Justin Lim, otherwise known as Kim Jong Skillz, is a Queens native and recent graduate of Stony Brook University with a degree in business management. He cracks a few jokes and fills our phone call with his infectious laughter. With his chill nature, he loves putting a smile on everyone’s face, a trait that fits well with the Joker “hahaha” tattoo on his forearm. Just this past summer on Aug. 19, he released an album called Unsupervised, the culmination of a two-year songwriting and recording effort. It’s a hip-hop album with a roller coaster of emotions. He took some time out of his day to speak to The Press about the album, his life and the music industry today.
What major themes do you rap about in your album?
I would say just the kind of problems you encounter in college, like trying out the social life [for] a lot of people. You know, when they get to college, it’s their first taste of freedom [with] partying and stuff. It seems a little glorious when you first try it out and you have a good time — you’re just like: “Holy shit. When can we do that again?” because partying is used as a segue. So, drug use, abusing substances and emotional problems can arise out of that. Introspectiveness — drugs are like a double-sided coin. There’s two sides to it depending on what your mindset is. The things I talk about is just stuff that I have experience with. It’s nothing super larger than life, but it’s just my perspective, you know?
What is your favorite song on your album?
My favorite song on my album is definitely the first one, “808s Bumpin’” — that was probably like the second song that I wrote ever. And it’s basically a kickoff to the album. It’s an upbeat intro to set the tone, I guess because it’s sort of analogous to how my college experience started and how I felt about it. I started off going to a lot of parties, and I ended up pledging for a fraternity and getting in my first semester and that’s just how I experienced college. And I feel that the song is boisterous, it’s rowdy and just having a good time. And there’s just a lot of bars that [were] just like, “Damn.” Like, I remember when I wrote them down, I was just like, “Oh my God, this is fire. Like, this is genius.”
It’s fun to perform it and rap it out and to just see the final product come to fruition. And that song is a little dear to me, because I worked on it for total summation for about a year, from when I first started writing the lyrics to getting it out to a complete song, it took about a full year. And I feel like the total effort really shows. It’s a good song that I enjoy listening to and a lot of other people enjoy listening to. I hope people are inclined to play that at parties or their nearest residential area.
Pull up to the function, got the 808’s bumpin’ / Not talkin rave music bitch, stop all of that jumpin, no fist pumpin / On the dance floor we got all the ABGs / I call my room the company, there’s always room for threeKim Jong Skillz, “808s Bumpin'”
What first got you into making and writing music?
At first it was really like a therapeutic process. Writing lyrics was really like an outlet just to get the thoughts out of my head that were kind of bothering me. And I don’t know how it really transitioned into writing lyrics, but I guess I was just looking — just checking out some music on YouTube [one] day, and I figured I’d give it a try. And I won’t lie, it takes a long time to get something together that you’re really proud of, like a piece of work that you’re willing to be like: “Hey, look, I made this!” Yeah, I guess it was just kind of a natural interest that ignited the flame a little bit.
What is your creative process like?
It’s really spontaneous. I feel like everyone sort of understands that a little spark of inspiration when you get it, you want to grab a hold of it and just just let it run wild. I would say that, when I feel very strongly emotional, it’s a good chance for me to get my thoughts onto the paper and I sort of focus the subject matter of the music around whatever is going on in my life; whether it’s girl problems or emotional problems — like mental health stuff, personal family stuff. I have a few producers that I really enjoy listening to, just because the music they make is good, [and] not just because the beats are really good to rap over. Like, it matches a type of mood that you want to set with a song. I just like to find music that I like listening to and being able to add something onto it. It just feels crazy when you finally have the final product.
Writing lyrics I realized it’s like poetry. Rap stands for “rhythm and poetry.” You’re just doing spoken word to a beat or background music.
You mentioned some of your favorite producers before — who are they?
I would say my most favorite right now is this one producer named Versus Beats. He’s this guy from New York, maybe like early 20s, probably still in college. I know he’s musically talented — he plays a bunch of different instruments. He plays the saxophone, piano [and] obviously percussion. The music that he makes, he doesn’t even sample anything — he creates the samples himself. He plays the sax and then he creates a beat around the melody that he plays. His music, in its rawest form, he creates into something palatable for [a] more modern demographic, because that’s what he’s a part of. He’s in touch with contemporary music, contemporary rap, R&B. And just the work that he does is brilliant, literally. That’s the only word to describe it. He has talent. He pumps shit out so frequently. If you’re an artist as well, or if you just like listening to good music, he’s definitely someone to check out. He’s got like a beat tape on Spotify.
