“I Saw a Vision to Make it Into a Hit Song”: The Making of Skee-Lo’s “I Wish”
From Project Blowed freestyle to Billboard-charting single, we piece together the origin story behind one of rap music’s most enduring singles.
Though the majority of music fans first discovered rapper and producer Skee-Lo in 1995, the origins of his hit single “I Wish” date back to the early 1980s — over a decade before the song’s release. A young child at the time, his relocation from Chicago to Poughkeepsie, NY exposed him to an emerging cultural force that would later change his life. “When I went to New York hip-hop was alive, but it was only in New York,” he told HipHopDX in a 2013 interview. “It was the first time I seen this and it was like ‘Oh my God, this is the most exciting thing ever.’”
By the time he moved to L.A. in 1985, Skee-Lo was already a solid MC at a mere 10 years old. It took him a few years to break into the vibrant west coast hip-hop scene that was experiencing exponential growth at the time, but he eventually found a group of like-minded peers at the Good Life Cafe in the early 90s. The venue — which birthed the legendary Project Blowed open mic event and helped establish groundbreaking groups like Freestyle Fellowship, Souls of Mischief, and The Pharcyde — gave Skee-Lo a place to showcase his work and a slew of talented rappers to study and learn from.
Though Skee-Lo had aspirations of rapping when he first started attending events at The Good Life, it was actually his handiwork as a producer that helped him get his foot in the door. “I would give all the O.G. emcees free production to rap to every Thursday,” he told HipHopDX. “They would be on the mic and they would be like, ‘Yo, Skee-Lo did my beats.’ You had like 10 emcees that night saying that.”
“I wanted to do anything but school. So I started listing wishes and wrote the whole record without music.”
After letting everyone else rap over his beats, Skee-Lo used the shout-outs from other MCs at Project Blowed events as a way to pilot his own material. First building his confidence with frequent live performances, it was Freestyle Fellowship member Mykah 9 who helped Skee-Lo transform his rapping from raw and unpolished to near album-ready. “Myka 9, he invented the Skee-Lo flow structure,” he told HipHopDX. “I got to give credit where credit is due. This is like my mentor. You listen to Pharcyde, Souls Of Mischief and Ahmad, you might hear similarities to Skee-Lo.”
In addition to developing his trademark flow at The Good Life, Skee-Lo’s debut album I Wish took shape during his performances at the venue — with many of the songs starting as freestyles. “If you want to know what I did at The Good Life all you have to do is buy the I Wish album,” he told HipHopDX. “Every song on that album was songs that I recorded for the next Thursday to perform for the underground club, including ‘I Wish.’”
Freestyles played a critical in the creation of I Wish, but Skee-Lo’s pen game was also an important part of the process. Though we often think of rappers sitting in the studio and writing out their lyrics while beats play in the background, Skee-Lo said in a 2012 LA Weekly interview that he penned the verses and hook for his mid-90s anthem before he put together the breezy, summer-friendly instrumental. An uninspired student at El Camino College at the time, he credited his disinterest in school for helping him come up with the concept for his hit single. “I wanted to do anything but school. So I started listing wishes and wrote the whole record without music,” he told LA Weekly.
“I would give all the O.G. emcees free production to rap to every Thursday. They would be on the mic and they would be like, ‘Yo, Skee-Lo did my beats.’”
Two days after committing his wish list to a piece of paper, Skee-Lo was in the middle of some spring cleaning while Bernard Wright’s ‘Nard record played in the background. An underappreciated and influential artist, songwriter, and studio musician, Wright crafted a variety of sample-friendly tunes over the years that were later utilized by LL Cool J, Snoop, 2Pac, and also played a crucial role in the making of Doug E. Fresh’s sophomore album World’s Greatest Entertainer. When the needle on the record passed over “Spinnin’” — track four on the A side of ‘Nard — a certain segment of the song made Skee-Lo stop in his tracks. “I heard a beautiful horn section that made me feel like I was at a casino, on a beach or a boat,” he told LA Weekly.
With the beach/boat/casino vibes in full swing, Skee-Lo started to visualize what he could turn the snippet of music into if he loaded it into his sampler. Without wasting another moment, he went to work. “I saw a vision to make it into a hit song,” he told RESPECT. magazine in a 2018 interview. “I stopped everything without hesitation, turned on my Akai MPC60 and began producing.” Interestingly, in contradiction to his 2012 LA Weekly interview, he goes on to say that the lyrics for “I Wish” didn’t happen until weeks later.
