One of the most important songs of the SoundCloud rap era was recorded next to two bunk beds at a porn star’s house in Florida.
It was early 2016, and Ski Mask the Slump God’s rap career hadn’t taken off yet. He had bigger things to worry about than music, though. He didn’t even have a place to live.
“My life was crazy back then,” Ski Mask remembers. “Me and Jahseh [XXXTentacion] were trying to figure out our lives and where we were going to live. We were on the streets, basically, and we had to figure something out. So we found somebody named Bruno and lived with him in Miami.”
The Bruno he’s referring to is Bruno Dickemz, a porn star who temporarily managed Ski Mask and XXXTentacion in 2016.
“Bruno does porn,” says producer Ronny J, who was close with Ski Mask and X during their come-up. “He had the girls and the house for us to come over and make music. The house had a stripper pole in there and all these creepy ass paintings. It had really crazy energy.”
Shortly after moving into Bruno’s house, Ski Mask and X invited Ronny J over to make music. As the producer was working on a beat, X jumped in before he could finish and offered some input.
“I started the beat and X was just like, ‘Yo bro, don’t put a melody in this beat. Just make it bass and a clap,’” Ronny J recalls. “I was like, ‘OK. Are you sure?’ That was way before I even knew about making beats without a melody. So I will give X that credit, bro. I only made the beat like that because that’s how he wanted it, and I believed in it.”
The beat was as explosive as it was minimal. It turns out you don’t need a bunch of bells and whistles when you have the hardest-hitting bass possible.
“I placed my laptop on top of this big speaker and the bass was hitting so hard that my laptop fell over,” Ronny J laughs. “That was a moment for us, bro. We were just like, “Wow, what the fuck? This shit’s hitting hard.”
Immediately after hearing it, Ski Mask knew he wanted to record over the beat. The song would ultimately become a SoundCloud rap classic: “Take a Step Back.”
“Back then, we were always using beats that were just absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “I love it, though. That beat in particular was only bass. Imagine a song that has no set up, just boom, boom, boom. The bass is basically the whole beat, but it works so well.”
“I didn’t know anything about mixing or anything so I just had the bass hitting hard. That’s all I knew. I thought that was the way to do it.” – Ronny J
Before the SoundCloud rap era became famous for its blown-out, distorted sound, songs like “Take a Step Back” helped provide a blueprint for a whole scene. Ronny J says it wasn’t a calculated decision, though. “I didn’t know anything about mixing or anything so I just had the bass hitting hard,” he points out. “That’s all I knew. I thought that was the way to do it.”
That no-frills, DIY approach was applied to the recording of X and Ski Mask’s vocals, too.
“There were two bunk beds in the bedroom, and the mic was in between them,” Ski Mask recalls. “We recorded it with iPhone headphones, so that’s probably why it had a lot of distortion. But we used it to our advantage.”
Recording “Take a Step Back” was all about channeling the wild energy surrounding X and Ski Mask at the time.
“We liked to rap about the crazy shit that we were doing,” Ski Mask says. “We were living such a wild lifestyle, and I think that song explains Jahseh’s energy at that time. How lit he was for that song is how lit his everyday life was for him. He was that active.”
“Everything was super fucking raw, bro,” Ronny J adds. “There were fucking guns around, fucking dagger knives everywhere, swords and shit. It was crazy. He probably didn’t even take a shower that day. It was real raw ass fucking South Florida shit, bro.”
“He was just literally yelling, no socks, no shoes, barefoot, with iPhone headphones dangling from his ears.” – Ski Mask the Slump God
All of that raw, uncontrollable energy came spilling out in the now-iconic hook: “Fucked up! Fucked up! Fucked up!”
“That was an in-the-moment type of thing,” Ski Mask says. “He was just literally yelling, no socks, no shoes, barefoot, with iPhone headphones dangling from his ears, going, ‘Fucked up! Yeah, baby. Yeah!’ We were all like, ‘What the fuck is happening right now?’ But when we actually listened to it, it was so good. It was just a big ‘what the fuck’ moment. You can imagine X yelling at the top of his lungs inside a bedroom in a house—it wasn’t even a studio. People were asking us if we were OK and shit. Like, ‘Y’all OK in there?’ [Laughs.]”
Ronny J says the real magic of the song comes from the chemistry that existed between Ski Mask and X at the time.
