Toronto Def Jam signee Jahkoy talks to HNHH about transitioning from rapping to singing, getting his big break in LA, "California Heaven," and his new project, "Foreign Water."
Signing to Def Jam at the end of last summer, the fresh-faced 22-year-old Toronto singer who goes by his first name of Jahkoy is relatively new to the spotlight. Though he talks like he belongs, and he couldn’t be more excited to be here. He’s been making music since age 11, and for most of those years, he’s done so obsessively -- knowing that being a musician is his one and only calling. He’s humble, knowing he’s just beginning to tap into his full potential, but also supremely confident with his aspirations -- to “change the face of music.”
Before he challenged himself to start singing in high school, Jahkoy was a rapper. Though he’s just started to work with a vocal coach for the first time, it’s obvious that singing is his choice talent. But rapping is still a part of his repertoire, and his singing -- and his spontaneity with his flow and lyrics -- has benefitted because of it. Like others from The 6, Jahkoy’s brand of R&B takes in elements of hip-hop and electronic music and thus sounds especially natural on the dancefloor. What makes him different is that, content-wise, his songs veer away from the usual “turn-up” mentality. He makes love songs and is a student of R&B’s most beloved romantics.
On Friday (Oct. 28), Jahkoy will put out his first project on Def Jam, Foreign Water. With the release, he hopes to welcome new listeners to his “global sound,” his expression of the multicultural sonics of Toronto and of the homelands of his parents -- his Jamaican mother and East African father -- along with all of the genres he’s stumbled upon trying to connect with producers on the Internet.
Jahkoy will be the only voice on “Foreign Water,” and the production will come from Boi-1da, Rico Love, Yung Berg, and some of the best SoundCloud producers you’ve never heard of. In our recent interview with the self-inspired vocalist, he tells us about relocating to LA, meeting and recording with Jaden Smith, his new “California Heaven” single with ScHoolboy Q, and how he wants urban music to make people feel good again.
What’s the last few months been like for you with the rapid rise you've been experiencing?
The last few months have been more about adjusting, getting used to the growth of everything, this kind of thing is something we can only dream of happening. It’s a rare occasion, and it’s really something to be inspired by. You get the opportunity to do what you want to do for your life.
I wanna change the way people look at music and feel about music because I feel the standard for music is very low right now. People are settling for the same things. It’s cool, but I grew up in a generation where so many new artists were coming out with a fresh new sound, and that’s what made the artist exciting. So that’s where my head’s been at, really focusing on my project and making sure I can deliver that through my music. So I've just been in the studio non-stop, tryna change the face of music.
You've been releasing music for four or five years at this point?
When did you first start to get some shine?
Well, I’ve actually been making music since I was 11 years old. I started taking it serious in high school – I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I just loved music, the art of it. It came to a point – I was actually rapping, I wasn’t singing at the time. I wanted to switch up the swag a little bit. I wanted to do something different, think outside the box. It was one of those occasions like when Kanye West was singing on 808s & Heartbreak – nobody would expect that. But it’s something that he did, and he delivered it well.
Had you had any vocal training before you started singing?
Nah. Even earlier, I was still learning like the melody side of things. I took a lot of my raps and I turned them into melodies. Just by ear – wherever I felt comfortable singing. I’m a smoker, I smoke weed. It was hard for me to develop a voice when I’m already smoking batch. I gave myself a little break, and I found my vocals started opening up more. I’m starting to feel comfortable doing falsettos, and all these things I didn’t think I’d ever have the range to do.
Now your main focus is singing, but you still bring the raps back sometimes. Is that something you'll keep doing moving forward?
Most definitely. I like to throw it in there a few times. Sprinkle it on the records. Just so everyone knows I’m able to be diverse.
You said your specialty is love songs, which sounds simple enough, but a lot of people aren't doing that anymore. It's more about flexing on your ex and songs just about sex. What do you prefer about keeping the classic spirit of R&B?
All the music I grew up listening to was all about loving a woman. And showing a woman that not all guys are the same. As guys, we have a poor reputation when it comes to women. If you approach a woman on the street, she's automatically gonna think something completely negative. Even if you’re just asking for directions. Why do we have to make it worse for ourselves in our music? Some kind of hope for the next generation. I hope the next generation doesn't think it’s horrible to treat a woman with chivalry.
Your records are emotionally heavy, but I think that your end goal is to make people dance and feel a groove. Where did that come from?
More than anything, I want people to have a good experience. I want them to feel like they had a really good time listening to the record, I want them to feel good. I miss records that made me feel like that.
I went to a Disclosure show in Toronto, the same day I dropped my last hip-hop mixtape. It was called Diamonds Are Forever. That was the last project I put out in my rap times. That same day I was invited to see Disclosure, but I was going to see Vic Mensa – he was the opener. I actually met Disclosure that night. I didn’t know who they were, I just thought they were some house DJs. I wasn’t really into house. I was into the urban world more than anything. Then I watched the show – it was sold out, rocking. It was all instrumental stuff. And I thought, 'Yo, it would be really dope if someone was singing or rapping over these beats cause they could be like hit records, you know?'
