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From left: Skillz, Danja Mowf and Lonnie B
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Lonnie B at iPower 92.1 Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Danja Mowf in his home studio Photo by Isaac Harrell
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A promo shot for the SupaFriendz’s second album, Supavision, with (clockwise from top left) Shorty 8th Ave, Danja Mowf, Lonnie B, Sean Pea, Skillz, Mont Gee and Lil Rock. Photo courtsey Lonnie B
On the basketball courts, in the barbershops and on the street corners, it had been decided: Lonnie B and Mad Skillz had to battle. This was 1994, when Richmond could be a scary place to live; at the time, the city led the nation in per-capita homicides, earning it the unfortunate nickname "Murder City." But Lonnie and Mad Skillz weren't afraid of anyone: They'd both fought enough battles to become lords on their respective sides of town. Lonnie B owned the South Side, while on the North Side, everyone knew not to mess with Mad Skillz. So naturally, the hip-hop-loving people of Richmond wanted to see two of the city's most esteemed MCs verbally duke it out.
One day, the opportunity came. Mad Skillz — born Shaqwan Lewis — was in front of Rhoads Hall on Virginia Commonwealth University's campus, looking for other rappers to devour, as usual. His demo tapes were getting noticed at record labels in New York City, and he dreamed of being a hip-hop star. In the meantime, he kept his freestyle skills sharp by battling other rappers everywhere he could in Richmond. He was feared, ribbing his fellow MCs with savage rhymes created off the top of his head as onlookers watched, judged and commented in real time.
"I was running around saying I was the best rapper in Richmond," Skillz recalls. "I used to go to VCU's open-mic night and terrorize rappers." He'd get inside guys' heads, convincing them they weren't up to par.
At the same time, Lonnie B (née Lonnie Battle) had become beloved for his DJing. On the South Side, no one dared have a house party without him behind the turntables, and his skills as a rapper only increased his popularity. On that day in front of Rhoads Hall, he was hard to miss. "I heard this dude," Skillz says, "and I realized, ‘That's Lonnie B!' " The battle was on. Back and forth the two MCs went, using their words as weapons while dozens of onlookers cheered. Neither would give up — the crowd dwindled to eight and then three as the sun went down. "He never ran out of raps," Skillz says, still sounding somewhat astonished. They shook hands, they exchanged numbers and a friendship was born. "We became cool." So began the SupaFriendz — a landmark hip-hop group that kickstarted a musical movement in Richmond and turned a handful of young black men into producers, composers, arrangers, artists, businessmen and local heroes at a time when they could have easily become statistics. A constellation of rappers, writers and musicians who coalesced around three key players, they are today proud fathers, DJs, music-industry insiders and, in Skillz's case, a writer of lyrics for major rap stars including Will Smith and Diddy. Despite the promise of their big hit, a remix of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?," which soared to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B chart and No. 6 on its pop chart, the SupaFriendz never became superstars, and outside of local lore, the collective isn't widely known years after its breakup. But for rap-loving Richmonders in the 1990s, they had a tremendous impact, and they still exert an influence on the city's music scene today.
The story of the SupaFriendz actually began in February 1989, when a University of Richmond sophomore named Mike Street started a radio show on campus. R&B was just beginning to merge with a still-burgeoning hip-hop scene — crooner Keith Sweat, in fact, had packed the Mosque in early February — and Street embraced the music enthusiastically. An economics major, he had grown up in Richmond's Highland Park neighborhood, and UR's bucolic campus seemed a world away from home. To his surprise, Street's new white buddies also loved the hip-hop he'd spin on turntables in his room: Leaders of the New School, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, De La Soul. "It was the exact opposite of what I was used to," he says. "I'd never been to a frat house or seen kegs of beer. I'd never been anyplace where on a daily basis you were a minority." But, he adds, "That's when rap and R&B had its universal awakening across cultures, and it was surprising when you found out who knew all the words to the songs." An opportunity arose to have a campus radio show, and Street seized it. The station's low wattage meant the broadcast couldn't travel very far, but combined with the underground nature of the material, that added an element of intrigue that made the show, UR House Party, all the more alluring. This was before hip-hop stations were a thing in Richmond, so the music of Big Daddy Kane, the Beastie Boys or EPMD was relegated to clubs or a single AM station, WKIE. Of course, you could hear Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer or Bobby Brown on FM stations, but back then, the divide between authentic rap and the pop version might as well have been the difference between punk and disco. In time, Street's show would become a launchpad for dozens of up-and-coming local talents, including Skillz, who brought Lonnie into the fold.