“I’ve never been in a room with anyone that has energy that could match what X has brought to the table—and Ski, too,” he says. “They both complement each other so well. Energy doesn’t lie. No one had ever heard anything like that before, bro. It’s rock and rap. I don’t even know how to fucking explain it. People were like, ‘What the fuck are they doing?’ This was not allowed, but we were still doing it and the world loved it.”
He makes an important point. X and Ski both rap all over “Take a Step Back,” but at its core, it’s rooted in a punk rock ethos.
“This was at the time when rap started becoming more and more like punk rock,” says Tariq Cherif, co-founder and CEO of Rolling Loud, who later became Ski Mask’s manager. “Our shows were full of mosh pits. That song was just made for these young kids that are into rap music, but also into the alternative sound.”
“People started playing it at parties everywhere, breaking houses and sh*t.” – Ski Mask the Slump God
DJ Scheme agrees. With years of experience as the tour DJ for artists like X, Ski Mask, Craig Xen, and Juice WRLD, he’s seen firsthand how a song like “Take a Step Back” lights up crowds whenever it’s played at shows. “It was just so perfect in that era of SoundCloud rap, and it’s the perfect mix between everything that is heavy metal and rock,” he says. “And at the same time, it’s like rap shit.’”
As Cherif explains, the unpolished finish on the song was key to its success. “The way they mixed the vocals was just so raw,” he says. “It was so real. It wasn’t made by a cookie cutter recording studio with a perfect engineer. It was very much lo-fi, with high energy. And then Ski comes in with his crazy verse on a more subdued tone, which helps the song breathe.”
Following the unrestrained energy of X’s vocals, Ski Mask made it a point to balance the song out with his signature referential wordplay. So he packed his verse with off-the-wall rhymes, spitting one-liners like, “Egg yolk color diamonds, humpty dumpty horror story/Feel like Dexter, got double-D’s in my laboratory.” Looking back, he says, “I wanted to bring more of a rappy-rap style to it, and Jah did more of a yell style to it. There’s a lot of cartoon references in there.”
When X, Ski Mask, and Ronny J finished the song, they had no idea how important it would become.
“At that time, we didn’t think that we were shit,” Ski Mask says. “We were just making music that we really liked. We weren’t shit. We just followed ourselves, really. You’ve got to look at what music was at that time. It wasn’t nothing like that. We were wondering what the fuck people were going to think about this at first.”
Before uploading the song to SoundCloud on May 16, 2016 (five years ago today) as a part of Ski Mask’s Drown In Designer mixtape, there was only one thing left to do: name it.
“Me and Jah wanted to call it ‘Fucked Up’ at first, but we felt like that was way too basic,” Ski Mask reveals. “When we hear the song, what do we think of? And ‘Take a Step Back’ is what we thought of. Like, you’ve got to take a step back, because this shit’s about to go crazy.”
He was right. The song made an immediate impact in the underground, earning a reputation for turning parties upside down whenever it came on.
“People started playing it at parties everywhere, breaking houses and shit,” Ski Mask says. “We were like, ‘Bro, what the fuck is happening?’ And then it just went from there. It just started surging.”
“Take a Step Back” is a song that needs to be experienced live, but Ski Mask and X hadn’t played any shows yet. At the time, neither of them had the kind of fanbase that would pack out a big venue, but Ski Mask figured out a way to book their first show on his own.
“There was an online thing with websites that you could try to sign yourself up for a show,” he says. “So I signed us up for that shit. Me and Jah. We weren’t known at all at this time, but I signed us both up for it, and we showed up with some of our friends.” With a laugh, he admits, “And that shit was kind of empty, but I remember we played ‘Take a Step Back.’”
Just three months after the song was released, X was arrested on robbery and assault charges, and detained at Broward Regional Detention Center. While he was away, each of their careers started taking off and the song suddenly became a force at Ski Mask’s shows.
“Wifisfuneral and Ski Mask went on tour,” remembers Cherif, who was managing Wifi at the time. “That was right when Ski started blowing up and he performed that song every night. They were only performing for like 100 people, but those 100 people were going crazy. Then when X got out, him and Ski were able to perform it together as Rolling Loud Miami 2017, as well as the Revenge Tour, which I managed. So I’ve seen that song build. No matter where you play it, 50 people or 50,000, the crowd goes crazy.”
