It's a breezy Sunday night, around 10PM, and I'm sitting on a red leather sofa inside Achieve Dreams Studio—a cozy compound on the edge of Scarborough and the 401 highway—with the expectation I'll be getting home late and sleeping even later. (Thankfully, Monday was a statutory holiday.) I'm here to meet Gilla —formerly known as the rapper Gillatein—not just because Noisey asked me to, but because he's a pretty damn prolific figure in Toronto's hip-hop scene. Ask anybody, and the one common sentiment you'll hear about the rapper is that he's respected by everyone. OVO to XO, Reps Up to 878, Gilla has no political lines, no beefs or soured relationships. He's a diplomat, a businessman, and one of the city's most-OG rappers—right beside his best friend and labelmate P. Reign.
Unsurprisingly, Gilla's a humble dude—after some chit chat about the studio's design, introductions to some of his homies, and the partial depletion of a Hennessy bottle, we find ourselves inside a makeshift smoke shed on the studio's patio. Over a blunt and some jokes about Donald Trump, Gilla opened up to me his new music video—"Wrapped Up," premiering today on Noisey— and his vision for the future of Toronto's hip-hop scene.
Noisey: I'm gonna start off with the obvious: you took a break from rapping, but you've been making a lot of moves behind the scenes. Now, you have this tape coming up. Tell me about it.
Gilla: We actually got two tapes—the most important to me is Stay Solid Pt. 2, which was supposed to come out a long time ago before I got caught up with life. The other is Reps Up Remixes, that one's done. Stay Solid is 90 percent there.
When you say "caught up with life," what do you mean?
When I say that I mean I had to deal with certain stuff that I wouldn't want to be in the public eye—personal things I just needed to handle.
How about now—do you feel good? A lot of artists get knocked off their rhythm and they can't seem to pick it up. 'Taking time' just becomes an excuse. I'm not sensing that here.
Bro, I'm more than good—I've got a bunch of stuff from the streets taken care of, I've got my legal matters taken care of, I've got my businesses up and running, and I got my team here at the studio going full force ahead. It's one body, one head, one mind. We're ready to go.
Stay Solid Pt. 2 —what can we expect?
Well, I'm trying to get it down to ten songs right now, I've got twenty. I'm just mixing it down, boiling it down, figuring out which 10 are going to be bulletproof.
You're a street dude—your name literally used to be Guillotine. Has your style evolved since those days?
It has, but I'm still me. Nowadays, I've had to figure out how to keep that core realness and still work in that new Toronto sound: The melodies, the singing, that stuff. I don't do it personally, but I can do it, and I can incorporate it in a way that doesn't compromise my style. A lot of people like Drake and people who came after him have made great success off that singing-rapping style, and I respect that. I just stay in my lane.
In East Toronto—Regent Park and the Esplanade specifically, with Smoke Dawg, Puffy Lz and the Prime Boys—there's still that really hood, in-your-face bar-spitting. It's a divergence from the melodic, R&B/hip-hop fusion you mentioned coming out of downtown Toronto. Do you worry not joining that wave will hurt you in the long run?
To be honest, I don't want to be ignorant to it, but my heart is into rap. I'm a rapper. Especially because I'm affiliated with guys like [Drake and the Weeknd] who are doing the melodies, I can't just imitate that. It's like, with Baka, I tell him: you're the turn up guy. Drake's gonna do this shit, my brother P Reign's gonna do his shit, and I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna rap.
It is harder to push through [as a street rapper], absolutely, but I see it this way: someone can go pop and make $100 million dollars. I can go rap, make $1 million, and then flip that into $100 million through other avenues. I'm a hustler, I know how to make money. I'm not gonna change my music for money.
The video, "Wrapped Up" it's extremely visceral. Maybe one of the first high-quality looks at Scarborough in years.
Yeah man. It's the life we live—all my boys in the video, the neighbourhoods we showcase, the atmosphere. It's where we came from. I wanted to make sure people saw the life that we came from and what we're trying to get out of.
What does 'getting out' mean to you—where do you want to be?
I want to bring back real music. A lot of music out there today is fucking, partying, and how much jewelry you have. I can do that, but I don't want to. I want someone to hear my shit and get goosebumps, my nigga. A nigga could hear that and their eyes water up. Single mothers, young women, old men—anyone should be able to hear my music and feel like they've been there in one way or another.
Interesting that you say that because, unlike a lot of the city, you have solid connections with everybody: OVO, XO, Reps Up. What's that relationship like?
My relationship with XO is that Cash (The Weeknd's manager) and I have been friends for over 10 years. Him, Belly, Sal—the whole team over there, I fuck with them hardcore. It just so happened those dudes ended up all coming together [with the Weeknd], and they knew my shit from way back. I used to have people promoting my tapes, my stickers, and my posters everywhere back in high school, so when I met Abel [Tesfaye], it was all natural. We've been fucking with each other for time—and we're all from Scarborough, so you know how it is.
Jake Kivanc is creating the Bible of Toronto hip-hop. Follow him on Twitter.