Interview: Jahkoy Is Canada’s Next R&B Sensation To Go Global
Silky, silky smooth.
April 10, 2017

Words by Gabriel Spadaccini

The lead-off track from Toronto-native JAHKOY’s Foreign Water project takes you by surprise in the best possible way. The record goes down so easy, the production so smooth, the delivery so confident, that it begs the questions: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? How is ScHoolboy Q on this?

Not that ScHoolboy Q, hailing from South Central LA, doesn’t make perfect sense on a track about the vampiresque socialites roaming LA, and the peculiar blurring of fantasy and reality under the glaring Southern California sun. Even more astonishingly, the rest of the seven-song EP, released this past October, follows suit. ‘1000 Times’ pairs atmospheric production with clean R&B hooks, the track punctuated by a rap intermission that shows off some of the budding artist’s bars.

Meanwhile, ‘No Regrets’ boasts a clean, reverb-heavy guitar laid down with just enough nonchalance, style. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air from quantised 808 hi-hats and snares on every hip-hop mixtape. JAHKOY can sing, and in a rare stylistic stroke of genius, the EP provides the space for him to flow on each cut.

Foreign Water‘s easy hooks, swirling melodies, and phenomenal production didn’t just drop out of thin air, however. In fact, the 23-year-old JAHKOY has been grinding since his early teens, writing and recording music in his native Toronto, at first under the name Raheem, and then under his current name. Believing the greater music industry to be an American affair, he ultimately decided to head stateside.

After a brief stint staying at a relative’s place in the suburbs surrounding Atlanta, he finally made it to Los Angeles, connecting almost immediately with friends he’d met online, supportive fans and producers, and, perhaps most crucially, Willow & Jaden Smith, both of whom turned out to be huge admirers. By January 2016, he’d inked a deal with one of the biggest labels in hip-hop, Def Jam, and could count the legendary producer No I.D. as one of his principal champions.

We caught up with the rapidly rising star before the second North American leg of Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage tour, on which he joins London-based R&B singer Ella Mai as a second (vastly underrated) support act. See how it went down below, and head over to his SoundCloud to dive into the music.

I know Kehlani’s gone abroad at the moment for the European leg of the SweetSexySavage tour, I take it you’ve been back in the States – what have you been up to?

No, I’m actually back in Toronto right now, just spending some time with my family, and I’m also at some studio sessions. Most of my creative guys are based in Toronto, so you know, more visuals being brought, and more execution.

I have to ask about this lead-off track, ‘California Heaven’ from the Foreign Water EP – the production, the vocals, the lyrics – everything on that is just too smooth. Aside from your portion of the record, it’s interesting that both guest features, ScHoolboy Q and Vince Staples, are from different parts of greater LA. They’ve also both made a name for themselves thanks in part to their portraits of the urban areas of California. Were they intentional choices for guest features, and why?

Yes, they were very intentional. When Rico [Love] and I worked on the record, we really just wanted to tell my story as an upcoming artist, tell people about my perspective on going to California. When I went to California, I started finding my purpose. I was getting into communication with the producers I wanted to get with, and I was linking up with everybody that I’d hoped for. When I went traveling to LA, when I got in this space, it felt to me that heaven must be somewhere in California because all my dreams were becoming realities, all my prayers were being answered, and everything was finally working out.

When it came to getting the features and we wanted to give it a little bit of a spin, a little bit of hip-hop and R&B twist to it… the first thing that came to our heads was, “We’re gonna send it out to TDE.” There’s no greater camp, I feel, in California right now, than that team right there, so strong, so on it. So we sent the record out to the camp and within two days we heard back from ScHoolboy, with a verse from him and everything. It was dope. When it came to Vince Staples, he’s a label-mate of mine. We’ve linked up a couple times and he just had great energy. He’s also a California native so it’s really dope to have the two of them put their own spin on the record.

Who do you think would be your dream collaboration on a track?

I would say my dream collaboration would have to be Rihanna. She’s by far one of my favorite artists ever. She’s so able to tap into different genres and appeal to the wider audience. She’s tapping into everything. I’ve watched her whole growth over the past eight albums now, and to me that’s very inspiring. It’s that diversity, where she taps into that Caribbean side, or she taps into a little bit of the house music. She’s really showing what it means to be an artist.

I look at it like, someday I hope to be something like the male version of Rihanna. I just don’t see too many other artists that are tapping into everything the way she does. Some of my favorite artists that I grew up listening to – Kanye West, Pharrell, André 3000 – these guys always tapped into something that was special because it was unique. It wasn’t falling for any trends… it was creating trends. I wanna be that fresh new artist that brings that excitement back to music.

