Be Strikingly Different

A Conversation with Longtime Global Hitmakers Play-N-Skillz: Innovators Behind Latin Music

In Houston, Texas, close to two decades ago, DJ Play and DJ Skillz were the monikers for what these two talented brothers used to go by. Today, they go simply by Play-N-Skillz, if you’re familiar with the producer world, they are global hit makers. Not only fantastic DJs behind the decks, they also produce, write and now are artist-facing talent. They’ve dabbled with Hip-Hop, EDM, Pop, Latin and many more genres at will and with finesse while also pioneering new sounds. Their most recent single Billetes featuring Nicky Jam and Nataneal Cano is a fusion between Corridos, Trap and a touch of Hip-Hop giving the track a very fresh feel in the current era of music.

Photography by Ana Gabriela

After cementing their status in the 2009 Grammy Awards, they’ve been unstoppable since. Creating hit after hit while also navigating different music trends like the current digital streaming era. Gaining inspiration from colleagues, peers, they remain true to themselves not just as beat makers but as producers.

They have proven their talent; their worth and their ability to rebranded themselves various times now. They have transcended timelines and audiences with each year. Believers in synergy in life and especially the creative process, everything they have come across has been a blessing meant to be. As the two brothers, they are even embodied in their new logo: a two headed snake representing them as same body but two different heads needing to reach cohesion to move forward. They certainly have done so as they end 2020 with a bang and planted the seeds for another successful streak in 2021.

Thank you for making some time today. It was actually a special one. I was excited about this and a lot just because, you know, you guys have done so much good work in the past with every artist in the book pretty much and I wanted to get to know you guys a little bit more. I want to start off with asking how did you get started with music? We started off as deejays, DJ Play, DJ Skillz. We dropped the deejay moniker once we started producing and we began Play-N-Skillz. Early 2000s, we got our first big break for a guy with a name Lil Flip; Texas hip-hop legend, rapper around 2003 I believe; 2004. The first platinum record that we produced in the entirety. And that kind of broke everything loose. That was when like, you know, The Source Magazine was like viral. It was like the only publication that really looks like the hip hop thing and it featured two Latinos as the next big producer of the group out of there and that kind of like got the buzz going and the hip hop people read about this and found us.

And we just started that started our producer thing, man, and we went on to produce Chamillionaire’s “Riding Dirty” which won our first Grammy, was our first Billboard Hot 100 single that took us to the Lil Wayne The Carter 3 which was another number one, and, you know, a classic album, arguably one of the greatest of all time. And then, you know, then from there we started experimenting with, like the EDM stuff and started working with David Guetta and Afrojack and LMFAO and the whole EDM craze. And then it brought us to where we’re at now, which is like the Latin global sound that we were fine tuning and starting off with Daddy Yankee in 2016. And yeah, we’re here, man. We’ve just been living in and out of every genre you could think of and trend and just, you know… What would be your favorite deejay that plays all your favorite tunes at your favorite party, from reggae to hip hop to house to old school; that’s kind of cool playing because that became in a produce world.

That’s really awesome, man. With Latin music growing do you feel you are as well? Yeah, it’s a breath of fresh air for us. It’s a rebrand. I mean, it’s crazy because some of our fans, you know, that were younger, have kind of grown up with us. And I just connected with the new sound that we have. And then the new fans know nothing of the hip hop classics and everything we were involved in. It’s always an educational thing when it comes to that, but it’s a blessing to be able to to go multiple decades of working and and to survive all the trends. And man, I went from literally press on vinyl and selling mixtapes, CDs to, you know, the streaming world thing where everything is a wave now, you know, so we’ve survived it all.

What’s your background? Yeah, my mother’s Venezuelan. My father’s Argentinean. I was born in Dallas, Texas.

I was curious. I heard your accent and was trying to pinpoint where you’re from. It’s so broken. It depends who I’m talking to, but being from Mexico.

I understand. I’m from New York. I learned Spanish first, but the English is normal to speak. So it’s kind of like we get that Spanglish, the accent depends on who we’re around. You know, what we’re talking about, this sort of thing.  I want to ask, what is your defining moment in the career, going back to your start that had you saying “OK, I’m where I need to be.” Oh, man. Oh, probably in our early 20s and we didn’t understand the business. We didn’t even understand the amount of success that we were having. Yeah, so I think the defining moment for us was probably like the two thousand nine Grammy Awards we attended. It was our second go around and we were much more mature and much more seasoned. And we had arrived in the game to where people know who we were and everybody kind of realized we weren’t going to be just a one hit wonder type of thing and and not be around. So, yeah, I think the second Grammy Awards, 2009 The Carter 3 was like that big moment.

Where where would you say you get your inspiration from for the both of you? Other producers, man. I think, like, you know, I’m always inspired by, like, you know, I came up on the Scott Storch and Timbaland’s and DJ Premier hip hop stuff. And now I’m inspired by, you know, my colleagues man. The Tainy’s of the world and and Steve Aoki’s and even the Metro Boomin hip hop stuff. I’m always looking for inspiration from from the producers man, because I feel like the producers are the most important element. And music know like nothing can come to life without a really great producer.

