Photo: Frank Lin
The city of Toronto never ceases to amaze us. What can arguably be considered the epicenter for a new wave of hip-hop, Toronto has become notorious for generating underground sensation after sensation. Through their cultivation of hypnotic and innovative soundscapes, to their impeccable flows and lyricism, Toronto has solidified an extensive roster of industry frontrunners, and Nilo Blues is proving to be the newest addition to the team.
Despite being a self-proclaimed poster child for Generation Z, the 21-year-old is anything but ordinary. Growing up in the Toronto art scene, Blues encompasses what it means to be a multi-hyphenate creative, utilizing his talents as a singer, rapper, dancer, and producer to tell stories that grapple with his Asian identity within the context of western society.
His debut single, “No Risk Involved,” is an intrepid statement on Asian cultural identity and showcases how Blues’ struggle to live and create beyond rigid stereotypes has ultimately fueled him to pave his own way, in music and life. His nuanced and complex approach to the modern trap soundscape mirrors that of his own evolution and understanding of his own personal identity. Woven within his uncompromisingly honest storytelling and conviction lies the infectious hooks, melodic arrangements, and unsparing production of a true, multi-hyphenate artist. And despite “No Risk Involved” being the official introduction to his discography, we’re here to tell you that it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Blues.
As we patiently await his debut EP, set to release this summer, Blues gives us a peek at what’s to come with his most recent drop, “Akira Harakiri.” Explosive and audacious, this track has the power to cause havoc to the silencers of a corrupted system. Compiled within roaring trap-laden beats and terse hip-hop rhythms, Blues’ adroit vocals and dynamic fluidity convey a sense of fervor, all while challenging the status quo of Asian representation within American culture.
“Akira Harakiri” pays homage to the anime that Blues grew up with, most notably the raw tenacity of Akira and the thriving energy of Dragonball Z, which influenced its sonic foundation and cinematic execution. In an effort to gain a more comprehensive understanding of his artistry, we spoke with Blues about his position in the current Toronto-trap soundscape and what motivates him to create breakout tracks like “No Risk Involved” and “Akira Harakiri.”
Ones To Watch: It seems like dancing used to be a significant part of your life before music. What sparked your transition?
Nilo Blues: Growing up I was surrounded by music, whether it be at home or in the dance studio. I always had this natural appreciation for music grow in me because of all the different sounds I was surrounded by. I remember having 10-hour dance rehearsal days and then coming home to record photo booth videos of me and my best friend spitting melodies and lyrics over beats we found. I started producing at 16 when I discovered the iMaschine app for iPhone. I would spend hours trying to cook up beats until one day I decided to learn Ableton Live. My mentor cracked it on my laptop and started showing me the ropes, instantly I was hooked. My musical journey honestly started out from me just wanting to make music I could dance to. I owe a lot of myself to dance. 100%.
Has being a dancer influenced your creative process at all?
Dance has influenced me creatively in many different aspects of the process. Growing up as a dancer, you immediately instill a high level of discipline and work ethic as a young child. We were training like athletes and expressing like actors. It shaped the way I hear music (especially my own), it developed my approach on execution and staying on my P’s and Q’s, and it allows me to perform and add a visual component to the sonics. I grew up admiring Michael Jackson, James Brown, JT, Usher and now Bruno Mars. They all hold all aspects of their art to such a high standard. I’m trying to set that exact same standard and quality, through my own vernacular.
Growing up in what can be considered as the epicenter of Canadian hip-hop, do you think Toronto, and the artists that have put it on the map, have influenced your sound at all?
I started learning how to make music right when the 2015-2016 Toronto rap boom happened, so definitely. I feel like Toronto artists collectively do such an amazing job at emulating the vibe of Toronto. At a time where Toronto was only synonymous with Drake (the GOAT), The Weeknd, and PND, Toronto artists really stepped up to the plate and let the world hear the type of shit we’re on. It’s super inspiring, and I just want to keep pushing the envelope. I’m trying to land where no one has before, and make my mark in everything I set my mind to. I’m hungry and I want to get great shit done. I thank Toronto and the lively music scene in the city for sparking that.
Your first single “No Risk Involved” highlights the misrepresentation of Asian identity in mainstream culture. Why was it so important for you to create your own narrative and debunk westernized versions of Asian culture and identity?
