With a foot in the door of the U.S. hip-hop industry, producer High Klassified begins a new chapter of his career with the release of Kanvaz, his fifth, more eclectic and accessible, EP.

Things have changed lately for Kevin Vincent, a 25-year-old resident of Montréal’s Laval neighbourhood, who goes by the name High Klassified since he began producing in 2011.

Highly aware of the impact of “Comin Out Strong,” the huge hit by American rapper Future and Canadian pop star The Weeknd, which he co-wrote, the producer has now understood the importance of voices and lyrics. “I suddenly got a lot more public attention,” he says. “The thing is, a lot of people liked this collab, but didn’t necessarily like the rest of my repertoire, which is mostly instrumental. To them, the absence of lyrics is a damper.”

Far from thinking of himself as an avid music lover, High Klassified still wanted to pursue his own musical curiosity, if only to make his music catchier. Without wanting to please the Top 40 crowd at all costs, he nevertheless opened his musical horizons to the likes of Drake, Migos, and other heavy hitters of the genre. That appealed to him motre than diving blindly ahead into songwriting sessions sandwiched in between gaming, his favourite hobby.

“It’s mostly thanks to my friends and my girlfriend that I discovered a lot of new music,” says High Klassified. “I’m on the road a lot lately, so I like listening to other people’s Spotify playlists. I wanted my music to be featured on playlists, and shared by word of mouth, things like that.”

Hence the idea of asking New York-based singer and Fool’s Gold label-mate Leaf, and Montréal-based rapper Zach Zoya, to collaborate on two of Kanvaz’s songs. “Initially, I wanted to work with big names, but it’s just too much work chasing them. I didn’t want to wait three months for a single verse that I might end up finding so-so,” says High Klassified. Prior to this EP, he’d only once collaborated with a rapper (Mick Jenkins) on one of his solo projects. “I chose to work with people closer to me, and have more control over the creative process. My goal was to make the best possible music with what I have. But I mostly wanted to surf on the success of ‘Comin Out Strong’ as soon as I could.”

High Klassified

Photo: Benoit Rousseau

He gave himself a little over a year to come up with what he felt was his best material to date. Initially known for the dark, bass-heavy trap aesthetics of his first EP, Flexury (2012), High Klassified later demonstrated that he’s also a master of ethereal-yet-danceable atmospheres on his subsequent projects, notably on  Kronostasis, which earned him the Electronic Music SOCAN Award in 2016. Therein lies the diversity of musical directions he wanted to explore on his fifth release. “Kanvaz is a painting, a representation of all the canvasses I can paint on,” he says. “It’s 100% my art. I wanted to show I can adapt to a whole range of BPMs, from trap to house.”

Despite a hard drive theft that hindered the pace of his work in early 2017, High Klassified clearly enjoyed going back to this a more intimate method of songwriting. Especially after 2016, where he put his art to the service of others, frequently travelling to Toronto to build a relationship with The Weeknd, whom he now sends tracks to directly via SMS.

“I much prefer working on personal projects, because all the credit is mine,” he says. “[Collaborations with big-name artists] is mostly good for my portfolio. It also boosts my credibility in the biz,” says the producer, who’s also created tracks for esteemed France-based rappers such as Nekfeu and Joke.

Of course, this acquired credibility comes with a certain amount of pressure, and High Klassifed feels it more and more.  “As soon as you do a music placement with a big name, all eyes are on you, so you need to feed that hype,” he says. “I’m constantly stressed out about sending beats to people, not knowing if they’ll use them or not. But you know what? I won’t get into that too much, because the more I talk about it, the less it happens…”

Highly secretive about his upcoming projects, he’s currently planning his next tour, which hits Europe for a few weeks at the end of the summer. But more often than not, this proud Laval homeboy ends up homesick. “After three weeks of touring Asia, recently, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “All I wanted to do was come home!” laughs the young man, who still lives with his mom, and has built a professional studio in the basement of their house.

Yet High Klassified wants to spend a few months in Los Angeles, soon, to participate in some recording sessions. He doesn’t close any doors, except those of Montréal. “My girlfriend lives in the Canadiens tower, and that’s a real headache to me,” he says. “All that noise and entertainment bothers me. In Laval, I can concentrate on music and think about nothing else. That’s how I manage to create.”

In this day and age, the words “anonymous Twitter account” conjure all sorts of nefarious associations involving egg-avatar photo trolls and #fakenews-spewing spambots. But when Melissa MacMaster started surreptitiously posting about the Halifax hip-hop scene under the @902HipHop handle back in October of 2014, it was with the intent of mobilizing a community, not dividing it.

Quake Matthews

Quake Matthews

Most music-industry workers begin as fans first, before acquiring the business skills that allow them to transform their passion into a viable career. MacMaster took the opposite route. While working as a consultant at Nova Scotia’s Centre for Entrepeneurship, Education, and Development, the Antiginosh native partnered with a local not-for-profit youth organization to teach small-business skills to aspiring creatives. Though the program was open to everyone from visual artists to jewelry makers, MacMaster noticed something peculiar about the participants: the vast majority were hip-hop MCs or producers.