I agree with that 100 percent. I’m trying to remember who I had this conversation with. And it might have been with Tainy and I was saying, you know, I have a big respect for the production and I like how The Grammys started putting all the credits of one song because people just see the artists and maybe they’ll recognize one songwriter, but I just see the artist and they just think they set down and penned it, but it’s the mixing, the mastering, production. And it’s just such a big team behind it. So that’s awesome. Walk us through your next single with Nicky Jam and Natanael Cano. How did that come about? Where were you guys creatively to come up with that? Yeah. The single is called Billetes with Nicky Jam and Natanael Cano. It was an experiment of blending genres together, the corridos and the trap of really being a regional Mexican type of sound that has now turned into a modern style of hip hop mixed with the corridos. We’ve not done the real thing. They had a really big movement that’s happening all through Mexico and now in the states catching fire. So, you know, we wanted that young, innovative pushing the envelope sound and that we wanted a legend to jump on the record to like, give it that just our ultimate stamp.

And that’s how it kind of came together. And the song is basically about coming from the bottom and making it to the top, you know, and the hook is like “tiramo’ en el aire los bilettes,” and it’s like everybody thinks it’s like I’m in a strip club in Miami, like, I’m like I might be but I mean, this particular song was like more like of a come up; I’ve made it. You know what I’m saying. Like I said before, it’s like the person that bought their first car, their first house, the person that graduated college, the first kid to to graduate. It could be a moment in your life, and that’s what the song is about. If people listen to the lyrics, they’ll be inspired. So I’m really, really proud of that and proud that we bridged different genres together. And we brought a legend with the next up and coming superstar together on the song.

With Cano, I like the unique lane he is setting for himself. So that was really dope that you guys put those two together. At this point in your career, you guys are in a position where people come to you for collaborations or is it the other way around where you guys are like “I want this question on my track.” It’s a combination of both. You know what I’m saying? Honestly, like I mean, I’m still aggressive about me going after certain artists to work with if it could be something experimental for the world. Not all artists are open to trying things, but I think that we’ve established ourselves now to a point where, you know, they trust us, they trust our ears, not just with the awards and the award winning songs and its success, but also the genre breaking collaborations that we’re able to put artists in rooms together. So, I mean, like this week alone, like here in Miami, I was here working on a song with Carlos Vives, which was like what we came to Miami to do organically. And then I went to play a basketball game with Nicky Jam and I ran into El Alfa and he was like “Yo, can I pull up?” He came to the studio and we started vibing. So yeah, I mean, sometimes we’re trying to look for the collaboration. Sometimes it comes comes to us.

I think it’s the energy that you put out there that, like, we’ll create that and then boom magic happens.

Yes, sir.

What are some future collaborations that you could talk about coming up? I know you just mentioned some but walk us through 2021. I’m sure there’s some great stuff you already have cooking up. What can we expect?

2021; new album in the works for end of March, early April. God willing. We have the Billetes single that just came out. We have a collaboration with Guaynaa and Alfa that’s like a crazy super crazy deejay record that’s going to just like be on every dance floor once the nightclubs and everything get back open. I think people are going to be excited about that. And then for summertime that we’re opening it up.

We have a song with Chiguis Rivera and Luis Coronel, it’s a cumbia Latin electronic vibe, it’s like fresh and new and then the summertime and we’re coming with a big one with Carlos Vives the icon on some Play-N-Skillz vibes. So, I mean, you know, it’s going to heat up. And you sound like the world’s going to open back up and allow us to enjoy music on a whole different taste. I think everybody’s been in their headphones, laptops, and not able to really enjoy the music how how people are meant to. So I can’t wait for everything to open back up and be able to deejay in front of people and perform and do all these new songs.

It sounds like you got a great lineup. You got a great roster. I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure everybody is too. I’m going to end this with the last question that we always ask everybody. The definition of Contrast is ‘to be strikingly different.’ What makes you strikingly different?

Well we are both strikingly different. First off, obviously, he’s not even here. You know, he’s like an introverted music, just like all about the music. Guy lives in the studio, always getting new sounds and plug ins and then I’m kind of like the mouthpiece in the group and on the side of the producing. What people don’t understand is like what makes us unique and different is we are actually producers, not just beat makers, like somebody can make a beat and they get emailed to somebody. There’s no emotion, there’s no communication, there’s no synergy in that. And I think the difference.. the Contrast that’s special about Play-N-Skillz is that we actually come into the room and produce records with the artists. We sit down, we converse, we write together. We drop melodies, we co-write. And that’s been the key to our success, our whole career.

I don’t mean to sound like a hippie but you sound like you’re very aware. You’re very in tune with the energies in the room.

Yeah man, that two headed snake logo behind me, that was bridged together is actually a real thing like those two headed snakes in the world. But that’s like us. That’s our new logo and everything else. And that’s exactly our point. It’s like we’re the same body, two different minds, that’s trying to go different places. But we have to kind of get it together to get to where we’re trying to get to it and that’s what’s really cool about it.

Listen to Billetes below!

Latin Music Editor at Contrast Magazine.