Toronto rapper KILLY is officially one of Canada’s most wanted. After joining the likes of rappers including Pressa, 88 Glam, and Anders on 6ixbuzz Entertainment’s Canada’s Most Wanted compilation, the young emcee otherwise known as Khalil Tatem is being positioned among the country’s hip-hop elites.
Despite all the acclaim, he appears unassuming and calm, ready to seize his breakout moment. Tatem’s chill composure under pressure has allowed him to keep up a consistently heavy workload and deliver music to his fans while navigating the fickle industry that he began dominating from a young age. His latest mixtape, KILLSTREAK 2, is the sequel to his first that he released at age 20, about six months after his breakout single, “Killamonjaro.” The single went viral in 2017 and eventually reached platinum status in Canada.
We caught up with Tatem on the phone the day before his new mixtape dropped to do a temperature check and find out what he’s been up to. “The days leading up to a release are always jam-packed crazy, but I’m excited,” he says. “Last time I dropped a project it was like two years ago, so I’m definitely excited to get this music out.”
Although Tatem has set up residence under the shining lights of Hollywood as he pursues rap stardom, he recently relocated back to Canada to start focusing on music. KILLSTREAK 2 is only the appetizer before the excitement on the horizon. Killy is currently working on his next studio album for Epic Records, as well as a collab with one of the genre’s most notable producers, Boi-1da, known for his countless top 10 hits with Drake, Eminem, and Rihanna.
If his heritage in the nation’s biggest city and association with the man behind “Best I Ever Had,” “Headlines” and “Controlla” made you picture the trap-pop and alt-R&B stylings of the 6 God and his OVO crew, Tatem’s music actually fits in more with the trippy and psychedelic new wave of hip-hop popularized by Travis Scott. Tatem even recruited Scott’s go-to producer in Scarborough’s WondaGurl for his track, “TRUST NOBODY.”
Tatem has previously been associated with the emo rap and cloud rap subgenres that flourish in online contexts through platforms like SoundCloud, but his most recent work blends punk-rock energy and rave-ready sound with with computerized, auto-tuned vocals and sonic undertones, ranging from dark and emotive to spacey and psychedelic. Singles like “PYRO” and “RICK BOOTS” have an ethereal atmosphere, marked by Tatem rapping in a high-pitched voice, flanked by digital basslines and flickering adlibs.
Killy’s music videos and artwork are frequently coloured by aliens and other intergalactic imagery, and it’s easy to see why – at times his distorted, robotic voice is used almost more like another malleable instrument than a human vocal, giving his music an aura of something otherworldly and futuristic. Tatem says this unique sound is a result of not paying attention to modern hip-hop trends and following his own musical instincts. “The only songs I really listen to are old 2000’s classics. I don’t really listen to a lot of new artists,” he says. “I just make music for me.”
Tatem’s relocation to his hometown and the decision to title his latest mixtape as a sequel to one of his earlier defining works captures a desire to return to a time when he was just beginning to figure things out as he shot towards superstardom at a time when his sound was more raw and even further untainted by outside influence.
With critical buzz growing and a couple attention-grabbing projects on the way, this could be the final time Tatem approaches a new body of work as a relatively underground artist. A look back at where it all began represents the logical next step in Tatem’s story arc as he stands on the verge of blowing up even further.
“It was more like returning back to the original sound that I came in with, when I was just making music in my bedroom, or in the basement,” he says. “So going back to that sound was definitely the theme for this project, and reopening that door. There’s 15 songs on this one, some are old, some are new. It’s a mix of a lot of different songs through different time periods.”
From a lyrical standpoint, Tatem has always found a way to be relatable and genuine by talking about struggles that he’s had to overcome. On his latest project, loyalty is something that we see him grappling with from the opening bars. On the chorus of lead-off track “PYRO,” he sings “I done seen so many switch like a slideshow” in his earnest yelp of a voice, and further experiences with people who fail to show him the loyalty or integrity he needs are discussed throughout the tracklist.
“I think it’s just the standard story,” he says. “When you’re an artist and you start to blow up and you start to see the world, there’s always going to be people that switch up, but I’m just thankful that happened earlier in my career rather than later.”
It’s easy to forget that just five years ago he was still ascending the ranks of Toronto’s nightlife. He’s still young at 23, but the process of carving his own path has made him cognizant of what separates the real from the fake, a trait that ultimately shines through in his music.
“Within the industry you don’t know who’s there because they fuck with you and who’s there because they fuck with the exposure you have. Then you have people that know you from before you’re even in the industry that change because they feel you’re off to better things now,” he says. “Whatever it is, there’s a lot of reasons for people to move that way, at least in my life. A lot of the music I made on KILLSTREAK 2 was a depiction of that reality for me.”
Tatem talks about the future with the air of someone who’s fully in control of his craft. He knows exactly which direction he wants to go musically and which producers can help get him there. He makes it clear that the successes of the past four years weren’t the result of a viral fluke, they were the result of careful planning and execution by an artist who has always sought to be a pioneer in his own lane.