My family was the main inspiration for wanting to evoke that conversation. Western media loves to exploit the great ideas from different cultures without ever giving credit to the cultures that cultivated them to begin with. They perpetuate false narratives and generalize us in order to keep control. I’ve seen what my family has gone through in order to even be here. My mom is Filipino, and my dad is Viet-Chin, so I’ve had my fair share of perspectives at a young age. One thing I can guarantee is that Asians aren’t as one-dimensional as the media portrays us to be. It’s about genuinely telling our stories, and being able to control the narrative in the world we share with the culture.
How was it filming the “No Risk Involved” video? Did you have a vision for how you wanted it to look?
It was amazing. I definitely felt back in my element while performing on-screen. The positive energy and hard work by everyone on set was the difference-maker. I feel like that energy shines through the video. I’m so grateful to have had such an amazing cast and crew, they fucking killed it. As for the concept, NRI was one of the very first concepts I started developing with my team. Had my first meeting with Angelica Milash, the director of the video, and everything clicked. The inspiration was drawn from aesthetics you’d see in legendary Hong Kong movies like Young & Dangerous. We also based the female looks on different characters from movies that included Asian characters with exaggerated Asian female stereotypes.
You once tweeted “I love good music but when an artist can pull off a great visual it tells you a lot about that artist.” Do you think it’s important for artists to be active creative directors in the videos they come out with?
Personally, I love dipping my fingers in every pot when it comes to my creative direction. I believe it takes a strong team in order to create beautiful shit, and, as the artist, I want to lead the team to victory. If one of us wins, we all win. Being active as a leader is what’s important. Sharing ideas, and building with the people around you. That’s how the best ideas shine through. You just gotta be a leader with this shit. Take control of your vision and work together to execute. If you aren’t paying attention to every aspect of your craft, you’re only going to see one perspective. At the end of the day, no one will execute your own ideas better than yourself. We all have that capability.
Your newest single “Akira Harakiri” is inspired by the 1988 cult cyberpunk film Akira. How did this iconic anime influence your lyrical and production process?
I wanted the essence of the track to emulate the same essence of the movie. The production was what sparked the idea. Colin Munroe was working on the beat while we bounced ideas around and I instantly felt the beat belonged in an anime. Akira was an automatic click. This song is supposed to feel like a song The Capsules gang would bump around Neo-Tokyo. I loved the dynamic between Kaneda and Tetsuo in the film, and wanted to combine the charisma and poise of Kaneda with the maniacal energy of Tetsuo. That’s also something I want to tap into on the visual component as well. This song is an homage to a visual masterpiece, as well as an iconic moment in film and culture.
What are some of your favorite anime films?
I grew up watching anime on TV like Dragonball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, Digimon. As I grew older, I wasn’t exposed to as much as before, but I rediscovered my love for it in high school when I binge-watched Death Note twice in succession. Now I’m trying to watch as much as possible. I feel like I have so much to catch up on lol.
What are some of your goals for 2020? Both as an artist and as a human being?
I want to work on killing the urge of having a cigarette or vaping again. I quit at the end of 2019, and started working out four times a day with my trainer. I’m trying to stay consistent in doing my laundry but that shit fucking sucks. I’m trying to meditate more, as I’ve recently picked up on transcendental meditation and want to keep consistent. Other than that I wanna keep dropping cool shit and repping what I know best. I wanna keep pushing myself to my limits and keep evolving. I hope people find strength in my music and I want to evoke new thought and conversation.
What can we expect to hear more of in your future projects?
More genuine energy. You’ll definitely be able to feel exactly how I felt when creating the music, from the growing pains to the gratitude. More singing too. You’ll be able to identify the spectrum of my sound, and how dynamic it is.
Who are your Ones to Watch?
I’ve been on my hip-hop shit as of late, so I’ve been bumping a lot of Kaash Paige, Fivio Foreign, The Kid LAROI and shit. Deb Never is an artist that I’ve been wanting to work with personally. Out of Toronto, definitely keep your eye out for Stefani Kimber. One of the most talented artists I’ve ever heard and a great human being. She’s definitely one of my top Ones to Watch artists.