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 & Heartbreak–inspired 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.”