A big part of your style I’d say, and I’ve been hearing this a lot on Foreign Water, is really top-notch production. It doesn’t overpower your vocals, it’s super clean, and it’s well mixed. It’s warm in a way that doesn’t distance the listener, it doesn’t have a whole lot of overused trap sounds in it, and the vocals aren’t over-processed. I’m curious as to what your songwriting process is like in terms of producing – do you go out and pick and choose instrumentals, or do you work with a specific group of producers and sort of guide them in the direction you’re going and build material from scratch?

Well, on this project, we started everything from scratch, and we did everything in the studio. We were just catching vibes. One person that I worked on most of the record with was my homie [producer] Mars Today. He’s also on tour with me, doing the live band and DJing for me. So, having him next to me… he’s one of my go-to guys. When I have some ideas, I just throw them at him, and he’s down to throw some vibrations back at me. So it’s more so a collaborative thing. We’re in the studio, or we’re at home, all just chilling sometimes, and the ideas come up out of nowhere. Or we’re just like, “Yo, that sounds dope,” and we just start working on music on the spot. [Laughs] So it’s pretty random. There’s no real process in terms of how things get done. It’s more so like catching a vibe and then running with it, you know?

I read that you came from a poetry writing background, so I’m wondering what your songwriting process is like. Do you have always have a crew of homies in the studio with you? How do you get in the zone to make music?

Well, I mean, my homies are the guys I work on music with. For the most part, we’ll just be chillin’, having a conversation. and this is also something I learned through hanging out with No I.D. A lot of people don’t know this but, when I first got signed to Def Jam, No. I.D. signed me. I was in the studio with him once, and we had a session booked for the whole day. When we got into the studio, he was like, “Before we start any music, let’s talk. Let’s talk about how our week was, what kind of plans we have coming up, just anything that’s on our minds and that we want to get off our chest.”

A lot of stuff happens in twenty-four hours, let alone a week. So we pretty much talk about how our day was, what things we want to do next, and just really get things off of our chests, and through conversation, through somebody’s response of how I’m feeling with what’s going on with me, that’s how song ideas crop up. We jump back and forth, little random ideas that just pop into our heads through conversation. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about Toronto a little bit. Obviously right now there are some immensely successful artists not just from Canada in general but from Toronto specifically. I remember listening to the DJ Drama-hosted Tory Lanez mixtape, and on one of the tracks Drama yells, “Toronto’s just got the special sauce.” Do you agree? What’s special about that city in particular?

Well one thing to note is that Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The type of culture and traditions, let alone the sounds that come from these cultures and traditions… we’re exposed to a lot of things that we wouldn’t be exposed to anywhere else. There’s a lot of collaboration in the city because everybody’s in this one space together and everybody’s from all over the world.

Another thing is that the city is super Caribbean-ised. There’s a strong Caribbean culture even within the other cultures. It’s almost a part of the slang of the city. It’s very reflective. Once people get a chance to come to the city, they really absorb that difference. When you go to places like New York or LA or Atlanta, everybody’s more so from that space, whereas in Toronto, people are from different places in the world, and they all are coming together in the city.

The ideas stem from all these different creatives because of the different backgrounds they’ve been exposed to – there’s just so much to be absorbed from the city. The artists that we have coming out right now, they’re dominating because they’re owning the situation, and the city’s finally getting its spotlight. And it’s one of the best spotlights, because we have some of the greatest artists coming out of the city: Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara… the list goes on. For me as a new artist, it feels great to be in that company because I get to see my city shine. [Laughs]

But is there a scene there? Is it the venues, the clubs maybe? Outside the multiculturalism you mentioned, what is it that you think makes Toronto such a hotspot for all this amazing material?

I feel like the city is still growing. It hasn’t reached the heights of most other major cities, only because it’s still developing. But it’s getting exposure from the artists and creatives who are from the city, who are telling their story from their perspective. And the world is digging it. I know over time that there will be a music club out here, but it’s a growing process, and I feel like Toronto’s in the early stages of it. I can’t wait to see it really blow up. [Laughs]

You chose LA over New York, even though they’re on fairly equal footing as the two biggest music cities in the U.S. What was behind that decision?