“Any time you play that song at Rolling Loud or any big show for that matter, you’re going to have pandemonium. It’s literally one of the defining songs of our festival.” – Tariq Cherif
Ski Mask points to the 2017 Revenge Tour as a turning point. “We first noticed that it was crazy as fuck when we were on the Revenge Tour together,” he says. “That was Jah’s big tour, and when we performed it in LA or something, it was like a fucking dream, bro. It was crazy. We were in a city we’d never been before and they just went crazy as hell, bro. That’s when we knew that we had something for sure.” Then he admits, “Well, I think Jah knew when he dyed his hair half-yellow, half-black. When we started getting face tattoos is when we really knew.”
DJ Scheme says part of the reason the song resonates with big crowds so well is because of the simplicity of the hook. “It’s so easy to know the words to it,” he says. “It’s just, ‘Fucked up! Fucked up! Fucked up!’ I feel like those first big shows [on the Revenge Tour] was where we all started to realize, like, ‘Holy shit! People turn up to this record’”
“Take a Step Back” ultimately earned the reputation as a must-play at any major rap festival, but they didn’t see that for themselves until X played it in front of tens of thousands of people at Cherif’s Rolling Loud Miami festival in 2017.
“Obviously in small rooms it’s awesome, and we would always have everyone singing the words, but I don’t think it was until Rolling Loud Miami 2017 when we really saw the power of the song, with so many people,” Scheme says.
Before long, as X and Ski Mask established themselves as two of the biggest stars in the SoundCloud rap scene, “Take a Step Back” became an unofficial anthem of Rolling Loud.
“Any time you play that song at Rolling Loud, you’re going to have pandemonium,” says Cherif. “It’s literally one of the defining songs of our festival. When you think Rolling Loud, you think Travis Scott, you think Uzi, you think Carti, and you definitely think X and Ski, without a doubt. And you definitely think of that song.”
“This is the epitome of what Florida underground rap was at its peak,” Scheme declares. “It’s homegrown in Florida, and so are we. It’s just extreme craziness, and I feel like that record fits into what Rolling Loud is in general. When you think of Rolling Loud, you think of mosh-pitting crowds and rap shit. And Tariq is like family, obviously. He manages me and Ski, so that’s the home team.”
“Anyone that can’t get your show lit, I’d advise you to turn that bi*ch on, and 9 times out of 10, that song’s going to get the crowd way more lit than any of your own songs. It’s a cheat code.” – Ronny J
Ski Mask and X weren’t the only artists playing “Take a Step Back” during their sets. At any given Rolling Loud festival, it will get played dozens of times in a single weekend, and it’s become a staple at every SoundCloud rap-adjacent show in the country.
“I’ve literally watched every artist, damn near, play that song in their set,” Cherif says. “At this point it’s a tribute to X, but people also do it because it’s guaranteed to make the crowd go crazy. It’s every DJ’s go-to song when their artist needs a break. Or if the crowd’s been dead, play that song. It is a cheat code.”
Scheme has seen this firsthand among his fellow DJs. “I know right now there’s not one current DJ that doesn’t have that in their shit and is not willing to spin that,” he offers. “I don’t know one person that wouldn’t spin that record. It’s literally at any show. You have to play it, you know what I mean? Any festival, no matter who you are.”
Ski Mask has mixed feelings about his song being used in so many other artists’ sets. On one hand, it’s the ultimate form of flattery, but he also sees it as a way for artists to leech off something special he and X created.
“I feel flattered, but then it’s like, honestly, sometimes I don’t know how to decipher it,” he says. “Because some people play it for ingenuine reasons. They just want to turn up their sets and shit like that, but they don’t realize that we want to play it on our set, too, because it’s our priority. So it’s like, whoa, you’re just stealing that from us. We’ve got to play it, too. Now people have to hear it seven times in a row or some shit, because everybody wants to play the song. And then we play it, and it’s just died down. It’s bittersweet.”
Ronny J has a point-blank response to the situation: “Anyone that can’t get your show lit, I’d advise you to turn that bitch on, and 9 times out of 10, that song’s going to get the crowd way more lit than any of your own songs. It’s a cheat code.”