Who are your greatest influences in terms of your music style and your artistry?
So I would say a really key one that taught me the element of storytelling is definitely J. Cole. I understand the way that he is able to relate his experiences. He makes it seem larger than life. He’s able to relate, because his experience is some[thing] that everyone has gone through, but it’s just from his perspective. He’s not like really rapping about the same shit all the time. There’s sort of a progression if you look at his discography and his work from his freshman stuff up until the projects that he’s been releasing as of late. Like this one project he dropped is called K.O.D. There’s a bunch of different abbreviations: Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons. But basically, the main theme of the album is how rampant drug use is in modern hip-hop, and how that has become the focus of the culture and the content. Well not necessarily the focus, but it’s one of the big key talking points. If you’re gonna make a trap song, [it’s] probably gonna mention drugs. Or, if you search up any trap song, they’re talking about drugs or drinking or some shit while they’re fucking bitches in cars. I feel like J. Cole [is] able to teach you a lesson within his story — the lesson that he learned — and he’s able to relay it to you. Listening to his music and reading his lyrics and shit, you study it, and I guess you sort of pick up on the little things that he does.
Time to chill out, few bowls and cereal / Mary Jane never fail when i need remedial / When your main thing here know its venereal / Come on her tongue then she snap you the visual /She like mine, said yours worse than Pinnacle / Bitch turn a trick my dick go invisible / She be addicted I’m in her subliminal / Pussy so soapy its anti-bacterialKim Jong Skillz, “808s Bumpin'”
Do you think you faced any hardships when creating your music or just any hardships in general regarding this journey?
Everyone has ups and downs. I would have to say the biggest one is probably my mental health — trying to maintain that is like maintaining your physical health, like eating right, going to the gym. Mental health — you gotta think positive, maintain social relationships, go to therapy. It’s work. It’s a different kind of work and it’s not always easy. Trying to get yourself out of bed might be harder than pumping a few sets at the gym. It’s kind of hard, because you can’t see it, you can’t tangibly feel it a lot of the time. I would say that’s a big theme within my music as well. In some songs, I talk about how drug use exacerbates mental health issues. You definitely shouldn’t do drugs if you got mental health issues, but some drugs help, some really do help. Because at the end of the day, you’re most likely to be taking drugs, whether it’s prescribed or not. I personally don’t like the pill medications, I’ve tried it. And once you don’t have it for a week, it kind of sucks. I feel like having that crutch, like, there’s too many opportunities where the crutch can break, and then you’re just shit out of luck and you can’t get to your doctor, like, you know, some meds don’t work. And you just kind of tweak out for a week. It’s an ongoing battle. I would say that’s probably the most significant hardship and I feel like everyone can relate to that. The world sucks and unfortunately we’re all still here. But you know, we’re here. So might as well do what we can.
How do you feel about being an Asian-American taking on this rap art form?
I would say there’s not really a difficulty. Hip-hop is an art form at its core. And art is not restricted to anyone. Painting is not restricted to just white people, or pottery making isn’t restricted to just Asian people. It’s the same thing. Singing is not restricted to one race, acting — it’s all the same thing. Hip hop was an outlet for Black people. It wasn’t a commercial product at all in the beginning. Only when white people from downtown started catching wind is when they began having shows and other commercial shit. Hip-hop is the same for me, just an outlet that I gravitate towards and enjoy. But like, it is a real fact that the market or industry is dominated by other people. And I would have to just say, talent is really what it boils down to, because I don’t know what the difference is between all the artists — which is really skill. You look at some of these Black artists, and they’re at the top because they have the skills, they’ve honed the skills and they found a way to make the big bucks. At the end of the day, it’s really whether you’re good enough to find the recipe and just cook it up. I haven’t encountered anything of the sort. Everyone I’ve talked to and worked with so far is all about the music, man. That’s really all it is. And I think the fact that I can bring random people together. Some of the people I work with, they’re definitely not in New York. Like one guy was in California. [Another] guy, I don’t even know where he lives, but he did a decent job, and he was willing to work with me. So I think it’s great that it brings everyone together.
