Hong Kong teen rapper SkiBs walks his own way
'Hong Kong Kids' rapper SkiBs has finished school and is branching out into business, he tells Madeleine Fitzpatrick
Seeing Lucas "SkiBs the Kid" Scibetta in the flesh is probably the closest anglophone Hong Kong gets to encountering a musical celebrity, and it's a genuine rush.
You've seen the iconic Hong Kong Kids video, with its pot-toking, bauhinia flag-waving teens. You've downloaded the mixtapes and listened with rueful recognition to their lyrical references to drug tests and Lan Kwai Fong nights. And all of a sudden, the baseball cap-wearing Fresh Prince of South Side himself bounds into the 7-Eleven - the Hong Kong kid's spiritual home - on the first sweltering day of summer.
"Hey, nice to meet you," he says, grinning. "Where do you guys wanna do this?" He soon leads our photographer to Sunny's, the open-air Stanley bar featured in the Hong Kong Kids video as the scene of much shirtless inebriation.
The 18-year-old has called Hong Kong home since the age of 12, having lived in New York City for the previous six years, and before that, Tokyo. "Once I got into high school, then I really started going out and exploring the city and meeting people, and that's when I really got into music. I just fell in love with Hong Kong … Probably ninth grade [ages 14 and 15] was when I was like, 'Yeah, Hong Kong's my place to be'."
One of very few English-language rappers to have made an impact in Hong Kong post reunification, Scibetta is also the only musician of any kind to articulate the youth culture of the city's non-Chinese community. We're not talking about middle-aged expatriate pub rock bands singing about pollution, or shoe-gazing indie combos whose music could have been written anywhere. We're talking about a rapper whose sound, lyrical themes and - now that he has a clothing line - look could only have been born in Hong Kong.
In the video for Classy S***, Scibetta nails the feel of a night in Lan Kwai Fong, providing a definitive depiction of an experience shared by generations of young people who went to international schools here. Hong Kong Kids is an affectionate tribute to the rapper's hometown, with a head-nodding sample from electronic rock duo Ratatat, and an infectious chorus delivered by Scibetta ("Everybody put your drink in the sky/We can get high/We can do anything tonight/We gon' live it up/We dem Hong Kong kids/We don't give a f***"). The video garnered more than 350,000 views on YouTube before it was taken down after being flagged for inappropriate content. It has since been reinstated.
Far from being a pot-addled naïf, in person Scibetta is thoughtful and driven, with an entrepreneurial maturity not hinted at by the party-hard image of his best-known video. While he plans on touring next year, to date his strategy has been to focus on building his fan base online. "I started performing at clubs when I got offers to," he says. "It was cool, but the unfortunate thing about some of the music scene - Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai and places - is that you really have no artistic freedom. All they want to hear is party music."
Critics who have the rapper pegged as an expat brat might be surprised to learn Scibetta is financially independent, having just graduated from the Hong Kong International School. He recently moved into his own apartment in Hang Hau, close to the studio of new producer Zach Wylde Stark, having parted ways with previous producer Barton "DXL" Chan (a fellow 18-year-old Hong Kong kid). "I'm living on my own, strictly based off music and the things that are around. I've gotten a couple of investors for next year … I get money but I have to work my ass off to get them their money back and more."
First on the list of "things that are around" is his line of merchandise for the G.O.D. lifestyle store, which went on sale on June 1. The collection includes a shirt featuring an illustration of Scibetta, Che Guevara, Mao and Stalin slouched on a sofa, each with their preferred puff in hand, beneath the words, "Smokers of the world - unite", and a cap emblazoned with the HKSAR flag in which the bauhinia is replaced by a marijuana leaf.
Meanwhile, Scibetta's most recent video, which came out on June 2, is for Delay No More, the title track off his newest mixtape, and named for the cheeky pun that is the G.O.D. slogan.
The creators of the G.O.D. brand are "essentially what I want to be" so Scibetta took a punt by e-mailing the company and addressing the missive to CEO Douglas Young - who replied within 15 minutes, to the then 17-year-old's amazement.
"The clothing line and the music - we're trying to start a youth movement. It's something for kids to be motivated to work, and just like a 'Whatever - f*** everybody else. Just do your thing' kind of mindset."
It's clearly the mindset Scibetta had to adopt when, having just turned 16, he released his first mixtape, The Pink Slip. "That was actually the hardest time, because I was so young that kids at school were still like, 'Haha, you wanna be a rapper?' But I didn't give a s***; I just kept doing it."
The album title refers to the colour of the form presented to HKIS students to inform them of drug testing. Scibetta, naturally, attracted scrutiny after releasing the Hong Kong Kids video, but because he'd given up smoking pot for three months beforehand, all his drug tests came back negative.
Although it was released more recently, Delay No More - which sees Scibetta and his friends chilling in a deserted Mong Kok market at 4am - was actually shot before Hong Kong Kids. "I released Hong Kong Kids first, because I give that image of this kid that has fun, because that really is me. But at the same time, I have this other side that's really motivated to follow my dreams and work and make music and do s***."
Playing hard and working harder? Now that really is a Hong Kong kid.