Despite having a deep history with rap music that dates back to the ‘80s, and despite producing the odd breakout star (Buck 65, Classified) in the ensuing years, Halifax has traditionally lacked the sort of centralized infrastructure that would both allow local artists to have sustainable careers and promote the scene internationally. MacMaster realized she had an opportunity to help build it. But there was just one problem with her plan: At the time, she knew absolutely nothing about Halifax hip-hop.

As she recalls, “Somebody said to me, ‘You have a lot of knowledge and you have a lot of business skills, but you don’t know anything about the music industry. Where’s your credibility when it comes to being an artist manager?’ But I fell in love with the hip-hop scene at the time, so I decided to start this Twitter account, @902HipHop, and really start going crazy, promoting everything that was going on locally in hip-hop. And that started a buzz: ‘Who is @902HipHop?’ ‘Did you see this on social media, they’re promoting our show!’ For six months, no one really knew who I was. I just hid behind this Twitter account, and then I started engaging and working more with artists. Quake Matthews became my first official client, and I transitioned into artist management.”

902 Hip Hop Roster
Ben G
Corey Writes
Grant Keddy
Haviah Mighty
Jay Mayne
Matty Galaxy
Nicole Ariana
Quake Matthews
Shevy Price

For the next two years, MacMaster hit the international conference circuit, partnering up with export programs that took 902 Hip Hop’s growing roster of artists to showcases everywhere from Utah to Europe. But the experience also clued her in to a pervasive problem in the hip-hop industry: the chronic logistical hurdles faced by music supervisors who want to license rap-oriented tracks to TV and film.

As MacMaster explains, “The main issue of placing hip-hop music is, there are often samples within the instrumental, or there are too many co-writers on the track, and the supervisors can’t get proper clearance. Or the artist doesn’t have any of the files! There might be a dope track, and I’ll be like, ‘I need those instrumentals to do a placement,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s a YouTube beat,’ or ‘I can’t reach that producer, I can’t get that file.’ I kept hearing about these issues over and over at music conferences around the world.”

But these were problems that 902 Hip Hop was in a unique position to remedy, thanks in large part to the geographically isolated – and therefore, tight-knit – nature of the local scene.

“I manage a number of Halifax hip-hop artists,” says MacMaster, “and I know that a majority of their music is being produced locally as well. So there’s no issue: I can call up Dylan Guthro, or whoever’s producing and ask, ‘Hey are there any samples on any of these tracks by Quake?’ No one else was really providing a one-stop shop for clearable hip-hop music… and that’s when the light bulb went on.”

The result of that eureka moment is now live at 902hiphop.sourceaudio.com, where music supervisors can easily access (as of this writing) a catalog of nearly 400 tracks by 12 different Nova Scotian artists, all cleared and ready to be licensed. The music can be searched according to criteria like BPM, genre, and mood, and many are available in instrumental and a cappella versions as well. The centralized database negates the need to trade files via Dropbox or Google Drive, while the intuitive user interface will minimize the amount of back-and-forth correspondence required to seal the deal. If a supervisor likes what they hear, they can just click “License Now” and away they go.

Matty Galaxy

Matty Galaxy

“This is what I actively do now on a daily basis,” MacMaster says of 902 Hip Hop’s licensing efforts, which, through a partnership with U.K. publishing house Split Music, recently landed a track by producer Matty Galaxy in a campaign for voice app Trainline, featuring renowned U.K. mock-MC Big Shaq. And given that the new site streamlines a lot of the administrative tasks involved with securing a placement, MacMaster can now focus more on building new relationships, be it with the show Atlanta, or in the actual city of Atlanta, where TV and film production is currently booming. But throughout 902 Hip Hop’s evolution from mysterious Twitter handle to music-licensing machine, MacMaster has stuck to the same guiding principle: just figure it out as you go.

“For the past year, it’s really been about building the catalogue for the site and being very diligent in working with music supervisors – because this was a whole new world for me,” she says. “I learned about artist management working with Quake, and now here’s another opportunity – something I knew nothing about, and now I’m learning all about it!”

KILLY season has arrived.

Five years after his first club performance, Scarborough’s Khalil Tatem – a.k.a. KILLY – is killin’ it for real: joints like 2017’s “Killamonjaro” and “No Romance” are racking up streams and views well into the eight figures.

Now, with his 11-track independent album Surrender Your Soul, and a summer world tour that will take him across the Atlantic as far as Warsaw, the 20-year-old is giving the world notice that the 6ix has exported a third R&B/hip-hop innovator from the land of Drake and The Weeknd.

“This is a sound that’s bigger than the city,” boasts KILLY about his 808s & Heartbreakinspired flow, that electronically fluctuates his vocal delivery, leans heavily on ad-lib and vernacular, and is often framed by looped samples of subdued keyboard and synth passages. “There’s no one else that’s doing this anywhere.”