My life could have turned out a different way," says 38-year-old Lonnie B. "All my friends were in the streets, had guns. I was always into music — the only other thing I knew was basketball. I had real strict parents. My mother was my mother — she wasn't trying to be my friend." Still considered one of the best DJs in Richmond, he sneaks in conversation while mixing his Sunday School show at iPower 92.1 — a live affair during which he remains on his feet, intensely scratching and digging through crates of records to keep his mix continuous and smooth. Lonnie appears on the station every day but Saturday, doing a one-hour mix from 5 to 6 p.m. during the week and a popular show from 7 to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Last year, he released an app; to date, its continuous mixes have been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Like many other young black men in his peer group, he saw few career options other than music and basketball; rap was a lingua franca. "I wanted to go to college, but I couldn't afford it," Lonnie explains. He took an interest in DJing, so his mom made a deal during his senior year of high school: If he sat out the first semester at VCU, she'd buy him the turntables he wanted so desperately. Unable to pay for college and ineligible for financial aid, she used the turntables to buy time until she found the means. "I never knew it but, to get me those turntables, she had not paid the mortgage. That's a hell of a gamble, but she believed in me." Lonnie took his craft seriously, studying under local legend DJ Drake. He'd spend countless hours in his room practicing — driving his mom bonkers by scratching Run-DMC's "Peter Piper" all day and night — but after graduating from Huguenot High in 1992, he started throwing parties and never went to college. "I was known as the best rapper in the South Side," he says. He heard rumblings about an MC from across the river named Mad Skillz. "People would say, ‘You have to battle him.' "
I would say, ‘Man, f--k Lonnie B!'" says Skillz. (Now in his late 30s, he dropped the "Mad" from his name around 2002.) Today he serves as a vocal companion to DJ Jazzy Jeff — Will Smith's partner in his Fresh Prince days — as Jeff spins at high-end parties from New York City to Dubai. Until last March, Skillz kept Richmond as a home base while he traveled, whether he was performing with Jeff or working his other gig, writing lyrics for other rappers. (Though he's known for writing for Diddy and Will Smith, Skillz's full client list is a guarded secret. For some popular MCs, admitting to having someone else write their material would threaten credibility and jeopardize a career.) Now living in Los Angeles, he's an in-demand hip-hop songwriter, but in the 1990s, Skillz was a scrappy, hungry teenager who'd pulled himself out of poverty. He had been living comfortably with an aunt in Fayetteville, N.C., when in 1987, his mother sent for him to join her in Richmond. She'd exhausted all her resources in North Carolina thanks to a heroin addiction, but she promised her son that she'd cleaned up her life and had found a good apartment in a nice part of town. So Skillz came to Richmond. He arrived in the summer, only to find that his new home was in a run-down apartment building next to Whitcomb Court. "I walked in that apartment, and there was nothing but a mattress on the floor," Skillz says. "No groceries, nothing. At 15, I was exposed to so many things a child shouldn't be exposed to." To this day, he's still haunted sometimes by images of burnt spoons and needles, random men entering and leaving his home. He knew he had to "man up." He got a job at KFC, he had the cable turned on and he bought himself a car, a $125 Ford Maverick. He liked to hang out on Broad Street downtown, where the burgeoning hip-hop culture was on full display, with Public Enemy playing in stores and guys dressed like Run-DMC. He tried his hand at graffiti and got pretty good at break dancing, but soon he was best known for his rapping, becoming a kind of local bard. By 1993, Skillz had begun hanging out at Mike Street's radio show. He would freestyle to instrumentals of popular records. After one such performance, a stranger phoned the show. "Who is that?" he asked, to which Street replied, "That was Shaqwan." "Well, he got mad skills," the listener said — and Shaqwan became Mad Skillz. He'd rap at nightclubs, including The Shockoe Slip and Ivory's, or at parties in Richmond, and crowds would form around him. He was palling around with Q-Tip, the lead rapper for influential rap outfit A Tribe Called Quest. Skillz had become a local underground star, all the while, somewhat incongruously, working as an attendant at a VCU parking lot. (As a new father, he needed the medical coverage.) Skillz was certainly more established than anyone else in Richmond — except maybe one person. "I kept hearing about this Lonnie B. I was like, ‘How come Lonnie B is never at Ivory's?' " After the Rhoads Hall battle, an alliance was formed.
