Before landing on Forbes’ list of most influential young entrepreneurs in entertainment, before introducing L.A. radio listeners to the music of Lady Gaga, before strapping in for the ride that would take Akon to the top of charts, Scott Keeney was pushing homemade mixtapes in between classes at St. Paul’s Central High School.
“The hallway monitors thought I was selling drugs,” said Keeney, better known to rabid Twitter followers and YouTube fans as DJ Skee. “They didn’t understand. I was selling music.” He was also selling himself.
On paper, the St. Paul-bred tastemaker owes his fast-track success to his finely tuned, business-savvy ears, which sensed months before a single tweener’s squeal that Justin Bieber would blow up.
But more recently, Keeney’s most valuable asset has been his disarming charm, on full display in “Skee TV,” a no-frills mash-up of talk and music that launches its second season Friday on the newly revamped Fuse cable channel. The bulk of each episode consists of Keeney chatting amiably with top recording artists in his customary bling-free outfit — gray sweaters, black jeans, white sneakers — boosting guests’ egos with his intricate understanding of their talents and appeal, without sounding like a kiss-up. He’s Jimmy Fallon without the gush.
While chatting by phone from his Los Angeles offices, Keeney is as casual as a mogul gets, taking time to dissect the latest Vikings game and glowing about the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.”
Never does he indicate he’s taking a break from running a million-dollar empire that includes Dash Radio, the world’s biggest original digital broadcast platform, which gives up-and-coming DJs the freedom to construct set lists without interference from consultants who would be content to pack the schedule solely with Nicki Minaj hits.
“He’s humble. Nothing cocky or standoffish about him,” said Urban Lights owner Timothy Wilson, who gave a teenage Keeney chores at his St. Paul record store, from putting together promotional mixtapes to mingling with customers. “It’s rare to run into someone who has as much to share as you do. From the moment he walked into the store, he was saying, ‘Have you heard this?’ And I’d say, ‘No, have you heard this?’ We were always trying to one-up each other.”
Music wasn’t necessarily coursing through Keeney’s veins as a child. He bounced around the country until about age 8, when his father, noted therapist Bradford Keeney, took a job at St. Thomas.
During his freshman year at Central, he signed up for a course on audio engineering — cooler than joining the basketball team on the arts-friendly campus — and was hooked.
“Central is the reason I’m where I’m at today,” said Keeney, now 31, who regards his now retired audio instructor Red Freeberg with borderline reverence.
No job was too small. In addition to handling sound for school plays and concerts, he spun records at parties, spearheaded promotional events for T-Mobile at malls and hosted a regular shift at KMOJ Radio that started at 4 a.m. Sundays.
Wilson was so impressed by his protégé’s hustle that he hooked him up with the Young & Da Restless, a hip-hip duo he was producing in the 1990s.
“When we first met DJ Skee, we said to Tim, ‘This is him?’ ” said Restless’ Eric English, who raps under the name Tommy Real. “He was so laid-back and calm, but his knowledge and understanding of hip-hop was shocking.”
After Keeney put together mixtapes for the group, it planned to take him on the road with them as the house DJ — until the industry came calling.
Say hello to Hollywood
While his classmates were dissecting frogs and solving algebra problems, Keeney wrote to Steve Rifkind, then chairman of Loud Records, a label associated with the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, telling the powerful executive what he was doing wrong.
Rifkind was so blown away that he extended a job offer, prompting Keeney to graduate a year early and move on to the Hollywood Strip.
“The very first day,” Keeney said, “Steve sat me down in his office and said, ‘Do you know what to do?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Of course, I had no idea.”
He soon figured it out. Sure, there was the occasional coffee run and seeing to the needs of potential clients, like Nike executives. But Keeney quickly became the eyes and ears of the generation the label coveted.
One of his major projects was helping to develop the career of Akon, who would become a Billboard star.
“I got a chance to watch him grow,” said Keeney, who assembled Akon’s first mixtape and assisted in organizing his world tour. “That was eye-opening.”
It was during that period that he was asked to check out a new talent named Kendrick Lamar, who would go on to be one of the most successful artists of the current decade.
“He was just 16 at the time, and he didn’t have any great hooks,” Keeney said. “But I watched him freestyle for 20 minutes without stopping and I thought, ‘If he learns how to make a record, he’ll be great.’ ”
‘The Oprah of music’
Being behind the scenes wasn’t enough. By 2007, Keeney was hosting his own L.A. radio shows, eventually becoming the featured DJ at KIIS-FM, one of the most listened-to stations in the country.
In 2014, he launched Dash, a commercial-free digital network carried by more than 60 stations. Investors include L.A. Reid and Adrian Peterson.
Business mogul Mark Cuban labeled him “the Oprah of music” when Cuban hired him to oversee a show on his AXS TV network.
“Skee is amazing,” Cuban said last week. “He has a great feel for what is happening in music and culture, which he combines with an entrepreneurial sensibility. More importantly, he is fearless. He has no problem working harder than anyone around him.”
This year, Keeney moved over to Fuse TV as a key player in the network’s redesign from a music-video jukebox to a broader destination. Business partner Jennifer Lopez and comedian Gabriel Iglesias are also part of Fuse’s makeover.
“He identifies with our audience and knows where to take them before they even know they want to go,” said Fuse President Bill Hilary upon signing him.
And just where does DJ Skee want to go?
“I don’t know what the title is,” said Keeney, whose YouTube channel has more than 300 million views. “I just like doing stuff that’s fun. If it was just about making money, I’d be an investment banker.”
No matter where he leads listeners, giving back will always be on the playlist. He’s heavily involved in U.N. Foundation charities — and makes time every couple of years to revisit Central High and inspire a new class of game-changers.
“It’s great walking down those hallways and seeing a lot of teachers that are still there,” said Keeney, who’s single. “I can never thank that entire school enough for supporting me and helping me find my calling.”
Neal Justin • Twitter: @nealjustin