It was for me more so the environment. I wanted to be inspired. I’ve been to New York City before, but I had never been to LA. I was just like, “New York reminds me of Toronto a lot, and I know LA is gonna throw me off, gonna be a culture shock.” And I’m ready for it because I wanna absorb new things so that I can stay hungry, inspired, and just keep going. [Laughs]

There’s a lot of debate in music right now over the integration of sounds from all over the musical map, pop and rap and hip-hop and R&B and electronic and other genres all blending together. People get up in arms about one type of music crossing over, or being mislabeled. As someone whose music has elements of a variety of genres, do you think people get lost in that division, or are we in kind of a post-genre world?

Speaking from a creative perspective, I feel like genres are dead. There’s no such thing anymore. With technology right now, and the pace that it’s growing, it’s hard to label a record as R&B or pop or house or country. There’s just so much fusion of sounds.

Some of my favorite genres that I throw into my music are reggae, R&B, a little bit of house, and even some country elements, all my influences put into the music. Genres are going to die. You could love a sound so much, but there’s so much more we can do now with the advantage that we have in terms of technology. We’re able to create so much more, and sounds are infinite – you can blend two sounds to create a third, just like when you mix colors you get a third color. [Laughs]

I know you’re currently in the midst of tour with Kehlani and Ella Mai – how has that been for you so far? Any favorite moments?

So far we’ve done nine shows, and it’s been out of this world, man, next level. The company I’m in, Kehlani, she’s super down to earth, super real. She feeds off of an energy that’s very absorbing, and it’s super motivational to be around because she’s hungry, and she’s going for it. As an opener, when I’m looking at where she is, I’m so ready to take myself to those heights, where I’m headlining my own tour.

Not only that, but all the shows have been sold out so far. From top to bottom, everyone that’s supposed to be there is there, even from when I get there. It’s super dope to know that everybody is really supportive of her music and what she’s doing as a whole, how she’s inspiring the youth to just be 100% themselves and not afraid to express themselves as young creatives. She’s just like, “Be yourself. Even if you’re weird, just be yourself. Cause we love the real you as opposed to a fake version.” [Laughs]

So you recently put up a SoundCloud release for the third part of the ‘Downtown’ track series. Is there any specific meaning behind each of those? What ties them all together?

The ‘Downtown’ track series is tapping into my growth as an artist. When I started to take things really seriously, I was about eighteen. That’s when I moved downtown in Toronto. So the first part of the series was just me talking about moving to new heights and exploring my full potential as an upcoming artist. Whereas ‘Downtown II’ tapped into a feeling of, “I’m in the city, and I’ve gone through the party life and the nightlife, and I’ve done it all, and I’m on my dark days, days when I really want or need somebody around, but nobody’s really around.”

When I got to ‘Downtown III’, I had already left the city because I felt like I needed more. So it’s about missing what I left behind and wanting to go back, because this new change is almost too drastic for me, and I feel like it’s changing me a bit. Except, on some level, it was supposed to happen because I discovered a side of myself that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t put myself in this position. So it’s just like, three different levels of JAHKOY, that’s what I would call it. [Laughs]

When I see a lot of other up and coming artists being interviewed by radio stations or magazines, it seems like they try to act super tough, always trying to prove themselves. They’re all about flexing. It seems like you’re just kind of, well, stoked about your success, but also humble. I’m sure there’ve been bad times though – how do you stay positive in times of struggling or when you feel like you might not be going anywhere?

Well, there are times of self-doubt, just by nature of being a human being. Sometimes we doubt ourselves because we’re not what we want to be, but we just have to stay hungry and stay focused. Even if we don’t see it now, later on when it does come, we’ll look back and remember the struggle it took to get to that point. And that makes us appreciate the next stages of our evolving. I just know that right now I’m so hungry, so excited, and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from getting to where I’m going, because I’m still creating music every day. I’m still pushing content. I’m still getting myself out there. Everybody’s payoff is different, so as long as I keep working and stay focused, nothing can stop me.

You make music every single day?

Every single day of my life. [Laughs]

That’s motivation right there. 

Yeah that’s it right there, and it’s all I really need. When I started making music the only thing I ever really wanted to do was make music for a living. And that’s what I do. So, my childhood dream has been accomplished, but now my adulthood dream is in seeing how much I can really put in and doing it all with my full potential.

What’s on the cards for JAHKOY for the rest of 2017?

There are gonna be some crazy singles dropping this year that are promoting my debut [full-length] project, Glory Child. I’ve also got all the records from Foreign Water dropping throughout the next leg of the tour. So I’m gonna be on tour for the next three months, starting April 1st, and from then until June I’m gonna be dropping the videos one by one, all of them super exciting, super fresh. They’re really telling my story as an upcoming artist, and delivering that foreign water to the music industry. So yeah, I’m super excited for the rest of this year – it’s gonna be fire.

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