Skillz started taking Lonnie B with him on road gigs, and the two became the first pair to appear in-residence weekly on Street's House Party show. At the end of the program, they'd hold an on-air freestyle clinic during which other budding MCs could show off their skills. "I definitely felt like we were important in the city," Skillz says. "Some people felt like I should have been bigger than I was, but they don't know. Once, Jay-Z came to the Slip. He knew me from rap battles and pulled me on stage. Richmond rap fans didn't really have an identity — it had to be latched onto something else." Skillz and Lonnie B were creating a unique identity for Richmond's rap scene through the show. It wasn't long before a fellow named Adolphus Maples III, calling himself Danja Mowf, joined the fray. Danja's relationship with music started early, though not in altogether positive ways. His father's identity as a singer and gifted Afro-Caribbean percussionist in local bands trumped his role as Dad, and Danja came to resent music, blaming it for his father's absence. Nonetheless, he charmed his way into a band class at John F. Kennedy High School, taking up the trumpet. His music teacher, Bill McGee, a former bandmate of his father's, began mentoring the young man. McGee stressed self-reliance, often making Danja struggle to figure things out on his own. A self-admitted so-so rapper, Danja excelled at production, and with McGee's guidance, he learned the fundamentals of engineering, recording and mixing. "He made me buy my own equipment, and he would spend time in the other room when I was trying to learn," Danja says. "I'd ask him how to do something, and he'd say, ‘Read the book!' " Hoping to improve and collaborate with like-minded peers, Danja joined Skillz and Lonnie at Mike Street's show, forming a nucleus for what soon blossomed into the SupaFriendz. "Lonnie came up with the name," says Skillz. "It was like, we're all friends, we all feel superior … to be able to be around people who feel the same way you feel, have the same talents, having that confidence. It was about originality, being creative and having fun." Organizationally, they followed the Wu-Tang Clan model: Cram as many of your gifted friends into the studio as you can, and work as a team with independent, free-moving parts. Soon, the group swelled to as many as 13 members, encompassing a swath of Richmond hip-hoppers with epic-sounding names like Kalonji the Immortal, Mindbender, Javon the Medieval, DJ Marc and one guy who simply went by the moniker Who. The SupaFriendz became local heroes — performing at cherished Richmond institutions including Alley Katz, Armani's and the Flood Zone. They pressed their own records, including "Hot Hot" and "Vowel Movement." The single "Vowel Movement" sold some 5,000 copies and shot to No. 4 on national college-radio charts. The group was fielding performance requests from as far away as Japan. "Richmond needed something to own, and that's what they gave us," says Kelli Lemon, a friend to all the SupaFriendz. Now a well-known host on 99.3-105.7 Kiss FM and manager at the soul food restaurant Mama J's, she was then VCU's assistant director of programs and events. She'd book any or all of the SupaFriendz for events on campus. "We would have thousands of students — whatever the ballroom could hold. We were probably at some dangerous levels." Lemon stresses that this was not Richmond-style gangsta rap. "It wasn't bitches and hos and degrading women — it was friendly fun," she says. "Back then, Richmond was battling to be No. 1 in homicides in the country. It was a dangerous city, and to have that positive, upbeat music was refreshing." For fans and aspiring performers, the group represented possibility and hope. "SupaFriendz had a huge impact on me," says Jean Baptiste, who attended VCU in the late '90s and is now a writer and producer for artists including Kelis, Chris Brown and The Black Eyed Peas. His work helped the Peas win a Best Pop Performance Grammy for "I Gotta Feeling" in 2010; he produced some of Madonna's last album, MDNA. "Mad Skillz is the reason I went to VCU — I called a radio station in D.C. and freestyled for him, and he told me to come to Richmond. They showed us a lot about artistry and also the dream that you can get a record deal coming out of Virginia. I definitely wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I didn't get the opportunity to be around those guys." In 1998, the