You can’t talk about “Take a Step Back” without bringing up the final time Ski Mask and X performed it together. In 2018, there were tensions between the two rappers as they worked through misunderstandings with each other, but they put their differences aside at Rolling Loud Miami in front of tens of thousands of fans. Midway through Ski Mask’s set, X popped his head up out of the DJ booth for a surprise performance. And, of course, there was only one song they could have played next: “Take a Step Back.”
Looking back, Ski Mask remembers it as one of the most unforgettable moments of his career. “It started raining and I was like, this was literally a scene out of a movie,” he recalls. “In my head, I felt like I wasn’t even there. We said, ‘Fuck the rain. We’re still going to perform.’ So we performed ‘Take a Step Back’ and everybody went fucking nuts. It was really surreal.”
“It’s just pure raw emotion, and I feel like that’s what goes the furthest in music.” – DJ Scheme
“That’s one of the most iconic sets in Rolling Loud history,” Cherif says. “And it was great to see them reunite. A lot of hugs were shared. A lot of smiles. I think some tears might’ve been shed. These guys came up sleeping in cars together. These guys came from nothing and became some of the biggest artists in the world. They had their differences and they had their split, but they came back together. Unfortunately it was not long before X passed, but I do find solace in knowing that they did get to reunite and squash their differences. They proved onstage that they’re the fucking GOATs.”
DJ Scheme adds, “Having Jah pass away, it was such a sad thing, but to know that he performed a record like that with Ski at that last show, it solidifies how legendary that song is.”
Five years after the release of “Take a Step Back,” it’s already stood the test of time. There were a lot of songs that exploded to viral success in the height of the SoundCloud rap era, but not many of them have had the sustained relevance of this one. As Scheme points out, “We’ve been performing that record for five years strong and people still act like we perform it like it’s the first time it ever came out.” Hand in hand with an era-defining record like X’s “Look at Me!” it will likely be remembered as a SoundCloud rap classic.
“I just feel like this is the perfect record and it will go down in history as just so pure and raw,” Scheme says. “It was never mixed or nothing. It’s just pure raw emotion, and I feel like that’s what goes the furthest in music.
For Ronny J, it’s a reminder of an unforgettable run he shared with X, Ski, and other SoundCloud rap stars. “I had a No. 1 song on SoundCloud every fucking week with these dudes, bro,” he says. “Whenever we wanted. Bro, we were getting more plays than dudes that weren’t even on SoundCloud and signed. It was just insane.” Speaking about “Take a Step Back” specifically, he adds, “I’m going to show my kids like, ‘Yo, look what dad did back in the day with legends.’ All legends. Shit’s fucking crazy, bro. That’s my favorite beat ever.”
Everyone involved with the making of the song says they were too caught up in the moment to realize the history that they were making at the time. But after five years to step back and gain perspective, they have a little better understanding of why “Take a Step Back” resonated so deeply with fans.
“I think it’s the pure energy of it and the pure ignorance of it, honestly,” Ski Mask says. “There’s nothing like it. It’s something that everybody can get behind and relate to. I feel like everybody’s played it so much that they all know it and they all like it. I think it’s like a signifier. It’s like, ‘OK, it’s time for shit to get started.’”
Tariq Cherif argues that it already holds up next to iconic punk rock songs from decades past. “It just reminds me of like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. Honestly, it’s bigger than that, though. It’s like Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or any songs from these counter-culture superstars that have transcended the test of time, on the edgier side of the music spectrum. I think this song will stand right alongside the legends of punk rock and the legends of rock, or even Public Enemy. Anybody that said shit with their chest out.”
Three years after the death of XXXTentacion, Ronny J sees the music as a way to keep the memory of his close friend and collaborator going. “I hope people never forget about X and how much of an impact he made,” he says. “And just how much he truly wanted people to feel him through his art. I want people to feel that from me and Ski as well. I want people to continue to feel X through us. That’s why it’s so important for me and Ski to keep on creating. At the end of the day, no one can ever take this away from us, bro. We’re fucking legends and that’s that.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Ski Mask what he hopes fans will take away from “Take a Step Back,” expecting a long-winded answer about its legacy. But he reminds me that the whole point of the song was to avoid overthinking and live in the moment.
“Just don’t think too hard about it and enjoy that moment of it,” he says. “Indulge in the moment of it, because it’s just pure bliss. That’s what me and Jah were really big on: happiness and killing anxiety in the world.”