The boast isn’t idle, if public response is the mitigating litmus test: KILLY’s collective output, including the 2017 non-Surrender Your Soul tracks “Distance,” “Forecast,” and “No Romance” is approaching 50 million streams alone, while the rapidly rising rapper’s YouTube videos sit pretty at a viewership of 33 million. “It’s cool to finally see people realize it and take notice,” says KILLY. “It’s only been a year for me.”

In the sense of public exposure and aggregating a respectable fan base, KILLY is correct. But if you listen to his career progress, as noted in “Surrender (Intro),” where KILLY reveals that he “Had my first show at the end of ’15 (yeah)/First video came summer ’16 (yeah).” A large portion of Surrender Your Soul is all about the fact that his ascension is so rapid; the fact that it’s been independently released through his own Secret Sound Club label is even more impressive.

“Killamonjaro,” originally released in 2017, was the big breakthrough that made KILLY more than an underground sensation: it was the turning point that married instinct with spontaneity and best showcased KILLY’s magic. “For ‘Killamonjaro,’ I heard the beat and I wrote the structure of it,” he says, “and then I just told my engineer, ‘You have to record this song right now.’ We just linked up and I did it.  It wasn’t anything more or anything less, really.

“I walk into the studio, a beat gets played, and I make the song on the spot. If it needs more production behind it, we’ll add guitars or add ad-libs. It’s less thinking, more feeling. For me, it’s very free-flowing, very liberal – it just happens, I just feel it. I don’t write down lyrics or anything, it’s just on-the-spot, in-the-moment. It’s capturing the energy of the moment.”

But as is the case for most artists, no one is an island. KILLY tapped into a community of producers for Surrender Your Soul that are both A-listers and novices. The former included Boi-1da (Drake, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar), Daxz (Drake, Travi$ Scott), WondaGurl (Drake, Jay Z, SZA), 1Mind (French Montana, Lil Yachty), and Wallis Lane (Drake, Logic, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Trey Songz).

KILLY is nonplussed about whether or not they have previous experience. “I don’t really care too much about whether they need the exposure, or if they’re established. If you make good music, you make good music,” he says. “I don’t care if you have 50 placements on the Top 100, or you have zero.  I have 16yrold producing (“No Romance”) and I also have Boi-1da producing. For everyone, from all ages, all walks of life, it’s just a beautiful thing for everyone to be able to come together. The biggest notoriety of being established – it’s just who makes good music.”

“I walk into the studio, a beat gets played, and I make the song on the spot.”

Originally from Toronto, KILLY spent some of his early teens in his Bajan Filipino household in Victoria, B.C., before returning a few years ago – inspired by Speaker Knockerz, Kanye West, Tame Impala, Joey Bada$$ and James Blake – and obsessed with making his own impact.

“I’ve been doing this since I was young,” says KILLY. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I wake up, and that’s what I think about. Even before the success of it, it was always like that.”

He made his connections quickly, by getting involved in Toronto nightlife. “It was pretty rapid, all of this,” he says. “It just started out with me being surrounded by the culture, me being at parties, me around other creatives. Like that, you know? And then it just escalated to where the people I was listening to, I ended up being in the same room with [them]. It kind of avalanched.”

The secret to his success is tapping into his emotions. “The music is based off mood, based off energy,” says KILLY, who recently dropped “No Bad No Sad” as his new single. “It’s just the best way that I can capture how I feel, and how the people around me feel. My environment, my mental space – it’s all captured sonically.”

And while he provides the words, his producers provide the sonics. And again, KILLY determines his professional ties from the personal vibe he gets from a potential producer. “They’re all my friends,” he says, “and I feel that if I can connect with you on a personal level, I can connect with you on a musical level. Those are my peoples.”

And while he doesn’t go into much detail, it sounds like KILLY is preparing to take on a mentoring role, and form his own dynasty. “Everything we do is just me and my dogs,” he says. Secret Sound Club. Everything’s in-house.” Says his publicist, “Secret Sound Club was founded by KILLY, and is the label under which all his music has been released. It’s an indie label. We haven’t officially announced the other artists who are on Secret Sound Club.”

More recently, KILLY traveled beyond North American borders for the first time to cut some sides in Jamaica with “my good friend” WondaGurl. “We stayed in St. Elizabeth and Kingston,” he says, “and linked up with some musicians down there. I smoked strong and there were some good vibes. Can’t complain.”

He’s hoping to release the results in the fall, but until then he’s experiencing the “euphoric state” of concert performance, and introducing audiences to Surrender Your Soul. Whether or not future songs expand the subject of his music beyond himself, KILLY is unapologetic for shining the spotlight there.

“There’s no one that knows you as good as you, why wouldn’t you talk about that?” he asks rhetorically. “My stories are best for me.”