On a weekday afternoon in Atlanta, Fish Scales and Skinny Deville from the hip hop group Nappy Roots are drinking their way through a case of beers from Birmingham, Alabama’s Cahaba Brewing. “I’ve just finished up an Irish stout and it was really great,” says Fish Scales. If you’re familiar with Nappy Roots, by virtue of their Grammy-nominated early-2000s hits like “Po’ Folks,” you might not peg the crew as craft beer fanatics. But since getting into the home-brewing scene a few years ago, they’ve opened their own Atlantucky home-brewery and are scheduled to headline the upcoming Fresh Fest, the country's first Black craft beer festival.
“The great thing about craft beer is we haven’t even hit the potential of what it can be,” Fish Scales says. “Craft beer has a certain independence—it’s not trying to do what everyone else is trying to do. I think hip hop will appreciate that.”
Taking a break from their Cahaba stash, I spoke to Fish Scales and Skinny DeVille about the growing number of rapper-endorsed beers, the greatest live shows they’ve ever seen, and whether Afroman’s malt liquor is technically a craft beer.
How did you get into craft beer?
Fish Scales: I got into craft beer around 2008. Long story short, there was a store beneath the place where I lived that started selling craft beer and I bought a Session—they still make the beer—‘cause it was a down time and it was only $1.50. The owner told me, if I wanted anything else, let him know and he’ll order it for me. Immediately I was like, ‘Oh, there’s more beer I can get?’ I didn’t know it was a thing to ask for beers other than the regular Bud and Bud Lite. It’s been a good journey trying different beers over the last ten years.
Skinny DeVille: I remember when Scales would stay at that apartment and we’d also get growlers and started getting into a higher level of beer. Back when we were in college, I was drinking Michelobs. When I was making 40Akerz Project, I was drinking Red Stripe. So my first real fond appreciation of craft beer was about four years ago, when I had a Monday Night Brewing Eye Patch Ale. They throw Serrano peppers in it and it opened my eyes to craft beers that were out there beyond the big four breweries.
How did your interest in drinking beer turn into brewing your own?
Fish Scales: It came from Monday Night [in Atlanta]. By then we were visiting breweries before shows and after soundchecks and people would explain the process to us. Then the lightbulb moment hit—there’s four simple ingredients in beer—it hit me one day that we can do this, I think we can figure this out. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as we thought it was—but that got us into learning more and reading and studying.
The first beer we tried tasted like mop water.”
What was your first attempt at brewing a beer like?
Skinny DeVille: We learned that we don’t know everything we thought we did! The first beer we tried tasted like mop water. It’s like you just washed the dishes, that water sat there, and you try to carbonate it—and it wasn’t even carbonated right! It tasted like shit, it wasn’t beer, and we looked at each other and knew it.
How did you go about fixing it?
Skinny DeVille: In the process of that, Scales introduced me to William Teasley of Khonso Brewing and he brought his home brewing equipment over. As artists, we’ve spent a lot of money frivolously on strip clubs and chains and rims and cars—there’s a lot of disposable income in the music industry—and I looked at his equipment and was like, ‘We can get this ourselves.’ Then we went to Hop City—a brewery that also sells equipment and you can talk to the people and learn—and we just listened and then took this disposable rap income and got some good stuff and started back from zero. We walked our way through it again. From failure, we learned to make beer.
What was the first beer you made that you were happy with?
Fish Scales: I think the first beer we attempted was a brown ale. The second one, a pumpkin porter, was pretty much just as bad. But by the third one, a west coast IPA, we finally got it right—at least for us.
You’ve started calling your tours Great American Beer Runs. What’s the idea behind them?
Skinny DeVille: We’ve always tried to hit a brewery when we hit a city. There’s over 4,000 breweries across America and there’s all types of people to meet, so when you’re doing 75 to 100 shows a year—100 shows a year is our goal—then between soundcheck and showtime we have hours to kill, so what better way to meet the local community than go and have a beer? We always try to get some people from the brewery to come over: You hang out, talk to them, find out what they do to make their brewery different. It’s meeting people and drinking.
What are some of your dos and don’ts for live hip hop shows?
Skinny DeVille: Be on time, for one. I’d say don’t rap over the track—don’t have your song playing under your vocals, because you’re having to match your energy to how you did it in the studio multiple times. When you get on stage, the energy from the crowd is different, and you don’t want to be confined to riding on the train tracks. Imaging instead being in an off-road vehicle—you’re still kinda traveling in the same direction, but you can do jumps and tricks and go through the water. But on the train tracks, you’re just on the train. Don’t constrain yourself like that.
Who’s the greatest live performer you’ve seen?
Fish Scales: The first one comes to mind is Busta Rhymes. Back in the day, we used to open up for him a few shows and he’d flat-out kill it—him and Spliff Star. That inspired us.
Skinny DeVille: I remember doing a few shows with Outkast—that was pretty breathtaking. But before we did those shows, we were on tour with Jay-Z, so those shows I was out there front and center. We did a couple of shows with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony recently and got to see how they operate. These are moments you can’t get unless you’re able to do what we do.
How does operating independently compare to your days signed to a major label? Is it more fulfilling?
Skinny DeVille: I like it. You get to wake up and make your choices. For this interview, you hit us up directly, and it’s like we want to do it. Part of being indie is showing up and you have better control. Of course, with a major label putting umpteen amount of dollars into your project and making it go, you think your shit don’t stink and you did it all, when there’s really all these people behind you on different floors of the label that didn’t know your name. You’re just a SKU on a sheet. When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s in jeopardy, they’re thinking about themselves and how they can keep their meals on the table, so when it’s bad, it’s bad.
On a label, you might also take care of someone else’s debt. When we were on Atlantic, when it was good, we probably kept the lights running for the 20 artists that were unsuccessful. When we were getting started, it was Trina, Trick Daddy, Fat Joe, Lil Kim and Brandy that maybe gave us our working budget to get touring for nine months before the single pops off. We chose to go indie when the music industry was falling in on itself. We got to choose to still have a life. Think about all the artists that came out when we came out—artists that you do not want to talk to or you’re not interested in or don’t even remember. That’s not easy for an artist who came out in the early 2000s to pull off in 2019, so I’m blessed we went indie.
We’re starting to see more hip hop artists getting into the craft beer scene. Have you tried any of the other beers that rappers have been involved with?
Fish Scales: Not as many as I’d like.
Skinny DeVille: We’ve had Petey Pablo’s pale ale [brewed with Neuse River Brewing].
Fish Scales: It was good. I’d like to try Tech N9ne’s beer, and Bun B’s [Brew GK, a candy apple kolsch with 8th Wonder Brewery]. I’d also like to know how much they were involved in the process, ‘cause we’re highly involved in our process. We have to be there when the beer is made. So I’d like to know about how much they know about the beer, do they know what went into it?
Skinny DeVille: You had Stay Gold from Run The Jewels.
Fish Scales: I found out they didn’t have too much to do with the process of making it or the ingredients, but the beer was made with Creature Comforts, which is probably one of the fastest growing breweries in Georgia.
Skinny DeVille: Afroman also has a malt liquor I do believe.
Fish Scales: I’ve had Afroman’s malt liquor. You’ve got to weight it up on a different scale.
Skinny DeVille: Would it be considered a craft beer?
Fish Scales: I guess if craft is defined by numbers, by the size of the barrel you make, I guess it would be.