SupaFriendz got their big break and made music history. Norfolk native Timbaland had produced a song for the R&B singer Aaliyah called "Are You That Somebody?," a bouncy tune that'll still send people to the dance floor in herds to this day. Danja recorded a rap verse over the song; Skillz heard it and added a verse, too, followed by Lonnie. Mike Street, by then a DJ at Power 92, played it on air — prematurely and unofficially announcing it as "The SupaFriendz Remix." Now that the SupaFriendz had some clout in Richmond, the song caught on right away. Catchy though it was, the remix was also likely illegal; the song is believed to be the first to have been altered and released with no clearance, which usually warrants a cease-and-desist letter. When Aaliyah's label heard it, though, they loved it. They officially sent it to radio stations around the country. "The next thing I knew," says Skillz, "we had a double-platinum track." When he performed his verse alongside Aaliyah at The Tunnel, a legendary but now-closed New York City nightclub, Skillz knew that he was definitely on his way. Around the country, the remix got some 3,000 spins a week. It appeared on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie Dr. Doolittle , starring Eddie Murphy. "That was the height," Skillz says. It also proved to be the beginning of the end. Everyone dreams of fame, but nobody's really prepared for it. Add group dynamics, money and the complicated and fickle nature of the music business to the mix, and things get hairy. "It was strenuous on a lot of relationships," Skillz admits. "Being so young, having fame. I might have said some things to people that weren't cool, done some things that weren't OK, and Danja called me out on them. He was 100 percent right." Danja is reluctant to rehash the unsavory elements of the past, but as with many groups, a clash of egos and agendas is almost inevitable. None of the SupaFriendz were really prepared for stardom, he says, and that wasn't even what they wanted. "For us, we just really wanted to record and perform," Danja says. "Suddenly, we're performing in big venues and riding in limos." Resentments began to divide the group. "I might have been the first one to walk," says Lonnie. "One misunderstanding started with Danja getting a deal. Missy [Elliott] signed him. I was in a meeting with Jay-Z, who said I had the best verse. So I thought, ‘Why don't I have a deal?'" He realized then that to maintain stardom, he'd be forever chasing an elusive hit, so he walked, turning his focus back to DJing and his duties as a radio personality on Power 92. "I think I made the right decision," Lonnie says. "I had a chance to buy a home and take care of my family and children." After he walked, the SupaFriendz had more or less officially fizzled. He, Skillz and Danja began to pursue their own paths. Lonnie now lives in Chesterfield County with his wife and three daughters. Well into a successful songwriting career, Skillz says he's OK with not having the rap-star fantasy of his youth come true. "I wasn't meant to be as big as Kanye West," he says. "When you realize that you're not going to be that — that part of your dream is not coming true — it still did not hinder me from being creative. If you stay on the path long enough to get something, you will get it. It may not always come in the form that you wanted it, but you will get it." He released what he says is his last album, Thoughts Become Things, in December, but he still gigs with Jazzy Jeff. Though Danja Mowf still DJs occasionally, most of his time goes into his design, production and commercial company, Maples Media Group. He's done trailers for the Fox show 24 and the video game The Sims, and his music can be heard in the 2011 Disney movie Mars Needs Moms . Working from his North Side house, the married father of three is home when his sons return from school. "In that time, I learned a lot of skills — especially thinking creatively. I did spend a lot of time rapping, but I don't have an objective to be a rap star. I do things creatively and visually I can use to feed my family." It's been 20 years since Skillz, Lonnie B and Danja Mowf broke down barriers and influenced many. Hurt feelings, triumphs, bruised egos and myth making — they survived it all. They look back fondly. They don't have any regrets; they're all still friends. SupaFriendz, in fact. "We're brothers," Lonnie says. "They'll be part of my life forever.