.A., everyone has huge egos," he says. "Skee keeps it humble, and because of that, you just want to do good stuff for him. He goes out of his way to make you feel appreciated, and when he thinks a brand fits for you, he brings it. It’s rare to have all of these things—those qualities are really hard to come by."
Digital music is at a crossroads. Post-Napster, post-ringtone, post-iTunes. This is the YouTube and Spotify age where artists make more money off everything but the music they create. Instead of fearing this change, people like Skee are embracing it.
"I want to be the first person that really cracks this new digital age," he says after the show. "The music industry is trying to figure out what works, brands are trying to figure out what works, people are still trying to figure out how consumers are going to digest music and products."
Skee believes that music's ability to transcend language and culture makes it the most powerful marketing tool in the world—and the web is the medium to deliver it to the masses.
"Look at the reach of these artists," he explains. "Even though it might not be selling on a physical disc, or a 99-cent download anymore, because of the Internet, you’re reaching so many people. It’s just about flipping that power into everything else. Aligning brands with the right artists is the future. The real money is from touring, brands, sponsorships. If you want to reach kids, go through music, because that’s what they’re actually listening to."
[Image: Flickr user Vincent Diamante]