Whether it was the beat or the lyrics that came first, another seminal moment in the creation of “I Wish” took place once Skee-Lo was ready to pilot it in front of The Good Life audience. “It was so big the first night we did it that two Thursdays later we came back with it and it killed it that night too,” he told HipHopDX. “It originally started a freestyle, I had the music and the freestyle was as you hear.”
“I refused to shoot any more videos, promote or record music. I’m not their slave. I wasn’t working for free.”
Though the idea of him freestyling the song seems at odds with the LA Weekly interview, the LA Weekly article indicates that he came up with the hook for “I Wish” after a successful freestyle. It would be interesting to interview Skee-Lo to drill down exactly which parts were freestyled vs. pre-written, as it’s certainly possible that both techniques could have been employed to construct the final product of “I Wish” that we’re familiar with today.
Not long after “I Wish” dropped it became a serious breakthrough hit for a debut rapper who was largely unknown outside of Los Angeles. Peaking at #13 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the hilarious music video features Skee-Lo playing the role of Forrest Gump in the beginning, getting chumped in pickup basketball, and driving around in a beat-up car. The combination of widespread radio play and a high-demand video helped propel the song to another level of popularity.
But the good times surrounding the song were short-lived. “I Wish” may have lead to an acting gig in the Dangerous Minds TV series, hosting roles with MTV in New York City and at the MTV Beach House, and endless spins on radio stations across the country, but all of these successes couldn’t conceal the fact that something was rotten with Skee-Lo’s label finances. After receiving a sizable advance from Sunshine Records — $150,000 according to the LA Weekly story —the label took control of his publishing and any money made from the song. Adding insult to injury, they also tried to take Skee-Lo’s production credit away for the hit he had composed in his bedroom. The insulting behavior from his label and ensuing financial stress was enough for him to call it quits on the music industry five months after “I Wish” came out. “I refused to shoot any more videos, promote or record music,” he told LA Weekly. “I’m not their slave. I wasn’t working for free.”
“I heard a beautiful horn section that made me feel like I was at a casino, on a beach or a boat.”
It took five years of bitter legal battles, but Skee-Lo eventually wrestled back full control of his publishing. That means when his work is purchased or streamed, he receives all of the profits. Though it was likely extremely difficult and stressful to navigate at the time, Skee-Lo’s ordeal taught him a valuable lesson that he’s eager to share with artists today. “All rappers, they need to know to keep your publishing, keep your writing, own your material,” he told Sway’s Universe in a 2013 interview. “This is how you get the work, this is how you retire.”
This mantra has proven to be critical to Skee-Lo’s longevity as an artist on many occasions, as “I Wish” has been licensed for a wide variety of commercials, an ESPN remake, and several TV shows. When a major car company reached out about featuring the song in a 2013 Super Bowl commercial, it proved to be especially lucrative. “I licensed the song to Toyota who wanted to use it for their RAV4 commercials,” Skee-Lo told Sway. “We’re running the commercial all year. Brought up the record sales even more on I Wish, which has always been selling over the years.” When Sway weighed in to ask, “Now, a commercial of that magnitude can be worth millions of dollars, correct?”, Skee-Lo replied, “That is correct.”
“I Wish” may always be Skee-Lo’s main calling card, but he doesn’t want people to forget that the I Wish album was a major success in its own right. It’s a project he still feels a tremendous sense of pride about today, and rightfully so. “My first album, which I produced myself in my bedroom, no label was with me. I did that, just me and god,” he told Sway. “When I finished that album, we got Best Rap Album nomination for 1995. So that means the whole ten songs, the whole album is Grammy-nominated. That’s 10 hits. And the people I was competing with was 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It’s really a big project.”
And even if “I Wish” is the one moment from Skee-Lo’s career that most people truly remember, that’s OK. Though many people think of the song as a simple feel-good, summertime BBQ essential, it actually has a much deeper meaning for the man who wrote it. “The song means a lot to me yo,” Skee-Lo told Sway. “I wrote ‘I Wish’ because, at a time in my life when I felt most down, it was something that made me happy.”