Let's take it back to Toronto. You stayed there until your late teens?
Until I was about 19. Then I went to Atlanta with my uncle. I went there cause I was born of Toronto. My uncle said, 'Yo, you can come stay with me for a lil' while, and see what’s over there, and catch a vibe.' I wanted to do music, and when I was in Toronto I wasn’t in school or working. I was completely locking myself away from all that 'cause I felt like if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be focused on what I wanted to be. I was on welfare. I was taking money from the government, $600 for the month. I was living off that for a little while.
Then I went to ATL, lived with my uncle. But then I got bored over there 'cause he wasn't living in the scene of everything, he was living outside the city, suburbs. I couldn’t get to the city, man. I was like how am I gonna – it’s 40 minutes away. There’s no bus service, nothing. So I was like I gotta get out of here.
And from there, I went to LA. I knew one person that I met online, and he let me sleep on his couch for a little while. His name was Andrew. That was right in Hollywood. Everything was going on there. I felt like, OK, I’m able to travel on foot, so I can go anywhere. Then I met so many people that I knew online. My first five days of being there, Jaden [Smith] reached out to me, and he was like, 'Yo, come to my house.' I went there, spent time with him. He was like, 'You wanna make music?' Through meeting him, I met people around him. I made music with them, and they were spreading the word. It started goin' all over the place 'cause I was in what was happening.
Did you feel like moving to LA was a shot in the dark?
Yeah 'cause I wanted to do something that would keep me moving and motivated and inspired. Being in LA, things happened on accident. So many happy accidents. Had I not been there, I wouldn’t have had those things happen. When I first went to LA, there was a producer – I recorded in his studio. I forget his name. But he did stuff with Beyonce, B2K, and he had a studio on Sunset Boulevard. He gave me the opportunity to record something.
My buddy Andrew was heavily connected in the SoundCloud world, too. He made the connections for me. He discovered the instrumental for "Still in Love." I kept playing that snippet, we looped it in the studio, and I sang over it. After I sent it over to the producer, he heard it and was like, 'Oh my god, we gotta do this record.' We got it all mixed and stuff. That’s how that happened. It all happened in one day.
After putting out "Still in Love," when did you first start to see the record blowing up?
It happened gradually. It started picking up in the summertime, 'cause I put it out in the spring. The track started picking up some tension. I was getting meetings from labels, and I eventually signed with Def Jam. With Def Jam, we re-released the record and gave it a bigger push. We got Sirius XM playing it all day long. Then radio stations in Toronto started playing it. It’s so dope to see the way people are receiving the record.
Are you still in LA now?
Actually I just moved to LA now. I’m officially LA based.
Did just being there inspire "California Heaven"?
It was Heaven to me. I was finding my purpose – what I wanted to do with myself. California was the place I was able to get things done and grow, and get to the next stage of things. So that was my Heaven.
How did you get ScHoolboy Q involved with the song?
Originally the record was supposed to be just me, but then my A&R at Def Jam sent the record to Q’s camp at TDE, and then I got word the next day that Q liked the record. And a couple days later he had a verse done. I got a call from my A&R that ScHoolboy did the record. I was like, 'What?!' He was like, 'Q did a verse, I’ll send it to you in 5 minutes.' I checked it, and it was really, really dope. The California co-sign!
You've been steadily releasing stuff on SoundCloud for years. How did your strategy change after signing?
It really didn’t change. I just felt more needing to find my direction where I wanted to go. I was doing the really house-y stuff, the really R&B stuff. Then it’s like now we're in a generation where a lot of urban music has pop elements. I felt like it would be really dope to have pop music with urban elements.
Let's finish on your upcoming project, "Foreign Water." It's dropping at the end of the month. Is that gonna be your focus with the project? Big pop records with urban influences?
No, this is my introduction to the Jahkoy experience. Cause Jahkoy is an experience. I’m not even a person, I’m an experience. People always ask me what my genre is, and it’s really hard to label it 'cause it’s really just good music. I don’t want to label it as anything 'cause it is what it is. Lots of fresh sounds in there you definitely haven’t heard. This is my first project since recreating my brand. Foreign Water, October 28th!
You've been working on "Foreign Water" for a couple of years now. Were you shelfing all of your best material for the project?
Well, the idea I had originally was that I’d put out a full-length project – but I think the right move is to introduce my brand. I wanna introduce my brand first. I want people to know, OK, that’s Jahkoy right there. This is where I’m entirely me. I felt better than I was yesterday. As the days go on, I wanna be better than I was yesterday, and I feel that this really showcases me today.
What about the title?
I’m in America right now, and I’m from Canada. It’s like a lot of the things I learned from here are very foreign to me – new environment, and just really having to adjust to the newness. With Toronto having the spotlight right now with Drake and The Weeknd, people say there must be something in the water. So I figured I’d hand it back with a play on words: Here’s the "Foreign Water" I’m delivering.
What do you hope people take away from the project?
I want people to take in the experience. It’s like a new ride at the amusement park. You’re really intrigued 'cause you heard about how high it goes and how fast it is – but you really take in your own perspective when you go through it. That’s really what it is. It’s positive, great energy. I'm excited.