Would you consider performing in front of a small crowd after COVID is over?
100%, because that is the way that you grow your fan base. If you want people to listen to your music, you have to be able to show it to people. And unfortunately, just showing it to the people that you know isn’t enough, because there’s so many people in this world. And there are definitely people that are like your friends, and the people that care about you and care enough to listen to music. There’s got to be millions of other people that are out there potentially, and performing shows, playing your music is, I mean, why wouldn’t you want to do that? If you’re gonna make [it], you definitely want to show it to people and share with people, even if they hate it and they think it’s trash. At least you know you had the courage to go out there and be trash in front of people. And next time, you take something away that you won’t be trash, it’s always a learning opportunity. There’s always gonna be haters.
So what are you up to now?
Right now I am looking for a job. Just like every other college graduate, I’m looking to start my career in the professional world. I have a marketing degree, but I would really like to get into the business side of the [music] industry — artists and repertoire (A&R) work and art work. And just coordinating with them, working with them, helping to grow their business. And that just sounds like the kind of work that I want to do, like the world that I want to be involved in. So, I would say that my main goals right now, like [the] very near future, is just [to] build that professional foundation, get my feet wet, learn how to do some shit and hopefully transition my way into that industry. I guess just have a good time with what we got, and just keep making music where I can find it.
Summers on main, nights down below / Mornings of rain, squeakin’ on the floor / I get there a lil early, I open up the door / There she is waitin’, I’m fallin’ forward, whoa / It’s heating up outside / The ladies wearing less / They stretch out in a line / But you done caught my breath / We started out as friends / It wasn’t meant to be / I can’t stand you nonetheless / Repel with tree and rosary / Set up a rendezvous / Dinner, a date for two / Kinda fancy, on the low east / Chin up when i’m kissin’ youKim Jong Skillz, “Ur Annoying”
Where did you grow up and can you describe your childhood?
My family are immigrants from South Korea. My mother came here when she was 18. [She] and my aunt both came here for school, because my grandfather just wanted them to have a better chance. America was the place where you had a better chance. I was born and raised in New York. I lived in New Jersey from when I was maybe like 4 to 8. And I remember I hated moving around so much, because we went from Staten Island to New Jersey, and back to Queens. That’s not too many, but three times is still a lot for a kid. I guess as a kid, I acted out a lot just because of the different circumstances that were happening in my life. I was definitely a big troublemaker.
I was just another Asian kid growing up in Queens, playing sports, growing up, hanging out at the park, eating good food in Flushing and shit.Growing up in New York City, it teaches you a lot of lessons. New York is probably one of the greatest places to grow up because you get a taste of everything. Everyone is there from everywhere, and it’s just the greatest city man.
Do you feel like the Internet has impacted the way music is shared in the way that people get discovered from the internet? Especially in this digital age and social media, and with COVID and no live performances?
The internet is an incredible resource just because you can learn to do pretty much anything, and making music is one of those things — learning how to use a digital audio workstation, those are programs like FL Studio or Logic Pro — and how to write songs, how to improve your songwriting, how to improve your lyrics, finding instrumentals on YouTube that original creators are putting out everyday. It’s crazy because I would say with social media and sharing, that 100% helps and the support means everything. But unfortunately, I think the digital part is just not enough. Like I said before, you have to perform — and unfortunately, that is the easiest way to gain a following.
You never know who you’re gonna appeal to out of the crowd at the event that you’re playing at. We’re adapting like everyone else. There’s ways to share music and perform online. There’s Twitch stream concerts. I actually performed at one Twitch stream concert a few months ago. It was called the Joy Ruckus Club. It was a concert put together by Asians — I think it was an Asian American talent agency, and they collected a bunch of different Asian artists, you know, from all over the world. I think it was a really good learning experience because it gave me the confidence to put myself out there to more than just my personal network.
If you want to see more of Kim Jong Skillz, his upcoming single “Tunnel Vision” will be released on Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud and essentially all streaming platforms. He posts updates regularly on his Instagram and Spotify @kimjongskillz985 so follow him to stay updated on his new work.